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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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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Two Words To Find Our Way

I was scanning the room, making a mental checklist of what I needed to do before I could leave.

My church hosts a Thanksgiving Day Dinner for our community and has for years – just one picture of the way God can work hope out of tragedy.

It had been a great day, one of those days that reminds you why you do what you do. But the day was drawing to a close and I was in a hurry to get from one Thanksgiving meal to another. My wife and I were celebrating Thanksgiving by ourselves this year and there was a slow-cooker full of ribs with my name on them as soon as I could make it home.

About that time a church member came rushing into the room with an urgency normally reserved for news that isn’t good.

My first thought – those ribs better not get cold.

“Daniel – you’ve got to see this!”

There usually isn’t much use arguing with this particular child of God and there certainly wasn’t going to be on this day.

I walked across the hall into a classroom packed with clothes – some on hangers, some on tables, all given so that moms and dads might find some coats and clothes to make the winer a little less harsh for their kids.

But she pointed not to the clothes, but to a wooden bowl against the wall, normally reserved for a Sunday’s School class’s offering. In the bowl was a wadded up piece of paper.

A closer examination revealed that it was more than paper, but a dollar bill, left by a mother with a message for us. Snuck between the wrinkles and the lines sat two words in fresh black ink:

Thank You.

I was reminded of that message this week. We’re getting ready to host the dinner again – turkeys and pies being prepared, clothes being organized, people giving their time and their gifts for the reason that this is just who we are and this is just what do.

These simple words of gratitude from a woman, like so many in Scripture, whose name we’ll never know. This mom, who would have given anything to have enough money not to need our generosity, giving us the kind of gift money can’t buy.

And to think how close I came to missing it.

It’s not hard to miss things these days, in the days and weeks after our votes have been counted. They told us life would return to normal after the election, but normal feels a long way away.

I attended graduate school with many friends who take pride in calling themselves progressives. I serve in ministry with many friends who would take great offense at being called the same.

And so, like many, my Facebook feed is filled with point and counterpoint. I could spend, and admittedly have spent, days swimming in outrage and self-defense, trying to keep my head above water in the midst of analysis and accusations about why things are the way they are and just what they expect me to do about it.

It’s exhausting. And as anyone with kids knows, when you are tired you miss things.

I wonder how many gifts all this point and counterpoint has blinded us to. I wonder what grace we don’t have the eyes to see because we just can’t take in anything else. I wonder how many times Jesus has walked right past us while our eyes were watching something else.

I’ve come to realize in the last few years how so much of faith and discipleship is resisting the temptation to blindly settle into the categories people want to squeeze us into – rich and poor, blue and red, young and old, urban and rural just to name the most obvious.

Most of us have a hard time seeing ourselves as resistors. It might be because we’ve been conditioned to be skeptical of them. I suspect, however, that the real reason is that in the midst of work and family and church and everything else we don’t have a whole lot of energy left for resisting.

But what we need, now more than ever, is to summon the courage to resist and to find a better way to live our days. The good news is that as we turn to Thanksgiving and prepare to watch and wait through Advent, the path of resistance might not be all that complicated. It might be so obvious that even a beginner can find it, it might be right there on a wadded up dollar bill.

Thank You.

These words might be the clearest path beyond the categories that fuel our outrage and our defensiveness.

It’s hard to feel superior to the person across the table when you remember that everything you’ve been given is a gift. It’s hard to convince yourself that you have it all figured out when you look back on all your mistakes that somehow in grace weren’t terminal. It’s hard to judge the person who thinks differently when you are reminded of the things you used to think.

At least it is for me.

Because no matter what gets our blood pressure rising, we all have have received much from the God who has chosen to give it to us. No matter whether our bubble is an urban one or a rural one, we all have much to be grateful for. No matter what we want to say to that one family member, if we are honest, we can all find one place to say but for the grace of God go I…

So, how can you survive Thanksgiving Dinner this year?  What is the way forward for us all?

The answer might be the same.

Begin with two simple words.

Thank You.

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Ways Off the Path: The Spiritual Discipline of Becoming Less of a Jerk

(Note: This is the second in my Lent series, Ways Off the Path, on some of the ways we can fall of the path and get separated with God.  You can find a link to last week’s post at the bottom of the page.)

Once, in an online employee profile a co-worker shared that she believed one of my primary spiritual gifts is sarcasm.  I’m fairly certain it wasn’t a compliment.

In my defense, I come by it honestly.  I spent a good part of my 20’s being trained as a newspaper reporter, where cynicism and sarcasm aren’t personality types but job requirements.

So, it isn’t much of a surprise that some of my colleagues have been known to ask how I chose House M.D., as  a spiritual mentor or that I’ve long been drawn to the characters of the Coen Brothers and shows like The Wire.  For years my mom has suggested I spend less time on these stories and more time on lighter fare like The Hallmark Channel – but I’m proud to say that up to this point I’ve been able to hold her off.

Everybody has their own ways of pursuing spiritual growth, but one of the ways I am choosing to try to follow closer to Jesus these days is what I call, in a phrase you can only learn in Divinity School, becoming less of a jerk.

photo-1444828589547-4ee6f3cb625a

Well, that’s not exactly true. But during this holy season of Lent – this time in which we are encouraged to take an honest and searing look at our lives and the habits that keep us away from God – I am working to become less critical of myself and of other people.

One of the byproducts of being trained as an analyst and to be skeptical is that you become an expert in identifying the ways that people fall short of the glory of God and the inherent failures of groups and systems.

There is a place for clear-minded and honest analysis, because we can only grow more faithful if we are willing to tell the truth about ourselves and our communities and organizations.  But when these efforts command so much of our time and attention, the costs can be too high.

We pay the price that comes from perfectionism when we fail to meet the impossible standards we set for ourselves.  It doesn’t matter that no one can meet them – that’s beside the point we tell ourselves.  And the standards not only lead to self-doubt and self-criticism but also being unable to live the life God wants for us. Instead of honestly trying to be obedient to God’s call on our lives, we find ourselves stuck and unable to move because we become paralyzed by the fear of not being able to live without failure.

Another steep price we pay is that we miss out and fail to appreciate the incredible gifts of the people around us.  When all we can see is the ways it can be better, we become blinded to the ways that God has been and still is at work in and through our community.

The truth is the more devoted we become to critical analysis the harder it is to appreciate the good things in our lives.

And when we miss the good things in our lives, we miss the blessing and the presence of God – in our friends, in our families, and in the countless people who reveal God’s love to us each and every day.

I was reminded of this last week when my wife and I were discussing a chapter in the book we are reading together for Lent.  As we were reflecting on the chapter, she reminded both of us that we are so much better off focusing on the blessings God has given us than stressing out on the things we don’t have. (Writer’s Note: I clearly married up.)

So, during these forty holy days of Lent I am trying to build a habit that will stick – to spend less time in analysis and snark and more time in celebration and appreciation.  We all can be good at a lot of things, but I am hoping to become better at learning how to see and celebrate the way God is at work in my life, in my family’s life, and in the life of the church and the people and the community we love.

It generally takes about six weeks for habits to take hold – so I have high hopes for this season of life.  I don’t know what you are up for Lent – probably something much holier than trying to become less cynical and critical- but whatever it is I hope and pray that you experience God’s grace and power to see the change you long for.

Ways Off the Path

Week 1: Paying Attention to the Wrong Things

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Ways Off the Path: The Spiritual Discipline of Becoming Less of a Jerk

(Note: This is the second in my Lent series, Ways Off the Path, on some of the ways we can fall of the path and get separated with God.  You can find a link to last week’s post at the bottom of the page.)

Once, in an online employee profile a co-worker shared that she believed one of my primary spiritual gifts is sarcasm.  I’m fairly certain it wasn’t a compliment.

In my defense, I come by it honestly.  I spent a good part of my 20’s being trained as a newspaper reporter, where cynicism and sarcasm aren’t personality types but job requirements.

So, it isn’t much of a surprise that some of my colleagues have been known to ask how I chose House M.D., as  a spiritual mentor or that I’ve long been drawn to the characters of the Coen Brothers and shows like The Wire.  For years my mom has suggested I spend less time on these stories and more time on lighter fare like The Hallmark Channel – but I’m proud to say that up to this point I’ve been able to hold her off.

Everybody has their own ways of pursuing spiritual growth, but one of the ways I am choosing to try to follow closer to Jesus these days is what I call, in a phrase you can only learn in Divinity School, becoming less of a jerk.

photo-1444828589547-4ee6f3cb625a

Well, that’s not exactly true. But during this holy season of Lent – this time in which we are encouraged to take an honest and searing look at our lives and the habits that keep us away from God – I am working to become less critical of myself and of other people.

One of the byproducts of being trained as an analyst and to be skeptical is that you become an expert in identifying the ways that people fall short of the glory of God and the inherent failures of groups and systems.

There is a place for clear-minded and honest analysis, because we can only grow more faithful if we are willing to tell the truth about ourselves and our communities and organizations.  But when these efforts command so much of our time and attention, the costs can be too high.

We pay the price that comes from perfectionism when we fail to meet the impossible standards we set for ourselves.  It doesn’t matter that no one can meet them – that’s beside the point we tell ourselves.  And the standards not only lead to self-doubt and self-criticism but also being unable to live the life God wants for us. Instead of honestly trying to be obedient to God’s call on our lives, we find ourselves stuck and unable to move because we become paralyzed by the fear of not being able to live without failure.

Another steep price we pay is that we miss out and fail to appreciate the incredible gifts of the people around us.  When all we can see is the ways it can be better, we become blinded to the ways that God has been and still is at work in and through our community.

The truth is the more devoted we become to critical analysis the harder it is to appreciate the good things in our lives.

And when we miss the good things in our lives, we miss the blessing and the presence of God – in our friends, in our families, and in the countless people who reveal God’s love to us each and every day.

I was reminded of this last week when my wife and I were discussing a chapter in the book we are reading together for Lent.  As we were reflecting on the chapter, she reminded both of us that we are so much better off focusing on the blessings God has given us than stressing out on the things we don’t have. (Writer’s Note: I clearly married up.)

So, during these forty holy days of Lent I am trying to build a habit that will stick – to spend less time in analysis and snark and more time in celebration and appreciation.  We all can be good at a lot of things, but I am hoping to become better at learning how to see and celebrate the way God is at work in my life, in my family’s life, and in the life of the church and the people and the community we love.

It generally takes about six weeks for habits to take hold – so I have high hopes for this season of life.  I don’t know what you are up for Lent – probably something much holier than trying to become less cynical and critical- but whatever it is I hope and pray that you experience God’s grace and power to see the change you long for.

Ways Off the Path

Week 1: Paying Attention to the Wrong Things

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