Ode to Orange–A Poem

Earlier this summer I attended the Summer Institute in Spirituality and the Arts at United Seminary. This year’s workshops explored freeing your voice, creativity and spirituality, performance and spirituality, and experimenting with art as a springboard for writing poems.

United Seminary Chapel, Minnesota (click on to enlarge)–
photo by Julie McCarty–2012

Four days packed with the interplay of spirituality, art, and writing–three of my favorite things. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven!

One of the activities involved writing a poem focused on the wonder of a particular color. I love many colors and color combinations, but I decided to stretch myself by choosing orange, my least favorite color (no offence, orange-lovers!).

After playing with orange paint, I surprised myself by writing this poem:

Ode to Orange 

My least favorite color—
purple’s shadow side—
nonetheless captivates me
in autumn’s luminosity
of sparkling maple leaves,
pregnant pumpkins,
and shining haystacks
on an Amish farm.

Then, too, the heady smell
of a Phoenix February:
orange blossom perfume,
Mom’s orange cake, and Tang,
the inflatable drink of astronauts. . .

How unusual the first time
I traveled through
peach painted deserts,
rusty red-orange cliffs
or Santa Fe hills dressed
in piňon pine polka-dots
(sprinkled just so by Mother Nature)!

When angled sun shines
at the end of the day,
orange speaks to me–
pinkish adobe homes
turn yellow-orange,
set-aglow, illuminated:
God exhaling spirit
into our oh-so-earthy reality.

Santa Fe hills–photo by Aysha Griffin

                  

Spiritual Aerobics

Spiritual Aerobics

What is your least favorite color and why?  Try this: See if you can think of things you like that are that color. At the end, give thanks to God for all colors.

Prayer Walking for Health of Body and Soul

“Don’t pray, just walk!” he said forcefully. I couldn’t believe my ears. This priest—this strict, traditional, and prayerful priest—was telling me not to pray? 

When I protested that as an elementary school teacher and married woman I didn’t have time for walking every day, this busy pastor described his own “morning constitutional” (rain or shine) and the many personal benefits he’d reaped from this daily ritual. 

My personal and professional life had reached an all time high in stress. I had, after all, asked his advice. So, I laid out my teaching supplies each night, changed my alarm clock setting, and stopped off at a large park each morning on the way to work.

The discipline of getting up earlier and dressing for the weather was a little challenging at first, but as the weeks passed, I began to look forward to this time of silence before being swarmed with energetic children each day. I delighted in the changing colors of the wildflowers, the squirrels and bluebirds that darted and danced before me, and the huge expanse of the ever-changing morning sky.

And, I confess, I began to pray. I remembered that my pastor had said not to pray. But, when I saw a fresh carpet of snow, sparkling in the sunshine, I couldn’t help but thank the God for the beauty of nature. As I walked, I sometimes mused over various challenges in my career, devising new strategies for teaching, and the next thing I realized, I’d be asking the Lord for help with a “difficult” student. Other times, I would feel a quiet, peaceful feeling of solitude with God. I just couldn’t help but pray!

As a busy mom and teacher, Janet Holm McHenry has discovered that combining prayer and walking provides additional space for her personal prayer time. In her book, “PrayerWalk” (WaterBrook Press, 2001), McHenry explains that, although she is not a “morning person,” prayerwalking in the early morning works well with her family’s schedule, provides the exercise she needs, and allows her time to pray without interruptions.

At first, McHenry prays for her family while she is walking. Later, her daily walks open her eyes to the needs of others outside her circle and she begins to pray for them as well. As the months pass, McHenry notices little changes taking place in herself that she attributes to prayerwalking. She gradually overcomes some of her fears. Her general mood and outlook on life improves, due to what she calls “spiritual endorphins.” One morning, her son even catches her singing while making school lunches.

In the magazine “Spiritual Life” (Spring 2002), Richard Hurzeler, a grandfather and retired college professor, also writes about the benefits of prayerwalking. Naturally he enjoys time with his family, but prayerwalking provides him with some quiet time while also stretching and toning his muscles. Hurzeler enjoys the change of scenery while looking and listening for the presence of God within himself and others. He reminds us of Mother Teresa’s words: “We should make every effort to walk in the presence of God, to seek God in all persons we meet, to live our prayers through the day.”

“Don’t pray, just walk!” When I think back to these words, spoken to me so many years ago, I wonder, was the priest using reverse psychology? Or was he opening me to new prayer forms? Or maybe both?

 

Note: Article above reprinted from the syndicated column “The Prayerful Heart” by Julie McCarty, which appeared in Catholic newspapers around the country a few years ago.

Building Bridges with Books

Since the last blog post, I’ve been thinking: What have I learned in the period since the tragic terrorist attack of September 11, 2001? Is there anything good in my life that was brought about by something that was otherwise an evil deed?

(I don’t believe God causes evil, but that sometimes, when you look back over a long period of time, you can find something good that God brought out of an otherwise bad/evil situation.)

In reflecting on this question, the thing that surprised me most is how much I’ve learned about Islam, that is, people called Muslims. It’s not that I even know that much about Islam, but before 9-11, I knew nothing about it. Absolutely nothing.  If it hadn’t been for 9-11, I doubt I would have ever wondered about this major world religion and its devout believers. 

Looking over the past decade, I discover that I’ve read a number of books I never would have thought to read otherwise–and a number by Muslim authors:

  • Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, by Asar Nafisi;
  • The Kite-Runner, by Khaled Hosseini;
  • A Thousand Splendid Suns, also by Khaled Hosseini;
  • The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith, by Irshad Manji;
  • Things I’ve Been Silent About: Memories of a Prodigal Daughter, also by Asar Nafisi);
  • The Faith Club: A Muslim, A Christian, A Jew –Three Women Search for Understanding, by Ranya Idilby, Suzanne Oliver and Priscilla Warner;

These books do not represent all sides of the Muslim world–they just happen to be the ones I read. As I said, I didn’t exactly plan it that way. I just observe this when looking over the past decade.

These books gave me windows into other people’s worlds, realms that were completely unknown to me. Reading stories or the personal experiences of others was far more engaging than merely reading theological textbooks (although those have their place). My reactions to various parts of these books covered the full gamut of human emotions: sometimes I was laughing or crying, sometimes feeling shock, anger, outrage, or empathy–and always, always, I learned something.

This doesn’t take away the evil or tragic dimension of what happened on 9-11–and particularly not for those who lost loved ones–but for someone like me it shows that God can bless us in unexpected ways.

Until next time, Amen! 

Spiritual Aerobics

1. Can you think of a time in your life when God brought something good out of something that was in other ways a bad situation?

2. Is there something positive you can do today about a situation that is otherwise sad, trying, frightening, or painful for yourself or someone else?

Miracles Begin with Compassion

When Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. –Matthew 14:14

While listening to Pastor Kevin Olson’s sermon at Easter Lutheran Church this past Sunday, one sentence he said particularly struck me: “Every miracle begins with compassion.”

How different Jesus is from many public figures of our time–he did not work miracles merely to show his great spiritual power, create “special effects,” or convince others he was the Messiah. Jesus was not a politician trying to drive up his approval ratings or a celebrity seeking more media exposure.

Jesus was motivated by compassion. In Matthew 14, the passage read on Sunday, Jesus has just heard about the death of his cousin John the Baptist. He responds by going off to a deserted spot to pray, and, I imagine, have a little downtime to grieve.

But people want to see Jesus so much that they go out of their way to find him. When his prayer time is interrupted, Jesus doesn’t rebuke them or send them away. Out of love, he sets aside his own agenda and calmly responds to their needs.

This is one way that Jesus and I differ. When I am interrupted in my work or prayer, I don’t always respond that well. Pastor Kevin reminded us that spiritual writer Henri Nouwen pointed out that our true mission is sometimes found in the interruptions themselves. Our real ministry is not only in the “work” we do, but in the midst of people who come our way and “interrupt” us.

Jesus’ compassion doesn’t end at the end of the work shift, either. After a long day of interacting with the crowd, which has now grown to 5,000 (not counting the women and children), the disciples remind Jesus it’s getting late and no one has eaten. They suggest Jesus punch out for the day by telling the people to go to the nearby village to get something to eat.

But Jesus’ compassion for others is so great that he doesn’t want to risk people not getting fed due to lack of money or lack of resources (would a village really have enough food for thousands of people without advance notice?). So he tells the disciples:

You give them something to eat.

The disciples, of course, objected to this impractical—no, make that completely unreasonable—idea. They have some concern for the crowd’s needs, but this idea of feeding the crowd themselves seems ridiculous.

Nevertheless, Jesus asks the disciples to bring him what they have, the now-famous five loaves and two fish. Jesus blesses it and the disciples begin to offer it to others, and, as you know, the food in some miraculous way multiplies to feed them all.

I know I am like those disciples. I sometimes see other people’s needs and feel compassion but stop short of doing anything. I want to help them, but like the disciples, part of me wants to send the suffering away to get help someplace else.

There are many people suffering in our world today who need our compassion. There are those who are unemployed or under-employed, the sick and starving, the battered and war-torn, and the list goes on and on. Each of us, by ourselves, cannot undo all the problems of the world, nor does God expect us to do so.

However, too often we use the vastness of the problems to keep us from doing anything at all. Like Jesus’ disciples who wanted to send the hungry crowd away to fend for themselves, we want to send the suffering away—let someone else deal with the problem.

But Jesus didn’t send people away empty. He filled their lives with healing, love, meaning, and yes, food for their bodies. Through the words of Scripture, Jesus tells us again today:

You give them something to eat.

 Until next time, Amen!

Spiritual Aerobics

The word “compassion” comes from roots that mean to stand with someone in their suffering. The compassionate person is willing to journey with another who is experiencing pain, agony, confusion, or other trials. Who do you know that is suffering these days? How would Jesus express compassion for this person? Is there something you could do for him or her?

The Jesus Prayer

“Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

As I mentioned last time, I’m  involved in a small faith group this summer which is exploring various ways to pray. We are using the book Creating a Life with God: The Call of Ancient Prayer Practices by Daniel Wolpert (Upper Room Books).

"Christ the Pantocrator--Jesus Creator of All" --Icon by Marian Zidaru 2002--photo by JAMThis week I finished reading the chapter that focuses on the Jesus Prayer.  This ancient way of praying reminds us of God’s presence through praying the words the blind man shouted out to Jesus as he passed by: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Mark 10:47)

The exact wording of this prayer can vary. Some pray, “Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” or other similar words. I once met a nun who simply prays two words in a slow, meditative fashion, sometimes in rhythm with her breath, “Jesus, mercy.”

This way of praying is not done in order to earn salvation or win God’s favor by repetitive prayer. The short prayer is used to draw one’s attention to God’s love, mercy, and presence in our lives, whether we are eating, sleeping, working, or sitting in church praying. Praying in this way draws our hearts and minds away from trivial, passing things, and into the realm of God’s presence, seeking to follow the instruction of First Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing” (5:17).

While reading Wolpert’s book, I was touched by the way he described praying the Jesus Prayer in the wee hours of the night:

One of the best times for me to pray the Jesus Prayer is at night when I cannot sleep. Rather than tossing and turning and getting upset that I am still awake, I simply begin to pray the Jesus Prayer. Remember that the pilgrim was told to pray the prayer even in his sleep! Often I do fall asleep right away. The times when sleep comes more slowly are wonderful periods of prayer. In the deep silence of the night, I can lift my heart and mind to my Creator—a soft voice ringing out into the infinite.

“Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” 

I, too, on occasion have prayed this prayer in the middle of the night. I like to do the short form, in time with gentle, slow breathing: “Jesus” (while gently inhaling) and “mercy” (while gently exhaling).  It’s like inhaling the presence of God and asking for God’s love and mercy all at once…mercy for my sins, mercy for the one who has hurt me, mercy for the sick and suffering, mercy for the broken and hurting world all around us.

If you think that this prayer practice is nothing but sweetness and light, think again: it is not always so. During an interview I did one time for an article on the Jesus Prayer, an Orthodox priest told me the this prayer form “is no picnic.” He explained that if one is serious about the Jesus Prayer, practicing it in the context of truly following Christ, Christ the Pantocrator -- Jesus Creator of All -- Detail --2002 Icon by Marian Zidaru -- photo by JAMthe prayer gradually leads a person to recognize his or her own impurities of word, thought, and deed that previously went unnoticed. This awareness of our own sins and imperfections leads us into a gradually deepening conversion process.

The Jesus Prayer, this priest observed, “is an effective tool in the very difficult work of gaining control of one’s mind in order to center it on the constant remembrance of divine beauty and awakening it to the eternal realities of the Spirit.” The process makes it possible for us to become “servants of divine Compassion, students of the Lord, studying how to die to ego, so that we might be reborn as children of the Spirit.”

“Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Until next time, Amen!

Invitation: Contemplative Spiritual Practices Group

Sunrise beach walk--photo by Julie McCarty--click to enlarge

Every now and then, I find I have to do something to spice up my relationship with God. Like any relationship, God and I can get stuck in a rut, take things for granted, or let things go a little stale. Of course, it’s not really God who is letting things flounder, but rather I am the one who gets a little lazy or distracted.   (Sometimes the feeling of boredom or being stuck in a rut in prayer can really be God calling one to a deeper way of prayer—but that is the subject of another article.)

One way I hope to put a little pizazz into my prayer life this summer is by meeting with a small faith group to explore various contemplative spiritual practices. For six sessions, meeting every other week, we will be exploring different ways from the Christian tradition to pray and relate to God.

We will be meeting every other Wednesday beginning on June 29th, from 7:00 to 8:30 at a member’s home. Because of my background and training in this area, I will be facilitating the first few meetings. This group is part of the small group ministry at Easter Lutheran Church (ELCA) here in Eagan, Minnesota, but one does not have to be a member in order to join us. So you are welcome to attend if you are interested.

To begin with, the book we will be using is called Creating a Life with God: The Call of Ancient Prayer Practices by Daniel Wolpert. The author lives up in the area of Crookston, MN, and is a church pastor with many  credentials and experience in teaching Christian prayer. We’ll be looking at only 2 chapters per meeting so as to allow time between sessions to experiment with prayer on your own. The book is available from Amazon, Border’s, and Barnes and Noble for about $11. Local stores would probably order it for you. Topics include how to pray using short passages from Scripture, journaling, praying in nature, integrating prayer and life experience, finding God in silence, and other topics. The book is very helpful, but you do not have to obtain it before the first meeting.

Creating a Life with God explains how to pray with Scripture using the ancient Christian method called lectio divina (sacred reading), the Jesus Prayer, entering into silence and solitude, finding God in day-to-day experiences, journaling, the role of body in prayer, praying in nature, etc.  It looks at how various Christians of the past used these different ways to build their spiritual lives. You can read more about this book at the publisher’s site here  and a review of it here.

As I mentioned, if you live close enough to join us, we would love to have you come. Just contact me for more info and directions to our first meeting location at a member’s home. (Click on contact page above.)

And if you are interested but cannot attend, think about reading the book yourself. Feel free to send questions to be discussed on this blog if you like.

Until next time, God be with you,  Amen! 

New Page about Spiritual Direction

Yesterday I learned how to add a whole new sticky page to the Spiritual Drawing Board. The page I created tells about the time-honored practice of spiritual direction, often called “spiritual companioning” today.

(You can access this new page by clicking on the tab labeled spiritual direction above the sunrise photo. If you are receiving this post via e-mail subscription, you can click to my blog or else just google “Spiritual Drawing Board.”)

If you are looking for a safe place to explore your own spiritual life, to wrestle with soul questions, to learn about prayer in a one-with-one setting, think about finding a spiritual director. If you live near Eagan, Minnesota, and feel you might like to work with me, my contact info is on the Spiritual Direction page. You can locate other spiritual directors by asking church staff, spirituality or retreat centers, or searching on the website of Spiritual Directors International.

By the way, Spiritual Directors International website has some great YouTube videos of people talking about their experience with spiritual direction.  

Hope your Lent is proving fruitful–and if not, it’s not too late to delve into a good spiritual book, take a soul walk,  or turn to prayer. 

Until next time, Amen! 

P.S. If you are receiving this in e-mail, feel free to pass it on to others who might be interested in spiritual direction. (It is always okay to forward my Spiritual Drawing Board posts!)