It’s Time! An (in)courage Guest Post

Despite growing up attending church most weeks, I never knew much about Palm Sunday–why it mattered, why we celebrated, why everyone was shouting “Hosanna!”

Serving and working in children’s ministry forced me to figure out what the big deal was. Because, if I’m going to explain it to a bunch of elementary schoolers, I better understand it myself.

Today, I’m really honored and excited to share more about Palm Sunday over at (in)courage. You can click here to read that post.

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For years now, (in)Courage has been one of my favorite places to read about Jesus and how we can better follow him in the midst of our everyday lives. The writers and stories I’ve encountered there have changed my life and faith in a very real way. Sign up here to receive free daily notes from (in)courage, right in your inbox.

The Spiritual Discipline of Anticipation

This is my last post (for now!) in this little series about the surprising spiritual disciplines that are shaping my faith lately. You can read all the posts in this series here!

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Waiting is not really a talent of mine. I can be very patient with people (especially children)—repeat myself, try again, try again again, ask another question. But when it comes to time—the slow but sudden passage of it, flipping calendar pages as you wait to arrive at a certain date—I don’t do so well. Both Ian and Leo hung out in my womb with absolutely zero regard for their due dates, and that waiting was the most miserable part of pregnancy. I was convinced that the babies were coming and then…they didn’t. So I waited. It was hard.

In The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin wrote that part of the joy of experiencing something comes from anticipating it and reflecting on it. Maybe this is why we love Christmas so much—the anticipation—and why we feel so let down when it’s over—we don’t take enough time to reflect before moving on to our resolutions and new gym memberships. (Maybe people who observe the 12 days of Christmas really are onto something.)

The past year has been challenging, and I’ve spent a good many days struggling with anxiety, feeling lonely, and wrestling with my role as a mom or a writer or friend a children’s ministry person or…whatever I am.

Along the way, I’ve learned that it’s a bad idea for me to wake up in the morning and think, “What am I going to do today?” I’m sure some people would revel and rejoice in being able to ask that question and not be 100% sure of the answer. For me, the open-ended feeling like I’m floating without a tether. I become anxious, uneasy, and even depressed. I do better with a plan, even if it’s as simple as “grocery shopping in the morning and respond to those emails during nap time.”

We had some good friends visit us in July, and anticipating their visit really buoyed me through the spring and summer. After their visit, my friend Melissa asked me, “So, what are you looking forward to now?” It was an important question, and it’s remained so in the months that followed.

This act of literally and figurative looking forward helps me tap into joy and peace on a daily basis, and so it’s become a very real spiritual discipline in my life.

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As I thought about this more, I realized that Scripture gives some credence to the idea of anticipation as spiritual discipline. In Psalm 30, David writes, “…weeping may last for the night, but rejoicing comes with the morning.” On the one hand, David’s speaking figuratively to proclaim the truth that suffering and pain are temporary. But on the other hand, inherent in this idea is the necessity of looking forward, of not ignoring our pain but of embracing hope by looking toward the morning. Joy is just around the bend.

Jesus taught his disciples about this, too. In John 14, the disciples are growing despondent as the reality of Jesus’ impending death sinks in. To comfort them, Jesus tells them to look forward to what’s coming. He tells them he’s coming back one day (verse 3), they are going to do good work in his absence (verses 12-14), and that he’s going to send the Holy Spirit (verses 16-17).

“Don’t get too caught up in the past,” he seems to say. “Even better things are coming.”

At first, I wondered if this continual emphasis on literal and figurative looking forward would make it difficult for me to enjoy the present, but I’ve found the opposite to be true.

As I’ve learned to joyfully anticipate each season and important calendar dates, I’ve also learned the value of anticipating even small pleasures: a cold glass of iced coffee in the afternoon, lighting a candle while I cook dinner, a new episode of my favorite podcast, picking up holds from the library.  The spiritual discipline of anticipation taught me to appreciate these small gifts in the midst of ordinary time, which might otherwise become commonplace or unappreciated. And when something I’ve been looking forward to transpires, I am more grateful for it.

When Christians talk about the kingdom of God, we often use the phrase “now, but not yet” to illustrate the reality that Jesus is currently at work among us, redeeming and restoring, but the work isn’t yet complete. Is there anything that illustrates anticipation better than that? We recognize the present joy, goodness, and peace that’s being built among us, but don’t forget we have a long way to go. Anticipating the kingdom and bringing it to fruition is how we joyfully participate in what Jesus is up to.

How I Learned to View Writing as a Spiritual Discipline

I read Liz Gilbert’s Big Magic a few months ago. I love books about creativity and adored Liz’s Magic Lessons podcast, so I couldn’t wait to dig into this book. (Admittedly, I’ve tuned out for season 2 of the podcast, but I still recommend the first season.) I began thinking I was reading a book about one thing (writing), but it turned out to be about much more than that. I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, the book’s subtitle isn’t “creative writing beyond fear.” It’s, “creative living beyond fear.”

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Some of Liz’s ideas–particularly about inspiration, ideas, and how they find us–are a little…woo-woo, shall we say? Evan rolled his eyes as I relayed some passages to him (which was absolutely the reaction I expected); he is far too rational for that sort of thing. I didn’t always agree wholeheartedly, but so much of what she said resonated with me.

Liz’s writing is never explicitly faith-based (though she often alludes to various kinds of spirituality), but as she described the Muse and inspiration and ideas, I thought about the Holy Spirit. Scripture attests to the idea that he keeps fellowship with us, and that we were created in the image of a very creative God. I thought of how Jesus asked us to be co-creators and to play an active, collaborative role in building his kingdom. I thought of what Nathan Foster says about praying with our imagination.

I found myself thinking about creatively approaching every area of life: motherhood, career, marriage, friendship. Let alone writing. Books that work their way into every nook and cranny of my existence are, in my opinion, the best kind.

When talking about her favorite poet, Liz wrote, “He became a poet the way other men become monks: as a devotional practice, as an act of love, and as a lifelong commitment to the search for grace and transcendence. I think this is probably a very good way to become a poet. Or to become anything, really, that calls to your heart and brings you to life.”

In the margin, I scribbled, “This is how I want to become a writer.” But, truly, that is how I want to become everything: daughter, sister, wife, mother, teacher, writer, friend. I want each role I play to be lived in out in a furious, generous act of love. I want it all to be evidence of my lifelong commitment to Jesus and the building of his kingdom.

Emily Freeman writes a blog series about unconventional and unexpected spiritual disciplines: practices like beginning where you are, learning nothing, and wearing better pants. Those posts are some of my favorites, because I am learning to view all of my life as a spiritual discipline. A spiritual discipline is anything we do day-in and day-out, like breathing, that connect us more to our souls and our God.

I usually describe writing as a hobby. When I was a journalism major, I would have described it as my future, hoped-for career. At certain times, I’ve described it as a sanity-saver. But it wasn’t until recently that I also began to understand writing, too, as a spiritual practice.

I am constantly scribbling prayers in the margins of my journal and Bible, and when I blog, it’s most often about the ways I see God showing up in and around me. But the connection goes even further: The very act of writing feels like prayer, like communion, like living and moving and having my being in Jesus.

 

You can read all the posts in my series on spiritual disciplines here.

What Centering Prayer is Teaching Me about “Enough”

I am rarely satisfied. (Side note: I can no longer say or write the word “Satisfied” without immediately launching into an internal Hamilton medley. I digress.)

I spend very little time fully present and content here: enjoying the exact place, time, vocation, energy level, activity in which I find myself. In the morning, I wish I got more sleep or woke up earlier to write. In the afternoon, I hope for time away from my boys but miss them when they aren’t around. I grumble about this stay-at-home mom gig but recall how envious I was of stay-at-home moms when I worked full-time. At the end of the day, I look around and see not what was accomplished (Three meals! Playtime! Grocery shopping!), but instead, I focus on all I left undone.

The Israelites wrestled with this too, I think. They were slaves and had every reason to wish for a different reality. Then God set them free, but they found it impossible to enjoy the journey toward the promised land. They couldn’t be satisfied until they reached their hoped-for destination. Because of this constant longing for more more more, an entire generation never saw the promised land for which they hoped. Even when God provided manna—reliably and faithfully dropping tangible nourishment right at their feet—they shouted, “More, God! And different!”

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“They willfully put God to the test by demanding the food they craved. They spoke against God; they said, ‘Can God really spread a table in the wilderness? True, he struck the rock, and water gushed out, streams flowed abundantly, but can he also give us bread? Can he supply meat for his people?” –Psalm 78:18-20

When I set out to try centering prayer, I thought I was just trying a new spiritual practice. I thought I would learn if this was an easier or better way to get more prayer into my life. (The achiever in me is so endearing, right?)

But I didn’t expect how this practice would gently (but quickly!) reveal a big blind spot in my life and faith. I am an Israelite most days, craving variety, ignoring the sustenance I’ve been provided and dreaming about the kind I’d rather have. 

In the introduction to Rising Strong, Brené Brown writes, “I define wholehearted living as engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough. It’s going to bed at night thinking, Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am brave and worthy of love and belonging.”

Enough laundry done today.
Enough meals planned this week.
Enough fulfillment in my current roles.
Enough companionship in my relationships.
Enough compassion to navigate this election season.
Enough patience to parent my children well.
Enough strength to carry and nourish this new baby.
Daily bread.

This, I think, is why a loaf of bread came to mind when I first thought about this practice. I needed to remember that nothing I do or don’t do determines my worth and value; I am valuable solely because I am a child of God.

Even more, this truth goes beyond my nature to also reflect the nature of God: He is enough, and what he offers is enough.

Enough love.
Enough joy.
Enough peace.
Enough patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Daily bread.

If I can believe that God is all of those things and provides all of those things, then I can believe that not only do I have enough, but I am enough as well.

Daily bread.

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You can read all the posts in my series on spiritual disciplines here.

The Surprising Spiritual Discipline that’s Changing How I Look at Prayer

I’ve always said I’m not very good at prayer. I have a prayer journal that I don’t always remember to open and refer to. Sometimes, I write my prayers in a Word document or in a Moleskine, and sometimes I pray out loud. I pray before dinner but never remember before breakfast or lunch. When I try to pray early in the morning or at night before bed, I nod off before I feel like I’ve gotten anywhere.

Along the way, I considered every incomplete thought, every unchecked box on my prayer list, every skipped mealtime a failure.

As if God sets a threshold for the amount of communication he expects, rather than rejoicing at each and every conversation. As if prayer is even something you can be good or bad at.

When Paul suggested we “pray continually,” he wasn’t giving a new, impossible command. Instead, he was suggesting that we can live our entire lives as if they are a conversation with God. It’s not easy, certainly, but also not as clear-cut as an item to cross of my to-do list. Did I pray without ceasing today? Check yes or no. This is not something at which we can fail or succeed, like a college course.

Prayer is simply another way of looking at and interacting with God and the world around me. 

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I recently heard Shauna Niequist on The God-Centered Mom podcast, and she talked about centering prayer, which was a practice totally unfamiliar to me. On the podcast, she explained how this practice has impacted her own spiritual journey, but she goes even further in her new book (which I loved and highly recommend). Shauna explained that in centering prayer, you focus on an image. When your thoughts wander, you just let them float by like a discarded flip-flip down a river, and return again to your image. The image Shauna focuses on during centering prayer is a big, red, kindergarten-style heart. Heather said that her image was her and Jesus, sitting on a swing together.

What could my image be? I wondered. I only thought about it for a moment when a new and rather unexpected idea struck me: a loaf of bread.

The image in my head was so random and so crystal clear, I can only describe it as having come from Jesus. But there it was: a warm loaf of yeasty, crusty bread, the top dusted with flour. A loaf of country bread, is how I imagine it would be labeled on our local bakery’s shelf. I could practically smell it.

When the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, He included the phrase “Give us today our daily bread.” It was his way of teaching them them to ask for enough. He told crowds to consider the birds and the lilies, which are always given just what they need. We can trust the Father to provide for us.

And of course, at the Last Supper, Jesus didn’t just suggest they pray for bread. He said he was the bread. He has spent the rest of history proving it to be true.

So, I’m trying this centering prayer business. It’s a new spiritual practice for me, and it’s transforming the way I look at God and look at what’s happening in and around me. I haven’t yet figured it out. I’m not in the habit of praying this way right when I wake up in the morning or before I go to bed. It’s an intermittent, once-in-awhile thing.

But this practice is reminding me that my perfectionism, achievement-driven tendencies aren’t helpful in my prayer life. I can’t just keep checking boxes; prayer is meant to be a conversation, a reflection of relationship, a way of life. This practice grounds me—centers me—back on Jesus and the way he provides and nourishes.

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You can read all the posts in my series on spiritual disciplines here.

How this Perfectionist is Learning to Rethink the Spiritual Disciplines

“Discipline” is one of my strengths on Strengthfinders. I hated that fact, when I first read my results. I wanted to cross it off the list and trade it for a different strength. Because 1. Boring, but 2. Wrong! I never think of myself as very self-disciplined. I only follow through on things when the approval of another person is on the line. (Gretchen Rubin would call me an obliger.)

I’ve since learned that the Strengthfinder people define discipline a little differently. They write, “Faced with the inherent messiness of life, you want to feel in control. The routines, the timelines, the structure, all of these help create this feeling of control.” Ah yes. That does sound like me.

I like rules, and I like tasks, and I like to be able to cross things off my to-do list and yes: It gives me an illusion of control over my time, my day, my life.

I don’t know when I first heard the term “spiritual disciplines,” but needless to say, I latched on. Here are what my perfectionist instincts tell me to do:

  1. Make a list of spiritual disciplines. A lot of them.
  2. Pull out today’s to-do list.
  3. Add each spiritual discipline to the list.
  4. Complete each discipline in a controlled environment and within a reasonable timeframe.
  5. Cross each item off the list.

Ahhh. Doesn’t that sound just like something Jesus would do?

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When I read Scripture these days, I see that’s how the Pharisees operated, and it’s how they tried to convince everyone around them to operate, too. They wanted to control their faith, as I have so often wanted to do.

But Jesus came and preached another way: “Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly,” (Matthew 11:28-30, The Message)

In Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster lists the disciplines as meditation, prayer, fasting, study, simplicity, solitude, submission, service, confession, worship, guidance, and celebration. I would have never even considered things like guidance, celebration, simplicity, or solitude as disciplines, primarily because How do I cross those off my list? They aren’t easily measured or tracked.

We are obsessed with metrics these days. We track the number of steps we take each day, moving something as simple as walking into the realm of accomplishment and enough/not enough. Facebook tells us how many people like what we have to say, and Instagram shows us how many people have watched our stories. (I’ve heard that there are actually cheat hashtags you can use on Instagram, to make it look like you have more likes and followers.) We believe these numbers give us value; this is our economy.

I’m not a numbers person, but I have created my own economy based on productivity, accomplishment, and doing enough.

Foster writes, “to know the mechanics does not mean that we are practicing the Disciplines. The Spiritual Disciplines are an inward and spiritual reality, and the inner attitude of the heart is far more crucial than the mechanics…”

My pursuit of the disciplines was hardly an unforced rhythm, because I was focused almost entirely on the mechanics.

My instinct is to view those practices as a means of getting good at faith and good at relationship with Jesus. And no doubt—there is work to be done. But Jesus doesn’t ask me to good at, well…anything.

He just asks me to follow, to watch, and to keep company. To be like Mary as his feet. He asks me to trust that He is good enough for the both of us, that His own goodness is transforming me.

When Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, what was she doing if not practicing and acting on her faith, like I wanted to by practicing the disciplines? But she did it so naturally, so joyfully, so instinctually. She sat and she listened.

I am learning to view these disciplines not as items to be crossed of my to-do list, but as perspectives to take on; as ways of looking at the world; and as means of interacting with myself, God, and others.

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I shared a little bit about this when I talked about what I learned this summer. Over the next few days, I’ll share some surprising new spiritual disciplines that are making a difference in my life. You can read all the posts in this series here.

Some further reading:

I read Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline a couple of years ago with our old small group, and I highly recommend it. That’s the book that got me thinking about the disciplines for the first time in a new light; he shares how to engage practically with these disciplines, but also captivatingly conveys the true meaning and vision behind them.

Not long after that, Emily Freeman began publishing posts about unexpected and unusual spiritual disciplines, which I love. Those posts have also been instrumental in helping me look differently at the rhythms and routines in my own life, and how they all can be tools for helping us follow Jesus.

 

Dark is his path

Every Wednesday, Ian and I go to the library for storytime. As you can imagine, sharing is a hot-button issue among the 5-and-under crowd, and the library is not neutral territory. A few weeks ago, a little girl came up to the train table where Ian was playing and snatched a little blue locomotive right out of his hand. He immediately burst into angry, fitful tears. “That mine!” he yelled, and then looked right at me, as if he was waiting for me to come to his defense. He was waiting for me to step in and make it right.

I really love Jesus–the feet washing, scribbling in the sand, bread-breaking Jesus. I struggle with the guy who overthrew the tables in the temple, who talked about a brood of vipers, who cursed a fig tree. (Seriously, though. What’s up with the fig tree?)

My pastor once said that there is a continuum between grace and truth, and we all find ourselves somewhere along the continuum. Each of us tends to gravitate toward one end of the other. I am a grace person, through and through. Because I’ve wrestled so hard with self-imposed perfectionism and impossible standards, I just want to cut us all some slack, you know?

I stood in church the other day and we sang these words:

“O tell of His might, O sing of His grace
Whose robe is the light, whose canopy space
His chariots of wrath, the deep thunderclouds form
And dark is His path on the wings of the storm.”

It’s so beautiful and poetic, but this hymn has been hard for me to stomach since I first heard it a few years ago. I don’t like to think about might and wrath, thunderclouds and darkness. No, I don’t like it one bit. I much prefer the childhood nursery version of Noah’s Ark: cute fuzzy animals and bright rainbows, please and thank you.

I can’t even read or watch the news most days lately. I feel like an irresponsible citizen of the world, but once I’ve read about Syrian refugees or sex trafficking or Donald Trump, I walk around in a heartsick funk the rest of the day. I can’t always shake the cloud of bad news, and I can’t always find the helpers in the stories. And just like that, I find myself wishing for a little less slack and a little more resolution, a little more redemption, a little more justice. Now, please, Jesus, if you don’t mind.

Then, I stand in church on Sunday and those lyrics flash up on the projection screen above my head. I realize that the author of the hymn–hundreds of years ago–found it right and good to talk about God’s grace and might in the very same line.

And when it came time to sing the last line of that verse, I couldn’t help but lift my hands and sing it a bit louder this time: dark is His path on the wings of the storm. I found myself not afraid, but comforted.

The Jesus who overturned tables is, after all, the same who asked the men to put down their stones. His grace means more to me knowing it’s backed by justice. I am less afraid, knowing He is my protector as well as my friend. Truthfully, I don’t want God to turn his back to the pride in my own heart, because I don’t want Him to turn his back to the pride in a presidential candidate. I don’t want to worship a God who doesn’t do something about child labor or slavery or genocide. I want a God who sweeps in, who rescues. Indeed, I want a God whose path is sometimes very, very dark.

This is a good God, one who protects, rescues, and redeems. As the hymn says, He is our maker, defender, redeemer, and friend. He is the one who steps in time and time again to make it right.