Meditation

Steps of Gratitude

Paranamir / Shutterstock
Paranamir / Shutterstock

I DIDN'T KNOW much about sepsis until it hit me out of the blue the Friday before Thanksgiving. After working late Thursday night, I woke up the next morning shivering and shaking, with my teeth rattling and full of pain; my left leg was swollen and fire-engine red.

I was immediately sent to the hospital and told frightening things about how dangerous a septic cellulitis infection can be. The ailment is random and can strike people of all ages; bacteria gets under the skin and spreads, and if it goes into the bloodstream, things can get dangerous indeed.

I am certainly not used to lying in a hospital with intravenous antibiotics being pumped into me day and night. Fortunately, thanks to my overall good health, I responded quickly to the antibiotics, resulting in a full recovery. I’ve often visited others in hospitals and been an advocate for patients in bureaucratic health-care systems, and this unexpected visit reminded me why that is so important. It is easy to feel alone in those systems and to lose your voice. I have always been impressed by nurses, who so often bring life, laughter, and even love to health systems that so easily block out such things, and some of my nurses were the delight of my lockdown hospital time.

I grew close to my roommate in the hospital, a man who, like me, is married to an English woman, and who was clearly suffering from cardiac issues. The lack of privacy through flimsy curtains forced me to overhear a doctor telling him that he had two choices: a heart surgery that the doctor thought the man wouldn’t survive, or hospice care with only six months or less to live.

Decisions about life and death often suddenly fill these hospital rooms. My leg infection quickly shrank in comparison, and being present to my roommate and his wife became very important. Friends coming by to talk to my roommate brought tears, stories, smiles, and fears.

TWO WEEKS BEFORE entering the hospital, I had gone on a much-needed personal retreat—not to lead but just to listen, learn, and be quiet. The topics of the seminar were “character” and “gratitude.” The former was intriguing, as the subject of character always is to me. But I found the latter theme, gratitude, to be profoundly challenging—and restful at the same time. Gratitude is hard. It is especially hard for those of us who see their vocation as changing the world—seeing what is wrong and trying to make it right. We see the unjust things and want to make them just, the broken things and want to help heal them; we see the bad and want the good. It can be exhausting.

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Encounters With the Divine: Experiencing God on a 1,000 Year Old Spanish Pilgrimage

Image via Melissa Otterbein

These moments of wonder, beauty, and human connection — the simplicity of walking one foot in front of the other each day, open to conversation and observation of the time and space around you — are the elements of pilgrimage for which I am most grateful. As cliche as it sounds some 500 kilometers later, I really do feel like my pilgrimage is just beginning.

I believe pilgrimage, like God, is all around us and within us. And whether we are on this path for the first time or the 199th, there is still something here for us. Maybe not a revelation, but a noticing, a paying attention, a shifting our gaze from ourselves to the sky or the children’s laughter at the park.

If we approached this day as pilgrimage, a wandering toward creation, toward God, toward each other, toward the Earth and sky and stars, how might we see the world?

We’re Meditating All Wrong, Says ‘Buddha from Brooklyn’

Photo via Luna Vandoorne / Shutterstock.com
Photo via Luna Vandoorne / Shutterstock.com

Lama Surya Das, the “Buddha from Brooklyn,” is one of the handful of Westerners who have been teaching meditation for decades. And yet, he says we’re doing it wrong.

“So many people seem to be moving narcissistically — conditioned by our culture, doubtless — into self-centered happiness-seeking and quietism, not to mention the use of mindfulness for mere effectiveness,” he said. True meditation, he said, generates wisdom and compassion, which may be very disquieting, at least in the short term.

Lent: Making God’s Name Beautiful

A cross made of ash. Image courtesy Ansis Klucis/shutterstock.com
A cross made of ash. Image courtesy Ansis Klucis/shutterstock.com

I love today’s Lenten reflection by the Rev. Dr. Jacqueline Grey on the first verse of the Lord’s Prayer.

Some of my favorite quotes:

“Praying this each day calls us to orientate our intention away from ourselves and remember that we are not the centre of the universe. Instead it reminds us of our rightful place, alongside all our brothers and sister in adoration of our great God.”

“This prayer is a call to action. It makes a demand of us. How are we as God’s people going to make God’s name holy? This is a call to action to make known the beauty of God. The justice and perfection of God. And the majesty of God’s name in a world that wants to ignore it.”

“It’s a call for our lives to mirror the same beauty and holiness of God. To truly live up to our vocation as image bearers of our glorious God.”

“We are part of the family. So let’s do the family business of bringing light to the world.”

Watch Dr. Jaqueline Grey speak on the Lord's Prayer below.

 

Day Two of Following Jesus: Are We Done Yet?

Following Jesus. Image courtesy wizdata1/shutterstock.com
Following Jesus. Image courtesy wizdata1/shutterstock.com

First, the good news: After four months of preparation, I have officially started my year-long quest to more seriously understand what it means to follow Jesus — AKA “My Jesus Project.”

And now the bad news: After today, I still have 363 days left of this. Turns out, Jesus stuff is hard.

It’s not even that I’ve done anything that’s hard, in particular. I mean, the 30-day fast from solid food isn’t until next month, and I still have time to figure out how I’m ever going to feed 5,000. I haven’t even been crucified or put in jail or anything. So far, my main tasks have been to set up my prayer shrine for my daily meditations, to study one of the gospels daily, and to be particularly mindful of my own body and of the humanity of others I come into contact with.

But just that is hard work.

Yesterday was day one, beginning my first month in which I’m exploring “Jesus the Radical,” with Christian Anarchist Mark Van Steenwyk as my mentor. He’s started off easy on me, recommending the mindfulness exercise, and to take more public transportation. Hey, one out of two ain’t bad; I’ve got 26 days left in the month to work on the public transport thing. But though I got my prayers and gospel study done, and I was successful in getting my kids to school without yelling at them even once … or at least no more than twice. But in addition to taking my car everywhere so far, I’m behind in my pledge to walk 1,000 miles in a year. Although that only works out to about 3 miles a day, I’m already just under four miles for two days.

Oh, and Mark has warned me that he has some much more challenging things in mind for me this month, and that he was just breaking me in, getting me used to the shallow end before tossing me in for the sharks, complete with chum underwear.

 

Enjoy the Silence

Morning on the lake. Image courtesy kosmos111/shutterstock.com
Morning on the lake. Image courtesy kosmos111/shutterstock.com

Like many of my peers that weekend, I went into the retreat with some trepidation. Silence for 20 hours? What would we do? I had experienced long periods of informal silence during my 19 months of unemployment and had experienced the richness of God’s presence during that time. But that was different — I could escape the silence any time I went to a yoga class or turned on Spotify. Twenty hours of silence felt daunting.

Even more daunting? Twenty hours alone with just me and God. Sure, God had shown up and been with me during those long months of being alone, but this was different. Would I do it wrong? More importantly, what would happen? What would it be like to be alone with God without any distraction for that length of time?

Well, it felt like gazing into someone’s eyes for hours and hours and not having anything to pull you away. Which is exactly why, after that experience, I now actively seek out opportunities for silence.

Hope — The Most Important Gift

Snowdrops peek through the snow. Image courtesy ArtOfLightPro/shutterstock.com
Snowdrops peek through the snow. Image courtesy ArtOfLightPro/shutterstock.com

I currently serve as Pastoral Associate at a Catholic parish in Buffalo, NY, where our pastor decided to hold monthly Prayer Hours for Peace in response to the violent outbreaks in Syria, the uprising in Ferguson over Michael Brown’s death, ISIS, gang violence — to name a few.

Our November Prayer Hour for Peace offered four rounds of Scripture passages and ten-minute reflection and prayer time, followed with an excerpt from a Pax Christi USA prayer called “Just for Today.”

I read this excerpt aloud:

“Just for today, I will believe that world peace is possible. I will remember that hope is the most important gift I can give my world.”  

The next Scripture verse was from Psalm 122:6-8.

“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: May those who love you be secure. May there be peace within your walls and security within your citadels. For the sake of my family and friends, I will say, Peace be within you.”

For the next ten minutes, I inhaled “belief….possible” and exhaled “hope most important gift.” Physically, my body relaxed, and I watched my hope flow out into my immediate surroundings.

Sloth: Missing the Call for Sabbath

Baby sloth, Vilainecrevette / Shutterstock.com
Baby sloth, Vilainecrevette / Shutterstock.com

Sloth. It’s not just a strange, adorable animal we love to watch in videos. It’s also one of the “Seven Deadly Sins,” and one that I find hanging around in my daily life.

I didn’t think about sloth in particular when I chose my Lenten practices for this year, but it turns out to be the very beast (sorry) I’m trying to walk away from.

To be clear, I’m a pretty active person. I walk to work, run long distance, and I’m also very social. But the fact is, every night I look forward to getting home and enjoying what I tell myself I’ve earned: as much time on the couch watching TV and eating as I want. It’s relaxing, I figure, and takes no mental or physical energy.

This is the proverbial sloth in the room.

Yes, unwinding is good, but here’s the problem: I’m not really getting any rest from this. Sure, I’m lounging, and my brain takes a rest if I’m watching something inane; but as a Christian, rest means something different than it does for other people. Rest means Sabbath. Sabbath is the day of the week that we hold sacred, the day when we rest from our usual work and worries, the day that we give back to God and use to worship God. So ironically, my approach to getting the sloth out of my life is to bring the Sabbath into it, at the end of each day.

Alternative Seasonal Reading

THE DAYS shorten and the scriptures get wild and woolly and Advent begins. Meanwhile, the secular holiday season builds in a frenzy of car commercials (does anyone really get a car for Christmas?), sale flyers, and often-forced cheer. Here are a few books—memoirs, spiritual writings, and art—that can be interesting, grounding, and inspiring companions for a complicated time of year. (They also are much easier to wrap than a car.)

LIFE STORIES

Good God, Lousy World, and Me: The Improbable Journey of a Human Rights Activist from Unbelief to Faith, by Holly Burkhalter. Convergent Books. Decades in political and human rights work convinced Holly Burkhalter that there couldn’t be a loving God—until she became a believer at age 52.

Hear Me, See Me: Incarcerated Women Write, edited by Marybeth Christie Redmond and Sarah W. Bartlett. Orbis. I was in prison, and you listened to my story. Moving works from inside a Vermont prison.

God on the Rocks: Distilling Religion, Savoring Faith, by Phil Madeira. Jericho Books. Nashville songwriter, producer, and musician Phil Madeira offers lyrical, wry observations on faith and life, from his evangelical roots to musing on a God who “knows she’s a mystery.”

My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, by Christian Wiman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Wiman, a poet and the editor of Poetry magazine, tells of his harrowing illness and a return to faith.

The Geography of Memory: A Pilgrimage Through Alzheimer’s, by Jeanne Murray Walker. Center Street. A moving, honest, and often surprisingly hopeful account of a writer and her sister accompanying their mother as she experiences dementia.

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Soaking in the Word of God

AS THE SEAONS after Pentecost unfolds, we might think that summer calls for a kind of “church lite” in which we shouldn’t expect much to happen. With the dramatic commemorations behind us, the scriptures seem miscellaneous. But this season has its own purpose of soaking in the Word. Just let go of dependence on drama.

Our month’s reading opens in 2 Kings 5 with the healing of Naaman, the distinguished Aramean general, told with a dry humor that Jesus appreciated, since he specifically mentions it (Luke 4:27) in his teaching about faith found outside the bounds of Israel. At first Naaman’s dignity is offended by Elisha not bothering even to meet him in person. His pride receives a further blow in the ludicrous banality of the prescription that Elisha’s assistant passes on: “Go, and wash in the Jordan seven times” (verse 10). Naaman’s fuming about the short shrift he got, and the humiliation of being prescribed a business of splashing in a local stream, are quite comic. Paddling in the Jordan indeed—a ditch in comparison to the storied rivers of Damascus! Smiling, we recognize the storyteller’s shrewd knowledge of psychology. The tale has a good ending. Finally getting off his high horse, Naaman allows his aide to persuade him to try the simple bathing routine. Over time his skin is healed and rejuvenated.

The church behaves like that shrewd aide when it invites us to trust in the power of hearing the scriptures again and again, however overfamiliar some of them seem, and others obscure.

Martin L. Smith, an Episcopal priest, is an author, preacher, and retreat leader.

[ July 7 ]
We Can Get the Accuser Fired
2 Kings 5:1-14; Psalm 66:1-9; Galatians 6:1-16; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

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