The Shrinking Gap

It’s currently seven degrees outside – yes, 7.

That’s what happens when you head north between Christmas and New Years Eve.

Thankfully warmer weather awaits us at home – and we will get there. But we’ve got about ten hours in the car between where we are now and where we want to be.

That’s what the end of the old year and the beginning of the new year are often about – the distance between our current location and our desired destination. We make resolutions – even if we don’t call them that. We set goals – even if that’s a phrase we don’t like to use. We might not make a big deal about it and we might not even say it out loud, but what we want is to shrink the distance between where we are and where we would like to be.

I, like everybody else, have some things I’d like to do a little differently in 2018 than I did in 2017. I’d like to write more and dawdle on the Internet less. I’d like the elliptical machine to function more like a piece of exercise equipment and less like a decorative piece. I’d like to spend more time doing the things that matter to me and a whole lot less time caring about the things that don’t.

I’ll probably write more about that early next week, once the calendar officially turns. But first, I want to celebrate at least one place I saw this gap narrow in 2017.

One of the prayers I’ve been praying for a long time has been for God to show me how to make more room for God in my life. I work in church and spend a lot of time figuring out how to help other people grow in their faith. But I know all too well the pressures and distractions that push and pull me away from what I need most.

So, like a lot of people, I’ve been asking God for a while to help me prepare the way of the Lord – to show me the way to clear out what I need rid of so I can receive what God wants to give me.

The truth is that there is so much more to the life that God wants to give than what I make room for. Jesus wants to abide, to find plenty of room in my life to fill me up for what I was made for. But it has been too easy for me to pack my life full of so many things that there isn’t a whole lot of room left for anything or anyone else.

Thanks to God, and with a lot of help from the Jesuits, I actually learned how to carve out a bit of room this year.

One of the spiritual practices that I’ve wanted to try for a long time has been the Examen, a way to pray that comes from the spiritual exercise of Ignatius of Loyola.

I finally decided to try it during Lent this past year. I received plenty of gifts praying this way during Lent – reviewing and praying from the experiences of the day – but the most significant one was noticing all the ways God was present in the ordinary moments of my day.

Or, as Ignatius might say, I began to notice how God was in all things.

Midway through the year I picked up a book I had ordered a while ago – Kevin O’Brien’s The Ignatian Adventure. It’s a year-long journey through the Spiritual Exercises. I had been reading about Ignatian Spirituality in a variety of places the last couple of years. It was as if God had been dropping me a hint and I finally decided to see where the hint led.

What I discovered by following the hint was how much the structured prayer became the anchor I desperately needed.

What I had been missing wasn’t a desire to pray or the knowledge of how to connect with God. It was the structure and the consistency in the guide that helped me remain rooted and disciplined in the practice of prayer. Each morning’s reading grounded me in Scripture and invited me to consider how my story is intersecting with God’s. I’ve had the opportunity to pray in new ways and to take stock of how God it at work in my life, my family, my job and my faith.

Some of what God is doing has yet to reveal itself. But there is one easy way to note how that gap I mentioned earlier is shrinking – I’ve almost run out of room in my morning prayer journal.

One of my friends challenged me a few months ago with a simple question – “Daniel, how do you celebrate your successes?”

“I don’t.”

“Well you better figure something out then,” he said.

I know that the progress of the last half of 2017 is relatively small. There’s still plenty of work to do and many more gifts God wants to give me. I know there’s still a lot of clutter to get rid of and many choices to make in order to become the person God wants to shape me into becoming.

But any progress in the spiritual life is worth celebrating. Any grace received is worthy of gratitude.

 

Practices For Making Room

If you want to make more room for God in your life, here are a few spiritual practices that helped me make room in 2017.

  1. Slow Down. Almost every spiritual teacher I read this year stressed that one of the most important things we have to do to grow in our connection with God is to slow down. Slowing down allows us to pay attention to ourselves – our bodies as well as our emotions, other people and the creation that God has given us. Making room in your schedule to slow down will likely lead you to make more room for God.
  2. Be Quiet. A teacher in graduate school once told me that the best way to pray was to stare at a wall and not talk for a long time. The practice would almost force you to listen and hear from God. I don’t know about the wall, but a consistent practice of silence in prayer is a great gift, particularly for those of us who talk a lot. I’ve started with just three minutes at a time. This is something I am going to try to be more consistent with in my spiritual practice in 2018.
  3. Create a Routine. I’ve often thought this was overrated, but I now know it’s not. Getting to work a little early so I can read and pray first thing in the morning has been a game-changer for me.
  4. Turn Off The Internet (and Cable News). Learning how to limit time on the Internet (except when reading and sharing my posts) can be a way to focus on what is happening in your life and how God is at work.  Spirituality doesn’t mean being ignorant of the issues of the day or how what’s happening in the world affects people created and loved by God. But particularly right now, the way we consume and experience news can do a lot to lead us away from God.
  5. Pray. Repeat. One of my friends invited me to participate in a challenge where people of all faiths prayed sentence prayers one thousand times per day. One example would be the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner). It changed the way I experienced my day to pray and remember God that many times. It reminded me of the goodness of God as I went about my day – in meetings at work, while walking the dog, in preparing dinner, and as I relaxed at the end of the day. It felt a whole lot like growing toward praying without ceasing.
  6. Start The Day Right.  Instead of turning straight for your phone when you wake up, what if you began your day with the Lord’s Prayer or the Apostle’s Creed or by praying over what you expect to be the significant events of your day? The Beatitudes or Psalm 23 could also help you begin well.

 

Guides For Making Room

We all need guides to show us the way. Here are a few of the guides who helped me close the gap this year. You might find them as one part of God’s grace for you as well.

1. The Ignatian Adventure, Kevin O’Brien

2. Sacred Rhythms, Ruth Haley Barton

3. Pilgrimage of a Soul, Phileena Heuertz

4. The Gift of Being Yourself, David Benner

5. The Good and Beautiful God, James Bryan Smith 

6. Wearing God, Lauren Winner

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The Light is Coming

Last Christmas Eve I found myself sitting in an unfamiliar place – in the pews.

It was the first time in a while I hadn’t been asked to deliver a Christmas Eve sermon. It was the first time in more than a few years I didn’t arrive early at the church to shepherd a community through experiencing love, joy, hope and peace in the gift of the promised Child. It had been some time since I hadn’t sprinted to church from a quick family dinner to make sure that when we lifted the candles and sang Silent Night we knew for sure, if only for a moment, that all is calm and all is bright.

Instead, my wife and I spent part of our Christmas Eve a year ago listening to one of our friends lead his congregation. We did our best to find our way through the hymnal, singing those old songs in a strange place. We prayed with our friend as he prayed for people like us, those struggling to find the joy of Christmas in the midst of the pain that December sometimes brings. We made the walk down the center aisle, feeling the stares trained on us as we walked to receive the grace we needed more than ever in bread and a cup. We nodded with our friend as he announced those bold words from John’s Gospel – The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.

Christmas Eve 2016 marked the 17th day our daughter had spent in the NICU. 17 days of highs and lows. 17 days of doctors and nurses. 17 days of rigorous hand-washing. 17 days of rising in hope and falling with despair in the digital reading of a hospital monitor.

A year later we know we are the lucky ones, blessed with a healthy daughter thanks to the skill of a trained medical staff and the generosity of a gracious God.

And as I prepare to make up for last year with morning and evening sermons this Christmas Eve, one of the many things I now know first-hand is the depth of hope packed in that phrase that has become central to the church’s Christmas message.

The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it – the words both announce how God has come to be with us and the life-shaking implications of such a gift. The truth that God comes into our world in a child, moves into our neighborhood as Eugene Peterson has put it, runs so much deeper than we have imagined.

God’s entrance into our lives is more than just the light waiting to outlast whatever forces darkness can throw at God. Instead, the story of Christmas is the story of the Light on the move. The gift is nothing less than God coming to overwhelm the darkness with a force it cannot endure. Christmas comes not just as an inevitable victory against an enemy determined to do battle, but as a forward march of the Light on a mission to defeat the enemy in every way, shape and form it dares present itself.

The Light has come into the world to break the will of the forces that hold us and our neighbors in bondage. Christmas comes to break through the pain that prevents people from experiencing life. The child comes to show people wandering in the darkness the way of the Light. The angels sing the song of God’s inevitable victory over fear, hatred and injustice. Joy to the World is no sentimental song of the status quo but a victory anthem of those who have experienced the power of light freeing them from the darkness that had bound them for far too long.

Christmas isn’t reserved for those who can’t wait to sing the songs of the season. The Light comes into the world to restore those paralyzed by worry. God comes here to heal those bound by anxiety. The Child comes to lead those home who have lost their way. The gift is that God is coming to blast through every bit of the darkness with the power of light and love.

The good news is that God isn’t going to wait. Love is coming for us at Christmas. The Light is coming to shatter the darkness so we can see and love again.

Merry Christmas.

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We Will

On Sunday morning our family walked up and stood in front of the church I have been called to help lead. Me, I’m used to that. In fact, it’s expected. It is, despite my serious introversion, a job requirement.

My wife doesn’t enjoy being up front; she avoids it at almost all costs. My daughter, at least so far, is happy as long as there is somewhere to sleep and a pacifier nearby. And yet, there Erin and I were, standing with our daughter and our parents while everyone else stared at us as we prepared to answer some questions from a preacher.

They weren’t just any questions either, but questions about our faith. We were asked what we believe is most fundamentally true – about God and the world that God loves. We were asked about life – particularly the kind of life we believe is worth living, the life we want for ourselves and the one we want for our daughter. We were asked about our commitments – what we were willing to do and what we weren’t willing to do.

Question 1: Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and repent of your sin?

We do.

Question 2: Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?

We do.

Question 3: Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations and races?

We do.

Question 4: Will you nurture your daughter in Christ’s holy Church, that by your teaching and example she may be guided to accept God’s grace for herself, to profess her faith openly and to lead a Christian life?

We will.

Serious questions these are, questions that require serious answers. There’s nothing that forces you to come to grips with what you really believe is important quite like trying to raise a child.

My wife and I were raised in two different church traditions, particularly when it comes to baptism. She grew up in a tradition that prefers adult baptism and infant dedication. I grew up in one that practices infant baptism and mostly teenage confirmation.

Before our daughter was born we had plenty of conversations about the sacrament– when and how it would be offered if we had a child, why each tradition made sense and what it all meant to receive the waters and blessing of being baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

And so we made the walk from our seats to the front of the church Sunday not in respect to tradition or out of some ecclesial obligation, but because of what we have come to believe is true about the way God works in our lives and in the world.

We looked at each other and smiled as we heard a friend pronounce the words over our daughter:

I baptize you in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

Because this we believe – these questions are impossible to truthfully answer yes to on our own.

Sin and evil lurk around every corner and find their way into our lives when we are looking and when we aren’t. How could we possibly reject them by ourselves?

Rejecting evil, injustice and oppression is a supersized task, even if the freedom does come from God. There isn’t a day that goes by when we aren’t aware – even as privileged and relatively comfortable people – of the injustices and evils and oppression that friends and neighbors face on a near constant basis. Rejecting these is God-sized work.

The very nature of faith is trust and yet we are keenly aware of how easy it is to place trust in other things – reputation, money, popularity, and comfort just to name a few. And while the Gospel breaks down every barrier, many of which we don’t name in the liturgy, I admit that I’m still pretty good at clinging to the old identities and ways of being.

And then there’s the real tough one – that our lives are to be examples to our daughter that will lead her to Christ. We’re supposed to live in such a way that she will reject the idolatries of the world and find freedom from the sins that bind us and might bind her. It isn’t our intellect or powers of persuasion that we are being asked to affirm, but the integrity of how we try to follow Jesus.

How could anyone say yes to these questions?

And yet there we were, declaring with boldness and confidence that we will resist evil and oppression, that we will  live in the freedom of God, that we will put our whole trust in God’s grace and that our lives will bear witness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

We did it because we know that the same grace our daughter was receiving in the water – the power to resist sin and grow in grace – was at work in our lives. The same grace that was drawing her to God before she is even aware of it is the same grace that is sustaining and pulling us forward in our life with God as well. Our own strength and faith commitments announce a dreary No. But with God’s grace, working in our lives and the lives of our faithful friends and community we can shout a joy-filled Yes.

Christ is alive. Grace is ever-present. God is at work.

Will you follow Jesus and show your daughter how to do the same?

Without reservation – We Will!

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Beyond Fear: The Shove of Resurrection

For some people the Resurrection stories are some of the hardest in all of the Bible to believe. After all, it’s never been easy to make sense of Resurrection. But in some ways they are among the easiest to believe, because it doesn’t take too much imagination to identify with what we read there – people overwhelmed by fear, paralyzed by worry and struggling to find a clear idea of what it all means.

It doesn’t matter which Gospel you read, because this is what we encounter in almost every story that involves Jesus appearing after Easter morning. It is probably most vivid, however, in Mary’s encounter with Jesus at the tomb.

We don’t find her laughing or celebrating, but instead John tells us that she was weeping. She didn’t know what to believe. She didn’t know what had happened. She assumed the worst – that someone had stolen his body – maybe the one thing that could make a terrible week even worse. The event that gives us hope and faith had reduced her to fear and anguish.

And yet, that’s not how she left the tomb. Because Jesus was there and he helped her make sense of it all. He showed her that there was more to this story – and hers. Because she had a role to play – go and tell your friends what you have seen and what you have heard.

At the tomb on Easter morning Mary experienced a journey from fear to mission – from where have you taken him to I have seen the Lord.

Mary isn’t the only one to experience the Resurrection in this way. In Luke 24 we read how a walking Bible Study with Jesus helped two men get to a place where they too could say we have seen the Lord. It was on a beach that Peter had the conversation and received the forgiveness he desperately needed.

Three times Jesus asked Peter if he loved him, once for each time Peter had betrayed him, of course. This is the moment Peter received the forgiveness he needed and this is the moment Peter discovered the purpose and mission Jesus has for his life.

Because in a post-Resurrection world, forgiveness always leads to discovering your purpose and receiving your mission.

That’s why this story matters so much.  We know, with Mary at the tomb, what it is like to be assaulted by grief. We know, with the men on the road to Emmaus, what it is like to walk away in despair. We know, with Peter on the beach, what it is to desperately need forgiveness.

And so we rejoice after Easter that the worries that threaten to stop us in our tracks don’t. We celebrate in the light of Sunday the possibilities for new life that come when we begin to understand how God’s story is still unfolding in us, even now. We experience joy in Resurrection when we realize the purpose and mission for our lives that comes from receiving and experiencing God’s forgiveness and grace.

The Resurrection matters because we have become convinced that there is a power within us that is strong enough to break the bonds of fear. We live by the grace that is stronger than judgement and rest in the forgiveness that frees us from anything that would prevent us from living in the light of God’s love. We cling with everything we have to the promise of Romans 8 that because of all that has happened we trust that there is absolutely nothing with the power to separate us from God’s love.

Resurrection matters when it becomes the reality that lingers every day of our lives as we live into the new mission we have been given. God’s victory over death invites us to tell when and where we have seen the Lord. The light that shines out of the empty tomb calls us to bear witness to God’s love in a world that desperately needs a glimpse of it any way it can get it. We experience the joy of new life by getting to participate in the new thing God is doing in redeeming and restoring the world.

A journey that begins in fear ends in becoming partners with God to change the world.

That’s why Easter matters.

 

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Prayers For The Path: The Prayer of Gratitude

We have been conditioned to understand Lent as a season full of darkness.

After all, this is the time in the church year when we pay particular attention to the gaps our sin has created in our relationship with God. These are the days when we are invited to come to grips with the idols that have pulled us away from the path of Jesus. These are the nights when we contemplate how for all of us both our origins and our endings include dust.

But that’s not all God is up to during these forty days. If we do Lent right, our season of preparation will include much more than wallowing in hues of dark purple and black. Instead, Lent can be a great teacher of gratitude.

The season teaches us that confessing the sins that weigh us down reminds us of the depths of God’s mercy for us. Realizing the idolatries within us leads us to remember all the ways we depend on God’s forgiveness. Acknowledging the power of temptation invites us to give thanks for the God who is showing us a better way.

The practices of confession and penance don’t leave us trapped in a darkened room with no escape but instead open a door to gratitude that frees us receive the gifts God wants to give us.

That’s one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned in praying The Examen. One of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, The Examen invites us to pay attention to the presence of God in the ordinary activities that make up our lives. By providing structure and guidance to my evening prayers, the Examen has directed me to consider all the places and ways I have experienced God’s grace and mercy. It has also revealed plenty of areas of sin to confess, but even those are opportunities for gratitude when contemplated and prayed in the light of God’s ongoing mercy and grace.

This season invites us to live with a particular type of prayer for an extended period of time. The prayer isn’t so much the point – instead it is about allowing the prayer to point us and redirect us back to God.  It’s really about the turning.

The particular turning I’ve been able to experience this Lent has been less about facing my own inadequacies and more about experiencing the generosity of the God who forgives them. I am becoming more grateful not just for isolated moments and encounters but for the consistent love and character of the God who is drawing me deeper into relationship through these prayers.

The closer we get to Jerusalem the more important this is. Because just like those early disciples I am not sure I like exactly where all this is headed. I have my own ideas about who Jesus should be and what he should be about. I have plenty of thoughts about what he should do and what redemption should look like for me – and particularly for those who aren’t me.

And yet living and praying with gratitude is what keeps me going. Thankfulness for all God has done for me is what keeps me from turning back – at least for now.

We need gratitude and thankfulness in order to trust the goodness of God who is taking us somewhere we don’t want to go.

Thank you. This is the prayer I’m praying today.

How about you?  What is is that you are thankful for?  How might you develop gratitude to live with trust in the God who is calling you to something different?  What do you need to return to God with all your heart?

 

Note: This is the second post in a series, Prayers for the Path, prayers that keep us rooted and close to Jesus as we follow him this season to Jerusalem.

Prayers For the Path: 

The Prayer of Silence 

 

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