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)

Be

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Just ‘be.’

I’ve heard that suggestion many times, particularly when I’m tangled in too much ‘doing.’ Yet beyond knowing that I’m a human ‘being’ and can ‘be’ in a place, what does it mean to ‘be’ (or not)?

I doubt that ‘being’ is dispassionate bobbing on the swells of circumstance. In a word, chillin’. Neither is it a numbed state of empty contemplation. Grammatically, the state of being is active. Participatory. Alive!

So as I ponder a ‘being’ state, I envision an intra-personal dialogue. A thoughtful exchange in the space of my soul. No, this is not me hearing voices, but carefully talking myself through the whole of who I am. A courageous exploration of my place — past, present, and future.

To sit with oneself — to be — is to acknowledge and feel. To laugh and grieve and hope. To face and embrace what’s true while rejecting what’s not. In our ‘being’ we release our pain and reject its grip. We sift our failures for seeds of wisdom to plant in our garden of grace.

When we take time from our knowing and doing to ‘be’ we submit our spirit to the Spirit of God. We make room to experience the Holy as we listen for the still, small voice.

The voice of being.

The Lunch Lake Challenge

Lunch Lake – Gros Ventre Wilderness, Wyoming

This year my July 4th celebrations were light on fireworks, grilled meat, and sunburn. Instead, at 7am on the day of our nation’s birth, I willingly embarked upon a 26-hour ride to Jackson, Wyoming. This cumbersome, but necessary travel was the starting point of a nine-day backpacking adventure in the Gros Ventre Wilderness. That experience, which I shared with one of my sons and four other fathers plus their sons, was spectacular. It was an expedition ripe with physical, emotional, and spiritual challenge.

For example, first day on the trail I met an acquaintance from 14 years ago — Mr. Altitude Sickness. Like our last meeting, he gut-punched me for 18 hours straight. Physical challenge? Check.

With that ominous beginning, I was a bit unsettled. My personal sea had waves building. And then it roiled when we pursued a shortcut that wasn’t, had water filters that didn’t, and marched naively into mosquito hordes strangely similar to the zombies of World War Z. With an emotional tsunami cresting, I had to call upon my small reserve of positivity, desperate to keep my self-talk 51% free of grumbling, complaining, and murmuring.

Was there any room left for spiritual growth? Of course. The physical and emotional struggles were simply setting the stage. Loosening me up. Tenderizing my heart. So on day three, when I was ready to listen to my Father in Heaven, what he confronted me with was surprising.

God challenged me to rest.

Not rest from hiking or noisome, blood-sucking insects. Rather, a break from the routine. An intentional pause. A time to reflect, regroup, and re-create.

Sure, I desire rest. Yet it’s conspicuously absent from my schedule. Why? Good question. Neither my job nor my kids nor a long list of projects prevent me from a time-out. So what does?

Me.

I’m my biggest obstacle to rest. At times my choice to crowd out a day-off dips into the realm of disobedience. God has told us the best way to live — a day to refresh for every six of work. That rhythm is good. Good enough for God, even. So in His providence, God took me out of my routine via a backwoods adventure to show me my unbalanced life. He spoke with gracious firmness about my need to regularly stop, take a break, and refresh.

So I got busy at resting. Right there, at 9220 feet alongside a lake filled with snowmelt. A lake named Lunch, that provided a bounteous feast of relaxing, restful moments. Moments of joyful wonder at the creativity of my Creator.

The poem below got it’s start during those too-short hours spent in restful recreation at Lunch Lake.

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Lunch Lake

Stop.

An alpine oasis.

Rest, and dwell.

Skies of peacock blue,
blemished sporadically by orphaned tangles of cumulus moisture.
An ocular playground.

Heat, cool, repeat.
Mountain-fed convective gusts ripple-away the lake’s placidity.
Translucent water blushes to turquoise in its excitation.
Cold water.
No, frigid.

Winter snows yet taunt old Sol, King of July,
wringing existence from every sheltered and shadowy recess.
Triangle and Darwin Peak
(normal and ironic namesakes) preside authoritatively.
Fields of shale skirt the majestic up-risers,
a harsh and appropriate adornment.

Flowers.
Tenderness cohabiting with ruggedness.
Fire orange clusters.
Yellows — bright and pale.
Purple spires and delicate bells.
Five-petaled phlox,
creeping with spring-fresh whiteness.
Sedum, azalea, and Daisy-like forms.
All anxious start-ups,
desperate to live, die, and live again —
they hope.

Waterfowl — him and her —
the lake’s ruling royals.
With graceful precision they turn an ancient dance,
a tense but trusted interplay.
Air, water, air.
Distant then close.
Aloof then intimate.
Disagreement.
An audible burst resets the hierarchy.
They glide with majesty, paddling with purpose —
together.

Sunset orange and thundercloud gray,
resilient lichen thrive on rock-faced scarcity.
A silver-dusted green-colored cousin nestles among familial associations
completing a calico palette.

Sage brush,
gnarled and dry,
scraper of legs,
sprinkled like powdered sugar upon un-forested landscape.

Evergreen.
Everywhere.
Rod-straight. Leaning. Scorched. Dead. Cone-laden.
The wind presses densely needled, short-armed limbs,
affecting an undulating swell through the coniferous community.
Toneless, peaceful waves of mollifying noise traverse hilly contours,
compliant to the wind’s irresistible agenda.

Active in rest.
Re-creating in the created.
A happy voyeur,
I sit.