What are Spiritual Practices Without Community?

When I was growing up, communion was served on silver trays with a pyramid of plastic cups filled with a swallow of grape juice. In the middle of the tray was a pile of small crackers. We would pass the tray down the aisle, each taking the bread and juice. We would hold the elements and wait for everyone to be served. Then, as a congregation, we would eat together. Now, we go to a church where communion is served at the front. We walk down in a line and one person tears a piece of bread from a loaf while another person holds a chalice of juice. As we dip the bread, we are reminded of the blood of Christ, shed for me.

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Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

Even though my childhood communion was eaten simultaneously with the entire congregation, it felt like a lonely act. And even though I’m eating the juice-dipped bread on my own as I walk back up the aisle, I feel much more connected to my community in this format. And isn’t that part of the point of communion? This communal aspect?

Recently, I got an email from Kiva microloans, celebrating seven years of lending with them. This means that this is my seventh year of Lenten practice. We’ve given up wine to fund microloans, I’ve written to forty influential women, I’ve fasted from social media, and I’ve prayed for forty of the president’s staff. This year, I wrote about needed a quieter, gentler Lent. Our season as a family needed something that required a bit less intention.

But now, just over a week away from Easter, I’m wondering if Lent is meant to be quieter? While I’ve enjoyed my daily Bible reading and on some days, it definitely has felt like I’m “giving up” time I could be spending reading other things, I’ve felt it’s missing something.

In reflection, the Lenten practices I’ve most connected with are the ones in which I’m participating with my community. Maybe I’m not doing the same thing but I’m engaging with others – through giving, through encouragement, through prayer. The practices that have fallen a bit flat are the ones that I’m all alone. The social media fasts are good but they also were inconvenient for my community. This year, my daily reading was good but they didn’t necessarily connect me with anyone else.

It has me thinking about the difference between mindfulness and spiritual fasting. Giving up the spiral of social media helped me be more mindful of my surroundings but was it an actual spiritual practice? I suppose if I had replaced my scrolling with Bible readings or devotionals, it may have felt more like that.

There are many important and healing mindful practices I can observe: moving my body, getting fresh air, limiting screen time, absorbing books and articles that make me think are all ways in which I stay connected to my world. In some senses, I’d call these spiritual practices. And yet, they are quite personal. Getting outside for a walk improves my own mood but it is something I can do in isolation just as easily as I can with a friend.

I’ve been thinking about spiritual practices and how Protestant Evangelicals are becoming more and more enamored with liturgical observations. Advent and Lent are becoming norms. We announce our social media fasts on all our platforms so people won’t miss us; we take beautiful candlelit photos leading up to Christmas; we find parts of the church calendar that make sense. I think it’s awesome. These rhythms have helped me slow down and notice. I love the seasonal aspect of the church calendar and how it helps me recognize the story of Christ throughout the year.

And yet, we’ve held onto our Personal Savior mentality as we try out these communal practices. We do Lent alone – it’s more about our own personal mindfulness than a communal practice. I’m wondering how I can change this? How can I better engage with my community as we deepen our practices together?

Maybe that’s what I’ve learned most this Lent. That I’m not meant to do this alone. The years when I’ve engaged with others have taught me so much – about myself, my world, and how God speaks through our longing. This year, I’ve learned that the absence of that was noticeable.

I’m glad for this Lent – that I did it alone. I needed the reminder to keep returning to community, however that looks. Maybe next year will look like intentionally fasting from something as a family or finding a friend to work through a study together. Maybe it will be getting out in my community and stretching myself. I have a year to lean into this reminder.

Ultimately, I’m remembering that, when God tells us that the greatest commandment is to Love God and Love our Neighbors, any practice I implement must reflect that. It’s not just about me. It’s about me loving God and my Community.

Do you follow the church calendar? How do you incorporate community into your personal practices? What have you learned this Lenten season?

The Compost HeapMy monthly newsletter, The Compost Heap is going out on Thursday! Are you signed up? It’s filled with book recommendations, poetry, a personal essay, and photos of our daily life. I hope you’ll join!

Balancing Conservation and Progression

Mom, are giraffes endangered? Bea asked the other morning at breakfast. Is that why they’re in zoos?

IMG-7431As I paused to answer, Bea continued to ask what made animals endangered; how do they end up threatened? We talked about hunting and climate change and how zoos keep a lot of animals safe. But we talked about how zoos are feeble, at best, at replicating a native environment. I asked her if she’d rather live in the wild or at a zoo.

I’d rather live in a zoo! You have people to feed you and play structures.

We moved on to other topics but I started thinking about her response. After reading Animal Madness by Laurel Braitman a few years ago, I’ve always felt a bit uncomfortable with our zoo membership. Yes, there’s some great research and preservation happening in zoos. But there are a lot of depressed animals. What is the cost of preservation?

When I visited Estonia in high school, we went to a zoo that was all concrete cages. The animals may have had a branch to climb but ultimately, the tiger, the elephant, and the sloth all had about the same square footage. It was pretty depressing. I’m sure that zoo has changed in the decades since I’ve visited, just as our city’s zoo has expanded and created more thoughtful spaces for the animals. Conservation is still at the heart of the zoo model but best practices have changed and created a more authentic environment for the animals.

The question of responsible conservation isn’t just a question for zoos and animals. In the art world, there are divided camps over the philosophy of preservation. How much do we meddle? When do we recognize that an artist’s experimentation with paint isn’t sustainable? Does a painting need to last longer than 500 years in pristine condition?

One of the most famous debates in the art world is the conservation of DaVinci’s The Last Supper. The past 500 years have been spent preserving a painting that began disintegrating 20 years after its installation. Yes, it’s an incredibly important piece of Renaissance art. But at what cost do we continue to preserve something that was an experiment in itself?

Lent starts today and this year, I’m not giving up anything big or adding any grand project to my days. It’s been a season of lots of change for our family in many ways but mostly because it’s our first tax season as business owners. In a hectic time of year, we have new layers of questions and unknowns to contend with.

So, I’m working my way through a traditional Bible study. I’ll be reading the plan each day, journaling, answering questions and reflections. I purposefully chose a plan from a more conservative point of view. I’ve been reading a lot of books that have stretched my thinking and am so glad for them but I’m recognizing the need to balance progression with conservation. What are interpretations that have pushed us in good was and what are interpretations that are solid foundations?

One of my hopes for this Bible study is to dig into my own views of Biblical conservation. What is worth preserving? What was truly an example of cultural context? What is the overarching storyline and takeaway? What I’ve learned about conservation is the imperfections of it. We conserve art and animals the best we can with the best resources we have. But when we learn new things and better ways, experts reevaluate those practices and implement new ones.

I’ll be spending Lent digging into the Bible, examining my conservative roots, and really trying to understand which pieces are worth conserving and which pieces of the story could be brought to light as we learn more about the history and storytelling of this era. I’m no theologian so, at the end of these forty days, there will be no radical reformation. But I’m hoping that there will be a deeper thoughtfulness to the story and the overarching plotline God is building.

How do you conserve what’s important while learning new things? What are your thoughts on preserving artwork?

Review: The Canticle of the Creatures by Luigi Santucci

Lent starts on Wednesday and I’ve been thinking of ways to practice a slower, quieter Lent this year. I’ll be working my way through Heather Caliri’s Word Made Art (you can read my review here) and I bought my first traditional Bible study in years. I want resources that help me slow down, dig deeper, and give plenty of grace as I practice intention during this already busy season for our family.

1542207596When I received The Canticle of the Creatures for Saint Francis of Assisi by Luigi Santucci, I wasn’t thinking I was getting a book to guide me through Lent. Structured so that each short meditation is from the point of view of one of the birds or animals St. Francis encounters, this small book invites the reader to pause and recognize that when God called us to love the world, this means all the world. From the nightingale and swallow to the fish and bees, each entry leads us into remembering justice, kindness, and peace.

There’s a reason Saint Francis is known and loved by Catholics and Protestants alike. His call to do justice for the poor, to recognize the beauty of nature, to live a simpler, more intentional life are inspiring in a world that so often forgets the holiness of these practices.

I’ve been reading this book slowly, one small chapter a day with breakfast. The stunning illustrations are a treat in the morning and the poetic storytelling start my morning with the type of devotion I haven’t experienced. I’m invited to slow down, to notice, and to remember that God is found in the small, everyday creatures.

I love that the stories are short enough to read at breakfast with the girls yet deep enough to carry me through the morning. Paraclete Press sent me a companion book, The St. Francis Holy Fool Prayer Book. I haven’t started it yet, but I wonder if they’d be best read together. Starting on Wednesday, I’ll incorporate the two into my routine.

How are you slowing down during this Lenten season? Even if you don’t practice Lent, what are ways you stay grounded in the daily busyness?

I received this book free from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest opinion.

Books Referenced in this Post:

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Disclosure: Amazon Affiliate links included in this post.  If you click through to Amazon, any purchase you make supports this site.

Practicing a Gentle Lent with The Word Made Art

Lent starts in just two weeks and I’ve been thinking about its observation. In the past, I’ve mailed cards, prayed for politicians, and given up wine in order to fund microloans. This year, as I thought of something to do, the word gentle kept coming to mind. Our season has been pretty intense. There are a lot of emotions in our house around being two-years-old, going to kindergarten all day, and functioning in tax season-mode. Even the best ideas seemed a bit overwhelming this year.

unnamedRight after gentle came to mind, Heather Caliri sent out a call to be on her launch team for Word Made Art: A Spiritual Encounter. I don’t consider myself visually creative. It’s been decades since I’ve painted or drawn with any regularity. Over the years, visual creativity has come to feel rusty and intimidating. And yet, I felt that nudge again that this would be a gentle way to approach Lent. Me and my Bible, getting messy, tactically exploring the word of God.

The aspects that made me uncomfortable about Word Made Art are the things that were simultaneously most freeing. After reading the directions for the week, I wanted Heather to walk me through the project with step-by-step instructions and examples. She doesn’t do this and it’s intimidating at first. But that’s the whole point, isn’t it? That Lent is deeply personal and the way that I interact with the Bible is going to be completely different than Heather or you. If she had given detailed directions, a lot of the practice would have been lost.

The book is set up by weeks with scripture readings, spiritual practices, and a loose guide to getting your Bible messy. I actually went to a used bookstore and bought a Bible for a dollar for this project. You’ll be getting it dirty (literally), drawing and painting in it, highlighting and pasting over words. This is about physically interacting with your Bible and creating a piece of art through the six weeks of Lent.

I didn’t do each exercise fully, as Lent doesn’t begin until February 14 but I’m looking forward to going through the scriptures and activities slowly, to pausing and getting messy, to stretching my boundaries and experiencing a gentle Lent.

How are you entering Lent this year? Do you usually give something up? Add something? What prepares you for Easter?

38110534Word Made Art releases this Wednesday, January 31! Preorders help authors, so if this book looks like a good fit for your Lenten journey, order it today!

Disclosure: Amazon Affiliate links included in this post.  If you click through to Amazon, any purchase you make supports this site.

 

Death and Taxes

After a mild February and March, typical spring weather hit – just in time for spring break. For our week off, we had drizzly mornings, warmer afternoons, and hard-to-predict forecasts which made playdates a bit difficult. But, our grass is green and our trees are blossoming.

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Clyfford Still, PH-235 Image credit: Clyfford Still Museum

When asked to describe the significance of black in his paintings, Clyfford Still said,

“Black was never a color of death or terror for me.  I think of it as warm – and generative.”

This has forever changed the way I look at black in art, in books, in life. Is there an element of death in it? Yes. (At least, from a Western perspective.) But, in order to experience life, death must be part of the equation.

Frank and I are planning our garden and deciding which veggies to plant, which perennials to try in bare areas, and which boxes should be reserved for digging play and which should be off-limits. When we dig into the soil, our hands come up black. As we watch the rain soak the earth, I see the color vibrant against the gray skies.

Easter and the end of tax season coincide this year. Sadly, this means that the last big push before the deadline will happen over Easter weekend. (No rest for the weary, or accountants…) Over the next two weeks, the little we see of Frank will become even less. Life gets harder when the end is in sight.

Not to compare dying on the cross for all of humanity’s sins to the annual tax deadline, but I wonder if this is how Jesus felt in these last weeks leading to his death. He knew what was coming; the hardest days are ahead.

There is darkness ahead and yet, against the gray there is vibrant light and hope. There is despair and an anticipation of something coming – the crowds are getting violent and yet, Jesus still makes a blind man see; still raises Lazarus from the dead.

In order for the soil to be generative, it must be black. Light brown dirt needs to be watered to dark richness. In order to see the light, we must live in the darkness.

In many ways, I’m glad that Lent falls during tax season. For our family, this season of fasting is also one of living without an integral part of our house. Whether we like it or not, our family lives in a sense of loss during this season.

Which makes Easter all the more joyful. It reminds us that life is restored, that our family will eat dinner together again, and that black soil brings new life.

How do you view the color black? In what ways do you prepare when the end is in sight?

Creating Space for Wonder

The other night, after putting the girls to bed, cleaning the kitchen, and shoving the stray toys into the playroom, I settled onto the couch to breathe and relax. Before I even finished my exhale, I heard a rustling upstairs.

IMG_3910Upon investigation, I found Bea peaking through the railings. I thought I heard a door open. I had been praying that God would tell daddy that his little girl misses him. I guess he can’t hear through the ceiling.

Bea, being Bea, seemed more disappointed in our ceiling than in God. She embodies that childlike faith that I have long forgotten – stopping to pray for anything or anyone without hesitation, believing fully that God is waiting to listen to her.

I’m on a planning team at church filled with people who have Advanced Degrees in Theology and Knowing God. We gather every couple months around a table, brainstorming, talking, and wondering about upcoming sermon topics. It’s an invigorating evening and I always leave learning something new. But I also leave wondering why I’m at that table. I’m definitely more on Bea’s end of the spectrum, as far as What I Know About God goes, and I often wonder how my own experience compares at all to those who actually know what the Bible means.

But that’s not why I’m on this team. I’m there because there is a place for me at the table. Because my experiences, though not as profound or as well-researched, still matter. And because our pastors place high value on the voices of our congregation, regardless of Biblical knowledge.

Bea asks a lot of questions about life, about God, about the way the world works. Even Elle’s favorite question right now is, Why??? It can be so tempting to try to find the answers. And there are some easy answers, but most are not.

Even if I do know the answer, I’m learning to respond to the questions with, I wonder.

I wonder if God can hear you through the ceiling?

I wonder why the moon is still visible during the day?

I wonder why that man is asking for money and food?

Sometimes we go home and look up the answer to our questions or after we wonder, I can help supply an answer. But I like starting out with I wonder. It keeps the discovery fresh and alive. It reminds us that our world is full of wonder.

I’m learning that I need to keep that as part of my own faith journey. If, instead of reading the Bible for answers or looking to figure out why God operates a certain way, I’m learning to wonder. Instead of wishing for (or demanding) answers, I’m learning to live in the space of wonder, of discovery, and of grappling with the unknown.

How do you balance answers with wonder? Even if you know the answer, how do you create space for discovery?

Recalibrating Expectations

One of Bea’s favorite books is Good Night, Philadelphia. It’s part of that series of board books that focuses on a city and greets the famous landmarks: Good morning, Museum of Art. Good afternoon, Betsy Ross House and Old Glory. Hello, Reading Terminal Market and cheesesteaks. For a solid year, we read it multiple times per day. Even now that the love has ebbed a bit, I still have it memorized. One of the benefits of knowing it so well is that when we visit Philly, Bea has an idea of what she wants to do on the day we go into the city.

IMG_8964A couple years ago, she really wanted to see The Liberty Bell. We took the train from the suburbs into Reading Terminal Market and walked toward Independence Hall. We walked through modern glass doorways of Independence National Park and through the crowds of middle school students toward the Liberty Bell.

When Bea saw it, she started to cry. It could be that she saw an older boy put in “time out” by one of the park rangers for messing around. Or that she had expectations of ringing it herself. Whatever the reason, we walked around this large, old bell, roped off from small hands and then we were done. Besides the museum and history videos, there wasn’t much else to do with a 3-year-old.

We quickly remedied the problem with a carriage ride around Independence Square and back to Reading Terminal Market for cheesesteaks and ice cream.

I had seen Bea’s type of reaction before, most notably by da Vinci’s Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris. Tourists would flock to this portrait expecting a gigantic painting, only to be disappointed by its small scale. I often remind people that few of us have larger-than-life-sized paintings of ourselves in our homes. Why would this be any different?

I think about times when I’ve built up an experience or event to the point that any reality will be disappointing. Whenever I envision the perfect date night or an incredible dinner or even a clean house for more than a minute, I am quickly reminded that I live with other humans and our reality is sweet but far from perfect.

This week’s Lenten theme is expectation and I have been thinking about this tendency in relation to these weeks leading up to Easter. What am I hoping from this Lenten practice? Are my expectations realistic?

And, more importantly, are my expectations within this practice drawing me closer to the redemption of Easter? Because, Lent isn’t about giving something up for the sake of fasting for 40 days. It’s about remembering the celebration; about being mindful that we actually don’t have to earn this grace.

I’ve been learning a lot these past two weeks and yet, I’ve been trying to keep my expectations tempered. I’m remembering that this practice isn’t to change my mind or anyone else’s about politics and those elected. It’s about loving my neighbor and remembering to pray for our government. It can be easy to get bogged down in the details of the exercise, forgetting the ultimate purpose.

So, with another month to go and 30 more politicians to pray for, I’m remembering my own expectations and realigning them with a much larger purpose than any 40 day practice will produce.

How do you keep your expectations realistic? Have you ever been disappointed by something famous?