The Lenten season is here! This year for Lent, I’m welcoming more silence (and giving up chocolate almonds - yes, that’s a sacrifice). I recently wrote this poem about silence and offer it to you as encouragement for why we sometimes avoid the quiet in and around our lives. How do you meet silence?
Silence: A Poem
by Whitney R. Simpson
She is my companion
yet I avoid her gaze
She is my teacher
yet I push back at her instruction
She is my guide
yet I veer from her course
She is my friend
yet I wonder why she comes near
She is my gift
and I long to savor her more fully
She is inviting me to a oneness with God,
listen...do you hear her?
I avoid her gaze
because at first she looks lonely
I push back at her instruction
because of my own agenda
I veer from her course
because I am easily distracted
I wonder why she comes near
because there is always another choice
Yet I long to savor her
like never before
And once I say yes to her
I receive an awareness I never knew
she could introduce to me
She is my companion,
She is God's gift
On my journey of exploring contemplative prayer tools, I've tried many things. Naturally, some prayer disciplines work for me better than others (I wrote a little about my prayer struggles recently at MinistryMatters.com). Some prayer disciplines work for me in seasons. One thing I've learned about me and my personality (that remains consistent - in an ironic way) is that I like variety in my prayer life. And I'm realizing this is true for many others as well. How we connect can't be nearly as important as our desire to connect! As Psalm 145:28 reminds us, when our motive is sincerely to connect with God, God is indeed as close as a whisper. And, I'm certain the tools we use to connect with God are much more about us than they are about God. So, while I have my favorite ways to pray, I believe being open to trying new tools is a great way to grow my prayer life.
So, it was with openness and excitement that I discovered a book from the Upper Room about Prayer Beads by Kristen Vincent. The book caught my eye after an experience I had on a silent retreat at a local convent with my spiritual director. I am an extrovert, so silent retreats may seem difficult for those of us who use words more than others. However, I love my times of silent retreat. I find they help me deepen my other senses and tap into parts of my soul that often get ignored. As I sat in the chapel on the first night of our retreat, I noticed that one of the Sisters had left her rosary on the chair. I sat and held the beads in my hand and thought of the hands that had held those beads and the prayers that had been prayed over the years. I found myself wishing this discipline had been one that was part of my own faith and was curious to learn more. Kristen's book on Prayer Beads answered my questions and it filled me with a longing to share this tool with others. Turns out, prayer beads are not just for Catholics and I was excited to learn more.
Prayer Beads are used as a tool. They help us focus while praying. I'm not sure about you, but I'm (oh look, it's snack time...) easily distracted! Prayer Beads (like hand crosses, prayer rocks, etc.) give us a tangible reminder that we are approaching God in prayer. I knew that beads had been used for centuries as a tool for prayer. I was excited to discover from Kristen that the modern English word for "bead" is derived from the Anglo-Saxon "bede" which means "prayer." And while I'm often seen with my beaded keychain or bracelet(s), this understanding deepens my appreciation for my love of beads.
Kristen's model for praying with beads includes 34 beads (33 beads symbolize the years of Christ's life on earth and a 34th bead symbolizes his resurrection). Each bead has a meaning and my favorite part of her prayer model for the beads is that while they are designed with meaning and purpose, there is no right or wrong way to use the beads. For those who do enjoy structured prayer time, Kristen includes devotional prayers to use with your beads in her book as well as on her blog.
The prayer beads in the photo are from a prayer bead retreat I recently led and the women loved creating them. The beads are a special reminder to us that God is as close as our whisper. The symbolism and order of the beads is meaningful for our faith. The beads are even beautiful. But, the time on retreat creating these sets of 34 beads may have been the best gift of all - the time together was holy.
When my husband and I were married (14 years ago this month), we set a goal to visit America's National Parks. We haven't made it too far into our list during those years (with hopefully plenty more years to visit). But, we have enjoyed the parks we've already visited and fortunately our family just added two more to the list. The three of us escaped to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks this past week. The weather was perfect and the trip was beautiful!
But, I really do mean it when I say escaped. Life here is wonderfully blessed but we've been so busy lately. Too busy. The busy things on the list are all good - well, mostly good. We try to take time to sit down and have meals together, talk to each other, and be active as a family. But, it seems like this summer has practically flown by and I realized that we've missed out on being present more than I would have liked.
Anyway, we unplugged and escaped and I also mean TRULY unplugged. There was no television, internet or cell phone service in most of the areas of these parks. You couldn't distract yourself with Tweets if you tried. And, I tried. Once I broke the habit of checking for service, I let out this huge sigh of relief. The pressure was off, I didn't have to keep up or know what everyone else was doing. I did not have to post images of my trip for the world to see (no one really cares about what I had for breakfast anyway, do they?) and I don't know why but I think I was afraid something was going to happen that I was not going to know about and then I realized the alternative. I realized I was momentarily failing at something (savoring and enjoying the journey) that I have turned into a calling. I realized I must slow down, relax, enjoy God's peace, and savor this trip. I needed to chill out. And guess what? The silence was beautiful.
Our family bought a deck of cards (of course I packed all the chargers for our electronics but didn't think about a deck of cards). I listened to my child. I was answered by my husband with his eyes (and not the top of his head as he caught up on the news from his tweets). We made up card games because I couldn't even access Google in order to find the proper "rules" for our card games and guess what? It was awesome!!
I admit this temptation because I realize like other addictions, they can easily take over if we let them (and surely I'm not the only one). Social media and communication is constant and I love it. Did I mention that I love it? I am a learner and a sharer and social media is a great tool.
But, I'm realizing at times I do allow it to suck the peace opportunities away from me. I let it distract me from life too much. I let it soak up golden opportunities for silence. Now, it is true I find moments of peace and encouragement on social media. I've connected with wonderful new friends and old friends alike thanks to social media. It is also true that I share moments of peace on social media. But, at the same time, those social media "highs" can distract me from life opportunities and they surely don't allow me to be still (if you click this link you'll see I wrote about being still before we left and I still missed the boat). If I am not careful, so much can take me away from true conversations and the stillness I crave. Note to self: the concept is to be still, not be still while I read tweets. So, I'm sorry if I've done that to you. Yellowstone and the Tetons didn't let me, they demanded the attention their scenery deserved and now I hope to carry those less-distracted adventures right back home with me. I hope to give God and others the attention they deserve. After all, God made your beauty too!
By the way, this isn't a new concept I'm on to. There are quite a few bloggers who ironically spend there time on social media talking about how they need to unplug from social media. I'm not harping on them for that irony. Rather, I'm thanking them for the reminders!
So, it's with more questions than answers that I return from a beautiful land out West in our country. We saw amazing animals, gorgeous scenery, and the pupils in each others eyes. I want to carry those moments back home, I don't want to miss God's beauty. I want us to break open the game cabinet, put away our distractions, and find peace in our living room.
Today I had a lunch date with our son and purposely did not take my phone out of my bag. And, our 9 year-old is also implementing a weekly mandatory game night and I think that's a great start for our family! Yet, I'm still tempted and know I have some work to do myself. I don't think I'm ready for the extreme like ditching my smart phone (although I resisted a long time and now I think I know why).
What are your thoughts or ideas? Anyone feel as vulnerable as me on this journey toward peace? Anyone out there as tempted as me to escape the to do list or the lines or the boring moments of life (and sometimes the good moments of life) with the latest newsfeed or photos? Anyone out there let the to do list rule the day instead of lunch moments and a deck of cards? Is it just me? Please tell me, it isn't just me!
So, thank you to our National Parks for not only the scenery, but for the encouragement to unplug and enjoy the grandeur of our earth with my family. It was great! I'm ready to live into this life more fully with my family each day, not just in our National Parks. Thank you also to a new friend whose book is loaded in my Kindle (to help motivate us not to let our adventurous trip fizzle away and claim those moments more regularly). And, I'm going to log off rather than get sucked in to whether or not you read or comment on this post (although if you do, that would make logging back on a lot more fun). After-all, I realize blogging is not what life is all about. Life is about savoring these moments together before they slip away. It just so happens that for me, blogging about these moments, helps me process and savor them a while longer.
This past week has been full and at times overwhelming (if I'm to be truly honest). I'm very thankful I started the year off with a silent retreat last weekend to prepare (if even barely) for the coming year. We are now already ten days into a new year as I write these words.
I love words. Words help me heal, they help me share, they help me love, they help me process, they help me understand, they help me mourn, they help me believe, they help me have hope, they help. Words are powerful. So, for me, to select a single word for the coming year is a greater challenge than creating a long list of wordy resolutions (yes, I know I am wordy and this alone should likely be on a resolution list - hence the silent retreat). Choosing one word for the year is a practice I've entered in before and this year, with the help of Christine, I was encouraged and confirmed in my word:
So, although only God knows what is to come in 2013, I choose to embrace it (whatever that means or may look like). This week I have multiple friends facing the loss of loved ones (some with time to say goodbye and some of those friends have lost their loved ones unexpectedly). I have a precious boy celebrating Honor Roll. I have new opportunities in ministry. And, I also have a sink full of dirty dishes, mail to be opened, bills to be paid and a cough that has returned. I have some new boundaries and exciting new challenges. The only way to live fully into the coming year is to embrace each of these moments and the many more to come because only God knows the road ahead.
"MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone." -Thomas Merton
A friend of mine at Gallatin CARES who walks all over town - literally - is one of the most joyful people I know. He is also one of the most faithful members of our weekly Wednesday Bible Study and shows up no matter the weather, on foot.
I will also admit, he is the kind of friend that has had to grow on me. At first, I wasn't so sure how to respond to him. My friend, we will call him Jim, is full of excitement and praise - loud praise. The first few times I delivered the message at our Sunday service, I got multiple "Amens" and "Uh-huhs". I wasn't sure if he genuinely liked what I was saying or if he just liked that I was quick to get to my point and not very long-winded!
Jim will often interrupt me when I am leading Bible Study each week to be sure I don't miss any points. He also repeats much of what I say either because he wanted to make sure he understood or because he couldn't hear me the first time. Sometimes I have to kindly and clearly ask Jim to simply sit down and be quiet. Jim will give me a good hearty "Hello" and "How are you doing?" the moment he catches my eye, every time he sees me (or anyone in his path). Let's be honest, Jim, may not have been the most likely choice for a friend. The fact that he has daughters older than me is just one of the many differences in our lives. Jim and I have one thing in common, we both want to grow in our faith and sometimes that can be uncomfortable.
The week we practiced silence as a spiritual discipline in Bible Study was especially challenging for Jim. However, he practiced. Jim was the only member of our Bible Study to report back to me that he practiced his silence every single night that week. He did also follow up with how hard it was to practice silence (that got a good honest giggle from the other friends hearing his silence update). Jim wants to be in on the action. He wants to be included and part of a community. Jim wants to learn. Jim wants to give back.
Recently, Jim picked up his bag that he carries all over town and began digging to the bottom. He told me he had something special for me and I was not sure what he was going to pull out of that bag. It reminded me briefly of an episode of "Let's Make a Deal", but not being sure what he was digging for, I was a bit hesitant to reach out and receive. Jim pulled out a tiny container of Almond Joy coffee creamer (the kind you find at a gas station coffee bar). He held it up to me with a giant smile on his face and a giggle in his voice. He told me he wanted me to have this highly coveted flavor of creamer and asked if I drank coffee. I enthusiastically replied yes (which is a slight stretch of the truth since the closest I get to coffee is a Decaf Starbucks Via in my favorite Chocolate Mocha Smoothie). I said yes because I couldn't not receive this gift of joy - Almond Joy.
Christmas giving can be so routine. It can be stressful. Jim has taught me a lot. He has reminded me of the story of the widow's mite. He has taught me it is not about what I give, but how I give. I hope I can give this season with an ounce of the joy that Jim gives.
Mostly, I think that my unlikely friend, "Almond Jim", has taught me to receive. He has taught me it is indeed possible to receive in both the silence and the noise this Advent season.
May you find joy this Christmas!
This reflection was also posted at www.ministrymatters.com.
Every time I start to get overwhelmed, I am reminded to rest. And yet, my initial response is that I have too much to do to rest. You know the drill. The kids, the job, the house, the family, the friends, the church, the place you volunteer down the road, or even the shelter downtown - they ALL need you!
Guess what? They do need you! Without you, there will be no one to fold the laundry, help with homework, kiss the boo-boos, build friendships, give to the church, or volunteer in the community. But, here is the big news flash! You don't have to do it all at once and you aren't expected to do it all when you are exhausted.
We need rest. God designed us to rest. He even rested. He tells us that he will give us rest! So, why do we think that we are special and we do not need to rest? If you are guilty of forgetting to rest and take care of yourself, you are not alone. This has been a skill set I have been working on for quite some time. What is interesting is that many of us simply don't know where to start. Most of us have not been modeled rest or taught well how to rest by our society.
So, I'm sharing some small changes I've made to incorporate rest in my life and hope that by sharing my list it may help you to expand your list. Read it through, get some ideas and get some rest!
You may think that it is impossible to get away with God and find rest in today's society with all that is resting on your shoulders. But, it really is possible. And, in the long run, you may just find you are more productive. Or, you may find that the less important things in life just fall right off your list. What gives you rest?
I'm signing off to go stretch and then sleep while the dishes await! Happy rest!
On Sunday night, I was asked to speak at one of my favorite places, Gallatin C.A.R.E.S. This non-profit started by providing basic needs of food and economic relief and has grown into a place that cares for the soul as well. They have a worship service that meets on Sunday evenings and I enjoy slipping in for worship. I usually go alone but I never leave feeling alone.
This past Sunday night was no exception. I arrived in plenty of time (too much really) and looked like a lost puppy as the volunteers prepped the meal for afterward and set up the sound system in preparation for worship. I read my "sermon" for the millionth time (well, probably not that many, but a lot) and waited.
My sinuses and allergies have been troubling this past week (along with nearly every other Tennessean) and so cough drops and water were my friend. I have never shared a full message before. I have been part of a "Youth" or "Young Adult" Sunday where you take turns running the service. But, this was my first "real" sermon. When I was asked if I would speak, my friend had to remind me that I was an "official Lay Speaker" in the church and trained to do this because I was trying to think of someone else who could fill in. But, there was a little nudge that God wanted me to do this. So, I said yes.
The message was on 1 John 4 and Love. God's love. And, I can summarize it pretty easily: God loves us so much that Jesus died for us and we are now to love as Jesus loved. Love one another for God is love. And, that is what Gallatin C.A.R.E.S. is all about. They are God's love to the community every day by offering food, services, health care, worship, family and friendship. They offer this to everyone.
Aren't we all called to be God's love each and every day? I have been saddened this week by some hateful posts people have made on Facebook and Twitter. I really don't think Jesus wants us to treat each other the way we often do. And, history has not modeled for us well how to treat God's people with love and care.
Now, I have learned that you shouldn't say "no" to God. But, at this point in my calling, I do not feel called to pastor or preach. But, as I shared that night, I was reminded that I feel called to share God's love and his message of hope and healing.
Funny enough, I awoke to silence on Monday morning. My voice was completely gone - laryngitis had settled in. I have had a few days to think about this message and why it is so difficult for us as humans to model the love to one another that Jesus modeled for us. And, while, I may not have a voice, I do not feel silenced. Because I do not think that I need to shout God's love to share it. Sometimes, I need to sit back and soak it up in the silence so I can remember for myself how much He loves me. Sometimes I need to step out and share it by telling someone about it with a whisper. Sometimes I need to put God's love into action by doing something that looks more like shouting.
No matter what it looks like for me or for you in any season, I just can't shake the feeling that God wants us to really love on each other. I mean, really love each other and our differences. Not just pretend like we do when we see each other at the local grocery store. I had a friend make a post "complaining" about the service she received at her local Kroger on Facebook and within 12 hours there were 47 responses debating and defending the pros and cons of the rivaling local Publix and Kroger grocery chains. Why are we so ready to defend our favorite grocery chain but so reluctant to defend God's people? We'd rather beat them down and shout how wrong everyone else is. Speck, meet plank.
So, I am going to try to love. I'm going to try to love all of God's people. I will not be perfect at it, I will fail. I will be judgmental and not even realize it. I will be un-lovable at home and away from home. But, I'm going to try and not be silenced. I'm going to try and give God's people the love that God has given me. Even if I have to do it in a whisper.
Silence does not get much respect these days. We fill every moment with something and then we crave more hours in a day so we can fill those up too. The quiet moments that so many of us long for (in the car or working out if there's time) are often made more productive or enjoyable with podcasts, audio books or internet radio. But, what about padding your day with a little silence instead of another app? Is it even possible in today's world? God encourages us to seek it (Lamentations 3:26, Psalm 46:10, Job 29:21). But, in a society of high expectations and really smart electronic devices, most of us honestly don't know how to unplug and be silent. And, as we approach a season of well-meaning but sometimes distracting gifts, gadgets and gizmos, it is very easy for all of us to get lost in the excitement and chaos.
Jesus modeled for us how to retreat. So, if Jesus needed to retreat into silence, then surely you and I do as well? The reasons for why should we retreat seem obvious - to pray, to listen for God's voice, to be refreshed and connect with him anew. But, how do we do it and why don’t we do it regularly enough? Even though we recognize the importance of silence, many of us struggle with consistency. How can we face this fast paced world we live in, continue the demands of parenthood, career, friendships, volunteerism, etc. and still follow Jesus’ model to retreat with our Heavenly Father? What are your tricks for being consistent in your quiet time when the pillow is begging you to stay just a while longer?
One false assumption that we often jump to is that we can't retreat to silence without dropping everything. We think that we must pack our bags and travel far away to a land without wi-fi in order to retreat. That would be nice on occasion! However, it is not very practical. So, how do we find silence without retreating to the desert or setting our alarm for the middle of the night?
Well, it does take effort. It may mean a change in habits and a little more planning or tasks that get put on the back burner. It is not usually going to find you. I think we've learned to comfort ourselves with the noise almost like some toddlers long for their pacifier. But, don't be afraid of the silence. You are likely to receive a great refueling just by eliminating some noise, even if it is just a few minutes at a time.
Quite simply, we must make time of retreat a priority to find this silence. I genuinely think that most of us are simply not sure where to start. If silence really makes you uncomfortable (and it does for a lot of us extroverts), start small. Take five minutes in the morning or evening and simply breathe deep and listen. Invite God into your day by reading a Psalm or favorite scripture as you sit in the quiet and reflect or just sit and think through your day (not your ‘to do’ list). You may even be able to use the distractions of this world to settle into your silence before you take the plunge into total solitude. Visit your local coffee shop for a treat and set aside just 30 minutes to watch the people come and go. Notice their pace; take extra notice of those who seem to be enjoying their journey. Taste and smell your hot tea or coffee and take time to enjoy it as you reflect while avoiding the temptation of taking that phone call, text message or email. If you are new to practicing silence, use the crowd and the distractions to your advantage. Then, when you're ready, take the next step and the next toward deeper and longer quiet times retreating for an hour or a portion of your day. You may just find that there is a giant breath of fresh air and a second wind once you “power off”. When my son was younger, I was lost when his nap times came to an end (my quiet time). But, I later learned of other moms who instilled a mandatory quiet time. I think this is a great way to model for our kids that we can take just a few minutes out to read a book, do a craft or just simply rest. Get creative and include your family so that you can enjoy your quiet time.
Believe it or not, you don’t need a desert. You don’t need an egg timer or meditation chimes (although I’ve used both and I would enjoy a trip back to Sedona). You don’t even have to clear your mind (thank goodness!). Silence is actually an opportunity to hear things you may have never heard before or see things you may have never seen before. It has the ability to heighten all your other senses. Try it this week. You may find that you actually like it and realize that Jesus was onto something big!
Thomas Merton noted, "Our being is silent, but our existence is noisy". Claim some silence for yourself and don't let your existence get in the way today.
Whitney R. Simpson
• on a journey of #ExploringPeace
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