Frames of Attention

Complaining. Well, not exactly. Lamenting, maybe, with a positive turn.

I began a recent conversation with my friend, my spiritual mentor, by telling her all the things that were crashing in on me.

I’m teaching a very challenging new course that is taking more time than I ever expected and I’m feeling more vulnerable than usual.

We’re going to be moving in a few months. We’ve been packing stuff that just sits around anyway, looking at houses online, and planning our trip next week to actually see some of those houses.

My husband doesn’t have a position in our new place…yet.

Our daughter is getting married in a few months and my opinions and guesses are required. Those suggestions are laden with wonderings and assumptions tucked beneath the surface.

Oh, and I have revisions to finish, an editorial review due this week, and I am being nominated for an award that requires a 10 page paper by Monday morning.

Blessings.

That’s what my friend said.

God help me with my blessings?

Teaching that class has been a great learning. Not only have I aquired new tools to infuse an online class with interaction and a personal presence,  I have a teaching partner. (We put our sections together in one online space.) I’m learning to lean on and work between our individual strengths to lighten both our loads.

We ARE moving. We will buy our own house again and enjoy beginnings that are both demanding and live giving. We’ve connected with a great realtor and lean into Divine providence—of that I am certain.

Yet… a powerful word. Given that I am certain that God is with us and going before us in creative collaboration with the gifts that Mitch has been given; the next job just isn’t completely visible…yet.

 All those professional tasks? I am blessed with gifts that are not perfect, with struggle that makes me learn more about the world, and myself, and opportunities to build community.

Yes, our daughter is getting married. More than that, she is creating a life with an extraordinary partner. God has handed me this opportunity to build our relationship, to support and uphold her.

  An old silent pond.           Into the pond a frog jumps.          Splash!          Silence again.

 Speaking about this well-known Japanese haiku, Frederick Buechner writes,

Basho, the poet, makes no comment on what he is describing…

He simply invites our attention…

In effect he is putting a frame around the moment, and what the frame does is enable us to see not just something about the moment but the moment itself in all its ineffable ordinariness and particularity…The frame sets it off from everything else that distracts us. It makes possible a second thought. That is the nature and purpose of frames. The frame does not change the moment, but it changes our way of perceiving the moment.

Blessings.

That’s what my friend did; she framed my lament with one astonishing word.

Take heed how you hear.

 

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Giving Consent

You don’t have to be Jesus in your own life—you are off the hook.

I found this statement in my notebook from months ago, I have no idea the source.  To know that I am a participant in my life, not a solo act —that is freeing and healing.  However, as always, I’m considering the complexities of that relationship and can it be so simple?

In a prayer that I have been listening to daily, Father Carl Arico begins,

By closing your eyes [in prayer], consent to God’s presence and action in our lives…

Consenting to God’s presence and action is different than asking God to be present or act in our lives.  First of all, consent assumes that something that is already in the works will happen; it moves the action to a  probability not just a possibility. To consent to God’s presence and action requires action on my part as well.

Frederick Buechner records his encounter with Agnes Stafford, an Episcopal laywomen and classic spiritual writer, and her seminar on prayer in his memoir, Now and Then.  I first read about Agnes and her “experiments in prayer” in Richard Foster and Emilie Griffin’s book, Spiritual Classics, where like Buechner, they point out her practical approach to meeting God in prayer.

The connection for me between “consenting to God’s presence and action in our lives” in prayer and Stafford’s teaching is evidenced in Buechner’s explanation of how, in the words of the opening sentiment, we try to be Jesus for ourselves and don’t let ourselves off the hook, even when we think we are asking for God to work. Buechner shares,

The most vivid image she presented was of Jesus standing in church services all over Christendom with his hands tied behind his back and unable to do any mighty works there because the ministers who led the service either didn’t expect him to do them or didn’t date ask him to do them for fear that he wouldn’t or couldn’t and that their own faith and the faith of their congregations would be threatened as the result.  I recognized immediately my kinship with those ministers…. I prayed a good deal…speaking words out of my deepest needs, fears, longings, but never expecting much back by way of an answer, never believing very strongly that anyone was listening to me or even, at times, that there was anyone to listen at all.

 Now and Then, p. 62

And I, too, recognize my own fear of expecting too much and even too little at times and maybe not for the same reasons as Buechner in his summation.  I want to expect God’s presence and action in my life. But since I’m not sure how it all works—this business of my own actions and God’s actions in the world where I live—I skirt by with hopes.

Hoping that everything will turn out and at the same time living in a world where everything doesn’t seem to turn out splendidly for everyone, at least not on the surface, that I can see. I even feel selfishly guilty about what I can see; that I am blessed.

And that phrase, “that I can see”, might be one key.  There is more to God’s presence and action that isn’t equal to the circumstances of the moment or what I perceive to be my truth at this time.  That’s another paradox hard to life out.

My five consecutive days, so far, of centering prayer aren’t measured by what I can see or know or even notice.   What matters is that I consent to God’s presence and action in my life in those moments.  Consenting doesn’t seem to be dependent upon, or independent of, my own doing.  It almost sounds too easy.

Taking Up

I can’t remember a time that I “gave up something” for lent.  I did, last year, “take up something.”  Actually, it was something I was a little afraid to try.  I’d walked by the yoga studio that looked unfamiliar to me, unknown and definitely out of my comfortable doing.  Since I perceived yoga as a practice of body and spirit,  I thought it met the criteria of struggle or sacrifice traditionally attributed to the lenten season.

It worked.  My regular practice of yoga has not only strengthened my body but my attention to the moment and intention to practice being in the presence of God.

Last night at the Ash Wednesday service, I told my friend my plan to take up instead of give up again.  Dare I say outloud that I’m going to take 10-15 minutes each midday to practice centering prayer.  I’ve been sporadically playing at it; trying out different time frames, extending my intention for yoga practice to this kind of meditative time, and using centering prayer as a respite when I’m feeling overwhelmed or anxious.  But I’ve never managed to make it regular.  Regular practices transform me without my self conscious striving to change what I cannot on my own.

Yesterday I was home so it was relatively easy to stop for those moments.  The centering prayer app I am using to help me has a flickering background choice, scripture, and calming words to sustain my solitude. Now today is another day, full of possibility, so we’ll see how it goes. I’ll keep you posted.

 

For Better and Worse

Lately, I’ve been in conversations about good and evil. For me, the real wondering is really about how “God works” in the world and in our lives. I wonder about this a lot. Not so much the question of why bad things happen to good people but why good things happen to good people.

Seriously. I am blessed. And sometimes I feel uneasy about that.

I have incredible opportunities each day to do good work that uses my gifts. I have a community of people who walk along side me to share many things. I have a husband who accepts and even forgives my imperfections that never go away. I have two children who are making their way in the world despite my good and poor examples of how to do that. I live in a stimulating and beautiful neighborhood and have the promise of a new job and community that will offer new chances to be in sustaining partnerships.

Why do I get to do this? It’s not about deserving; is it grace or about God’s providence for all our lives? I looked up the word providence in the dictionary. It’s nice to see what you think you know in print.

Providence is the protective care of God or of nature as a spiritual power and timely preparation for future eventualities.

Hhmmm…why do I get to rest in God’s provision? Did I prepare well for this future I am living into? I don’t know the answer, but I do know it is not as simple as dividing my life into what I do and what God does. Being in relationship with God means you do things together; not as either or.

Katherine Patterson writes about a taped series of talks by Father Martin Smith entitled “Co-creators with God.” The idea of “co” creating—that seems full of grace because there are parts of my life I take action and other parts where the universe seems to align in possibility. She writes,

Christians have tended to go to one extreme or another in explaining our task as people of God. At one end of the spectrum are those who feel that God has a plan for every individual life, what we typically call ‘God’s will for my life.’ In this model ‘it is our duty by prayer and study to get a peek into our personal file and then act out what we find there.’ That was the sort of religious atmosphere in which I, and I dare say many of you, were raised. Find out God’s perfect plan for your life—and stray from it to your peril.

Each day of my life has been a new ideation of my own questions about how, when, and where God is showing up or hovering or already moved on… I’m sure there is a “way” of sorts but not a single path to travel.

Patterson continues,

At the other end of the spectrum are those that leave a person’s life work totally up to each individual. That’s what the gift of free will is all about , they maintain. God doesn’t really have all that much to say about who we are and what we become. God has given us intelligence and freedom, and it’s up to us as free, intelligent beings, created in the image of God, to find the meaning of our lives.

I’ll admit I’m kind of there at times, because it’s too difficult to think that God would give me a good life. Why me and not that other one? I often live like I am in control of outcomes. But always, the parts don’t add up—my efforts and the outcomes are not simple cause and effect.   I know my efforts and gifts are limited and sometimes limiting what is possible. Father Smith says that we forget to consider those passages that say we are co-workers with God. Patterson says we are partners in meaning making.

Jesus sets us a wonderful model in the parables by telling stories that challenge human nature and often-human notions of justice – and leaving it to the listener to make sense of the story. This is what writers do: they tell the story and invite the reader to help create the meaning, a meaning which will be different for each reader because every reader brings to the writer’s story a unique life story of his or her own. God, as Smith eloquently reminds us, calls us not to blind obedience nor to a lonely, stumbling through the dark, but into a creative partnership with God.

Somehow that makes sense to me. In my professional life that is an apt expression of the transactional theory of reading—that recognizes each of us bring our bodies, minds, and energies into each such grace-filled encounter. The tricky part is the partnership happens in strength and struggle, for better and for worse… making meaning no matter. Right now I just happen to be at better.