Walking the Ancient Way

by Katie Harmon-McLaughlin

Last night I had the privilege of attending a candle light labyrinth walk in the heart of Grace Cathedral. Two women tended our walking with taizé songs. As I walked into this ancient symbol, I strained to make meaning of it. I wanted to experience the path so badly, that I was missing what the path itself had to say. I wanted to package it up and turn it into the perfect metaphor. I wanted to be able to tell stories for years to come about what happened to me while I walked the ancient way.

Then, a wisdom arose from the walking, gently urging me to release my agenda of making meaning. “You are turning this into an object in your story,” said the voice within, “Meaning comes as grace. You discover meaning. It is revealed. It is revealed by being fully present along the way.”

I took a deep breath and let go of my expectations. For once, I set aside my need to control an outcome. I just paid attention to each curve of the path and to the way my bare feet felt on the cool stone. I paid attention to the lofty architecture that inspires the imagination with the expansiveness of the divine. I paid attention to my fellow travelers- joyful, reverent, seeking. I noticed, and loved, how they walked the way. I walked my way to release, to grace, to longing, to wholeness. Meaning began unfolding all around me unmanufactured, abundant in accessibility.

As I considered the Lenten journey we are on together, and the insight I received in the Labyrinth last night, this blessing by Jan Richardson was on repeat in my heart. I want to share it with you as you consider how you walk this ancient way.

Walking Blessing by Jan Richardson
That each step may be a shedding,
That you will let yourself become lost.
That when it looks like you’re going backwards,
You may be making progress.
That progress is not the goal anyway,
But presence
To the feel of the path on your skin,
To the way it reshapes you
In each place it makes contact
To the way you cannot see it
Until the moment you have stepped out.

Entering Lent

by Katie Harmon-McLaughlin

I cringe when words deep with meaning get cast aside as cliché. I hope this one doesn’t feel too worn for you: intention. If it does feel worn, commit to repeating it again and again in your soul until it breathes fresh life in you. It is a reminder we always need. It is a word that so clearly gets to the heart of what it means to be a practicing person of faith. Why do we do what we do?

We all travel through Lent with slightly varied responses to that question. For some, it is a time to grow in relationship with Christ. For others, it is a time for deepening commitment. For others, there is painful release that needs to occur. Maybe you don’t know why yet, but you long to know why. That might be the most faithful response of all.

As the ashes were smudged upon me last night, I took a deep breath and felt like a threshold had been crossed. I woke this morning inside of Lent. From this point on, everything that I do, say, feel, and think will take place in this sacred context. There will certainly be mundane moments within these forty days; moments when I am not my best self and do not freely cooperate with the Spirit’s movement in my life. There will be days of white-knuckled holding on even as I move through a season of letting go. I can hardly bear admitting that there may be days when I fudge in my fasting- pun intended!

The gift of this season, and every season in the Christian calendar, is that something holy beckons beneath the surface of all things in everyday life urging us to pay attention. There is significance here. There is something I am called to remember. There is someone I am becoming. The practice of fasting focuses our attention toward the constant presence of this holy invitation. In feeling what I’ve given up, I am reminded of the reason for giving it up in the first place.

It is important to say now, at the beginning of the journey, that it is not about perfection. It is about relationship. Relationship is the primary intention of Lent. If you are trying to do Lent “right” you may very well miss the point. If you desire to grow closer with God and be shaped in the likeness of Christ, even if you are clumsy in the process, you will discover, with the prophet Isaiah, the new thing God is doing springing forth like rivers in the desert!

How we enter this time matters for what this time will mean in our lives. How do you begin?

Blessings to you in all your living, moving, breathing, speaking, resisting, loving, acting IN the Lenten season!

THE PRACTICE OF FASTING
From “A Guide for Lent”

Week 1: Fasting
Daily prayer phrase for the week: Open me to receive more of you.

To fast is to empty oneself intentionally in a way that makes space for God. During the season of Lent, we fast for 40 days remembering Christ’s own fast in the wilderness. It is a time to focus on what matters most amid alluring distractions. This practice empties us and prepares us to go deeper through each consecutive practice on the Lenten path. Fasting is about making space for God.

Choose something from everyday life you will noticeably miss. This could be a food item, a meal itself, an activity you enjoy, or something you buy daily or weekly that may be excess in your life. It could also be intentionally reorienting your daily routine or inner conversation.

A Lenten fast typically lasts from Ash Wednesday to Easter morning except for Sundays. Choose an intentional act that will replace what you are fasting from. What will you do in place of what you have given up? Is there something specific for which you are praying?

Spend time during your fast to pay attention to what is going on within you. Intentionally reflect through writing in a journal or solitude. Notice the time frame you have set. Is your craving from what you have given up increasing or decreasing? What is the depth of your prayer life during this time? Are you feeling more focused? What does God invite you to discover in this intentional letting go?

BE EXPECTANT IN UNEXPECTED PLACES: Advent Reflections

The following is a reflection on entering the season of Advent excerpted from a sermon, Be Expectant in Unexpected Places, by Emily Rose, based on Mark 13:24-37.
Mark 13:24-37 (MSG)24-25 “Following those hard times,
Sun will fade out,
moon cloud over,
Stars fall out of the sky,
cosmic powers tremble.
28-31 “Take a lesson from the fig tree. From the moment you notice its buds form, the merest hint of green, you know summer’s just around the corner. And so it is with you. When you see all these things, you know he is at the door. Don’t take this lightly. I’m not just saying this for some future generation, but for this one, too—these things will happen. Sky and earth will wear out; my words won’t wear out.32-37 “But the exact day and hour? No one knows that, not even heaven’s angels, not even the Son. Only the Father. So keep a sharp lookout, for you don’t know the timetable. It’s like a man who takes a trip, leaving home and putting his servants in charge, each assigned a task, and commanding the gatekeeper to stand watch. So, stay at your post, watching. You have no idea when the homeowner is returning, whether evening, midnight, cockcrow, or morning. You don’t want him showing up unannounced, with you asleep on the job. I say it to you, and I’m saying it to all: Stay at your post. Keep watch.”
 “In our moments of unraveling, of feeling like our world is falling apart and on fire, God is close and at the very gates and edges of our hearts, waiting to be noticed.”-Emily Rose
At first glance, this is a peculiar text to choose for advent. This text is nestled between Jesus’ foretelling of the destruction of the temple and the passion narrative that we typically visit at Easter. It seems counterintuitive to begin our advent season here, at such an uneasy time in the Gospel story. There is fear and uncertainty, and soon Jesus will be betrayed and crucified. In the midst of all of that, we are asked to be hopeful today. Still, I’m convinced that if we look closely and let this passage take root in us, we can begin to see the small signs of hope being born into the world again this Advent season.
When I first read today’s passage, I was struck by the imagery of a world falling apart. “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” This is chaos of cosmic proportions. The first readers of Mark would have recognized this kind of chaos, given that their whole world seemed to be falling apart under the oppression of the Roman empire.
In our own world today, it is easy to relate to this feeling of unraveling. There are daily reports of violence and despair that come into our televisions and living rooms and computer screens. Images of tear gas clouding the light of the moon and the stars in the streets of Ferguson Missouri. There are more intimate experiences of unraveling in our lives, in hospital rooms and broken hearts, betrayed trust and disappointments. This is the world in which we are called to stay alert; to watch and be ready for hope to be born into the world.
When I was a student at Graceland University, I had my first true experience of winter. In fact, having grown up in Alabama I only had one childhood snow day, and we were let out of school because the snow stuck to the ground. Our city had absolutely no infrastructure to deal with the icy roads, so they sent us home so as not to put anyone in danger. Naturally, an Iowa winter was quite a shock for me! I remember feeling like the feeling of being cold would absolutely never end, and I would just be trapped in my dorm forever. At one point, my mom even sent me a solar light in a care package, just so I could remember what the sun looks like!
It was after that first brutal winter that I experienced another first – the overwhelmingly sweet smell of lilacs in the spring. One of my fondest memories of my English Literature class with Barbara Mesle was when she stopped everything we were doing, and refused to start class until everyone had walked outside and buried their face into a bundle of lilacs. It was as if it was a mandatory ritual that marked the beginning of spring. Barbara was inviting us to pay attention to the blessings around us, particularly after such harsh winter winds and snowfall.
After that first spring I began to notice how lilacs prepare to bloom. I would walk past the barren bushes in winter, snow crunching under my boots and I’d look closely at their branches. As soon as the first buds would appear I’d check on them every day, and whisper to those seeds of promise “You’re doing great! See you in a few months!” They were my symbols of hope in a cold and lifeless landscape, and it was in the noticing and the whispering that I encountered that hope.
In today’s scripture, the symbol of hope is the fig tree. We read, “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he[a] is near, at the very gates.” The fig tree unfurls the hope of summer in it’s tender leaves. The second part of that passage is even more important – “So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near.” The “these things” of that sentence is referring to all of the cosmic chaos from the passage before. In our moments of unraveling, of feeling like our world is falling apart and on fire, God is close and at the very gates and edges of our hearts, waiting to be noticed.
You see at the heart of this moment in advent is the call to pay attention. Keep awake! This requires taking on an internal stance of expectancy. Far different from marking off the days until Christmas on our calendars, this kind of expectancy is less about waiting and more about holy anticipation. From the moment we open our eyes in the morning to the moment we slip into sleep at night, we are called to pay attention. God is in the whispering and the unexpected places.