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.

Spirit is a She

Last weekend, I preached 3 back-to-back services in a congregation where I’d never preached before. S. and I had gone to stay with my parents in Georgia and he refused to sleep more than 45 minutes at a time for two nights in a row.

On Saturday night I had a weepy meltdown—maybe the system is just too hard. It would be easier not to do this work, not to keep fighting over and over for space for myself as a mother, to justify the beauty of my embodied roles that weave into my priestly roles.

Sunday morning after the first round of my sermon (Father Óscar Romero as one who, like the man born blind in John 9, had his physical and spiritual vision transformed and followed a risk taking God into costly grace—Amen?), I stood dutifully by the door of the church between the priest and deacon, shaking hands. “Thank you, beautiful day, happy to be here.” A woman, probably in her 70’s, grasped my shoulders and leaned to my ear. My stomach plummeted in the half second of waiting. What on earth had I said to warrant this? Am I in trouble?

“Did I hear you say that the Holy Spirit is a ‘she'”? she asked in a loud whisper. “Yes ma’am you did,” I whispered back. And she hugged me tight then let me go again to clap her hands and exclaim, now loudly, “I always thought so too!”

We chatted a bit more and I told her what I’ll tell you: This isn’t some shock value contribution, a sneaky added pronoun to ruffle feathers. The female Spirit is part of the Christian tradition, moving from Lady Wisdom in Proverbs to a God experiencing labor pains in bringing new life in and from the world in Galatians. It matters that Spirit is comforter and counselor, roles of feminized association. That which is debased as women’s work is the divine person and work of God. And that matters a lot.

While God is beyond the social construction of gender, we have so far to go on our anthropologies and theologies of gender before that can be practically  meaningful. As long as I have to retreat to my car to pump breastmilk between services, separated from my breast baby for hours in order to preach the gospel, we need to name and highlight the “she-ness” of God. As long as a guest can still assume that the two full-time women priests on staff at the chapel must be filling in for their part-time male counterpart like some sort of spiritual understudies, we need to name and highlight the “she-ness” of God. My little nieces and nephews and my son need Her, comforting and counseling. The seventy-some-year-old church ladies need Her, seeing themselves made in God’s image in their particularity. God knows, when I’m crying because I don’t know how to shoulder through one more sleepless night, doing the work that my female body must do, I need Her, nourishing and tirelessly keeping watch with me.

Yes ma’am, Spirit is a She!

What has the she-ness of God meant for you? When do you need Her?

Rolling on clary sage, fennel, and ylang ylang for all the embodied woman support.

Children of the Resurrection

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Sermon — All Saints’ Sunday (and baby S’s baptism!)
Haggai 1:15 – 2:9; P
salm 145; Luke 20:27 – 38
St. Augustine’s Chapel, Nashville
6 November 2016

Dearest saints,

Today we enact the work of the creed that we say together each week, that“we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead…”

Today, on this Sunday after All Saint’s Day, we gather for Eucharist, worship, prayer, baptism of young saints, and the remembrance of those saints who have died—as the gospel reading calls them so beautifully, the children of God and children of resurrection.

Today we bear witness to the baptism of these young ones, stand with them as they receive the grace of the Holy Spirit, as we receive the grace of their new life and vitality in the community—also children of God and children of resurrection.

Do you hear? This is amazing—a day of God shaking things up, as the prophet said. We have death and new life and everything in between, caught up into our morning worship. This is a day of our hearts being split right open, broken in the best possible way, so that the Holy Spirit might illuminate what really matters.

Today we are in what the Celtic mystics called a thin place, where the distance between heaven and earth, between the dead and the living, is somehow a little bit smaller.

I recently learned about a community of people who know and practice the mysterious thin places of life and death in a particularly beautiful and horrible way, the residents of Otsuchi, a small coastal village in northern Japan. When the 2011 tsunami hit Japan, this coastal community was devastated. Over 400 people are still missing, presumed dead. Can you even imagine? Not one single household was untouched. Knowing that life and death are just a hairs width apart, the people of Otsuchi attend to the thin place through the Wind Telephone. What is the wind telephone? you ask. Well, the wind telephone is a strange outdoor art installation—an antique phone booth in a garden. After the death of his cousin, not long before the tsunami hit, Itaru Sasaki placed this old phone booth in his garden. on a windy hill overlooking the ocean. As he grieved the loss of his cousin, Itaru wanted a quiet, special place to speak with his dead loved one. He would go into this phone booth as a prayerful space, and speak to his cousin about life, about missing him. After the tsunami, though, Itaru was not the sole mourner in the village—his entire community was overwhelmed by grief, by sudden, unexplainable death.

Recall again the reading from Haggai, a prophet who spoke of hope and future to the people of Judah straggling home after being exiled under a brutal conqueror. The Lord said through the prophet to the people: “take courage!” But how could they even begin to take courage in the face of such a tragedy?

The people of Otsuchi began to take courage in a small and beautiful way. People from the village began to show up in Itaru’s garden, stepping into the phone booth to speak to their lost loves. In a beautiful recording of these phone calls, some of the speakers express ordinary care for their loved ones, asking “are you warm enough? do you have food?” Others dial the old rotary, turning numbers of phones that were washed away with their houses and homeowners. Some pick up the phone and listen in silence and tears. And in the private simple space of a phone booth in a garden, people are connected in a grace that defies our logic and control. This is the communion of saints.

Today we gather here as children of God, children of the resurrection, children of grace. We humans are notoriously poor at receiving this grace, which is why we have to make habits of prayer and asking for one another’s forgiveness, why we need to come to the Eucharist week after week, and will be encouraged to remember our baptisms later this morning. Whether in the sacraments or in our relationships, there is a vulnerability about giving and receiving grace, and my goodness we don’t like vulnerability.

In our gospel reading today, as Jesus was talking with the Saducees, we see the human struggle against vulnerability confronted with the challenging, mind-bending grace of God.

The Saducees were members of a Jewish sect in the time of Jesus. They didn’t believe in a spiritual realm or the resurrection of the dead. When they bring this question to Jesus, about marriage in heaven, they’re nit-picking. They are just looking to trick and trap the rabbi with a false question. They’re asking about a resurrection they don’t even believe in. How annoying is that? They foreclose on the possibility of any meaningful encounter with resurrection by focusing on the quotidian. They come to the conversation as an opportunity to show how right and clever they are.

Jesus starts by responding to the question in the terms it was offered—“no, in the age to come marriage isn’t like that…” And then—I can imagine him shaking his head, frustrated and sad, “You know what, you’re worrying about the wrong thing… In God, all are alive. They are children of the resurrection—how did you get hung up on these unimportant details!” He changes the question.

How many times have we shown up like the Sadducees? We spend so much time deflecting from grace we don’t understand, because it’s more comfortable to be certain. Who among us hasn’t found ourselves bickering with a partner just to be right? Who hasn’t defended a political party or an organization, even when we might not fully agree with its positions, to be justified to our neighbors? We don’t want our hearts split open! But when we come to life on the defensive, guarding our soft underbellies from attack, we might miss out on grace.

The resurrection relationships Jesus describes to them are a kind of belonging, a community, that is an expansive, inclusive grace. The fellowship of God’s people stretches the limits of our imaginations and challenges our assumptions about who is in, who is out. It challenges our assumptions about who gets to receive the grace of Jesus Christ that only comes to us, beautiful and faulty, through one sharing life with another.

On All Saints, though, we push our imaginations to remember that the communion of saints goes beyond what we can understand about the limits of life and death. Those of us who said goodbye to our everyday saints this year, or in years past, know that the experience of loss, suffering, and death pushes on the limits of our understanding, because in the mysterious ways of God, we stay connected to those who have gone. In the resurrection, we receive the grace of connection to one another that goes beyond death. With our prayers made of pictures, stories, and memory, we call our loved departed saints children of the resurrection, and we have communion with them today.

Today we also baptize young saints. Baptism is all about being a child of the resurrection, being profoundly alive in Christ. It is a sacrament of community belonging, a belonging that cannot be earned through the work and wisdom of age, but is given without merit. And as we bless these little ones and are blessed by them, they offer a reminder of our call to be resurrection people—for our own sake and theirs.

But listen, I don’t want to romanticize this shaking up of heaven and earth or pitch a vision of community and sainthood that’s all happy harps and halos. it’s all well and good to love the poetry of the prophet, but the lived reality looks a lot more like the frustrating conversation we read in the gospel. Even with resurrection hope, the death of beloved saints is deeply painful and confusing. Even with new life in Christ, these little saints are baptized into a community of struggle and a life full of questions.

That is precisely why this is the grace that means something.  God invites us into a grace that is gritty enough for planning funeral visitations and flower arrangements and closing accounts. This is a grace for the moment when we think the next contraction or the next home study will be the one to break us. It is a vulnerable grace that will not be tidied up, a grace that refuses to toe a party line, create parameters for membership, or be defined, sold, controlled, doled out only to the deserving.

No. In this expansive resurrection grace, this astounding community and holy belonging, we remember, celebrate, and claim our place, all of us, as children of God, children of the resurrection.

Amen.

grapefruit and peppermint