What am I distracting myself from?

Most of the time, I’m positive there has to be a God. In fact, I go to church and Sunday school nearly every week. But sometimes during a bout of insomnia in the middle of the night, I’ll suddenly get the urge to sit bolt upright in bed and blurt out this question:

“How do I know for sure that God exists?”

During his Sunday morning sermons, our pastor often says, “I know that Jesus died for my sins and rose again. I know that my parents are in heaven and I will see them someday.”

My mother’s pastor says with equal conviction, “I have no problem with the Big Bang theory. God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and bang! We’ve got all these stars and galaxies.”

Around the table at our adult Sunday School class are people who seem just as confident about what they believe.

As I listen to these people, I suspect some would be scandalized by my 3 a.m. question. After all, if any of them have ever doubted God’s existence, they certainly aren’t letting on.

Usually I stifle the question myself, and try to get some sleep. By morning, I’m pondering what’s on my to-do-list for the day, or preparing for the next event in my crazy schedule, or surfing the Internet and reading too many articles about the Royal Newlyweds.

Lately, though, I’ve been encountering other people to whom my questioning would not seem the least bit scandalous.

One Friday evening, my husband and I gathered with a group of friends in the coffee shop of our favorite bookstore. In front of one woman sat a foot-high pile of books and magazines – the latest issue of Free Inquiry, and books with titles like God Is Not Great and The God Delusion.

A Facebook friend I can only call “a born-again atheist complete with the proselytizing” shares a steady stream of articles and memes offering “proof” that there is no God. One such meme proclaims, “If you need the threat of eternal torture to be a good person, you’re not a good person.”

Still another friend who self-identifies as atheist complains: “Christian hypocrites. Their support of Trump is directly contradictory to what they CLAIM are the instructions of their invisible Sky Fairy.”

And I have a question for my atheist friends that my pastor, my Sunday School classmates and my mother would most likely approve: “How can you be so sure there isn’t a God?”

Could it be that these questions are what I’m distracting myself from with all the to-do lists, the frantic scheduling, the endless cleaning and the mindless Internet surfing that clutter my life and unquiet my mind?

My spiritual director thinks I may be onto something. And yes, she assures me, it’s okay to question my beliefs. Starting with, do I really believe there is a God? Why or why not?

Be still! (And know I am God)

“How challenging would it be to totally quiet your mind?” my spiritual director asked. 

“Extremely challenging,” I admitted.

That would be an understatement. A meme circulating on Facebook sums up my problem nicely: “My mind is like my Internet browser. At least 19 open tabs, 3 of them frozen, and I have no clue where the music is coming from.”

Before I retired, I didn’t even bother to try this “quiet the mind” business. I was too busy juggling to-do lists: my to-do list for work, my to-do list for household chores, my to-do list for family/friend commitments, my to-do list for urgent matters, even a master list to keep track of all the to-do lists. This elaborate system of lists was suggested by the creator of the day-planner I carried around constantly and called “my conscience.” I was convinced I had to keep these multiple to-do lists or I wouldn’t remember to do simple things like brush my teeth.

I can still remember sitting in the church choir loft one infamous Sunday morning. Instead of focusing on the service, I grew increasingly impatient. The Children’s Message usually took about five minutes. That day, it stretched to ten. The pastor, whose sermons I usually enjoyed, talked way longer than usual. Then he shared his sermon time with a college student who enthusiastically described her recent mission trip in great detail while I nervously checked my watch every couple of seconds. Finally, the sermon was over and the choir sang.

As soon as we finished our last note, I grabbed my belongings, dashed to my car, and hightailed it to work. As I sped across town, yelling at traffic lights that seemed bent on slowing me down, I muttered, “Enough of needing to be in two places at once! Whatever happened to keeping the Sabbath Day holy?”

Alas, things didn’t change as much as I hoped once I retired. During a church service these days, my attention span tends to resemble a hummingbird flitting from one blossom to the next – even while reciting the Lord’s Prayer or the Apostle’s Creed. (Don’t ask about sermons.)

My attempt to focus on the Lord’s Prayer during a recent service provides a good illustration of how my mind often works:

“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy …  Did I remember to take my pills this morning?… on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day …  And the coffee pot. Did I turn off the coffee pot?… as we forgive those who trespass against us. … How long would it take the coffee pot to burn dry and catch the house on fire?… but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom … I wish those people would grow up! They are working my nerves big time.… forever and ever. Amen. Sorry God, I was sort of spacing out there. I’ll try to pay better attention next time …”

Now mind you, I actually recited all the words of that prayer. My mouth was forming the words, but my mind was racing like Usain Bolt in a 100-meter relay. When this happens, I feel lucky I haven’t – yet – been struck by a bolt of lightning right there in the middle of the sanctuary.

So am I one of those stress puppies who subconsciously needs drama to feel alive? Or am I afflicted with “monkey mind,” as my husband suggests? (“Monkey mind,” he explained, is a Buddhist term referring to the constant chatter of an unsettled, restless or confused mind.)

Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still, and know that I am God.”

“So how do I quiet my mind?” I asked my spiritual director. She offered some suggestions, like taking walks, listening to music or reading excerpts from a daily devotional book.

So far, my morning meditation ritual works best for me. When I don’t need to go somewhere early, I start my day by feeding my cats, the birds and (yep!) the squirrels. If the weather is nice when I go outside, I may stroll around my backyard and admire whatever flowers are blooming.

Back inside, I sit in my recliner in front of the fireplace, a cup of coffee at my side and a cat in my lap, and journal. Listening to Oley Cat’s purr and the crackle of the fire, or watching the squirrels’ antics as they invade the bird feeders helps quiet my mind. A little. For a few seconds, anyway. I just need to commit myself to this ritual more often, I promise myself frequently.

But it was an observation my spiritual director made about my constant struggle with clutter that really got my attention. Clutter is a distraction, she said, whether it’s the physical “stuff” that litters my house or the mental chatter that keeps me from being able to recite the Lord’s Prayer without my “monkey mind” getting sidetracked.

Which leads to the question: What am I trying to distract myself from?

A question worth pursuing, I’ve decided.

Patience pays off

Spring took its sweet time coming this year!

Where I live, we had our last snowfall on April 16. My poor jonquils in the front yard were freezing. (See photo below, center, taken a mere three weeks ago.)

Br-r-r-r-r-r-r!!!!!

But now my flowers are making up for lost time. As I said in an earlier blog entry, I guess God was teaching me patience.

The trees in our backyard are in bloom.

As are the tulips and irises.

The creeping phlox, rhododendrons and other early-spring bloomers are going to town.

Usually my spring flowers bloom in small batches: first the snowdrops and crocuses, then the jonquils, then the redbuds and pear trees, then the tulips and so on. This year, they are pretty much all blooming at once. The whole yard, front and back, is ablaze in color.

Even my favorite volunteers have come out to play.

So happy Spring, everyone! Finally …

Clutter is a spiritual issue

Ecclesiastes 3:6 reminds us there is “a time to keep and a time to cast away.” With that in mind, I resolved to make clearing out clutter a priority during this year’s recently-completed Lenten season.

Using the “one baby step at a time” approach, I actually managed to make an initial dent in the mounds of clutter littering our house. I thoroughly cleaned the refrigerator/freezer and about half the pantry, got caught up with a month’s worth of ironing, repotted several plants in the sunroom and took down the Christmas tree (yep, the first week in March). I even sorted through a drawer full of paper and shocked our accountant by giving her everything she needed to file our tax return on time this year rather than file for an extension the way I usually do.

As I cleaned and sorted, however, I realized the clutter in my life consists of more than just endless piles of paper and other physical “stuff.” My spiritual director has challenged me to identify the “spiritual” clutter clogging up my life as well. For example:

  • Computer clutter. As I said in a previous article, I could spend hours at my computer playing solitaire, mindlessly surfing the Internet or actually getting sucked into “news” articles about Miley and Taylor and Selena and the Kardashians. I am particularly likely to do this when I’m anxious or avoiding a task on my to-do list.
  • Calendar clutter. Some of the commitments overwhelming my schedule are things I really want to do – a visit with family or friends, singing in the church choir, community volunteer work. But too many other commitments have landed on my calendar because I can’t say no to people.
  • Nutritional clutter. Big-box stores, supermarkets and even health food stores seek to sell me cereal with sugar as the first ingredient, highly processed trans-fat-laden “dinners” I can pop into the microwave and whole aisles of cookies and candy. Restaurant buffets, family gatherings and church potlucks feature entire tables of desserts.
  • Mental clutter. And finally there is the steady stream of anxieties and resentments that keep me pre-occupied during the day and awake at night.

Why is all this clutter a spiritual issue?

When I put junk food into my body – the temple of the Holy Spirit – it clogs my arteries as well as adding extra pounds to my hips. The mindless Internet-surfing and solitaire games suck hours and hours out of my day that could be better spent taking a walk, connecting with other people, or just about anything else. Endless ruminating about resentments interferes with my ability to love my neighbor as myself. Turning down excessive demands on my time would help me focus more energy on those commitments that are really important. When the physical clutter in my house is out of control, my whole life feels out of control.

Alas, I still have quite a way to go just to address the physical clutter. Piles of paper cover nearly every surface in my office. My closets bulge with clothes and shoes I haven’t worn in years. Boxes and boxes and boxes marked “miscellaneous” remain stashed in the basement, many unopened from our last move nearly 10 years ago. And I don’t even like to think about the mess in the garage.

But I did make a good start during Lent, enough to motivate me to keep going. As they say around the tables at 12-Step group meetings, “One day at a time!”

 

 

Consider the jonquils

I had really hoped by now I would be spending time in my garden and flower beds, but as you can see, I would get a bit chilly when taking a break in my backyard.

01 bench

Since God seems intent on teaching me patience this spring, I decided to venture outside with a camera this morning instead.

03 tree

After all, the snow was pretty. In fact, the camera didn’t even begin to capture the beauty. 

02 house

And (to paraphrase Matthew 6:28) consider the jonquils in front of my house, God seemed to be saying. Most years, they would have bloomed in March and would be long gone by now. 

04 jonquils

But this year they are experts in the art of patience!

 

Meeting my 3-5 Challenge

1 Corinthians 6:19 reminds us that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit. To me, this means God expects us to practice good self-care. So as part of my Lenten discipline, I resolved to develop a new habit of including at least 3-5 servings of fruits or vegetables in my diet each day.

Even though I was usually lucky to get in one or two servings of fruits/veggies per day prior to Lent, adding the extra daily servings turned out to be less of a challenge than I thought it would be. Fortunately, I’ve found all kinds of ways to sneak fruits and veggies past my lips. I can:

  • Add a glass of orange juice to my breakfast (one fruit serving).
  • Add a small salad to either lunch or supper (one or two veggie/fruit servings, depending on what I add to the salad).
  • Turn a ho-hum sandwich into a Dagwood by piling on lettuce and slices of tomato, onion and cucumber (one veggie serving).
  • Cook up enough vegetables for each meal to ensure leftovers. This means I can create a veggie plate from time to time (several veggie servings in one meal).
  • Snack on raw vegetables rather than chips (one veggie serving). Baby carrots dipped in hummus makes a great snack when I have that irresistible urge to nibble.
  • Replace my afternoon soda with an 8-ounce glass of V-8 juice (two veggie servings!).
  • Throw chunks of frozen fruit and yogurt into a blender – adding some Splenda if necessary – for a delicious smoothie (one fruit serving).
  • Sip a “Baptist sangria” (one fruit serving). To make this yummy drink, I fill my glass with equal parts cranberry or pomegranate juice and sparkling water, then garnish with orange, lemon and lime slices.

Although restaurant meals tend to include only one vegetable, I can usually order a second one a la carte for a small “upcharge.” I’ve actually persuaded food servers to replace fries or chips with a serving of coleslaw, fresh fruit or no-sugar-added applesauce. Some lovely restaurants even offer a veggie plate as a complete meal.

Going to a buffet-style restaurant with a good salad bar allows me to load up my plate with all 3-5 servings of veggies/fruits at once if I want to. Of course, it also allows me to load up my plate with all kinds of fattening junk, so I’ve found I need to practice considerable self-discipline here.

When attending family gatherings or church potlucks, I’ve found that bringing a plate of fresh fruit or veggies with dip gives me something to nibble on instead of the fat and sugar-laden hors d’oeuvres usually offered at such events. This helps me sneak in an extra veggie serving as well.

At first, I was afraid this Lenten “3-5 Challenge” might cause some weight gain, but I’ve actually dropped a couple pounds over the past month.

This makes sense now that I think about it. When I add a small salad to my meal at a restaurant, I’m less likely to mindlessly nibble on the crackers, bread or dinner rolls. Raw veggies have replaced the chips I often snacked on at home in the afternoon. V-8 juice, a frozen fruit smoothie or my “Baptist sangria” have completely replaced my afternoon soda. And I put smaller portions of potatoes and pasta on my plate in order to accommodate the extra veggies.

Not only has the “3-5 Challenge” turned out to be easier than I thought it would be, but 30 days into Lent, this “add-on” has already become a habit. Definitely a keeper.

 

Baby steps

I began the Lenten season with our church’s Ash Wednesday service and a pledge to:

  • Give something up: Participate in the 40 Bags in 40 Days Decluttering Challenge, which involves decluttering one area of our home each day and letting go of “stuff.”
  • Add a positive habit: Include 3-5 daily servings of fruits/veggies in my diet.
  • Resume my Morning Meditation routine, which I had allowed to lapse over the winter.

How am I doing so far? Well, let’s just say my husband and I also began our Lenten discipline with “His” and “Hers” prescriptions for Tamiflu. Ugh! This has been the capstone of a L-O-N-G winter, which has included three separate bouts of illness for both of us. I’m still sniffling, in fact.

But I haven’t given up on my Lenten pledge.

I had embarked on the 40 Bags Challenge with an ambitious list: Clean the refrigerator on Day 1, the freezer on Day 2, the pantry on Day 3, and so on. I had also planned to try a batch of new veggie recipes.

Instead, the notorious fatigue that accompanies flu, coupled with a bit of nausea, meant I managed to finish one shelf of the refrigerator each day and I ended up drinking my fruits and veggies for several days running. (The good news is, an 8-ounce glass of V-8 juice equals two servings of vegetables and orange juice contains all kinds of Vitamin C.)

“Baby steps,” my spiritual director said, when I explained my modified plans. “That’s what matters.”

The baby steps seem to be working. After two weeks, I’ve finished cleaning the fridge (one shelf at a time), sorted through several weeks’ accumulation of junk mail, gotten caught up with a month’s backlog of ironing and am now halfway through the freezer (one shelf at a time).

Meanwhile, when I ventured outside to feed the birds – and squirrels – a few mornings ago, I spied a patch of snowdrops in our backyard. YES!!!!! Those little flowers make me so happy. Their appearance signals this L-O-N-G winter is finally coming to an end and spring is on its way … a baby step at a time.

Lent: Borrowing a tradition

Even though I grew up Protestant, from early childhood on, I’ve usually participated in the annual tradition of giving up something for Lent.

My Aunt Marie – Sunday School teacher extraordinaire and a great Christian role model – believed that while Protestants didn’t require people to make a Lenten sacrifice, there was no reason why we couldn’t borrow this idea from the Catholics. “It’s good discipline,” she explained.

One year, as my sisters and I sat around the kitchen table discussing what we would give up – cake, ice cream, chocolate – my father added his two cents to the conversation.

“I’ve never really believed in the idea of sacrifice just for the sake of sacrifice,” he said. “Not when life gives us so many opportunities to make real sacrifices. If you’re going to give up something for Lent, I think you should make a sacrifice that actually means something.”

We all looked at him quizzically.

Dad grinned from ear to ear. “Instead of cake and ice cream, why don’t you kids give up fighting for Lent?”

“That sounds wonderful,” Mom chimed in. “No fighting for six whole weeks!”

I think my sisters and I may have actually accomplished this feat for a week or two.

In recent years, some of my Christian friends – including Catholics – have added a new tradition to their Lenten discipline. Instead of (or in addition to) giving something up, they approach Lent as a time to “take something on” and acquire a new positive habit. This could include anything from healthy eating and exercise to daily prayer and meditation or a new charitable commitment.

Since Ephesians 4:22-24 tells us to put off the “old self” and put on a “new self,” I’m thinking it would make sense to include both a sacrifice and an “add-on” this year.

In Dad’s honor, I’ve decided to make a sacrifice that would really mean something – letting go of a significant portion of the “stuff” that clutters every nook and cranny of our house. Toward that end, I’ve decided to accept the 40 Bags in 40 Days Decluttering Challenge.

The 40 Bags in 40 Days Challenge coincides with the 40 days of Lent, and involves decluttering one area of our home each day. The Challenge was started in 2011 by Ann Marie Heasley, author of the blog White House Black Shutters. It has become an annual event and the blog’s companion Facebook group now boasts 67,000 members. The 2018 Challenge starts February 14 and goes until March 31. (Click HERE to read more about The Challenge.)

For the “add-on” part, I’d like to acquire the habit of eating 3-5 servings of fruits and vegetables per day as recommended by nutrition experts. I’m lucky if I get in one or two servings on most days – some might say my eating habits resemble those of a rebellious 10-year-old – so this will be a challenge! Fortunately, psychologists say it takes 30 days for a new behavior to become a habit, so Lent would give me a bonus of 10 extra days to make this new habit my own.

Meanwhile, I also plan to get back in the habit of morning meditation. My meditation ritual, which I’ve practiced for several years, involves starting my day in front of the fireplace with a cup of coffee at my side and a cat in my lap while I journal about everything from the meaning of life to my plans for the day. Some days my husband joins me and serenades me with folk tunes played on his dulcimer.

Alas, looking through my journal entries this morning, I realized I haven’t partaken of this lovely ritual for several weeks. I’ve allowed a combination of illness and other people’s drama to crowd out a habit that helps me feel centered – no wonder I’ve been a tad bit crabby lately. I definitely want my morning meditation ritual to be a keeper!

 

 

Keeping me focused

So how am I doing on my resolution to set boundaries with my computer? Alas, I should have known this would be a much harder challenge than I expected.

I’m thinking that maybe if I try this for a short period, while telling myself it’s not a permanent change, I can convince my inner two-year-old not to revolt. Lent is coming up in a couple of weeks …

Meanwhile, Oley Cat has a way of reminding me of my priorities.

Oley on computer1

A lesson in acceptance

Since January 21 is National Squirrel Appreciation Day, today’s blog entry is dedicated to some of my favorite furry friends.

squirrel10b

Sometimes compromise really is the best answer, especially when one’s conflict is with a small animal.

I used to get so frustrated with the squirrels in our backyard because they wouldn’t stay out of the bird feeders. I tried everything to thwart the little trespassers – putting feeders in hard-to-reach places, using safflower seeds (which they’re rumored not to like), and investing in every allegedly-squirrel-proof contraption I could find.

As anyone reading this will probably guess, nothing worked for very long. Squirrels, I discovered, have amazing problem-solving skills. Give them a day or two and they’ll figure out how to overcome every obstacle we place between them and the tasty treats we were hoping would entice cardinals and goldfinches.

One day when I stopped at Wild Birds Unlimited to pick up some goodies for my feathered friends, a photo of a chubby-cheeked squirrel greeted me at the front door along with a sign that read, “Oh go ahead. Feed them too.” Just inside the door sat a display of feeders and a feast prepared just for them. We could choose from corn on the cob, peanuts in the shell, or a special Wildlife Blend. We could put this bounty in a simple tray feeder or opt for a fancier Squirrel Table and Chair Feeder.

At long last, I decided to enjoy the squirrels instead of fighting them. After all, I’m pretty sure our bushy-tailed buddies never got the memo that all the enticing delicacies were for birds and not for them. Besides, where is it written that we’re supposed to feed birds but not squirrels? Yes, I know they’re rodents, but hey – they’re really kind of cute little acrobats.

I’ve now installed a couple of the tray-style feeders so my furry marauders can sit instead of hanging upside-down while they eat. As a bonus, the trays double as a good place to recycle old bread, tortillas, naan, hamburger buns and pita chips. (Just make sure there is no onion or garlic on these.)

Both the birds and squirrels love that tray and have even gotten somewhat good at sharing space – except for the blue jays, who dive-bomb squirrels and other birds alike when they decide it’s their turn to eat.

But the jays seem to come later, after the other critters have been gorging for a while, and hey – blue jays are really pretty and they don’t understand memos any better than squirrels do.