Pink_tree_trunks

In the midst of an overly full October—birthdays, a trip to see my parents, a church play, and a few other things on top of all the usual fullness of life with four children—one afternoon stands out. It was the Thursday before the play, in which both I and my kids were to perform. That morning we did our usual school routine, but then the afternoon was blessedly free, a gift in the midst of a very full month.

Late in the afternoon, my oldest son came into my bedroom where I was snatching a few moments to catch up on email. “I’m going to make tea,” he announced, “and then I’ll bring it upstairs and we can run through our lines.”

“Great,” I said, only half-listening.

Ten minutes later, he came up bearing a tray laden with cups, saucers, the teapot and creamer, and a plate of buttered toast. He and his siblings piled on my bed, and we drank tea and munched toast while we ran through our lines and practiced our songs for the church play, and then we chatted and the kids told silly jokes and we laughed together until it was time to begin our evening routine of chores, dinner, stories, and bed. So we piled off the bed and downstairs, scattering to our various duties.

Later that evening, I remembered that cozy time of togetherness and realized it was one of the sweetest hours of an already delightful day. In some ways, it was nothing special, but that’s part of what made it special—that this is my life, these moments of camaraderie with my children or my husband, or all of us together. And I marveled. Who is this glad and grateful woman living in my body?

Anyone who’s been hanging around here for any length of time knows that my life used always to hang in the balance and be found wanting. But the practice of these habits I’ve been sharing with you the past weeks has transformed my vision. As I cast the circle and become increasingly lashed to the mast, as I lift up my head more often, I find that my life is anchored to something—Someone!—permanent and abiding, which allows me to feel spacious rather than harried, which in turn makes it possible for me to be more present and pay closer attention, to really see the good gifts God has lavished upon me—such good gifts as eyes to see and ears to hear and a mouth to sing (and laugh!) and people to love and be loved by.

The final habit I am going to share with you is actually the first habit I adopted, eight years ago now. It is the habit of saying thank you, and its practice is what eventually made it possible for me to see and receive the other habits, which had been staring me in the face all along!

At the time that I began, I felt my life was unfair. I was newly pregnant with my twins, though I didn’t yet know they were twins. I was newly aware that my dreams of being an up-and-coming young author were rapidly wrecking on the rocks of reality: my first book, which I’d imagined would be a harbinger of good things to come, had negative books sales; my novel, six years in the making, had been rejected by 19 agents; and I had a stack of magazine rejection letters an inch and a half thick.

Life felt hard and dark. Even looking back, that fall and winter seem shrouded in dark fog, like I was always living in twilight. In a way, I was. Everything was a battle. I was Paul kicking against the goads. I was a Pharisee rejecting the cornerstone. Life was not turning out the way I expected, much less the way I wanted. And I was mad. And I felt simultaneously guilty for being mad. Enter the harpies. Who do you think you are? Why should you have a good life anyway? You’re such a spoiled princess. My thoughts swung like a pendulum between self-importance and self-loathing.

But as I practiced saying thank you, slowly, slowly my gaze shifted from myself to God. It’s still shifting in that direction. I still too often have one or both eyes on myself, but God in His mercy continues to draw me out of this posture of incurvatus in se and into the freedom and fullness of life in His kingdom. Saying thank you was the first step out of myself and into the wideness of God’s mercy and goodness.

Though I didn’t know it eight years ago when I embraced this habit, saying thank you is a posture of humility. Humility is the opposite of incurvatus in se. It is a recognition that all I have and all I am is sheer gift. Not earned, not achieved, not born of my own making or doing or striving or manipulating. Given. And gifts presuppose a Giver. To receive a gift, I must unfold myself, open my hands, my eyes, my arms, my heart.

Saying thank you opened my eyes to this reality: that life is a gift. My life. The life of this world. It opened my mind to the Reality of Emmanuel, God-with-us, as the basic fact of existence: the All who always is all everywhere. It opened my heart to receive His love which I had so steadfastly refused.

These days my vista is more or less the same as it was eight years ago—my kids are older, which brings its own joys and challenges; I live in a different house in a different town, which has perks and drawbacks; and my writing career continues to be non-existent—but my vision has shifted radically. Saying thank you was the first step toward living with my head up and my arms wide, my whole being lashed to the mast of Jesus’ love, which surrounds me as with a shield. These days I see the joy more than the challenges, the perks more than the drawbacks, and the manifold gifts that failure has brought. And I am thankful.

I am beyond thankful. I am downright giddy at the ways God has transformed my sight. Every day, I see God’s goodness lavished upon me, mercy upon mercy, grace upon grace, gift upon gift—such good gifts as eyes to see and ears to hear and a mouth to sing (and laugh!) and people to love and be loved by.

That is habit six, friends: Say thank you. Don’t force yourself to feel grateful. Simply notice something good or beautiful, and say thank you for it.

~

I hope and pray that as you practice the six habits that I’ve shared with you these past weeks, you will experience what I have experienced: as I enter more deeply into these habits, I find I am ever more thankful—not as a discipline (though it is sometimes that) but as an expression of genuine joy and wonder, a response of praise for the amazing gift of transformation God has wrought in me. I give Him the little loaves and fishes of these six habits, and He blesses my efforts and multiplies them beyond my wildest dreams. What else can I do but give thanks?

Faye-Hall-035-Faith

“Thou, O Lord, art a shield about me. Thou art my glory and the lifter of my head.” –Psalm 3:3

It was the beginning of my first school year teaching all four of my children at home, and we were still working out the various hiccups in our schedule. My twins needed to learn to read and write. My daughter had forgotten most everything she knew about multiplying multiple digit numbers. My oldest had slipped back into old habits of inattention and distractibility. And we were all still getting our bearings with the new school-year schedule and its far more structured and rigorous demands than our summer schedule.

As I managed the chaos and confusion and the conflicting needs of my children, God’s transforming work in my life was patently evident to me—I was far more patient than I ever could have been a year or even six months before. Still, my long history of anger, impatience, and anxiety had created habits that were deeply rooted in my brain and body, so while I marveled at the patience I often exhibited, I also sometimes fell back into those old habits. When the conflicting demands on my attention became imperious, or when I was tired, and especially when both happened on the same morning, I would become increasingly frazzled until by lunchtime, I was fried.

One noontime, Jane was still struggling with her math, I was trying to get lunch on the table, my twins were whining about how hungry they were, and Jack was finishing his writing.

“Mama,” Jane wailed. “I don’t understand!”

Luke said, “I’m hungry!”

I brought sandwiches and carrots and a jar of applesauce to the table.

Jack slid his essay across the table to me. “Can you read this?”

Ben said, “I want yogurt with my applesauce.”

Jane said, “I need help with my math! I don’t understand!”

Suddenly it was all too much, and I snapped. I grabbed Jane’s math book and slammed it shut. I took it to the kitchen and slammed it on the counter. I yanked open the refrigerator, grabbed the yogurt, took it to the table, and slammed it down in front of Ben. “There!” I barked.

Then I stalked to the kitchen, squatted on the floor in front of the dishwasher, wrapped my arms around my shins, rested my forehead on my knees, and felt simultaneously very sorry for myself and very angry with myself. The harpies started to sing and purr with glee. Poor sad tired tired sad sad you. Horrible horrible woman, stomping around like that, slamming books and food around like that. Taking the stuff that you feed your children’s minds and bodies with and turning it into barbed weapons of anger. Shame on you.

But I had been practicing habits three (silencing the harpies) and four (lashing myself to the mast). I knew those voices weren’t God’s. I knew God loved me, even in the midst of my bad behavior. So I asked myself, If God were to say something to me right now, what would He say?

Immediately words of comfort and love flooded my mind: Kimberlee, I love you. I am right here with you. My arms are around you. My grace is sufficient for you right here, right now.

My head snapped up from where it had been resting on my knees. I blinked away the tears in my eyes. God loved me. He was holding me. I was not alone in this mess of a day, this mess of me. I unfolded myself and stood up. I took a deep breath, inhaling the love of God who promised never to leave me or forsake me. I expelled a deep breath, surrendering all the stress, chaos, anger, impatience, self-pity, and self-loathing I was feeling into the hands of Jesus to do with as He pleased. Apparently He pleased to burn it up in the fire of His holy love, for after a few moments I was able to go back to the dining room and apologize to my children, receive their forgiveness and their apologies, and enjoy eating lunch with them.

*****

This story contains several key pieces to understanding and implementing the habits of silencing the harpies, lashing ourselves to the mast, and lifting up our heads. First, it shows the beginning stages of changing that soundtrack in my head from one of condemnation (silencing the harpies) to one of unconditional love (lashing myself to the mast). When we are ashamed of ourselves or our actions (and sometimes we should be!), Jesus doesn’t double down on us and drive the shame deeper into us. No! He came and lived and died and rose again so we would not have to live with the shame of our own wrong-doing. He asks us to give Him our shame so He can crucify it and set us free from it and replace it with His love!

In order to do this (or let Him do it), we must stop cowering in the corners of our kitchens and our souls. St. Augustine called this curled up posture incurvatus in se, a Latin phrase that literally means curving in on one’s self. Most of us live most of our lives in this posture. It is the posture of the woman in Luke 13:

Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’ When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.

Like this woman, we are bent over and curved inward. Simone Weil once wrote, “Sin is not a distance from God; it is a turning of our faces in the wrong direction.” Incurvatus in se is the wrong direction: we are looking not at Jesus and what He has done, but at ourselves and what we have done. For some people this looks like curling up in a ball in the corner of whatever room you’re in and giving in to thoughts of self-pity and self-condemnation and self-hatred. For others it looks like a sly, admiring grin in the mirror and thoughts of self-aggrandizement and self-congratulation. For still others it looks like both, sometimes simultaneously!

Regardless of what it looks like, the focus is on self. And that is the wrong direction. When we focus on ourselves, we become the only thing that we can see. Every injury and insult looms large when all we can see is ourselves. All our faults and flaws and failings get magnified as in a funhouse mirror. Even our good points get distorted and end up betraying us.

When I find myself spinning in my thoughts in a cycle of self-focus—whether that’s visions of grandiosity and grandeur or a death spiral of self-pity and self-loathing, I find it helpful to stand up straight, take a deep breath, and stretch out my arms. This posture is the opposite of incurvatus in se. It’s the posture of Jesus on the cross, His arms stretched wide to embrace the world. In this posture, I can look up—and see Jesus. I can look out—and see my neighbor. The one person I don’t see in this posture—is myself.

The woman who was bent over for 18 years, unable to straighten herself, lived in her body what many of us live in our spirits, and whatever else that story is about, it is also about Jesus healing us from being curved in on ourselves. He longs to straighten us up—to straighten us out—so that we can live with our arms wide in embrace and praise, our heads up, and our eyes on Him.

Lifting up our heads allows us to see Jesus clearly, and in seeing Him we can see ourselves and our own situation clearly. We see that we are not alone, that Our Lord shields and shelters us (Habit 2). We see that the voices of condemnation are lying harpies (Habit 3). And we see that we are deeply and unconditionally loved (Habit 4).

It is almost impossible to see any of this, let alone receive it, when we are curled into a tight little ball inside ourselves. Instead, we must lift up our heads and look at Jesus—for when we look at Him we see the perfect love that casts out fear, and we are in a posture to receive that love.

That is Habit 5: stand up straight, fling wide your arms, and lift up your head. The King of glory comes—to you.

 

Art: “Faith” by Faye Hall.
 

the-long-leg-hopper

We were late for library story time. Again. We were always late. For everything. As I pulled into the parking garage—it was almost always full at story time—I started praying for a parking spot. And God heard my cry and listened to my supplication. There was one spot left. Blazoned across the concrete floor of the garage in the middle of this spot was the word “compact.”

I drive a minivan.

But I was going to park in that space if it was the last thing I ever did because we…werelate! I nosed into the spot and backed out of it and nosed in and backed out and nosed in and backed out and nearly smashed the passenger side mirror into one of the concrete support posts and swore, loudly.

My daughter, who was five at the time and ever the helpful child, ventured to tell me that there was now another spot available and maybe I should try to park in it instead?

“Shut UP!” I yelled at her. “Don’t talk to me right now! Can’t you see I’m trying to park?!?”

Five years have passed since this incident, but I could tell you a hundred—or maybe a thousand—stories very like this one, stories in which I was anxious and harried, hurried and angry and unkind. That was the story of my life. Oh, sure, I had moments that weren’t rushed, but the overwhelming reality of my life was that I was usually somewhere else—or feeling like I ought to be somewhere else, doing something else. I wanted to be present in my life—and sometimes, thank God, I managed to be—but mostly I felt like I didn’t have time; there was simply too much to do. No matter where I was or what I was doing, it wasn’t where I was supposed to be or what I was supposed to be doing, and I felt anxious and hassled and frustrated and guilty.

I was wrecking on the rocks of all the shoulds clamoring for my attention—because I wasn’t lashed to the mast.

*****

In The Odyssey, Odysseus, on his way home from the Trojan War, meets with all kinds of perils and adventures, one of which is the island of the sirens whose song, he’s been warned, is so irresistible that on hearing it men fling themselves from their boats in their mad desire to reach the singers—only to be dashed by the waves against the cruel rocks of the island’s shore. Their bones lie bleached on those rocks, a testimony to the danger of the sirens’ song.

Odysseus, being who he is, decides he’s going to have it both ways: he’s going to listen to the siren’s song and he’s not going to die doing it. He gives his men wax to plug their ears so they can’t hear the song and orders them to tie him with thick rope to the mast of the ship and not to unbind him for any reason whatsoever until they are well past the island of the sirens. His scheme works—he gets to hear the sirens, and though he desperately tries to break his bonds to heed their call, his men cannot hear his cries to be unbound, and they row to safety. Lashing himself to the mast saved his life.

There are sirens in contemporary life, and they are every bit as alluring and deadly as the ones Odysseus heard. One of them is the siren of busyness. Another is the siren of hurry. Still another is the siren of restlessness, or acedia, that insists real life is happening somewhere else. I’m sure you can think of plenty more. These sirens lure us away from the safety of our boats and wreck us on their rocks. I lived my life for years, decades even, in wretched response to their lying clamor.

But not anymore. Now I know to lash myself to the mast. As a Christian, my mast is Jesus. I have to stay close to Him—I have to stay beyond close. I have to remain in Him. Of course I do. He Himself said, “Abide in my love. Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:9, 5). Indeed, apart from Him, I will die, wrecked on the rocks of the sirens.

I wish I could remember what started me lashing myself to the mast on a daily basis, but I don’t. Maybe it grew gradually out of other practices. However it came about, it seems to me this is the foundational practice for a happy life, and it’s very simple.

All you have to do is get yourself alone for a few minutes in a relatively quiet place (this may be the hardest part, yes?). Hide yourself in your closet or your bathroom if you have to. Sit in your car in the garage or a parking lot. Whatever it takes. I like to sit cross-legged and face east, toward the rising sun—to remind me of the risen Son—but this isn’t necessary.

Once you’re alone in a quiest(ish) place, close your eyes and take several deep breaths.

With each inhale, I imagine that I am breathing in the love of God. I imagine that love filling me from the top of my head to the tips of my toes.

With each exhale, I ask God to take everything in me that would block His love. I exhale my fear, anxiety, anger, pride, perfectionism, envy, self-righteousness, self-pity, scorn—anything and everything that restricts the flow of His love in my life, all that prevents me from receiving and living in His love (and it living in me!).

Sometimes I imagine Jesus before me, breathing on me as He breathed on His disciples—“Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). I imagine I am inhaling the Spirit that Jesus exhales.

That’s it. Simple, right?

But not easy. My thoughts are unruly and wander all over the place. I start thinking about other things and forget to consciously and deeply inhale and exhale. I start composing essays and stories in my head. I remember that I have to do x or y today or that I forgot to do x or y yesterday, and suddenly I feel anxious and harried.

Every time I become aware (there’s the gap!) that my thoughts have wandered away from Jesus and are striking out on the waves for the island of the sirens, I take a deep breath and once again consciously inhale the love of God. I exhale the distracting thoughts into Jesus’ hand. Sometimes I ask Him to burn them up in the fire of His holy love. If I find myself chastising myself for being so distracted, I give those thoughts to Jesus, too—they just get in the way of receiving His love—and take another deep, full breath, inhaling the Holy Spirit in whom I live and move and have my being.

I’ve found it helpful to pray Scripture as I consciously breathe in God’s love for me. (Here are some of my favorites.)

Remember habit 2? We talked about how God surrounds us like an atmosphere, like air. Just as the air around us enters our bodies and gives us life when we breathe it in, so too, Christ lives in us and gives us life when we breathe Him in. Lashing myself to the mast makes me aware of this reality. I’m always breathing, but I’m not always aware that I’m breathing. Christ is always with me and within me—but I’m not always aware of His presence. Taking full, deep, conscious breaths in which I imagine I am breathing in His love and mercy and grace—this helps me to remain present to the fact of His presence. It helps me to live more fully right where I am. It helps me to be happy right where I am because it helps me to see that God is present and active, right here, right now.

That’s habit four: lash yourself to the mast. Start every day with a deep breath of God’s love. During the day when you realize you’re feeling anxious or harried (habit 1) or the harpies are breathing down your neck (habit 3), stop and take a deep breath. Remember you live in Christ (habit 2), and breathe in His love like oxygen—because like oxygen, it is the vivifying force of your life. Over time, you will be surprised by the joy you find because you’re abiding in Christ.

Art: The Long Leg by Edward Hopper, 1935

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