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.

Let us Ramble: The Cloud

So, as previously mentioned, I’m working through “Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us” by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun. For the last few days I’ve been pondering my way through one particular quote. I promise you that I’m not just hanging around in the first chapter (as it isn’t that kind of book), but that chapter has a lot of good thought-nuggets. The quote comes from page 21:

“Becoming aware of what is true and false about us is essential for spiritual growth, and it is not always comfortable. So when we find ourselves in the space between desire and demand, when we are waiting on God and nothing seems to be happening, we must remember this space is an opportunity. In the unfixables of our lives we are invited to keep company with Jesus and take a risk that God’s intentions toward us are good.”

This quote has been running through my mind almost constantly for the past few days. I will hopefully be undergoing a minor surgical procedure in a few days and I have been waiting for news on whether or not a transplant will be available. It has been an anxious moment in time for me. It has also been quite revealing.

As a pastor, I sit with folks and I often invite them to trust in God in similar moments. I tell them that nervousness is natural but that worrying will do little good in their lives. I invite them to find faith through their trials, yet as I approach the same trials I find myself in a place where I can clearly see my own anxiousness. The veil that I put over these parts of my life has been worn pretty thin in the past few weeks–I can see that there is room for personal growth in faith.

It isn’t easy to grow into that faith, especially when the comfortable cloak of the false-self is peeled back. As Pastor Calhoun writes, when we’re in that space of waiting on God it can be uncomfortable, but it also an opportunity. I was speaking to a parishioner the other day about a similar place of anxious waiting. I drew her a doodle similar to this one…

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On the left we have all of the stuff we know is within our control. On the right we have the place where we need to go. In the middle we have a greatly distorting and disguising cloud. Anything can be in there. It could be a giant gap of nothingness filled with cloud or it could be the world’s most sturdy platform. One thing is true regardless of whatever is in there. Whatever sits in that mysterious fog is unknown.

I explained what I had been processing from Pastor Calhoun’s writing. In the midst of what I can control and what I can not control there is an opportunity to trust that whatever rests in that cloud is something good. Occasionally in life we have to trust that God does intend good things for us. Occasionally in life we are called to take the proverbial leap of faith.

My own necessity for a leap of faith has been half of the reason why this quote has been in my mind lately. The other reason it has been in my mind has been the other concept lifted up in this passage. We have the opportunity to trust but we’re also invited to keep company with Jesus through these moments of stress.

What does it mean to keep company with Jesus? It has meant many things to many different people. Perhaps it means…

  • Caring for the least around you.
  • Reading through Jesus’ story on a regular basis and letting the stories sink into our heart, being, and soul. Maybe it goes deeper into certain portions of Jesus’ story during certain seasons. Maybe it is simply taking a parable or story and pondering it each morning.
  • Entering into the holy sacraments with regularity. While my church does not engage in weekly communion, many churches keep the tradition of sharing the Lord’s Supper as often as they meet. John Wesley, one of the founders of the Methodist movement, had a lot to say about that in his sermon “The Duty of Constant Communion.” My experiences in places where I have had regular communion have been a blessing.
  • Caring for the least around you…
  • Spending time on a regular basis going into one of the many spiritual disciplines that have helped people to go deeper in their faith through the centuries. A lot of people fixate on the disciplines like silence and fasting, but there are many different ways people have gone deeper in their faith. Maybe you are drawn to the Examen (to overly simplify, a practice of seeking to find God in your daily life) or to prayer walks.
  • Letting God interrupt your busyness with prayer. Perhaps you set a new rule that you take a moment to pray before you get out of your car when running errands or perhaps you stop to take a moment to give thanks in prayer for your baptism when you wash your hands. Perhaps, if it is feasible, you find a simple ring and wear it for a season so that each time you notice it rubbing against a pen, pencil, or steering wheel you remember to pray. Yes, that is a very similar idea to tying a string to your finger to remember something. Yes, a string would work too.
  • Perhaps you need to spend some time in confession so that you feel comfortable both with God’s forgiveness and with a growing proximity to Jesus. I know it seems strange to list that as a way to keep company with Jesus, but the old saying is true. Confession is good for the soul.
  • Caring for the least around you… Why yes, Jesus did tell a story where the King said “whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me” (Mt. 25). Perhaps one of the best ways we can keep company with Jesus is to be with folks who need love and compassion.

Keeping company with Jesus can come about in many different ways. For me half of the journey has been finding the courage to take the leap and the other half has been focusing my heart and mind on keeping company with Jesus in my anxiety.

If you find yourself in a similar place of anxiety today, I hope you know that I am praying with you. May God bless us all as we seek to walk with Jesus through all of the strange and unknown parts of life.

Let us ramble: Jesus and personal responsibility

So, I’m currently beginning to read through “Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us” by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun. I’m preparing to participate in an upcoming session of The Academy for Spiritual Formation for the next two years, so one of the things that I am reading through is this handbook. It is not required reading, but I am starting to wade into some deeper waters.

A phrase stuck out to me today while reading. On page 18, Pastor Calhoun states:

“Jesus doesn’t grant requests like a genie in a bottle. He works with people, allowing their desires to draw him into the core conversations of life. For Jesus, requests for water, healing, rest, vindication, approval, status and so on all engage soul hungers. Misguided, self-destructive, true or addictive desperations and desires opened doors to relationship”

Pastor Calhoun goes on (I’m paraphrasing) to state that as we watch Jesus in ministry with people who make such deep requests requests we see Jesus delve into God-sized issues. These issues are generally resolved with Jesus leading people either to see the true nature of their desires or to a spiritual-practice that might help get at the core of requests. Speaking directly to the reader earlier on the same page Pastor Calhoun writes “Jesus knew you wouldn’t get well if you didn’t want the responsibility that came with wellness.”

I find all of this to be incredibly fascinating because I deal with people’s requests to God on a regular basis. Nearly every week of the year we lift up the “Prayers of the People” during our church service. Sometimes, especially on major holidays when things are a bit busy, we might use a Bidding Prayer to lift up all concerns at once through a communal prayer (which is usually the Lord’s Prayer), but generally we have an opportunity to lift up to God a word or two about a prayer request. Sometimes it is just a name and sometimes people lift up a situation, but there are often a lot of requests that cover everything from lifting up families in grief, to people fighting cancer, to life-victories like a loved one’s graduation from high school, to…well, pretty much anything! People lift up a lot of things in prayer and I am often happy to lift them up.

One of the reasons I am happy to lift up the prayers is that I generally am not placed in a place where I have to pass judgment on any of the requests. If Mrs. Doe wants to lift up her unmarried daughter Jane, it really is neither may place to tell her if her request is right or wrong nor is it generally my place to answer her prayer. Such matters often fall to God. These prayer requests often fall on Divine Shoulders, but not always.

Let me explain what I mean. When I was just out of college I came home to my town and the church I attended as a teenager. I loved attending Trinity United Methodist Church on Grand Island. Sitting in the pew every Sunday a plate was passed where we were invited to write down our prayer concerns. Almost every Sunday I put a slip of paper in the plate. The slip almost always said the exact same thing. It requested prayers for God to help the unemployed.

I lifted up that prayer request to God weekly and the pastor faithfully prayed for the under-employed and unemployed (kudos for expanding the prayer request into multiple areas of need). I walked out of church feeling God’s blessing on my shoulders, but do you know who had to place each of my job applications into the hands of the potential employers? I was the only one who could begin the process of having my prayer answered. To be certain, there were moments when I felt divine grace helping me to get out of my bed and try again, but there were also moments where the answer to my prayer required my participation.

Some part of me is led to thought when I read Pastor Calhoun’s words “Jesus knew you wouldn’t get well if you didn’t want the responsibility that came with wellness.” If I wanted to get well after college, if I wanted to pay my own bills, if I wanted to buy my own food, or if I simply wanted to be able to sit tall in church knowing that I wasn’t just using up heat and space (which I thought at the time and now thoroughly shake my head at now–that’s why the church is a public building and not a private chapel!), then I needed to take the responsibility that came with my wellness.

I think back through the scriptures and ponder a lot of the places where Jesus brings wellness into the lives of people. Jesus heals a Gerasene in Mark 5 and the man begs to go with Jesus, but the Gerasene is not called to go with Jesus. The Gerasene is given wellness, but that wellness seemingly comes with a cost. The Gerasene is sent to Decapolis where he tells people about Jesus. His blessing comes with the responsibility of wellness. He is called into his own ministry–no more tombstones and graves for the Gerasene.

In John 9, Jesus heals a blind man and being able to see immediately complicates the life of this formerly blind man and seemingly his whole family. Jesus heals and there comes a cost with that wellness. Was the formerly blind man willing to live up to the responsibility of wellness? When they interact later, the man worships Jesus, so it seems that the man was indeed willing to accept the challenges that came along with wellness.

I pursued my own wellness even as I lifted up my prayers and I was fortunate and blessed enough to find a place to work, but so often the prayers I hear lifted up both in church and in private come with a high responsibility if there is to be wellness. A few areas I see this to be true are listed below…

  • Right-relationship: People often want others to repent of their actions and ask me to pray that their friend, spouse, neighbor, family member, etc., will change in a powerful way. Right-relationship often requires that both parties be willing to flex, bend, be humble, forgive, etc. It is common to pray for others to change. It is not wrong to ask God to be in a relationship, but it often requires personal commitment to the process of making the relationship right before healing can take place.
  • Finances: People want the world to be a place of sunshine and roses. I know this is true because I am just as guilty as the next person. I would love to have a car without rust, without creaky noises, and without the high number of miles that my car currently holds. The terrible van still runs as of this blog post. In fact, in honesty, the fact that it still runs relatively-reliably may make it a bit self-absorbed and ungrateful to nickname it the terrible van.People would love to see a world where they have lots of money and they often ask why God cannot just give them a fortune. I truly believe the answer is often that people cannot have a fortune because they honestly do not need it. I also believe a lot of us have fortunes that we do not recognize because we do not see all that we have in our lives.I also believe that there are times when some of us would have fortunes if we were wise with the money we received. There’s a responsibility to look, to see, and to recognize when we are blessed. This may seem strange, but Netflix is not a spiritual gift. Christians are called to seek after the gifts of the Spirit and sometimes the nice things of the world do have a temporal cost that we have to accept if we desire them. I am not casting judgment on Netflix, but I do believe the actual value of the service compared to other temporal needs is worth thought.
  • Forgiveness: This one hurts… People pray that someone else will forgive them. Sometimes forgiveness does not mean forgetting. Sometimes forgiveness can only be offered responsibly if precautions are first put in place. If someone were to hurt my daughter I might bring myself to forgive them, but you had better believe that my forgiveness does not mean that I will automatically leave them alone with my daughter.In all honesty, there have been times in my own ministry where people have hurt me deeply simply because they are angry at God. I forgive them as I understand that they are not always capable of understanding their actions or even capable of asking for forgiveness, but that does not always mean that I want to spend time extra time around them waiting for another round of abuse.Can I always avoid such individuals? Of course not. Will I treat them poorly? I hope not. Will I go out of my way to spend more time with them so they can keep hurting me? Not unless I am led by the Spirit–Jesus is their Savior, not me. Sometimes they need to work out their anger with God before they can come to a place of resolution and restitution. I have heard it said before “We are called to love our neighbors. Loving someone does not always mean that we have to like them.”

    The same concept (having to work through the reason why pain was caused before forgiveness can be truly and completely extended) often holds true when we want others to forgive us. We may pray that others will forgive us, but occasionally that forgiveness does not come with an automatic pass back into the life of the person we have hurt. In extreme cases, this might even lead to a divorce in a marriage or estrangement with a loved one or family member.

    If this is the first time you have considered this idea, feel free to talk with me or (even better) to a profesionally trained counselor about it in private. I may even be able to recommend a counselor to help you work through this if you live locally. It is not weakness or failure to seek help when you are struggling. If anything, admitting your limitations is a sign of strength.

  • Wellness: I’m typing this blog-post while walking at my treadmill desk in my church office. Why? I prayed to God to help me to live a healthier life so that I could help my daughters grow up. My wife and I scraped through half a year without mileage reimbursement checks while going through multiple car repairs (see the terrible van comments above) and paying down a child’s surgery bills so that I might be able to get a piece of equipment that could help me to live a healthier life. The responsibility for my wellness rests partially and often heavily on my own shoulders.

Pastor Calhoun is right–God does not act like a genie every time we pray. I know passages like these challenge me to not only teach more deeply on prayer in my own ministry, but also to go deeper in how I support both my own prayer requests and the prayer requests of others. I hope you think more deeply about your own prayers as a result of these reflections. May your own requests draw you deeper into your relationship with Jesus.