I look forward to this week each year — this liminal space between Christmas and New Year’s, between a year passed and a year to come, between what has been and what will be. Each year as a pastor, this is the week I get to fall headfirst into bed, catch up on sleep, and just let things be for a little while. I also tell myself this is going to be the week I catch up on all the things I vowed to circle back to once Christmas was in the rearview mirror. While that productivity hasn’t quite materialized yet, this week has still been what it needed to be. At least for me, there’s been a stillness to this week. For a little while, my strivings have ceased. For a little while, all is calm, and all is bright.
Like many of you, I suppose, I’ve spent this week taking stock of 2021 and looking ahead to 2022. For today’s Thursday Three, I’m sharing some words that have struck me and sustained me this year — words I hope to continue to carry with me into the new year ahead.
+ Ten Thousand Opportunities
One of my favorite books this year was The Deeply Formed Life (Amazon, Bookshop) by Rich Villodas. (He has a great Instagram presence, too, btw.) In his book, Rich offers five values for a life rooted in Jesus, inviting the reader to go beyond a shallow faith into one that is deeper and more vibrant. In his chapter on Contemplative Rhythms, he offers these words:
If contemplative, silent prayer ushers us into union with God, distractions inevitably pull us away from this state of being. But they don't have to have the final say. As I heard it said by Thomas Keating, if your mind gets distracted ten thousand times in twenty minutes of prayer, it's "ten thousand opportunities to return to God." Ever since I heard those words, I've seen distraction as an inescapable reality that positions me to come back to God.
I so appreciate the truth and reframing here — the acknowledgment and acceptance that distractions happen. And instead of feeling shame around it or kicking ourselves or working to be better next time, there’s simply a rest, an ease, and an openness for grace to enter.
A bright spot for me this year has been Ingrid Fetell Lee’s blog, The Aesthetics of Joy. Her recent post pointed out how so much in our lives is organized around the idea of work.
The American obsession with work is a topic of much discussion lately, but perhaps more interesting is the way we turn everything else into our lives into work too. (“Still working on that?” the waiter says, eyeing our half-full plates. Even our pleasures can be work.) Our culture tells us that if we want something, we must work for it. Work isn’t just how we earn things in a capitalist society. It’s how we become entitled to them. We pay for our success, our leisure, and our joy with struggle or sacrifice. Otherwise we feel lazy, or unworthy of them.
The antidote? Lee wonders what it would mean to stop working in the areas we can and just sometimes let things be easy. If I was a tattoo person, this is the mantra I’d get tattooed: “Let it be easy.” I’m not quite sure what it looks like for me yet, but I’ve begun to try it on in various situations. Do I look over the sermon one more time, or do I just go to bed? Do I reactively respond on Twitter, or do I just give it to God? Do I dwell on that one thing that one person said to me that rubbed me the wrong way, or do I simply acknowledge it and keep going? Here’s how Lee sums it all up:
Ultimately, there will always be hard things in life, and there will always be things that are worth working for. But the reflexive urge to make everything into work can leave us vulnerable to burnout and leave us with less energy for the things we really want to do in life. “Let it be easy” doesn’t mean drop your standards and settle for less. It doesn’t mean that you never push yourself or rise to a challenge. Rather, it means acknowledging that easy doesn’t mean lazy or weak or half-assed. It’s not a compromise. It’s a gentle surrender that trades control for presence. By allowing ourselves to participate in an experience without orchestrating it, to let it happen rather than forcing it, we find a more easeful way of being in the world, one that channels our energy in creative new ways.
+ For A New Beginning
This year, the blessings of John O’Donohue have been a constant and faithful companion. His book, To Bless the Space Between Us is one of the few that I can always locate. There’s one blessing in particular that I’ve returned to often this year — one I’ve sent to others more than a few times as well. It’s called “For A New Beginning,” and it seems fitting as we prepare to step into so many new beginnings of our own on January 1.
In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.
For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.
It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.
Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plenitude opening before you.
Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life's desire.
Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.
Happy New Year, friends. What are you carrying as you head into 2022?