What's a spiritual practice?

In the Keep Watch With Me Advent Reader, a project I’m co-curating with my friend Michael, I’ve been creating a unique spiritual practice to accompany each contributor’s reflection. And I’ve heard the question, “What is spiritual practice?”

Spiritual practice, spiritual discipline, and prayer practice are all phrases I use interchangeably to talk about ways we connect to God.

Wiser saints who’ve come before me use that language of practice or discipline because a life of faith and prayer, and for that matter, a relationship, are not things that are mastered or completed as a one-off. We practice like a musician or an athlete, growing more at ease with the task yet never reaching a place of completion or arrival.

In her book, The Spiritual Activist, Claudia Horwitz says that a spiritual practice has three characteristics: 1) It connects us to the presence of the sacred, 2) It is something we do regularly, and 3) It grounds us in the present moment.

Spiritual practice is not a one-size-fits-all affair. It’s not even one-size-fits-you-forever. Different personalities and seasons of life call for different forms of connecting to God, and a practice might have different patterns or duration. The long walks I took with my son when he was a newborn, cradled in a wrap on my chest, don’t fly for a busy toddler who wants to get out of the stroller after 10 minutes. The appeal of daily scripture reading fades for the seminarian taking multiple biblical studies classes. Silence and solitude may be draining, not refreshing, for those who work alone, when you might be better nourished by meaningful conversation.

If you decide to try a new practice, but feels too uncomfortable or simply doesn’t resonate for you, you can feel free to let it go. It may not be for you, or you might revisit it later with surprising connection. Creative spiritual practice can be approached with confidence in the presence of God’s spirit and openness to the myriad ways that God loves and leads us to peace, as well as a good sense of humor and openness about the ways that we may or may not encounter God in a particular way.

Hopefully that’s a helpful intro, or offers you some new language and ideas to consider prayer and spirituality.

What kinds of things are you practicing these days? What regularly connects you to God and keeps you present and grounded?

If you’ve been enjoying the spiritual practices included in Keep Watch With Me or are looking for new opportunities to grow, experiment, and seek God in community, I invite you to join An Epiphany in the World, a Facebook-based book club and spiritual practice group I’ll be facilitating in this upcoming liturgical season of Epiphany. You can join the group and learn more here.

Keep Watch with Me: Advent 1

This is the third offering from “Keep Watch With Me: An Advent Reader for Peacemakers” written by the #seminarymama. Sign up for this free daily resource here.

Psalm 80:1-7
Shepherd of Israel, listen!
You, the one who leads Joseph as if he were a sheep.
You, who are enthroned upon the winged heavenly creatures.
Show yourself before Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh!
Wake up your power!
Come to save us!
Restore us, God!
Make your face shine so that we can be saved!
Lord God of heavenly forces,
how long will you fume against your people’s prayer?
You’ve fed them bread made of tears;
you’ve given them tears to drink three times over!
You’ve put us at odds with our neighbors;
our enemies make fun of us.
Restore us, God of heavenly forces!
Make your face shine so that we can be saved!

Aside from writing and ministry, I’m actively engaged in the non-professional peacemaking of raising a toddler with my partner. Our child has unbounded curiosity and unbounded feelings. Massive dramas of disappointment, frustration, failure, and grief play out each day, and I must practice presence and compassion. Sitting with those big toddler feelings has been shown to better develop resilience, empathy, peace and calm in children over the long haul.

Practicing this with my child takes time, slows me down, and reminds me to practice it with myself. I feel disappointment, frustration, failure, and grief: with national politics and inequitable development, the church’s anxious idolatry of institution, with my own inner struggles as the days shorten and demands of seminary, work, and parenthood feel endless, with the 24 hour news cycle of suffering.

Today’s psalm is the prayer of a suffering people, who look at their lives and see only God’s absence. “How long will you be angry? Restore us!” They are abandoned, shamed, alone, hopeless. They are carrying more than anyone can bear.

But we know that the prayer of a moment, a song of emotion, is rarely the whole picture.

Year after year, we go through the season of Advent before Christmas, a liturgical season of penitence and preparation to celebrate that God always intervenes. We sit with the already and not-yet of Jesus come and coming, and we read lamentations and prophecies of judgment with knowledge of coming peace. For Christians, silence, waiting, and death are not the end of the story, but we must sit with them nonetheless.

Our sorrows are here and now. Our worries are life and death for ourselves and for the people we love. They need holy attention. And they are not the whole picture.

This Advent, we keep watch together so that we might grow a gritty, holy hope. We encourage one another to active peace building. We are choosing to do the hard inner work of being still, grieving, hoping, noticing, and becoming a little more peaceful within, so that as the apostle writes, we would be strengthened and faithful, in fellowship with Christ’s work of peace incarnate.

Good Friday

We’ve moved into Easter season, but I only just had time to edit and organize these jotted thoughts from Good Friday. Please excuse my disconnect from the liturgical calendar! 

During the last two seasons of Advent and Christmas, I felt connected to Jesus in a profound way. Not too surprising that I could meet Jesus as son—I was pregnant along with Mary through Advent, and the following year, supplied my own baby to be Jesus in the manger. What I didn’t expect was to see Jesus as my son this week, Holy Week. In church I sat with S. listened to the trial, the beating, the execution, the burial. An astounding sermon by a friend colleague who also did chaplaincy work in the pediatric ICU, bravely speaking about the dying children.

The beloved child is being killed. He didn’t outlive his mother the way he was supposed to.

The precious roly-poly manger baby grew up. He listened to your lessons and corrections, he paid attention in synagogue. All grown up. He took all the law and the prophets to heart, listened more than you anticipated, and gave up everything to go around, healing and loving and listening and preaching. You spent the last few years loving his loving heart, sending your prayers, shaking your head at his strange ways, worrying that he might be stirring up trouble with his strange friends.
The stakes were high. Too high. If it weren’t all so horrifying, you’d be proud, so proud and astonished that the little speck of cells in your womb, the toddler you spanked, the teen you grounded, is this grown, beautiful, brave man.

There is no resurrection today. No hope. There is only the echoes of pain in your own body as you watch his broken. That pulling knot deep in your belly—you haven’t felt that since those first days after you birthed your last baby, that painful jerk of womb and breasts at their little cries—it’s back and stronger and bringing you to your knees.

A prayer for the mother of a white son

God, the loving Mother of all,

Thank you for this little incarnate grace entrusted to my care.

Grant me grace to show my boy deep tenderness, that he might show it to others in turn.

Sustain calmness and radical mindfulness in our home, that he might resist the temptation to prove himself by busyness and accomplishment.

Grant me the discipline and discernment to care for him and grant his desires without catering to his every whim, that he might appropriately deny his more destructive desires of body and power.

Bring clarity in my identity and persistence in my calling, that he would witness and respect the power and personhood of women.

Grant me empathy, that I might remember that he is but one beloved child among millions, all equally precious and deserving, and humility to recognize that even his precarious moments occur in privilege and safety.

Strengthen my resolve and attention in his formation, that we would both grow in the knowledge and practice of justice that takes place in the details.

Remind me that Jesus, your son, a brown skinned refugee child, killed by the state, calls me to divest myself of power and work for change, and raise this white son to do the same.

Amen.

The child, the child, sleeping in the night…

Last advent, I was a few months pregnant and consistently a weepy mess about anticipating birth and the fine line (if there is a line at all) between the immanent and transcendent.

This year, the wonder of my sweet babe at Christmastime has been undercut by the anguish of teething, final exams and papers, and one head cold after another cycling around the family. Between shopping for gifts, work gatherings, and our diocesan clergy conference, the spirit of Advent has been elusive, hiding behind the irritation and mundane.

Then this past Sunday, S. got to be the baby Jesus for the St. Augustine’s Christmas pageant. He was the fattest snaggle tooth Christ child you ever did see. I wept with pride and I will hunt down every single picture that was snapped of the precious scene. Poor pastor’s kid.

IMG_4783.JPGBut the real magic of it all happened on Saturday, when we headed over to pageant rehearsal. We were running late, and when we got to the chapel, the full nativity scene was on display, sans costumes, and the narrators were running lines from the lecterns. As we walked down the center aisle, one of the directors said, “Look everybody, baby Jesus is here!” And all those kids stopped and turned with audible “Oooooh”s and a few “Hooray”s. Mary and Joseph held out their arms for him and marveled over his toes, his fuzzy head, his Santa jammies. After the run through, there was a short line of 9 or 10 year olds who wanted turns holding him. The smaller kids wanted to see and touch him too, with the parental admonishments of “Gentle!” or “Just one finger!” “Don’t touch his face!”

In childhood, there’s a beautiful blurring of factual and mythical. The different kinds of true and real that we more efficiently categorize as adults are somehow spun together without contradiction. Suddenly S. is not just Miss Claire’s baby that we see every week (although, of course, he is). He is the baby Jesus (although, of course, he isn’t). And this incarnation stops them in their tracks, trumping the glamour of the King Herod costume and the hilarity of the three-person camel suit.

The complete awe and focused attention of a stage full of children snapped me back to attention. Not attention to my own child, really, but to the icon of Christ he can be. S. points to all the complicated mess of incarnation in all the sweetness and frustration of babyhood. Jesus arrives in ice storms and head colds, with diaper rash and reflux and sore gums, calling our attention to the presence of God in the inconvenient. 

Snakes and Babies


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When I come to the readings for the second week of Advent, familiar as they are from year to year, I am reading them with fresh horror and inspiration as a new mom. Prophesying the Kin-dom of God, Isaiah writes, “The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.”

Whoa, now! Not on my watch! My nursing child is almost always at my side, and when my five month old is with his other parent, beloved grandparents, or a carefully vetted babysitter, part of my mind is trained on him, often preoccupied by neurotic nightmares of all possible harm that might befall him. Stepping into parenthood as a young adult is no cakewalk. I have a million anxieties and insecurities of whether I’m a good enough mother. I worry for his well being.

But after sitting with my gut level reaction to these verses, allowing myself to lean into that horrified response, aversion is transformed to hope.

What would it be like to let my rolypoly baby play outside in Tennessee woods with full confidence that no harm would come? I tick through my mental safety list of reminders and checks, and think, “What if this was a world where I could let those go?” “What would it be like to parent without worry of these dangers?” 

What a beautiful motherhood that could be!

Even beyond the physical dangers of being human, these are frightening times to have a child. I fear for my son in a world with so much uncertainty and hatred, the spiritual violences that sting the unsuspecting innocent. I worry about the daunting task of trying to raise a good white man in a society that would have him believe he can run roughshod over women and people of color. But my hope in this Advent week is deepened when I read on to Matthew’s gospel, in which John the Baptizer is preaching repentance in the desert. “You brood of vipers!” he exclaims to the Pharisees, whose closed hearts and anxious spirits led to spiritual legalism and wielding power over others.

The brood of vipers—ah, much scarier serpents. These are the ones who poison with a fear twisted into anger, bite with anxiety the hand that offers peace. But what if this Kin-dom of God is also a world where I might release fear of these social, spiritual snakes? What would it be like to parent without worry of the powers and principalities, in confidence that hope and love protect the hands and hearts of babes?

What a beautiful motherhood that could be!

Yes, says the prophet, the earth will be full of the knowledge of God, and God’s dwelling shall be glorious. What a vision of peace and play! We work toward this Kin-dom of courageous love and community that overwhelms the anxieties of alienation and temptations to power. We await the coming of our humble peacewager.

Valor II: ylang ylang, coriander, bergamot, spruce, frankincense…