Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Reflection for Lent: Considering the Furniture of Our Spiritual Lives

“For things done and left undone” is part of the confession we make each week as we approach the altar. It is also part of the confession we make annually on Ash Wednesday. For Christians, Ash Wednesday and the Lenten journey is a time for making our “New Year’s resolutions” not because a new year is beginning but because it is that annual time at which we turn again and put our trust in the Lord.

Lenten discipline, though, is not about heaping things upon ourselves that we can never, or will never be able to accomplish, rather it is about refocusing our lives in the right direction. Lent is about turning the eyes of our hearts and minds, once again, to Christ, who opens the way for us when the way may seem dark or impossible.

Lenten discipline is not about depriving ourselves of good things, but about opening ourselves to the goodness of God. It is about looking around our “spiritual room” and surveying the furniture of this room. This may mean that from time to time we will have to empty our lives of things that clutter up the space. At other times it might mean a rearranging of the furniture of our lives. Or, it may mean even adding some furniture that will make our journey with Christ more meaningful.

Here are three examples.

Most of us in traditions who keep the season Lent (not to mention those who see it caricatured in the entertainment media) have often considered Lent a time of self-denial. And so it may be. Giving up something that draws us or distracts us from God might certainly be a good discipline. Thus, if we escape into food, alcohol, caffeine, television, computer-land, or other distractions to distract us from the reality of our lives, then taking a break (or a fast) from such a thing might help us to bring our concerns and troubles more prayerfully to God, rather than hiding from them through various distraction techniques. Giving up something, or getting rid of some of our “excess furniture”, can be a way of exploring what it feels like to be rid of something that we use as a crutch and replace that crutch with a trust in God. Giving up something should not be done to punish ourselves but rather to open a path to our spiritual healing and growth.

Another example might be to make a change in a routine, in the arrangement of our space -- to “move around the furniture.” If our prayer life is stale, we may change the time we pray (say, from evening to morning). If we find ourselves physically, mentally, or emotionally exhausted, what if we change our exercise pattern, resting pattern, or eating pattern? The regularization of an erratic schedule or the intentional adherence to an existing healthy schedule may not mean adding or subtracting things from one’s day, it might just mean paying more attention to how one goes through the day. Mindfulness of the placement of the furniture of our lives and reflection on how we might make better use of what we have will be a part of many people’s Lenten journey.

Finally, sometimes we will need to add some furniture to the room. This is why most churches have Lenten educational programs and services. The opportunity to intentionally engage the questions of our faith, to grow, learn and enter into a more regular pattern of worship are an important part of the Lenten pilgrimage of faith. It may also be time to take up some individual prayer and study (for example, to work one’s way through a particular book of the Bible; to focus on regular recitation of the Daily Office). It can also be a time of almsgiving, whether that be seen as prayerful charitable giving or the prayerful giving of time and talent to a particular cause. In any event, sometimes we will need to add a piece of furniture to aid us in our spiritual growth.

Will we engage in all three of these areas during any particular Lenten season? Probably not, but examine the furniture of your spiritual room this year and as you embark on a Holy Lent, consider whether you need to houseclean, rearrange, or pick out some new furniture.

c. 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Lenten Homilies by Anglican Clergy

Readers of this blog may be interested in learning that the Diocese of Toronto has launched a new "Reflections" section on their website. It currently features Lenten homilies by various clergy of our diocese. I am pleased to say that they accepted my submission of my Ash Wednesday homily from last year (2008).

I commend the page to you. It can be found by clicking here.

Friday, February 6, 2009

On Helplessness

There are times when we feel that we can do nothing. When a crisis hits we have an impulse to help. However, in many cases it would seem that there is nothing to be done… at least by us. There will be some, either through training or skill, who can immediately jump in, begin their work and be the people they are called to be at such a moment. Thanks be to God for such people. For the rest of us though, it will be difficult to stand by, watch, and feel helpless.

It occurs to me that our fear of helplessness comes from being a society of “doers.” Indeed, many of us believe that our value as a person is derived from “what we do” professionally. This is why the loss of a job, a forced change of job, or retirement can be such a traumatic occurrence for so many. Our usefulness and our apparent value is challenged by such a stripping of our presumed identity. When we cannot “do” we wonder if our life has any meaning.

For those of us in the so-called caring professions, or helping professions, the difficulty can be compounded because our “doing” is “helping.” What if we find that we cannot do what we so naturally do? What happens when we cannot answer that cry for help? And as helpful as others might be (again because of their skill and training), the very fact that they can help and we cannot may only underscore our own helplessness. What are we to do?

We can only pray.

Of course, I do not really mean “only”. Prayer is such a profound and great thing and yet how often do we qualify it with the word “only.” “Doctor, what can be done for him?” “Nothing, only prayer.” I am ashamed to say that even for us as Christian people, and yes, even for us as clergy, prayer is often the route of last recourse. I am certain that this is because we are “doers.” To be a “doer” is certainly a good thing if it means making use of our God-given gifts and talents, but we must always remember that all our efforts pale under the sovereignty of God, and if they are done without a recognition of God’s sovereignty then our efforts are for nought.

Prayer is often the last thing because it is the ultimate form of submission to our helplessness. In reality it is often the only thing that we can do. And of course, at its most authentic level, it is not we doing anything at all but it is the Holy Spirit of God who acts. When we cannot find the words or even the will, the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.

Perhaps the simplest of all prayers says it all, the prayer known as the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This prayer reminds us that we are not the ones who can help or save another. Certainly, there will be times when we are called upon to exercise our gifts, but God is the helper and God is the saviour. Sin is really about us thinking that it is all in our hands, and of course, it is not. This prayer reminds us of this truth. It also directs us to the one who is our Saviour, our helper and our Sovereign Lord, Jesus Christ, who is merciful.

Thus helplessness is not hopelessness, but the road to recognizing that we are not the ones in control. God is in control. Helplessness returns us to the one who sees beyond what we could not do, failed to do, wished we could have done, and things we have left undone. Standing in the presence of that one, simply as we are (not as who we would have ourselves be) we discover our true identity as beloved Children of God. Helplessness reminds us to pray, to open ourselves and the world to the love that God has to give, and no prayer is ever too late or “just” a prayer. Thus, even at in our most helpless moments, we are not without hope.

Let us pray.

Copyright 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves