Marking the Journey: The Lessons

So, Lent comes to an end this weekend.  Logistics this year mold my experience into a multi-day celebration.  Last night we met at church to figure out how to have 100 choir and orchestra musicians share a stage with a giant cross that will be raised into the air at the climactic moment of the service.  I am work-free for a five day weekend that constitutes our spring break.  There will be more music, a bit of family, a bit of solitude, hopefully a bit of hiking or at least “medium-distance wandering” outside.

Here is what I learned from giving up TV this Lent:

Just because it was spiritual and meaningful the first time, doesn’t mean it will be spiritual and meaningful the fourth time.  The first Lent I tried this, I learned so much about my relationship with TV, about my relationship with silence and solitude, about how TV has the capacity to be an obstacle to my relationship with God and with other people.  But, in small part because of that experience, I am different now.  I have a more positive view of silence and solitude than I did a few years ago.  Indeed, I now understand that both silence and solitude are essential to my soul’s well being, in moderation.  I now have the ability to see when TV is becoming an obstacle to the parts of life I want more of, and I can fix it.  I naturally “take a break” from TV whenever I need it.  I use TV to be inspired by stories I love and to motivate me through tasks I despise.

Because I know myself better than I did before, I recognize what I need each day and in each situation.  The 40-day examination of this habit was redundant.  It has been examined enough for now.

Giving up a habit or indulgence for Lent is a different practice than examining one’s relationship with a habit or indulgence.  Giving up something you enjoy to enhance your Lenten spiritual experience is best done when you have the intention of joining Jesus in his suffering in order to join him in the joy of his Resurrection.  This is a valuable and wonderful intention.  But it is not where I am spiritually right now.

The God of the universe doesn’t need me to make sure I’m in a place of sacrifice and suffering for a particular 6 weeks each year.  He created my soul apart from time.  He colors my soul with characteristics, desires, impulses, as He sees fit, regardless of the calendar.  I learn over and over again that it is better to listen for His rhythm in my life, not the rhythm of the calendar or any other worldly control.

Awareness to the rhythm of my soul is more valuable than seeking constancy or balance in every moment.  This is a lesson that must be relearned, over and over.  The past week or so, my spiritual practice — how I find connection with God — has been a creative sort of energy.  I need to be inspired by art and make art.  God is asking me to join him in creating.  I need to put myself in the path of other makers, as often as possible.  I need to make something, as often as possible.

Someday soon, this part of the rhythm will pass for now, and I’ll need to delve into scripture, or clean my house as a catharsis, or indeed, to empty myself of something to make space.  Or something else I don’t know about right now.  That’s the point: I can’t predict my own soul’s desires, much less God’s work in my life.  Spirituality, following Jesus, is a relationship, a conversation that continues.

Marking the Journey: Lent Week 5

This week I broke all my rules.

On Monday night, I thought, this can be my TV day.

On Wednesday, I had the day off (the school district preparing for a possible need to make up a snow day), and I thought, this is kind of like a snow day, doesn’t count, I can watch TV.

On my Friday drive to and from work, I listened to the first episode of the Head to Heart podcast, and it was so good.  SO, SO GOOD.  Christa and Luke (I feel like I’m on a first name basis with them after listening!) talked about going deep into your heart, that you’re not there alone, that the way to healing from any sort of wound is to allow Jesus to be there with you in your pain.  I was a little bit afraid to go where Christa and Luke and the Holy Spirit were leading, so I thought, I don’t want to give up TV for Lent anymore, and I numbed out with TV.  On Saturday, too.

This morning, I went to church and the message was all about how Jesus is the vine and we are the branches.  How “remain in Jesus” means to make your home in him.  How bearing good fruit is a result of striving for closeness with the Creator of the fruit, not striving to bear fruit.  How God will prune my vine to make me bear more good fruit, and how that’s not an easy experience.

I remembered seeing an article scroll by my Facebook feed, about failing at Lent.  I found it back and read about the irrefutable law that “one needs to be dispossessed of all the possessions that possess us — before one can be possessed of God.  …  But the flesh is corrupt.  I can’t do it.  …  Jesus will have to do everything.”

It all comes together at this point.  Jesus will do it.

Jesus is the Healer.  He is with me in pain; he is angry with me; he is sad with me; he is overwhelmed with me.  He is the Creator of good fruit.  He is my Home, my place of comfort and refuge and nourishment.  He is the Gardener, pruning away what impedes my growth.  He is the Grace that will do everything, as I will always fall short, and he loves me too much to let my inadequacy be the end of the story.

He is all these things.  Not me.

My goal, my hope, is not to perfectly follow my own rules.  Or to perfectly follow any sort of moral code.  That kind of hope will never be fulfilled.  My hope is to experience closeness with Jesus.  My hope is to open myself to his Love, in whatever capacity or condition I find myself at the moment.  My heart is His to do with, to change, to grow.  He does this.

I am not my own savior.  I am simply the beloved of a Savior.

Marking the Journey: Lent Week 4

This week, I didn’t cheat.  Exactly.  I abstained from TV for five days.  Then I started watching TV on Friday night, thinking that I would allow myself TV for 24 hours, and turn off the TV by 6:30 or so on Saturday night.

Which isn’t exactly the deal.

Also, I didn’t do that.  It was more like 27 hours.  Minus sleeping, of course, but again, that wasn’t the deal.

So…better than last week…but not quite fully faithful.

I’m to a point where I just want this to be over.

This week, I’m thinking that the thing you give up for Lent teaches you more about your relationship with that thing than it teaches you about your relationship with God.

I already knew that I experience TV in two ways:  I enjoy it for entertainment, or I use it as a numbing behavior.  Right now, I just want this to be over because I’m craving some good strong numbing behavior.  I’m trying to make some decisions about which direction to go in several areas of my life…and I’m so, so tired of the weight of these decisions.  I’m tired of not really having any gut feelings about them, tired of seeing too many choices and no excitement or passion in any of them, tired of the back-and-forth of changing my mind in a matter of hours.

That’s just…adulthood.  Part of the process of making big decisions.  Eventually, you have what you need to make the decision.  Doors close or open.  Gut feelings emerge.  Passion ignites where it’s suppose to.  This chaos-plus-apathy is just an uncomfortable but necessary step toward getting there.

And I want a break from it.

So, that’s the part of this experience that I already knew about.  TV is what I often use to take a break from my feelings.  Numbing behavior.

Here’s some new learning:  TV is pretty much the only numbing behavior I have right now.  I’m not sure how I feel about that.  Do I want numbing behaviors in my life?  Is it unreasonable to expect myself to go through life without some way to take a break from everything?  Is “numbing behavior” another word for “coping strategy?”  There are other things I do that I would call “coping strategies,” such as exercise or doing something social or even sitting through an orchestra rehearsal.  But they don’t have the same immediate relief.  Also, they’re more effective in actually helping to process the feelings and issues, whereas TV gives me a temporary reprieve and leaves me at the exact same point when I return to the feelings.  So it’s a different kind of thing.

Still, the experience continues.

Marking the Journey: Lent Week 3

This week, my promise to abstain from TV was like a bad but committed marriage.  Some days I cheated.  Some days I was faithful.  I never considered giving up on my vow, but I wasn’t particularly attentive to it either.

As planned, I am recognizing when it feels better to have the TV off.  I am eager to have a little piece of quiet in my evening.  I am finding that things get done when my mind isn’t always “plugged in.”  I fold the laundry and unload the dishwasher…my most avoided household tasks.

I’m still struggling to “run to Jesus” instead of finding ways to zone out when things are hard or I am tired.  In lieu of TV, I scroll through Facebook and Instagram or play games on my phone.  (Brene Brown would call these “numbing behaviors,” and as much as I don’t want to, I tend to agree.)  I’m not convinced that numbing behaviors are all bad, but I’m not connecting with God most days.  I’m not connecting with myself enough to know how I am really doing.

Maybe these are two separate issues, the numbing and the not connecting.

The experience continues.

Marking the Journey: Lent Week 2

Like a rappeller believes in the rope

This week was a taxing, overwhelming, brutal week at work.  Reflecting on that would be another whole blog post, if I were so inclined to reflect publicly.  I tell you because it affected my Lenten fast from TV a little bit.

On Thursday night, I had big, BIG feelings to deal with related to work.  I also had to get myself calmed down enough to correct district math assessments and do the bubble sheets for them.  You know how I feel about bubble sheets…I can barely handle doing them WITH a nice distraction of fictional television, much less in the quiet of my home when I’m upset!  So I decided at the spur of the moment that it would be my TV day.  I caught up on an episode of Castle, and I watched Grey’s when it was actually on.  (When was the last time I’ve done that?!?)  I felt a little better, but I couldn’t bring myself to tackle the math assessment.  So I watched several episodes of Friends and then went to bed.

I still wasn’t really at peace.  I didn’t sleep much.

On Friday morning, I finally decided to just get up and dig into the math assessment at about 5:00 a.m.  I decided this would be an extension of the TV day, like I was trading the hour I could have had on Thursday if I had gotten home earlier.  I watched three episodes of Dharma & Greg while I graded and bubbled.  I went to work feeling very accomplished!

On Friday night when I was at a play with some friends, I felt like I was coming down with something…sniffles, chills, general feeling of malaise.  As usual, I assumed I was just overtired.  I hadn’t slept well the previous night, of course, and big emotions can be taxing on the body.  My bed has never felt so good.  Sure enough, on Saturday it developed into sore throat and fever, with more sinus and ear discomfort, no appetite…just general awfulness.  I curled up on the couch with plenty of fluids to drink, essential oils to support my immune system, and a good book.  And then another good book.  And then a nap. And then I decided that if I had a fever on a weekday, I would be taking a sick day.  And I was skipping out on my Saturday evening plans and Sunday morning commitments, so it really was a sick day.  And sick days are an exception.  So I watched more Netflix.

I was doing okay, really.  I didn’t need the sick-day-loophole that I gave myself.

And now that I’m bouncing back, I’m reflecting on the week as a whole.  Yes, there were those infernal bubble sheets.  Yes, there was a fever.  But the deeper issue is revealed in the other days.  I didn’t go running to Jesus when things got difficult.  I didn’t take my disappointments or my overwhelm to his feet.  I did what I often do:  I forged ahead, assuming that if I worked longer and harder I could solve everything, or if I were better at my job I wouldn’t be going through this, so I really deserve it anyway.  Neither of those thoughts are true.

Running to Jesus doesn’t solve everything either.  And running to Jesus doesn’t take away the natural consequences of my choices, when there are legitimate mistakes that lead to legitimate unpleasantness, which was mostly not the case this week.

Running to Jesus turns my eyes toward what is most important, my relationship with him.  It connects that most important part of my life and identity to the other parts, including the difficult or painful pieces.  Prayer doesn’t change God; it changes me.  It nourishes me to go on.  It is how I receive my daily bread of the soul.  It is not a “quid pro quo” with God.  I don’t think God gets something from my praying, other than that he loves me and he is delighted when I want to have a conversation with him.  He doesn’t give me strength and wisdom as a reward for praying.  God always wants to give me the strength and wisdom I need for today.  But he created me with free will, and he won’t go against that will.  If I refuse to open myself to communion with him, he won’t force it upon me.  If I am obstinately looking for strength and wisdom in my own power, he is willing to let me use what little I find there.

Sometimes I doubt the method by which I find communion with God.  (By communion, I mean that deep and holy connection, a soul-conversation.)  Maybe I should be more like my Catholic roots and find it in sacraments.  Maybe I should be more like my current church community and find it in deep Bible study.  Maybe I should find it in nature.  Maybe I should find it in stories, or spiritual literature, or even secular literature.  And I sometimes do find it in all of those paths.  But in true “rogue Jesus-follower” form, the most faithful path to soul-conversation with God is in journaling.  My journals are a life-long conversation with the Holy Trinity.  (Seriously, I talk to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in those pages, depending on the day!)  God wired me this way when he made me.  He made sure I need nothing but pen and paper to find him, and I am infinitely grateful for that gift.

It’s going to be another challenging week at work.  Not as brutal as last week (I hope), but there will be plenty of opportunities to find myself overwhelmed, overtaxed, overtired.  May I run to Jesus this week.  May I believe in him like the rappeller believes in the rope.

Marking the Journey: Lent Week 1

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“All other loves will enslave us if they are not ordered to Him.”  —Happy Catholic

Let’s reflect a bit on the first few days of Lent, shall we?  Did you commit to a fast or spiritual practice of some kind?  How is it going?

I look back on Lent as a whole experience, but in the midst of it, there is a process, a cycle, an ebb and flow of my reactions, emotional, spiritual, and otherwise, to the abstaining that I have chosen.  Sometimes it’s hard.  Sometimes it’s surprisingly nice.  Sometimes I give up the giving up for a little bit, and it’s disappointing…or a relief to stop restricting myself for a bit…or both.

Maybe it would be nice to mark the journey along the way.

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As you know, I have decided to abstain from having the TV on in my home for six days a week.  The seventh day is chosen by me each week, based on the logistics of my schedule.  This week was shorter than the rest, of course, with Wednesday being the beginning of Lent.  I chose yesterday (Saturday) for my TV day.

Thursday was lovely.  I felt calm, an inner peace, nourished by the quiet of my home in the evening.  I had nothing on my schedule after work, and I used the time with an unhurried attitude.

Friday was lovely.  I came home after work with just enough time to walk the dog and enjoy a few minutes of reading, then I left for an evening spent with friends.  A small revelation:  I was eager to go.  I was looking forward to it.  I consider myself an extrovert, because my energy is replenished by being around other people.  When it comes to social events, I am always, always very glad I went.  I am always refreshed and rejuvenated afterward.  But the in-between times, between committing and going, and between coming home from work and leaving again, are usually an argument with myself.  I feel drained and tired and overwhelmed from work, and I feel like staying home and cuddling up on the couch with a movie will be the better choice.  I feel the need for some “down time.”  But then if I really do that, I still feel drained and tired and overwhelmed later.  What I really need is to go out of my solitude, do the thing with people, but it takes an fight with myself to actually get going.

But when TV is not an option, going and doing the thing sounds great!  It felt like exactly what I needed after a long, draining day.  And it absolutely was replenishing to my energy, as always!

For me, watching TV alone for replenishing energy is an ineffective pseudo-social event.  I see people and hear conversations, but they are fake, and I am not participating.  My energy comes not from witnessing social behavior, but from participating in social behavior.

This is not to be confused with watching TV for the purpose of enjoying the story.  Following a story I love, following characters that I have become attached to, can be an enjoyable and life-giving part of my week.  I cannot tell you how many times a character’s story in a TV show or movie has struck a chord with me and helped me to better understand myself, others, the world, even God Himself.  It’s just never an energy-giving activity for me.

Which brings me to yesterday, my TV day.  Most of my day was at home with the TV on.  And I was eager to watch a couple of new episodes of my favorite shows, but the rest of the experience fell flat.  I had a thought, mid-afternoon, that I didn’t want to do this, I didn’t feel like watching TV.  I craved the quiet.  But I thought, it will be another week before I get to do this again, so I’d better get my fill!  I failed to recognize that the craving for not having the TV on meant I had already had my fill.

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When I am slightly outside of an experience, I can see the power it had over me.  Is TV-watching the biggest issue that challenges my spiritual well-being?  Absolutely not.  Is watching TV, in and of itself, morally wrong?  No.  Is it God’s will that I never watch TV again?  Of course not.  But God’s will is certainly not for TV to have enough power over me that I prefer not to do the things that I actually need.  This week I noticed this power in relation to social events.  There are other issues and habits that are certainly being affected as well.

TV is one of many things that fill my time and my mind.  Taking it out leaves space for these realizations to take root and grow.  That is the purpose of abstaining from something: to make space for something better.  I usually give up something that I fully intend to take back in full force on Easter, including the other times I gave up TV.  But I don’t want TV to keep me from the things that are better.  This year, I want the experience to actually change my relationship with TV.

40 Days

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This is a good experience…

This is the third year I am “giving up TV” for Lent.  (I also did it in 2012 and again in 2015.)  I’m not completely giving it up, just drastically reducing its presence in my life.  When I am home alone, I will not have the TV on, or watch anything online (Netflix, etc.).  I will have one “TV day” per week.  None of this applies if I’m not at home, if other people are at my home, or on any sick days or snow days that may occur.

My reasons have been slightly different each time.  The first time, I was seeking a desert, a little bit of difficulty and a reminder to rely on God’s provision.  The second time, I was seeking space, quiet, an absence that God could fill.

This year, I’m thinking about my coping strategies.  The ebb and flow of trials both large and small creates a need for ways to deal, to escape a little bit, to soften the edges sometimes.  This is true for everyone.

The potential problem with using TV as a coping strategy, for me, is that it undermines other strategies that might actually make things better.  Once I snuggle into the couch with a blanket and some dinner and all of Netflix at my disposal, it’s so hard to get up and go to yoga.  Or pack a healthy lunch for tomorrow.  Or plan an outfit.  Or, you know, to stop eating when I feel content.  Exercise, good food, being prepared for the morning…these are things that would actually release stress or create feelings of calm and empowerment.  There is often a strong connection between how I feel physically and how I feel emotionally.  The body knows…and to take care of the body is to take care of the emotional world.

And so it begins!  Ash Wednesday is always pretty easy, because, well, it always falls on a Wednesday.  I have a rehearsal every Wednesday, and it fills up my evening enough that I don’t feel the absence.  Tonight I actually feel like I’m missing out on my TV-free evening!  I didn’t get to enjoy the quiet of my home for nearly long enough.  I took the time to unplug my TV and blu-ray player, just to make one extra step between me and the habit, just in case I forget.  I made dinner, cleaned up the kitchen, laid out clothes for tomorrow.  I read a few blogs, and I wrote this.  But the novelty has me almost excited to be a little bit bored, feel the house a little bit too quiet, and seek out something to do.

I expect tomorrow night will be a little more…empty.  This is a good experience.  Lean into the discomfort.

The biggest discomfort is dinner.  Food and TV have become so paired in my habits that it feels completely uncomfortable to sit at the table with my dinner.  Dinner in front of the TV every night is not what I want for my habits.  It just…happened…over a long period of time.  So tonight I made a spicy grilled cheese and creamed peas, two of my favorite foods.  I lit some candles to add a bit of ritual.  I brought a book to the table.  And then I was immediately off to orchestra.

Tomorrow’s dinner will be more difficult.  I won’t be distracted by the hurry.

Eating mindfully is supposed to be such a good idea.  Being aware of when you feel content.  Really tasting the food.  Noticing how it tastes better at the beginning, when you are hungrier.  Noticing texture and flavor.  I think mindful eating is such a great concept…why is it so uncomfortable?

This is a good experience.  Lean into the discomfort.

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