By Rev. Dr. Dawn Jeffers Ramstad, Hudson United Methodist Church
The January magazines with all their ideas for improving my life are finally on the newsstands. I am always grateful to get to this week of the year for this one big silly reason. After all, who doesn't want to improve their life? It is so easy to thumb through those pages and imagine how much better my life will be if only I do everything the editors advise. But here is the thing: the magazines won't do it for us. You and I need to do it for ourselves. We can't do it all at once. And what I need to do may or may not be what you need to do. Inspiration of a new year at hand, we all need to find our place to start.
In my early 20s a wise woman advised a group of us young women to "Start scared. Start small. But start." Later, another equally wise woman shared "The best way to get a thing done is to begin." I think of those two women often this week between Christmas and the New Year as I thumb through those magazines pondering where I need to start the needed and wanted changes in life. After four decades of "adulting," I have learned an important life lesson about beginning the changes I want or need to make in my life that.
The big lesson is that every new effort to start well is to begin with prayer and meditation. Real change comes from within through conversation with God. And to go within, one needs to shut the doors, turn off all media, and listen for God to speak. Certainly change can be driven by forces without ranging from the global to the very personal — the extremes of war or a change of routine in your family life come to mind — but real change is not driven by what is without. Real change comes from knowing God's voice within.
Morning prayer never did come easy to me. I confess to you that I still need to choose daily to follow the advice I am writing here. An alarm clock, a specific chair and a timer are my best tools for starting. I set the alarm to go off about 15 minutes earlier than I must get up. Just 15 minutes. Rolling out of bed, pulling on a robe and heading for the chair is step two. Setting the timer, I sit to pray by listening and reading Scripture. Over the years, the only change in this is to exchange a kitchen timer for a series of quiet alarms on my smartphone. But the chair hasn't changed nor has the practice. Simply going to that same seat every day has turned it into a personal sanctuary, a place where I find God's sacred breath speaking to me every morning. Over time, I learned that God will grow that 15 minutes into about 45 minutes. When I listen to God, I am amazingly more on time to meet the world than when I choose to sleep in.
When things are working well in my life, this routine is primarily why. Listening for God shapes my attitude and intentions toward my day. Those minutes increase both my patience and my productivity. Those minutes make every day a new start.
But more importantly when things are going badly — a family crisis, a personal illness, a season of grief — this habit of listening and sitting gives me a sanctuary for turning to God in the storm. When I wander off, which for me happens more often in seasons of joy rather than seasons of sorrow, I find that beginning again to turn on the alarm, head for my prayer chair, and use my timer brings me back to the one who makes all things new.
So friends, this is the first step for beginning again. Pray first before the noise of the world intrudes on the day. But what is the second step?
Well, I don't know exactly. For me it varies depending on the season of my life as well as the needed new start at hand, but it always comes from the sacred breath of God helping me to begin again with a response that always squares with loving God and loving others. My hope for you is that you too learn to pray by listening. May God bring you the hope, peace, joy and love your heart has been longing for in the coming New Year.