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!

Version 3
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)

 

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.