Listen to This

seeing-shepherds-ii-daniel-bonnell
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…

IMG_0852
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

angels-shepherds

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.

Shake the World

Version 2
Have you ever been disappointed? Expected one thing but experienced another? A “no” instead of “yes.” A sub-par test score. A Christmas sweater instead of a super hero t-shirt from grandma. None of us can avoid moments of disappointment.

In the Bible is a story about a man who experienced disappointment. Big time. How? Well, it started when he asked a girl to be his wife. She said “yes” and his dreams took flight. He starting making plans. Building a house. Saving some cash. Then boom — everything changed.

That man, Joseph, landed in a tough spot. Mary, his bride-to-be, became pregnant in a miraculous way with a special baby. Whoa! So much for Joseph’s plans. He went from excitement to confusion. Gladness to fear. This tricky situation was not what Joseph expected. How would he respond?

Joseph had to face this question: What do I do when I don’t get what I want?

Good question. Sometimes disappointment leads to anger or sadness. We might be tempted toward revenge. Or we may choose to withdraw and protect ourselves from more pain.

What did Joseph do?

After receiving encouragement from God in a dream, he acted with courageous obedience. He laid aside his fear and trusted God’s good plan for himself, Mary, and the baby Jesus. Joseph chose to protect Mary, shielding her from nasty rumors and public shame. He offered her relational security by honoring his promise of marriage. Joseph faced his disappointments, then chose love. Joseph was an agent of redemption.

When disappointment disrupts our expectations, a Joseph kind of response isn’t easy. But it is possible. In fact, behaving like Joseph is our calling as Jesus followers. The Apostle John says we are to be like Jesus — giving up everything for the good of others. (1 John 3:16) We have the privilege to be protectors of people. To care for the physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being of those around us. To love what’s not lovable. To be uncomfortable and displaced. To walk through valleys of grief. To stoop and serve so that others might flourish.

“The life that intends to be wholly obedient, wholly submissive, wholly listening, is astonishing in its completeness. Its joys are ravishing, its peace profound, its humility the deepest, its power world-shaking, its love enveloping, its simplicity that of a trusting child.” (Thomas R. Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, p.28) Joseph lived this kind of whole-hearted life as the earthly father of Jesus. He was a strong, protective, life-giving presence for his family.

As we interact in our families, schools, places of work, and various communities, lets be agents of redemption. Power-packed, Gospel-centered protectors of all people. Together, let’s shake the world with the beauty of the Gospel!

~ Advent Prayer of Protection ~

Father God,

Our Strong Creator  —

Your touch meets the edge of the heavens;
with Sovereignty’s rhythm the universe hums.

Absorb our fears in your jealous love,
and expand our souls to care for the other.

Wonderful Dirt

Every day we look at it. Walk on it. Spend hours removing it from floors, windows, cars, and clothing. Its inescapable and everywhere.

dsc_2516
Dirt.

Dirt is a gift. Truly. A wonderful life-giving mixture of minerals, moisture, and dead things. From dirt come shade trees and vegetables. Bricks and glass. Pigments and pottery. Dirt really is quite amazing. Our lives depend on it! But when it’s where we don’t want it, we might overlook dirt as a kind provision from God.

Long ago, God provided in a different way. It came through a person. Her name was Mary.

Mary and her “man-to-be” Joseph had big plans. Marriage plans. Perhaps a family — in time. He’d work as a skilled tradesman. She would foster relationships at home and in the community. Together they envisioned a simple and happy life in the community of Nazareth. A life dependent on God for their day-to-day needs.

And God did provide for Mary and Joseph. But it was shocking and scandalous.

In the midst of their premarital plans, God disrupted everything. (Luke 1:26-38) In His perfect goodness, God chose for Redemption to come alive in a small village through this hard-working man and obedient young woman. An innocent couple filled with great expectations unexpectedly became parents to the Messiah.

Mary and Joseph have a spectacular story. Through their humble submission, God provided for all of us. It began in an instant with the words of an angel and the power of the Spirit. An eternal act of mercy granted by Jehovah-Jireh, our Provider.

As it was then, so it is now. God’s provision enfolds our every moment. A steady stream of grace flows through our triumphs and tragedies. An outpouring of divine love. As we ponder the countless ways that God provides, Thomas Merton calls us to gratitude:

“To be grateful is to recognize the Love of God in everything He has given us — and He has given us everything. Every breath we draw is a gift of His love, every moment of existence is a grace, for it brings with it immense graces from Him. Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise of the goodness of God. For the grateful man knows that God is good, not by hearsay but by experience. And that is what makes all the difference.” (Thoughts in Solitude, p. 33)

Jesus has given us everything so that we can be part of His story, just like Mary and Joseph. And every day, as we live in that story, we have the opportunity to receive God’s provision and pass it along. The provision we offer may be a word of encouragement, shoveling snow for a neighbor, or taking a walk with grandma. Sometimes it’s simply holding a hand in silence. Many are the ways we can provide love and care to others.

As we wait and prepare for the celebration of Christmas, may we praise God for His seen and unseen provision, striving to be grateful for all things — even dirt.

~ Advent Prayer of Provision ~

Jehovah-Jireh,
Faithful Provider —

Your Kindness is the pulse of life;
we dwell within your generous love.

Unveil our eyes to Your abundance,
and plant in us contentment’s seed.

The Waiting Game

We all play this game from time-to-time. It blends strategy with chance and careful observation. The goal: choose the line with the shortest wait time.

waiting

Players consider the variables of cart load, line length, and cashier speediness. Self-scan lanes are wild cards. In the end, all must pay and pass through the gateway to parking lot freedom.

More than a game, the store checkout line is one of our waiting realities. Waiting is a part of every day for everyone. We wait for birthdays and summertime. For class to end and a table at restaurants. We wait for cakes to bake and mosquito bites to stop itching. With all of the ways we wait, have you ever waited 400 years?

Back in ancient Israel, God used prophets as His human spokespersons to instruct, challenge and remind the people of His truth and love. It was a way of making His presence known. But for a very long time – about 400 years – there were no prophets. God was silent. So the people waited.

In the Bible we read about a man and a woman living at the end of those 400 years: Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:1-25). Zechariah was a Jewish priest. A man dedicated to serving God. For many years, he and his wife Elizabeth prayed, asking God to bless them with children. They asked — and waited. They asked again. And waited. For decades they asked and waited. But no children.

How do you think Zechariah and Elizabeth responded in their waiting? It’s reasonable to think they experienced seasons of discouragement. Did God really care about their disappointment and pain? Maybe they wondered if God was hearing their prayers? Why wouldn’t He bless them with children?

Not getting what we want can influence what we think, say, and do. How did Zechariah and Elizabeth handle their waiting? The Bible says they served God. They loved their family, friends, and neighbors. God calls them “blameless” in their living. Zechariah and Elizabeth showed us how to wait well.

If you read the rest of their story, you’ll discover that God broke His silence and granted their request. All along He was preparing Zechariah and Elizabeth for a very special child. A child who would signal the fulfillment of a promise made to Adam and Eve way back at the beginning. The promise of Jesus.

In our waiting — when we must dwell in the quiet of the unresolved — we aren’t stuck, hopeless, or unloved. God is with us in our waiting. So whether happy, frustrated, excited, or confused we should strive to live rightly. To honor God with our thoughts, words, attitudes, and actions. To prepare ourselves to receive God’s good plan for us — with gratitude.

Advent is upon us. A season of preparation and waiting. We wait for the return of Jesus Christ when all will be set right and made new. We prepare for that time by seeking justice, acting with mercy, and relating with humility. A steady rhythm of faithful obedience as we submit to the care of our Father and the unfolding of His “right on time” story. Just like Zechariah and Elizabeth.

~ Advent Prayer of Preparation ~

God Almighty,
Keeper of Promise —

Touch our lips with Mercy’s salve;
knead our hearts with Spirited grace.

Inject our minds with Heavenly vision,
and settle our souls with assured expectation.

Act Two

A human life delivered
extraordinarily into the ordinary.
A curious entrance.

Like a single grain of silica on a sandy shore.
Familiar yet undistinguished.
Unremarkable but unmistakable.

God — we anticipated more, really.
A powerful show.
A victor’s parade.

You know we love celebrity.
We wanted to cheer and party and flaunt.
This is about us, isn’t it?

No doubt, we resist your directing this cosmic drama.
Right from the start we sabotaged the script.
Act one was a diabolical mess.

But this show must go on — You promised.

So You opened Act Two with your Son, wrapped in humility’s cloak.
Crowded out of comfort, He greeted his world with wordless screams.
An omnipotent, infant voice at which beast and brush shiver with joyful resonance.

Parental eyes, innocent and expectant, lock upon divinity’s gaze.
So ordinary, normal, loud, and messy — like them.
Another grain of sand on the beach of humanity?

No.
Read the script.

This child is living, breathing prophecy.
The Word who word fulfilled.
Our story’s Hero.

Scandalous.
Mysterious.
Miraculous.

Jesus.

Our Child

His was an epic submission to a radical promise. A cosmic exchange: the pleasures of paradise for life as a humble earth dweller. Glory for Golgotha. Life for lives.

Eternity’s Son, He was divinely conceived and prophetically birthed.

What child is this who, laid to rest,
on Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
while shepherds watch are keeping?*

Announced by angelic flash mob was that Child. The Child. Our Child. Heaven’s merciful endowment, brought into real-time through a scandalous duo. Obedient outcasts, forced to hold quarters with beasts in a stable.

Why lies he in such mean estate
where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, fear, for sinners here
the silent Word is pleading.*

Mary’s lap nestled the infinite, incomparable Word. Salvation in infant form. Our righteous rescue. Our holy advocate. His glad desire was to deliver an explosive, sufficient, ever-fresh but unrepeatable expression of selfless love.

So bring him incense, gold, and myrrh,
come, peasant, king, to own him;
the King of kings salvation brings,
let loving hearts enthrone him.*

This, this is Christ the King,
whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
haste, haste to bring him laud,
the babe, the son of Mary.*

Babe. Then boy. Then man. But always King.

What Child is this?

Jesus. 

The God-Man baby of Christmas who humbled himself to be our humiliation. Who experienced humanity’s worst so that we might taste glory. Who set aside everything to make something of our nothing. Our Messiah.

May we never cease to laud His immeasurable worth.

*Lyrics from the hymn, “What Child is This?”