Stumbling Through Silence on the First Day of Lent

This first day of Lent is bright today in Greensboro, but the morning I went to see Marion for the first time two years ago was quite different. That day, the air was heavy with fog and questions.

First Day of Lent

At that time in my life I was walking through a long season of loneliness. The newness of my writing career had started to wear off and several years of book writing and speaking engagements had worn me down on the soul level.

I felt myself becoming more private, less comfortable among strangers, more suspicious of people, less inclined to move toward longtime friends. All of those mores and lesses began to terrify me, and so I decided to talk with someone who would be willing to hold open a prayerful space for me to process through some of that fear, loneliness, and fatigue.

Lent, a season for preparation, for turning, and for reflection; it seemed a good time to visit a spiritual director for the first time. I admit, I didn’t realize it was the first day of Lent when I planned our appointment but now looking back, it feels significant.

Though Marion’s sunroom was shadowed by clouds that morning, it was warm with her presence. She introduced our time with silence and invited me to close the silent time by saying amen. Following her lead, I bowed my head and closed my eyes, but ten seconds in I started to panic.

Am I taking too long? Not long enough?

How long do people usually sit in silence anyway?

I could probably sit in silence the entire hour but that’s probably not what people do. Or is it?!

I knew I needed this intentional space for my soul. I value being quiet and still in the deepest part of who I am, but in those moments of sitting silent in the presence of someone else, I wasn’t sure what to do with myself.

This fast-moving world supports a language the soul doesn’t speak and it takes courage to emerge in a land that isn’t home. This was the day to practice creating a safe space for my soul to come out.

“The soul speaks its truth only under quiet, inviting, and trustworthy conditions. The soul is like a wild animal–tough, resilient, and yet exceedingly shy.

If we want to see a wild animal, the last thing we should do is to go crashing through the woods, shouting for the creature to come out. But if we are wiling to walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of a free, the creature we are wait for may well emerge.”

Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak

I’m not sure Marion was prepared for me to sit on her sunroom sofa for an hour or two waiting for my soul to come out. But in that moment, it felt like I might need that kind of time.

It’s true that our souls are like wild animals. It is also true that our souls are like little children. If the soul senses judgement, criticism, or rejection, she won’t feel safe to emerge.

The problem is that one of her harshest critics? Is me. As I entered into that thoughtful place, my soul was already too intimidated by expectation to come out. I caught myself trying to figure out the right way to breathe, to pray, to listen. I didn’t want to mess it up.

Lent - emily p freeman

The very reason I came to meet with Marion showed up right there in the beginning. I needed a place free of expectation, yet here I was piling all this expectation on myself.

Finally, awkwardly, I said amen.

It wasn’t a perfect silence, but it was a start. Our time progressed more easily for me after that. And today, two years later, I’m thankful I’ve learned to practice the spiritual discipline of being silent in the presence of God and others with less fear and more grace.

Perhaps that’s the point here on this first day of Lent – as easy as it is to talk about the importance of silence and reflection, the truth is it takes a lot of work to truly practice it.

But our souls are begging us to try.

Our souls desperately crave the white space of quiet, even if it means we have to fumble through it.

The more I spend time in quiet reflection, the more I have to struggle with the tension of what it means for me. The truth is, I feel most like myself when I have a lot of white space to ponder, consider, and listen.

But, if I’m honest, I still haven’t fully accepted this about myself yet. I continue to resist it, relearn it, and rest in it only to resist it all over again.

As we enter into this forty day journey with Christ, may we be willing to fight for the gentle hum of quietness even if it means stumbling, fumbling, and do-overs to hear it.

Welcome to Chatting at the Sky. I’m glad you’re here! If you would like to receive regular reminders to create space for your soul to breathe, sign up here for my monthly notes from the bench, where I’ll share books I’m reading, favorite things, and encouragement for your soul you won’t find anywhere else.

One Home Mistake You Don’t Know You’re Making

Cozy Minimalist

You know how sometimes you’re hungry for something but you just don’t know what? Or your foot itches but you cannot, for the LOVE, find the exact spot to scratch it?

About a year ago, that’s how I felt about my sunroom at. Something was UP with this room. I knew it was wrong. I didn’t know how to fix it.

The office Before

If you want to know the truth, I carried no small amount of shame about this room when it looked like this. It’s remarkable how creative shame can get with us – never daring to show up blatantly and announce he wants to steal our sense of self-confidence and personhood.

Instead, shame whispers failure to us when we look at the diaper changing table we bought at Babies-R-Us 12 years ago that we now use as a dresser in our sunroom.

Or he taunts us when we realize we have tried exactly 80 different combinations of plants, photo frames and trays on said changing table and can’t figure out why none of it looks quite right so we must just not be very good at styling things.

Instead of seeing it all for what it is – a room with lovely bones that is difficult to style because it has doors and windows on every wall – I saw myself as a failure every time I walked in this room.

It wasn’t glaring. It wasn’t obvious. I was hardly aware of that low-grade sense of failure at all, actually. But it was always there.

Around spring of last year, my sister designed a course called Cozy Minimalist and because she’s my sister, I signed up and took the course. I thought I would learn a few tips about house stuff, but nothing I didn’t already know. I mean seriously guys, my sister is The Nester. I have no excuse not to know house stuff, right?!

She challenged us to pick one room of our house as we went through the course so I picked my sunroom as it was the only room left that I just didn’t know what to do with. I had kind of given up on it, actually. It felt beyond help.

Sunroom Before

See? I had tried to put this little sofa everywhere but the ceiling in this room and finally I just gave up and left it here, like an awkward middle schooler at her first school dance. A sofa should say come sit on me! but this one just said Pay no attention to the sofa in the corner. 

During the first module of the course, The Nester gave us an assignment – quiet the room.

Basically you just take everything out of the room and off the walls except the major furniture.

After that first assignment, something happened that made all the difference for me.

Quieting the room brought quiet in my soul.

It shushed the voice of shame.

Until that moment, standing in my quiet sunroom, I hadn’t realized how loud shame had been in my mind and heart. I hadn’t realized how hard I had been working to ignore that voice. I hadn’t known I wasn’t free until I quieted the room and listened in the silence.

The mistake I didn’t realize I had been making in my home was letting shame boss me around.

For a week, I lived with the room quiet just like The Nester said to do. I couldn’t believe the power of a quiet room. It gave me permission to begin again.

What do I really love and what am I keeping out of obligation?

Why am I afraid of color and texture? 

What purpose do I really want this room to serve for me and for my family?

All of these questions and more I was finally able to answer. And each module of the course walked me through them.

sunroom after

I’m sharing this with you today because I don’t think I’m the only woman who has carried a low-grade sense of shame about my home.

The truth is, we have enough to fight against in this world. Our homes should be the last place on earth where we feel shame.

If there is even one singular room in your house right now that you feel a sense of shame about when you walk into it, maybe it will be worth it to you to take The Nester’s Cozy Minimalist class, too.

The course closes tomorrow (Thursday January 20) at midnight. But you can buy it now and go through it at your own pace. And if you’re a mom with kid clutter you don’t know what to do with, she has another course just for that topic. You can find both courses here – choosing just one or both.

For what it’s worth, my sunroom office went from being my least favorite room in the house to my most favorite room in the house and all it took was a change in perspective. I’m grateful to The Nester for helping me see my room with new eyes and, in turn, helping to release me from unnecessary shame.

sunroom after

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The Spiritual Discipline of the Long Walk

Today I’ve invited my friend Adam McHugh to share with us from his most recent book, The Listening Life. This book was one of my favorite reads of 2015 (incase you missed the last 5,000 times I’ve mentioned it.)

If you’re feeling a little scattered and distracted today, you might be surprised to learn what a gift the long walk can be to your soul – especially when you do it as a listener. This practice has been life-changing for me and Adam has been one of my primary teachers.

It seems that everything I read these days has people talking about attentiveness. The bullet train of modern life has our landscapes whizzing by, and some of us have decided we need to slow down or get off the train so we don’t miss what is right in front of us.

The Spiritual Discipline of the Long Walk

I want to propose the spiritual discipline of the long walk. It is long because the monologue racing through our heads takes a while to talk itself out, and it is a walk because moving any faster would make the world blurry, and this is a practice that is meant to slow us down.

We devote too much energy to years and months and hours at the expense of the moment we are currently living. The long walk is about attentiveness, about receiving each moment as a gift and listening to the sermons creation is preaching to us.

The long walk can be practiced anywhere, from a nature walk to an urban neighborhood. The idea behind it is to unplug in order to connect with the Power that surges through the world. I extricate myself from everything, external and internal, that keeps me from being wholly present, and practice a lectio divina of the big book of creation.

For the first ten minutes of my walk I am allowing the fog to drift out of my soul, silencing my mind and heart and giving myself over to God’s gifts in my immediate surroundings.

The Long Walk

Then I begin to notice what I see and hear, no matter how big and loud or small and quiet. I’m not trying to insert meaning or concentrate on any one thing; I’m only noticing.

Sometimes if I am wearing glasses I will take them off so I can better pay attention to the sounds around me. Unaided, I have the eyesight of an eighty-year-old man with multiple cataracts, so if I take off my glasses I am largely dependent on my hearing. We tend to take in creation mostly through our eyes, but there is a rich symphony being played if we let our ears do some of the work.

Then, after I have perused the book of creation, taking it in on a large scale, I start to pay attention to anything that flashes or sings out at me, something specific that draws me in.

If the first stage is taking in the symphony as a whole, now I start to focus in on particular instruments. Is it a lizard lounging on the path? Is it a particular birdcall? Is it the wind shaking the leaves? Is it the shape of a branch in a tree? Is it the chorus of nighttime voices?

Whatever it is, study it. Listen to it. What do you see? What do you hear? What seems interesting or significant about it? There is no pressure for our observations to be theological or spiritual; we are simply waking up to the craftsmanship of God’s handiwork around us and listening.

There are plenty of lessons to be drawn from the world if we pay attention. Mountains and oceans counsel patience and remind us to slow down. The author of Proverbs thought the ants were worth paying attention to: “Go to the ant, you lazybones; consider its ways, and be wise. Without having any chief or officer or ruler, it prepares its food in summer, and gathers its sustenance in harvest” (Proverbs 6:6-8).

Jonathan Edwards found great spiritual meaning in a spider web. He concluded a long letter on the subject this way: “Pardon me if I thought I might at least give you occasion to make better observations on these wondrous animals that should be worthy of communicating to the learned world, from whose glistening webs so much of the wisdom of the Creator shines.”

Edwards also used the image of a spider suspended over a flame to portray the terrors of coming before a holy God. The guy had a weird thing for spiders.

If taking a walk is a foreign discipline for you, then you have the Bible as a convenient study guide for interpreting our world.

A rainbow preaches the covenantal promises and mercy of God.

A hen with its chicks reminds us of Jesus’ tender care for his people.

The wind points to the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit.

Rivers echo the justice that will one day cascade down the mountains.

The sunrise is a forerunner to resurrection and new creation.

Grass and flowers remind us of the fading nature of human life and beauty in contrast to the constancy and permanence of God.

A tree takes us into the garden where God gave life in the beginning and takes us to the end when the tree of life will bring the healing of the nations.

Raging bears remind us not to mock a prophet’s baldness.

If something grabs your attention, carry it in your mind and heart as you walk. Let it preach to you for a while. Allow it to draw you into dialogue with the One who imagined it and made it. Let it roll up into gratitude for the beauty, mercy and wisdom he has surrounded us with.

End with “thank you.”

The Listening Life by Adam S. McHughWell then. Excuse me while I go outside and listen to creation’s sermon for an hour or four. I just love this book.

Adam S. McHugh (ThM, Princeton Theological Seminary) is an ordained Presbyterian minister and spiritual director. He has served at two Presbyterian churches, as a hospice chaplain and as campus staff with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. He is also the author of Introverts in the Church and lives in Santa Barbara, California.

Now for the formals: This excerpt is taken from The Listening Life by Adam S. McHugh. Copyright (c) 2015 by Adam S. McHugh. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426.

Every month I send out a list of what I’m currently reading, along with a secret post you won’t find anywhere else. Sign up here an choose The Bench to receive that note in your inbox each month. Happy walking.

A Prayer for When We Want Answers

A Monday Benediction

We confess that we are stumbling through connection.

We confess how most of the time we would choose to offer advice, answers, expertise or solutions than we would to offer ourselves.

But you didn’t come as an expert. You came as a baby.

You didn’t come to solve our problems. You came to save our life.

Slowly we’re beginning to see that instead of a map, you offer us your hand.

Instead of an answer, you offer us your presence.

Instead of control, you offer us a cross.

Help us to see your presence as the actual answer we long for. Remind us that you are enough.

As we learn to release our obsession with building our lives, help us to trust in the new life you are building within us.

Thank you Father, for sending your son.

Thank you Jesus for coming down to be with us.

Thank you Holy Spirit for never leaving us alone.

You are our safe place to feel insecure.

May we receive one another the way you have so kindly received us.

Happy Monday, friends. If you need a little help to create space of your soul to breathe, sign up here to receive a series of free videos I made just for you.

A Short Blessing for Monday

October flowers

In the warm days of May, our daughter buried some seeds in the ground. They broke, rooted, sprouted, and bloomed. And all of them have withered by now. All except this one.

I’m impressed with her stubborn commitment to life. She’s the Mark Watney of flowers. (The Martian anyone? I’m reading it now for the category “a book in a genre I wouldn’t typically choose” in Modern Mrs. Darcy’s Reading Challenge. After having so many people recommend it I figured it was a safe bet. But shhhhhh I haven’t finished it or seen the movie.)

But here by our back door, this little yellow flower gives shape to the invisible kingdom of God. She reminds me that his timing is different from mine, his ways don’t always fit my expectations, and his life remains even when the seasons change around me.

May your Monday carry hints and outlines of your true home.