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)

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.

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.

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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.