Each morning at nine o’clock a reminder on my phone clinks. It is my daily reminder to be grateful. I think of three things, and then text them to my sister halfway across the world, who responds in kind with three of her own. I started the practice over a year ago. At first I just was doing it myself, but when my sister came to visit last Christmas she asked me about this ding she kept hearing each morning. I told her what it was, and soon she began to participate in my gratefuls. It has been a space of grace and hope in some times when I had a very difficult time seeing outside of a shadow.
There are rules, but only for good reasons. The Gratefuls can be anything: a simple sunrise, a simple cloudy day, what I’m eating for breakfast, joy of spending time with children, and so on. Or they can be complex: a changing relationship, a change at how I see the world, plans for growth or celebration, or a new development at work. The only thing they cannot be are Sour Gratefuls. You know the kind: I’m grateful that I don’t have to do something because other plans failed, in other words, a statement of gratefulness that only points at the negative direction of an event. When we do those, they require a do-over. It is not sufficient, and is not the point.
I don’t always have bubbly feelings each morning, and I surely don’t always have the perspective I need to be able to see the promise in the darkest situations, but I can usually find three things to be grateful for each morning, and sometimes, when I’m feeling I want extra practice, each night as well. (Of course, this means that my sister receives them in the morning… she is 14 hours ahead of me right now.)
These times of being grateful are not necessarily hopping up and down grateful times, more often than not I simply look around at my surroundings and see what is in the immediate vicinity, and think about how it has affected me (or effected me, depending on what it is).
I never thought that I would be able to continue the practice for so very long. I am usually pretty good at forgetting and leaving aside rituals that don’t have immediate rewards. I suppose my sister joining me in the practice is part of the reward, but in some ways she simply keeps me honest, and helps to remind me if I have ignored my electronic reminder.
Sometimes I will experience something, and I will know that it will be my next grateful, and then sometimes as I sit back and reflect on my gratefuls, I will realize something that never occurred to me in the moment.
So, today, what are mine? Rituals, practice, and accountability.
I love swings.
I love the free abandon of swings.
To swing, you can get a push here and there, you can have people help you along, as you begin and gain momentum, but at a certain point, there is only so much someone can push you, there is only so high you can go with a helpful hand at your back, and at that point, to go higher, you must take your own initiative, and push yourself.
Alternating your body in a sideways S in back fall, and a lengthened L in forward motion, you have to pump back and forth to be able to rise higher. But as you propel yourself through shifting your weight back and forth on the swing, you reach a higher point at each apex, until your eyes are beyond the level of the structure from which the swing hangs.
It becomes much more than a seat suspended on a rope or a chain. It is a way to glide, to test what it would feel like to fly, to feel temporary moments of utter weightlessness alternated with extra force on every limb, down to your core. The swing is a way to escape, for a moment, the normal way the world works, and feel the rise and fall of your new being, carried by the dynamic of back and forth, back and forth.
I remember having to wait in line for the swings, to take turns to be able to swing on them. It always seemed that the amount of time I was in the air was minuscule in relation to how long I saw others take their turns. I don’t think that whoever was mediating was being unfair, I believe that time on the swings changes. I think that time is different when you are going back and forth on the swings, time is different as you go from weightless to heavy and back. When we swing, we are different people. It sounds silly, of course, but many things that we do change us, and when we play we are especially changed.
When we play, we can take on other ideas, we can become other people, we can discover new things about the world and about ourselves. We grow, as we play.
I still love to play on the swings. I don’t do it as often as I could, the church where I serve has a set, and they are well sunk in the ground, so I can swing as high as I want without worrying about tipping out or over. And every so often, I do go out, taking my seat, beginning to push myself back and forth, back and forth, creating an ever widening arc, playing with the joy of a child as the cumulation of my years float away on the wind.
And I swing.
About three years ago I had surgery. My foot was unable to heal itself, so I had surgery to take out pieces that didn’t belong and pin new structures so that my foot would be aligned. The cuts were each two to three inches long, and deep enough to need staples and stitches. The incisions went all the way to the bones of my foot. Healing took a long time.
While I was healing from surgery and entering into the process of physical therapy, I was taught how to care for my scars. My incision that went clear to the bone had begun to heal. The scab healed over and I stopped being worried about the wound opening up. But the scars remained. In fact, the scar sank all the way to the bones of my foot. I had scar tissue half an inch thick and two to three inches long running along my foot. The only way to care for a scar like that is to rub it. you have to carefully massage the scar, reminding the layers of skin and muscle beneath the surface that they are different, and are not designed to be cast together.
This kind of re-memorization massage is not terribly pleasant. It hurts. The skin has to be pushed in opposite directions and rubbed in circles and told to figure out that it doesn’t need all that scar tissue that built up around it to protect it. The deep tissue massage is necessary for healing. If you don’t press and prod and provoke it, then the scar tissue will prohibit further growth.
The scar on the outside remains. I can still see the individual points where the staples held my skin together. But deeper, below the surface, I can feel the individual layers move in their own way, individually and separately.
The foot is all one part, it is held together by bones and sinews and muscles and skin, but the separate parts have returned to moving in synchronous motion and yet individual action.
Scars in the Body of Christ can be the same way. When the Body of Christ is hurt, we can be tempted to wrap up the wound and ignore it until it is fully scabbed and scarred over. Once the scar is formed, it is all too easy to declare that it is no longer in need of care, rather we choose to ignore the scar because it is not causing any direct pain. But when we ignore the scar, we let it continue to sink deep into the bones of the Church. If we apply any pressure, there is an instant reaction that causes us to jerk back and continue on a path that avoids any discomfort. When we ignore the scars deep in the folds of our lives the action of those parts of us that are wounded are limited and stilting.
With our scars sinking deep and hidden by the surface we can forget that we are in need of healing. Our scars serve as a reminder of pain, but also of healing.
Healing scars is hard work. It hurts and can interfere with our routine. However, if we ever want to heal, to become more whole, we must do the hard work of re-memorization.
When we look at the wilderness around us
and the turbulent waters before us
we see danger and destruction.
We recognize the call of the Israelites
as we desire the familiar
rather than the unknown.
You call us forward on a path that we cannot see.
Cleanse us from the mud of our sins
as we journey through the waters.
Shield us from distractions that pull us
away from your path of dry ground.
Be the pillar of cloud and fire that protects us.
Soften out hearts to trust in you.
As we walk through your grace
lead us into your way of life. Amen.
For those who are looking for last minute confessional liturgy for Exodus 15, the story of the Israelites passing through the Red Sea (or Reed Sea, if you are a hebrew linguist).
When I am looking for a new idea or a new way to describe an old idea, I need to go away from where all the bustle is, and I need to go to find a bit of peace.
When I am struggling with feeling dry and complacent, I need to go somewhere to clear my head. Generally I can go for a walk close to my house, or if I need to I can go take a shower, something that gets my body moving and helps to work ideas to the surface. Or, if I need to, I go to practice centering prayer, where I lie still and allow my mind to open, relax, and release into the presence of God.
Sometimes I am not searching for inspiration as much as it is placed on me. When I go to the top of the mountain, or to the shore of the ocean, or even to the edge of the local creek, I am inspired by what I see, hear, and feel. I become fully present.
It seems that the common thread in all of these places and situations of inspiration is the ability to become fully present in those places and in my own body. When I am at the edge of the ocean, I can taste the salt in the air, feel the sand under my feet, hear the waves crash against the shore, and see the water continue its endless and never replicating cycle of movement. I have no choice but to sense the place of where I am, and so stand more solidly in myself, rather than have my mind flit between a hundred different places and a thousand different thoughts.
It helps if I don’t have my phone on, tethering me to everyone who has my number. Sometimes I need to get away, and be where I am, rather than wondering or worrying about this friend or that family member. I need space to remember who I am, in my own skin. When I do that, I can more ably respond to others with grace and kindness.
When I know who I am, I am better at being who I am.
I guess, in a way, that I find inspiration in places that allow me to be myself at my fullest potential. When I am not able to be myself, I end up rehashing old ideas and lack the creativity that lies silent and deep in my core. I can grow crusty with old things, but when I crack the shell of routine I am able to do more than I could ever do before.
When I go to find inspiration, I find more than that. I find joy.