Fledgling poet and former dog owner (long live Nacho!), I strive for faithful engagement as a husband, father, friend, worker, and citizen. My vocational travels have visited engineering, church ministry, and higher education. Firmly embedded in mid-life, I balance my left-brained day job with writing and reflection on God’s presence in the commonplace – which I find pairs well with a sizable cup of French-pressed coffee.
This past summer I added a new title: Father-in-law.
While 2020 lacked the typical amusement of social gatherings, we created our own excitement through the planning, re-planning, and re-planning of re-planned plans for two outdoor weddings. In short, the brides were beautiful, the grooms handsome, the food terrific, the company lovely, and the tears joy-filled.
Significant events like a graduation or marriage typically cause parents to reflect on the lives of their children. All the laughable, notable, adorable, and memorable moments. For me, the two weddings of summer brought to mind not just the lives of my boys but the evolution of my parenting. I don’t parent now like I did 20 years ago. While I still tip toward being more rules than grace, I believe I’ve relaxed quite a bit. I’m not as quick to launch a “dad speech” or get miffed about minor misbehavior or inconvenience. Perhaps holes in drywall, wrecked cars, trips to the emergency room, and missed curfews have appropriately tempered my responses.
Beyond parenting, our days have many moments that require our response. It might start with the alarm clock. Then a dog that needs letting out. A diaper that needs changing and children that need feeding. A project summary for the boss, a bill that needs paying, and even a tired body that needs a nap. All these—and more—require our attention. So I wonder: how attentive to God am I? What activates my engagement with Him throughout the day, and why?
While we might be distracted by the steady stream of issues needing our attention, Scripture assures us that God is here. That before we ever loved Him, He loved us with an everlasting love. He’s promised to never abandon us as He brings all things toward a perfect conclusion. And before we even realized our deepest need, God made sure there would be a way for us to enjoy Him forever. Such wonderful news demands our attention, does it not?
Paul David Tripp in his book, Awe, said: “I am convinced that rest in this chaotic world, submission to authority, and a willingness to give and share power all arise from a certain knowledge that every single detail of our lives is under the careful administration of One of awesome glory. We will rest in the middle of unrest not because we have it figured out but because of who he is. When you are in awe of God’s glory, you just don’t have to be in control of everything and everyone in your life.” (p.142) As I reflect on my propensity to be an anxious parent or fret over planning weddings during a pandemic, knowing that the God of Heaven is with me should be my first point of engagement. He is always in control and completely trustworthy. These truths should affect my response not only to the everyday issues of life, but also to God himself.
This is the fourth week of Advent. In this season of waiting and contemplation, I’ve been challenged to reorient, to notice, and to spend time alone with God. To attune myself to the love of our Savior. In this week of Christmas, how should you and I respond to God? How do we engage with the One who came to chase death’s dark shadow? Whose law is love and gospel peace? Who can bid all sad division cease and truly be our King of Peace?
We can shout “Glory to God in the Highest!” and “Joy to the world!” We can whisper in our souls, “Thank you, Jesus” and “Lord, you are good.” And perhaps our simplest, most profound response comes from Christina Rossetti: “Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.”
God has done a great thing—Christ has come! In our celebrations this week, let’s respond to Him with grateful praise and reaffirm our whole-hearted commitment to love Him and love all people.
A Prayer of Response to Jesus Dayspring of Heaven and Bright Morning Star, Laudable Babe and Ruler of Nations— You ransomed us from the darkness of death, broken our chains and freed us to love. Enthroned on our hearts in wondering love, we worship you with anthems praise!
“And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:17b-19, NIV)
Even the most introverted introvert may eventually find pandemic constraints wearisome. Nine months of disrupted activities and minimized social gathering is difficult. Last night, just to get out of the house, my wife did a web search and crafted a Christmas light tour through nearby neighborhoods. At a minimum, our spontaneous adventure required us to pry ourselves from the couch and have something different to see and talk about (who knew you could cram 50 inflatable Christmas characters onto a small front lawn?). We even got a little romantic taking a selfie inside a tastefully decorated covered bridge.
Our customized light tour was the extent of our out-of-the-house engagements this week. Like many of you, we are currently working from home and have extra time as a result of cancelled or postponed school, church, sport, or other activities. So right now, no one needs more alone time, right? Well, I propose that in our present circumstance we need some solitude–maybe more now than when our lives were “normal.”
I admit that solitude gets a bad rap. Some label it stodgy and strange. A practice that can be tolerated by only the most pious among us. In my experience, solitude doesn’t need to be any of that. While solitude does require being alone, it’s an opportunity to actively engage God through prayerful reflection. And rather than boring, Henri Nouwen suggests, “Solitude is the furnace of transformation.” (The Way of the Heart, p.25) Nouwen goes on to say solitude is “the place of the great struggle and the great encounter. Solitude is not simply a means to an end. Solitude is its own end. It is the place where Christ remodels us in his own image and frees us from the victimizing compulsions of the world.” (p.31-32)
Indeed, our world provides more than enough distraction and worry to siphon the joy, peace, patience, and gentleness from our spirit. We’re only a click, tap, or scroll away from whatever we desire. Thus the need for intentional times of being alone with God where we can enter a space designed to help us reorient, recognize, and reflect on our lives and His involvement in them.
There’s no prescription for solitude. Simply settle your spirit. Listen. Pray. Rest. Maybe laugh a little. Cry a little. Journal a thought or write a note. Listen to music or sing. Invite God into your physical and mental space with anticipation and gratitude for Him seeing, knowing, and loving you just as you are, right where you are.
In my home, this third week of Advent often coincides with a sharp increase in Christmas preparations. I can be harried with planning, purchasing, cooking, and cleaning. And while time for such things is more available this year than in previous, I still need some solitude. It’s important that I intentionally reflect on God’s kindness, asking Him for unclouded eyes and an open heart to His grace. To confess, repent, and praise. To wonder and enjoy His presence.
Join me this week by setting aside an uninterrupted hour (or more!) to be alone with Jesus. No agenda, no requirements, and no pressure. Just you and Emmanuel. Let Him quiet you with His love as you listen for the song He sings over your every moment.
A Prayer for Solitude Voice of hope and Word of redemption, Jesus, lover of my soul; Shield me from the world’s compulsions and open my soul to reflection with You.
““The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him.” (Lamentations 3:24–25, ESV)
In March of this year, I became a work-from-home nomad.
For a while I claimed the living room chair. It was comfortable, with a terrific view of the front and back yard. But the chair was located near the main thoroughfare of our home, and therefore subject to many loud conversations, meal prep, and the general busyness of homelife.
So I gathered my laptop, notebook, and manilla folders and journeyed to the basement. There I discovered less noise but no outside view. I found that I could concentrate better on my work but proximity to a bathroom brought sensory challenges.
As the weather warmed, I summoned my inner nomad and trekked to a small room behind our garage. It’s a workshop of sorts, which proved convenient as I carved-out a space and assembled a workstation. In that room I regained an outdoor view, enhanced solitude, and limited distraction. It was there that I labored during the summer months of pandemic restrictions.
I can’t deny that I rather liked working in that space. It was a bit rugged, but it was mine. While there was room for an officemate, no one (not even my wife) accepted my invitation. I suspect the regular appearance of spiders, flies, a few mosquitoes and of course summertime bees was a deterrent. And early on, I had to fend-off a tenacious Red Squirrel who thought he had squatters’ rights.
In the midst of my working out there, something unexpected happened. Between Zoom meetings, phone calls, and the ever-fresh stream of email I heard something. I saw something. I was enthralled by…them.
Lots of birds. Goldfinches, Blue Jays, House Sparrows, and Cedar Waxwings. Chickadees popping from branch to branch. Robins wrestling worms from the lawn. And on occasion, in the quiet of early morning, I’d hear the call and response from a pair of owls. It was wonderful! There were birds everywhere, all the time. I know they’ve been there all along, but I simply hadn’t noticed. Not until my nomadic wandering led me to construct a makeshift office did I see what I’d been missing. Which got me wondering: What else am I not noticing?
How are my worries and distractions obscuring my vision? Are my passions and desires consuming my imagination? Have I oriented my life around too much of me? Am I thinking too often about my disappointments, my comfort, what’s next, or what I’m missing? And if any or all of this is true, could I be missing moments to recognize and experience God?
In her book, Signs of Life, Stephanie Lobdell suggests, “However it comes to us, the knowledge that we are seen by God—and invited by God to see God as well, to know God deeply—changes us. It breaks us open, creating space for the resurrecting Spirit of God to infiltrate our minds, enlivening our dead imaginations and allowing us to see a new future.” (p.54) Might a call to notice God’s presence be instilled in a work-from-home nomad through something as normal and everyday as birds? Absolutely!
Advent is a season when we alter our routine and seek to quiet ourselves to reflect and reorient. It’s an invitation to center ourselves and recognize the presence of God. To listen for Him. To remember His care and provision. To submit ourselves to His love and embrace the truth that He is always near and will never abandon us. To thank Him for his love and mercy, acknowledging that He is our only comfort in life and death.
During this second week of Advent, join me in crafting intentional times to be still. To notice. To be prayerful, inviting the Spirit to help you recognize God in ways you may not have before—or perhaps have not in quite some time. Like the birds in my yard, God has been here all along. And while we might know that in our heads, may our hearts receive and experience afresh the beauty and wonder and love of our God who is with us!
A Prayer for Noticing Our Heavenly King, robed in a garment of light, Your presence pervades like the light of the sun; Tune my ears and open my eyes to Your everyday touches of grace.
“You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” (Psalm 16:11, ESV)
Early in October our family grew by two. This time we didn’t need to travel to Ethiopia. Instead, we drove 20 minutes down the road to a local animal shelter.
Soon after the sibling pair of 8-week old kittens set paws in our home we realized we had not adequately prepared ourselves, nor our home, for the onslaught of frenzied play and prolific use of tiny claws. The jumping and climbing and racing about brought us joy, laughter, and a few disciplinary actions. Those moments also served as a reminder of what it’s like to have “children” in the home once again. Before adopting it may have been helpful to reorient ourselves to the demands of pet ownership since it has been almost a dozen years since welcoming our last young pet (we still miss you, Nacho!).
While our acclimation to the kittens has been swift and enjoyable, the same cannot be said about the circumstances of this year. The unexpected and unwelcome have been unsettling and disorienting. My response to the pandemic, the US election, disrupted holiday plans and general upheaval in most things has generated a blend of anxiety, fear, discontent, and at times, anger. I’ve wrestled deep in my soul with the unmooring of predictable things that provide a sense of security. It seems nothing is as it was, and I wonder if it ever will be again.
Several weeks ago, the Spirit led me to meditate on Psalm 146. In the succinct beauty of those ten verses are comfort, encouragement, and perspective. Through those inspired words we’re reminded that God lifts us when we’re discouraged. He takes notice and cares for the needy, forgotten, and marginalized. He is our help and our hope. The psalmist also implores us to orient ourselves not to the people and plans of this world, but to the One who made heaven and earth. Our God, who in this moment–and in every moment during this disorienting year–has remained faithful as He rules and reigns in perfect goodness and love.
As we enter the Advent season, now is a good time for reorientation–not to pet ownership, but to God. Advent offers an opportunity to quiet myself in prayerful, intentional reflection on my past and present situation. As I ponder my anxieties and disappointments of the past several months, I find this perspective from David Benner helpful:
“Jesus is the antidote to fear. His love—not our believing certain things about him or trying to do as he commands—is what holds the promise of releasing us from the bondage of our inner conflicts, guilt and terror. Jesus comes to show us what God is like. Knowing how we would react to a god who suddenly turned up on the human scene, God becomes human, to meet us where we are and minimize our fears. The incarnation is God reaching out across the chasm caused by our sin and starting the relationship all over again. The incarnation reveals true Love reaching out to dispel fear.”
David Benner, Surrender to Love, p.50.
During this first week of Advent, join me in reorienting to Love. Let’s acknowledge what’s real and true through honest moments of personal examination, confession, repentance, and forgiveness. Together let’s proclaim, “I will sing praise to my God as long as I live” (Psalm 146:2) as we align ourselves to the King who reigns yesterday, and this day, and forever. He is our only hope, and He is worthy of our praise.
A Prayer for Reorientation Father in Heaven, my welcoming King, I’ve wanted and wandered, longing for more; Attune my affections to You alone, and help me surrender to Love.
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18a ESV)
With all that spring and summer has been in 2020, for my family it has also been a season of weddings. Two of my sons made a covenant with their ladies as we laughed, cried, celebrated, and briefly pushed aside most of our pandemic thoughts while masked and physically distanced.
Those wedding ceremonies were the culmination of much planning and re-planning. They embodied a great deal of compromise as we released more than a few wedding-day dreams. We also found ourselves in deep conversation, refining our understanding of tradition, ceremony, and the real and representative aspects of community. Even so, there was silver in those clouds of disappointment. I can agree with James that there’s value in trial. (James 1:2-4) I can also affirm that each day has enough worry of its own! (Matthew 6:34)
Not bound to weddings, discouragement was a frequent house guest this past year. It touched our desires for education, occupation, and financial stability. It would be easy, and some might say justified, to indulge in some self-pity. Commiserate a bit because things have been tough for all of us. But I certainly don’t need encouragement to feel sorry for myself. That comes much too easily.
So what are we to do in these present and seemingly unending moments of ambiguity and anxiety? When there’s much we cannot control and each day threatens with setback, cancellation, and redirection?
I received some help with those questions in the week leading-up to wedding number two. During the quiet of mid-morning God interrupted my fretting, prompting me to replay our family story of the past year. Doing so required reliving cycles of deep discouragement rife with tears, questions, and desperate pleas. But in my review of the past I saw points of light amidst the valley’s shadows. Divine illuminations that revealed a next step. And then another. In our faithful plodding from point to point we encountered many unexpected graces. To be honest, at the time some of those felt less like graces and more like unmet expectation. But taken in panorama, my look-back revealed an intricate and unexplainable pattern of a loving Providence!
So in the unsettledness of today, I’m reminded to remember. To look back as I go forward. To embrace a long-sighted perspective, acknowledging that life’s journey is not a beeline path from one good thing to the next. There will be seasons of struggle. And in this moment, which is one moment among thousands in a grand narrative, I must seek the Spirit’s help to calm my soul. To reflect on God’s presence and care in my every breath. To know that my God sits with me in the pain, whispering gentle words of acceptance and love. After all, He’s never left me. And He’s already been where I’m headed. That is a great comfort!
Whether re-planned weddings, kids in school (or not), presidential elections, furloughed jobs, protests or masks this season is over-ripe with opportunities for the people of God to bring comfort to societal anxieties, frustrations, and uncertainty. As followers of Jesus we should be listening, empathizing, loving, giving, and caring for all people. It’s our call and privilege to be inconvenienced for the sake of another. (1 John 3:16) Let us be known for delivering hope, offering the peace of Jesus who said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” (John 14:27, ESV)
Join me in sharing the peace and comfort of Jesus.
Perhaps this song from my favorite band will help quiet your spirit
and bring you peace:
A couple months ago, I felt led to do something new: I applied for a spiritual director.
For me, that was a risky move. Risky because I’m an introvert and inherently skeptical. Even so, it was clear that I should lay aside my hesitation and pray for courage to obey the Spirit-promptings.
This week I met with my spiritual director for the second time. So far, so good! A question he’s been asking me during our sessions is: What are you hearing, feeling, or experiencing in this moment? Sometimes the question is more direct: What are you hearing from God?
In our present “stay home, stay safe” moment of sacrifice to care for each other, I’m feeling and experiencing many things. Restrictions, prohibitions, and isolation can be difficult. I want to do what I want to do. I want to eat out, have people over, and worship in my church building. Grocery shopping is stressful (more than usual), Zoom meetings are awkward, and I’m not a fan of jigsaw puzzles.
When things don’t go my way, I get edgy. And my edginess breeds a need to control through task and accomplishment. I respond with instructions to my family for house cleaning, lawn raking, and other things I deem “productive.” My unilateral edicts are often rationalized with a “dad speech” about responsibility and character development. But what’s really going on is that I feel anxiety over my helplessness.
I don’t like being unable to affect my circumstance. But this thought from Thomas Merton has been helpful: “We can be glad of our helplessness when we really believe that His [God’s] power is made perfect in our infirmity. The surest sign that we have received a spiritual understanding of God’s love for us is the appreciation of our own poverty in the light of His infinite mercy.” (Thoughts in Solitude, p.26)
This weekend we reflect again on the life and passion of Jesus Christ. As I consider who He is and what He’s done, the helplessness I feel in the midst of a worldwide crisis highlights that I’m a dependent and needy person. There’s no place for rugged individualism. And any response that sprouts from seeds of discontent regarding my “rights” only deadens my ability to exhibit the qualities of a Christ-follower. So I’m returning often to that question from my spiritual director: What am I hearing from God in these moments?
What I’ve heard this week is: “Fight for joy!”
Reclaim a perspective that is hope-filled and not usurped by headlines, op-eds, and social media cynicism. Acknowledge the legitimacy of anxieties and disappointments while remembering to “fret not” (Psalm 37). To lament, grieve, and pray. To embrace our salvation that was claimed on a cross and secured through resurrection.
So, what are you feeling, thinking, or experiencing right now? What do you hear God saying to you? And what do those things indicate about your understanding of God’s love, mercy, and expectations for you in this moment?
This Easter weekend, and in the days ahead, I’m keeping close these words from the prophet Isaiah: “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you. Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord God is an everlasting rock.” (Isaiah 26:3–4) Perfect peace. We all need some of that.
It’s Sunday. We just finished week two of online worship due to social distancing requirements. It was a good service. Even so, a pre-recorded service has relational limitations, so I choose to add some mental enhancements while I participate.
During the audio-only recordings of the choir, I envision their smiling faces and syncopated swaying. During the liturgy, I dub-in voices of those typically sitting in the pews near me as we collectively offer an amoeba-like recitation. And when the Word is preached, I mentally insert several raised-voice, pulpit-slapping, jump up and down exclamations of, “Isn’t that good news!” for which our pastor is known. I’m grateful to be part of a vibrant Christ-exalting, Spirit-dependent, cross-cultural community of faith.
Yet in this morning’s blend of digital worship and my mentally inserted animations, I sensed a longing. An ache. An unsettledness in my spirit. It felt like I was grieving. Reflecting now, it was lament.
Lament is generally described as expressions of sorrow, regret, grief, or mourning. I prefer a more faith-centered definition given by a former pastor who said, “lament is sorrow but with confidence.” Confidence in a loving, ever-present God who sees, hears and knows our circumstance. A God who can sympathize with our anxieties, frustrations, losses, and desires. A God to whom we can safely bring our anger and our angst.
As I allow my feelings from this morning to percolate, I’m mixing in this quote from Michael Card: “Lament is not a path to worship, but the path of worship.” (A Sacred Sorrow, p.21) Oh, boy! My conditioned response is that worship be a positive, joyful, happy endeavor. Through that lens, I’d write-off what I felt this morning as inadequate or distracted worship. Yet if Card is right (and I believe he is), I can’t—and shouldn’t—discount what I’m feeling. Instead, I should embrace my sadness as a portal to worship.
While no one welcomes or wishes for loss, I can attest that painful and anxious moments have heightened my desire for God’s involvement in the particulars of my life. When I’m inconvenienced, frustrated, thwarted, or just plain don’t get what I want, those moments are ripe for lamenting worship. Embracing that perspective is tough. But I’m choosing to pray against the pull of bitterness and bring my grief to God.
In our longing for what’s normal, like being face-to-face with family, friends, and everyone else, it’s okay to be sad. But in that sorrow, we must sustain our confidence that God is more than enough and is worthy of our worship—whatever form it takes.