When Your Brain Needs a Reset Toward Simplicity

I’ve been strolling through Celebration of Discipline by Richard J. Foster during this season of Lent. Not the whole book as I’m not much for re-reading entire texts. But I’ve found places in his pages to park my mind. Particular chapters summon my attention. And in an effort to articulate some of what I’ve read and to share a few insights, I’ve posted thoughts on the spiritual disciplines of meditation and service.

This week, after returning from a mostly quiet vacation in Southern California, I’m all about the spiritual discipline of simplicity. Foster begins his chapter about simplicity by quoting Ecclesiastes–one of my favorite books of the bible, btw.

“God made man simple; man’s complex problems are of his own devising.” Eccles. 7:30

This speaks to me. Because, it seems of late, that I’ve gotten pretty good at mental self-flagellation. I read books, blogs and news stories and then scold myself because I don’t write as well or as much as others. As penance, I devise rigorous work schedules so that I might somehow measure up, improve my craft, and write something somebody gives a fat frog about. I do the same thing when it comes to exercise, cooking, cleaning and parenting. What I am isn’t good enough. It’s too simple. I must make it complicated, arduous, worthy.

Here’s an example of how this tedium plays out in my pea brain: When we arrived in CA, I looked over a list of local amenities and activities and immediately began making mental notes of all the things I should do:

  • 7:00 a.m. yoga
  • 9:00 a.m. walk/run to some gourmet café
  • 10:00 a.m. enjoy an exquisite breakfast at said swanky café
  • 11:00 a.m. take stacks of books and my laptop to the pool for hours of “achievement”
  • Eat only fruits and vegetables. Play tennis. Shop fresh farm stands for items to make a nutritious dinner. Or dine out someplace as swanky as the breakfast place. Rinse. Repeat.

What I really did…

  • 7:30 a.m. wake up, lie in bed, shrug off yoga, make a pot of coffee, pour a cup and take it out to the patio, sit in the sunshine, sip my coffee in peace, watch ducks goof around on a pond, watch gardeners cultivate a nearby golf course, breathe, be still, get a second cup of coffee. Let the day unfold however it may. Keep my laptop shut–mostly. Sit by the pool and watch my kiddos play catch with a Nerf football that arcs like a rainbow over the water. Eat fruits and veggies but also burgers and nachos. Play a little tennis. Rinse. Repeat.

When Foster discusses simplicity, he mostly cautions against chasing wealth and accumulation. When he says, “We should take exception to the modern psychosis that defines people by how much they can produce or what they earn,” he strikes smack on the funny bone of Western culture. A prophetic sandwich board call to introspection and repentance that surely should be marched up and down the streets of suburbia.

But for me, simplicity is more about letting go of measuring my worth by my achievements and feeling like the only thing worth doing is “doing.” Jesus says, “Do not be anxious about your life,” and yet, I create things to be anxious about. This is not simplicity. This is a sickness.

In Against the Grain, author Ray Waddle says Ecclesiastes 4 is about work and how we distort it. And how “oppressive overstimulation distracts from the present moment.” I used to think I was one of the lucky ones, not as busy as the rest of humanity, not over-committing my time or my family’s time to every available event or activity. Content to live a simpler life. But then, over time, my well-intentioned desire for self-improvement, to live a useful life, may have muddled my mind with thoughts of “never good enough.”

So how do we re-set? How do we practice the discipline of simplicity and silence the roar of “more”? Foster says, “The central point for the discipline of simplicity is to seek the kingdom of God and the righteousness of his kingdom first and then everything necessary will come in its proper order.” He then lists several useful habits. A few of the habits that speak to me right now are…

  • “Buy/Do things for the purpose of usefulness, not status.” Many musicians who dream of stardom often play to near empty rooms. They wonder if it’s worth playing a show for little or no audience. Being a writer can feel similar–like I’m playing to an empty room, wondering if no recognition or applause is worth the effort. But if I write to be useful instead of trying to prove my worth, then the number of readers matters less and the work becomes its own reward. Simplify.
  • “Reject anything that produces an addiction in you.” A friend once said he believes people can get addicted to being busy. I think he’s right. The busier I get, the less I’m able to relax, thus a self-perpetuating generation of chaos ensues to feed my addiction. Busy does not equate to time better spent. Simplify.
  • “Shun anything that distracts you from seeking first the kingdom of God. It is so easy to lose focus in the pursuit of legitimate, even good things. Job, position, status, family, friends, and security–these and many more can all too quickly become the center of attention.” Simplify.
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Almost Anything Can be Made Better with a Hotdish

Photo by Sarah Dibbern

Photo by Sarah Dibbern

During Lent, I’ve been re-reading The Celebration of Discipline by Richard J. Foster. The book is divided into three parts. Part one focuses on the inward disciplines of meditation, prayer, fasting and study. Part two illuminates outward disciplines of simplicity, solitude, submission and service. And part three defines the corporate disciplines of confession, worship, guidance and celebration.

  Last week, I posted some thoughts about mediation and prayer. Today, I’ll share my ponderings about service.

Before you rake your fingers through your hair in exasperated frustration because you’re already overcommitted to several organizations, foundations, PTA projects and chaperoning your kid’s school field trip, and you don’t want me guilting you into any additional tasks, Foster aticulates these feelings and states that many of us would surely prefer that being a good Christian were more about radical and ascetic self denial than service of the foot washing variety. “Please God, just let me have less to do,” we plead.

The author even points out our propensity toward self-righteous acts of service when we do agree to volunteer. Service concerned with “big gains on ecclesiastical scoreboards and external rewards versus true service motivated by whispered promptings and divine urgings, service ministered simply and faithfully because there is a need.”

Why is true service considered a spiritual discipline? Something we should practice during Lent and throughout the year? Because, as Foster notes, service is one of the only ways to develop humility, a virtue that is never gained by seeking it. Service also puts us at odds with our (at least my) tendency toward sloth, idleness and self-centeredness.

When we hold the stem of a straw to the lips of a dying nursing home resident to offer a sip of water or dip into our mad money to  help an impoverished family pay their rent or get down on our knees to help tie a dozen pairs of shoes at the kiddo’s preschool program, we begin to realize how blessed we are–all of us only an inch or a breath away from being so utterly dependent–and how everybody matters to God. These moments open our eyes. We see how God can work through us to make His world a better place, His Kingdom Come…

Photo by Sarah Dibbern

Photo by Sarah Dibbern

I’ve worn those frantic volunteer shoes; signed up to make coffee at church, to host dinners and bible studies, to teach Sunday school and pack meals for needy children in faraway lands. I’ve checked these items from my good-girl to-do lists and patted myself on the back for a job well done. Of course these are all good and useful acts of service. Don’t misunderstand. But for me, they don’t compare to the struggle of trying to minister to an angry and depressed teenager whose parents are getting divorced or wheeling a stroke victim from his breakfast table to the lavatory, his clothes covered in toast crumbs and dribbles of milk.

IMG_1966These are the humbling acts of service that garner no glory, that prove we’re not so special because we cannot offer physical or psychological healing or set anyone’s world right. We can only struggle to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”

It is also true when we flip it and realize there is, at least according to Foster, service in being served. He says, “It is an act of submission and service to allow others to serve us. It recognizes their “kingdom authority” over us. “We graciously receive the service rendered, never feeling we must repay it. Those who, out of pride, refuse to be served are failing to submit to the divinely appointed leadership of the kingdom of God,” Foster says.

I recall once feeling pained when a friend told me she wished her neighbor wouldn’t shovel her driveway because she didn’t want to be indebted to him. Imagine if we demanded the poor or the infirm to repay our acts of service. This sounds outrageous because it is. It would be cruel and diminish an act of charity to an abusive act of tyranny. And yet, are we so much better than those less well off that we should pride-fully refuse an act of service?

No. Simply say thank you. Return the gesture if you can. But let’s please dispense with keeping track. Service isn’t about balancing the scales. It’s about heaping the scales with kindness so as to cause them to sag low to the ground and eventually break open, drenching the world in Christ’s compassion.

What are some ways we can begin practicing the spiritual discipline of service?

  • Listen to those whispered promptings and divine urgings. It’s not enough to gratefully think, “Thank God that’s not me.” Do something. Bear one another’s burdens.
  • Send someone a handwritten note, a nice email or a prayer card. Maybe choose a random name from the prayer page at your church. It only takes a few minutes and can be so cherished.
  • Be hospitable. Invite people into your life. Don’t fuss. Keep it simple. Order pizza or take-out if you don’t like to cook. Be impromptu. Be open-minded.
  • Shovel a neighbor’s driveway. Offer to babysit. Drive someone to the pharmacy.
  • Offer to pick up items from the store. If you’re like me, you’re at the store a half dozen times a week. It can’t hurt to throw and extra quart of milk into the basket for a homebound friend.
  • Coach youth sports or teach Sunday school. Trust me. These days, most kids don’t need experts so much as reliable adults who make a point of showing up!
  • Drop off a meal or prepared foods to those having a rough go. When I was on bed rest while pregnant with one of our sons, a sweet woman from our church, whom I’d never met before, brought me a box of Danish. I later met the woman’s grown daughter and shared the story. And although the mother had brought me Danish and not a hotdish, the daughter said this amazing thing; “My mom thinks anything can be made a bit better with a hotdish.”

Can I get an Amen?!

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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.

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