Listen to This

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Seeing Shepherds II by Daniel Bonnell

It was so quiet my ears hurt.

Standing in that chamber is an eerie, disturbing, and unsettling experience. It’s a room in which you can literally hear your heart beating and blood flowing. Scream all you want, but no one will hear. Such are the qualities of an anechoic chamber. A room specifically designed to absorb nearly every bit of sound energy.

My occupational journey afforded me experience with an anechoic chamber. It truly is an uncomfortable yet fascinating room. And while echoless chambers are valuable in specific contexts, the absence of reverberating noise isn’t normal. Sound is ever and always bombarding us. And no matter our quality of perception, sound is inherent to our lives.

A father to five, I’ve become acquainted with all manner of sound and noise. My children have solidified my understanding of hearing versus listening. Rarely do my kids fail to hear what I say, but they sometime chose not to listen. Listening is an active engagement. An attentive behavior that willingly receives and responds. And when done well, listening can be a physical, mental, emotional, and sometimes spiritual experience.

Our path this Advent season has taken us through a specific weekly focus. First it was humility, then peace, rest, and now listening. Each of these characteristics or behaviors takes cues from the others as they shape our thoughts, words, attitudes, and actions. As we humble ourselves to God’s authority and settle our spirits with a peace-filled rhythm of rest, we can enhance our steps toward right-living with contemplative listening.

Listening is a helpful spiritual practice. It opens our heart and mind to a divine dialogue as we welcome that still, small voice that sings over each of us. And while we don’t need an echo-free environment to experience God’s presence, the many and varied activities of the holiday season make it particularly challenging to create listening spaces. But it is possible.

Over this next week, join me in setting aside time for quiet, sacred idleness. Rise a little earlier, make a warm beverage, and turn on the tree lights. Settle into a comfortable seat and open Scripture. Maybe dwell on a prayer from The Valley of Vision or sit with the incomparable Rossetti or Hopkins. Accent your contemplative listening with some instrumental music. Whatever calms your spirit, craft your listening space so it assists in dialing-down your task-making mind and dampens the pressure to ‘do’. Be still. Allow the beautiful advent of the long expected Jesus to invigorate your listening toward a grateful response of, “Gloria in excelsis Deo!” Our Savior has come!

A Prayer for Listening
Son of God and Son of Man,

Incarnate Word of life and light;

Disrupt my routine with listening spaces,
and tune my soul to your song of love.

“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”
(John 10:27, ESV)

Break time!

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I debated for days. Which color: red, blue, orange, black or ice?

I settled on orange. A bold choice for me. But this was a statement making purchase — my first Personal Data Assistant (PDA) in the form of an orange-colored Handspring Visor. Handspring Visor Deluxe (Orange)

While nearly 20 years ago, I recall the joy of wielding the tiny stylus and tapping a greenish-gray screen to make to-do lists, move tasks between lists, schedule appointments, and set alarms. It was such nerdy fun graduating from a Franklin Planner to a battery-powered palm-sized gadget.

Achievement, organization, and administration are threaded into my DNA. If there was a society for over-achieving list-makers, I’d be in the hall of fame. I find deep satisfaction in getting things done.

Whether task lists elicit joy or anxiety, we all have things to do. Many of us describe our lives as busy, maybe crazy busy (or just crazy) as we squeeze activities into the smallest cracks in our schedules. And in this holiday season, activity is at maximum capacity as we add shopping, cooking, wrapping, traveling, gathering, celebrating, and feasting. But whether it’s during this festive season or in the midst of a ‘normal’ week, we may be excluding something critical from our calendars: rest.

Rest isn’t just for over-achieving list-makers. We all need a break (can I get an “Amen?”). And before we make assumptions, let’s be clear that resting isn’t just doing less or procrastination. Rest is a state of re-creation where we participate in activities distinctly different from the usual. It’s an intentional activity in which we mentally gather our experiences to reflect, evaluate, contemplate, and celebrate.

George MacDonald said, “Work is not always required. There is such a thing as sacred idleness.”  Sacred idleness. Interesting phrase, but fitting since rest was given to us by our Creator. And if divinely gifted (commanded, really), refusing to rest may signal a lack of humility as we dismiss the notion that God knows more about our needs than we do.

Which brings us back to where we started Advent with a focus on humility. To which we added peace last week. And now we join-in the practice of rest. These three — humility, peace, and rest — work together. Submitting all of our ‘doing’ to God is a humble act that fosters a peaceful soul. As God’s peace settles upon us, our spirits are more receptive to a rhythm of replenishing through rest.

Yes, this is an extraordinarily frenetic time of year. So you may be thinking, “Yep, I agree. Rest sounds great but I’ll start after the New Year.” Let’s be honest: When is the doing done? Or the task list sufficiently short? While we all have good, important, and necessary things to do, it’s imperative that we make room for sacred idleness. To pause and ponder not what gifts need wrapping or food preparing, but the wonder of who God is and what He’s done.

In this Advent season, may our restful musings wander toward reflection on the birth of our Savior. The One who has finished the work of redemption so that we might truly rest.

A Prayer for Rest
Cornerstone layer of Earth’s foundation,
Infinite time-making Lord;

emancipate me from this unrested state,
and set my pace to a sanctified rhythm.

“Return, O my soul, to your rest; for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.”
(Psalm 116:7, ESV)

Making Room for…

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This past April we lost a friend. In less than a day, our faithful dog of nine years transitioned from playful companion to terminally ill. We miss him terribly.

Ever since Nacho’s death, my family has been quite persistent with expressing their desire for another dog. I have to admit I enjoy having a pet in the house. Yet the trials of puppy training still haunt me: the all-night bark parties, ravaged stuffed animals, holes chewed in blankets, and the classic ‘poop, drop, and roll-in-it’ routine. Raising a puppy is a taxing gig. The weeks of biting, howling, accidents, eating from waste baskets, and the necessary rearranging of schedules to accommodate potty times can be tiresome. I remember many nights, my head under a pillow to muffle the whimpers and whines, pleading with the Almighty for just a few hours of peaceful quiet.

Last week we entered the season of Advent. This pre-Christmas period of waiting affords an opportunity to widen our gaze and examine our spiritual life. During that first week, we considered how we might be more humble, defining humility as a posture of spirit that gladly affirms God’s authority. Submitting to that authority involves rooting-out prideful behaviors and self-centered attitudes.

This week, as we continue to clean-out bits of selfishness we’re making room for something better: peace. Not the kind of peace that comes when a puppy is trained, but a settledness of soul. A steadiness of spirit that happily accepts God’s providence.

But can we have that kind of peace when around us swirls uncertainty, struggle, job loss, health concerns, wayward children, unfaithful relationships, caustic politics, unpaid bills, and racial tensions? We can! And while I don’t suggest it easy or simple, as we grow in humility our emotional and spiritual disposition will become more and more peaceful.

While a Christmas puppy might bring peace between me and my family, I’m asking God for the peace that goes beyond my knowing. A peace derived from a glad acceptance of the circumstances He’s using to shape me for His purpose and glory. The more I accept and step with humility into that reality, the greater my peace will be.

The same is true for you. Will you join me this second week of Advent by asking the Prince of Peace to bring peace to our souls?

A Prayer for Peace
Shaper of planets and hanger of stars,
Conductor of wind and waves;
Quiet my spirit with a holy hush —
and open a portal to peace.

“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, ESV)

We’ve Got This!

Source: Just over a decade ago my wife and I traveled to Ethiopia. After a 10-day stay we brought home our two daughters and a nasty intestinal bug. Oh, the memories!

The lead-up to that overseas adventure was a frenzy. In April we submitted our dossier (the official package of stuff that gets us in line to adopt). Mid-June we received a referral (the email with photos that asks, “How about these little beauties?”). And then in late August we were on a plane to Addis Ababa. On the spectrum of adoption timelines, we were on the lunatic fringe!

Running parallel with the legal adopting process, we were managing a remodel of our basement. We had plans to add a living area, bath, and bedroom to accommodate our expanding family. In the midst of these adoption related activities I was working full-time, taking two seminary classes, and trying to keep pace with three young boys. Still in my late 30’s, I felt spry enough to handle late nights and early mornings as long as I had regular doses of strong black coffee.

I distinctly remember a series of late nights hanging drywall. I had borrowed a drywall jack to hold pieces for the ceiling in place. Even in my spryness, it was tough lifting 8ft sheets of 3/4-inch. Several times my wife (and faithful companion in the wee hours) would not so subtly suggest I ask for help. Find a Saturday when I could get a crew of friends who would offer their labor in exchange for food. Theoretically, a fine idea. But not for this perfectionist. Drywall is a tricky beast, and I wasn’t sure my tiny soul could handle the extra stress of managing quality control.

And so I labored alone.

This is not a story to celebrate my rugged individualism or solicit kudos for my remodeling acumen. Instead, looking back what I see is foolish pride. My behavior was driven by a misplaced affection for my ability. A stubborn, self-focused love for shaping my circumstance, image, and outcome. I did need help with my project but lacked the humility to ask.

And that’s true of us all. From the very beginning we thought we could do it alone. In that cosmic moment our collective consumption of Eden’s fruit has left us prideful beggars. And even this day, whether hanging drywall or marching through other issues of life we’re tempted to believe: “We’ve got this!”

Being humble doesn’t de-value our skill or competence. It’s not diminishment or self-deprecation. Rather, humility is a posture of spirit that gladly affirms God’s authority. It’s a willful submission for the sake of a greater good.

In the first week of Advent, let’s make space to consider our personal humility. To ponder our need for help. To take comfort that despite the ways we grasp to be seen, appreciated, invited, or in control we can bring our fears and desires to God — who despite our prideful rebellion did not leave us alone.

A Prayer for Humility

Benevolent Ruler and Heavenly King,
my affections are tangled and twisted with pride.
Release my soul from it’s worldly loves,
and into the joy of humility.

“He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.”
(Psalm 25:9, ESV)

 

Ritual

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Thanksgiving in the States is a fascinating cornucopia of activity. A shortened school and work-week partnered with too many trips for groceries, house cleaning, house guests, travel, football, over-eating, naps, pre-dawn bargains and the official start of the Christmas season make for memorable moments. Such things, and more, are the cultural memes of late November.

For the most part, I enjoy holiday rituals. Some things are worth repeating (Can I get an “Amen!” for Thanksgiving leftovers?). Perennial practices gather and bind us together. Their familiarity lends stability to our living. Even undesired rituals, like green bean casserole, provide an endearing point of connection.

The ritual of Thanksgiving affords us space to pause and reflect. To rehearse the past, remembering the happy and sad. Losses and gains. New friends, better friends, and departed friends. All the moments of laughter, regret, celebration, frustration, victory, disappointment, starts, stops, transitions, accomplishments, and everyday ordinary moments that color our lives.

So before that second (or third) helping this week, take time to sift through your story. Talk face-to-face. Celebrate, grieve, laugh, and lament with each other. In our best and worst moments, God is with us. He is better to us than we know or deserve. And for that, we can all be grateful.

Happy Thanksgiving!

It’s fine!

“It’s fine.”

That phrase was added to our family lexicon this past year. It’s been used in various ways, from the casual, “How’s the soup?” (It’s fine) to “How’s the paper on Ancient Rome coming along? (It’s fine) to ending sibling squabbles with an emphatic, “It’s fine!”

Lately I’ve thought more about how often and easily I respond with, “It’s fine.” What do I mean when I say it and is it an accurate response? What I’ve discovered is my instinctual blurts of “It’s fine” are a subtle way to silence reality.

How?

Well, we all experience disappointment and frustration. Like when your cell phone slips into the crack between the car seat and center console. Or when faced with a more life-altering concern like a chronic health issue. At both extremes (and in between) I’m prone toward tamping-down my emotion and limiting conversation with a falsified, “It’s fine.”

But sometimes life is just plain awful, right? So an “it’s fine” dismissal is really a symptom of disconnection. A prideful distancing from my struggles. A clever avoidance while wanting control. To phrase it like my pastor, Mika Edmondson, I’m trapped in “the sin of stubborn self-reliance.”

Don’t worry about me. I’ve got this. It’s fine.

But it’s not.

When I trust only myself, I neither avoid struggle nor find happiness. Rather, my failed efforts to ignore or control breed cynicism, bitterness, and ingratitude. And that’s definitely not fine.

So what’s the medicine for stubborn self-reliance? Yes, trusting God. But more specifically, fully embracing God’s character. Again, from my pastor: “Some believe God is merciful, but not rich in mercy.” (Eph 2:4-5) Oh, that’s me! I know a lot about God, but do I live like I really believe it? Do I completely accept and embody the fullness of who He is? Not when my obstinate heart wrestles for independence. Or when I worry and fret and over-plan my life. Not when my happiness is contingent on circumstance. I can be a headstrong, self-reliant person. How about you?

Fortunately, we are not alone. We don’t need to manipulate, speculate, or fake our way through life. God is here. He sees and knows and cares. He faithfully brings situations that expose our helplessness and need for His rescue. God reigns over our joy and sorrow. He is trustworthy and wants to be trusted.

Together, let’s strive this day to submit to God’s good authority over us. When we do, we can respond with an honest, God-reliant declaration of, “It’s fine!”

What’s the Point?

The molecular composition of sodium bicarbonate. How to factor a quadratic equation. What the acronym TVA represents.

Random bits of high school learning still seared into memory, seemingly useless other than for an occasional Jeopardy question. With all the work that went into learning and memorizing, I wonder: What was it for? Having five children, many times have I answered the question: “Why do I need to learn this?”

Insert your favorite parental response here. I’ve delivered my philosophy of learning many times. Even so, I understand and empathize with their questioning as I, too, am a frequent asker of “why?”

Why?

Because I tend to be pragmatic. An advocate for efficiency and utility. I like my present activities to yield long-term dividends. To have purpose. And while those desires may be a helpful at times, left unchecked my pragmatism can morph into skepticism. My “why” questions no longer sourced from curiosity, but cynicism. In pride, I doubt the value of my circumstance and stand-up to God with a litany of “why’s”: Why did that happen? Why won’t this end? Why now? Why not? Why me?

Does God invite my questions? Sure. But my disposition in bringing them defines, in part, the quality of our relationship. Am I looking to dialogue or deliver a diatribe? Do I really want answers or for God to feel my angst?

In her book, Humble Roots, Hannah Anderson suggests: “When we believe that we are responsible for our own existence, when we trust our ability to care for ourselves, we will have nothing but stress because we are not equal to the task.” (p.28)

Yep. Many of our “why’s” are a prideful pull for control. A foolish belief that we can chart our course, avoiding impractical, painful, or otherwise undesirable circumstances. But who can sift the experiences of life, ranking and evaluating their character-building value?

Every conversation, emotion, observation, interaction, thought, and activity shapes our story. What may seem impractical in the moment (like learning to factor a quadratic equation) may instead be a touch-point of grace. Unexpected loss a gateway to joy. Disappointment a detour into opportunity.

We are works in progress — good works! (Philippians 1:6) And while today may bring confusion, uncertainty, and a handful of “why’s” we can step forward knowing that God has a purpose in everything. With confident humility we should remember the past, engage in the present, and hope for what’s next!

Be

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Just ‘be.’

I’ve heard that suggestion many times, particularly when I’m tangled in too much ‘doing.’ Yet beyond knowing that I’m a human ‘being’ and can ‘be’ in a place, what does it mean to ‘be’ (or not)?

I doubt that ‘being’ is dispassionate bobbing on the swells of circumstance. In a word, chillin’. Neither is it a numbed state of empty contemplation. Grammatically, the state of being is active. Participatory. Alive!

So as I ponder a ‘being’ state, I envision an intra-personal dialogue. A thoughtful exchange in the space of my soul. No, this is not me hearing voices, but carefully talking myself through the whole of who I am. A courageous exploration of my place — past, present, and future.

To sit with oneself — to be — is to acknowledge and feel. To laugh and grieve and hope. To face and embrace what’s true while rejecting what’s not. In our ‘being’ we release our pain and reject its grip. We sift our failures for seeds of wisdom to plant in our garden of grace.

When we take time from our knowing and doing to ‘be’ we submit our spirit to the Spirit of God. We make room to experience the Holy as we listen for the still, small voice.

The voice of being.

What an Entry!

large_the-problem-of-palm-sundayWhen it comes to early April in Michigan, today is a perfect springtime Saturday. Sixty degrees with clear skies is a gift to be relished. Such days beckon many to scour garages and sheds seeking gloves, rakes, yard bags, and pruning shears.

As buds and bulbs re-activate, tomorrow begins a week of death. A time of remembering when Hope was pierced by thorns, hung with iron, and sealed with stone. But before we thumb to week’s end, let’s dwell in chapter one. Let’s celebrate a King in royal procession on branches of palm.

In preparation for Palm Sunday, I return to an excerpt from my March 26, 2015 post titled “Colt Rider.”

—————

[It was] the arrival of a King, marked indelibly on history’s pages with hoof-crushed palm fronds. Wobbling with the jagged tempo of his bare-backed donkey, fanatic accolades bombarded Him: “Hosanna! Messiah! Deliver us! Lead us into freedom’s peace! Usher in your prosperous reign!”

Immersed in His passion, the Rider acknowledged their good and right desire, well aware that days later these same mouths would erupt with rage-filled screams of “Crucify!”

Like them, we can be fickle rebels. Hapless self-seekers, unsatisfied in our quest to satiate our longings. Toiling in a barren sin-winter we are worn, feeble, sick, and lame. We long for the rejuvenation of springtime. A fresh breath for our soul.

Mark Buchanan writes, “Springtime brings the consolation of hope.” (Spiritual Rhythm, p.84) A hope not for new blooms and warm breezes, but the surety of an ever-fresh springtime of heart. A glorious hope embodied by the colt-riding man from Nazareth. The Lord of spring, King Jesus.

And they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it, and he sat on it. And many spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut from the fields. And those who went before and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!”
Mark 11:7–10, ESV

 

No Ordinary Days

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December 7, 1941. October 31, 1517. March 7, 1965. September 11, 2001.

Life-changing disruptions.

Two thousand years ago, disruption occurred on a hillside in Palestine. A magnificent, angelic disruption witnessed by just a few shepherds. Old men and young, settled into their nighttime routine of protecting their flock from predators and thieves. Each took a turn watching while the others refreshed with sleep. It was a routine they’d been doing for generations.

Like the shepherds, we all have routines. Some are prescribed, like school and work. For the youngest, it’s the sustaining cycles of eating and sleeping. Every day we journey through the hours, listening and learning, working and earning, healing and resting. At times the demands on our schedules are relentless, whether they be enjoyable, painful, or simply necessary. We’re pulled toward a harried state of living, sorting through a steady flow of requests and activities. In such busyness, days blur together dulling our sense of the unfolding story. An unimaginable story of rescue and hope.

It’s the same story heralded by an army of angels to those hillside shepherds. It’s the story of Zechariah, Elizabeth, and their son John. It’s the story of Mary and Joseph. It’s the story of God — and we each have a part in it. The story is ours.

But sometimes we need reminding. A providential disruption that jolts us from our plodding. Few of us like being sideswiped by the unexpected. But those moments force us to pause. Reconsider. Ponder. Pray.

To ask questions: Why do I do what I do? What am I striving toward? Who and what do I really care about? Who’s story am I living in: God’s, or mine?

It’s unlikely we’ll receive a disruption of singing angels. Still, as followers of Jesus we must be mindful that day-after-day God is working out His story of redemption. And because that’s true, today is not just another day. Our lives are not a series of monotonous routines. In God’s story, every day is extraordinary! Every moment a grace-filled gift from our Father in Heaven. Through our routines of Algebra homework, piano recitals, soccer practice, diaper changes, health issues, car repairs, and boardroom presentations, we have the privilege to live within God’s narrative. To be busy about His work. To praise and worship through every calendar event knowing we’re ambassadors for Jesus.

This day — and every day — we have reason to sing with the angels, “Glory to God in the Highest!” In expected, surprising, wonderful, and tragic circumstances, we can dwell in peace because Messiah has come. We can knit together a non-stop chorus of praise from all our activity because each moment is governed by Him.

Jesus is writing Salvation’s story. It’s His story — and ours. And there’s nothing routine about that!

~ Advent Prayer of Praise ~

King of Kings,
Lord of the Angels  —

Your Holiness calls us to worship;.
with justice and mercy you lead us to love.

On wisps of praise our affections rise,
a soulful song of gladness and joy.