Images: Jesus before Herod

Jesus before Herod, afternoon in the summer of 2018
Jesus before Herod, afternoon in the summer of 2018
Jesus before Herod, in the morning of Spring 2018
Jesus before Herod, in the morning of Spring 2018
Jesus before Herod in the winter of 2018
Jesus before Herod, in the fall of 2017
Jesus before Herod, in the fall of 2017
Jesus before Herod in the summer of 2017

Upcoming Days: “Visio Divina”

Friends, I am preparing for the fourteen days before Good Friday. Starting Friday, April 5th, at noon, a post will automatically come up every day until Good Friday.

The pictures were taken on the walking stations of the cross outside the Family Life Center at the Malvern Retreat House in Malvern, Pennsylvania. The artist was Timothy Schmaltz, although my understanding is that Mr. Schmaltz did not have his name listed on the monuments. His work was to honor God and not his own talents (which are considerable).

The pictures were taken throughout a year in all four seasons. I find that contemplating the images throughout the year led me to different places in different seasons. The cold of snow in winter affected the way I saw the scenes as much as the heat (and vibrant) greens of summer.

I’m posting the pictures for those of us who find depth in contemplation. I appreciate that all of the statuary was done in black metal, which allows people of all sorts to contemplate the imagery. I do not believe it is cast-iron, but there is something relatable about seeing an image cast in something you can find in my kitchen (like a dutch oven) instead of something I only see in places of power and influence like marble.

I hope the posting of these images help lead you to a place of contemplation as we approach the cross. Blessings to you.

Kitchen Experiment: Tofu Sandwich

One of the classical challenges of Lent is the idea of going without meat and chicken on Fridays. Traditionally, this meant eating fish, but with the advent of more readily available alternatives, tofu is an interesting option.

Today I needed to feed my daughter and I lunch as she was home from the sitter’s house throughout the workday. She hung out on my back during office hours as I worked at my walking desk, but still needed to eat. I decided today would be as good a day as any to experiment with a tofu sandwich. I thought about my favorite flavors, looked through our appliances, and tried out a maple and cheese tofu panini!

The first thing I did was to slice the tofu in half lengthwise after pressing the excess water out of the tofu. I spread some maple syrup, smoked black pepper, and salt into a glass container. I then placed the tofu into the container and repeated the process overtop the tofu. Spoiler alert: I should have cut the tofu in fourths as the sandwich ended up being very squishy.

After the tofu marinated for about half an hour, I preheated my panini grill until it was ready to cook a sandwich. I placed the tofu into the press and left it in the press for about six minutes. I like the edges a bit crispy, so I stopped the press here. As my panini maker tends to be warmer on the top, I should have left the bottom to cook a bit longer.

After the tofu was prepared, I placed some multigrain bread with cheese onto the grill, placed the tofu onto the bread, and topped the tofu with bread before cooking it around three minutes. As you can see, the tofu should have been quartered instead of halved.

Verdict? The kiddo gobbled down all of her lunch quickly. I enjoyed mine, but struggled with the thickness of the tofu. Next time I will likely quarter the tofu and add a few drops of tabasco to the marinade to make the taste a bit more complex. I also think cheddar may have been the wrong flavor cheese. Something a bit more neutral or even in the opposite directions with herbs would have been interesting.

How are all of you fasting folks doing this Lent? Any good recipes you want to share? Any constructive or positive comments on my methodology?

Remembering Rest

Yesterday was a stressful day. I am in Syracuse attending Launchpad, which trains folks in strategies to help start new ministries. The day was very full and my brain was fried by the time we broke for dinner. My wife, our friend, and I tried to talk about what we thought over Indian, but it quickly devolved into story time.

As I rested for the evening in the room my wife and I were sharing, I took time to unwind with a few books I am reading. I was reading through a few books including the book I have been reading on the sabbath by Rev. Wayne Muller called “Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in our Busy Lives.” A quote stuck out to me from page 37.

“The ancient rabbis teach that on the seventh day, God created menuha—tranquility, peace, and repose—rest, in the deepest possible sense of fertile, healing stillness. Until the Sabbath, creation was unfinished. Only after the birth of menuha, only with tranquility and rest, was the circle of creation made full and complete.”

Rev. Wayne Muller, “Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in our Busy Lives,” pg. 37.

Last night I was filled with ideas. To be honest, they were burgeoning on burning out my brain. I slowed down, took a moment to breathe, and realized there was wisdom in these words. I was tired, I was exhausted, and I had been breathing in new thoughts, new ideas, and new “creations” in my brain all day. It was only in slowing down to exhale, to rest, and find peace that I found balance.

Sabbath in the Christian tradition has generally been relegated to one day of the week. In modern culture, even the Sabbath is a day when we fill time with stuff and things.

Sometimes it is important to remember that God created something beautiful in Sabbath. We all need moments of rest, repose, and restoration. To believe such things can only be needed on a single day of the week is to miss something true.

It is not an accident what follows when Paul writes to the church and encourages it to not be anxious about anything, but to present their concerns to God with praise and thanksgiving. The people are told that the peace of God will guard their hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Something like that blessed creation of Sabbath that finishes the seven days of creation fills and guards hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7)

Are you stressed out today? Have you taken moments to rest? Have you breathed out and given over your worries and requests to God? Sometimes anxiety is a medical condition which requires help, sometimes it takes works to let go of the stressful things in our lives, but is there a chance that taking a moment of Sabbath rest might be what your heart and soul needs?

If you do not know what that might look like, here are a few practical suggestions:

  • Stop to breathe. Mr. Muller suggests this practice in his book. The people we met through the Academy for Spiritual Formation from the Minnesota Institute for Contemplation and Healing also suggested the value of breathing for entering a more peaceful state.
  • Take time to journal in a quiet place. Ask yourself simple questions. Where have I seen God this week? Where have I found places of peace in the past?
  • Sit quietly for a while. Do not rush this one by assuming a day is the best place to begin. Five minutes might be all you can handle at first. Work your way into silence regularly and see how it affects you.

Hungry Kyoka

"Dad, I am hungry!"
"Hi hungry! I am your dad!"
I laugh at her sigh.
I turn with my warmest smile
And look in an empty fridge.

“Hungry Kyoka” The Distracted Pastor, 2019

I wanted to share this kyoka this morning for a simple reason. A kyoka is a form of poetry in which the profane or mundane is placed into a poetic form. For some people “Dad jokes” are profanely terrible. For other folks family conversations in a kitchen are commonplace.

For me, what is profane is neither the bad humor nor the commonality of the situation. What is profane is that there are many families in this world and in our community that have little or nothing in their fridges. Humor is one response to tragedy. The tragedy of families which struggle to feed their families is a profanity in a country where people regularly propose billions of dollars for a wall while families starve.

There are people in our communities who do not have enough to eat without assistance. I have performed funerals for people who have died of complications from malnourishment. Not all of those situations were from a lack of access to food, but I can tell you sometimes having nothing in the fridge leads to mental distress, spiritual crisis, and physical challenges.

Here where I live in Broome County we are blessed to have access to both the Community Hunger Outreach Warehouse (CHOW) operated by the Broome County Council of Churches and to the Food Bank of the Southern Tier which extends out from Broome County to also cover Chemung, Schuyler, Steuben, Tioga, and Tompkins counties.

Homemade bread is a blessing which requires ingredients, cooking utensils, and an oven (or campfire if courageous/desperate). Some people do not have those things.

I wanted to invite you to become involved in hunger outreach in your local context. If you are one of the people who follow this blog because you love Christian contemplation, consider how many of the saints learned the value of contemplation through action. If you are a poetry person, consider how difficult it can be to create or enjoy beautiful poetry when you are distracted by a growling stomach. Hungry has inspired many wonderful pieces of art, but I am certain it was not enjoyable. Please consider volunteering time or resources to one of these wonderful missions or a similar mission near you.

Allow me a moment to say there are many commonalities among world religions. Almost all of them point to both the value of love and the reciprocal blessing of kindness. Call it karma, the promise of the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, or by another phrase meaningful to you. It is good to show kindness to people in need.

Here are five ways to get started in helping fight hunger:

  • Pick a designated non-perishable item of the month that you use a lot of in your life. If you pick peanut butter, purchase an extra jar when it is on your grocery list. Donate it to a local food bank or food pantry.
  • Do not automatically say “No” if you live in an area where grocery stores might invite you to donate to a pantry. The Food Bank of the Southern Tier occasionally invites people to “Check out Hunger.” A similar program might be available near you.
  • If you go to church, offer to help make sure there is healthy food for times of fellowship like “Coffee Hour.” If you see a friend who looks like they might need an extra cookie, offer to get them one while you “Get a cup of coffee.” If your church is willing, find a family who might need a blessing and offer them the leftover goodies (with grace and an understanding if they say no).
  • Pay attention to your neighbors. If you know a family is going hungry, “Secret Santa” them by paying for a pizza or other food to be delivered from a local restaurant anonymously. Make sure you cover the driver’s tip so that the person is not embarrassed.
  • Call a Food Pantry, Food Bank, or Soup Kitchen. Ask what they need and volunteer what you can in time or in goods.

Wisdom and Practicality

Today I spent my afternoon with colored pencils and my copy of “Mandalas, Candles, and Prayers” by Sharon Seyfarth Garner. I am in the second week of working my way through Rev. Garner’s book. The second week of the study centers on the concept of intercessory prayer.

Today I focused on “praying for the shepherds in my life.” The timing was exceptional as I know from chatting with my District Superintendent last week that the Cabinet is meeting for their first appointive meeting this week before the gathering of the Order of Elders in Syracuse on Thursday.

As an Elder in the United Methodist Church my appointment in ministry is set by the Bishop of my Annual Conference. As I type this, my colleagues and I are being prayed over by the cabinet, so it is fitting that I would pray over them at the same moment.

My prayer was deep and centered for a good long while. I used liturgical colors of purple and red for the center of the work. In the United Methodist tradition I follow red is the color of the Holy Spirit, and it was encircled by the purple color reserved by tradition for our bishops. Planters in the shapes of hearts edged the encircling red border, again representing the Holy Spirit. Perhaps in a poor choice of colors, brown heart planters sat surrounded by golden ground with a drop of blue to water what rested within each planter.

I prayed the Cabinet would be filled with wisdom, grace, and love. I prayed the Cabinet would be practical, brave, faithful, life-giving, and protect both churches and pastors in need. It was a deep prayer experience, but I wanted to blog about it for one reason.

I was in the middle of coloring the first of my planters when my daughter came over. She was playing on the floor and was acting weird. I picked her up and suddenly the floodgates opened. She went from dry and cuddly to an utter disaster in seconds.

I was praying for wisdom. It was the first thing I hoped would fill the Cabinet with as they worked. The next thing I prayed for was that the Cabinet would be practical. It’s wise to pray. It’s wise to change a messy baby. Practicality says one needs to take priority over the other.

A quick bath for the baby delayed my prayer time. My prayer was still heartfelt. Sometimes a person needs practicality as much as they need wisdom. I pray the church has moments where it remembers the world needs more than one gifting of the Spirit. I pray that those reminders will be a bit less messy.

The first rays of Advent

Today I began one of two Advent devotionals I am undertaking this holy Advent season. I pulled out my copy of “Mandalas, Candles, and Prayer” by Rev. Sharon Seyfarth Garner. I grabbed my colored pencils, arranged my “wreath,” and tried to enter a place of stillness. There will be more on stillness and having children on another day.

Tonight, as my wife was on a conference call, I sat in front of my Advent wreath and colored a mandala while undergoing the spiritual practice of the examen. Gregorian chants played in the background as I prayed and colored.

This week’s mandala is beautiful in construction. Rev. Garner must be very well connected. As the work is under copyright, I will try to explain the design. There are four steps to the examen proposed in the book by Rev. Garner. We begin with contemplation of Emmanuel, journey into gratitude, explore areas for growth, and conclude with seeking seeds of hope for the next day.

The mandala centers on a star which stretches center to edges. I colored as I prayed about how God is with us in this season. I tried to shade the colors of my imaginary sun. I believe I attempted this because I wanted to look back tomorrow and shake my head at myself. Rev. Garner may believe everyone can color, but there is a part of me that wonders if she knew I was coming.

As I colored and prayed about my day, I examined places where I found gratitude today. I thought of relationships with friends, family members, parishioners, myself, and my calling. I went deep with the prayer. I went deeper than expected.

Take my section in what we’ll pretend was stainless steel gray. As I colored, I thought about the dinner I prepared for my family. What did it mean that Emmanuel was there as I cooked a meal? My mother died in December when I was a child. Sometimes holiday meals were “golden brown!” Was God with us as people came alongside me to show me how to use the pans in my kitchen? What did it mean that on the other side of one ray of Emmanuel there was a section where I prayed for my wife who helped me learn? What did it mean that it bordered the color of my clergy shirt over the other ray of Emmanuel? Prayer for my cooking led into prayer for one of my favorite cooking instructors on one side and for the church where I lead a study on the spirituality of baking bread on the other side. Prayer went deep.

As I prayed through the areas of growth around those blessings, I borrowed colors as areas of blessing sometimes came into conflict with other parts of myself. I prayed about how my desire for personal growth occasionally conflicted with my parenting. I grieved how my calling as a minister occasionally led to pain in my marriage as I prayed about missed dates, anniversaries postponed, and vacations shortened. I grieved how being a loving husband occasionally meant I would try to listen to a parishioner while wrestling down reactions coming from my own relationship. Prayer grew really complicated.

Suddenly, there were other colors. There were colors for places of grief where my anger caused me to make mistakes. There were places where the authority of my ordination aided in some places and damaged others. There were places where colors blended and battled. My prayers became complicated. I did not expect this to be so hard!

Suddenly, the flickers of red appeared. I’d put dots of red amid the places where I was grateful to represent the Holy Spirit. Suddenly there were red the stained glass of connectedness were brought into relationship through the Holy Spirit. Suddenly gold appeared as I noticed places where Christ the King stood in my midst and brought healing.

Suddenly I understood that some of my troubles come from not just letting one bit of me stay where it belongs instead of jamming it into another place. To be clear, I never invited my wife on a date to Church Council, but sometimes my work with church members has swallowed the dinner conversation on a date with my wife. Something healthy in one part of my life needed to stay in that one part.

Strangest of all, there were spaces that were left blank. I prayed about what it meant. Suddenly, I realized there are parts of me that I cannot see without help from others and help from God. My soul really is a kaleidoscope of strangeness and beauty.

In the coloring there was realization, contemplation, and even places of healing as I prayed. In the midst of all of this, the rays of Emmanuel poured out from Christ from the center of the season into the rest of my heart.

Around all of this were seeds of hope for tomorrow. I had expected them to all be red for the Holy Spirit, but there was gold! Christ the King claiming my tomorrow as I prayed. If I had socks on my feet at the table, they might have been blown off.

I recommended this book to church members and bought a few friends copies because it looked like it would be interesting. I may not have expected it to be so deep. It is funny how that sometimes happens. We slow down for one moment and we are suddenly caught off guard by grace. I have no idea what my mandalas will look like for the rest of the week, but I can say that my eyes are opened. This practice might be far more intense than I expected.

Preparing for Advent

I am slowly entering the season of Advent. I know that Thanksgiving is still a week away. I am aware that the first Sunday of Advent is December 2nd this year. I know that today is not even halfway into November. I am still getting ready for the season.

This Advent I am planning on working through two devotionals from Upper Room Books. One devotional I am planning on working through is “Simply Wait: Cultivating Stillness in the Season of Advent” by Pamela Hawkins. I am planning on spending time with Simply Wait in my personal devotions. Thoughts that are borne out of my time with that book will probably find a place on my blog.

Digital and Print Devotionals

I am also planning on working through “Mandalas, Candles, and Prayer: A Simply Centered Advent” by Sharon Seyfarth Garner with both my family and the Adult Sunday School class. Effectively, it is a book with a lot of coloring and prayer involved. Most of the time I spend in this book will probably end up staying with me.

I share my plan with the world for a reason. I do not intend to brag. My intention is to prepare myself for the journey ahead. I also share my plan with the world hoping someone might begin to think about how they plan to spend their Advent season. If you’re blessed enough to have the resources to get a book, now may be the time to order a book, find a book, or even find a reading plan for the season.

I grew up hearing about the five P’s of planning: Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance. Occasionally a sixth P would find her way in with the other five P’s if I was in a more informal setting (Boy Scout camping trips in the woods). As much as I do not believe in burying one’s thoughts too deeply into the future, there’s wisdom to the five P’s. If you need time to plan, this is a reminder to get ready!

The Value of Scripture

So, yesterday I posted a reflection on a verse from Psalm 57. I posted the reflection as my day had been improved by the time I spent in that psalm. I had been nervous and found comfort in that verse.

I found that verse within my morning prayers. On most days of the week, I listen to both the Morning and Evening Prayers broadcast through the internet from The Trinity Mission. I pray along with that podcast on a regular basis because it is a way I can enter into my devotions without using a set of eyes that can often become dry, irritated, and frustrating. I enjoy the time I spend listening to the scriptures and often find those prayers to be a wonderful way to start my day and a wonderful source of comfort as I rock my infant daughter to sleep in the midst of a cloud of prayer.

I often wonder if I am not clear enough in my ministry on the incredible value of regular immersion within the scriptures. On Sunday morning we do not have time to dive deeply into the scriptures and I often wonder if people think I believe that spending time in a passage or two each week is enough. Sometimes I wonder if they think those two or three small passages are all I spend my time studying each week. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I spend a lot of time in the scriptures. I do not share every passage I study, every chapter I read, or every thoughtful verse that I ponder. Like an iceberg, only a certain bit of what I spend my time studying, pondering, praying, ruminating, and reading comes to the surface. I often wonder if the analogy of a milk-cow might be fitting. The scriptures inform my ministry like the grass of a field fuels the milk that comes from the udders. Both are chewed over, digested, chewed over, digested, chewed over, digested, chewed over, and digested before coming to fruition in something to offer others.

Some of you might ask “Why go through all of that effort?” Would it be easier to just read a commentary or quote a blog? It would be easier, but the effort itself blessed others in my ministry and those who come across a person who is made better by his exposure to the wisdom of the scriptures. The scriptures and my time in them are a blessing.

Scripture is one of the primary means of revelation for the Living Word which we worship. The “Word of God” is often interpreted to be the scriptures, but the Bible is a revelation of THE WORD OF GOD revealed in Jesus Christ. It is incredibly important to spend time in the scriptures as they are one way that we have of coming to know the God of love. The more we expose ourselves prayerfully to the scriptures the more we can come to know God is ways that can affect our lives in powerfully wonderful ways. `

To be clear: The scripture is not God, but the scripture reveals God in the same way that the reflection in a mirror is not the thing itself, but a revelation of what it reflects. The scripture is an incredible tool and a wonderful means to know more about God, but the scripture is not the end goal of worship.

I found blessing and solace in Psalm 57 yesterday because I spend time in the scriptures regularly. Just as the power of the community of God grows through regular participation in the worship, service, and the rest of the life of the church, regular exposure to the scripture helps us to grow in faith, to find solace in times of need, and encouragement in times of blessing.

I recommend regularly engaging in Bible study, both together with others in community and in the lives of individuals as a wonderful and powerful means of grace! Times of study can be wonderful means to grow both personally and communally.

Let Us Ramble: On Baptismal Hope

Blessings friends. Sunday was an exciting Sunday at our church and in my own house. We celebrated worship with Rev. Dr. Marsha Williams, Associate Conference Minister of the New Conference of the United Church of Christ. We heard a powerfully thoughtful sermon on Christ’s love, shared communion, and eventually shared in a moment of sacramental beauty as my daughter was baptized. It was a holy and powerful moment as she was baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Sunday ended with memories of friends gathered, love shared, and God’s baptismal grace entering into the life of a child of God. As a parent, it was one of those moments where everything happens seemingly in a blur. Our church family has a new baptized member! What a joyful day!

Who knows where this newly baptized child of God will go? Reflecting back, I find myself drawn to reflect on “Our Time for Younger Disciples.” I shared with the children a reality. On Friday night I had sat with my friend and colleague Emily. Emily is preparing to welcome her third child into the world. She’s a woman of God who is called into ministry while living life as a mother similar to the way I am a man of God called into ministry while living life as a father. We both look like ministers although we look different, act different, and live different lives. God calls both of us and we are both children of God.

Rev. Dr. Marsha has a really cool title. She’s an Associate Conference Minister in the United Church of Christ and she has earned her doctorate. On an aside, while I do not aspire to Conference leadership in any denomination, I will admit that I want a doctorate someday. Anyway, Marsha is descended from a different part of the human family than my European roots and claims her African heritage with justifiable pride. We look very different. We’re married to two very different (but amazing) women, work out our call in different contexts, and each have our own traditions. We both look my ministers and pull portions of the same yoke for Jesus. We both look like ministers although we look different, act different, and live different lives. God calls both of us and we are both children of God.

I also shared with our younger friends that I have a friend at the Academy for Spiritual Formation named Hyunho. He’s a child of God from another completely different part of the human family who happily lives into his identity as a child with roots from South Korea. Hyunho is an Elder in the United Methodist Church like me! He is thoughtful, kind, intellectual, gracious, and kind. Hyunho has a humble and loving spirit that I long to have in my own life. His community’s practices and beliefs have inspired his approach to ministry within a cross-cultural appointment. In the midst of all of our differences, we are both called. We both look like ministers although we look different, act different, and live different lives. God calls both of us and we are both children of God.

I think back on these differences and similarities because God calls us all. The child we baptized Sunday may be called by God to be a scientist, a minister, a teacher, a nurse, or anything else. Each of the children who came forward for the children’s moment Sunday might be called to something different and strange—they will be called to believe in themselves and who they are called to be in this life! I hope our kids in church remember that God calls each of us. We are all called to be children of God—each and every one of us. I hope they live into the love of God that draws them near.

Let us Ramble: On Stillness at the Breakfast Table

I am back! Last week I spent time at the Academy for Spiritual Formation, and I do not post while at the Academy. Spending time at the Retreat House in Malvern is always a blessing for me spiritually, but I really connected with a lot of the presentations this week. In particular, I connected with several of the Eastern Orthodox practices we experimented with in combination with some breathing techniques taught by Dr. Deborah Bell from the Minnesota Institute for Contemplation and Healing.

Truthfully, I struggle mightily with anxiety at times. Coming back into the world over the weekend was especially challenging to me as returning home is a movement from contemplation and silence towards action and engagement. Today, the first school morning I was home, was really filled with anxious moments as children needed to get ready, lunches needed to be put in bags, and the baby was being particularly insistent on having her wants met in addition to her needs. What’s worst, my experiment in making goat’s milk yogurt turned out absolutely dreadful.

At first this morning I was stressed and my anxiety went up through the roof, but I stopped the cycle this morning before it ramped up. I noticed the prayer rope on my wrist and thought back to last week. Father John Mefrige gave each participant a prayer rope with fifty knots. The purpose of the prayer rope is to pray around the rope with the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”).

I stopped what I was doing, ceased acting in ways that were making getting anxious, and took a few minutes to be still. I breathed in for three seconds, held my breath for seven seconds, and breathed out for eight as we were taught by Dr. Bell. I sat up straight, breathed in (“Lord Jesus Christ”), held my breath (“Son of God”), and breathed out slowly (“Have mercy on me…”). I slowed my body, focused my mind, and slowly felt my anxiousness begin to pass out of me.

Combining the gifted teaching of both Fr. Mefrige and Dr. Bell, I found a path away from children screaming out at random, a baby who wanted to be held, and away from tense moments where I might snap out at one of the four other people in my house. In the stillness within, I found a peace to help me get through the rest of my morning, even as copiers malfunctioned, phone calls were returned, and professional mail was sent out from a very busy post office with one window.

taize-silence

A phrase Fr. Mefrige used last week keeps getting stuck in my head. Some things are essential, even if they are not mandatory. For me, this morning, it was essential that I seek to slow down, to be still, to be silent, and to come before God while making sure there was enough air to keep my body running smoothly. Nobody forced that moment of stillness into my life, but upon finding it, I was moved into a place that was far more sane and far more peaceful.

Let us Bake: Holy Smoke!

Today, I’m baking my first loaf of bread while reading through Preston Yancey’s “Out of the House of Bread: Satisfying Your Hunger for God with the Spiritual Disciplines.” I’ve already let Yancey’s words begin to affect my style of making sandwich bread for my family, but today will be the first time I intentionally set about the 6 hour process of making bread.

I have spent the last few weeks enjoying morsels from Yancey’s book, but this week we are plunging into our study, so the time has come to not only become serious about working with Yancey’s book, but to become serious about baking bread.

This week we’re working through the chapter on “Mise en Place: The Examen.” At the heart of it, mise en place is the most important part of trying a recipe. Yancey summarizes the process (in the first paragraph of the chapter) as “checking in, giving the kitchen and your abilities a once-over to confirm you are able to complete the recipe.”

As a home cook, the process is like the preflight checklist before taking off in an airplane. You might as well try to fly a jet without fuel as try to bake a loaf of bread without the ingredients. Do I have the right equipment? I experimented with trying out the mise en place on the recipe provided by Yancey Preston and realized I didn’t have two of the right bowls for letting the bread proof in the refrigerator! Either Amazon’s mistake or my own actions led to me only having one when I needed two! I had a poor substitute for one of the bowls, but I didn’t have them prepared! I looked further and realized I’d need to pull out my Dutch Oven and check the seasoning.

To be honest, I was a bit shocked that I was so unprepared to make the bread! I cook often in our home and often make bread for my family’s lunches. To be aware that I was completely unprepared for the recipe in the book is something that rarely happens, but as I reflected on the process, I realized how much I have learned to cope, to substitute, and to adjust recipes simply because I forgot to look ahead to see if I had what I needed. As Preston Yancey says: (pg. 39)

“The practice of mise en place is essential but often skipped. We assume a lot in this life, and we are no different in our kitchens. We plunge ahead because we’ve made x or y before so surely this is like all those times before. Often it is, until the dreadful moment it is not and we are affronted once more by the sickly quality of presumption.”

The concept of reading through directions, collecting ingredients, and even double checking that I have enough of those ingredients should be second nature as I cook a lot in our home, but for some reason it is not a regular part of my practice in the kitchen. I know for a fact that I am a better cook when I double check that I have what I need before I begin my time cooking in the kitchen. I still find myself often ignoring my better judgment and relying on my ability to substitute or make do with what I have on hand.

So, am I alone in the pattern of ignoring my better judgment? I somehow doubt that I am alone in this bad pattern of behavior. What’s worse, I know that this behavior is clearly not restricted to the kitchen. I often go rushing off into things without thinking about the long run. Sometimes it is something like a new Bible study program for personal growth or an extreme exercise routine to help my body get healthier. I start off with the best of intentions, but find myself suddenly in a situation far above my skill level or capability. Occasionally I do not check in with someone else who needs to be a part of something, I assume that everything is in place, or I just decide I will go with the flow without proper preparation. I sometimes believe that I am a master at not properly planning!

I think there are two things I have learned from this week’s attempt at mise en place. First, I need to do my homework, check off my list, and simply be more aware of what I am doing. Second, I need to intentionally be more prepared for my own journey in the kitchen and through life.

Part of the mise en place, as previously mentioned, was to prepare my dutch oven for the stove. The stove was going to be heated to 500 degrees. The cast iron dutch oven is seasoned with shortening. Looking ahead should have warned me to be prepared for smoke. What happened? Was I prepared? Take a guess…

Thankfully, my nearly three month old found the puff of smoke amusing, the fact that I rushed into the next room with a magazine to wave at the chirping smoke alarm to be funny, and was perfectly alright with my need to be distracted for a moment. She was just as giggly after the smoke cleared.

The very first loaf of the bread from the book. A bit overly brown, the slashes weren’t deep enough on top, and it is definitely a good reminder that everything can be seen as a work in progress! If at first you don’t succeed (in doing it perfectly), obsess  endlessly over the next loaf!”

Part of the mise en place that I need to enact in my own life is the ability to roll with the punches with grace. I need to prepare myself for when things don’t go perfect every single time I bake, especially as I do have blind spots in how I often prepare. I need to learn to let some expectations go and to have the capacity to replace my frustration with amusement. That’s a preparation that needs to happen deep in my heart. It is also a preparation that goes beyond my cooking.

When I wake up in the morning, do I prepare my heart for things going wrong in my day? Do I tell God that I want today to be a wonderful day even if things go sideways? Do I seek to find places not only to feel gratitude but to foster gratitude in my life? Do I practice the mise en place to be ready for my life?

IMG_1756.JPG

You see, now that’s a little bit better!

I think Preston Yancey is correct that disciplines like the examen can help us to be prepared for the turmoils of life, but I also believe there is something powerful about the discipline of asking God to give us what we need for a given day or a given hour. Do we prepare ourselves for the kitchen of life? If nothing else comes out of this week’s study, I am grateful I now have that question to ponder.

How about you? Do you have a favorite practice for preparing for a day of life in the real world? Do you have some sort of pattern or practice that helps you to be ready for whatever comes in your path?

Let us Ramble: Solitude, Faith, and Community

A noise tickles my ears as a buzz begins at 5:59 AM. My phone buzzes and begins to flash. I wake up early to check if the paths need to be cleared of snow before the teachers and staff of the church community arrive. After a cold time clearing up the snow with my snowblower and a headlamp, a hot shower to warm up chilled bones, and a hot mug of coffee, I settle at the table with my notebook. Soon, as the eggs bake for breakfast sandwiches for my wife and children, I will find myself digging through the Revised Common Lectionary.

This day I am flicking through the story of Saul being chastised by Samuel for caring more about what his people want than what the Lord required. I write a poem about Saul’s predicament while thinking and praying about what God’s message for Saul says to me as a Christian, as a husband, as a father, and as a pastor. The words are deep this morning as my heart struggles to make sense of the story of God’s chosen one being rejected for his actions. I weigh the passage carefully with others that have been dwelling in my heart.

I find these moments of devotion while the room fills with the smells of cooking breakfast to be sacred. They are not always perfectly isolated. Sometimes I finish my poem while my kids are making cocoa across the room. Occasionally a crying baby will interrupt this time with her needs. It is a time that actually gets interrupted regularly towards the end, but it is also one of the most sacred moments of the day. Even with interruptions, the ground I walk upon in those moments is holy.

In these moments of personal devotion, I sort through my dreams and prayers from the recently passed night. In these moments of personal devotion, I find inspiration that often affects the way I live out my faith life. In these moments of personal devotion, I often find the fuel that feeds quiet prayers for the community which follow. Have I read about love? Standing in the window, cleaning up dishes, I pray with love for the people in my church and community who are in need. Have I read about sacrificing for others wellbeing? I find inspiration to pray for the bus drivers who pass by the window. The personal devotions of my morning feed my time in prayer and help me to do a better job at being a part of a vibrant church community.

Henri Nouwen, in his book “Discernment” wrote (on the tenth page of his book):

“Communion with God alone in prayer leads inevitably to community with God’s people, and then to ministry in the world. But it is good to begin this spiritual movement in solitude…When we are alone with God, the Spirit prays in us. The challenge is to develop a simple discipline of spiritual practice to embrace some empty time and empty space every day.”

For myself, the moments in my day that are emptiest and have space for the Holy Spirit are between checking the paths to see if they are clear and when my children get out of bed. The time that I spend alone with God in those quiet places strengthens my relationship with God. That strength then leads towards others.

Invariably, my time with God tends to lead towards other people. Sometimes my prayers are led towards my family, but more often than not, I find myself drawn to pray for situations around me in the community and in the church. I want to be clear about this fact. My personal devotions do more than inform my prayer. My personal devotions empower my ability to pray. If the spiritual life of a Christian is a river, my time in personal devotion is one of the springs where that spiritual life finds the living water.

When the Spirit prays in us, our lives change. If you look back at a number of the great figures of Christian history, a lot of them speak about powerful moments of connection with God. Some of the descriptions of these moments can induce a blush! These moments of intimacy with God generally did not come out of a place of constant action. If you look, most of these moments come in lives marked by time spent with God. Like any relationship, a relationship with God that is healthy requires time spent together.

So, how do you begin to discern the right time for spending time with God? The first thing I suggest to people who ask me in person is that they chart out their day in blocks. What regular patterns emerge in your daily life? I found myself needing to wake up early to take care of sidewalks for the winter. As such, for this literal season, a period between that daily chore and when the rest of the day began emerged. For some people, there is a lull in the late morning, especially if you are retired or work a second or third shift position. Each person is different and taking a look at your regular patterns can help you notice places that are empty.

Second, if a person cannot find those moments of free time I suggest that there be moments in your day that might be better used doing something else. Back when I tried to engage in evening devotions despite my tiredness, I used to spend my mornings before the girls woke up listening to the news. The news often made me anxious, led to me feeling inordinately stressed at the beginning of my day, and often served more as empty noise than something of substance. I was better served by spending that time with God than spending it listening to the news. I still check the news later in the day, but I first ground my heart and my soul in God before facing what the world will throw at me.

Third, I often suggest that you begin with a simple devotion. There are wonderful resources available through many fine publishers. A trip to a local bookstore will often provide a lot of helpful options. Our church provides copies of the Upper Room Daily Devotional and we would work with anyone who wanted to explore one of the other options available. There are also a number of reading plans available through places like Bible Gateway that can help you to explore your Bible over a set number of days. Even the United Methodist Hymnal has a pattern for daily worship and prayer in the rear of the hymnal. There are many options available.

Fourth, try new things on occasion. If you, like me, enjoy the Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants, consider using the Book of Common Prayer for a season. If you enjoy using Our Daily Bread, ponder trying out the Upper Room for a time. If you are going through a dry season, it might not help if that season is supposed to be teaching you something, but if your situation is simply fatigue—a change of pace might help.

What suggestions do you have for starting a time of personal devotions? Have any practices been particularly helpful?

Let us Look: Jesus is Condemned

One of the blessings of the Academy for Spiritual Formation is that it is located at the Malvern Retreat House. Our stay while at the Retreat House is at the Family Life Center. There are wonderful walking paths near the Retreat House for contemplative walks. One of the paths includes a set of fifteen Stations of the Cross. Yes, I said fifteen. It is a very unique set of Stations.

While we were at the Academy this past July, we were invited to consider the possibility of looking at beautiful works of art as invitations to contemplation. Kataphatic (sometimes spelled cataphatic despite the fact that the Greek root word began with a “kappa”) contemplation and prayer is not very common in most Protestant circles, but even the most pragmatic of Christians has probably felt an invitation to consider what Christ had done when they considered the image of Christ on the cross.

I am seeking to practice a bit more of what Spiritual Director and former Jesuit Wilkie Au called “crabgrass contemplation,” which is a term he admittedly borrowed from the book “Noisy Contemplation” by William Callahan. The four steps of this contemplation are as follows;

  1. Show up
  2. Slow down
  3. Stay still
  4. Stay with

Showing up is the first step which is recommended in this contemplation. Wilkie shared a joke with us while we were on retreat that illustrated this point beautifully. A person was praying to God and asking why God never answered their prayer. God decided that it was time to address the matter. A big booming voice from Heaven rang out over the person in prayer saying “Aren’t you the one who keeps asking me to help them win the lottery?” The praying person nods their head mutely in astonishment. The voice rang out again saying “Look. I can see you are scared, so I will meet you halfway on this one. Have you considered buying a lottery ticket?”

It is a mildly humorous joke, but it is an even better invitation. If you want to find God in contemplation, you must first show up. Nobody wakes up surprised that they have not learned to speak Spanish if they never study! The invitation is made clearly and it invites us to show up.

Slowing down is the second step to this form of contemplation. I have had struggles with eyesight over the past few years, especially as I have recovered from my corneal transplant since this past March. It can take me a moment or two to focus my eyesight and really see something well. I need to slow down and take the effort to focus if I want to see something. On occasion, I have even found that I need to get out a specialized instrument to help me see which I could never use on the run. You might be amazed at how much more beautiful that robin in the yard looks when I slow down, take out my spyglass (I had one functional eye for a while–binoculars were overkill), and look with purpose instead of rushing through the yard. Slowing down in our faith is one way to focus our minds for contemplation.

Staying still is the third step and one of my least favorite steps in this method of contemplation. I have a very precocious seven year old daughter who likes to run, jump, sing, talk, and make noise. My wife blames me for this part of her daughter’s personality because I used to be that child. My mass is what now uses all of that excess energy, but it can be very difficult for me to slow down in my mind. I want to sing, I want to hum, I want to monologue, and I want to be active. Staying still is the invitation which comes next in this process and it can be challenging, but useful.

Finally, the last step is staying with the thing that we are contemplating. For me this is a different than staying still. I often will find myself in contemplation having the same eureka moment time and time again. One reason this might be a part of my pattern of being is that I often take the first morsel and run off in joy. I never notice what I am missing. This pattern could be likened to being invited to a five-course meal and running off after the salad. We are invited to stay with the item we contemplate.

I wanted to publically practice this form of contemplation with the Stations of the Cross for several reasons. First, I want to model the idea of contemplation within a Protestant context. We tend to be afraid of what John Wesley would have called Romish things, but there is a beauty to considering what Christ has done for us and is doing within us. If a Station brings us to consider the actions of Jesus within the Passion narrative, then should we not consider that a blessing?

Second, I want to spend some time connecting these Stations within the Biblical narrative. Not every station is as firmly planted within the scriptures, but each station expresses a truth which I believe should be deeply embedded within our group consciousness as Christians.

So, without further ado, I invite you to consider the first Station of the Cross located outside of the Malvern Retreat House. The station is entitled “Jesus is Condemned to Death” and it was dedicated to the friends and relatives of the Santoleri family. The artist who created the sculptures was Timothy Schmaltz.

“Jesus is Condemned to Death” by Timothy Schmaltz

As I arrive at this place of contemplation, I consider the truth of contemplation which sits directly in front of me. As Herod sits in a contemplative posture in front of Jesus with crossed hands, so I sit considering the scene in front of me. Jesus stands upright at the base of the stairs upon which the judge sits in contemplation. Jesus waits, looking, and watching.

Biblically, I must admit that I think there’s a dissonance in the story. John 19 states that Jesus would have been flogged, beaten, and crowned with a crown of thorns by the point of his condemnation. Mark’s Gospel in chapter 15 does not have an explicit flogging before judgment is passed, but Jesus would have been bound. Also, where is the crowd? Likewise, Matthew 26 records the scribes and leaders beat Jesus, but there is no mention of a flogging; however, there is a place where Herod sitting on a seat is mentioned. Luke 22 and 23 have mockery, beating, and a fancy robe placed on Jesus, but this scene does not appear so readily. Indeed, Matthew has Jesus washing his hands while sitting on the judgment seat, which is probably as close as we can get to this particular image.

As I slow down and contemplate this scent of Jesus’ life, I am drawn to the inconsistencies with the story. Where is the crowd yelling for condemnation? Where is Barabbas? Why does Jesus appear so very calm? Who should I identify with in this image?

As I stay with the image, the question I ask myself is whether I am in image by intention. Consider for a moment that there is a crowd in this moment. The crowd is you and me. The crowd is everyone who walked this path and slowed down to look. The crowd stares at Jesus from thousands of Stations of the Cross around the world and throughout history. We are the crowd who sees Jesus standing in judgment. We are asked the question: “What would you have been yelling?” Would we be joining in the condemnation or would we have fled as the cock crowed that morning like Peter? Would we have had the courage of the women who would walk the road with Jesus, eventually even being with Jesus as he hung on the cross?

Herod’s hands are grasped together in a form that suggest to me a feeling of angst. I too feel the angst of Herod on considering what is ahead on the path towards Golgotha. The only person who doesn’t seem to feel angst in this interpretation is Jesus. Jesus has prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane that this cup would pass, but this is the moment when the prayer is ultimately answered. Jesus will begin his journey towards the cross.

How does this idea stay with me today? I think there’s a piece of my heart that needs to wrestle with questions of what I would have done as I watched this scene unfold in front of me. I think there’s a piece of my heart that needs to comprehend that Jesus would not have run away like I would have liked to run away. Ultimately, there needs to be a place of love in my heart for the willingness of Jesus alongside the pain of watching Christ suffer.

If we are called to be remade in the image of Jesus, then perhaps a good thing to contemplate is what it means to be willing to enter into love despite the pain it might cause for us. If such a contemplation brings me closer to the heart of Jesus, then such a contemplation is a blessing regardless of what name you claim as a Christian.

Let us Ramble: The Narrow Path to Mars

Today has been a wonderful day. Saturday is one of my easier days in ministry. While I do not truly take the two days off a week that is expected of me by my Annual Conference, Saturday is an easier day for me as it almost always begins with family time. Today we went out to lunch and then went to the planetarium at Roberson Museum and Science Center in Binghamton.

At the planetarium we watched a video on the history of humanity’s relationship with Mars, especially in terms of how it fits into the efforts of NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and the European Space Agency. I was struck by all of the attempts to reach Mars that utterly and completely failed over the years. There were a lot of probes, rovers, and other missions which failed spectacularly. Indeed, modern missions are informed powerfully by a history of failures. In a perfect world, these failures and challenges help to inform modern attempts to reach Mars.

The concept of necessity behind learning from the past came to mind as I was reading through my book for the Academy for Spiritual Formation. I was reading through “Thirsty for God: A Brief HIstory of Christian Spirituality” by Bradley Holt when I was reminded thoroughly of the efforts of the people exploring Mars. Professor Holt says: (12)

“The first reason to study the tradition and present day Christian family is to make us aware of our own narrowness, our own parochialism. Knowing a larger part of the whole tradition gives us better questions to ask of the fads of the present. We are endangered not only with ethnocentrism, judging all things by the customs of our own ethnic group, but also with ‘presentism,’ judging all previous ages as inferior to our own.”

Can you imagine what would happen if an engineer at NASA said “The United States has best space program! Why would we study what happened with the Beagle 2’s solar panels?” Well, if that person sent a rover or a manned mission to Mars and that mission failed in the same way, you could imagine how foolish that engineer would seem. If only that engineer had learned from the mistakes of others then NASA could have avoided the same mistakes.

I will admit, I do not believe that a NASA engineer would turn down hard data that could help to create a better plan for a space mission. Engineers are trained to consider as many facets of a problem as possible. I do know that Christianity has had a long history of folks engaging in this kind of behavior. We tend to avoid learning from other communities, whether they are Baptists down the street or Orthodox folks from centuries past. We have made a lifestyle out of believing we are the latest and greatest believers that have ever followed Jesus. This seems especially true of the Eurocentric church in the United States.

It is true—Wesleyans and Methodists have traditionally held John Wesley on a pedestal and he was not an American or even a fan of the American Revolution. It is true—Lutherans love Martin Luther even though he was a German monk turned reformer. Roman Catholics may identify strongly with Pope Benedict, Pope Francis, or Pope John Paul II—each of which came from a homeland outside the United States. Many Christians have their exemplars from other cultures, but it seems to me as if most of them are exceptions to the general rule.

I do not base this on a random assertion. I have had many conversations with individuals that state clearly and unabashedly that American Christianity holds two things above any other: love of God and love of country. There is a strong ethnocentrism in American Christianity that would be unacceptable in other realms of study or belief. There is a strong presentism in American Christianity that ignores the lessons of the faithful who walked in ages past and studied things that are now considered superseded by modern scholarship. My experience of American Christianity supports Professor Holt’s assumptions.

My own experience and own history of scholarship support Professor Holt’s assumptions, which is one reason I am undertaking the Academy experience in the first place. I will admit that I know the story of John Wesley in many ways that I do not know scholars, theologians, and mystics from other cultures. I will admit my scholarship and study focused around individuals connected with the institutions where I studied theology and Christianity either directly or through the recommendation of faculty.

There is a value to learning from a wide variety of sources which cannot be overstated. Christians are part of a rich tradition that has had adherents, leaders, scholars, and theologians from across the world. We have had many people who have had many different opinions. To be clear, I agree with Professor Holt that another reason to study the history and practices of spirituality is to learn the boundaries of our tradition (13), but it needs to be said that the boundaries are often further than any of us normally experience in the practice of our Christianities.

I am thankful today for inspiration through scientific study applied to the history of space exploration around Mars. The study has inspired me to look deeply at my own faith journey and the ways in which I approach realms outside of my narrowness. I hope that we all find ways to interact with and become a blessing with traditions outside of our own tradition.

Let us Ramble: Selling Silence

In his book “Silent Compassion: Finding God in Contemplation” the author Richard Rohr states:

“How do you market that which is inherently unmarketable? How do you sell silence? How do you make attractive what feels like selling air or selling emptiness or selling something that, certainly to the capitalistic mind, would not immediately be attractive at all?”

These are good questions. This quote came to mind as I considered the reading I did yesterday for Academy for Spiritual Formation. I was reading through “Thirsty for God: A Brief HIstory of Christian Spirituality” by Bradley Holt when the following quote caught my attention: (1—I’m just starting the book)

“You may be dehydrated right now but not know it. One peculiar feature of our physiology is that the signals for lack of fluid are not immediate or strong. Thus we may feel uneasy or tired when dehydrated but not recognize these symptoms as thirst. By the time we recognize thirst as such, we have already moved through the early stages of dehydration. Why does this matter? It matters because keeping our fluid levels up is vital for our bodies to function in so many important ways: for energy, for healing, for our immune systems, for electrolytes, and yes, even for sex.

So one part of the human predicament is that we do not always know what we really need or long for. Another part is that we find it difficult to act consistently on what we do know.”

How does a person sell silence? How does a person sell water? We learn to recognize thirst as thirst by necessity. I think that we have to learn to sell people silence by showing them the value, the need it quenches, and to consistently model it ourselves. Hence, this is all I’m writing today. Silence…

Let us Seek: Broken Images

Yesterday afternoon at the Annual Meeting of the New York Conference of the United Church of Christ we had a break between our afternoon session and our evening meal. I spent the time preparing for the upcoming session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation. I was distracted from my inevitable comparisons between the Annual Meetings of the two denominations I serve. I was distracted by reading through my favorite (and technically only) book on shame, orthodoxy, and orthopraxy called “God’s Unconditional Love: Healing Our Shame.” Here’s what authors Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon Au write on internalized images of God and perfectionism: (pg. 85)

“As in Jesus’ time, much of the inner suffering that people struggle with today is abetted by an impoverished religious imagination that is unable to envision a God of unfailing love-a love that embraces all of us unconditionally just as we are. Instead, our projections of a harsh and demanding God leave us with feelings of shame and a sense that we have disappointed God. Many of us are burdened by a strict conscience that demands perfection, thinking this what God wants. We have an image of holiness that is out of reach for the simple reason that perfection is beyond our grasp. When we inevitably fail, we feel guilty and ashamed and are confirmed in our belief that we are unworthy of God’s love.”

The honest truth is that I could spend this blogpost talking about the idea of a frustrating and badly-considered image of God from a personal perspective, but I believe this may be a case where personal ministry experience might be helpful. I have walked with many folks who have struggled with understanding a God that accepts them unconditionally with their “warts and all.” A lot of people have difficulty seeing God lovingly walking with them during challenging moments of life. The situation is like trying to see clearly through a broken window.

"Abandoned Church - view through broken window" by Nicholas Mutton

“Abandoned Church – view through broken window” by Nicholas Mutton

I remember walking with a brother in Christ who did not understand how God could love him. The man was lonely, sad, and isolated. He wanted to be in a relationship badly, but every relationship ended up in disaster. While he would love to believe God loved him unconditionally, it was hard to believe. God loved him and understood that he was lonely. God loved him even as he felt lonely. I believe God was compassionately and completely in love with this man. That man could neither see nor believe in that love easily.

I remember walking with many people over the years that were absolutely furious over the death of a loved one. Some people were angry with God because their loved one had passed away. Other people were resolutely angry that their loved one had done the things that led to their death. How could God love them when they still feel anger towards someone that they love? How could God love them when they are angry with God? Faith in God’s unconditional love can be difficult to obtain when anger is involved. It can become very difficult to understand that God loves a person despite the anger that they harbor in their souls.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking situations are those that involve abuse. While God is neither male nor female, it can be difficult to trust in the love of God when someone is abused by another person. It can be difficult to believe that God is like a loving and caring mother hen when a woman in your life has engaged in abuse. It can be difficult to believe that God is like a loving and protective father when a man in your life has engaged in abuse. Moving beyond parental images, trust can be difficult to carry into new life with Christ as your brother when a brother has been abusive.

Walking through the challenges of life can make it very difficult to trust in God’s love and grace. The images of God that a lot of people carry around in their lives are often powerful and unjustly harsh. These images do reinforce a lot of challenges that people normally face in their lives. Praying with sincerity after a heartbreaking crisis can be almost impossible if God seems to be stern and foreboding. Seeking forgiveness for situations where everything has gone downhill can become impossible when God seems hard, cruel, and unrelenting. The weight of shame can be overwhelming when you believe that God could never forgive you for what you have done in your life.

So, what do we do with this? Well, I do not want to hamstring a future blogpost, but I will say that my family and I listened to the new NPR podcast “Wow in the World” this afternoon. The very first episode spoke about an article that was recently published by researchers from the University of Montana on the benefits of gratitude. A quick synopsis of the research is that there is a strong correlation between expressing gratitude and a person’s well being.

If a person can make their life better through regular expressions of gratitude then I believe a similar theory can be proposed. I would suggest that there may be a correlation between the health of a person’s image of God and what opportunities that person engages in to experience a loving God. Regular spiritual practices like prayer, Bible reading, and worship might help to reinforce a loving experience of God. The authors of the “God’s Unconditional Love” argue persuasively about the use of imagination to go deeper into the scripture and consequently into God’s love.

I would also suggest that engaging in compassionate acts alongside God might assist in retraining one’s heart to see a loving God more clearly. Volunteering with the hungry, assisting with rehabilitation programs, working to build and repair homes after disasters, and thousands of other opportunities exist to engage in ministry alongside a God who is neither hard nor callous to people’s pain. Partnering in ministry with others to seek God through compassionate acts might allow someone to understand God’s compassion for their own lives and souls more clearly.

In the meantime, my hope and prayer is that God might be gracious to you. May you see the love of God in your life.

Let us Ramble: Christian koan?

Yesterday I was working through the same book that I have been reading through for The Academy for Spiritual Formation over the past few weeks. It seems like every Monday begins with a cup of coffee and the same book. Inevitably, my brain melts before the coffee cools. The book’s title is “God’s Unconditional Love: Healing Our Shame” and was written by Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon Au. This is a dense book with a lot of good concepts and ideas.

One of the brain-melting ideas that took a hold of me this week revolved around the idea of a Christian “koan.”The authors say this on page 63:

“Many years ago, when Wilkie was in Kyoto studying Zen meditation, this practice of gazing on the crucifix was endorsed by an unlikely source, a Japanese Zen master. Yamada Roshi told him and his fellow Jesuits that the cross is the Christian koan and that contemplating it was a path to enlightenment. A Zen koan is a riddle or surd (e.g. ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’) that baffles and stills the busy mind, so that an intuitive flash of truth can seize one’s awareness.”

This idea struck me as being very interesting given my background as a United Methodist. In his sermon “Spiritual Idolatry” John Wesley (one of the founders of the Methodist movement) clearly stated that he believed the Roman Catholic practice of using icons was a form of idolatry. John Wesley was not a fan of this “Romish” practice.

Now, let’s be clear. I do not believe that John Wesley only spoke and preached words that were beyond reproof. In some cases (like in “The Cause and Cure of Earthquakes”) I believe John Wesley was dead wrong, Despite all of my troubles with his works, I do believe that John Wesley wrote and spoke with all of the integrity he could muster. In short, I tend to give John Wesley the benefit of the doubt.

I do not believe that John Wesley would approve of the idea of a Christian koan, which I honestly believe is sad. I believe that there is some validity to what Yamada Roshi taught Wilkie Au. The authors go on to state that Yamada Roshi taught the Jesuits studying in Japan that excessive rationality often stood between people and God. The crucifix as a koan does an excellent job of being simple enough to help a Christian go beyond rationality into a place of contemplation where inspiration can take root.

After my brain stopped sparking I contemplated the idea on and off again. It kept setting small fires in my mind, but I had a few thoughts that I believe were helpful.

First, if the Jesuits focused on the crucifix, does it change the nature of the inspiration to contemplate the empty cross favored by Protestants? How would a focus on resurrection alter how one comes closer to God? What does it mean to us in our contemplation that the means of death inflicted by the world stands empty and defeated? Does pondering the very differences lead to the excessive rationalism Yamada Roshi was warning about? Would it be helpful to break through a barrier for a Protestant to contemplate a crucifix or for a Roman Catholic to ponder the empty cross?

Second, what koans have I experienced in my life? When I regularly went to the same Young Life camp first as a student and then as a leader I remember watching the same tree growing out on an island in the lake. Contemplating the tree led me to places where I found inspiration to get through some of the most difficult spiritual struggles that I faced as a college student. I know that I have stared at a campfire many times while praying through challenges as an adult. Were these koans or just convenient places where my focus rested until I saw Christ?

Finally, what’s wrong with an icon? John Wesley’s idiosyncrasies aside, is there anything wrong with using an icon? As a young Christian I enjoyed reading both John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and C.S. Lewis’ Pilgrim’s Regress. In reading stories filled with allegorical characters I found a way of contemplating deep things about my own spiritual life. Is using an icon to go deeper in one’s faith different than using a work of fiction? Is using an icon to focus in and grow deeper in the faith different than using a sermon like a lens to focus on a truth in the scriptures?

As I said earlier, this book causes my brain to smoke. On the positive side, if my brain is overheating then I have an excuse to always be letting hot air out of my mouth.

Let us Ramble: Apple Blossoms

Today I would like to go back to a book that I have been using as a reference guide while doing my reading for the upcoming session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation. The following excerpt is from the book Spiritual Disciplines Handbook by Adele Calhoun. In particular, this passage is from the section “Practicing the Presence” (pg. 72):

“Practicing the presence is a way of living into a deeper awareness of God’s activity in our lives. Through many small pauses we begin a habit of turning our heart toward God.”

I was “practicing the presence” this afternoon as I was waiting for my kids to get home on the school bus. It has been very cold the last few nights and I have been concerned for the plants that I have planted and tended around the parsonage. In particular, I have been concerned for the apple tree that was so prodigious our first year but suffered from frost damage on the apple blossoms last year. I do not have the resources to properly protect the tree. I pray for the tree. We use what we have…

Anyway, I went up to the tree while waiting and tried to slow down. I had been preparing dinner as a surprise for my wife and had been busy mincing, shaving, and slicing vegetables for dinner. I needed to get to work shortly after the kids got off the bus to have dinner ready in time. I was feeling a false sense of time pressure, so that particular moment was a good moment to slow down.

I stopped and stared at the apple blossoms. The blossoms were absolutely gorgeous. Don’t take my word for it–look at these beautiful blossoms!

As I looked at the blossoms I came to realize something. There were no pollinators at work. The weather was a bit breezy and a bit cold. The blossoms were in bloom, the pollen was ready to be spread, but there were no bees! All of these beautiful blossoms would be out and ready, but no bees were taking advantage of the treasure trove of pollen.

As I looked, slowed down, and sought to find the presence of God I realized something. Our lives are full of opportunities to go deeper in our relationship with God. There are opportunities to explore our faith all around us. We can get to know God better by taking fifteen minutes to pray before starting our day. We can grow in our knowledge of the scriptures by spending time reading through the Psalms before we dig into our lunch each day. We can spend time with a spiritual director or an accountability partner going deeper in our faith. There are so many opportunities to go deeper in our lives.

As I stopped and went into God’s presence I realized those opportunities are like the flowers on an apple tree on a cold day. They are all over the place. A moment or two is all it takes to cover ourselves in God’s presence like pollen covers a bee. As we drink in God’s presence like a bee drinks nectar we spread the blessing of one part of our faith to another. As we come across others that blessing can spread from our lives into theirs. There are so many opportunities if we spread our wings and leave the nests of our own comfort.

I am very glad I took a moment to slow down and seek God’s presence. Hopefully I will be wise enough to continue finding moments where God is present in the midst of the busyness of my days.

Let Us Ramble: Differing Loyalties

Today I am working through a book I am reading for The Academy for Spiritual Formation. The book’s title is “God’s Unconditional Love: Healing Our Shame” and was written by Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon Au. I reached the end of a chapter and a difficult question is raised in the “Spiritual Exercises and Reflection” section. The statement which is tripping me up this morning reads: (pg. 32)

“God asked Adam and Eve, ‘Who told you that you were naked?’ In a similar way, imagine God asking you, ‘And who told you that who you are is not enough?’ What comes to mind as possible sources of shame in your life?”

This blog is not where I openly reflect on the personal aspects of my journey. My personal thoughts on shame belong in my prayers and in my journal, but there is also a professional side to this question which is echoing through my mind.

I was approached yesterday and asked indirectly if I’d be preaching on Memorial Day or the Fourth of July. I tend to go on vacation on those weekends for several reasons. First, they are low attendance weekends and I like to celebrate with my extended family. For the last few years I’ve been invited to go on trips with my father and his wife during the Fourth of July weekend in particular. As a consequence of the 24/7 nature of my position and the busyness of my father those weekends were the only weekends I saw my father over the past few years, so I definitely took advantage of a chance to spend time with my father while he is still around and we’re both in good health. I believe that it is better to spend time now than to regret spending too little time later in life.

Second I struggle with the very nature of balancing my dual-citizenship. On earth, I am a resident of the United States who enjoys citizenship. In heaven, I am a citizen of God’s kingdom through the love of Jesus. The one citizenship is temporal and fleeting and the other is permanent and eternal. Meaning no disrespect to the country of my birth, I have made vows to serve my permanent nation and thus sometimes find the disconnection between the two disconcerting.

A great example of what I mean falls today. Today has been proclaimed Loyalty Day by the President of the United States. One sentence of the proclamation reads “The loyalty of our citizenry sends a clear signal to our allies and enemies that the United States will never yield from our way of life.” Why does this bother me? Jesus taught that we should live with a humility that requires an ability to be able to follow the Spirit even when it leads to strange places.

What would the church be like if Peter had said “I understand you want me to eat these things you have called unclean, but I am loyal to my Jewish heritage. I will never yield from my way of life.” What would the church be like if the lack of yielding led to the exclusion of the Gentiles? Even laying that aside, what would our nation look like if our loyalty led to an inability to look squarely at issues like slavery or Women’s Suffrage? The church sometimes helped, sometimes hindered, but was definitely involved in those conversations. Loyalty is admirable, but where do our loyalties truly rest as Christians? Do we never change our way of life even as that way of life hurts our neighbors and destroys the land our neighbors called home before my ancestors even left Europe? Where does my loyalty lie?

Consider for a moment that this is also International Workers’ Day. This celebration was placed on this date to honor both the old tradition of May Day and due to the proximity to a bombing which took place in Chicago called the Haymarket Massacre in 1886. The workers had been striking for an 8 hour work day so that they would have time to do simple things like care for families, participate in society, and not simply exist as a work force. Today this day is generally downplayed in the United States, but as a minister of the Gospel I am aware of how much blood, sweat, and tears were shed by my sisters and brothers over the centuries to help care for folks who were orphaned, widowed, or disabled by poor work conditions. Clergy have advocated, provided care, and reached out to people in need on this day.

So, which do I celebrate today? Do I celebrate how I should be loyal to a temporal nation or focus on a movement my sisters and brothers fought to bring into the light? Would you want that choice?

I’ll always celebrate Memorial Day as I recognize that many sisters and brothers paid the ultimate sacrifice in an attempt to live out their faith. I understand they weren’t perfect, but I can happily celebrate Memorial Day. I simply wish people would understand why ministers struggle with their dual-citizenship. Most of us in denominational settings have vows to keep and we must always tread gently.

Let Us Ramble: Fishing and Shame

This morning I made a terrible mistake. This morning I picked up the first book of many that I will be reading as a result of my time engaging in the Academy for Spiritual Formation. The book is entitled “God’s Unconditional Love: Healing Our Shame” and is written by Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon Au out of Loyola Marymount University and the CH Jung Institute of Los Angeles respectively.

I say it was a mistake to dive into this book because I was unprepared for the depths to which this book would delve so quickly. I started keeping a list of potential blog-entries and had to stop after a few pages. This is a book that will require chewing, digesting, and redigesting later. I wish I had a brain as effective at digging through ideas as a cow’s stomach can be at munching through grass. I need a good four brains right about now.

Let me explain what I mean through an example. A question was raised in the book on the effect of shame in our spiritual lives. Shame can affect the way we relate to other people in our lives, but do we stop to think about how shame can affect the way that we see God? My first reaction is that shame definitely affects the way that we see God. The authors are right when they say that shame affects all of our relationships.

Let me give an example. When I was first married I decided that I wanted to be a fly-fisherman. I may or may not have watched “A River Runs Through It” a few too many times. I bought a pole, broke a pole, bought another pole, built a pole traveling case to protect the pole, learned to cast, and I spent hours sending a piece of yarn back and forth over the yard. I cast, cast, and cast again. I was pretty happy with my casting.

Unfortunately, I had two problems. First, my vision was beginning to deteriorate due to keratoconus and I couldn’t see very well into the water to find fish. I needed help learning where to cast as I couldn’t see what I needed to see below the surface. I had to learn to read the surface. Second, I didn’t know all that much about how to reel in a fish once I caught it. I knew I needed to strip the line, but I wasn’t quite sure how that worked. I kept casting and casting.

On our anniversary my wife and I went camping. I went fishing at the lake shore by the campsite. I caught a little fish and it went flying behind me. I didn’t even realize I caught it. My wife found it hilarious. She mounted a little plastic fish as a playful reminder of my encounter with a wild fish. It was funny, but I stopped fly fishing. I was so embarrassed by my fishing that I couldn’t bring myself to ask anyone for advice. I was ashamed of my ability. I stopped because it was easier than admitting my failure to any one of a number of friends who would have gladly helped me.

Shame stopped me in my tracks. The question becomes whether or not there are things in my life that stop me spiritually just as hard as my fear of being “found out” as a bad fly-fisherman. Yes, there certainly are things that weigh me down through spiritual shame.

When I was a kid I had a nightmare at a summer camp that the devil was going to steal my soul after a particularly rough Bible study told us about sin. The camp counselor was loving, kind, and helpful, but let’s be honest, I still carried around the image of a God who would abandon me to such a fate if I didn’t do things just right. I still carry that idea around. When people talk in church about shortcomings of an institution that is far larger than me, I sometimes see that divine head shaking at me. When people talk about younger folks who don’t come to church, I sometimes see that divine head looking at me and challenging me to do something worthwhile and amazing. I live with a lot of shame that more than likely doesn’t belong on my shoulders alone. I do live in a community, so why does everything that happens feel like it is my fault alone?

Jesus said that His yoke was easy. Why does my shame add such weight to the things I carry through my life? Why does the church (or at least church folk) sometimes seem to have an addiction to that sense of shame? Why does shame put a weight on all of us? Is shame what is killing the church rather than people who sometimes act cruelly and (ironically) shamelessly? Interesting questions to ponder…

Meanwhile, I both recommend this book and invite you to be careful. There’s a lot to chew on in these pages.

Let us Ramble: An Easter Examen

It was Easter afternoon and the ham was cooling in the oven when it happened. I was offered a ride from one room to the next in a wheelchair. I could barely walk after falling down the stairs during church (while carrying and then wearing communion juice) and suffering (what was later discovered to only be) a severe contusion on my left foot. I was invited to ride as I could barely stand. The nurse said “You don’t get offered a free ride often. You should take it pastor.”

It was Easter evening and my wife was sitting on the couch after a very long day. She looked exhausted. She said to herself “I wish he had emptied the trash or changed the litter box before hurting himself.” It was Easter evening when I slid down the stairs on my bottom cradling a garbage bag full of kitty litter before limping it to the garbage. My wife chided me but I kept listening to the rock and roll in my ear buds as I fought my way through the task.

In hindsight, I am glad that both things occurred. A big portion of that relief comes from the fact that it is two days later and I’m doing significantly better after resting and icing my bruise. A bigger portion of the relief comes from what I see when I look at these actions.

The Examen is a spiritual discipline connected to many different sources but especially to the practices of the Roman Catholic leader St. Ignatius Loyola. I know, I’m United Methodist. Why am I pointing towards the practices of a Roman Catholic? Well, to over simplify, God is bigger than the denominational divides and wisdom sees wisdom wherever it lies… Anyway…

The Examen is a prayer practice that helps me to personally see what is good in my life by revealing the presence of God in ordinary moments through reflection. IgnatianSpirituality.com (a ministry of Loyola Press) identifies the following as a simplified approach to the Examen:

1. Become aware of God’s presence.
2. Review the day with gratitude.
3. Pay attention to your emotions.
4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it.
5. Look toward tomorrow.

Let me be honest, I obviously ignored the fourth point when I picked two moments out of my day in my reflections on Easter Sunday for prayer. The two moments I focused upon were the moment of accepting the ride and the moment of carrying the kitty litter to the trash to help my wife.

I saw God’s presence in the moment when I was proffered a ride in several ways. First, the nurse was a relative of a church member and I saw the compassion that her parent shows in her life at the church. I saw God’s love expressed through her kindness. I also felt God’s presence in an invitation to practice humility by accepting a ride instead of fighting my way down the hall with my considerable and obvious stubbornness. As I prayed through that moment I found a connection between these actions and God. It did lead to gratitude and to a sense of blessing.

I saw God’s presence in the moment when I was carrying to kitty litter in several ways. First and foremost, I recognized that there was compassion in my heart towards my wife’s plight and exhaustion. The same considerable and obvious stubbornness which had been a hindrance earlier was properly applied to assist someone else in need. In the right context, that stubbornness was a blessing which came out of God’s own arsenal. Was it a bit silly? Probably. Was it unnecessary? Yes. Was it an act of compassion and gratitude for all my wife had done for me that afternoon? Absolutely. I could see God at work in my motivation. I did not do it because I was simply stubborn. I was not upset with my wife for her forlorn statement either. It came out of my own sense of God’s call.

I write all of this down for the internet at large in order to express how taking time to go through the act of the Examen did help me to grow deeper in my faith through a very painful moment. In honesty, I was a bit annoyed with myself and with that staircase before I stopped to engage in this old practice. My prayer changed my day. When It was over I had found my center, found my hope for the next day, and was prepared to move past the pain into healing.

There have been many times in my life when I have been deeply blessed by engaging in the Examen or even in the daily act of journaling the best moments of my day along with my hopes for the next day. I would invite you to take a look at this spiritual discipline if you are struggling to find ways to go deeper or even struggling to find ways to look at your own life with different eyes.

Here are my three suggestions on how to engage in this practice:

  1. Set aside time in the same place each night. Maybe you travel and it cannot be the exact same place, but even engaging in that old (yet useful) tradition of kneeling at the side of your bed might be a place to start. Starting off with the intention of creating a consistent pattern helps. If you’re married or have a roommate, you may wish to warn them before starting this practice. It is strange to stumble upon someone kneeling in silence–they may think something is wrong. Yes, I speak from experience…
  2. Set aside a set number of days when you’ll intentionally engage in this practice. I suggest you do this even if you decide to begin with just two weeks of attempting the Examen. Make a plan to attempt this practice and then follow through to the end. I do not recommend just saying “I’ll do this the rest of my life starting tonight.” If you can make it through a week, make it through a week before going for two weeks. Celebrate your successes and a pattern will establish itself in your life in a more natural fashion.
  3. Ask a religious friend to journey in this practice with you. Get together after a week or two in order to talk about your experience. If you do not have a friend, look into finding a spiritual director who can assist you in this practice. You may even be able to find a spiritual director who can meet with you mainly over the phone and only a couple of times face to face throughout the year. I recommend a group like Spiritual Directors, International to help find a reliable and vetted director.

So, that’s my introduction on this Blog to the Examen. By the way, I grabbed the kitchen trash on the way to the garbage can with the litter. If you’re going to be stubborn, you have to be tough.

Let us Ramble: Humility and Writing

As I’ve been composing blog posts for Holy Week I have found myself continually challenged by entering into the conversation. I realize that I preach every Sunday and that I practically live in the middle of the conversations people have around the spiritual matters in their lives. Often the words I say on Sunday morning or at a Bible study have a major impact in the lives of a few individuals, but those words are transitory and momentary. The words that I say are often sacred but they live in one sacred moment.

The words that I type are far different. These words that I am typing right now will likely be accessible for the rest of my lifetime. There is a possibility that these words may exist in some form or another for the rest of human existence in this mortal coil on either backup drives or backup clouds. As some have said, nothing on the internet is truly ever deleted.

This concept gives me pause. Who am I to enter into these conversations? What place do I have at the table? Do I really believe these words will have an effect on the future? What’s more, shouldn’t the work of a preacher by necessity be something that is transitory, personal, and passing? Where is my humility?

It gives me pause, but I am not going to stop writing and I am not going to stop sharing. I will admit that I clearly am a person that occasionally needs a dose of humble pie. Okay, occasionally I need two doses. I do not assume that I am going to say something profound and life-changing, but I do know that I will say things that are honest and true to the best of my ability. What am I bringing to the conversation? I am bringing my heart and my soul–two of the most sacred things that I possess.

It is not humility to assume that you are worthless as a person. One beautiful thing about Holy Week is that it is a story about Jesus going towards the cross, death, and resurrection because Jesus cares about people like you and me. To assume you are worthless is effectively to say that Jesus paid too much for you out of love. I do not believe Jesus thinks that for a moment. I think Jesus loves you.

Humility might be better described as having perspective. You might make mistakes and it is a humble act to admit to them in an attempt to change. You might struggle with your identity as a person and struggle with depression. Humility might mean owning your struggle and going to a doctor.

Humility might also be seeing that through all of the struggles you go through, God still has a love for you. If we hold these treasures in jars of clay (2 Corinthians 4:7), there is something sacred about taking that treasure and offering it back to God. God desires to take you in both heart and soul (Luke 13:34), offers to wash you from being red as scarlet to being as clean and fresh as newly fallen snow (Isaiah 1:18), and has this desire for all of humanity (John 3:16-17).

In the end, that is what I am trying to do through this blog. I am trying to offer my heart and my soul. I may not be able to stand with the giants like Wesley, Luther, Calvin, Tillich, Bonhoeffer, Thurman, King, Jr., Nouwen, or Rauschenbusch, but I can offer what I have been given back to God and my community. I hope that it is a blessing.

Let us Ramble: Stillness and Listening

One of the many tools in my toolbox is the book “A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants” which was edited by Reuben Job and Norman Shawchuck. The following quote was a part of this week’s readings and it is from “Spirituality for Ministry” by Urban T. Holmes III.

“Many persons, ordained or not, live in a fairly constant state of noise, with their unresolved past and the uncertain present breaking in on them. They lack a still center and it is only for such a quiet point that we can listen attentively. When I was in my first parish, which was located in the middle of the city, a constant stream of indigents came through. One came into my office and wanted to tell me his story. I sat as if to listen but was deeply troubled inside over some issue now long forgotten. I remember I was fiddling with a pencil. The man stopped his story, looked at me and said, ‘Young Father, the least you can do is listen.’ He was right. There was no still center in me.”

I find this quote to be inspiring. If you come by my door on any given day you might catch me at prayer. When I’m praying in my office I hang up a blue poster I had made over my office door’s window. It looks like this…

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The quotes I put on that door-hanger are there with great intention. The Henri Nouwen quote always catches me in much the way that the quote from the Guide catches me. Nouwen was right–a life without that quiet center can easily become very destructive.

I don’t know Father Holmes myself, but I would wager to bet that he would tell you that his inability to focus himself into stillness did damage that day. I know that there have been moments when my inability to find that silent and still place led to great destructiveness. Sometimes that destructiveness came out of a place of violent response without care and sometimes that destructiveness came out of a place where I was unable to respond with intentionality instead of reactivity. The fact of the matter is that a lack of stillness made me unable to be the person I needed to be in those moments.

Of course it isn’t easy to enter into that stillness. In the book Spiritual Disciplines Handbook by Adele Calhoun, the following quote on silence always strikes me as true:

“In quietness we often notice things we would rather not notice or feel. Pockets of sadness or anger or loneliness or impatience begin to surface. Our own outer agenda looms larger than our desire to be with God in silence. And as the silence settles in and nothing seems to be happening, we often struggle with the feeling that we are wasting time. Everything we notice in this struggle can become an invitation to prayer. Like a can opener, the silence opens up the contents of our heart, allowing us deeper access to God than we experience at other times. As we remain in the silence, the inner noise and chaos will begin to settle. Our capacity to open up wider and wider to God grows. The Holy One has access to places we don’t even know exist in the midst of the hubbub.”

I am betting that Father Holmes found a bit of himself on that day when he was unable to find stillness, but I wonder what depths could be achieved if he had the presence of mind to enter into stillness before listening.

I often find myself in a completely different place if I slow myself before I enter into deep conversation. The stillness I find in silence can enable me to listen to others while being aware of what is in my own silence.

When talking to a pregnant mother I might easily be distracted into talking about what it would feel like to become a father again. Thankfully my own periods of stillness have revealed a desire in me to want to change that particular subject to revolve around my family. As a result I can actively resist my own temptation. The same is often true when I enter into conversations around rough childhoods, difficult relationships, and forgiveness. It is in learning to be still and silent that I have become a better person when it comes to having conversation with others about their lives.

In truth, silence is never especially easy, but it has many benefits. What challenges do you see to silence in your life? Does the inability to find that still center affect the way that you go about life?

Let us Ramble: Distractions

Martin Luther is translated as saying “I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.” I often laugh at this saying because there are so many distractions in life. There are entire days where the only consistent thing in my life is that there is something or someone hollering for my attention. The first three hours in prayer? I am sometimes lucky to carve out the first three minutes before the knocking and ringing begins.

With that being said, I want to make a case for allowing ourselves to be distracted. I do not mean when driving or doing something incredibly dangerous. I think we need to allow ourselves to be distracted from lives that can often be overly scheduled, overly planned, and overly busy.

Last fall I was driving to and from the Veteran’s Home in Oxford, NY. It was a quiet fall day and I had been incredibly busy running from visitation to visitation when it happened. I was driving over a hill when the light of the sunset caught the leaves as they were blowing out of the trees. There was riot of reds, yellows, and browns caught up in the golden glow of the sun. It was breathtaking. I was moved to tears.

I had been so focused on what I was doing that day. There were places to go and people to see. I had run into Wegmans and barely slowed down to talk to a church member and her husband because I was focused on getting Swiss Cake Rolls for a homebound gentleman who can’t get out. I ate lunch in the car while parked in a parking lot texting. I had started the day in prayer but had not taken a moment to breathe since the day had begun. I was rushing until God effectively painted a picture of majesty and I rushed straight into the midst of God’s glory on stage.

The exact term for the spiritual discipline of focusing on the glory of God revealed in creation is VIsio Divina. A quick Google search will reveal there are books and resources in spades on this concept. For me Visio Divina is summarized as praying with one’s eyes.

I think it is very hard to engage in that type of prayer if we don’t allow ourselves to be distracted from life. Sometimes, we plan things so tightly that we don’t have time to notice, time to see, time to perceive, or even time to pray. Holy distractions are necessary sometimes.

So how do we make ourselves available to holy distraction? I have some thoughts.

  • Start every day with three hours of prayer like Martin Luther. If you cannot find three hours to pray, then at least begin the day with a prayer that your eyes would be open to see and perceive what is around you. You might be surprised how a quick prayer to open your eyes can help you to see far more than you expect.
  • Set aside time for Sabbath rest. Do not spend all of your time working, playing, driving, and doing the things of life. Take a half-hour for a walk with a friend to see how the world around you looks. Sit with your thoughts for a bit while looking over a valley. Go to the library and find a book with pictures of the plains of the Serengeti or the Rocky Mountains. Sit with that book for a while and see God’s fingers in creation.
  • Take a moment at the next red light to look at the sky. Just don’t forget to keep an eye out to see when the light turns green.
  • Tie a string on your finger first thing in the morning and only take it off after you’ve seen something God has created to be beautiful.

There are a million and one ways to be distracted by God’s creation. May your distractions be good distractions and may they be welcome when they come.