The Slow Work of God

Colorado 2I recently discovered this poem by 20th century philosopher and Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin. These words found me in January in the midst of some major discernment, and I’ve both been confronted by and have been clinging to them ever since. This particular poem helps me breathe more deeply while also inviting me onto the ever shifting terrain of holy discomfort.

Today I’m wondering what it means to live each day with purpose but also to accept the reality of incompleteness, to cling to the faith that God’s “hand is leading [me] and accept the anxiety of feeling [myself] in suspense and incomplete.”

What resonates with you?

The Slow Work of God
by Teilhard de Chardin

Above all, trust in
the slow work of God.
We are, quite naturally,
impatient in everything
to reach the end
without delay.
We should like to skip
the immediate stages.
We are impatient
of being on the way to
something unknown,
something new.
And yet, it is the law
of all progress that it
is made by passing
through some stages
of instability —
and that it may take
a very long time.

And so I think it is with you.
Your ideas mature
gradually —
let them grow, let
them shape
themselves, without
undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though
you could be today
what time
(that is to say grace, and
circumstances acting
on your own good will)
will make you
tomorrow.

Only God could say
what this new spirit
gradually forming
within you will be.
Give our Lord the benefit
of believing that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety
of feeling yourself
in suspense and
incomplete.

 

 

 

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Courage, Contradictions, and Clumsy Landings

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Image by Marco Catini. CC Flickr. 

Earlier this week, my roommate and I were nestled on our sofa watching figure skaters glide, leap, “twizzle,” and twist themselves into ridiculous shapes as they danced across the ice arena in PyeongChang. We gasped with each precarious toss and wobbly landing and felt our arms prickle with goosebumps as the top skaters’ eyes filled with tears of joy under the thunderous applause.

We quickly realized that we had no idea how the actual judges’ scoring system worked, so, naturally, together we sat on the couch with our carton of ice cream and created our own “normal people scoring system.” Points for making it to the Olympics in the first place! Points for getting onto the ice without falling! Points for getting up after you fell instead of simply crying in the corner! Points for cool costumes! Points for excellent music! Points for participation! Points for everyone!

Maybe we just felt like being goofy after several hours of homework. Maybe on some subconscious level we needed to find a way to justify our own suddenly obvious and clumsy humanness in comparison to what seemed to be the athletes’ superhuman essence. Probably it was some combination of the two. Either way, it left me in a weird place of being totally amazed at the incredible beauty and gravity-defying achievement of which humanity is capable and at the same time feeling terribly inadequate for not being able to hold up my end of the bargain.

As the games draw to a close in PyeongChang, I’m struck by what a weird thing it is to be human. To be surrounded by so much greatness, to maybe find a glimmer of that greatness in yourself, and to at the same time hold life’s mediocrity, awkwardness, and even agony.

For me this week, this tension felt like recognizing the built-up toll of February-in-Minnesota syndrome on my own body and spirit: too little sunlight, too little fresh air, not enough time at the gym, too much caffeine, too many baked goods and not enough vegetables, too much time spent studying or writing in my apartment and not enough time with real life human beings. My usually over-achieving self has been ridiculously unproductive, sucked into the bottomless social media pit. I’ve taken more naps than I have in years and have spent all week trying to come up with a half-way decent idea for this blog post, largely to no avail. In my frustrating unproductivity, I’ve gotten tangled up in the usual webs of self-doubt and irritability. I’ve been feeling helpless and angry as I read the news, unsure of what to say, to write, or to do and pessimistic about if any of it could ever matter anyway.

But this week also looked like tromping around a frozen lake, taking in a dazzling sunset, and feeling the icy winter air reawaken my lungs. It looked like stepping onto my yoga mat each day—embracing that unexpected surge of joy when I stuck a balancing posture I didn’t know I was capable of and moments later being humbled by my own tired arms that couldn’t hold the next pose. It looked like being carried by the courage, perseverance, and undeniable strength of teenagers from Parkland, Florida. It tasted like shared homecooked meal of chicken parmesan, conversations about vocation and politics and privilege over coffee shop lattes, and plenty of sass and laughter over glasses of coffee porter. It felt like overflowing gratitude as I recognized over and over my own unbelievable support network of family and friends and mentors, people who love me well and gently call me out of my own fear and self-centeredness.

But maybe the experience of being human is holding the tension and creating room in contradiction. It’s being both an overachiever and wildly unproductive. It’s admiring the figure skater’s triple lutz while being okay with the fact that you are sitting on the couch making up a ridiculous scoring system with your roommate. It’s pushing yourself just a little bit farther and being amazed at your own strength one moment, and accepting that it’s okay to take a rest the next.

So today I’m going to feel all of the feels. The mundaneness. The winter angst. The beauty. The gratitude. The disappointments. The frustration. I’m going to give myself permission to claim each of these, trusting that somehow in life’s great mystery, there is enough space in me to be all of them at once — clumsy landings and all.

 

 

 

Lenten Practices for Procrastinators

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“Candle” by Isabel Puaut. CC via Flickr.

So, maybe you’re more on the game than I am, but we’re already well into the first week of Lent, and, as per usual, I still have not settled on a Lenten spiritual practice. And, to be honest, I’ve gone back and forth over the years about how I feel about picking up a Lenten practice anyway. There are all sorts of theological and practical reasons people have picked up such practices during these 40 days: to be reminded of the suffering of Christ, to practice self-discipline in faith, to rely on God’s strength in personal weakness or temptation, to repent of personal and systemic sin, to reorient ourselves to God’s love for us. Motivation might stem from a sense of dutiful obligation, guilt-ridden repentance, personal piety, mere curiosity, yearning for God’s presence, a longing to “do better,” or a million places in between.

As we find ourselves propelled into this new season, I have been striving to discover my own motivation for taking up  a Lenten practice (or not). I find myself longing for simplicity and stillness, and for a renewed sense of God’s love for me so that I might in turn love my neighbors a little more fully. This year, I’m curious about practices that invite a sense of mindfulness, encourage regular prayer, help me examine how I steward my time and energy as well as the earth’s resources, and challenge the ways in which I engage with my neighbors.

On the off-chance that maybe you have procrastinated as much as I have this Lent, I have compiled a list of 15 ideas for Lenten practices. Some invite mindfulness and meditation. Some call us to dive more deeply into Scripture. Some require us to consider new perspectives or to grapple with how our daily choices impact the well-being of our neighbors and all of creation. Some of these practices are ancient; some might challenge existing perceptions of what spirituality entails. Whatever you choose, I invite you to dive in with a sense of openness and curiosity as we explore together where the Spirit might be calling us in this season and the next.

  1. Lent Photo a Day Challenge
  2. Praying in Color
  3. Pray through or meditate on the Psalms.
  4. Lectio Divina
  5. Finger Labyrinth meditation (or find a “real” labyrinth to walk!)
  6. Variations on the Daily Examen
  7. Keep a daily gratitude journal or some variation one. Maybe you tweet one thing you’re grateful for each day. Maybe you share your daily moment of gratitude with your family or exchange a daily gratitude text with a friend.
  8. Yoga! This has been a transformative practice for me in the past couple of years that helps me become more present in the moment and compassionate with myself and those around me. Plus, a daily home practice can be a great study break! (If you’re looking for an accessible home practice, I’d suggest Yoga with Adriene’s fabulous and free YouTube channel.)
  9. Practice a daily newsfeed prayer. Scroll through your social media feed, praying for the people, causes, or situations that pop up.
  10. Send a note to a different person each day, just to let them know you’re thinking about and/or praying for them.
  11. Declutter your home.
  12. Find a cause that matters to you and seek out a related volunteer opportunity.
  13. Pick a resource to focus on for all of Lent or a different resource each week and pay attention to how you steward it. Examples might include water, electricity, gasoline, food, time, money, trash accumulation, etc.
  14. Pay attention to the food that you eat during Lent. Where does it come from? Who is involved in the preparation/farming/transporting process? What is the environmental impact?
  15. Listen to a podcast, follow a blog, find a devotional, or pick up a book offering a perspective that is new to you: people of color, people in the LGBTQIA community, people with disabilities, people in rural areas, people in urban areas, liberals, conservatives, people belonging to other faith traditions, as well as people offering global perspectives on faith or politics.

Do you have a favorite Lenten practice? What types of spiritual practices resonate most deeply with you? Or are there Lenten practices that you feel totally miss the mark?  I’d love to hear your thoughts. Leave me a comment below or send me a note!

 

Ashes, Hot Messes, and Creating Space for Each Other: Happy Lent!

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Ashes from Palms by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. CC via Flickr.

I’ve always had a bit of an uneasy relationship with Lent. Maybe it’s the weirdness of contemplating mortality on Ash Wednesday while walking around with dirt smeared across our foreheads. Maybe it’s the somber attitude of the season piled upon my already dreary snow-covered February spirit. Maybe it’s my notoriously harsh inner critic’s reaction to the season’s focus on lament and repentance. Maybe it’s because we live in a culture that doesn’t know what to do with grief and stillness and self-discipline. Maybe it’s got something to do with the social pressure to give up chocolate or social media or, heaven forbid, coffee. Maybe it’s the fact that Lent always seems to catch me by surprise before I have a chance to come up with the perfect Lenten discipline so that when people inevitably do suggest I give up chocolate or social media or my beloved coffee, I can wow them with the other super impressive, really creative Lenten practice I’ve picked up. (On a related note, be on the look-out for my next post, “Lenten Practices for Procrastinators.”) Most likely it’s a combination of all of the above.

 

Anyway, like it always does, Ash Wednesday rolled around again this week, ushering the church into the annual 40-day season of repentance and reflection and self-examination as we journey with Jesus toward the cross. And once again, I was left feeling unprepared and a bit flustered (and annoyed with myself for feeling unprepared and flustered when really Lent isn’t about me at all…it’s about, you know, Jesus. Which always then has implications for us and how we view ourselves and live in community with each other. But whatever. I digress. ) So, anyway, on Ash Wednesday my flustered self was feeling a little overwhelmed with my lack of Lenten preparedness as well and my quickly mounting pile of seminary homework and the overall weight of the world’s brokenness and was scrolling through Twitter (because that’s helpful) and I came across this gem from Kate Bowler, author and faculty member at Duke Divinity School.

 

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And I breathed a giant sigh of relief.

Lent is a season for repentance, yes. It is a season for mourning all that is wrong with ourselves and with the world and the awful ways in which we treat each other and our planet. It is a season of contemplating our smallness and our mortality and our sinfulness. It is a season for the hard work of truth telling. It is a season that calls us back to be the new created beings God has called us to be in the midst of our imperfect, messy realities.

But it’s not a season for shame.
It’s not a season for comparing my sin and guilt and brokenness to yours.
It’s not a competition for holiness.
And it’s definitely not a diet program or a guide for healthy living.

Lent is a season of holy room-making, as we bring our whole, messy, broken, hurting, confused, flustered, imperfect, angry, devastated, anxious, quirky, angsty, and wholly loved selves into community with each other. (Which, if it wasn’t for Jesus, would be a holy recipe for disaster.) We call each other into repentance, yes. But first, we make room. Because, let’s be real, we are all a bunch of hot messes. And we need space to acknowledge our collective hot mess selves before we can enter into the work of repentance and reflection to which Lent calls us. And, spoiler alert: we will still probably be hot messes once Lent is over. But maybe we will be hot messes who are just a little bit kinder to each other. Because, I am convinced, that whether it is in the ashes smudged across our foreheads or the bread and wine of communion or our voices joined in song or the clunky awkward silence for self-reflection that we aren’t sure how to handle, God meets us there — whether or not we have deemed ourselves properly prepared.

 

Where I’m From

As an act of marking this semester’s writing journey, I’m bringing it back to the beginning for a moment. If I’ve learned anything from seminary, even more profound than fancy theological jargon or thousands of years of church history or a toolkit for proper biblical exegesis, it might just be the importance of knowing oneself. You must know yourself — your gifts, your quirks, your growing edges — before you can sustainably care for and accompany others. You must know the people, communities, and perspectives that have shaped you in order to wrestle with theology with integrity. You have to do the hard work of discovering where you’ve been and who’s come before you in order to enter into conflict or hard conversations about systemic change. You must know yourself in order to know your neighbors.

In Writing to Change the World, Mary Pipher argues that the most meaningful writing comes from those who know themselves deeply. She suggests several exercises for getting to know oneself as a writer, but one of my favorites is the “Where I’m From” poem. Check out my poem below– and then I’d love to hear your own version! Where are you from? Who or what has shaped you? Click here for a template (but totally feel free to adapt. There are no rules here.)

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I am from Bensons and Steigers, Lebers and Kreins.

I am from South Dakota corn fields and prairie sunsets, from expansive skies and starry nights, and from Minnesota lakes and the Red River valley, from “uffda” and tater tot hotdish, and from the Rocky Mountains and Denver sunshine, from bluegrass music and hipster coffee shops.

I am from sturdy maple trees and stacks of hay bales, from a garden filled with tomato plants and rows of apple trees whose tart fruit might make you pucker – but they are perfect for pies.

I am from anxious and stubborn and stoic and practical. I am from creative and generous and kind and witty. I am from white privilege and gendered stereotypes and feelings-hiders and quiet strength. Together, we’re learning.

I am from early risers and diligent workers, from colorful talkers and strong coffee drinkers. I am from grand storytellers, green thumb gardeners, and masterful cooks. I am from “Find your smile!” and “Don’t hurry, start early!”

I am from John Deere and NPR. I am from hot fudge sundaes and corn on the cob, from German dumplings and prune kuchen.

I am from sticky orange and black pom-poms, bright yellow Nancy Drew mystery novels, and that old black couch that sucks you all the way down in the center. I am from skinned knees and long bike rides on gravel roads and Friday afternoon piano lessons.

I am from Lutheran liturgy and silly camp songs, from church picnics and Christmas pageants. I am from youth gathering altar calls and contemporary Christian radio and crinkly Bible pages with lots of neon highlighting.

I am from more questions than answers and communities of thoughtful accompaniers.

I am from adventures yet to unfold. I am from dust and breath and contradictory wonder.

Pour yourself a cup of coffee, and pull up a chair!

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Hi there, beautiful friends!

It’s been a while, but I’m back on the blog. As part of my own personal “It’s my last semester of seminary. How do I want to grow?” initiative, I am taking an independent study course exploring the intersections of spirituality and writing, which largely includes posting to this site! And, I’d be honored if you joined me along the way.

Upcoming pieces will include reflections similar to what you’ve seen from me before, but will also include shorter updates with questions I’m pondering, bits of poetry that have enlivened my imagination, and links to articles or music or videos that have piqued my own curiosity. I’d deeply appreciate your feedback, your questions, and your perspectives as well. In a world that is increasingly hostile and polarized, I’d love nothing more that to create a space for honest conversation (even when it’s hard) and a space to practice holy reverence – a space where we can slow down enough to notice the beautiful and ordinary and the divine, a space to sit with questions, a space to wonder and celebrate and be curious about this world together. I don’t promise to always get it right, but I do promise to do my best to write with integrity, respect, and curiosity.

So, pour yourself a cup of coffee and pull up the comfiest of chairs. Let’s wonder together!

Feel free to follow this blog on your favorite social medial platform (Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram…I’m not cool enough for the others…) or subscribe by clicking on the “follow” button in the bottom right hand corner of this site.

 

Peace,

Alex