The Most Important Spiritual Discipline

We are roughly around the halfway point of Lent. Which, to me, means: Lent may never end.

Maybe I am not as disciplined and have less perseverance than most. But Lent seems really long to me at this point. In fact, this is usually the point where I find myself slipping more and more. Mainly because I am not used to self-denial. I am used to doing as I please. I am used to things being quick an easy. Lent kicks me right in the face with this desire.

Lent is long.

Lent can be difficult.

Lent requires perseverance and dedication and work.

And we don’t know what to do with that in our fast-paced world.

Have you ever noticed how most of your life is reactive? The pace of life we keep is usually simply about survival. We bounce from one activity to the next, tackle the next item on the agenda, and rarely pause to reflect on any of it.

We just want to make it through the day.

Centering_PrayerYet the picture of the life we find in and through Christ does not seem to be this way. The life of Christ is one that is responsive rather than reactive. Jesus gives the image of rivers of living water running through us. The Christ life is one where we live from a reservoir rather than just finding the energy to survive. The life of Christ is about living from a center, rather than searching for a balance from all the demands placed upon us.

The length and slowness of Lent is a time to make us stop, slow down, and reflect.

Advent comes and goes in a flash amidst all the craziness of Christmas. Lent requires planning, endurance, and persistence. It is too long to just make it through. It as if Lent keeps grabbing our face and turning it back to the cross saying: Look at this! Be present! Here is where your real life is found.

This doesn’t take place in a day. Or even a week. It is a slow, steady discipline of focus and reflection.

Lent is not just another thing to add to the craziness. Lent is a time to create space to really examine and reflect on our lives. In our crazy world, I think there is perhaps no more spiritual discipline than reflection.

Reflection is how we make sense of our lives. Reflection allows us to see the themes and meanings and purposes to our day-to-day existence, and not just be people who are subject to the demands that are thrown at them every day.

Reflection is how we explore our own experiences and make sense of them, and see God at work. Reflection is the discipline of paying attention to what is happening in our lives.

I recently read Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead. There is a section where the narrator talks about our notions of “visions from God.” He is in conversation with a man who claims to have had a vivid experience and vision with Jesus. And this person tells him that if he hasn’t had a vision in this manner, then he isn’t really paying attention. But here’s what the narrator concludes:

This idea of visions misunderstands the nature of visions. Most often, I think we understand our experiences with God in retrospect.

What a profound statement.

Think about your life. I am sure there are moments where you are completely present with God. But other times, you look back on something and think: Oh yeah, God was totally right there with me.

Look at the disciples in the Gospels. The Gospels themselves are written as people are coming to understand what Jesus meant during his life. And it is stunning how often the disciples didn’t understand him at the time. But now they do. So they communicate this through narratives of his life.

It is staggering to think of how often we miss God simply because we don’t make space for reflection.

And this is not a new idea. One of the oldest disciplines in the Christian tradition is the Awareness Examen. The Awareness Examen is a way to stop and reflect on your day and notice where you were or were not present to Jesus and to those around you.

Reflection helps us better see the important things in life need attention. It helps us determine what is worth our time and energy, and what is not. It also allows us to be honest about our feelings. Not just be honest, but sit with them. The Psalms are reflections. They are the process of sitting with the difficult and the joyful emotions and then trying to see how they connect with God and the experience of life.

When we think more deeply about experiences, notice the ways God is urging us and working in our lives, and pay attention to our emotions and reactions, it makes us more intentional in our actions. We often do things just because that is the next item on the checklist or it is what we have always done.  Reflection lets us ask if this is still good and moving us in directions we want to be.

Just as a ship sailing on a long voyage can completely miss its mark by just a few missed adjustments, when we don’t take the time to reflect and adjust, we can find ourselves in places we don’t want to be.

Reflection keeps us grounded in our purpose and allows us to constantly examine if we are aligning with our cornerstone. When we do so, we are better able to live from a grounded place and not be subject to all the many demands of the craziness of modern life. We can explore the depths of our existence and be centered rather than chasing balance. We can also better choose the things in life we need to say “yes” to and, maybe even more importantly, what we need to say “no” to.

Lent can be tedious. But when we stick with it, we train ourselves to live centered and grounded lives, rather than just reactionary lives. May we have the courage to stop and pause and allow the Holy Spirit to guide our thoughts.

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