Psalms for the Spirit Ep. 4: Examining Our Spirits in the Mess of Everyday Life

Today’s guest is Pádraig Swan, trained in the Jesuit tradition and serving as the Director of Faith and Service Programmes at Belvedere College in Dublin, Ireland. Pádraig and I would usually get into interesting conversations about spirituality while our families are visiting each other – kids racing around the room or climbing on us while we talked, amid good food and cups of coffee and tea. Not only that, but when Pádraig brought a group to the Corrymeela residential center on their annual retreat, I had the privilege of leading them in a Taizé evening worship that was always a very special and memorable experience. In our conversation, Pádraig weaves together his background in Ignation spirituality, and in particularly the practice of the daily examen prayer, as well as his experience of living with the Taizé community in France, as we explore together how the Psalms help us to examine our spirits in the mess of our everyday life. 

I’m grateful to the Taizé community for making available some of their beautiful recordings of Taizé chants, and also to Pádraig for his lovely  singing at the end of the episode.  

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More about Pádraig Swan:

Pádraig Swan is originally from Carlow, but has lived and worked in Dublin for many years. He is married to Colleen, and they have two children, Saoirse (8), and Seán (4).Pádraig has a long relationship with matters of faith and how faith meets the reality of human life. His own faith is influenced by time spent at the Taizé community, Corrymeela, 3 years studying for the Roman Catholic priesthood, working in business for over 20 years, transitioning to young adult ministry, deepening encounters with Jesuit Spirituality, and now as Director of Faith and Service Programmes at Belvedere College SJ, a Jesuit Secondary School in Dublin. Padraig is a member of the Corrymeela Community and serves on the parish council of his local parish.    

Psalms for the Spirit Ep. 3: How Singing Together Makes Us Better, with Brian Hehn

My guest today is Brian Hehn, the Director of The Center for Congregational Song with the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada. He is an accomplished song leader and musician, and has a huge heart for getting people to sing together. Here, he reflects on the power of singing to transform us into better people, and how not singing together through COVID has been difficult but may lead to some necessary shifts in our singing culture. 

I thoroughly enjoyed reconnecting with Brian through recording this podcast episode. While I expected that his reflections on singing would be meaningful, I was struck by his insights into the silence that we find ourselves in right now. I hope and pray that his vision will come to pass – that when we can sing together again, our songs would reflect more clearly and fully God’s way of justice for this world.

I hope you enjoy listening in!

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More about Brian Hehn:

Brian is an inspiring song-leader equally comfortable leading an acapella singing of “It Is Well” as he is drumming and dancing to “Sizohamba Naye.” Experienced using a variety of genres and instrumentations, he has lead worship for Baptists, Roman Catholics, United Methodists, Presbyterians, and many more across the U.S. and Canada. He received his Bachelor of Music Education from Wingate University, his Master of Sacred Music from Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, and is certified in children’s church music (K-12) by Choristers Guild. He has articles published on sacred music and congregational song in multiple journals and co-authored two books under the title “All Hands In” published by Choristers Guild. While working for The Hymn Society as the Director of The Center for Congregational Song he also serves as adjunct professor of church music at Wingate University in Wingate, North Carolina. Brian lives in Baltimore, Maryland, with his wife, Eve, and son, Jakob.

Breathing Through the Uncomfortable

I’m sure you’ve all heard about the growing wild popularity of the outdoor sport of “wild swimming.” That is, the sport of entering near-freezing water without a wetsuit, even in the middle of winter. To be a “wild swimmer,” one needn’t be an accomplished sportsperson, but instead must be crazy enough to step into frigid water outdoors – the sea, a lake, a river- and… breathe. That’s right – breathe.

As someone who has in the past few years become a rather avid all-year-round sea swimmer, I can tell you that it’s true: provided the conditions are calm and welcoming, it’s very simple. All you need to do is walk into the water, until it’s up to your neck, and breathe. 

You see, it’s very a human response, when extremely cold, to become breathless. I know this happened to me the first time I tried sea swimming in Ballycastle on the north coast – my whole body tensed up, the alarm bells of panic started ringing inside of me, and I was out of the water in a flash. That was in August. 

Now, I swim easily in January. How? 

I learned to breathe. As the water comes up over your shoulders, and you feel yourself becoming breathless, those minutes are the most important. If you breathe, slowly, in and out, your body loses its sense of panic and begins to relax. 

As my tolerance increased, I began to experience the feeling of joy that wild swimming is becoming known for. Soon, my breathing became an act of trust in what would come: the sense of wellbeing that would wash over me and stay with me the rest of the day. 

Sea swimming has taught me to breathe through the uncomfortable and to trust not only that my body can handle it, but that something good is to come. 

I find myself breathing, these days, when stress threatens to overwhelm me – when my daughter is tearing her hair out trying to get her homework turned in online with only minutes to spare; when my son’s ipad crashes in the middle of his virtual class; when the needs and demands of work and homeschool and housework, and never having enough space to myself, leaving me feeling breathless. 

At those moments, I find myself breathing. In, out, in, out. Long, slow breaths. An act of trust that this moment too shall pass, and that a sense of calm will return. 

Don’t we all need to remember to breathe, these days. We so easily slip into a state of panic, the alarm bells ringing about the threat of COVID, the fears for the future, the state of the world, the struggles of the multitude of responsibilities we all carry in our own ways. 

Just when we’re tempted to turn on our heels and give up –  as I did on my first swim – that’s when we can call up the most simple act: to breathe. To breathe long, slow breaths, reminding our bodies, our minds, our hearts, our souls that we can trust that it will be ok.

For at the root of our faith is the belief that God can bring goodness out of even the most trying of situations. 

So let’s breathe. In, out, and trust that joy and peace and hope and a sense of wellbeing will come. 

Let us pray. Breath of life, when panic and stress rise up within us, breathe your calming spirit into us, and with that breath, remind us that your goodness will always prevail. In your holy name we pray, Amen. 

I was asked to contribute this prayer to the Four Corners Festival, held virtually in Feb 2021.

In a strange collision of circumstances, I was also featured in a BBC documentary the night before I offered this prayer. The sea swimmers recorded this last summer, as a part of a series on The Glens of Antrim, where I live. The Ballycastle Swimrise Group have been a lifeline to me over the past year – prior to COVID and through COVID. Sea swimming has breathed life into me in so many ways! Click the link below to catch a glimpse of sea swimming in Ballycastle, Northern Ireland.

Psalms for the Spirit Ep. 2: Holding the Adversity and the Joy, with Sara Cook

The second podcast episode is ready to go! This week my guest is Sara Cook, a social worker who offers trainings in trauma resilience. She is such a wealth of knowledge and I’m so delighted that she agreed to talk with me on this podcast to share some of the practical skills she teaches in her trainings, and I found it fascinating to explore with her how we find resilience through spiritual resources like the Psalms. I’ve listened to this many times in getting it into podcast form, and I’m still learning new things from what she says every time! I hope you can take away some new skills for building resilience in your lives, or that it reminds you of things you already know, and that you also appreciate looking at the Psalms and our spiritual lives in a fresh way, as I did.

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More about Sara Cook:

Sara Cook is a social worker and conflict response specialist who has extensive experience working with people affected by conflict in Northern Ireland and internationally. Her peace building work includes mediation, dialogue and storytelling encounters between conflict-affected populations, including victims and survivors of violence, security forces and paramilitaries. Much of her work addresses the psychosocial impact of conflict, including the impact of mediation and peace building work on practitioners. For 20 years, Sara has designed and implemented methodologies to address conflict-related impact and provides training and facilitation in mediation, dialogue, trauma intervention and resiliency. She has trained people from over 30 countries, including humanitarian aid workers supporting the resettlement of Syrian refugees in both Turkey and Lebanon. She is a UK representative to Women Mediators Across the Commonwealth and is a board member of Mediation Norther Ireland and the VSB Foundation.

Psalms for the Spirit Ep. 1: Finding Your True Home, with Amy Ruth Schacht

My first podcast guest is the Rev. Dr. Amy Ruth Schacht – a Presbyterian Church USA minister who has served in Laurel, MD for the past 20 years. Amy has studied neuroscience and its connection to the life of faith. In this conversation, she discusses how the psalms have helped her – and her congregation – through difficult times, and how the psalms have helped her carve a new map toward her true home.

https://psalms-for-the-spirit.captivate.fm/episode/ep-1-finding-our-true-home-with-amy-ruth-schacht/

Coming Soon: Psalms for the Spirit Podcast

Hello friends, 

I have been working on a new venture! A podcast about spirituality and resilience, through the lens of the Biblical Psalms.

The question I’m exploring is: how do the Psalms, and music, and other spiritual resources such as these, help us through difficult times – through times of personal or collective trauma? 

How do the psalms lift our spirits? 

I’m inviting friends and respected teachers to speak with me on the connections between spirituality and resilience. My guests will be from a variety of backgorunds – theologians, social workers, hymnwriters, musicians, spiritual directors, clergy, acadmeics, mental health practitioners, and anyone interested in the intersection of spirituality and the lived experience. 

Through personal story, field research, and theological reflection, we will delve into the psalms and how they intersect with people lives and areas of expertise. 

For me, this is pure joy. When I record my conversations, I’m in a beautiful spot overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and Rathlin Island – and I get to connect with people near and far to talk about things we’re passionate about.

The first few episodes will be released soon, and I hope you will join us on the journey!

Kiran

The Unboundedness of Limitation

It seems every conversation I have with people these days comes down to the theme of limitation. Each one of us, in our own unique way, is experiencing limitations that hinder us and withhold from us certain aspects of the life we knew only eight short months ago.

Limitation defines so much for us right now: we weave our lives around the COVID rules and restrictions of whatever area we live in. We either abide by or resist those rules and regulations, but we’re aware of them nonetheless – building our lives around what we can or can’t do.

Limitation is our current reality. It’s the terrain we must dwell in to keep others and ourselves safe and healthy.

And in that limitation also resides much grief, frustration, anxiety, and helplessness.

Where we used to plan and dream far into the future, this limitation freezes us in a timelessness – forces us to stay put within our homes, our routines, our locale, for an undetermined amount of time.

Where we would have traveled and explored and adventured, we can only cast our mind’s eye to past memories, or turn to images on screens to transport us elsewhere.

Where we would have broken up our days and weeks and months with gatherings large and small, enjoyed blissful moments of witnessing or performing the arts, and taken in festivals or once-in-a-lifetime events, we can only stay within the scope of our mundane daily rhythms.

Where we once extended ourselves into our busy schedules, expending our energies for a multitude of activities and projects and causes, we now struggle to find ways to contribute meaningfully to the world.

Limitation.

I read the story of Mary being visited by the angel in Luke 1 with different ears, from this context of limitation in which we reside.

Two women, both in situations where it should be impossible for new life to grow within them. Two women whose limitations seem obvious.

And yet, the angel says: with God, all things are possible. God announces that new life will spring forth where none should be able to. Limitations no longer claim hold on these women’s lives.

Caught as we are in our own webs of limitation, how freeing it is to imagine God cutting through all that to release us: to bring new life and all it entails – hope, potential, change, dreams.

Could it be that God can break through our confines even without some dramatic reversal of events – without a vaccine, without a cure – and bring forth life in and through our limitations?

Perhaps there is boundlessness within our limitation. A vast world within our boundaries, which we are perfectly free to enjoy.

I consider some of the things that fill my life now that I never had time for or interest in before.

Gardening, for one.

My body eagerly spends hours digging, hauling, mixing, planting, when I wouldn’t have had a clue about it months ago.

Within the confines of my daily existence, I looked out the back of my house and slowly began to envision something new out of what was right before my eyes. I saw flowering bushes and a multitude of bulbs bursting forth with color in spring. I saw climbers and rambling roses. I saw arches and stone paths. I saw shows of color that shifted at varying times of day and season. I saw vegetables and herbs to nourish my family.

And I quickly caught on to the fact that the possibilities are endless.

I have a world to explore, and I haven’t even left my home (except to go to the garden store, which is my new favorite destination).

Boundlessness within limitation. The possibility of new life where there seemed to be none before. The ability to plan and dream and envision something new. A way to plant hope for the future.

Sometimes – not always, but sometimes – we can glimpse that unfettered freedom within our confines.

God breaks through and finds a way to bring new life, even where it seems impossible.

May it be so for you.

Mothering Arms

Twelve years ago I was handed a tiny human to hold for the very first time. I still remember the delightful shock of seeing the curves and crevices of this new person, whom no one had ever seen before, in all her particularity. “So you’re the one who’s been living inside me!” I thought. She had a character, a personality, a uniqueness, an “I am who I am” quality about her. And she was wholly mine (ours!) to embrace, to welcome, to love, to embrace. To hold.

Holding our daughter became life’s new activity. Holding her for feeding, holding her to walk from room to room, holding her with extended family, church members, friends – and handing her to them to hold.

What a precious experience it is to hold a newborn baby! There is nothing like their newborn smell, their fragile lightness, their precious vulnerability. And the holy task – the only task we have at those moments – is to show utter gentleness toward the human being in our arms.

Holding her that first moment filled me with such a sense of awe, instantly. Over the following hours, days, weeks the initial surprise transformed into familiarity, as I came to know her every movement and expression, as I developed an intuition for what she might be trying to communicate.

In the beginning there were also hours, days, nights when I felt baffled, holding her in confusion and frustration as I attempted to understand how to meet her needs.

But eventually, sometimes after a bit of a struggle, we would melt into the restful embrace of contentedness. My arms became that place of stillness for her, that place of comfort.

Like a child with mother quieted, reads Psalm 131.

Last week as I reflected on this passage, I recalled the way I had rested in my mother’s arms as a child. Though it’s been a while, the memory was fresh and visceral. I could feel the stroke of her hand through my hair. A sense of wellbeing washed over me – a contended relaxation. I had no where I needed to go, nothing I needed to do. Only to allow myself to be held in my mother’s arms.

Though I’m a grown woman, this memory of being held felt so deeply comforting to me. I continued to remember it throughout that day and the days after. I hope I continue to return to it, over and over again.

For the arms holding me in this image were not only my mother’s – they were God’s.

I was resting in the love, acceptance, and tenderness of the Mothering God.

It made me realize how important those moments of tenderness with my own daughter are, even now. She is growing up, she is developing her independence, and rightly so. I want that freedom for her, and I want her to develop that confidence to strike out on her own, as I did.

But when those moments of tenderness come, I will treat them as sacred. In those times when she rests on me, she is also experiencing rest in the arms of the Mothering God. The God who will hold her and love her much longer, and better, and more fully than I ever could as her earthly mother. I have my limitations, my faults; I make my mistakes. But God is the one who will embrace her forever.

So for now, while I can, I will hold my little girl, who is not so little anymore, and I will give thanks that the Mothering God will continue to hold her all her life long.

Love is Lord of All

Love is Lord of all. These words of Joseph Campbell echo through the centuries into a far different time than when they were first written. The words of his original poem (entitled “My Lagan Love”) echo here alongside the words of Psalm 84, and those combined words speak into our reality here in 2020.

Love is Lord of all. We cry out in times of distress, fear, uncertainty, that God would incline an ear to us.

Today, the world awaits the results of an election with an uncertain outcome. And on this day, we remember who is truly ruler of all; we remember whose reign will be eternal.

For Love is Lord of all. Love, not hate. Love, not self-serving power. Love, not fear. Our hearts turn to this eternal Love, which will far outlast any earthly kingdom.

This ruler cares for the vulnerable, reaches out to those pushed to the margins of society, stands with the brokenhearted. This ruler doesn’t inflict pain but nurses wounds and brings healing. This ruler is Lord of a kingdom where peace and justice abound.

And this Love, this Lord, is ruler of all. This was true in the beginning and will be forevermore.

Greater than any earthly leader – we entrust our lives, our societies, our world, into the embrace of this God of Love, who is kind and gracious.

To this God of love, who is good and giving, we lift up our souls.

Today we submit ourselves to this greatest power.

In the end, this is all that will matter.

Did we love one another? Did we love ourselves, as we are beloved? Did we treat others with the dignity bestowed upon them by their loving Creator? Did we make our decisions based on love? Did we work toward loving systems and structures that allowed for all members of our communities and societies to be included and respected, honored and welcomed? Did we choose love in our daily interactions – with family, with friends, with strangers, with foes?

In the end, this is all that will matter. That we live our lives in service to Love.

Love will outlast it all. It The God of Love will outlive any election. Love will rise up, and will always rise up through the cracks of brokenness in our world.

Let us remember this, and live by this, today and always.

For Love is Lord of all.

With the Presence of God

In this week’s lectionary reading, Moses declares to God: we will not go forward unless your presence goes with us.

Actually, he says it in the negative: If your presence will not go, do not carry us from here.

It reminds me a little bit of my child refusing to go up the dark stairway to get ready for bed unless I accompany her. If you don’t come with me, Mommy, I won’t do it!

It’s terrifying to look into the distance and imagine ourselves journeying through unknown terrain on our own. And so we seek that assurance, that promise, that we won’t walk alone.

We might even dig in our feet, much like Moses, or like my daughter. I won’t go if you don’t go.

The passage in Exodus, and the Psalm that accompanies it (99) fills our minds with rich imagery of the awe-inspiring power of God.

Who wouldn’t want this God to be on your side?

The people tremble; the earth quakes.

There are times when I dislike the transcendent, all-powerful, intimidating power of God expressed in these passages. I’d say most of the time I prefer nestling in to a warm and cuddly God, who is patient and kind and gentle.

But, the transcendent power of God can also be a true comfort and assurance.

So, I can also relate to Moses’s adamance that he will not proceed any further without God to guide him.

I’ve been saying this myself, recently:

I simply don’t want to go forward with anything I’m dreaming or planning or envisioning if God isn’t going to go there with me.

It’s simply not worth it.

If I’m venturing off toward something that sounds like a great idea to me but God’s not in it, I’m wasting my time and energy. I’m sure to sputter to a stop in no time.

But if God is in it, if God is on that path with me, all things are possible.

This transcendent God can move mountains. This God can make the earth quake. This God can ignite fear in the hearts of those who don’t stand for the way of justice and peace, mercy and love.

With a pillar of fire by night and pillar of cloud by day, God led Moses and the Hebrew people across their wilderness.

And today we ask this same God to walk with us across ours, and to give us signs of God’s presence that give us assurance and comfort as we move forward.

We sing to this God a new song – an ancient song, sung anew in our time.

We ask – no, we demand, in the same way as our spiritual ancestor Moses did – that wherever it is we go in the coming months and years, God’s presence would go with us.