The Spiritual Discipline of Deep Rest

Our Worship Task Group meeting last night began with several members of the group explaining, somewhat apologetically, that they had gotten worn out recently and needed to rest. The comments reminded me of an off-hand comment that a woman I met at a retreat once made. We were "checking in" about our spiritual lives, and when it came to her turn she said, "I have mostly been devoting myself to the spiritual discipline of deep rest."

I was a bit shocked. I had never thought of rest as a spiritual discipline. The very word "discipline" seemed to me to imply something that was hard to do, something that took effort. Rest, as I understood it, was what you did in between episodes of doing hard things with great effort. For example, you drive along on a highway and then you pull over at a Rest Stop, and there you take a break from driving. So it is with me. I spend the day pushing to get everything done and then I fall into bed exhausted, and do my best to get some rest so that I can start running around again in the morning.

But that woman's words stuck with me, and I thought about them for the rest of the retreat. There was something about them that rang true with me. For one thing, it does take effort and intention for me to rest. I can always think of something more to do, so taking time to be quiet, to breathe deeply, to give a friend or a family member my full attention requires a conscious decision to step away from all my doing for a time. For another thing, I recognize that those times when I do make a conscious effort to rest have a different quality than the rest that I take when I'm totally exhausted and couldn't possibly do one more thing.

What if we all committed ourselves to the Spiritual Discipline of Deep Rest? In order to do so, we would have to value rest--and not just work. We would have to decide at the outset of the day, the week, the year, that one of the things we are going to make time and space for is rest. We would have to think carefully about what helps us to rest, deeply. Collapsing on the couch and watching television can be restful, but if we have an intention to seek deep rest as a spiritual disicipline, I'm not sure TV would be a big part of our lives. I think sleep would be, though. And listening to music. And staring up at the stars.

Why apologize for needing to rest? It's not weakness; it's not failure. Why not celebrate rest as part of our spiritual lives? Why not invite others to rest, right along with us?

Amazing Grace Coffeehouse

I recently attended the Amazing Grace Coffeehouse at KC.  It was an inspiring fun-filled evening.  I only planned to stay for a couple of songs in the 2nd set but the the music was so wonderful I could not leave. 

The worship space was filled with the wonderful holy energy of people who are excited about their faith and how their faith blesses their life.  For me the experience was a praise worship service because the artists were mostly performing songs they had written and before the song they often gave a mini-sharing about what was going on in their life that inspired the song and how God helped them through.  There was a lot of sharing about the value of having a strong relationship with God.  Some places would call the mini-sharing's a
"personal testimony".  The sharing's were not done in a preachy way.  They were genuine and heartfelt.

There is now a web site for the Coffeehouse. The web site says:  Each of us have a life story ... and we welcome you into ours  AND I truly felt welcomed!

All the music was great.  The song that most impacted me tonight was called "A Day Like No Other".  The song was inspired by a nursing home ministry of the artists father. There was a lady who lived at the nursing home who used to stand up every time and hold her hands up over her head and say:  "Praise the Lord, this is a day I have never seen before".  Because of this song the blessing of this nursing home resident now flows through the artist who wrote the song and into my life.  The artist was Richard Walton.  The song was by  "Straight on Red".   The group consisted of a guitar, a violin and a conga player who also played the rain stick and a really neat sounding set of double chimes.  I did not know a person could make such a great variety of sound come forth from conga drums.

The other song that always inspires me is the LaRocca song called "Dream Giver".   You can link to the web site for the Coffeehouse and hear these songs.

My thanks to Tracy Wade, Neal Buck and Rick LaRocca of the EXPRESSIONS Care Group for creating this event!

Next month the guest artists will be Denise Dovel, she will be appear with her husband, comedian Andy Dovel.

The Problem With Living In Your Body

I'm really good at "yeah, but's...", probably as a result of the early imprint of high school debate. I can almost always see the other side of any argument I happen to make. Ever since I wrote about the benefits of being alive and present to our bodies, I have been thinking about the problems with doing exactly that.

I realize that this sound like a slightly weird dilemma. After all, there may be pros and cons to having a body, but what's the alternative? It's not like we can choose to be disembodied spirits instead of embodied human beings. And while that's true, it really is amazing to realize that we can choose to live as if we were disembodied spirits. We can choose to ignore our bodies, to neglect them, and to live life as if we were floating heads.

A lot of us do this, and don't even realize we're doing it, until we have an experience which makes us show up to our whole body and start living there. I'm sure there are a number of experiences which can push us in that direction. For me, the main ones have been pregnancy, sexuality, intuitive eating and yoga.

I'm no expert on that last one. My forays into yoga have been interesting, but brief. But I know a little bit about the power of that practice from my own experience, and even more from Matthew Sanford's amazing book, "Waking: A Memoir of Trama and Transcendence". I first heard of this book when Sanford gave an incredible interview on the NPR show, "Speaking of Faith".

Sanford was paralyzed from the chest down at the age of thirteen in a car accident that also killed his father and sister. His book tells the story of his recovery from that accident, a journey that eventually led to his becoming a yoga practitioner and teacher of "adaptive yoga" to disabled people. Before he discovered yoga, he writes, he really did see himself as a "floating torso". He essentially ignored the paralyzed part of his body. But yoga brought him into relationship with even the parts of his body that he can't feel or use, and taught him to fully restore his mind-body connection.

This wasn't an easy task, it turns out. As he began to reconnect with the parts of his body which had been cut off from him by his accident, he found himself re-experiencing the trauma of that experience. Somehow, his body had retained a memory of a trauma that his mind did not have access to. When he begins to have vivid flashbacks of the accident, he's terrified. But eventually he realizes, "Healing, however, is not instantaneous. It is earned. There is no way to step around my body's past experience. I am terrified. My body has much to say, and it needs acknowledgment. More important, I need to feel grateful."

That's the insight that eventually changes everything. His body has been working hard to sustain his life, and it has done well. He can honor it, even though it's broken. For me, I read his story as a real-life parable of traveling into death and coming out on the other side, resurrected.

I have a feeling that Sanford's story is a more extreme version of a story each of us could tell. Our bodies carry the memory of trauma--of pain, of brokenness, of death--and when we show up to our bodies, when we consent to hear what they have to say to us, we will hear some harrowing things. But the promise of the Gospel makes us bold: when the new day dawns, the tomb is empty.

Dare I say it? I believe in the resurrection of the body.

The Spirituality of Being in the Zone

I was delighted (and a little surprised) to read an article in the Washington Post this morning that addressed a really problematic religious practice, and ended up not reducing it or dismissing it, but complexifying it, allowing it to gain nuance and texture. The article was entitled, "You've Gotta Have Faith: Colorado Rockies at Play in the Fields of the Lord." It made note of the Rockies players who cross themselves on the field, point to heaven after a success, or wear crosses with their uniforms. It also mentioned the team's supposedly "Christian" code of conduct. But instead of scoffing at how silly it is to claim that God would be on the side of the Rockies (or how absurd it would be to imagine God being against the Red Sox!) the writer pushed on to acknowledge that teams do have experiences of being "in the zone". That, even more than winning, feels to many like a religious experience.

I know exactly what he's saying, and I've felt it myself, running or preaching or doing other activities where I get into a state of flow. In fact, I once preached a sermon where I claimed that seeing Sara Hughes win the gold medal in figure skating in 2004 was like seeing the Kingdom of God come to earth. For a few minutes, she broke through to the other side.

Still, for what it's worth, I'm praying for the Red Sox.

Thinking About Bodies...

I went to see Annie Leibovitz's photos at the Corcoran yesterday with Jan. Now I can't stop thinking about bodies.

Annie Leibovitz is famous for her dramatic portraits of celebrities, often staged with props (like a portrait of Leonardo DiCaprio with a swan wrapped gracefully around his neck) or in the midst of some kind of staged setting (like her famous portrait of Whoopi Goldberg in a bathtub of milk). But what struck me as soon as I walked into the exhibit at the Corcoran was not the theatricality of her portraits, but their physicality.

Right off, there is a stunning photo of dancer Bill T. Jones leaping, naked, against a stark white backdrop. But the photo also shows what stands behind the white paper--an urban rooftop with girders and bricks, their solidity as powerful a part of the image as Jones' grace. Then, turn the corner and you meet Leibovitz's mother, a sturdy, aging woman, dancing at the beach in a sensible bathing suit, her leg high in the air. A photo of her father and brother, also in swimsuits, grinning with their arms crossed in front of their chests, somehow exudes the same physical energy. A note nearby quotes Leibovitz as saying her whole family shares a kind of "physical vitality".

And then, suddenly, you can see it everywhere. Not just the dancers, and not just the criminally beautiful Demi Moore in her famous pregnant portrait. My favorite photo in the exhibit was a portrait of writer Eudora Welty, taken when must have been in her late 80's, shows her holding her coat closed with one hand and gripping the arm of her chair with the other. The energy in her hands is as clearly portrayed in the photo as the intelligence in her face.

Clearly, Annie Leibovitz knows and honors the vitality of the body. She knows how we live, not just as minds or as spirits, but as bodies. We show up to the world in our bodies, and we age and get sick and die in our bodies. Those photos are in the exhibit too, unflinching in the knowledge that bodies can torture us. They carry pain and trauma as well as exuberant passion.

I want to be a Christian, to be a pastor, with that insight. Ours is an incarnational faith--we dare to proclaim that God has been made known to the world in a body, one that grew and experienced pleasure and suffered and died. And one that rose again--somehow transformed, glorified, but still a body. But so often we think our ways out of the challenge of that story. It's easier to talk about ideas, beliefs, values, easier to relate to each other that way, easier to relate to God that way.

I want to show up to the world like people show up to Annie Leibovitz--alive and present down to my fingertips. I want to show up to God that way, because I know that I have seen God show up to me in my body, in the bodies of others, embodied in the world.

"That I was, I knew was of my body—and what I should be, I knew I should be of my body."
-Walt Whitman, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry

Being Brave in Santa Fe, part 2

So, the second day I was in New Mexico (Wednesday of last week) I woke up at 4:00 am in the morning, local time, which meant I actually slept in a little according to my internal clock. I dozed for another hour or so, but by 5:00 am I was ready to get moving.

I was sleeping in a tent in a campground where I was the sole inhabitant. Maybe it was because of Georgia O'Keeffe's inspiration, or maybe it was because I had made it through the night without being eating by coyotes, but I was feeling braver than usual. So I washed up and drove into Santa Fe in search of the Atalaya Mountain trail which the website I had printed out assured me was one of the most popular short hikes in the area.

So I found the trailhead, found where to park the car and hiked the three miles up to the peak at 9,100 feet. I looked around and thanked God for the place and the day and my life and the world, ate some trail mix, called Dan, and then I hiked back down. I never saw another person the whole morning.

Maybe that doesn't seem like a huge big deal. But for me, it took a lot of guts to do it totally by myself. I grew up in a family that liked to camp and hike, but I never liked it much and completely quit when I was 12. When I met Dan (almost 20 years ago!) I realized that he loved hiking so much that if I was going to love him (and if he was going to love me) I was going to have to go along. We hiked in Scotland and in Switzerland and in New Hampshire, and sometimes it was great, but a lot of the times I was cursing him in my mind for having dragging me along, too fast and too far.

When we got married, Dan's sister Carla joked with me that our vows should read, "I, Heather, agree to go up any peak in any weather, and do solemnly swear to take all the spur trails and still beat book time." I laughed when she said that--sort of.

Kids turned out to be the solution to our hiking issues. They loved to hike, but for a long time they couldn't hike very far or very fast. I finally found my natural pace, and then, as they grew and sped up little by little, so did I.

When I reached the peak of Atalaya, I was at first full of self-congratulations. Finally, I did it on my own! No one made me, no one dragged me or pushed me. I came on my own. Aren't I brave!

I took out my cell phone to call Dan, just to so I could crow about my accomplishment. But somehow, when he picked up, I found myself saying "Thank you!" instead. Yeah, I walked up the mountain myself. I didn't do it to prove anything to him. But I did it because for 20 years, he has loved me and loved mountains, and somehow, in the process, my heart expanded.

So this is who I am, I thought as I walked down. I'm brave and confident and independent. And I'm connected and appreciative and loved. Both. And. Thank you, Jesus!

Being Brave in Santa Fe

Last week, I went to New Mexico from Tuesday through Thursday to be a part of Emergent Village's "Vision Team" which met during the Emergent Gathering in Glorieta. I've been to most states in the US thanks to my parents' fondness for car trips, but I'd never been to New Mexico. So although I knew that there was warm, welcoming, and fascinating community waiting for me at the conference center, I lingered a bit in Santa Fe on Tuesday morning after I arrived. I found a coffee shop, had lunch, and then made my way over to the Georgia O'Keeffe museum.

I wandered my way around the small collection, watched part of the introductory video, and then looked around a bit more. Before I knew what was happening, I found myself tearing up and trying not to attract attention. I was just overwhelmed by the museum's testimony to one woman's bravery. O'Keeffe was not only one of the first women to paint abstract paintings in the U.S. She was one of the first people in the U.S. to do so. A lot of people hated what she did, and it was hard to do, and hard to keep doing, but she kept at it, and her vision just became bolder and more revelatory as time went on.

But her life wasn't without complication. She fell in love with Arthur Stieglitz, who clearly understood the beauty of her soul and her body. He took some incredibly sensual photographs for her and displayed them, and from that point on, everyone saw O'Keeffe's paintings as thinly-veiled sexual iconography. It was impossible for a flower to just be a flower, and if it was something more, then it was wild and wicked and naughty. And it wasn't quite as great.

For a while, O'Keeffe retreated. She painted pears which were so simply and clearly pears that no one could accuse her of trying to imbue them with her supposedly pervasive sexuality. But she couldn't stay in retreat, because she simply didn't see the world as others did. In fact, she claimed that she painted things exactly as she saw them, and when finished, others looked at her work and called it abstraction. The paintings from the end of her life are perhaps more rooted and structural, but just as bold, just as brave as ever.

How does a woman become that brave? The last time that question struck me was in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. My kids were pulling at me to move on, but I stood in front of the display of Janis Joplin's clothes and albums in absolute awe. Janis was another totally brave, totally original artist. But she flamed out much earlier than O'Keeffe, killing herself first little by little and then completely. Both women were geniuses, but one was an addict with all the lies and falsehoods that go with that, and the other allowed herself to be seen and known and loved.

I thought and talked about a lot of other things in New Mexico, but the questions that started in the O'Keeffe museum are the ones that stayed with me. Did O'Keeffe succeed because of Stieglitz or despite him? Did he make her career or almost destroy it? Those questions can't really be answered--this relationship had both a gift and a cost, like all relationships have.

Stieglitz didn't make Georgia O'Keeffe brave, but her saw her bravery and loved it, and made sure that she didn't play to an empty house. She didn't need to be known and understood by everyone, but it clearly made an enormous difference in her life (and his) that she was known and understood by someone.

We'll never step out on our own if we need to get permission from the whole world first, but in the end, we aren't ever really brave on our own. As a Christian, and as a Christian leader, that insight feels like an important one.