Beyond Distraction

My usual response to people who want to get a hold of me is simple – call me on my phone, it’s always on my hip. That answer has started to change, however, because what I’ve learned is that one of the keys to actually living life is to leave my phone in another room.

I know better than I would like to admit the addictive power of my phone. There are few forces better at demanding our attention than the mini-computers we carry in our hands. Whether it is calling or texting friends, posting on our platform of choice, or encountering the world through the lens of our camera, our phones demand our attention.

And that demand comes with a high price. Being locked into the world of our phones leads us to miss the gift of God’s glory in the world in which we actually live. Giving our families the view of the top of our head teaches them that they aren’t as important as whatever we are experiencing in our news feeds. The connectedness our devices make possible often serves to disconnect us from what we most want and need.

Sin and Distraction

I used to think that distractions were neutral, things that might pull us away from productivity but weren’t filled with malice. The more I’ve learned about the spiritual life and how distractions prevent us from paying attention – to God and the people who matter to us – I have come to the realization there isn’t much difference between the negative influence of distractions and the insidious destruction we call sin.

The classic evangelical definition of sin calls it anything that separates us from God. That separation from God leads to division and alienation from other people. When our mutual separation is brought to bear the tragic result are systems and structures that menace people by denying the presence of God within them. This is what leads the Apostle Paul to name the fundamental work of the Cross as reconciliation – both between God and humanity and between groups of people.

Regardless of its source, our inability to remain focused on who and what truly matters leads us away from God and summons us to build walls between one another. Transformation, the kind that leads us back to God and inspires us to build bridges, doesn’t happen by paying attention for a fleeting moment in between the experiences that vie for our attention. Growing in our relationship with God and experiencing the reconciled life requires sustained attention these distractions serve to undermine.

We are changed as we grow in the ability to notice the signs of God’s activity in the world. We grow in grace as we respond in gratitude to the gifts God is giving us. We experience the joy of new creation as we learn to pay attention to the things God wants to show us.

Greater Things

In the opening of John’s Gospel, Jesus tells Nathanael that if he stays close he will see greater things than he has seen before. In short, Jesus is telling Nathanael that if he can learn to pay attention he will experience life in a way he never has before.

But Nathanael will learn what I know pretty well, and I bet you do too – wanting to focus on what matters and finding a way to do it are two different things.

One of the most important questions to ask, then, is how we are going to reorder our life so we can actually see these greater things Jesus wants to show us. How do we structure our days so we don’t miss the glory of God when it walks right in front of us? How do we learn to spot the signs of reconciliation and new birth that break through when people who once hated each other sit down together as friends? How can we remove the blinders and begin to see the Kingdom vision that starts with the choice you make as Jesus invites you to “Come and see”? How can we say no to the temptations of the distractions and yes to the one thing we know we need?

One of the answers I’ve come up with is to remember that it is possible to live without my phone attached to my hip. The phone – and all the things that come with it – isn’t the devil. I don’t long for us to go to back to a world without them – we’d just replace them with some other way to avoid what really matters.

But I do know that I’ve discovered a whole lot of time that I couldn’t seem to find before. I’ve noticed I spent way too much time on that phone and not enough spotting and celebrating real life. I’ve also made room for other things that help me see – listening in silence instead of insisting on my own way,  reading my Bible for myself and not just as fodder for a sermon, and paying attention to people instead of racing past them in a rush to get things done.

What is keeping you from seeing and experiencing greater things? My prayer for you is that you can find one thing to push aside and begin to receive the gift that comes from paying attention to what truly matters.

 

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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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Declutter

Our house has to be cleaned before it can really be cleaned – it’s that bad. It’s probably always been that way, but it’s a whole lot easier to notice after a year of accumulating all the stuff new parents do. As my wife and I were lamenting the state of our house the other night, one of us said to the other, “Our biggest problem is that there are a whole lot of things in rooms that don’t belong there.”

Clutter, of course, isn’t a problem reserved for the kitchen counter. Clutter is one of the biggest obstacles to growing in the spiritual life.

Advent, this season of preparation, is a great opportunity to evaluate our lives and determine what is essential to life with God and what is an extra that prevents us from experiencing the gifts God wants to give us.

One of the easiest places to see how and where our lives have gotten cluttered is by taking stock of what grabs our attention. One of the most difficult things for anyone in 2017, and particularly for those of us trying to live in a connected relationship with God, is to stay focused on the things that keep us connected with God and with one another.

The opportunities for distraction come before our coffee is made. By lunch we often find ourselves becoming experts on whatever topic has trended. By bedtime we often know much about plenty but little about what we most desperately need.

One of the most important questions we can ask ourselves, then, is what is it that grabs our attention. It’s a conversation that Jesus had again and again with his disciples – probably because they, like us, had a whole lot of trouble keeping their attention trained on Jesus even when he was right next to them. They didn’t have college football to take up their time, but they did struggle to make sense of politics, they did get tempted by the allure of comfort, and they spent a lot of time spouting their own opinions instead of listening to the One who had come to show them a better way.

The uncomfortable truth is that the topics which grab our attention are the topics that shape our lives. We can know a lot about the new coach at Tennessee but that doesn’t do much for us when we lose our job. We can have passionate opinions about the President’s latest tweet but they don’t help us sit in silence to hear a word from a holy God. We can spend a whole lot of time finding the perfect gift and still miss the gift of the presence of the ones we love.

The church, at least those churches that follow the liturgical calendar, often begins Advent by listening to Jesus call his disciples to watch and pray. Last week we listened to the words of Jesus from Luke 21 in which he told the disciples to focus their attention on learning how to spot the signs of his second coming. What he wanted them to learn was how to focus their attention on what truly mattered.  What they really needed wasn’t to marvel at the beauty of the Jerusalem temple but to pay attention to the signs of God’s work in the world.

In many ways that is what this season is all about – learning how to retrain our eyes to see what really matters. Advent is a chance to make room in our lives to receive the Lord who will come again. These four weeks are an opportunity to clean out the things that aren’t essential so we can notice when God moves into our neighborhood. It is an invitation to recommit ourselves to finding the life that is found in receiving the gift God wants to give us.

During the course of the last couple of months I’ve been journeying through the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius with the help of Kevin O’Brien’s beautiful book, The Ignatian Adventure. There is plenty of wisdom in these pages. And yet much of it can be distilled into this – learn how to repent of the patterns that separate us from God and live into those patterns that help us spot God’s presence in our midst.

We have been created for the purpose of loving, worshiping and serving God – and the key to such a life is, “to use these things to the extent that they help us toward our end, and free us from them to the extent that they hinder us from it.”

What is it that prevents us from loving, serving and worshiping God? Once you know that, get rid of it. What is it that helps us see all that God wants to show us? Make room for that.

Get rid of clutter and make room for light to shine. This isn’t just good advice for a cleaner kitchen. This is how we prepare for the coming of the Lord.

 

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Summer Reading

Photo by Rachel Lees on Unsplash

The first time I encountered a summer reading list was the summer before my freshman year of high school. I was transferring to a new school, where I knew no one and wasn’t sure if anyone would like me. And more significantly to me, I wasn’t sure how much I was going to like them.

Sometime around April or May we got our instructions for the summer. Our instructions were to pick a couple of different books to read during the summer. Then on the first day of class, which was for me the first day at this new school, we were supposed to show up and discuss the book in our assigned group.

Back then the depth of my reading extended to Sports Illustrated and not much else. I had no idea where to begin. When it reached the point where I couldn’t possibly put it off any longer, I went upstairs and asked asked my mother, the resident reader in our house, which two books I should read. My mom, in what was not her best moment, picked two books that she had read and loved. Figuring those were as good as any on the list, I read the books, and then in August walked into my first summer reading group.

My first clue that listening to my mom was a poor idea came when people made their way into the room and I was the only guy in the group. That, in itself wasn’t a problem. But I was pretty sure that being known as the new, dorky kid who didn’t say anything in a room full of girls was not the start I was looking for.

But, let’s be honest, it wasn’t exactly an aberration for the rest of my high school experience. Thank God there is life after 17.

I had nightmares about that the other day after a friend asked me for a reading list for the summer. And it got me to thinking about what a summer reading list for church types might look like. Here are some of the books I’ve read or want to read soon. I’d love to hear from you about what’s on your list.

Fiction:

A Land More Kind Than Home, Wiley Cash: A great debut novel about small-town church in Appalachia and the way it can provide meaning and also lead people astray. Critics have called Cash a cross between Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy. Good enough for me.

Exit West, Moshin Hamid: One of the year’s most timely books, a novel that centers on the journey of and sacrifices made by refugees.

Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders: So, I have become a history nerd. An imaginative novel inspired by a grieving Abraham Lincoln. Written by George Saunders. I bought this for my dad for Father’s Day – my greatest temptation every time I am home is to run up and steal it for myself.

House of Spies, Daniel Silva: I got hooked on this mystery series a few years ago. I’ll be hauling the latest installment with me on my summer vacation.

Swingtime, Zadie Smith. When Zadie Smith writes a book, it is an event. I heard her speak at the Festival of Faith and Writing last year. Her words on creation and writing good sentences still ring in my ears every time I write.

The Vacationers, Emma Straub: A classic family on the edge of coming apart tale. But written with sympathy and empathy. Emma Straub is one of my favorite fiction writers.

Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter: Quite simply one of the most beautiful novels I’ve read. Weaves together stories of loss and betrayal, hope and redemption.

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead: Winner of the Pulitzer. Imagine the Underground Railroad as an actual railroad. Whitehead is an incredible writer who can tell a great story.

Non-Fiction

The Bully Pulpit, Doris Kearns Goodwin: Ok, so it’s 900 pages – about Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. And I only made it through 300, but those 300 were great. If you have the chance to go off the grid and not be bothered for a month, you might finish the book and would be glad you did.

Originals – How Nonconformists Rule the World, Adam Grant: I don’t read many leadership books. But I do read and listen to Adam Grant.

Strange Glory, Charles Marsh: Skip Eric Metaxas’ better known book and read the definitive biography of Bonhoeffer.

The Cubs Way, Tom Verducci: Who doesn’t want to read more about the Cubs from the best baseball writer on the planet?

Spiritual Reading

Found, Micha Boyett: Readers of the blog know how much I love this book. A memoir of experiencing God again in the Psalms.

As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Eugene Peterson: A collected work of sermons. Peterson says it’s his last book. It’s one worth reading.

The Ignatian Adventure, Kevin O’Brien: The Examen has become the spiritual practice that teaches me again and again how God is already at work in my life and in the world around me. This is a great introductory guide.

Original Blessing, Danielle Shroyer: Shroyer argues that Christians have misread Genesis and misapplied its lessons in the doctrine of Original Sin. A better way to talk about it, she insists, is to talk about God’s Original Blessing. It’s a provocative book with implications about how we relate to God, one another and the world around us.

Liturgy of the Ordinary, Tish Harrison Warren: I’ve known Tish since college. She writes about how we see and experience God in the every day things we do, things like brushing our teeth and making our beds.

Happy Reading!

Photo Credit: Photo by Rachel Lees on Unsplash

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How Do You Read It?

There are few books that grab our attention and unsettle our minds like the Bible.

I was reminded of that again this past Sunday as we talked in our church about how we can say with conviction and understanding that the Bible is true.

You could see it on the faces of our people. You could hear it in the comments on the way out of church. A friend who doesn’t normally come to church was there on Sunday and could not stop talking about how the sermon affected him. A few days later he was still talking about it.

I don’t believe it was the quality or force of the preaching. Instead, I am convinced that one of the deepest desires people have, both inside and outside the church, is to learn how to read the Bible with wisdom and confidence.

People are searching for help because they want to know how they can trust the words of a book that they have been around, in some way or another, for their whole lives. People are searching for a better way because they know the way the Bible is leveraged as a weapon in hot-button debates doesn’t seem right but they don’t know how to articulate a better alternative. People are searching for a way to deepen their understanding and relationship with God but feel like they will never have enough knowledge to get through the historical, cultural and religious details that can make it so hard to understand. People are desperate for guidance about what it means to live a good life and how the Bible can help them find the way to discover that kind of existence.

One of the few things that most Christians can agree on is that the Bible is true. It is the how that often ties us in knots that keep us stuck.

The truth of the Bible isn’t found in quoting chapter and verse in debates that the book was never intended to solve. Instead the gift of Scripture is the way it guides us to understand the truth – about ourselves, about the world we live in and about the character of God.

The Bible tells us the truth by setting us in the big story that defines our lives.  As we read and take in the pages of Scripture we don’t get bogged down in the details that can be useful for trivia, but instead we grow in the truth that God is the One who loves us and is for us. As we read this book we come to discover that God’s essence is relational love and that our lives expand according to our capacity to receive and be transformed by this love.

As we experience the joys and heartbreaks that come as we make our way through adulthood, we take hope in the Bible’s declaration that what is most true about us is that we are God’s beloved. As we try to figure out who we are supposed to be and what we are supposed to do we rest in the truth of Scripture that God invites us to a vital role in God’s mission for the world. When we’ve messed up and wonder how we will ever recover, we remember that forgiveness is God’s way.

As we listen to the voices of Scripture we come to discover that there isn’t anything we experience that can’t be described or explained by the broad narrative of God’s story.  As we come to understand the world in terms of sin and grace and temptation and redemption, we realize the events we call news are really just the most recent manifestations of the same old story.

We notice how our dream for a way beyond our divisions sounds eerily familiar to Paul’s declaration that in Christ God is making a new humanity. As we wonder how it will ever get better we anchor ourselves in God’s ministry of reconciliation. We become encouraged when we remember that God tears down dividing walls. Our spirits are lifted as we read that when we work to cross boundaries we are in communion with a God who does the same.

When we provide a shoulder for our friends who cry out for justice we remember that racism and sexism and poverty are the expressions of deep-seated sin that emerges out of the cracks in our relationship with God and one another. As we feel powerless to combat the institutions and powers intent on maligning God’s good creation we remember the cries of the Exiles and recall God’s stubborn tendency to make the implausible gloriously real.

“The Bible”, Eugene Peterson writes in As Kingfishers Catch Fire, “is the best book for discovering the all-inclusive reality in which we exist and then for initiating us into it.”

The Bible, then, is more than an old, interesting book. It is the story that tells us who we are and it is an invitation to the good life. It is more than a book of details and quotable lines.  It describes who we are made to be. It explains the world that often defies explanation. Most importantly, it reveals the depth of God’s love for us and invites us to live in the grip of this love.

No wonder it matters so much.

 

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