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.

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
yellow and green led light

Don’t Be So Negative

Negativity bias, also called the negativity effect, is hard-wired in our brains. But that doesn’t mean we have to live with it! What is negativity bias? When things are of equal intensity, people tend to focus on the negative (thoughts, emotions, events etc.) more than neutral or positive.

Scientists believe this brain attitude stems from times when flight-or-fight literally meant run before the animal eats you. Having negative thoughts is not a pleasant mindset, nor is it something that the Lord wants for us. Luckily, we can fight negativity bias deliberately.

Neuropsychologist Rick Hansen has written extensively on this subject. He says: Use your mind to change your brain to change your mind. As Christians, we also can turn to God in this process. Mindfully and actively looking for the good can change your brain through the process known as neuroplasticity.

Dr, Hansen teaches that when we focus on the good, sets of neurons fire together. Neurons that fire together wire together, he says. So the tendency to look for the positive and feel serenity gets embedded into the brain. More information from Dr. Hansen are on his blog here and here. Another detailed explanation of the negativity bias is here.

This Christian mindfulness exercise will help:

  • After morning prayer, ask the Lord to help you to notice the good and the beautiful today.
  • Keep a gratitude list for the today going on a sticky note or piece of paper in the kitchen or at your desk.
  • Check in with your thoughts regularly during the day. You can use an alarm on your phone if needed to help you stay mindful about what you are thinking. Are you seeing the negative? Can you see a moment of joy to focus on instead?
  • Intentionally look for little things that bring you joy, connection and serenity.
  • Thank God for each moment of joy as it occurs.

Other ways to counterbalance our proclivity towards negativity? Grant Brenner, MD, Adjunct Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Mt. Sinai Beth Israel Medical Center (New York), advises:

  • Be mindful and recognize when negative patterns begin. Do something each and every time—even something very small—to break the pattern. (A brief prayer would work well here.)
  • Notice when you talk to yourself in a negative way. Replace “Well, that was stupid” with “I wish I hadn’t done that, but I will learn from it.”
  • Talk to your inner critic with compassion: “Are you ok? What’s wrong?  Why are you so angry? Are you feeling hurt?” Dr. Brenner said this will seem strange at first, but interrupting yourself when you are being mean to yourself is actually following the Golden Rule.

Other Christian mindfulness exercises that can help are the loving-kindness exercise and gratitude.

Questions to Ponder in Early Lent

No sin is private, hurting no one but ourselves.

“Bridges to Contemplative Living with Thomas Merton,” edited by Jonathan Montaldo and Robert G. Toth

I’m using “Bridges to Contemplative Living with Thomas Merton: Lent and Holy Week as a devotional this Lent. The section regarding the week of Ash Wednesday, which ends today, invokes some deep thought.

The concept that “No sin only hurts us” struck me as I read it. I tend to think that I keep the shiny side up around other people. Life at home is a looser interpretation of the Gospel commands. So I am pondering that quote today.

The Ash Wednesday section asks some good questions about our faith journey that I also wanted to share:

  • How has your personal understanding of Lent, sin and conversion changed as you have matured in your spiritual life?
  • What hoped-for change in your mind and heart do you pray for this Lent?
  • In what ways have you, by grace and your own inner work, grown beyond your former way of life?

The nice thing about growing is there’s always more to do. These questions make good prompts for meditating and journaling. We can go before the Lord in contemplation to ask what His answers for us would be.

Bridges to Contemplative Living is a series from the Merton Institute for Contemplative Living, which closed in 2012. Ave Maria Press still publishes the books.

Make a Friendship Resolution

The pandemic slugs on, giving us a time to think about how we will do things differently once it’s over. Lent is a wonderful time to prayerfully consider resolutions about friendship. Of course, we know full well that the only person we can control, with God’s grace, is ourselves.

I can across two friendship resolutions that I made a couple of years ago. They still feel fresh to me. So I’m going to bring them top-of-mind as things open us.

No. 1: I will begin looking for the persons of peace in activities and groups. I will cultivate a deeper, ongoing relationship with these individuals.

No. 2: In all relationships, I will treat the other as someone to be known and loved rather than someone to try to fix or change.

It will be interesting to see how a year of online conversations and physical separateness will change our relationships. I know I’m going to have to overcome what I call “introvert inertia.” I’d rather stay home and deal with folks online. I will have to push myself to be “in person” again.

How weird this all is came home when I walked up to a pastor that I’ve chatted with regularly online. I had my mask on, as did he. I said something to him and hurried off. It was only then that I realized that he had no idea who I was. We had never met in person before. I look a lot taller on Zoom.

I think these resolutions … building relationships with persons of peace, treating each person as someone to be known and loved … will serve me well online as well as off. They will only happen if I stay open to God’s grace and support.