Lent 2021: Explore Playful Practice

“…Lent is a speed bump in the church year, inviting us into reflection, confession, and prayer as we approach Holy Week and Easter, a time when we remember the profound costliness of God’s abundant love for us.” –Susan Phillips, PhD, Executive Director of New College Berkeley

Image by Trevor M from Pixabay

I love the image of Lent, the 40 days before Easter (Sundays not included), as a speed bump. Even in this strange pandemic time when I go nowhere to do nothing and see no one, apparently I’ve still managed to speed my life along and oh wow here comes Lent and – wham – I’ve hit it too fast. I need to slow down. Lent will help.

Often Lent involves giving something up (chocolate) or taking something on (acts of service) as a way of identifying with Jesus as he journeyed toward his crucifixion in Jerusalem. Yet I’m already daily working my habit tracker, and let’s be honest, this has been an unusual year to say the least. Which calls for an unusual response.

Last week when I encountered a list of words related to purpose in writing, three leaped off the page: Explore. Play. Practice. They get along well together, and I believe I will enjoy watching them frolic in the long green grass of this Lenten season. 

I want to Explore. To strike out on an expedition. To take twisty-turning side roads and unexpected paths in the deep forest. At one time I might have felt afraid, but I’m leaving timidity behind. I have confidence that my soul will guide me with yes or no responses along the way. I welcome everything, everyone, every occasion I encounter today, because I trust it will be for my healing.

I’d like to say I’m packing light, but that’s not true. Even if my backpack contains little more than snacks, a sweatshirt, and a flashlight, my head and heart are overstuffed. That’s part of the point, of course: I need to get lost to be found. To empty myself and create space for what may come.

Exploration will tuck new tools into my backpack I didn’t know I’d need. It will fill my eyes with breathtaking sights I could only extrapolate from travel books, imagination, and dreams. It will fill my heart with experiences that amplify my joy. I will encounter prophets and teachers, leaders and fellow pilgrims who swell my love to overflow. I may come home weary and changed. I expect to come home grateful.

I want to Play, and I’ve traveled enough to know that exploration can be hard work and playful, too. In my tendency toward contemplation, I naturally find myself alone, deep in thought, immersed in words – mine or others as I move between writing and reading. It can get a little heavy, and my mental muscles grow weary as my physical muscles grow itchy from sitting too long in our overstuffed recliner.

I need playful movement. I want to skip along new trails, and also to crouch low and watch the fascinating tiny creatures I’d miss otherwise. Maybe I’ll pull out the crayons and draw as I observe them. Maybe I’ll journal with colored pencils. Maybe we’ll find a deck of cards and play together, right there in the woods.

After all, I am walking toward Good Friday, not racing. There’s no rush. I need to move slow enough to remember Jesus, my companion. To walk hand-in-hand, noticing what he points out about this lovely world he made, about my life in this time, about his love for me. What’s coming will be devastating, though not paralyzing: Sunday always comes after Friday; Easter always follows Good Friday. Joy in the morning means I can play joyfully now.

I want to Practice. When I first read Richard Foster’s book Celebration of Discipline in the early 1990s, it was life-changing. Foster advocates for ordinary followers of Jesus, not just spiritual giants, to engage everyday disciplines that help them connect with Jesus and add joy to life in the midst of laundry and lawn-mowing. Disciplines such as meditation and study, simplicity and solitude, confession and celebration. I became something of a spiritual discipline junky, and as I type those words I’m not sure how to feel about being addicted to paths that connect me to God… Is that healthy addiction, or inappropriate metaphor?

Yet these days I find myself substituting “practice” for “discipline.” Discipline feels exacting, harsh, rigid. When I practice yoga, I listen to what my body needs. Some days parts of me feel strong or wobbly, and tomorrow will be different. Some days, certain poses require modification because I can’t bend that way; it hurts, I need props, gentleness, maybe a slight wiggle to ease into place. It’s a practice, not a perfection. And it’s my practice, not up for comparison with others. It’s communal and personal, imperfect and improving. As with physical practice, so goes spiritual practice. Even the wobbles find acceptance so long as I keep at it. The practice itself imparts grace.

I can’t tell you today, on this Ash Wednesday as Lent begins, what this season will hold. I will read and write for sure. I will engage solitude and time with others. It may look a lot like life in any other season. I can tell you, however, that I will listen for whispers of invitation to Explore Playful Practice and follow where they lead.

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Sabbath 1

As we enter Lent, the season in the Church calendar in which we focus on Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for love of us, we begin a wild and wandering conversation about Sabbath.

What does Sabbath mean to you?

Sabbath, #4 of the 10 Commandments, seems to be the one the Church feels free to omit. To our detriment. We have bought in to our non-stop culture and left God and our all-around health (spiritual, emotional, and physical) as sad and shrinking images in the rear-view mirror. In love, God takes us where we’re at, and our lives make do, but to be sure it’s not God’s best for our lives.

In the Bible, God says both to “remember” and “observe” the Sabbath. Lauren Winner (in her oh-so-helpful book, Mudhouse Sabbath) explains that for a few days we remember the last Sabbath, and for a few days we prepare for the next Sabbath. Sabbath becomes the guiding light in our conception of time.

It’s also about trust. Do I trust that the world depends on God, or do I act as if I believe the universe requires every ounce of my energy every minute of every day to keep spinning? Oh my, do I ever want to believe that the universe rests in God’s hands and not mine! But do I live into that truth?

I believe that Sabbath-keeping is good, as God ended each day of His creation of the world by declaring it “good.” When God was done with six days of creation, He rested. He modeled for us that, even though God–the all-powerful spiritual Being that He is–could not possibly have needed physical rest, He still took a restorative day-long break.

Obvious fact, and one I’ve missed for way too long: God created humans on Day #6. On Day #7, both God and His people rested.

What could it have meant to those first humans, that their first day on this pristine planet involved rest?

I think of my babies. Birthing, post-Eden, is laborious. Mama and Baby (and Dad, because he was all in) needed post-partum rest. For more than just a day, our world was reduced to basic survival: sleep, eat, snuggle…eat, sleep and snuggle some more.

Adam and Eve didn’t experience that birthing trauma, and they still got to rest. And enjoy companionship with God right off the bat. Hmm, jealous!

I don’t know what Sabbath looks like for you. I don’t even know what it looks like for me! Currently, my husband works way too many hours as a pastor. I work two part-time jobs for a wonky schedule. And we parent two teen/young adults. Not for the first time, Guy and I have begun conversations about what Sabbath could look like, for us as individuals, a couple, and a family. We believe God has good things in store as we ask the questions and begin taking steps toward a Sabbath practice.

Sabbath: The Power of Rest
Genesis 2:1-3 & Exodus 20:8-11

Connect
Reflect on one of your favorite leisure activities.

Study
Read Genesis 2:1-3
Why did God rest?
What did God do on the seventh day?
What does this passage tell us about God?
Read aloud Exodus 20:8-11
How are we to keep the Sabbath holy?
Why are we commanded to remember the Sabbath?
How does God’s work differ from ours, and what does that tell us about work and rest?

Live
God created humans on Day 6, then rested on Day 7. What do you think it meant to Adam and Eve that their very first day was one of rest?
What has been your experience with Sabbath-keeping?
Why does Sabbath seem to be the one of the 10 Commandments that the Church forgets?
What makes Sabbath-keeping difficult?
What might Sabbath look like in your life?
What would it take to implement a Sabbath practice?
What is God saying to you through this study, and what will you do about it?

Pray
Ask God to help you take steps toward implementing a Sabbath practice.

Family Share
Use these questions to reflect on Exodus 20:8-10 with your family.
If you had a whole day to do anything, what would you do and why?
What could you do to help your family get work done in six days so you could enjoy a day off together?
Ask God to help your family take a day off work.

God: Our Guide

The last couple of weeks have been over-full. Most nights I’ve tossed myself into bed too late and slept fitfully, waking groggy with odd remnants of uneasy dreams clinging to my tousled hair.

It’s just a season, and God has shown up in small and big ways: a verse of the day that spoke with increasing volume as the day wore on; sweet Tween snuggles and fewer Teen snarls; opportunities to encourage others; glimpses of God weaving together strands of this-and-that beauty in ways that we only yet guess at the pattern in the fabric He is creating.

Still, one day this week I’d had it with the hustle-bustle and desperately needed solitude. I asked Guy to take over dinner prep, shut the bedroom door, and picked up a book of spiritual meditations. One exercise involved praying while holding an object reminiscent of Christ. Which reminded me that I have a handheld labyrinth I hardly use.

labyrinth

A labyrinth is a prayer path, a walking meditation. It involves your physical body in your spiritual journey. It has three movements: releasing on your way to the center; receiving in the center; and returning on your way out. Another way to think about it: moving from self, to God, and back to self. At times you might bring questions to God in the labyrinth, and sometimes it’s just a way to slow down. No magic, just a helpful tool for spending time with God.

Guy bought my labyrinth, designed after the labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral, years ago at a retreat center. I had recently audited a graduate-level seminary course on spiritual disciplines and his gift honored my contemplative inclinations, different from his more gregarious form of Christian practice. But I think I’ve only used it once, when we had been invited to participate in a leadership position. I came to the labyrinth asking for direction, emerged unsettled, and God eventually said a loud and clear No. Did that put me off using it again?

The labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral, France

The labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral, France

However, this particular day it called to me. Because the metal stylus that came with it makes a metal-on-metal ear-splitting sound I grabbed a Qtip to make my way through the path. I then read Psalm 63 and a few phrases imprinted themselves on my heart:
O God, you are my God;
I earnestly search for you.
Your unfailing love is better than life itself;
how I praise you!

As I held the labyrinth, I told God I felt worn out, sad, heart-heavy. I told Him I needed Him. I began winding Qtip through path as I whispered, “I seek you. Earnestly I seek you.”

The Qtip is too big for the width of the path. I can’t see where it’s going, and I think, “That’s like God leading us through life” – we can’t see the twists and turns, but we trust that He is with us. Oh, no, God! There are twists and turns I do not want you to take with my life. Please, no? But you are with me. I know you won’t fail me; you won’t leave or forsake me.

Realizing I’ve inadvertently skipped some turns, I get to the middle: Jesus. Repeating His name over and over, I stay with Jesus, tracing the center petals of the flower, enjoying His presence, letting His love wash over me.

Jesus sends me back out, His Spirit walking with me as I reenter the world, and the prayer changes again: “Your love is better than life.” Jesus loves me, and He sends me into the world with His love pouring over and through me. I’m still skipping lines on the labyrinth, but truly, all roads lead to Jesus and back again; Jesus is my path through life, the Way, the Truth, the Life (John 14:6).

I’m surprised how quickly I’m out of the labyrinth. Not feeling done, I start over, wanting to trace the lines I missed the first time. And now I realize I’m racing. I am racing to Jesus, which strikes me kind of funny. Yes, I want to run into His arms. And yes, He is with me all the time. And thank you, Jesus, that I can stop the madness and find some quiet time with you.

This second pilgrimage takes a fraction of the time but when I get back to myself again, I realize I no longer feel sad. Having spent time with Jesus I’m ready to reenter my family without my own gunk getting in the way.

O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you… Your love is better than life. I praise you with songs of joy.

I won’t always pray labyrinth in hand, but I am grateful God guided me to it – and through it – this week. I pray God will open your eyes to the tools He intends to lead you on the next steps of your faith journey.

Connect
In what ways are you like/unlike your parents?

Study
Read aloud John 14:6-21.
What do we learn about the Father, the Son, and the Spirit from what Jesus says?
You might find it helpful to create 3 columns on a piece of paper for “Father,” “Son,” and “Spirit,” and fill in the columns with corresponding verse numbers and descriptions.
What does this passage tell you about the relationship between the Father and the Son? Between the Son and the Spirit? Between the Father and the Spirit?
What does this passage says about our relationship with Jesus? With the Father? With the Spirit?
Since Jesus says that the world cannot see the Spirit or the Son (vv. 17, 19), how can the world see Jesus? (hint: v. 20).

Live
To whom do you most often address your prayers, and why?
Jesus’ followers knew Him well because they lived with Him for three years. What do you do regularly to know and love Jesus? In other words, how do you actively invest in your relationship with Jesus?
What does Jesus’ relationship with the Father and the Spirit tell us about what our relationships in the body of Christ should look like?
How do intentionally live Jesus’ presence in your life so that others will see Him?
What is Jesus saying to you through this passage and how will you respond?

Pray
Pray that you will know and love Father, Son and Spirit more each day.