I'm not really into Lent.

Winter is a hard time of year for me as it is and I don't need penance, fasting, and deprivation on top of Seasonal Affective Disorder.

In this post, I explained that I am part of an evangelical gathering of believers who worship in a very modern, culturally-relevant way, but that as an individual I rely on more contemplative and traditional practices from varying faith traditions to connect with God.

Observing Lent falls into the personal practice category. Although a world-wide body of believers is in that space right now, the community of believers I belong to (not in "membership", but in relationship) is not. Therefore, it's easy for me to heartily embrace Advent but duck out of Lent, according to my own needs, as there is no accountability around me, no community pressure, for better or worse.

this photo is from a short working vacation
we took to the Gaspe Peninsula the end of February,
where we stayed at our friend's chalet

I don't like pressure, obligation or holier-than-thou attitudes around spiritual practices and I made a conscious choice, many years ago, to reject that model of faithfulness. Freedom is my rally cry of faith.

That being true, there is something to be said about how a culture - a family culture, church culture, societal culture - can encourage an individual in certain, not by pressure (the evidence of faith in self, not God) but by providing structures and supports, a framework that the individual can lean upon.

This year I am observing Lent, or my version of it. Joining with the body of believers who are doing likewise.

Considering my aversion to unnecessary discomfort during late winter, it's interesting how this came about.

I have anxiety and one of the ways anxiety affects me is that it muddies the waters of truth, making it difficult for me to discern the right path. And when I make mental or emotional space for lies about my identity, or the present reality, this can set me on a mental trajectory or chute that takes me from the starting point of discomfort, pain, or confusion (normal things) to "the world is ending" catastrophic thinking.

What this means is that if I'm in an anxiety-prone period of life or season I can be easily overwhelmed and derailed by outside messages and agendas.

This is why I have to limit the kinds of media I consume during certain life periods, and in general. I can go from 0 to overwhelm in record speed.

Outside messages and agendas come at me from all over the place. I think you probably can relate. We live in world of marketing and media. And as I've analyzed why my anxiety has bubbled to surface of my life now, in my late thirties and early forties, I think the pressure and prevalence of media (all forms) in my life is part of the picture, along with some serious insecurity issues triggered by longish periods of transition and perceived instability. As a Enneagram type 6 I am going to struggle with anxiety. The issue is not if, but how.

I am weary of being marketed to. (And everyone markets these days. Church's market, for heaven's sake.) I am weary of fighting against outside agendas and messages. Not all of these messages are bad, some are very good and necessary for me to hear but, the sheer number of them in my life makes it hard to discern truth. Even the fact that the waters are muddied so I can't find that clear water of truth easily, makes me anxious. My soul is weary of this battle - the vigilance required to discern truth (and how that tires me out) and the inevitable anxiety-response when I am not vigilant. I am sick of it. I am sick with it.

When I encounter people trying to sell me on their message, whether it's a sermon, a Facebook share, an impassioned opinion, or a cleverly written blog post, I wonder if they understand what it's like to experience anxiety in the context of that message. And what especially sickens and demoralizes me is that some messages are engineered and delivered with exact precision to trigger my anxiety - fear and scarcity-based marketing.

I have to be cautious, even with the benign messages, even when I'm fairly certain the intentions of the other person are not to manipulate me into action.

"Do you understand what I'm going through inside right now to filter what you're saying through what I know to be true for me. Do you understand the effort it takes for me to stay open to hear you while still guarding myself against an anxious response to this message?"

Guarding myself, while still remaining open. What a draining effort.

It's taken me a while to understand what's been going on, to give words and meaning to the scary sensations I feel. It's been a journey.

In January, while journaling one morning, laying out all my angst in this regard - what do I do with everyone else's agendas and ideas, the things people want me to get on board with, to see as they see - the Spirit spoke to me.

God, help me. God helped me.

Here's what I heard and wrote down: Be open to the work of the Holy Spirit in your heart.

Now, this may not have comforted others, but it provided immediate comfort to me because I trust the Holy Spirit. I have personal, familial, and spiritual history that I can lean on in this regard. Not everyone does, and some people may have baggage around this, but this was a message for me that made sense and gave me a place to stand, for the moment at least.

What came to me immediately was relief, release. I can do this. I can be open to the work of the Spirit. This feels safe for me.

That got me through that day. As the week progressed and January became February I felt it impressed upon my heart to understand the work of the Holy Spirit in my heart.

If my one directive here is to be open to the work of the Holy Spirit in my heart - heart in the Hebrew sense of the word as the seat of my intellect and my emotions, the center of my being - I need to know what I'm looking for as the manifestation and movement of the Holy Spirit.

So I set out to do a Bible study of the Spirit.

Last year, well before January's impression be open to the work of the Holy Spirit in my heart, I was meditating on this passage of scripture:

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?
I Cor 2:12

It's something I need constant reminding of so I wrote it on a card and posted it to my inspiration board above my desk and when the year was over and I cleared the board for new inspiration, I pasted the card into my 2016 Journal as a remembrance of God's word for me.

The Spirit of God lives in me.

So if the Spirit lives in me, as the Bible tells me so, and I am to be open to the work of the Spirit in my heart (the center of my being), this means I can follow an inner compass, which is the Spirit, as I navigate my way through the world. As I filter the messages, media, and marketing, I can trust my inner-self of God's spirit in me, to find the right response to such things. This is the framework, the safe place, the standard I can use to discern every other message in my life.

I'm currently studying the scriptures about the Spirit to know how I can recognize the Spirit in me. How does the Spirit lead? What does the Spirit point us to, or rather who does the Spirit point us to? How will I recognize the Holy Spirit? What will it look like for the Spirit to move in me? How does the Spirit speak? I need to know what I can trust, what will be the standard for me.

This is how and why I was led to observe Lent this year. I felt the Spirit gently guiding me this way, inviting me, and I said yes.

This is the reason I haven't published anything to the blog for weeks because I feel the Spirit asking me to let go of the practice and discipline of blogging for Lent (or a modified Lent, the month of March), and to instead spend that time, which is the early morning hours (before 9 am) in scripture, prayer, and journalling. And lest this sounds too disciplined, I'm also sleeping in some days because... freedom from striving.

This list is from Pilgrim Year

A couple years ago my self-confidence was severely undermined by a disconnect from true self and the resulting anxiety, burn-out, and breakdown from that disconnect. This loss of confidence affected my blogging. On the positive side of things, I believe my writing has developed a depth of experience and honesty that it never had before. However, as I dig for the beauty, truth/honesty, and kindness to share from my experiences, writing takes a long time; nothing comes fast, quick, or easy. My posts are fewer and longer.

My blog readership dropped, maybe because of the change in writing, change in the content (less how-to homeschool, how-to make soap), and because I'm just not into marketing myself.

After I lost my confidence I had no vision except to find my footing, to find self and be true to her.

This has started to happen, slowly. It's a two steps forward, one step back kind of movement.

I have a re-growing, and hopefully true to self, ambition for my writing and direction for my blog.

Stepping aside from writing for a time, laying down my striving towards these aims while also accepting past losses, is an act of trust, an act of release. I'm trusting the Spirit to steward and lead this next stage of my writing.

Part of me is deeply uncomfortable sharing this because I am suspicious when people are public about their lenten sacrifices and about lenten practices in general. I often wonder, what is the agenda behind sharing such things?

Obedience, sacrifice, confession, repentance these are deeply personal spiritual practices, best shared in a trusted community. Unfortunately these practices and postures of the heart can become yokes that people are pressured into bearing. But condemnation, fear of failure, inadequacy is not how the Spirit moves us into spiritual discipline.

Fear is not of the Spirit, period. The Spirit invites, and sometimes persists in the inviting, but never coerces. And we have complete free will in how we respond. And we are loved regardless and we stand free of condemnation, regardless.

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.
II Cor 3:17

So, that's what's going on. And that is why, after this post, you probably won't see another post till April.

My new blog is almost ready to roll out and I may interrupt this break to make that announcement. That is a project set in motion months and months ago and is not something I feel called to set aside right now as it is a joint endeavour with Damien and is not about my morning writing time, but a different part of blogging all together - "the platform" and structure that supports and publishes the writing.

Before I started this blogging fast I spent over a week writing a piece that just wouldn't ring true and so it never did get published, so it's been really quiet here for almost a month and I wanted you to know that this quiet is not because I'm laid low with SAD or anxiety, though some days I am fighting these for all I'm worth.

I'm using Pilgrim Year as my reading guide for Lent. And something I've gleaned from those readings is the re-orient and re-order intention and purpose for a Lenten fast.

And this is what I want in my life right now. A re-ordering of desires, a re-orienting of myself towards a life led by the Spirit.

I could write so much more about this time but I think that would move me beyond the ken of what I'm supposed to share right now. I have given myself some hours this weekend to write this update and now I'm done.

Love, Truth and Freedom, friends.

I'll be back soon.

Comments are now closed on this post as we are migrating all my blog content to the new platform.

This is the second post in a three part series of year-end reflections.

Over the last few weeks, back into mid-November, I have been thinking a lot about my 2016 word(s) for the year and looking ahead, settling on a word(s) for 2017.

I've grown into my own word-for-the-year practice. For years the idea of choosing a word for the year mystified me. Where did the word come from exactly? And just one word? How can one word fit an entire year?

But I was very intrigued and wanted to get in on the action so I started by choosing my word for the year in retrospect, looking back on the previous year for a dominant theme. I like closure so that worked for me.

About three years ago I started choosing a word for the year before the year had begun.

I don't know how other people find their own words to express the coming year. In my case, these words might be a desire I have, how I hope to align my external reality with my inner self in the coming year. Or they might be a more definitive word that largely expresses an external reality, a goal perhaps based on life season, time and place.

The question I have asked myself about choosing a word for the year is: does it influence you, or do you influence it? In other words, does that word change your path somehow, or does your path determine your word. I think the answer is both.

Words frame our experience. They are a mental construct to help us make sense of things. Words help us write a story with our life, they help make the messy and confusing feel more cohesive and tidy.

As a memoirist blogger, I use words, lots of words, to tell the story of my experience ("narrative" is the buzz word these days) in an attempt to find hidden structure or to bring order and meaning to an experience.

This is what stories are, a narrative that helps us to make sense of the chaotic and challenging circumstances of our lives.

Our stories and our words are both tools and truth.

They are tools to help us make sense of things. And they are truth in that how we tell that story, how we make sense of our experiences, will inform and influence how we actually experience the world. Our stories are both an expression of an experience and the lens through which we view that experience and future experiences. In this way, our stories, our words, have the power to manifest things in our lives.

Words have the power to create worlds, to create reality.

As a person who struggles with anxiety, I know, first hand, the power of words to create both positive and negative "realities". How I perceive a situation, the words I use to make sense of it (the words I use to describe the people, the motives, the actions, etc), those words, more than the circumstance itself, is what defines my reality in that situation.

I'm not about to make the leap that my perception equals capital R reality, the absolute truth of a situation. That is a philosophical discussion I'm not prepared to have right now. But what I am prepared to put forth, and stand by, is that what you believe about something gives power to that idea, event, person, object, remembrance. And how we frame experiences (and people) with our words, can be a tool to build, restore, improve, create, or it can be a force of destruction, on all levels of relationship - intrapersonal, interpersonal, families, communities, societies.

I want my words to create a reality of love and freedom, for myself and others.

Choosing a word for the year is part of this intention. This is not an exact science for me, it's more of a "sense" I have of where I'm at right now or what my heart is telling me I need to focus on.

Here's my list of words of the year going back to when I started this. Remember I started this as a retrospective activity.

  • 2009 - dream
  • 2010 - plan
  • 2011 - move
  • 2012 - re-root
  • 2013 - establish
  • 2014 - hike (beyond my boundaries)
  • 2015 - heal (fallowed field)
  • 2016 - receive (open hands open heart)
  • 2017- release (open hands open heart, part 2)

You'll notice at 2014 I move beyond one word. That demarcates when I started choosing a word at the beginning, instead of the end of the year. I also can't keep it to just one word.

I've been blogging through all these years but 2015 was probably the first year I expressed my word for the year explicitly on the blog. I meant to write a post last January with the word for 2016 but didn't get that done.

Words of the year are not written in stone, they are written on hearts and hearts can change. At the beginning of this year I felt very strongly that my words for this year were Open Heart Open Hands. (I know, more than one word.)

I had been thinking that after a year set aside for healing (2015) it was probably time to open my hands in service. And then in January, it was clear to me through the movement of the Spirit in my heart (these things are hard to explain), that open heart open hands mostly meant I was to receive.

As a doer this is not my natural inclination. And I wasn't even sure what this meant. Our lives are to be full of service to others. This is our calling and vocation as humans, to serve each other. And as mothers, partners, fathers, homeschoolers, community builders, employees, whatever we are, we are always serving in some capacity. But everything has a season, and some seasons we need focus on receiving, and that was what I needed to learn this past year.

I feel like 2015 set the stage for that because basic healing practices were in place, it was like the foundation was laid for what I was about to receive.

Now obviously there is always two sides of story: we are giving and receiving, shining and sheltering, exploring and rooting, relaxing and stretching, in the same way that breathing depends on an inhale and an exhale. But I do believe there can be an overall theme to the experience of a year or a life season. And the overall theme for me last year was to receive.

At the beginning of 2016 the word receive was clear to me, but it wasn't clear "what" I was to be receiving. The word gave me a direction, gave me hints about to look for, but it didn't give me "the thing" itself. The thing itself was what I received. It's like saying the word "gift", gift tells you something special is coming, something wrapped up just for you, but not what that special thing is.

Just like opening a gift and discovering what's inside, so to has this year been a discovery of what I've been receiving. In the last month, I asked myself "what have you received this year?" And then I looked back at each month, revisiting the seasons of pain and frustration, and the growth that came out of that, mentally revisiting the times of ease and a strong sense of well-being. (I always prefer the latter over the former.) And here's the list I came up with.

This year I received:

  • the Spirit in a fresh new way
  • a deeper sense of God's love for me
  • further understanding of my identity
  • increasing freedom from anxiety
  • insights about my marriage and my husband
  • some clarity in my callings
  • friendship
  • the message so strong and clear, that I am to rest in God, and the only sustainable and life-giving way to serve and love is to be rooted here in this love, first and foremost

God's love is always present, the Spirit is always in me. But there are times in our life where we are made more aware of certain realities and this was my year to deeply receive these truths, these gifts.

At the beginning of 2016 I had thought it was a year to open my heart open my hands into some kind of giving. And I don't doubt that I have given of myself this year. But I feel that 2016 was the year to understand what I have received, to experience that depth of love, out of which I can actually give.

At the end of 2016, as I look into 2017, I believe I'm being released to serve and love, part two of open heart open hands. It's the year for a release of what God has given me.

I have small inklings of what this might look like. I have started to move in this freedom in the last part of this year. But I also know I can't quite imagine both the struggles and the joys that will accompany this heart-set (like a mindset of the heart). I am excited and scared. But when I feel that anxiety, I need to go right back into the source of all my strength and courage, dive right back into what I have received - love.


Looking back on this past year I see movement into positions and places that were unexpected. Movement into these roles and responsibilities has not been smooth or easy. I went through a difficult period of anxiety this fall in one such transition. And there was no signpost saying, "this way Renee". There were prayer, tears, frustration, self-surrender, and this: being quiet to listen for the voice of the Spirit.

This is a key piece for me to be grounded (something I talked about in the first post of this series). I am not a naturally quiet person. I'm extraverted and in times of distress I might go either way, into frenetic and frantic behavior or into deep retreat, pull the covers up over my head and seek shelter and "safety" from the discomfort, exposure and pain I am experiencing.

But the path for me is neither. The path is to root and ground myself in quiet and contemplation, to listen to the Spirit and then use all that energy that comes naturally to me, all that bubbly, all that effervescence, to act. Not in a response to my fear, but in response to the Spirit.

This past year I have nurtured my ability (and been equipped by the Spirit) to show up and be present in pain and discomfort, mine and others. I'm still a baby in these skills, my first instinct is to hide and shelter but I know I'm being asked to grow in this. I have more words to publish on this subject (I've been writing a lot about this idea) but for today, in this moment of reflection and celebration, I am grateful for the compassion, born out of brokenness and vulnerability, that I am able to bring to situations that I couldn't before. Situations I would have avoided for fear of exposing my weaknesses and inadequacy, or situations into which I would have brought judgement.

I have started, once again after a season of retreat, to put myself out there in new realms, realms where I am depended on and I don't feel completely up to the task, unsure of my competency to do the job well and fulfill my responsibility. And I'm having to remember, in those feelings of insecurity and inadequacy, where my security and sense of worthiness comes from. And I am proud (I did question the use of that word and chose it intentionally because I am proud, not in a boastful way, but a deeply grateful way) of myself that I do this in spite of the anxiety these situations cause me. I still struggle with anxious episodes. But I know these are things you cannot go around, but must go through, in order to gain strength and confidence.

Do you have a word of the year? How do you choose that?

What kind of movements did you experience this past year? Did you move into some things and out of others?

We got our first snowfall this week. The longterm forecast predicts warmer days with rain, so this won't last but it's the first taste.

We like snow. It what makes skiing and snowboarding possible. Plus, it's almost December. And snow in December feels right.

Advent starts this Sunday. I'm using Watch for the Light for my personal Advent contemplation. And I think we'll use Richard Rohr's Preparing for Christmas for our family Advent devotions. Which, by the way, we are never consistent with (just thought I'd add that).

As is the tradition in the Tougas household, the celebration of Brienne's birthday this weekend will usher in the holiday season in our home. (Just a reminder, Canadians don't celebrate Thanksgiving this Thursday. We celebrate Thanksgiving in October.)

the kids went to a masquerade birthday party last weekend
it was such a pleasure for me to watch them making their masks
just like when they were little and spent most of their days "making stuff"

This year all the kids are in a Christmas choir with homeschool co-op and Brienne is a cast member of a Christmas musical theatre production with performances this weekend and next.

A month from now we will drive to Nova Scotia for our yearly celebration with my family. Between now and then the calendar is full of holiday performances, an end of term potluck at co-op, and my favorite, the Handels Messiah sing-along at Christ Church Cathedral downtown. And of course, the Gilmore Girls reunion.

I often write something around this time of year about the light and dark of this season. A darkness that is both physical, in the shortening days, and spiritual in how we sense the weight of the world.

In the past few weeks I have really noticed the days getting darker, in the physical sense. But so many of us feel an emotional and spiritual darkness also. Which is why I make an effort to notice and capture all that sparkles, shines and glows.

The holiday season, Advent, the month of December is a time of year that beckons me to recognize the principles of a both/and life. A life of contemplation and celebration. A life of busy kids and thoughtful meditations. A life of light and dark.

Light and dark is our physical, external existence but it is also our inner reality. I carry both light and dark in me. We all do. We know our bright shining spots (I hope!), but also our darkness.

When we acknowledge that we are both light and dark, we can celebrate and honor the light we carry and the light in others, and (I hope!) shine love on the darkness in our own hearts and the darkness we see in others. Love is the true light in our lives and it is the only thing that has power over darkness, the only thing that can bring light, permanently, to the dark areas of our hearts, our families, our communities, and our society.

This is the message of Advent. And I love that the cycle of the earth, the seasons themselves teach us this truth. And then, what is so interesting to me, is that as we respond to the darkness with our lights and celebrations our very natural human responses teach us spiritual lessons, if we are willing to listen, to pay attention, to notice.

For me this time of year is ripe with spiritual significance and meaning. And this meaning is found not just in the story of the Christ-child, which is central to my faith, but in Nature herself, and in humankind and our responses to dark and light.

I look for light everywhere this time of year. I take photos of sun reflecting off the drying dishes. I plan my walks to correspond with the golden hour of the setting sun.

Every string of lights I see this time of year speaks of the heart's desire to push back the dark with light. Every candle we light. Even the over-the-top holiday decorations at the malls, the ones we bemoan for their commercialism, even those lights speak truth.

We hang lights. Light candles. We revel in the shiny and sparkly, the light catchers and light makers.

Where we find darkness we bring more light. And we start by being light bearers to our own hearts. Allowing the Light to expose our darkness and letting Love do its work of redemption, re-birth and transformation.

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