Listen to This

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)

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)


Looney Tunes

I’m a Looney Tunes product. As a child I received moderate doses of Bugs, Daffy, Elmer, Foghorn and the gang. My introduction to slapstick comedy, teasing and harmless explosions came through such animated friends. To balance things out (and comfort my parents) I must add that I received my introduction to classical music through Bugs Bunny’s marvelous rendition of “The Barber of Seville”. Epic!

One cartoon I did not enjoy was Road Runner. I didn’t get it. A bird. A coyote. A chase. Same plot. Same conclusion. Insanity can be defined as doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results. That would make Wile E. Coyote the poster toon for insane behavior.

As an overachiever, I stressed watching Wile E. I admired his perseverance, but cringed at his ineptitude. The non-stop scenes of failure weren’t funny – they were depressing. At some point the poor critter needed to taste success (and some Road Runner).

Despite my animation frustration, I’ve had a curious reminiscing of Wile E. this week. No, I haven’t developed an affinity for desert fowl or crafting clever traps loaded with birdseed. The helpless Wile E. is stirring reflection on my own frustration and helplessness.

Reflection came through the replaying of scenes where Wile E. was suspended, mid-air, a thousand feet above the canyon floor. Floating in no man’s land, contemplating yet another failure. As Road Runner sticks out his tongue and “beep-beeps” away, Wile E. is left dangling. Blinking. Questioning. Pleading. Then plummeting.

Recently, I’ve felt a bit like Wile E. I’ve had an anxious, suspended-out-over-the-canyon type of feeling. Like Wile E., I poke my toes below me hoping to find more than air. My mind races through a dozen scenarios as I hover. My stomach churns with fret, regret and presumption. My eyes blink with muted expectation. I drift. I wonder. I swallow hard. I sigh.

That suspended state engenders emotional fragility. Vulnerability. I teeter precariously on the brink of free falling – and not the kind of “free fallin’” Tom Petty sings about. Like Wile E., I often resign to holding-up a pitiful sign that says, “Help?”

As I reached for a pencil to scrawl another “Help?” placard this week, I’ve was nudged away from resignation to conversation. I’ve had this conversation before, but this time it was fuller and slower. It was a dialogue that fostered a richer relating. It carried me beyond a short-sighted distress call as God has presented Himself steady, strong and available.

As God and I conversed, He revealed (again) that in the midst of my thinking, dreaming, scheming and worrying I must talk with Him. I need to pray. When I experience the butter-flied stomach of mid-air suspension, I must stop. Drop the “Help?” sign, and grab His hand. He suspends me to get my attention. Then He holds me so I know He’s there. Then we talk so that I might learn, trust and love.

As I’ve gingerly settled into God’s grasp afresh, my desire for divine conversing has rejuvenated. E.M. Bounds said, “No amount of praying, done today, will suffice for tomorrow’s praying.” Today is today. Today is not tomorrow. Profoundly simple. But this simplicity arrests my cycle of fruitless effort. It conserves energy spent on worry and selfish maneuvering. Prayer today – for today – opens the door to peaceful rest. It steadies the chaos. It brings clarity through a wider view of life. It sharpens perspective on the supposed urgency of this moment.

So, when I’m feeling a “Wile E.” moment, I’m learning to trust that I’m not left to free-fall. I don’t need to surrender to scribbling hopeless “Help?” signs. God is there. Watching. Waiting. Ready – to talk. To not enter the conversation would be looney.

Audacious Prayer

The Sears Catalog. I don’t know if they still print them, but those catalogs are enshrined in my childhood hall of fame. I spent hours each November and December pouring over the toy section. Paper and pencil on my right, catalog on my left. I flipped the pages back and forth, first scanning then scrawling product codes and page numbers as I crafted my Christmas wish list. Cheered-on by colorful images that screamed “buy me!” my list expressed my deepest desires to my parents and the mysterious Santa.

Those catalog memories came back to me this week. That’s because I’ve been thinking a lot about my desires, and God’s desires. Over the past few months there’s been a steady tightening of tension between God and me. A tension over what I want versus God’s plan. The awful realities of life have hit me fresh and taunted my faith. Sickness. Disease. Disappointment. Frustration. All cursed guests that squeeze from me either a humble brokenness or prideful bitterness.

So I’ve been talking to God, and He to me, about this convergence of human and divine desire. What I’ve been hearing from Him has upset my prayer life. More truthfully, it has upturned everything and knocked me backward.

God made it clear I was to stop the lip service prayers. Put an end to the shallowness. Be done with compulsion and manipulation. Don’t pray from a position of guilt or qualify successful by result. Pray expectantly. Fervently. Hopefully. Express to Me the cries of your heart. Give wide berth to the trap of fatalism – the “come what may” attitude. Tell me what you really want; what you really feel.

I had no rebuttal.

Richard Sibbes said, “It is atheism to pray and not to wait in hope.” Ashamedly, I’m sometimes guilty of slipping into dutiful but empty prayers. Joyless, task-list praying. Prayers offered because I have to, not because I get to. Such praying reflects unbelief in God’s character and capability. A disrespect of His holiness. A subtle form of atheism. God knows it, and He called me out.

A bit rattled by my holy reprimand, I went through some introspection: how do I express my desires with expectancy? How do I rally my hopes beyond reason? What if my desires are unreasonable, unrealistic or unlikely: should I still express them? If God has already determined the outcome, is it still worth the effort to express the yearnings of my soul? To lay my heart bare and vulnerable? To ask for the miracle?

Then I heard, “Absolutely!”

Victor Frankl suggests, “Sell your cleverness and purchase bewilderment instead.” When I think about the desire expressed in my childhood Christmas lists, and now the lists crafted by my children, there is little cleverness. Wish lists are pure bewilderment. Great expectations and audacious requests. Requests made even when fulfillment is unlikely. Hope and desire live through such requests. And in the requesting are expressions of the heart that give opportunity for relationship to grow and ripen.

I believe that’s what God wants from my prayers: big, bold, audacious requests. Prayer laden with my greatest hopes and craziest dreams shot straight from the pain of life’s brokenness. A conversation where my desires mingle with His. There’s still tension, but it’s a healthy tension blanketed by joy between the Creator and his child as they delight in their open and honest relating.

So with the Spirit’s help I’m working toward a bolder humility to express my desires. To “approach the throne of grace with confidence” (Heb 4:16). A confidence heavily coated with hope-filled bewilderment to petition for mercies that might be unreasonable, ridiculous or miraculous. Audacious at times. But I know God can handle it.