Looking Back to Go Forward

 

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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:

Young Oceans – This Wild Earth
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uTSh1Amkwx0

truth?

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Photo by Bruno van der Kraan on Unsplash

truth?

Rest is elusive
and peace cannot dwell
when we’re talking
and tweeting
and posting
and bleating
a quarrellous scream.

We harvest ideas
from virtual fields
to build
a babel-ing tower
of sentiments
that affirm
our resentments
and longing
to simply be right

as if rightness
should be our only aim.

In our machinations
and divinations
and proclamations
we castigate
and assassinate
the image of Him
presented in skin
from dark to light

while lighting a path
for the wayward
with truths that adhere us
to myths of our making
and barter
Truth’s freedom
for power

neglecting
the power
of Love.

Fight for Joy!

Photo by Zachary Nelson on Unsplash

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?

Excellent questions.

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.

Food Democracy

Long ago those miniature, plastic-coated spoons disappeared from our home. They accompanied the gnawed sippy cups and Bob the Builder plates that were sent for recycling. It has been a while since my wife and I battled a toddler’s will against ingesting liquified carrots, spaghetti, squash, pears, chicken-n-dumplings, and other assorted glass-jarred baby foods. In their first days of semi-solids, our children did not hesitate to express their preference for specific types, textures, and flavors of food.

Those preferences continue but have matured to include philosophical and ethical considerations. Instead of struggling through a preference for Apple Blueberry over Sweet Potato, food is chosen by convictions about organic, processed, vegetarian, local, free-range, fair trade, and all-natural characteristics. Even so, my family’s passion for fulfilling their dietary needs is no less intense than when pulverized peas were ejected in a moment of disapproval.

As I’ve watched these convictions develop, I’m surprised by my push-back on beliefs that differ from mine. When I find them unreasonable, confusing, altruistic, or unbalanced I respond with an exasperated rebuttal through a raised voice. I’ve been cynical, skeptical, and grumpy. I’ve balked at purchasing foods that cost more, smell funny, or crowd-out my preferred choices in the pantry. A fan of simplicity, my reserve of patience runs low when I’m required to prepare different meals to accommodate convictions I don’t agree with.

While diversity makes our lives interesting, it can also bring conflict. In my previous post, I mentioned my affinity for solitude and contentment with quiet, peaceful spaces. That independence affords me a measure of control over my circumstances. I can manage and even steer clear of volatile issues as I protect myself from having to reconcile my own convictions with others.

Yet, consistent isolation or cloistering with like-minded people can foster attitudes of justified self-centeredness. Howard Thurman, African-American theologian, philosopher, educator, and civil rights leader said, “All men belong to each other, and he who shuts himself away diminishes himself, and he who shuts another away from him destroys himself.” (The Search for Common Ground, 104) Does Thurman’s proposition apply to the food fights in my household? Absolutely. If I willingly shut-down or fortify myself against different ideas, beliefs, and behaviors I risk not only stunting my development but limiting the quality of my relationships.

When I find myself experiencing repeated frustration, negative emotion, stereotyping or making assumptions, I’ve given my desires inappropriate priority. I’ve allowed my convictions to corrupt my relationships. Henri Nouwen said, “Our human relationships easily become subject to violence and destruction when we treat our own and other people’s lives as properties to be defended or conquered and not as gifts to be received.” (Reaching Out, 119) My goal should not be to convert critics or overpower dissenting voices. To get vegetarians to eat meat or Ford owners to drive Chevys. Those aims can lead to frustration, misunderstanding, and division. As a believer in Jesus, my behavior is to support a peaceful unity. I’m to do justice, love kindness, and be humble. This does not mean I jettison my convictions. Nor should it imply that I be silent when I disagree. To the contrary, I should engage, speak, and advocate.

The Apostle John noted that Jesus came “full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) Notice the order: grace then truth. The grace our Lord gifts to us should inform our interactions and relationships. We should be kind and hospitable, listening first to understand. We should not fail to offer dignity and respect to everyone, allowing for disagreement while not maligning or disparaging one another. In short, we should love each other.

In the past few years I’ve learned a lot about food. I’m grateful to be led by my children into a new stewardship of my food consumption. Beyond food, I’m seeking to assume a humble, grace-filled, listening posture that promotes dialogue and relationship. I’m praying for strength to hold my convictions while being kind to those who think differently. I’m asking the Spirit for a holy courage to speak with gentleness.

In this third week of Advent, as we continue to ponder our “doing” (week 1) while being diligent with our togetherness (week 2), lets also consider our words, thoughts, attitudes, and actions. Are we advocates and unifiers? Does the grace of Christ pervade our interactions even as we stand firm in our convictions? From peas to politics, how we relate to one another is an indicator of what we think about God.

A Prayer for Unity
Heavenly Father, Obedient Son, Comforting Spirit —
Unified in divine diversity;
Temper our spirits with grace and truth,
and quicken our love toward peace-filled community.

So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.
(Galatians 6:10, ESV)

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)