man with online schedule filled with appointments

Time for Divine Appointments?

As we enter Holy Week, it’s a good time to ask: Can you fit God into your schedule? This Christian mindfulness practice asks for reflection on how much margin you are leaving in your to-do list. Is there enough space for God to schedule divine appointments for you?

Take a look at your calendar for the last month. I’m seeing more activity as spring arrives and people are vaccinated. Reflect on these questions:

  • Have you taken on too many appointments and projects?
  • Do you feel that you have no choice in the matter … that you are assigned too much or “volun-told” to do things too often?
  • Do you go directly from one task to the next without stopping?
  • Do you care more about your kids’ activities than they do?
  • Are you double-booked at times?
  • Do you say “yes” to activities that seem “high-profile” or flattering, but drain you?

Answering “yes” to these questions mean that you need to work on adding margin to your life and perhaps learning the skill of saying “no” to requests, even when they are framed as orders. (When I got overwhelmed with work, I used to bring my boss a list of my deliverables and ask her to prioritize them. The boss who was TERRIBLE at prioritization responded, “I want you to do them all.” Looking closely at her work style … working 7 to 9, being triple-booked and forgetting to put in time to drive to meetings … caused me to look for a new job.)

After analyzing this, ask God to help you develop a criteria for accepting new requests or invitations. Then run every request through the criteria.

Everyone’s list will be different. But for ideas, here are some of the statements on my list:

  • Biblically sound and seems to be God’s will as far as prayer indicates.
  • Glorifies God.
  • Brings me closer to God.
  • Will be loving to my neighbor, advance the kingdom and/or be a force for good.
  • Is good for my family.
  • Fits with my life calling.
  • Can best be done by me. (Cannot be delegated.)
  • Should not be eliminated or delayed.

If the proposed activity will take big blocks of your time, consider going to your spouse for input.

Even if your schedule is relatively open, having this criteria is helpful. This idea is from “A Guide to Practicing God’s Presence” by Kenneth Boa and Jenny Abel. A free pdf of this book is available here.

Forgive the Obnoxious

This Christian mindfulness exercise at the end of the workweek to clear your head and your heart. Working, either in a paid or unpaid role, puts most of us on the front line for dealing with people. Unfortunately, we meet our fair share of people who are rude, hypercritical, negative or toxic in any of a dozen other ways. Sometimes, the drip, drip, drip of this kind of behavior can get to us.

This exercise gives us the opportunity to bring those emotions to the Lord and to forgive. Here’s how:

  1. Shut your office door or find another place where you can have privacy for 10 minutes or so.
  2. Take some deep breaths.
  3. Allow your feelings … anger, disgust, sadness … to come into focus. Go before the Lord with these feelings. God already knows how you feel. So bring them to Him.
  4. Ask God to help you to forgive all the actions that have upset you.
  5. Quietly see the faces of each person who has troubled you this week. Ask God to help you see each one as wounded. Think about how their behavior has to do with their own issues, rather than with you.
  6. Ask God to show you how you may be helping that person to heal. Or just pray for their healing.
  7. Ponder whether you contributed to any of these problems. Do you need to apologize to someone? Do you need to change the way you relate to someone?
  8. Thank God for the opportunity to do your work. Ask Him to be with you for the rest of the day.

And Justice for All

The first days of spring allow us to look back at “a long, cold, lonely winter,” as George Harrison wrote. Those days were the worst of the pandemic for me. They also showed cracks and weaknesses in the United States that I never suspected.

Even at its worst, the pandemic year has offered us opportunities. We’ve had a chance to clearly see systemic issues in our system of justice and in our American hearts.

As children, we turned to face the flag each school day to pledge allegiance to a nation that offered liberty and justice for all. We were taught that this meant standing up for our rights and the rights of others. Even during Jim Crow days, this is what we were taught.

One of the greatest opportunities coming out of the pandemic is to address systemic issues. It’s horrifying that people are attacking elderly Asian-Americans in the streets. It’s clear that African-Americans do not always have the same encounters with the police that whites do.

As we seek ways to improve our promise of justice, we start with ourselves. Let’s take time to meditate on our own actions. Do we treat every person as a unique individual, or do we put them in categories in our minds?

Practicing justice means real freedom of thought. It is as Merriam Webster’s dictionary says, “the quality of being just, impartial and fair.” It’s not about everyone being the same. It’s about access, rights and opportunity. It’s about freedom from being abused because someone who doesn’t know you doesn’t like your looks.

Today as we meet others, let’s listen to our inner voices. Are we detecting any snap judgments based on categories? We can’t change our patterns unless we know they are there.

See the Space

This Christian mindfulness exercise helps you to see the space around you. Not just the furniture, the trees, the clutter … but the space surrounding those things.

Empty space is most of the actual space in the room you are in right now. Perhaps taking time to notice that will help you have the ability to sense the stillness in your inner space, as well as the presence of Lord within and without. Here’s the exercise:

  1. Begin by closing your eyes for a few minutes.
  2. Pray that you can begin to sense the presence of God in your environment.
  3. Open your eyes and look at an object in front of you.
  4. Notice the space around that object and focus on it.
  5. Shift to other objects and do the same thing, looking at the empty space in front of, behind, on top of and at the bottom of the object.
  6. Take a look at a full room or an outdoor space. Shift from observing the objects there to observing the space.
  7. Quiet your heart. Ask again for an infilling of God’s presence around you.
  8. Listen to your thoughts and look for the spaces between them.

young female friends having conversation sitting in armchairs in room

Practice Compassionate Listening

When you practice compassionate listening, it’s important to remember that you listen with only one purpose, and that is to help the other person to suffer less. You give the other person a chance to say what is in his heart. Even if the other person says something hard, provocative or incorrect, you still listen with compassion.

During the whole time of listening, you practice mindful breathing and remind yourself, “I am listening with one purpose: to relieve suffering by giving the person a chance to empty his heart. If I were to interrupt him or correct him, that would transform the session into a debate. In a few days, I may offer him some information to help him correct his perceptions, but not now.”

Thich Nhat Hanh, “The Mindfulness Survival Kit”

What You Are Doing Right

Today’s Christian mindfulness practice is about taking a deep look at what we are doing right. We all know we are not doing alone. God’s grace and presence accompanies us as we do our work.

Notice the good you are doing. What roles are you playing in creating a force for good? Raising children? Being a loving partner? Serving a good cause and/or a good church? Bringing a godly perspective to a business? Think about all the places where you contribute.

Be mindful about how those roles unfold today. Stay in the present moment and notice the things you do that support these goals. Look for the good.

Praise God for his grace and support. Each time you find yourself doing a good work, no matter how small, praise God for his presence in that act.

This Christian mindfulness practice can build optimism and awareness of God’s work in your life. He is good, and you are doing good with Him. Celebrate that today.

crop man with hands under transparent water

Three Vows for Ordinary People

Ready to get your hands dirty? Alexander Schmemann (1921-1983) had an idea for everyday folks who are drawn to Christian mindfulness and contemplative living. It’s in Bridges to Contemplative Living with Thomas Merton: Lent and Holy Week. Schmemann suggested a way of monasticism for laypeople living a typical American life in cul-de-sacs, apartments and offices.

We would not not take vows of celibacy and poverty. But he suggested that we could take these three vows:

A rule of prayer: Keeping a well-defined spiritual discipline of prayer and reflection maintains personal contact with God through the day. We would maintain specific times of prayer and study that aligned with our work and family schedules.

Obedience: This vow fights not our tempers, but our individualism. This is a practical obedience to small things from traffic laws to chores. We do what is legal and right even if we don’t feel like it.

Acceptance: Schmemann wrote that people want to do anything for God, except what God wants them to do. Instead of continually searching for a better place and a better people to serve, we would understand that God has put us here and now … in this cul-de-sac, this church, this job and this family. Just as many monks take a vow of stability, meaning that they do not leave their monasteries for “better” monasteries, we look around where we are and we serve.

What vows would you consider taking this Lent?

Jesus Is at Your House

The church is not a building. It is people.

Many of our churches have reminded us of this during the pandemic. Lots of us have been going to church online … trying to stay holy (and awake) from the couch. And many have found the circle of people that we interact with daily drawing down to a literally precious few.

My Lenten devotional “Bridges to Contemplative Living with Thomas Merton” notes: “Every family of us is a little church. The tasks of service in front of our noses are God’s will for us; they are our part in building up the family of humankind.”

The editors of this devotional, Jonathan Montaldo and Robert G. Toth, got me thinking with these ideas. They wrote: “Christ is most intimate to us when we recognize Christ in those we live most intimately every day, in those with whom every day we share the sacrament of time.”

I’ve been asking the Lord to help me see more of Christ in the homeless and the poor. I’ve never asked to see more of him in my housemates and colleagues before. Yet this presents so many opportunities as we cook the 5,000th dinner at home and stay on endless Zoom calls with colleagues.

Our intercessory prayers for these everyday people — family, friends, co-workers, customers — help “weave the web of the Church into deeper communion — a unity the early Church called koinonia — until the Lord comes,” Montaldo and Toth write.

We are billboards for God. Or even handwritten notes for God stuck on the refrigerator with a magnet. Let us empty ourselves to allow the presence of God to permeate our homes. For now more than ever, our homes are churches.

Thomas Merton: Stay Empty

It is the Holy Ghost that will transform me, sanctify me ...
My own natural powers are helpless. I can do nothing about it. ...
If I wait upon the Holy Ghost with desire, this great gift Who is God will be given to me. And it is like a kind of awakening,
a sort of intimation of all that may happen the day after tomorrow -- 
what tremendous possibilities!
Meanwhile I will do everything I can to remain empty.
My only desire is to give myself completely to the action of this infinite love
Who is God, Who demands to transform me into Himself secretly, darkly,
in simplicity, in a way that has no drama about it and is infinitely
beyond everything spectacular and astonishing, 
so is its significance and its power.
We have got to let God do His Will in us.
His Spirit must work in us and not our own.
But since original sin, we always tend to work against Him when we work under our own direction. 

Thomas Merton, "Entering the Silence," pp. 48, 52 quoted in "Come into the Silence" with Thomas Merton, 30 Days with a Great Spiritual Teacher series

Practice Loving-Kindness First Thing

Starting the day with a loving-kindness mindfulness exercise infuses peace into your schedule. Especially when you focus on the day just ahead.

Here’s how:

  1. Quiet your mind and invite God’s presence.
  2. Think about yourself. Say: May I be healthy. May I know God’s comfort. May I feel God’s love. May I live in God’s peace.
  3. Look at your schedule for the day.
  4. One by one, bring up the people you will meet or talk with today.
  5. For each person, repeat the phrases: May they be healthy. May they know God’s comfort. May they feel God’s love. May they live in God’s peace.
  6. If you are meeting a particular group of people, such as a class or a team, you can repeat the phrases for that group.
  7. Do this for at least five minutes … more if you want to spend that time.

By bringing each person into loving-kindness for the day, especially those you dislike, you can better step out in love and peace.