Community as a Spiritual Practice

March 14, 2023

Most of Sunday was spent in community, my faith community.

There have been years in my life when I have existed without community. Oh, there were bits and pieces of community along the way–groups I have participated in, volunteer work I’ve done–but those all felt temporary and dependent upon specific people or an interest in a particular cause. They were valuable and important communities, but at a certain point I moved on, and there was a natural ending.

Around eight years ago, after moving back to Minnesota, my husband and I joined Gloria Dei Lutheran Church. As genetic Lutherans, it was not a hard decision. Plus, our daughter and family were already members there. Being in the same congregation with them is a real bonus, but our life within this community is so much more. It is a place of belonging, but it is also a place of growing and caring a nd showing up. Of grounding and stretching.

Sunday was such a good day of “encountering others” which is how Barbara Brown Taylor refers to the spiritual practice of community, and such good encounters the day offered — lots of hugs and one-on-one conversations–but even more than that, the reinforcement of intentions to encounte others through the various aspects of our proclaimed mission.

First, we gathered for adult forum, a weekly time of education for adults. This week poets, who are members or who are connected to our congregation in some way, read poems they had written or poems that had meaning for them. One woman read a poem she had written following the death of her beloved father. Another read her own poems, but also shared her experience of reading poetry to people in a memory care unit. One woman remarked how wonderful it is to be part of a congregation that values poetry. What a privilege it was to be in the presence of such creativity and depth.

Next, we attended worship. Each week we sing together, pray together, confess together. We open our hearts and our ears to words that encourage us to grow in our understandings. We receive the bread and the wine. We are reminded of the gifts we received at our baptism. We greet one another and we welcome new members. We lift up and hold one another. We restore and prepare for the challenges in our lives and the life of our community.

Then we ate together. Our Fellowship Hall filled with hungry members, and we enjoyed a potluck–for the first time since the pandemic. It was quite the feast! (I brought lemon pound cake, an Ina Garten recipe.) Was there enough food? Of course, there was, as fulfilled in the scriptures!

Eating and conversation was followed by our annual meeting. The meeting opened first with prayer and then a reading of our Land Acknowledgment Statement.

Gloria Dei Lutheran Church recognizes that its building stands on traditional Dakota land near Bdote Mini Sota, the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers, the center of creation for Dakota people and also sacred to Ojibwa. The congregation acknowledges that this land was taken from Indigenous people by exploitation and violence. Given the deep significance of this sacred ground, as well as its painful history, the congregation recognizes its responsibility to use this land, its building and mission for the work of reconciliation and healing with Native people. The congregation repents of this injustice that continues to harm Native communities and pledges to work for justice, peace and the wellbeing of all creation.

The main purpose, of course, was to pass the budget for the year, which includes reparations to Native people. It passed unanimously. Even though our congregation is in the midst of an unexpected challenge, the feeling in the room was one of gratitude and a willingness to grow towards greater strength. We are open to the invitation, even if we can’t quite define what that invitation is yet.

I realize, of course, that there are others ways to experience and participate in community, and I also realize a commitment to community is not always easy and sometimes belonging to a community is synonymous with exclusion. Choose your community wisely, and keep it healthy through your active participation, in order for it to live beyond and after you.

I like what Debra K. Farmington says:

When we live with community we give ourselves the opportunity to learn about the faces of God that we would not ordinarily see. It is in the community that our image of God is tested and refined, where we are held accountable for what we believe and how we act, and ultimately where we meet God in the fullest possible way.

It is also within community that we find love and encouragement and support on the spiritual path. We find others who pray with us and for us, who celebrate our lives and ask us to celebrate theirs. In community we find laughter as well as tears; we find people to play with, as well as ones who can mourn with us when times are rough. It may even be that we have gifts and skills that would not manifest themselves outside of community. By failing to use them or by hoarding them for ourselves, we miss what God has so graciously given us.

Living Faith Day By Day, p. 154.

Like Barbara Brown Taylor, I am an introvert, and I know I need to balance community time with alone time. Monday was a day when I practiced solitude, but also a day when I tenderly held the awareness of the gifts of community. Sunday had not only been a full day, but a day of fullness.

An Invitation

Where have you experienced the gifts and the challenges of community? I would love to know.

Some Days Need More Than One Spiritual Practice

March 7, 2023

Some days feel like this.

And perhaps like this:

Even the Buddha can have an off day.

What I first need to remember is that it is March in Minnesota, and even those of us who love winter become weary of yet another forecast of more snow.

The next thing I need to remember is what helps when I feel a bit blue or antsy and itchy or bored (that happens rarely for me) or worried or disappointed or overwhelmed or….

I admit my first response often is chocolate. Or a grilled cheese sandwich is good, too.

Or if I have been working at my desk, especially if the writing is not going well or if I feel overwhelmed by the TO DO List, which seems to have too many DO NOW items than can physically be done NOW, I try to remember to close the laptop, walk down the garret stairs, and move into the snug to read my current library book. If I could, I would go for a walk, but oh yeah, there’s the snow and ice and a memory of falling and breaking an ankle. The snug will have to do.

Eventually, I remember what helps –even more than chocolate.

I take a deep cleansing breath. More than one. I close my eyes lightly, not tightly. That may seem like an unnecessary reminder, but notice how you feel when you close your eyes tightly. Your whole face squinches up, ogre-like, and instead of breathing, you hold your breath. So close your eyes lightly, not tightly. And then breathe in and out gently, finding your own rhythm.

Often that is enough. I breathe my way to relaxing into the next step or the loving outlook. Or feeling beloved myself.

But sometimes that isn’t enough, and I need to move to the next step in my spiritual practice repertoire: Sitting in silence.

For me that means moving to my Girlfriend Chair in the garret and allowing myself to be enfolded in silence. The majority of my garret time is quiet. I don’t work with music playing, and especially in the winter with the windows closed and the kids next door off to school, all is calm, all is still. I sit with my feet firmly planted on the floor, and I feel the silence enfold me. Sometimes it is so quiet, I can hear my inner voice, the voice I hope echoes the Divine. I listen. I really listen.

Often it is surprising what I hear.

“I love you. Now and forever.”

“Send your love to someone else.”

“Enough. You have enough. You are enough. Enough”

“Trust yourself. You are doing good work. Just stay on the path.”

“Really? You are willing to spend your precious time whining.”

Or if I’m really lucky, “Have another piece of chocolate.”

Sometimes I write in my journal during that silent time or read some sacred words. And prayer of one kind or another is sure to follow.

Whatever has caused my restlessness or anxiety hasn’t disappeared because I have turned to one (or two or three) of my spiritual practices, but I am more centered. I am more present.

We realize that we are in the center, and that from there all that is and all that takes place can be seen and understood as part of the mystery of God’s life with us…’All these other things,’ which so occupied and preoccupied us, now come as gifts or challenges that strengthen and deepen the new life that we have discovered.

Henri Nouwen

I am my silence. I am not the busyness of my thoughts or the daily rhythm of my actions. I am not the stuff that constitutes my world. I am not my talk. I am not my actions. I am my silence. I am the consciousness that perceives all these things. When I go to my consciousness, to that great pool of silence that observes the intricacies of my life, I am aware that I am me. I take a little time each day to sit in silence so that I can move outward in balance into the great clamour of living.

Richard Wagamese, Embers, One Ojibway’s Meditations

An Invitation

What spiritual practices help you return to the center? I would love to know.

Settling Into Lent

February 27, 2023

Ash Wednesday was almost a week ago and yet, I still don’t feel settled into Lent.

I haven’t chosen a specific book of devotions for my morning meditation time, although I have been re-reading the Lenten section in my favorite Circle of Grace, A Book of Blessings by Jan Richardson.

If you would enter
into the wilderness,
do not begin
without a blessing.

Do not leave
without hearing
who you are:
named by the One
who has traveled this path
before you.

I have not decided on a specific Lenten practice. Earlier this year I decided I would plan my future memorial service during this time, and I will do that, but that doesn’t feel like enough. (What is enough?, you ask. Good question.)

In years past I have listened for a word of the day, filling in a daily chart. Other years I have written and sent one letter or note every day. And then there were the years when I focused on my extensive collection of spirituality and theology books, choosing at least one to discard each day. Each year my collection deceased by at least 100 books. That practice has made me more aware and disciplined about the books I decide to keep and to acquire.

But what about this year? Richardson’s words guide me:

Let us say
this blessing started
to shed all
it did not need,...

What do I no longer need?

A new issue of the quarterly publication, Bella Grace arrived in the mail, and I added it to the stack of previous issues I have barely glanced at. When I first started subscribing to it, I set aside time to immerse myself in the lush photography, the inspirational essays, and the suggestions for appreciating the beauty of everyday life. I even submitted my own essays to the publication and was thrilled when several were published. One, “The Comfort of Shawls” was even reprinted in one of their other publications, The Cozy Issue, and another, “The Magic of Reading in Bed” was published in the Bella Grace blog.

Although I hav continued to submit essays, such as “Porch Envy” or “Window Wishes,” none have been accepted the last couple years. Disappointing, of course, but I have come to realize and accept that as a near 75 year old woman, I am no longer their audience. The magazine is geared to much younger women. Women during the child-raising years. Women managing careers and family life. Women discovering who they are.

I’m still discovering who I am, but now in a much later decade. Not only is Bella Grace no longer a good fit for my writing, but Bella Grace is not a good fit for me, and yet, I have stacks of past issues on my bookshelves. Ok, Lenten Lady, it is time to clear the space. But first, I decide to page through each one, saving some photos and quotations I may want to use as writing prompts for the church writing group I facilitate.

Good. I like the idea of having one more almost empty book shelf, although I am keeping the issues in which my essays were included, but this activity, this decision is not only about letting go, but also about acceptance and awareness. Accepting who I am now and awareness of who I want and need to be now. A Lenten practice.

It's true that
you may need
to do some crumbling,
That some things
you have protected
may want to be
laid bare,
That you will be asked
to let go
and let go,

But listen.
This is what
a desert is for.

The true spiritual practice for me this year, perhaps every year I am blessed to have, is to pay more attention to how I am to love and live right now. Right now, right here. What does each day call me to do, to be? What bookshelves in my inner life need to be emptied and in what ways am I holding that sacred space? How do I carry this sacred season of Lent with me? And how do I notice the movement of God?

How does being an elder become my spiritual practice?

I am my silence. I am not the busyness of my thoughts or the daily rhythm of my actions. I am not the stuff that constitutes my world. I am not my talk. I am not my actions. I am my silence. I am the consciousness that perceives all these things. When I go to my consciousness, to that great pool of silence that observes the intricacies of my life, I am aware that I am me. I take a little time each day to sit in silences so that I can move outward in balance into the great clamour of living.

Embers, One Ojibway’s Meditations by Richard Wagamese

As Jan Richardson would say, “this is where the breath begins,” and perhaps, this is where my Lenten practice emerges.

An Invitation

What spiritual practices are emerging in your life right now? I would love to know.

Snow Days and Found Time

February 21, 2023

The prediction is that this part of the world will get 20-30 inches of snow this week. Fresh snow everyday beginning Monday and continue snowing through Thursday. I chuckled Monday morning when I looked at the hourly forecast and read “Snow stopping in 39 minutes, starting again in 7 minutes.” I thought about setting the timer on my phone.

When I was decades younger, this kind of weather meant rearranging schedules and planned activities and figuring out how to do what must be done. Would school be cancelled? What would be the easiest, safest way to get to work? Do we have enough milk? Or in more recent years, I called my Dad to make sure he was ok and wouldn’t be venturing out.

During the years of raising children and working full-time, the pre-retirement years, predictions of debilitating weather certainly raised my anxiety levels.

Now, however, as a privileged woman in her mid70’s, my immediate concerns are far less. Yes, I have a couple dates with friends this week, but we will put a new date on the calendar. And appointments with clients can either be reset or we can meet on zoom. If my church writing group can’t meet this week, I will email them some snow day writing prompts.

I so hope we can get to one of the Ash Wednesday services, but if that isn’t possible I will create my own contemplative time, minus the ashes, and will enter the new season in that way. It won’t be the same, but it will be whatever it is.

In the past I have written about the concept of “found time,” the space that is created when something is cancelled or changed. Instead of feeling frustrated by the necessary and sometimes inconvenient changes, I decided years ago to breathe into that space. Oh, surprise, I have a bit more time to read or write or bake cookies or do nothing at all. And that is how snow days can feel. (Easy for me to say–my husband is the one who does all the shoveling.)

Lately, I have also realized that I can create more “found time” in my life not just on snow days, but on any day, if I am willing to let go of worries and concerns, of a need to control, and to the way I think things should be or the roles I have had in the past.

Christine Valters Paintner is offering a Lent retreat called “A Different Kind of Fast” in which she suggests fasting from what gets in the way of living fully.

  • Multitasking and inattention
  • Anxiety
  • Speed and rushing
  • Strength and holding it all together
  • Planning and deadlines
  • Certainty

If you fasted from any of the items on this list, what would your day look like? How would you feel? In what ways might you become more aware of the movement of God in your life?

Instead of clinging to what feels necessary and familiar, dwelling in the lost, can you rejoice in the found?

How about envisioning this found time as a kind of Sabbath?

God is not found in the soul by adding anything but by subtracting.

Meister Eckhart

More God is the only thing on my list…When you live in God, your day begins when you lose yourself long enough for God to find you, and when God finds you, to lose yourself again in praise.

Barbara Brown Taylor

An Invitation

What does “found time” look like for you? I would love to know.

It’s Your Body and Your Funeral

January 30, 2023

Looking for something to do on a cold January day?

How about planning your funeral/memorial service?

Does that sound like fun? Well, maybe not, but let’s face it, we are each going to die, and we will each leave loved ones who will be faced with many decisions during an emotional time. Wouldn’t it be a helpful, even a gift, if we provided some guidance ahead of time?

Recently, the pastors at my church offered a session about funerals/memorial services–their purpose and how they fit into our faith tradition. So informative and uplifting. Then the following week, as part of our church’s programming for those of us in the Third Chapter of life (ages 55+), I hosted an informal conversation about funeral planning. This was an opportunity to explore and open to ideas about this key event in our lives. I invited the group to not only listen to others, but also to pay attention to what they were feeling, for this topic forces us to face our own mortality.

The conversation was lively and inspiring and helpful, and like an earlier Third Chapter conversation about downsizing, planning my memorial service is a process. I may be sure of some things, like the fact that I want my service to be at my church, but other aspects, like which pieces of scripture I want read may still be in flux.

After some time of silence and an opening meditation, I invited everyone to share a hymn they would like sung at their service. I shared my two choices: “Beautiful Savior” because my parents loved that hymn (I can still hear my father singing the tenor line.) and also because it is almost the “national anthem” of the college I attended, St Olaf College. It touches a very deep place inside me. The other hymn is “Mourning Has Broken” made famous by Cat Stevens. You don’t suppose he would come sing it at my service, do you?”

Morning has broken like the first morning;
blackbird has spoken, like the first bird.
Praise for the singing! Praise for the morning! 
Praise for them springing fresh from the Word.

Sweet the rain's new fall, sunlit from heaven,
like the first dew-fall on the first grass.
Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden,
sprung in completeness where God's feet pass.

Mine is the sunlight! Mine is the morning,
born of the one light Eden saw play!
Praise with elation, praise every morning,
God's recreation of the new day!

So many wonderful possibilities were offered by others in the group, however. Hymns I have loved and love to sing. Choices!

What was more important than picking out hymns to sing during the service, however, was sharing thoughts about other key questions:

  • What is the purpose of planning your funeral now?
  • How does it feel to do this?
  • What are you learning about what you hold to be true, about your faith, your fears, your hopes as you undertake this process?
  • What experiences have you had planning a funeral or attending funerals and how does that inform the kind of service you would like to have?
  • What’s important to you? What “not so much”?
  • Have you had conversations with your loved ones about your desires? How has that gone?
  • What’s the balance between your desires and the needs of your loved ones?
  • How is the service a gift for those who attend?

I’m sorry you weren’t there to hear all that was shared, but you can have this same conversation with your peers, your family, your faith community, and I encourage you to do so.

Funeral Planning as a Spiritual Practice

I encouraged those who attended to approach this process not just as something to cross off your list (“Good, Now I’ve planned my funeral.), but instead to think of this as a spiritual practice. In what ways do you experience the movement of God in the planning and considering, and also in what ways do you express the movement of God in your life through the service you plan?

My husband and I have done some planning. For example, we have decided on green cremation and have paid the funeral home in advance. Even though I have thought about other aspects of the service, such as meaningful scripture and that I want time in the service for silence using the Psalm line, “Be still and know that I am God,” I have not yet written it all down and then handed the completed form over to the church office where it will be kept until it is time to use it.

I have decided doing that will be my Lenten spiritual practice. Stay tuned.

One More Thought

I used to think I didn’t care about my funeral. When the subject came up, I generally laughed and reminded people, “I won’t be there. The rest of you can organize whatever helps you –sitting in a mournful circle or telling edited stories about me or partying, if you like.” But I am realizing that the occasion will bring together people who might not otherwise come into conversation and that it may be a ministry to them in their grieving. My service can be a message of love and God willing, an occasion of grace.

A Faithful Farewell, Living Your Last Chapter With Love by Marilyn Chandler McIntyre

An Invitation

What are your thoughts about planning your funeral/memorial service? I would love to know.

The Presence

January 24, 2023

The Presence by A.E. Borthwick

Recently, I moved this print from underneath the guest bed to the garret where I can see it from my desk. In previous homes it hung above a fireplace, but I never found the right spot for it in this house. I’ve missed it, however, and finally, with minor rearranging, “The Presence” is now a presence once again.

This print by Scottish artist, A.E. Borthwick, has been a presence in my family since I was four or five years old.

My father, who had a lovely singing voice, was the liturgist in our church in Albert Lea, Minnesota, and when we moved away, the church gave him this framed print. At one time there was a letter for my father taped to the back of the print and oh, how I wish I still had that. However, I am grateful the print has survived the many moves.

My parents were master of resettlement and within a couple days of each move to a new location, boxes were unpacked and our home was organized and comfortable. That included hanging pictures, and “The Presence” always had a prominent location, usually in the living room.

Many years later when I was grown and had children, my parents asked my sister, brother, and me which of their possessions we would want someday, and I said the only thing I really wanted was that print. It symbolized home for me. Soon after that conversation, my parents gave me the print, instead of waiting until they downsized.

History of “The Presence”

A. E. Borthwick (1871-1955) was a painter, stained glass artist, and printmaker born in Scarborough, Yorkshire. He studied at the Edinborough College of Art and also in Antwerp and Paris.

He painted “The Presence,” which is set in St Mary’s Scottish Episcopal Cathedral in Edinburgh, in 1910. Before WWI began he sent the painting to Munich where prints were going to be made. When war broke out the painting was sold to an American company and “lost.” It was rediscovered when it emerged to illustrate a newspaper article answering the question, “Is Religion Dead?” The answer given was “No, because of Christ’s abiding presence in his Church.”

At the end of the war an Act of Congress was passed that meant the painting would be returned to Scotland and during WWII it was preserved in the vaults of the Royal Scottish Academy. It had been presented to St Mary’s Cathedral in 1944, and there it remains.

The Changing Meaning of the Painting in My Life

The painting depicts a scene in the cathedral. Communion is being administered at the High Altar, and at the back of the cathedral Christ extends his hand toward a kneeling penitent. Christ is shown in radiant light. The light is so bright in the shadows of the cathedral that one needs to look closely to see the figure.

For most of my life I didn’t think much about the meaning of the painting, and I certainly didn’t relate to the setting. The churches my family attended were far more simple and humble than this massive cathedral. Nor did I think about what would make a person hide in a corner in grief or pain or in need of acceptance or forgiveness.

No, the presence of the painting in our homes meant we were home once more.

When I was training as a spiritual director, however, the word “presence” became more significant for me. During that two-year training, I was exposed to a variety of spiritual practices, including centering prayer. Part of that practice is to use a centering word that in the words of Thomas Keating, “expresses your intention of opening and surrendering to God…Gently place it in your awareness each time you recognize you are thinking about some other thought.” (Open Mind, Open Heart, The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel by Thomas Keating, p. 36). I tested a number of words, such as “light,” “open,” “heart,” and finally, much like receiving a word for the year, I received “presence.” I knew without a doubt that was the word.

Over time the word itself transformed in my mind into the painting itself. I felt the image, the meaning of the painting itself.

My Mantra as a Spiritual Practice

Eventually, the one word, “presence,” expanded into a mantra: “May I feel the Presence and may I be the Presence.”

I whisper these words to myself, for example,

  • When I begin or end my morning meditation time,
  • Before I meet with spiritual direction client,
  • As I begin to write a post for this blog or work on another piece of writing,
  • When I plan a new session for the church writing group I facilitate.

I find myself saying these words to myself as I move through my day, for I never know when I will need the guidance and comfort of the Presence nor do I know when I will have the opportunity to be the Presence for someone else. That can happen as easily at the grocery store or library as it does in one on one conversations at church.

The mantra is a form of prayer.

And now once again I have the physical presence of “The Presence” to support and remind me that I am beloved and I am to reflect that belovedness in the world.

An Invitation

Is there a word or phrase, an image or object that reminds you of the presence of God in your life? I would love to know.

Book Report: Books by Brian D. McLaren

January 19, 2023

I begin most days sitting in my Girlfriend Chair in the garret, meditating, praying, writing in my journal, and reading a book that will stretch me into deeper spiritual growth.

Currently, I am reading Faith After Doubt, Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What To Do About It by Brian D. McLaren. Each time I read one of his books or listen to his podcast, (Learning How to See with Brian McLaren, I can almost feel my limbs being pulled, my brain enlarging, and my heart expanding. Easy reads? Not exactly, although McLaren is such a good writer, making the experience of confronting tough issues and below the surface thoughts, a pleasure. Not only does McLaren become a real person with his own challenges, but he invites the reader into the conversation. In fact, each chapter includes questions for reflection and action.

McLaren was a conservative evangelical pastor who struggled with issues of belief versus faith for many years. Eventually, he left his formal role as a congregational pastor to write (over 15 books so far) and to live his faith as an activist and public theologian. He is on the faculty of the Living School at the Center of Action and Contemplation founded by Richard Rohr.

The first book I read by McLaren was The Great Spiritual Migration, How the World’s Largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to be Christian (2016). I don’t know how I became aware of him–perhaps through Diana Butler Bass whose work is also important in my spiritual development. Once I had read The Great Spiritual Migration, I knew I needed to read some of his earlier books.

I read A New Kind of Christianity, Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith (2010). Those ten questions continue to be relevant.

  • What is the overarching story line of the Bible?
  • How should the Bible be understood?
  • Is God violent?
  • Who is Jesus and why is he important?
  • What is the Gospel?
  • What do we do about the church?
  • Can we find a way to address human sexuality without fighting about it?
  • Can we find a better way of viewing the future?
  • How should followers of Jesus relate to people of other religions?
  • How can we translate our questions into answers?

You may think you know the answers to those questions (and maybe you do), but I invite you to read McLaren’s explorations. You will learn something new and maybe feel something new.

Next I read We Make the Road by Walking, A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation (2014). Books with “spiritual formation” in the title are always a reason for me to look beyond the cover. Even though the book follows the liturgical year, I didn’t wait to read season-designated sections. I started and just kept reading, but with Lent starting soon, I may re-read those chapters under the heading “Alive in a Global Uprising.” As I look at the table of contents I note several chapters I have marked with a star: “Women on the Edge,” “Your Secret Life,”, “Moving with the Spirit,” “Spirit of Love: Loving God,” and “Spirit of Love: Loving Self.” Perhaps I need to re-read those chapters and see what so appealed to me.

I still have two unread books on my shelf by McLaren. The first is Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road, Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World ((2012). I’ll get to it, I promise, for I agree with McLaren’s premise that we need a new faith alternative built on “benevolence and solidarity rather than rivalry and hostility.”

Before reading that book, however, and as soon as I finish Faith After Doubt, I will read his latest book, Do I Stay Christian, A Guide for the Doubters, the Disappointed, and the Disillusioned (2022). Several people I know have read this book and have encouraged me to read it, but once buying it, I realized I first needed to read Faith After Doubt, and I am almost done reading that book in which McLaren proposes a model of faith development.

  • Stage One: Simplicity
  • Stage Two: Complexity
  • Stage Three: Perplexity
  • Stage Four: Harmony

Along with defining and describing each of these stages, especially their limitations and consequences, he goes further to highlight the potential gifts of moving through the stages. He encourages faith communities to become four-stage communities because they “produce spiritual activists, harmony activists, whose faith expresses itself in socially transforming love, politically liberating love and ecologically restoring love.” (p. 184)

The operative word in Stage Four, by the way, is LOVE.

When you read a McLaren book, don’t overlook his footnotes, and have your highlighter in your hand, for you will need it.

Now back to reading the last chapter in Faith After Doubt.

An Invitation

What spiritually stretching books have you read?

January Check-Up

January 10, 2023

Defrocking happens first.

And then resetting.

Room by room.

From this:

To this:

Even the bedroom moves from holiday cheer to winer warmth.

Sometimes I feel like a set designer, but restoring order and creating comfortable, interesting spaces has always helped me move forward into the next step, the bigger task. At this time of the year the goal is to move into the new year.

Shopping the house and rearranging and fashioning a slightly different look in each of our rooms is only part of the new year assignment, however. Not as physical, but just as important, if not more so, is my annual ritual of re-reading my journals from the previous year.

Sunday afternoon I settled into my Girlfriend Chair in the garret and re-lived the past year, As I read, I wrote down in my new journal some key events and thoughts, and I noted signs of growth, along with what I still need to learn. I looked for patterns and ongoing questions. I was touched by the joys and the deep sorrows.

I honored the past year and my life in that year.

Some Key Learnings

  • My word of the year was rhythm. I was more aware of my own rhythm. Along with being aware of each day’s rhythm–appointments, items on the To Do list, my husband’s needs and plans etc–I became more aware of my own rhythm and the pace I needed to function and live well. I often asked myself, “What is possible now?’ as well as “What do I need right now?”
  • About this time last year I entered a time of intentional discernment about whether or not to continue working on my memoir. I gave myself time and space to listen to my heart and to explore what gives me purpose and meaning. I asked myself how I wanted to use my energy now. The result of this discernment time was to let go of my memoir as a book, No regrets. In fact, I have felt lighter, freer, and in some ways I have reclaimed myself as a writer, not as someone who hopes to have a book published. Here’s the other thing: I have discovered that I was not just discerning whether or not to continue working on my book, but I was discerning how I want and hope to live my life, this stage of my life. Like decluttering, discernment is an ongoing process.
  • This stage of life, these elder years, are tender ones in which loss plays a primary role. More and more I realize the importance of spiritual practice in my life; the need to maintain the ways I ground myself and deepen my relationship with God, along with ways to remain open. How do I continue to discover and live as the person God created me to be?

Simple Things That Added Joy

So much in my life continues to be life-enhancing, including meeting with my spiritual direction clients, facilitating the writing group at my church, attending weekly services, being with family and friends, writing this blog, and even continuing the process of decluttering. Along with these ongoing aspects of my life, I noted in my journal other pleasures.

  • Entertaining at 4 o’ clock. Some snacks and beverages and gathering with a couple friends in the living room or on the patio. Easy. No fuss. Wonderful fellowship.
  • Continuing to roam. Driving to small towns in Minnesota and Wisconsin. What’s interesting here? What would it be like to live there? We made a point of visiting the library in each town, and, of course, having lunch at the local bar or coffee shop.
  • Installing new carpet in the bedroom. Fresh and clean. A lighter look.
  • Working on shorter writing projects. Submitting to various online venues and having some published.
  • Trying to stay away from my desk on Sundays. I’ve noticed major slippage in that department as the year progressed, but I am restating that intention for 2023.
  • Writing 6 words to describe my day. For example, “Explored near and not so near.” or “Practice, play, prepare for next week.”
  • Listening to my Pandora station, Christmas piano music, all during Advent. Such a lovely, soothing background for whatever I was doing.
  • Facilitating conversation groups on topics important to those 55+.

I have not completed my January list—there are closets to clean and papers to organize and the oven is dirty, but even so I am planted in the new year, and I am grateful to be here.

One more thing: Thank you so much for reading my posts and for your kind and thoughtful words. Writing this blog is one of my pleasures; one of the ways I continue to learn and grow, and I thank you for your patience as I continue in the practice of life.

An Invitation

What are your new year’s rituals? I would love to know.

Advent #4: Cold Days Before Christmas

December 20, 2022

By “cold,” I don’t only mean the temperature, which will soon be below zero, but also the lingering cold I have been fighting for two weeks. No, it isn’t COVID, and I am grateful for that, but who needs to be less than at top form on these days approaching Christmas. Besides, I love the Advent season –both the waiting and the preparing–and this limited energy is frustrating.

I have cancelled appointments and missed some special events, but I am keeping the prize in mind –Christmas with our family. Therefore, I’ve gone to bed early, slept later than normal, and napped when I felt the need. I’ve wrapped myself in a shawl and sipped hot cider flavored with a slice of dehydrated orange, and read more books than normal for December.

I have baked only a few loaves of cherry walnut bread and have not made any cookies. Sigh! However, missing those good smells, I made a simple simmering potpourri, which fills the house with the scent of comfort and welcome. My husband has done most of the wrapping (Bless him!) and I did the bows, and the presents are all in place.

Every Christmas is different and no one year is apt to be exactly the way you envision. Some years will be remembered more than others. I doubt any of us will forget last year when we spent Christmas Day on the patio because our grandson had COVID. He sat by the kitchen window, and we were able to watch him open his presents. Or there was the year when our granddaughter, who is now a sophomore in college, was only six weeks old, having arrived five weeks early. We all knew that would be my mother’s last Christmas, and it was.

We try to make each celebration perfect, but perfection comes when we accept and rejoice in what is. When we start from a place of gratitude and open our hearts to the love that is present, to all the ways we are held and beloved. When we remember that our task is not to fix the perfect meal or try to find the best present, but rather to live in the light of who we have been created to be.

I admit I hope to leave this cold behind by December 24 –preferably before then–but whatever happens, I know I will feel the warmth of those I love and who love me.

May these be days of warmth in your life.

An Invitation

Do you recall any Christmases that didn’t quite turn out as planned? I would love to know.

NOTE: Ingredients for Simmering Potpourri

Fresh or frozen cranberries
Orange slice
Fresh rosemary
Whole Star anise
Whole cloves
Whole allspice
Cinnamon sticks

Add 2-4 cups of water or apple juice. Simmer on the stove. Add more liquid as needed. 

Book Report: Christmas Books

December 15, 2022

I have a plan.

Some snowy and grey day before Christmas (oh let’s be real, maybe the week after Christmas or even later. After all, Christmas lasts till Epiphany, January 7) I’m going to fix some hot cider with a dried orange slice for extra flavor, and I am going to wrap myself in a shawl and get cozy in the snug. Here’s the important part: I’m going to browse our collection of Christmas books and read whatever appeals to me in the moment.

To be honest, I plan to do this every Christmas season, but then shopping and baking and writing Christmas cards and wrapping presents and… and… takes precedence. I enjoy all those activities, so I don’t feel too sorry for myself, but still… This year the desire for this kind of gentle luxury feels more necessary. Maybe it’s the crummy cold I’ve had that has lasted far too long or more likely it is the need to sit quietly with the sadness I feel about the death of a friend. I am also aware that my age, being an elder, lures me towards the simple pleasures more and more.

Over the years we’ve passed on many of the books we collected when our kids were growing up, and what remains are some special favorites plus a few old books I’ve found when antiquing. At the top of the pile is a small paper copy of A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas. Bruce was in a reader’s theater version of the story when we were in college, and one of the first presents he gave me was a copy of the book with lovely wood prints. I might begin my immersion into my Christmas books by reading it aloud–even if it is just to myself.

…I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six…

Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the light in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steadily falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed, I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.

Next I will smile my way through my favorite picture book version of The Nativity. Mary, as imagined by illustrator Julie Vivas, is not exactly beatific. Rather she is LARGE with child and has a very hard time getting on the donkey and is exhausted by the labor. There is a reason it is called LABOR.

I also love Tomie De Paola’s illustrations of Miracle on 34th Street by Valentine Davies and the De Paola book that will always be my favorite, Clown of God about the juggler, Giovanni and the miracle of his gift. Both of our books are signed by De Paola from the days decades ago when I worked in an independent book store in St Paul, Odegards.

I am just as delighted with Susan Branch’s illustrations and also her calligraphy. In the Christmas stack are two of her books, Christmas From the Heart for the Home and Christmas Joy. Branch encourages us to “Light candles, say a prayer holding hands, play music, dress up, take pictures, kiss everyone within 5 feet of the mistletoe, and keep your senses alive so you can remember THIS Christmas all year long.”

One of the books I have not read in years is The Story of Holly and Ivy by the English author Rumer Godden who wrote for both children and adults. In this story Ivy is an orphan and Holly is a doll left all alone in a toyshop window on Christmas Eve. It won’t be a surprise that there is a happy ending to the story. which in this version is illustrated by Barbara Cooney.

I’ve read a few of the stories in the Everyman’s Pocket Classic, Christmas Stories, such as Green Holly by Elizabeth Bowen, The Turkey Season by Alice Munro, and several times Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory about making the traditional fruitcake with his distant cousin.

A woman with shorn white hair is standing at the kitchen window. She is wearing tennis shoes and a shapeless gray sweater over a summery calico dress. She is small and sprightly, like a bantam hen; but due to a long youthful illness, her shoulders are pitifully hunched. Her face is remarkable–not unlike Lincoln’s, craggy like that, and tinted by sun and wind; but it is delicate, too, finely boned, and her eyes are sherry-colored and timid. ‘Oh my, ‘ she exclaims, her breath smoking the windowpane, ‘it’s fruitcake weather!’

The book that entices me most, however is also called Christmas Stories, but it is by Charles Dickens. This old, small red leather-bound book with tiny print and pages you can almost see through just feels good to hold. In the last year or so I have been feeling a tug to read some of the Dickens books I have never read like Bleak House or The Old Curiosity Shop. I loved Great Expectations when I read it in 8th grade, and I think reading that book was influential in my decision to teach English. Perhaps reading some of these stories will be the beginning of a Dickens year.

I have a plan, and my shawl and mug of cider, and books wait for me. What a good Christmas present that would be to give myself. And it’s snowing!

An Invitation

What Christmas books do you enjoy reading year after year? I would love to know.