Tag Archives: spirituality

Glory be

While the secular world recovered from a Thanksgiving dinner-induced food coma and then leapt loopily into Black Friday-Small Business Saturday-Cyber Monday (which for many overeager online retailers began on Friday), Christians rang in a new year.

Today is the first Sunday of the liturgical year which is to say the First Sunday in Advent.

Advent is the run-up to Christmas, a liminal season of expectation. But to describe it only as a time of waiting sells Advent short, just as the days between Thanksgiving and Dec. 25 are more than simply an out-of-breath sprint to be endured.

For me, it’s not this time of year without spending some time in church. Sitting (and standing and singing and praying) through a worship service slows down time.

This is not a post about why you should go to church. That’s your call. This is a post about why I go to church. For me, Advent is the best time of year to spend some time in church, to be observant to the reason for the season. Christmas is all crowds and traditional-in-the-extreme music (let’s just say I’m not a fan of “Silent Night, Holy Night”). Lent, too, is a run-up season, preparing Christians for Easter, but Lent and Easter are solemn. The messages are heavy on crucifixion and death (yes, and rising again, I know, but rising from the tomb).

Advent, though, is news about pregnancy and babies and angels and birthdays. (That Advent also coincides with the countdown to my own birthday is just happy coincidence.)

I went to Mass last night for the first time in years, maybe even a decade. It was a beautiful quiet service in an enormous church where hundreds of people were doing the same thing I was — celebrating the new church year. I was reminded how lovely is the ritual of Mass, so familiar and universal.

I was once Catholic, but when I got divorced, I reverted to my origin religion, Lutheran. A week ago, I read the scripture lessons for the last time at the Lutheran church where I am a member. I resigned my position as reader in anticipation of moving away. Coincidentally, it was also the last Sunday of the church year.

Serendipity.

I kind of felt like I was throwing off the bonds of responsibility and the old year and the old way of worshiping all at once. Celebrating the new Christian year for me meant Mass in a big, beautiful church. Which is how I found myself last night in church I’d never been in before soaking up Bible readings about waiting and preparation and expectation.

It is the perfect message on which to meditate for a woman waiting (and waiting) to sell her house.

Advent is not an empty time, I was reminded. It is a season of fullness. Because preparing is just as meaningful as celebrating. Anticipation should be as joy-filled as the hullabaloo for which we’re waiting.

Pondering Advent and the imminent celebration of the birth of Christ, I was reminded of a scene I appreciated earlier this year.

nativity-facade

This is the Nativity Façade at the Sagrada Familia, aka the Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family in Barcelona, Spain. The church was designed by Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi. The structure is so elaborate, it has been under construction since 1882 and remains incomplete. This is the entryway to the church, and I snapped this picture when I had the opportunity to tour it in June. As you might expect, the Nativity Façade is dedicated to the birth of Jesus.

A single figure is itself a fantastic sculpture, and here there are hundreds of them. But let’s look at the central point of interest there, right above the two doorways of entry.

nativity

You can see Jesus surrounded by his mother Mary and Joseph. Check out those two faces peeking around the corners — an oxen and a donkey. Kind of cute, if you ask me. Carved into stone above Joseph’s head are the words “Gloria in excelsis Deo” (you can read Deo clearly in this closeup). That’s Latin for “Glory to God in the highest.”

This sculptured wall is the entryway to the church (inside is entirely amazing experience in itself). But before you even get inside to see it (and, presumably, participate in Mass), this enormous highly detailed art greets you. You could spend days gazing at each sculpture, taking in the meaning, and you’re still outside the building.

That’s Advent. Days of detail, building up to the threshold of Christmas.

Don’t wish it away. Soak it in.

The recipe for a Thankgiving prayer that rocks

Stood in line with your 17-pound turkey at the grocery store? Looked up the recipe for green bean casserole? Hauled up your extra chairs from the basement?

I hope, at this point on Thanksgiving week, you’ve done all this and started thawing your turkey in the fridge at least three days ago.

 

I’ve done all these things in anticipation of the nine people I expect to gather around my Thanksgiving table tomorrow. And now I’m thinking about the purpose of the day.

If you have any interest in praying or God at all, you surely must say a prayer at Thanksgiving. It is, after all, a holiday about giving thanks. Even if you’re not the sort to thank a god, a verbal message of thanks for all to hear is good for, well if not your soul, then your well-being. Gratitude is good.

Have you given any thought to the blessing you want to share around the table? A lot of books and Bibles have perfectly acceptable prayers to say together, if you like, but I like personalizing the prayer. Here’s an outline:

  • Thank the people who gather around your table. Missing someone? Remember them.
  • Acknowledge the sources of your meal (and be thankful you didn’t have to make the ultimate sacrifice).
  • Thank the cooks who prepared the food and, be proactive, thank the people who will help clean up.
  • If you’re spiritual, here’s where you can thank God (in whatever form He or She takes for you).
  • Wrap it up. Amen is a good word. I once heard it meant “I can put my tent stake in that,” which is a powerful statement from a culture of nomads who preferred driving camels to driving tent stakes. Choosing to stay in one place was against their nature, so “I can put my tent stake in that” was a real statement of certainty and approval.

Here’s how it might look:

Before we dive in, let’s take a moment to give thanks. [Hold hands or bow your heads or whatever works in your tribe.] We are thankful to be together around this table on this Thanksgiving Day. We are missing Uncle Wally but we’re thinking of him fondly. We are thankful for the rain and sunshine required to grow this abundance of food and we’re thankful to the turkey who made the ultimate sacrifice to create our table centerpiece. We are thankful to the cooks who toiled to prepare this amazing meal (especially Nina for the pies) and we are thankful to the servant-hearted guests who will help clean it all up later. And finally, we are thankful to God in heaven who makes all these blessings possible. Thanks be to God. Amen.

It doesn’t have to rhyme, it doesn’t have to be recited perfectly and it doesn’t have to be long. Good luck. Have a grateful day.

Serenity. Now!

“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government. Except for all the others.”

~ Winston Churchill

Never have I felt such a sense of excitement on election night. And I was a newspaper reporter on some momentous election nights back in the dark ages (early 90s)! I have followed the campaign from its beginning, watching all or parts of both parties primary debates, the presidential debates and the vice presidential debate.

I wanted to hear what the candidates had to say from their own mouths, and boy, did I! Unfortunately, coverage in general of the messy campaign was more about personality than policy, but it certainly was entertaining.

Ironically, my presidential choice has no chance of making a victory speech. I couldn’t stomach holding my nose so I gave thumbs up to a candidate I could vote for instead of against (I would mention more body parts, but we’ve probably heard about enough body parts in this campaign). In Illinois, it wasn’t a wasted vote since this state’s electoral college votes were already in Clinton’s back pocket (or, perhaps more appropriately, purse). Well, my vote was no more wasted in Illinois than every vote for Trump and every vote Clinton got beyond what she needed.

More importantly, I voted at all, and by all accounts, so did a lot of Americans. Heck, my grandmother (who’s still alive and probably watching election returns on a TV with closed captioning) didn’t even have the right to vote when she was born. Voting is a privilege, and exercising that right is a duty. So seeing a big voter turnout warms the heart of this political science major.

Casting a vote, however, is not the same as making a demand. We live in a democracy, and that means we all go along with the majority (or in any case, a plurality). Which is why I end this post with a prayer I think is appropriate, given that half of us are going to be disappointed with the election results.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.

Amen.

God in the closet

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from Thy presence, and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Thy salvation, and uphold me with Thy free spirit.

~ Psalm 51:10-12

Any good church-going Missouri Synod Lutheran recognizes those verses as the offertory in the Sunday liturgy.

Beyond being a preface for passing the envelope plate, they also are among the top returns in a Google search for “prayer of renewal.”

A quick look in my study Bible describes Psalm 51 as “a lament, the most famous of the seven Penitential Psalms, [a prayer] for the removal of the personal and social disorders that sin has brought.”

I think it came to mind today because I was cleaning my clothes closet, an indication of my own disorder. The closet is not yet good enough to show off in a stellar After picture, as is my wont, but it’s better. The overflowing closet itself is a symbol of abundance and the blessings I’ve been bestowed; the process of organizing it, a symbol of renewal.

My study Bible goes on to say of Psalm 51, “[Verses 11-19] seek something more profound than wiping the slate clean; nearness to God, living by the spirit of God.”

It’s rather nice to think of a common household task like cleaning one’s closets as bringing one closer to God.

I believe

Take courage. We walk in the wilderness today and in the Promised Land tomorrow.

~ D.L. Moody

I had a bolt of realization at church a couple of weeks ago not unlike the apostle Paul’s blinding burst of insight on the road to Damascus. Paul writes of the moment as a revelation.

I wasn’t walking on a desert road nor was I blinded but the revelation that came to my mind has colored my thoughts ever since.

I was sitting in the pew silently weeping. Our new pastor was preaching his first sermon in front of our congregation; he was installed with much pomp later that afternoon.

But I wasn’t thinking much about the new pastor whom I’m sure is a fine fellow. I was thinking of our former pastor who died a little over a year ago and whom this new pastor was replacing.

I had just read in the bulletin that the flowers on the altar were placed there in memory of my former pastor. I thought how nice it was to have him present in some small way at the installation of the new pastor, but I also thought of how I missed my former pastor.

This former pastor welcomed me and my Beloved to his church seven years ago. He married us. He confirm my stepson.

I always try to get to know a pastor when I join a church — to know him beyond his weekly sermons. I got to know this pastor over many miles by running with him in the church Walk-R-Run club. I like to know my pastors just in case they have to bury me. I don’t want a stranger officiating at my funeral. I never expected seven years ago that I might outlive my pastor, not just by a few years but by a few decades.

Now, as I was sitting in the pew in front of a new pastor, I thought the only reason to get to know him would be for the funeral familiarity factor. Beyond the weekly services, I don’t need to be confirmed. I don’t need to be married (I hope I’m done with that). I don’t need him for a baptism either. All that’s left in terms of life events is that funeral.

So I was stewing in the juices of grief when the new pastor said something that made me think about eternity.

I’m going to get theological here so I should warn you, I’m not theologian. But I have a theory. A theory about heaven. Or whatever one calls the place you go when you die.

I believe the body is temporary, but the soul is eternal. For me, “eternal” not only means “without end” but also “without beginning.” I don’t think humans have the power to create souls — bodies, sure, but not souls. When a baby is conceived, its soul comes from somewhere. It’s not created by the union of a sperm and an egg; an eternal soul comes from somewhere to be, to exist in the newly created person.

Following me? To follow my argument so far, you have to believe in the soul, that the spirit is separate from the body (though joined with it in life), that it is eternal and that it comes from someplace — let’s call it heaven.

I don’t remember anything about my existence before I was conceived. I don’t remember anything before I was 5, in fact, but certainly nothing about whatever existence I had before being joined with this body.

So why do I think I will remember anything about my current state when my body is dead? I’m beginning to believe I won’t. Wherever my soul was is where my soul returns, completely unaware of how much I hate Cracker Barrel, how much I love to read, how frustrated I am with my wrinkles, how elated I am when I step into an elevator bound for the top floor. All these strong emotions I have in this earthly body will be meaningless when I’m dead. I will no longer have a body. My soul, without all its earthly bonds, will return to eternity without so much as a backward glance.

Don’t get me wrong here. I still believe our earthly lives are important and meaningful, but I just believe they are important and meaningful here on earth, to our fellow men. We can make a difference, do the right thing, pay attention to the details, be remembered fondly here on earth. None of it matters to our souls once our bodies die.

For now, we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, as I am fully known.

~ 1 Corinthians 13:12

This concept of an eternal soul without memories of its earthly existence jives with my new view of heaven. I don’t think heaven has streets or feasts or happy reunions with loved ones. Without bodies, we don’t need methods of transportation or clocks or milk-and-honey rivers or parents or spouses or children. Beings with bodies — and hands and feet and eyes and stomachs and sexual desires — need those things. Eternal souls do not.

I don’t know what I believe about individuality but I’m not sure we’re even individuals in the eternal plain. This is a sticking point in my mind that I haven’t yet entirely resolved.

The earth and everything in it, the world and its inhabitants, belong to the Lord.

~ Psalm 24:1

This philosophy is both disconcerting and comforting. It’s a little disconcerting to think all the people and things so important to me now will not even be the stuff of memories in eternity. But there’s a certain comfort, too, in believing “this, too, shall pass.” If heaven is perfect and pain-free, then all my sorrows will disappear. But then why would my joys, so often rooted in my body (good tastes, beautiful music, physical elation) stick with me?

My former pastor is not sorry to see his congregation welcome a new pastor. It doesn’t matter who buries me. My body is like the flowers on the altar — beautiful and unique. And fleeting. Every moment matters only for right now.

The best we can hope for in this life is a knothole peek at the shining realities ahead. Yet a glimpse is enough. It’s enough to convince our hearts that whatever sufferings and sorrows currently assail us aren’t worthy of comparison to that which waits over the horizon.

~ Joni Eareckson Tada

Fight aging with movement

Long ago, I saw pictures of the cross-section of a 20-year-old woman’s thigh and a 70-year-old woman’s thigh; the amount of muscle mass missing in the older woman’s leg was amazing (and depressing).

I can’t find the story on the internet now, but trust me when I say 20-year-olds are a lot meatier. The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn even at rest. This is why I could eat greasy hamburgers and fries for lunch and still fit into my size 9 miniskirt when I was a 24-year-old reporter, but at age 47, my muffin top makes an unsolicited appearance even when I splurge with ranch dressing on my chef’s salad.

It’s also the reason statements about using exercise to fight aging resonant with me.

Believe me, if I won the lottery, the second appointment I’d make after a financial planner would be one with a dermatologist who specialized in body peels and lifestyle lifts. But I don’t have that luxury, so I’ve got to rely on other less costly options to stay in shape.

Here’s how 49-year-old Courteney Cox ages gracefully, according to a recent interview in More (a magazine “for women of style and substance,” i.e. 40+): “Buck up. It ain’t easy. Go to the doctor. Drink water. Sleep as much as you can. Exercise. I get massages — anything for your circulation. Stretch. It’s all about keeping that body moving.”

Cameron Diaz, 41, says as much in “The Body Book: The Law of Hunger, the Science of Strength, and Other Ways To Love Your Amazing Body” (reviewed here yesterday): “The point is that life changes, and we need different types of strength at different times. But the one thing that must remain consistent is MOVEMENT.”

I hate some of the things that go with aging (wrinkles, cellulite, muffin top, age spots, I could go on but I sound like an ad for Miracle Something Or Other), but God put our souls into these bodies for a reason. We’re supposed to learn something — something spiritual — by swimming in this strange stew of our five wonderful senses, hormones, genetics, sugar lows, muscle pain and invasive doctor’s visits. Diaz describes this, in a small way, when she writes about her experience preparing for the Charlie’s Angels movie with a martial arts master:

“And that experience — learning to connect to my body, to love my body, to truly live in my body — has been the foundation of everything I have done since. Everything. My career. My relationship with my family. My relationship with myself. I showed up every day, and I did it, no matter what [pain I experienced]. Even if I didn’t want to do it, I still did it. And that built the discipline that I needed to do it then — and to know that I can do anything that I sent my mind to now.”

So as I ponder the dwindling muscle mass in my thighs (and elsewhere), I will remind myself how much better this aging body is to the alternative: I used to complain I could no longer wear 4-inch stilettos until I met a woman who had no feet.

Thanksgiving poetry as prayer

Perhaps no holiday is more universally suited for a good prayer than Thanksgiving.

Oh sure, religious holidays are suited for prayer, but only if you’re religious and you celebrate that particular holiday (Ramadan, for instance, is celebrated with fasting and prayers, but not being a Muslim, I don’t eat less or pray more during that time of year; the same can be said of Easter — prayer is appropriate for a Christian on that day, but a Buddhist could care less).

The very name of Thanksgiving evokes a prayer, however short: “Thanks.” Who or what you’re thanking is up to the prayful. Jesus? God? Perfect Intelligent Gender-Neutral Designer? The turkey? The point is, we thank someone other than ourselves for the bounty before us and a prayer is the perfect way to do so.

So I like a good prayer on Thanksgiving.

I thought about bringing a bit of poetry as prayer to the Thanksgiving table this year, but the best thing I could find among the selected poems of Seamus Heaney (one of the few poetry books I have on my new bookshelf, for which I am grateful) was from “Terminus”:

When they spoke of the prudent squirrel’s hoard
It shone like gifts at the nativity.

When they spoke of the mammon of iniquity
The coins in my pockets reddened like stove-lids.

I was the march drain and the march drain’s banks
Suffering the limit of each claim.

As I imagined sitting around the Thanksgiving table with my 5-year-old nephew, 19-year-old stepson and 98-year-old grandmother, I decided Seamus Heaney would probably be as well received as Natasha Bedingfield: “Drench yourself in words unspoken/Live your life with arms wide open/Today is where your book begins/The rest is still unwritten.”

Perhaps esoteric and abstract aren’t the best approaches on Thanksgiving.

GracesSo I pulled out my trusty “Graces: Prayers and Poems for Everyday Meals and Special Occasions” by June Cotner. I love this compilation for its beautiful, unique and simple prayers. Among her Thanksgiving prayers is “Thanksgiving Blessings” by Helen Latham:

Lord be with us on this day of thanksgiving
Help us make the most of this life we are living
As we are about to partake of this bountiful meal
Let us not forget the needy and the hunger they feel
Help us to show compassion in all that we do
And for all our many blessings we say thank you