The Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Caldwell is a recent guest on ‘A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast’
by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — Even as they look forward to Advent in a few weeks, Presbyterians will be peeking into Lent by mid-February. With her book “Pause: Spending Lent with the Psalms” scheduled for publication by Westminster John Knox Press on Jan. 2, 2024, the Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Caldwell discussed the rhythms of the Lenten season recently with Simon Doong and the Rev. Lee Catoe, who host “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast.” Listen to their conversation here. Caldwell, whom many know as “Lib,” taught for more than three decades at McCormick Theological Seminary. She joins “A Matter of Faith” at the 28:48 mark.
Early on, Catoe asked her: Are there lessons or practices for Lenten-style pauses or reflections that we can use at other times of the year?
The Christian calendar, which includes Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, followed by Lent beginning with Ash Wednesday and, later, Holy Week and then months of Ordinary Time after Pentecost “offers a nice alternative to the cultural calendar,” Caldwell said. For many, Easter is the big day during the spring, but “it’s about a season. It’s about a practice,” she said. “For me, Lent is a way of engaging in a practice of some faithful reading, some pausing that prepares me to enter this season of Easter.”
“I like the rhythms of the church year,” Caldwell said, “because they offer me a way of connecting with other persons of faith” while also making “me attentive to my own life of faith and my own practices.”
According to Caldwell, spiritual formation has become increasingly important following the pandemic, “and we are not totally dependent on somebody feeding it to us one hour on a Sunday morning.”
For churches sending an e-blast late in the week to inform members and friends about worship and other upcoming activities, Caldwell recommends engaging them with a question or two about the texts being preached on.
“I do a lot of encouraging” for parents to start faith formation practices with their children, “even if it’s only a blessing” at mealtime, because “if they grow up with nothing and they expect the church to be the only place where they get it, it’s not going to stay with you,” Caldwell told Doong and Catoe.
Doong said he still prays the same mealtime blessing he learned as a child. It’s a good way to avoid watching something on his phone early in the meal.
Our portable devices “are both bane and blessing,” Caldwell replied. A favorite children’s book, “Sitting Still Like a Frog,” has a chapter called “The Conveyor Belt of Worries” in which “this very passive quiet voice” discusses “how do you get off the conveyor belt of worries in order to keep moving on?” Mindfulness or, in Christian parlance, faith practices “help center us and remind us of who we are whose we are, and maybe offer a chance to think about some intentions for the day,” Caldwell said.
A Catholic YouTube page called Busted Halo has a resource called “Lent in Three Minutes.” “It’s priceless. It’s so funny,” Caldwell said. Themes include how to take up and how to give up. “So, one of the challenges I offer in the book is to say, ‘What about taking up a practice?’” such as the ancient discipline of examen, reviewing the day and noting the places where we’ve have seen God’s love. Children can do something similar by naming their thorns, roses and buds for the day, she noted.
Caldwell’s sister is a pastor in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. During the pandemic the sisters would sometimes deliver Advent boxes with candles “and a little bit of liturgy” for families to use during devotions at home. Those practices can be adapted for Lent, she said.
“Creative people who do a lot of visits with elderly or shut-in [people] always take something [tactile] with them, especially with people with Alzheimer’s,” Caldwell said, adding she generally takes colored pencils with her to aid her journaling, “because you never know when you might want to illustrate something.”
She recalled Ash Wednesdays while teaching in Chicago, receiving ashes on her forehead and then leaving them on all day. “I’d forget it, and then I’d get home at night to wash my face and there it would be,” she said. “And it became kind of this ritual of taking it off and reminding myself I am God’s beautiful child and I have some responsibility and commitment during this season to follow in the path that Jesus has set and walk that road.”
One year, Caldwell focused her daily Lenten readings on the psalms rather than all the lectionary passages, and that focus made all the difference. She likened it to taking a hike. Do we hike just to get our steps in to raise our heart rate? Do we hike “because that’s what your body needs, and your brain needs?” Or do we hike so that we “can pause and look at something beautiful in nature?” It’s like walking a labyrinth, “not with the intention of getting it done, but with the intention of being in touch with the rhythm of walking and where I am in nature and what’s going on,” Caldwell said.
Caldwell said she wrote the book in part “because pausing is what I’ve come to value at this age in my life.” With more time on her hands than she had while teaching, “I can be really, really intentional about how I pause to reflect. … Each of us needs to find something personal. I think it’s different for every person, but it seems to me one of the things we could be doing is talking about … some varieties of practices and the ways that help us survive — not only survive, but maybe find ways to thrive in the deep needs of the world in which we’re embedded.”
She offered blessings to both Catoe and Doong and to their listeners “for all the ways you find to walk with eyes attuned around you to that way that God is acting in our world. Go in peace.”
Previous and upcoming editions of “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast can be seen here.
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