Updated: Dec 30, 2020
In my mom’s culture, at this time of year, people create scenes out of straw in communal, outdoor spaces. The scenes can be of anything but, most often, tend to represent something or someone that you didn’t like from the last year, to which you are enthusiastic to bid goodbye. They are also often elaborate. I remember one, in particular, from a visit to Ecuador when I was a kid. There were two straw people, sitting at a straw table, playing cards inside a straw hut decorated with straw furniture and there were even straw plants and wall hangings.
Then on New Year’s Eve, everyone lights their straw creations on fire. It’s a way of saying goodbye to the old year and everything that it was to make a place to welcome in the new. There’s also catharsis involved in igniting these representations of the old, the things and people to be left behind with the passing of time.
This year, I feel like I would have a lot to burn. There is a lot I’d like to be done with and I am definitely ready to turn towards a new year with the faint light of hope that has begun to grow in my heart that this year to come might be better.
That hope still feels uncertain though and so, in the interim, and in the absence of a giant bonfire, I am working on new routines and plans and multi-colored spreadsheets that are at least giving me some feeling of control. Creating a sense of control feels like the only way I’m going to make it, because right now, making it through these next few months until the Better Time arrives feels like a questionable prospect. So, I am focusing on sleeping well and eating well and scheduling in time for all of the important but non-urgent things that too often get dropped from my list.
Taking care of ourselves is an exercise in exerting control over temptation and apathy. But I don’t think it is equivalent to turning away from temptation, for instance, by focusing on staying in God’s presence. We had some good discussions about this in our spiritual disciplines group. One night, I presented the following graphic.
The idea here being that practicing the spiritual disciplines moves us toward selflessness, where we become more fully God’s instruments, where we are closer to God and to following the Way. I wouldn’t say that this is necessarily a completely true graphic. I have learned that “figuring things out” isn’t really aligned with faith. But it was a useful picture to meditate on and engage in conversation around. I wonder, for instance, where self-care and selflessness intersect and if selfishness is always bad. And I wonder if it is possible to ever really stay in selflessness or if our day-to-day experience is forever an oscillation of trying to move towards being in God’s presence and then falling away, focusing on more human things, and going back again. I wonder if these circles should be in a line or in a group. I don’t think there are definite answers here.
But reflecting on my urge recently to make a giant, fancy spreadsheet that made me feel like I could Do This and reflecting on these discussions we had in the small group around “being” instead of “doing,” I was wondering if actually maybe attempting to have a perfect plan won’t lead me to lessen my anxiety. I was thinking that maybe instead, my primary focus should be renewing my intention towards practicing the spiritual disciplines.
One of the spiritual disciplines--perhaps the most important one, if I may boldly claim that--is prayer. Up on our website right now is a document to use as a sort of road map to prayer. I printed it out today and filled it in. Here’s my example, in case it is useful for you to get started:
I found completing this document to be incredibly helpful, which aligned with what several other people have told me. Writing down the lies made them so much easier to hear and name (and dismiss) throughout the day. Writing down the gratitudes made me so much more aware of them (and grateful for those miracles) when I witnessed them again later on. And the phrase that jumped out at me from reading the scripture passage kept coming back into my head again and again. All day I was meditating on the feeling of being rooted by the streams of water.
I also particularly liked the idea of consenting, which is one way that this practice moves us away from just self-care, making lists, and into selflessness. This document is not something to be accomplished. We aren’t going to get graded on how well we fill it out. We can’t ace this like a test. Instead we are just sharing what is in our hearts and then consenting to whatever it is that God is telling us and showing us. I would highly encourage you all to take a look.
Maybe in a couple of days I will make a giant straw model of a virus and burn it all to the ground. And I will probably keep trying to sleep well and eat well and exercise and so on until I allow myself to become aware of the impossibility of trying to manage stress by adding more things to my overflowing to-do list. But prayer is the one thing that I know will truly sustain me through the weeks to come and will also allow me to do more than just make it. Prayer allows us to live fully and be whole and stay connected to the infinite presence that is always around us. So that when the Better Times come, we can say that we did more than just survive. We lived lives of love and light through a time of intense darkness. And so this new year I will make a different kind of resolution, to try to focus on engaging in relationship with God and I will keep consenting and listening and receiving with gratitude.