What Christina Aguilera Taught Me About Prayer

People flipping through my middle school yearbook would likely say that seventh grade was a rough year for me.  There was a pair of pink, round glasses, a brief stint in the Ecology Club, and an unexplained commitment to following the voluntary school uniform. Fortunately for seventh-grade me, however, I was relatively clueless about my social standing.  I knew I wasn’t in the cool kids’ club, but I was happy enough.  I had friends to go to Ecology Club with.

What Christina Aguilera Taught Me About Prayer

Overall, my unpopularity was my own doing, but my parents did not help matters much. They took seriously Proverbs 22’s command to “train the young in the way they should go,” and in the 1990’s, that meant prayer before dinner, no short shorts, and regulated music intake.  My parents allowed pop music, but only after a thorough inspection of the lyrics.  At some point during seventh grade, I purchased Christina Aguilera’s first c.d., and I still recall my mom leaning against the kitchen sink, carefully reading over the timeless poetry of Genie in a Bottle.  I watched on anxiously, and I think the words that ultimately did me in were “you gotta rub me the right way.”  

Thus began the lecture I had heard a thousand times before: music sticks with you. Without your noticing, it slips into your skin, your bones, your mind, your heart.  You don’t even have to listen to the lyrics consciously; the words can still shape the way you see yourself and the way you see the world.  Unsurprisingly, then, my parents stuffed Christina Aguilera back into the bottle and hid the c.d. somewhere in their bedroom for the next few years.

What Christina Aguilera Taught Me About Prayer

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We all have those moments later in life when we realize our mothers were right.  This particular realization came to me during my graduate school class on Psalms.  My mom’s anti-Christina argument, it turns out, drew on both ancient and current theologians.  The old adage, lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi holds that what we pray is what we believe is what we live.  The words we repeatedly hear and say eventually make their way past our ears and into our being.  Or, as Holly Taylor Coolman writes, scripture “does not simply express the passions but works at the same time to mold them and change them.”

Given this formative power of words, scriptural memorization and recitation are beautiful and helpful forms of prayer.  Even in this Golden Age of spontaneous prayer, there is still value in – and a place for – memorizing and reciting scripture.  While it may seem monotonous or mindless, recitation, like music, reaches beyond the cognitive mind and touches the emotional and spiritual core.

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What Christina Aguilera Taught Me About PrayerI learned a lot in seventh grade, like the importance of reducing your ecological footprint. Some things took until my teen years to sink in, like the link between fashion and popularity.  Even now, I’m still learning other things, like how and why to pray.  With age, however, I also realize just how much I learned as a child from saying the Lord’s Prayer at church while wedged between my mother and my brother, from praying the Rosary at Religious Ed Class while kneeling in a circle with my friends, from whispering bits of the Psalms while staring sleepless at the ceiling.  Looking back, I am wildly grateful that I spent my childhood soaking in the Word of God, rather than in the words of Christina Aguilera.

Just as my mom said, all those words were shaping my spirit.  I did not create the faith I hold now; I inherited it.  I memorized it until I learned it until I internalized it.  To this day, then, I continue to memorize and recite and pray new passages, hoping to continue shaping my spirit and forming my faith.  I recall, then, not the words of Christina but those of Proverbs 22:6: “train the young in the way they should go; even when old, they will not swerve from it.”

What’s Making Me Happy This Week

What's Making Me HappyHello friends!  I can only speak for myself, but this week was a bit draining, a bit boring, a bit lacking.  I blame the calendar; on January 1st, a new year feels exciting; by February 1st, it feels daunting. So, this weekend, I’m hitting the refresh button.  I’m looking forward to taking a long walk, checking out my neighborhood chili cook-off, and catching up on back issues of Vanity Fair.  If you’ve had a tiring week as well, I hope some of the links below provide just a bit of refreshment and encouragement!

What’s Making Me Happy This Week

Wow. Laura Boggess’ About That Extra Five Pounds I Gained Over the Holidays is a brief and brilliant celebration of what a real body and a real love looks like. Amazing.

I would love to get my hands on one of these puzzles. Am I crazy for thinking that working on it could be a sort of meditative experience?

As someone still adjusting to a new city, this reflection on friendship really resonated with me.  It also encouraged (challenged?) me to put myself out there a little more. Tsh Oxenreider writes, “So let’s just say it together: finding friends can be hard. But finding friends is so very worth it.”

We bought our first beautiful basket of strawberries this week, and I may mix up this strawberry and lime cocktail this weekend.  Per the recipe, I make the strawberry puree separately, so it is easy to make one batch with gin and club soda for the adults and another with Sprite for the kiddos.

Last Sunday, Sean brought home the film, East Side Sushi, and we loved it!  It follows a Latina trying to become a sushi chef, and I recommend it for anyone feeling down about themselves or the world.

Wishing you a weekend full of faith, hope, love, and wine!

How to Pray on Your Way Out the Door (Literally)

How to Pray on Your Way Out the DoorMy husband, Sean, is a morning person.  He is the doesn’t-need-the-snooze-button, sings-in-the-shower type.  On a typical weekday morning, Sean walks the dog, reads the news, takes a shower, steams his slacks, and fries an egg white omelette.  While smiling! Often, while humming!  

I, on the other side of the spectrum, am the refuses-to-do-anything-before-coffee type. On a typical weekday morning, I make the bed and the coffee and get cleaned and dressed (after the coffee, of course, lest my shower thoughts turn very dark).  On a good morning, I eat my breakfast before getting in the car.  On a phenomenal morning, I do my makeup before getting in the car.  Most notably, however, I do this all without smiling and often, while whining at Sean’s humming.

How to Pray on Your Way Out the DoorAll that being said, I developed this very practice at Sean-the-morning-person’s suggestion.  Early last year, following my move to Tampa, I spent most of my days searching and applying for jobs.  I was, in a word, miserable.  Bored, frustrated, depressed, and insecure would work well.  I dreaded the bright Florida sun because it reminded me that days were passing; other wonderful people were out there doing wonderful things while I was stuck.  To Sean, however, the sun was a reminder that a new day had dawned and I had a fresh opportunity to discover my dream job.  The dark house, he argued, wasn’t helping with my unhappiness.  Open the blinds, he suggested, let the light in. 

So, one morning, after I’d had my coffee, I walked slowly around the house, opening the blinds one by one.  I felt vulnerable stepping across the bright shafts of light; the sun was shining on all my sadness.  So, for encouragement, I picked up a Bible and turned to the first passage about light that came to mind: John 1:1-5.  For weeks, I read the passage from the Bible in my right hand while I twisted open the blinds with my left hand.  Each morning, I walked from window to window, whispering the words, until I memorized them, until I believed them.

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How To Pray On Your Way Out the DoorNow, a year later, this prayer practice is as much a part of my morning routine as my cup of coffee.  Even as I hurry out the door, it reminds me that everything begins in and with God.  He created me; he created this day; he created me to live this day. It may not be a good day, but it is a blessed day.  

This practice reminds me that the light is there, even if I close the blinds on it.  

This practice reminds me that I am part of this light, even if I don’t feel its warmth or its brilliance.  

This practice reminds both the Sean- and Mel-types that, regardless of our accomplishments and despite our failures, everything still comes to be through Christ. And, even I think that’s something worth waking up for.

How To Pray On Your Way Out the Door

 

    

On Reading: A Way to Get Away

These are some of the books in our guest room…

On Reading: A Way to Get Away

And these are some of the books on the other side of our guest room…

On Reading: A Way to Get Away

And these are some of the books in the living room…

On Reading: A Way to Get Away

And I’ll spare you pics of the various Bibles scattered throughout the house.

I think you get the idea: we LOVE to read.  I have a thousand different reasons for picking up any particular book at a particular time.  Right now, I find myself turning to novels for good, old-fashioned escapism (please see yesterday’s shout-out to Harry Potter).  A good book can temporarily mute the incessant, internal monologue in my mind.  It can simultaneously settle my thoughts and lift my spirits.

Despite my love for books, I don’t read them nearly as frequently as I’d like. In all likelihood, I (sadly) spent more time in 2016 watching Netflix or scrolling Facebook than reading books.  My goal for 2017 is to read, at least, 1 book a month, and, in hopes of holding myself somewhat accountable, I’m establishing a book club of sorts here on the blog.  I’ll let you know what I’m reading each month and, if you find yourself in need of a new book, you can read along.

For January, I’m taking on Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.  After hearing good things about the Gilead series on an archived episode of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, I decided to give the first volume a go.  It is, according to Amazon, “an intimate tale of three generations from the Civil War to the twentieth century: a story about fathers and sons and the spiritual battles that still rage at America’s heart.”  History!?!  Religion!?! Politics!?!  Family!?!  Count me in!!!

I plan on reading the book over the next month, and I hope we can all share our reflections on Tuesday, February 14th.  Until then, if you need me, I’ll be skipping out on the real world, snuggled up with my new novel and a glass of red wine. Happy Reading!  

The Importance of Silence in the Political Process

The Importance of Silence in the Political ProcessI was born and raised on the Virginia-side of the DC metro area.  Since moving away a few years ago, my love affair with the Capital City has only intensified.  So, in late 2015, when the presidential primaries started up in earnest, I dove eagerly into the election news cycle.  I listened to the 538 podcast on my Monday evening commute.  I raced home from Sunday Mass to catch Meet the Press.  I inhaled the local features of the Tampa Bay Times and went down the rabbit hole of the Washington Post (because if you don’t get it, you don’t get it).  

At first, I loved being constantly surrounded by the sights and sounds of home.  But, as 2016 stretched on, I became disappointed (and nauseated) by many of the candidates and commentators.  Rather than abstaining from the news, however, I kept drinking it in.  I read more, listened more, watched more.  I searched frantically for some wisdom that would tell me what to think and what to do.  

Clarity never came.

The Importance of Silence in the Political Process

So, in the days following November 8th, I began tuning out.  My fast from political news was neither intentional nor pious.  I simply started turning off my podcasts and commuting in silence.  At home, I switched out NPR for Christmas music.  I put the newspapers directly into the recycling bin and began re-reading Harry Potter.  Only after I shut off all the noise did I realize how malnourished my gluttonous media consumption had left me.  I could not think straight, much less speak thoughtfully, much less act faithfully.

Edward Schillebeeckx once wrote that, “Without prayer or mysticism politics soon becomes cruel and barbaric; without political love [and action], prayer or mysticism soon becomes sentimental or uncommitted interiority.” 

You don’t need me to tell you that America’s political discourse has, in many ways, become cruel and barbaric.  Last November, as I tuned out of the constant news cycle, I realized that I, too, had become cruel and barbaric.  Rather than listening graciously, I assumed the worst of every voice on Facebook, Fox, NPR, or NBC.  Rather than looking for points of agreement, I looked for holes in logic or shortfalls in empathy.  Rather than thoughtfully considering the opinions of others, I envied and resented their certainty.  I spent so much time listening to all the voices on the radio and the TV and the Internet that I forgot to listen for the voice of God.   

The Importance of Silence in the Political Process

As the Inauguration of our 45th president fast-approaches, the voices are multiplying. Everyone, it seems, is eager to tell us what to think and what to do.  I am trying, however, to begin in silence.  To begin in prayer. I am trying to seek the still, small voice of God before listening – much less adding – to the many voices of man.  I am trying find that sweet spot between prayer and politics.  I am trying to navigate that tight wire between Christian and citizen.  I am trying to be neither sentimental nor cruel. And, I am hoping that, in the sacred silence, I will finally be able to make sense of – and peace with – all the voices.

What’s Making Me Happy This Week

What's Making Me Happy

Congratulations, dear friends! We made it to Friday!  

As this very post proves, today marks the end of my first full week of blogging.  I have no words (rare for a writer) to express my gratitude to everyone who has encouraged and supported me over the past week.  I hope this blog blesses you at least a tiny bit as much as you have blessed me.  I’ll surely toast you all with a nice cocktail later this evening.

In addition to my incredible family and friends, lots of other things have been making me happy this week.  As I described in more detail last summer, the weekly “What’s Making Me Happy” posts are an opportunity for us all to identify and appreciate some good things going on in our world.  I hope you enjoy the items I list and add some of your own items in the comments =).

What’s Making Me Happy This Week:  

How Not to Be a Spasmodic Hercules grounded me in such a good way… both in regard to this blog but also to my spiritual practices.

Like many people, I’m still sorting through my thoughts and feelings about our current political climate, but this reflection from Chip Gaines soothed my soul. My favorite line: “Disagreement is not the same thing as hate, don’t believe that lie.” #preach

I’ve been downing this delicious homemade version of Starbuck’s Cinnamon Dolce Latte everyday this week and loving it.

Having struggled with an anxiety disorder for my entire life, I really appreciated this article’s theological reflection on anxiety.  I especially recommend the latter sections: “Is Anxiety A Sin?” (hint: no) and “Cultivating Response-ability.” 

This shocking/amazing story about Girl’s Life Magazine is a few months old, but a friend of mine just turned me onto it. My favorite change is the rewrite of “Quiz: Are You Ready for a BF?” to “Quiz: Are You Ready for AP Class?”  Brilliant.

Finally, I’ve heard INCREDIBLE things about the film, Hidden Figures.  I’m hoping to see it (while eating my body weight in popcorn) in the next few days.  

Wishing you a weekend full of faith, hope, love, and wine!

The Beauty (and Difficulty) of the Spiritual Life

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The Florida sun, that glorious yellow light, fans across the hardwood floors.  It spills over and under the curtains and keeps me company as I begin my morning routine.  I slip into the Lotus position, knees low and back straight.  I place my Bible, the one that my mother gifted me during my freshman year of college, on my lap.  I take a deep breath and roll the kinks out of my neck.  I light my candle in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  God is so good.

I, however, am less good.  At least, I’m not really as good as the girl in whatever fantasy is described above.  First of all, our house does not have any curtains.  On occasion, it does have dresses hanging to dry from the window frames.  Same difference.  Second, I only got the Bible after I signed up for a freshman retreat and realized I didn’t pack one.  My mother purchased it from Barnes and Noble and overnight-ed it to the university.  As for “my candle,” I’m really referring to the six or seven, half-used candles I’ve carefully collected and then carelessly scattered over the house.  My prayer time is not pretty.  Worse yet, my prayer time is not regular.  Despite my best intentions (and my vivid fantasies), I often fail to spend even 15 minutes a day exclusively, quietly with God.

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The imperfections of my prayer life are partly because I am lazy and undisciplined.  Partly because I have misdirected priorities.  And, partly because prayer is, often, really, really boring.  Plus, when it’s not really boring, it’s really challenging.  Prayer is not coffee; it doesn’t give you an immediate energy boost when you consume it or a crushing migraine when you don’t.  It is not a brownie that delights your senses.  It is not a TV show, distracting and addicting.  If it is anything, prayer is marathon training minus the decreased waist line.  Alas, if prayer is anything, it is grueling.

There’s a reason the experts tell us beginners to have grace with ourselves.  We’re going to fail.  A lot.  Several times over.  And fail badly.  We’re going to fail so much that we’ll count it a victory when we develop a pattern of failure (2 good weeks; 3 bad weeks; 2 good weeks; 3 bad weeks).  So, why not just throw in the towel, put away the scattered candles, and spend the extra 15 minutes picking out curtains?

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Because I believe that God, in His limitless love, created me.  Me.  And my creator, in His infinite love, wants to spend time with just me.  Me.  I pray for the same reason you throw a birthday party for a friend, send your mom flowers on Mother’s Day, or go to a romantic dinner with your partner.  Because time spent is love spread.  Because setting time apart says, “I love you.  Thank you for loving me too.”  It may not always be an exciting or sexy love, but it is a patient and steady love.  It is a love that fills me with peace and enables me to offer peace to others.  

So, I return to my quiet time with God again.  No matter how much time has passed since I last visited.  I wake up a little early or set aside a few minutes during lunch or step away for a bit after dinner.  I gather my hair, either tangled from sleep or greasy from the day, into a ponytail.  I rummage through my various candles and find one that speaks to me.  I run the match across the dull strip of the matchbox until it explodes into light.  I take a deep breath and groan as it comes out.  I’ve been carrying so much weight.  Then, in an act of great, grueling love, I sit still and listen. It’s not pretty, but it is beautiful.

 

Finding Real Hope After A False Start

 

Finding Real Hope After A False StartAs it does every year, the New Year begins with an ending.  Later tonight, just a few miles away from our house in Tampa, Clemson and Alabama will conclude the college football season with the National Championship. College football is a tradition (religion?) in the South; and, on each Saturday throughout the fall, Sean and I routinely (faithfully?) woke up with ESPN, carefully followed the midday games, and fell asleep to the West Coast match-up.  

During one such weekend, as I sorted laundry in front of the TV, I heard an announcer bemoan a false start penalty.  “Oh geez,” he said in that smooth, southern voice, “we’ve got another false start here.”  As any football fan knows, the all-too-common false start takes place in the few seconds after the players line up on the field but before they start moving the ball.  According to the NCAA’s Rule 7, improperly flexing your elbows, dipping your buttocks, or twitching your thumbs can earn you a false start flag.  When I half-heard that announcer call the false start, however, what came to my mind had nothing to do with dipping buttocks.  Instead, I imagined that deep drawl commentating not on a football game but on my life.  

Finding Real Hope After A False Start

 

All of us, I imagine, have committed false starts.  In relationships.  At work.  With health and finances.  This blog is perhaps my most notable false start.  When I started it last summer, I had such good intentions and grand plans.  My reasons for not continuing with it are many, but, for now, I’ll just say that, while I knew the play, I lacked the skill and the stamina to carry it out. Before long, I felt like I had failed too greatly to begin again.  That announcer’s misplaced commentary, however, broke through the failure I felt, and something finally, mercifully, clicked.  

You don’t lose a game because of a false start.  The guilty player doesn’t get thrown off the field.  The team loses five yards.  Only five – out of one hundred – yards!  They don’t even lose the chance to make the play again; they just make the same play five yards away.  Football fans, don’t hate me.  I’m not belittling the potential damage of multiple false starts.  I’m just saying: don’t confuse a false start with a full stop.  It’s not the end of the game.  It’s just the beginning of the play.

So, I’m going to give it another go.  I am five yards (and about a year) farther from the goal line, but I have a renewed sense of humility and hope.  

Here’s the good news: last year, the University of Alabama made 6.5 penalties, including false starts, PER game and they STILL won the National Championship.  Our lives may be full of false starts, but they are also full of grace.  

And, here’s more good news: after losing to Alabama 40 to 45 in last year’s National Championship, Clemson will play Alabama again in tonight’s Championship.  They earned a second chance.  

Finding Real Hope After A False Start

 

At first glance, the New Year appears like an appropriate time to look back on our false starts. Upon further reflection, however, the New Year seems more like an appropriate time to consider that moment after the false start.  The players jog back onto the field, find their place in the formation and dig in their cleats.  They hunch their backs, clench their thighs, bow their heads, touch their fingertips to the turf, and then hold perfectly, breathlessly still for those few sacred seconds.  Only then do they snap the ball and begin again.  After all, the false start is just the penalty.  The second chance is the prize.

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