I’m not sure. In some respects, we have hope this year we didn’t have a few months ago. A vaccine to end, or at least mitigate, our new reality hovers on the horizon. It trembles there, offering some measure of hope to what otherwise feels like a very old year by now if we’ll take hold of it.
On the other hand, January looks little different for many of us than did November or December, or all the interminable months before them. We’re still here. Still isolating. Still waiting. Of course, the difference is that for those of us in the northern hinterlands, we can’t even go outside for a respite in January.
Left to our own devices, increasingly on our own, we develop coping skills, or we wither, and personally, I’d much prefer to cope. One of the helpful things for me has been to learn a bit more mindfulness. I know—some of you have got this down like a pro. If you’re like me though, stopping to breathe isn’t really what you do.
We run from project to project, one checklist item to the next one. People like me are excited for the new year mostly because we get a new planner—a new place to write down all those ideas and goals.
(Never underestimate the excitement of a new planner in my life. The perfect planner is akin to the holy grail for this 5.)
Mindfulness isn’t usually written in that planner. Neither is rest. Enter 2020. The year that finally (I hope) taught me that those things are not just good ideas—they’re survival. They’re also part of God’s perfect plan for us from the beginning. We’re supposed to rest. We’re meant to breathe. God designed human beings to sabbath—to STOP (literally, that’s what it means) and take time to notice our world.
We’re also supposed to pay attention—the main idea when people discuss the word “mindfulness.” “Pay attention” is an extremely important word in Scripture. Usually, it’s translated as “hear” or “listen,” but this is what it means. Pay attention! God wants to say something, and God wants us to respond. Simple in one ear and out the other isn’t what God ever means by “hear.” This is what Jesus meant when he repeated that phrase—“For those who have ears to hear, let them hear.” Pay attention, don’t just get audible signals.
So I have been.
One of the things I’ve begun to do is sit in my chair in the morning and notice my senses. I take a few deep breaths and sink into the chair, closing my eyes, just paying attention to my small world.
I notice the heat kick on. I give thanks for heat.
I hear the tea kettle in the kitchen. I offer gratitude for a husband making me tea. That thought leads me to say a prayer for his patients that day, for their well-being and their families.
I hear a cardinal chirp outside the window, and I am thankful God created birds, going so far as to create beautiful birds of vivid color and different design. Why? There was no need. But a creative God chose to give his people the gift of diversity on the wing.
Another day I might choose to focus on what I can smell. The licorice scent of Earl Grey steaming out of my tea mug. Oh, thank you for caffeine. And thank you for making it taste good in so many varieties.
The smell of cat fur, as the little 7-pounder nestles into my lap, a place she finds comfort, and I find comfort and gratitude knowing a creature trusts me at that level.
I can detect some lemongrass, so I give thanks for newly mopped floors. I think to pray for those living in refugee camps where keeping one’s home clean is a small comfort they had to leave behind, and concepts like “home” and “floor” now exist not as assumptions but hopes for the future.
These few moments of paying attention center me. They give me a morning “fix” of focus to begin a new day. After spending time quieting my mind and hearing my surroundings rather than my racing thoughts and ideas, I can hear the voice of God better. I’ve set aside my agenda long enough that God can get a word in edgewise.
I find this a good plan most days. My words are too many and too disjointed unless I’ve heard a word from God first.
Science agrees. Mindfulness and centering give us mental focus for our day. Educators are finding that beginning their classroom days like this help to calm kids down and increase their attention spans.
I’m offering this up not as a cure-all for 2021 but as one small thing I’ve found these last few months that help me center myself on where I need to be. Maybe you’re seeking some ways to focus yourself as well this new year. Small things. Baby steps. That’s all we may be able to handle right now, and thank you, Lord, that’s often all we need.
Jill Richardson is the pastor of Real Hope Community Church near Chicago. She is the author of six books and a national speaker, as well as a contributor to books from Dayspring, Lillenas, and Christianity Today. Jill’s doctorate in "Church Leadership in a Changing Context" is helping her with her passion—passing on a healthy, creative church and doing it with the next generation. She is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Bethel Seminary (St. Paul), and Washington University. Her focus is on church leadership, creative preaching, immigration and refugees, women’s issues, and intergenerational leadership. She has an unnatural love for Middle-earth, chocolate marzipan, old musicals, fish tacos, oceans, cats, and Earl Grey. She believes in Jesus, grace, restoration, kindness, justice, and the Cubs. You can find her work at jillmrichardson.com.