Meditation Isn’t Just for Hippies

Lent. The Christian season of introspection and repentance. And for more than a few worshippers at our church in Minnesota, a favored time of year with an added mid-week service preceded by soup suppers. Savory soup flavors warm winter weary souls. We dine together, our church family. We break bread and build relationships as we anticipate spring and the explosive joy of Easter.AshWednesday

As a means of centering my mind during Lent, I’m re-reading Celebration of Discipline, The Path to Spiritual Growth by Richard J. Foster. I plan to share in a series of blog posts some personal thoughts about what I re-discover in this book, as I take a mental journey along the Via Dolorosa during Lent.

In the beginning of his book, Foster describes our world’s desperate need, not for more intelligent or gifted people, but for deep people. Already. On page one. I stand accused and guilty of striving to become something the world doesn’t need. That is what the repeated practice of spiritual disciplines like meditation, prayer, fasting, study, simplicity, solitude, submission, service, confession, worship, guidance and celebration are for, “liberation from the stifling slavery of self-interest and fear.”

The book goes on to illuminate what spiritual disciplines are not. The practice of the disciplines should not be a practice in will power as this can too easily become “will worship.” Foster says, “Will worship may produce an outward show of success for a time, but in the cracks and crevices of our lives our deep inner condition will eventually be revealed.” Our deep inner condition is a need for Jesus. Practicing spiritual disciplines help to reveal this need and draw us closer to the One who fulfills that need.

This is why it saddens me that Angelia Jolie chose to footnote the final chapters of Louis Zamperini’s life story in her movie adaptation of the bestselling book, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. In the movie we get to see the incredible triumph of Zamperini’s will power in the face of tremendous adversity. But when he is ultimately exposed in personal weakness, in need of a strength he cannot drum up on his own, he turns to Jesus, the source of life. And only by the hand of the Almighty, not by his own will power, does this hero truly overcome the darkness of his inner condition. Sadly, moviegoers are short-changed of a depiction of this life-saving end of the story; something only readers of the book are truly privy to.

So I must occasionally pinch myself when speaking of the disciplines so as not to slide into any impression that I’m attempting to strengthen my will power. Foster evokes the apostle Paul when he says, “A farmer is helpless to grow grain; all he can do is provide the right conditions for the growing of grain…” So it is with practicing spiritual disciplines. It helps to provide the right external conditions for an internal transformation.

The early chapters of Foster’s book are on meditation and prayer. In recent years, I’ve taken to developing some ritual mediation and prayer during air travel. I flew on an airplane for the first time when I was 7 years old and have flown regularly for vacations ever since. In my 20s, I flew frequently while employed full-time for a financial services firm. Air travel never bothered me. But then, there was a trip via a small commuter aircraft over a California mountain range in a rainstorm. I clutched the inner rim of the plane’s small window for lack of an armrest to grip onto as the plane lurched upward and downward and swung side to side like a pendulum at the end of a creaky chain. Once we landed, I scurried down the little steps, grabbed my carryon from a nearby rack and raced inside, soaking wet. I called my husband but could hardly speak. Instead, I cried.

I still force myself to fly even though it frightens me. I buckle my seatbelt as tight as it will go and meditate during take off and during any bouts of turbulence. I work to relax my neck and shoulders. I concentrate on breathing. I focus on the “x” in the illuminated exit sign. I pray. I often order a drink.

The spiritual discipline of meditation and prayer is not that. It is not rooted in fear. It is not an exercise in self-control or a means of tricking your body and mind into a state of calm. Christian meditation is about learning to hear and obey the word of God. And in a culture saturated in busyness and noise, learning to be still, to be quiet, to focus on creating what Foster calls an “emotional and spiritual space that allows Christ to construct an inner sanctuary in the heart” is of increasing importance.

By this reasoning, maybe teaching children to sit quietly in church is more gift than penalty as the practice can pave the way toward learning how to be a more contemplative person. But what example do we set when we cannot even drive our cars or sit in a restaurant without checking email, texting friends or making to-do lists? A friend chuckled when sharing a story about having to sit for 20 minutes in a doctor’s office. She had this overwhelming urge to check email on her phone. “I’m a second grade teacher,” she says with a smile. “I think I can delay checking email and sit quietly for 20 minutes.”

My plane ride ritual can act as a guide if I flip it toward a proper purpose. I find the attention to a relaxed body and breath is productive to the spiritual discipline of meditation. A quiet space and a regularly carved out allotment of time are also useful. Reflecting on a bit of scripture can be helpful. Sometimes, focusing on just one word for several minutes can bring about a change in me. Words like forgiveness and joy are like rare gems held carefully in my upturned hands of receptivity.

I recite a Psalm or the Lord’s Prayer, pausing to consider the meaning and implication of each line. I focus on the names of people in my life in need of prayer. Sometimes, I follow up with a handwritten note of prayer for each person. I mail it to them, so they might be blessed in knowing someone has been praying for them.

Visual artwork, poetry and all of creation can serve to help us experience the wonder of God’s presence and peace. Foster quotes Ignatius of Loyola’s encouragement to apply all of your senses to the task. “Smell the sea. Hear the lap of water along the shore. See the crowd. Feel the sun on your head and the hunger in your stomach. Taste the salt in the air. Touch the hem of His garment…”

It is Lent. A season of introspection and repentance. I often say it is my daily goal to live a useful life. During Lent, I will meditate on what that means to me–not becoming more intelligent, knowledgeable or well-known–but more like Christ. What will you meditate on today? I encourage you to immerse yourself into the practice of spiritual disciplines and prepare your heart and mind with me as we strive to become part of what the world needs, deep people.


Saying I Know All the Words to “Rapper’s Delight” Would Be a Lie…

Children lie. Mostly to cover up wrongdoing and avoid consequence. But they can also tell tall tales, elaborate stories of adventure, imaginary friends or monsters in the closet. This is all pretty normal and according to experts, tends to subside when kids get to grade school and their peers become more discerning. It seems we figure out rather quickly that getting caught telling a fib is rarely worth the thrill of our lie being believed. Plus, hopefully, most parents are instilling values in their children such as character and the importance of being honest.

Even so, elaborating details, exaggerating our experiences or flat-out bullshitting can be a constant temptation for many, be it on a resume, in conversation or in online dating profiles. I recall making small talk with some guy in college who’d lost a lot of weight. I complimented his efforts and he attributed his success to working out at a particular gym. I knew where the gym was. I’d driven by it a few times. But, for some reason, I was compelled to say, “I work out there too.”

Most folks would likely let a comment like that slide. This guy did not. He furrowed his brow, drew back his chin and straight up said, “you’re lying.” You can imagine the sputtering back peddling that ensued on my part. I don’t think that guy ever spoke to me again.

Why did I do that? Was it some attempt to show solidarity or empathy? Was it a fear of appearing uncool because I didn’t work out? Who the heck knows? Suffice it to say, he did me a favor, cemented in my mind, that lying is often unnecessary and almost always inexcusable. Since that day, I’ve been extremely cautious about letting any whiff of a little white lie escape my lips and I’m dubious of anyone whose breath smells too sweetly of exaggeration.

We all have a responsibility to tell the truth. But those in positions of power shoulder a greater responsibility because their lies, even if told few and far between result in the segmenting of society and fueling an unhealthy cynicism.

It seems the 1960s era counter-culture mantra of “don’t trust anyone over 30,” has become immersed into the American psyche. Those who were once considered pillars of society are squinted at with a distrustful stink eye of a grizzled cowboy with one hand on his holster. Distrust of doctors has led to a divisive anti-vax, herbal remedy sub-culture. Distrust of clergy leaves lost souls floundering for a moral compass. Distrust of educators divides parents and is a disservice to mostly underprivileged students. Distrust of government feeds the beast of crackpot conspiracy theories and ongoing gridlock. At the top of this heap of skepticism sits a smug anchorman at his news desk telling us to be afraid of everything and everyone.

We have been inundated with hyperbolic newscasts and sound bites often served up with little context or perspective. We are trained to fear, to question everything and everybody, well except those whose ideologies align with our own. We often give those folks a pass, even if what they’re serving smells a lot like a hot pile of steaming… “cabbage.”

Swallowing lies is unhealthy. But being unable to discern the truth is worse as it starves us of community and unity and pits people against each other out of fear.

And now, in a nauseating irony, one who’s worked so diligently to seed our suspicions is himself suspicious. And to what end Brian Williams? To make yourself seem “cool” like when I lied about going to the gym? Being caught in my lie was humiliating enough without it being broadcast on TV. Millions of people weren’t counting on me to deliver truth during the nightly news. Would the weight of that responsibility combined with a few years of maturity have influenced my behavior, prevented me from blurting out something so unavailing and plainly untrue? I’d like to think so. I’d also still like to think it’s possible to teach my children that some people in positions of authority can be trusted. Maybe that guy from college should teach a mandatory ethics class, slam any potential embellishments back down to earth with a terse, “you’re lying.” But the future probably depends heavily on mamas telling their aspiring doctors, lawyers, teachers, pastors and news anchors that character is crucial for the future of our once civilized society.


All Washed Up

Photo by Sarah Dibbern

Photo by Sarah Dibbern

Growing up, my family would typically go to my Aunt’s house for holiday dinners. I remember looking forward to spending time with my cousins, three girls around my age. We always had a grand ole’ time laughing and playing together. I didn’t even mind helping out with the dishes after dinner although I remember being shocked the first time my Aunt insisted I help her daughters with this task.

I was a guest, or so I thought ever so indignantly. If doing the dishes was their chore, I wondered why I should have to help.

My Aunt didn’t see it that way. She saw it a bit more like, “Get up off your butt and get in there and help.”

Fair enough. Respect your elders and all that jazz. It was still girl time and we were in it together. Plus, I’ve come to appreciate the lessons my Aunt tried to teach me about good manners.

But it’s not clear from my current research on the topic that offering to clean up after dinner is always considered good manners. According to Emily Post’s Book of Etiquette, (a resource I turn to more often than you can imagine because I can never remember which side of the plate the blasted forks go on) “Guests should not insist on helping to clear the table or wash the dishes. If the dinner is formal, or you are somewhat of a stranger, you should not even make the offer. At a more casual dinner, you may ask, “Can’t we help clean up?” But if your hostess says, “No,” don’t pursue it. And only when you are dining with closest friends or relatives, whose kitchen habits you know well, should you try, unobtrusively, to load the dishwasher.”

This guideline works for me. Although please note that Post says nothing about offering to help in the kitchen being a requirement. And here’s another caveat regarding the close friends/relatives category… Why does it seem that only female friends and relatives are expected to help in the kitchen? Emily Post doesn’t explicitly say this but it’s been my observation that some perfectly well-functioning husbands and sons can rinse a dish in their own home but at a friend or relative’s house, they lose all inclination to help clean up after a meal. They just stumble off in a food coma to some area of the house to watch TV or discuss the weather while the women clean up the dishes–in 2015!!

But then, I wonder, do I ask enough of my own sons? They are expected to help set and clear the table at home, empty the dishwasher and occasionally wash glassware they’ve used in our rec room kitchenette. But I don’t ask my sons to clear the table or wash dishes after a meal served at anyone else’s home. Nor have I ever expected other people, let alone their children, to clean up after dinner at my house. And truth be told, I kind of resent being expected to do so by others. To my mind, offering to help is polite but not offering to help isn’t necessarily impolite. And being aggrieved when someone doesn’t offer to help might be the epitome of a discourteous hostess.

But I digress. More to my point, should I be more like my Aunt when it comes to expecting perfectly capable young people, regardless of gender, to make an effort to clean up after a meal at someone else’s house? Should other parents be asking their kiddos to help clean up after a meal at our house?

I remember a friend who was once flabbergasted when her college-age son returned home on break and would pile up his dirty dishes on the counter like one would on a conveyor belt in a student cafeteria. She was frustrated that he didn’t rinse his dishes or attempt to put them in the dishwasher. Bewildered, I asked if his behavior had changed since going off to college. Was college life somehow ruining all the good habits she’d instilled in him? But she said, “no.” He was never expected to do dishes while living at home. But she assumed he’d matured enough to figure it out. Wait. What?

I’m not waiting. I want my sons to have a basic understanding before leaving home about what’s expected in regard to kitchen detail. But what exactly is expected of anyone? And also, I want to be the kind of mom who occasionally takes care of her sons in a way they’ll appreciate and maybe even long for someday. So must I always insist they clean up their own mess? Where’s the line? Is there a line? And which way do the friggin’ forks go in the dishwasher??


My Life As a Reality Show Contestant


Ropes Course “Survivor”

The hubs and I used to be big fans of the television show, Survivor. We’d often joke while watching, that if we were ever contestants on the show, we’d most certainly be voted off the island in the first episode. Not for lack of knowledge or skill to survive the elements on the hubs’ part. He’s physically fit and is a good leader. But his strong personality and inability to be deceitful or mask his distain for stupidity would make him the kind of cast member that other contestants, and probably viewers, love to hate on that show. He’d be gone for sure.

Same goes for me, minus the part about any appreciable knowledge, skill or physical fitness. I’d whine my way back to a hotel room before any real discomfort or hunger befell me. (Our combined forces would surely self-destruct on The Amazing Race.)

But The Apprentice seems to require a different skill set. I peeked at this program recently while channel surfing. Indeed, it’s one of those train-wreck programs that pit narcissistic personalities in power struggle situations. That draws viewers in. But it’s not the reason why I think I’d be more successful on this show than those involving feats of strength and a bikini body. In fact, after watching only one episode, I may be inspired to use the show’s premise as a bit of motivation in daily life.

Here’s why:

  • Strong leadership is rewarded instead of seen as a threat.
  • Tyrants and egomaniacs don’t necessarily rule the day. (Except for the show’s host, Donald Trump of course.)
  • Tasks are assigned instead of things being left up to individuals to determine what needs to be done.
  • There are time constraints. Procrastinators will fail.
  • It’s fairly obvious to other contestants and viewers when someone fails to complete a task or executes poorly.
  • It’s difficult to build secret alliances.
  • Teamwork and team building are useful concepts.
  • It’s not easy to fly under the radar or be a half-hearted participant.
  • Assuming responsibility for your mistakes is honored even if it means getting fired.

So the next time I find myself longing to lounge under a blanket and sulk about my long to-do list, I might imagine I’m a contestant on The Apprentice. Instead of fretting about a particular task, whether it’s meeting editorial deadlines, fundraising for the kid’s activities, organizing an event, grocery shopping for a dinner party, managing the finances or scheduling doctor’s appointments, I’ll aim to be a results oriented leader with a positive attitude. Cause that would make for better TV. Now if only I could arrange for hair and makeup before I get started…