Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Blizzard Sabbath

The past two days brought a major snowstorm to the Northeast U.S. The storm started on Sunday and lasted into yesterday morning. The New York area where I live got a direct hit from this monster blizzard that brought from 1-2 feet of snow and raging winds.

This blizzard brought nearly everything to standstill. Roads were impassible. Trains and subways stopped running. Many businesses were closed on one of the biggest shopping days of the year.

Once I accepted the reality that I was home bound for a while, I enjoyed this forced quietude. I realize that part of my enjoyment was due to not losing electricity. For those who did, surviving the blizzard was miserable.

In a way, yesterday became a sabbath, a day of rest. I did some active rest by doing a workout on my rowing machine in the basement and digging my sons cars out of snowdrifts. I also read two newspapers completely (something I never seem to have time to do), took a nap and went to a movie with my wife. It was a relaxing and enjoyable day.

After enjoying this day, I reflected on why I don't take a sabbath day each week. When such a day is forced upon me, I always enjoy it and benefit from it. So why aren't I intentional about making time for a sabbath? Perhaps it's because I'm caught up in a "I must always be busy to justify my existence" mode.

Our souls are fed both by being and doing, by inactivity and activity, by silence and conversation. What we need is a balance between the active and the passive aspects of spirituality. When our souls are out of balance, then we need to pay attention to how to bring them back into equilibrium.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Good Worrying?

I was half-listening to the radio while driving yesterday when an author of a book on "worrying" was interviewed. I didn't catch his name or the title of his book. I just caught the last part of the interview.

My ears perked up when he said, "There are three categories of things we worry about: (1) things we have no control over, (2) things we have control over, and (3) things we have influence but don't have total control over."

He went on to say that worrying over #1 is futile, while worrying over #2 and #3 might spur us to take positive action. In other words, there is a type of worrying that has benefits.

All of us have experienced the futility of worrying over things we can't control: the weather, airplane delays, the outcome of a game we're watching, and so on. Worrying about these things only increases our anxiety and wastes time and energy.

However, if worrying about something we do have control over (even limited control) motivates us to take action to alleviate our worries, then this is "good" worrying. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus echoed this idea. In Matthew 6:25-34 he admonishes his disciples to not worry about the mundane things of life--what to eat, drink or wear. Instead, he encourages them to strive first for the "kingdom of God and its righteousness."

To paraphrase Jesus, striving for a right relationship with God will diminish our worries and keep us focused on what's truly important. Good worrying can point us to reorder our priorities and to let go of the futility of worrying about things we can't change.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Learning Patience

It's seems that I'm always waiting for something or someone. For the past six months, I've been awaiting final approval from a bank about refinancing our mortgage. I'm waiting to hear back from one of my editors about a writing assignment. And, I'm waiting for this semester to be over.

Waiting is an inevitable part of life. We have little or no control over much of what we must wait for. What we can control is how we wait. Do we wait patiently or anxiously? Do we allow ourselves to become stressed while we wait or do we use the waiting time productively?

Waiting patiently may be the ideal, but it isn't easy. When we are anxious in our waiting, we just want it to be over asap. When the resolution of our waiting doesn't happen our our timetable, we can become upset and angry. Yet, getting upset or angry doesn't make time pass more quickly. Giving in to these negative emotions only makes the waiting more difficult.

Patience is something we must learn through practice. Patience comes from accepting that we can't control everything and learning humility. Much of our anger about having to wait comes from an inflated sense of self importance.

Even though I don't enjoy waiting, I am working on how I wait. Since waiting is so much a part of daily life, I have plenty of opportunities to learn patience!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Enjoying the Pain?

I've started a winter workout program on rowing machines on M/W/F/Sat. These workouts last about an hour and can be grueling. Our new Ukrainian rowing coach is intense and has challenged us to work harder.

Our coach has come up with some interesting sayings during these hard workouts. This morning, while we were doing the last of three 20 minute rowing sessions, he said, "Enjoy the pain." What I think he meant was "enjoy the physical exertion of a hard workout."

While I didn't enjoy the workout, I did enjoy the results. After a hard workout you feel relaxed from the endorphins that are released. You also feel good when the pain of the workout stops. You're hungry for breakfast and feel fully justified in eating a full breakfast. At night, you're tired and sleep better.

A hard workout is a useful metaphor for certain times in our life. When we have endured a painful or difficult time, there is relief when the pain stops. There is also the positive feeling that "I've survived this." Often, we can learn some life lessons from a painful episode.

I'm not suggesting that we seek out painful experiences. Enough pain comes into every life without looking for it. What I'm saying is that we can learn how to survive these challenging times and become stronger in the process. Perhaps we can even learn to enjoy the pain-- after it's over.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Sung Prayers

In my Hebrew Scriptures class last night, we focused on the Book of Psalms. There are 150 psalms, divided into 5 collections. The Psalms functioned as a hymnal for the ancient Israelites. Even today, psalms are sung as hymns or chanted.

In the psalms we encounter the full spectrum of human emotions-- from despair to hope, from sadness to joy, from anger to praise. The psalms are basically prayers of individuals and the community offered to God. They are written in Hebrew poetry, giving them a power and beauty.

Poetry is "concentrated language" and can express and evoke our deepest emotions. For many, the psalms stir up feelings deep within us. The laments (the most common type of psalm) express our deepest human needs for a connection with God. The hymns of thanksgiving express our gratitude for life's many gifts. The hymns of praise put into words an awe that is beyond words.

The psalms were intended to be sung. St. Augustine once said, "When you sing, you pray twice." Words and melody are two ways of praying. In the psalms, both ways of praying converge. Singing the psalms gives them more power because of the ability of music to evoke and express our emotions.