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 Lament

Things are not as they should be. That’s more than just how those of us who are trying to follow Jesus understand the world.

It’s something most of us see and experience every day.

That’s unfortunately obvious again this morning as we try to make sense of the senseless violence in Syria. Friends who have been to South Sudan are heartbroken over the events in that country as well. Our own city is still reeling over another shooting in a part of town that’s already suffered too much.

Each morning, it seems, brings another burst of darkness, another event that overwhelms our senses. We can’t go a day without wondering how the gap between the ways things are and the way they should be will ever shrink.

It isn’t just the news and it isn’t just on TV. We’ve felt the pain in the deterioration of relationships that leaves us asking what happened. We’ve felt stuck in our work and buried in the darkness of depression. We’ve walked under a burden that is so heavy and been filled with so much pain that we would give anything to find a load that is easy and a burden that is light.

It wasn’t too long ago that I found myself flipping through the Bible I read in college. It was then when I started actually reading the Bible seriously, if not always intelligently. This particular Bible is beaten up, its corners are rounded, and it is falling apart. It has seen better days.

One of the sections that is the most marked up in that Bible is a small book, sandwiched between Jeremiah and Ezekiel – the book of Lamentations.

I’m not exactly sure how I found it, but in the midst of hurt and struggles I was dealing with at the time I found in those pages what I desperately needed.

It was there I discovered I wasn’t the first one to feel like things were falling apart. It was there I found I wasn’t the first one to experience how plans could be foiled. It was there I found I wasn’t the first one to get knocked down without much of an idea of how to get back up. It was there I found I wasn’t the first one to convince myself I was all alone facing a world that wasn’t how it was supposed to be.

As I opened my Bible I read the prayers of people who were angry with God. I paid attention to people trying to hold it all together while everything else was trying to pull them apart. I listened to the suffering of families in a world that was a long way from Eden. Mostly, I studied the prayers of people who were hoping and willing God to act.

At the heart of Lamentations is the belief that even in the dark places God is still there. The people crying out to God put their hope in the promise that even in their suffering God still remembered them. They still prayed because they still trusted in a God who would act on their behalf.

The language is jarring and the images stretch us. And yet, Lamentations 3 reveals the heart of the Gospel and the core of faith and trust:

 “So I say, God is my glory and all that I had hoped for from the Lord…But this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never end.”

We have a hard time praying prayers of lament. We don’t want to bother God with our problems. We feel guilty complaining to God that things aren’t perfect when we are all too aware of our own imperfections. We would rather sing with joy than deal with our pain.

But what Lamentations teaches us about prayer, and really about God, is that just because things aren’t the way they should be doesn’t mean they’ll always be that way. They, and we, become different when we remember that even in the midst of darkness and heartbreak God hasn’t abandoned us. We offer to God our pain that comes from the way the world is and our dreams for how the world might one day be because we have come to believe that the most powerful force in the world isn’t a nation with an army or a corporation that’s too big to fail but the God who has promised to never abandon us regardless of the cost.

We remember that especially this week. As we get ready to walk the lonesome road with Jesus, we know we are on the path to night and betrayal, long days of darkness where you will have to strain to glimpse even a shadow of light.

It is true that the world isn’t how it should be. What keeps us walking is that we know it won’t always be this way.

 

 

Note: This is the third 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 

The Prayer of Gratitude

 

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Prayers For The Path: The Prayer of Silence

It is four o’clock in the morning and I’m wide awake. My brain is racing with words demanding to be put into sentences and things needing to be marked as done. There are the things I wish I had said yesterday, and a few words I wish I hadn’t. I can spit out the things that need to get done today, so I can replace them with things tomorrow that are only a little less urgent.

This is no way to begin the day. This is a life, but not life we would call real. This is something less than that.

And so instead of this sprint what I want, maybe more than anything else, is to sit for a minute and remind myself that who I am has nothing to do with this list of things and everything to do with the One who declares I Am. What I’m looking for is a place to hide, if only for a moment, from the demands to go and do. I’m in search of a shelter from the doom and gloom seemingly all around us. I’m trying to find a space not to do but to be.

And so I run, not for the hills, but to the silence, to listen for the words of the God who has something to say to me. Even me. If I can listen. For a moment.

I run to it because, even at this hour I can remember the lesson that so many wise teachers have tried to get into my frazzled and hurried soul – grace doesn’t come from producing words but receiving them. I must decrease, He must increase, John the Baptist said after encountering Jesus.

Sounds about right.

I can’t begin to count all the hours I’ve spent wondering what I should say to God or the best way to approach God in prayer. I’ve struggled my whole life to find the right words to describe my situation and labored to put things in the most appropriate light.

This is how I’m wired. I like words. I read them. I write them. I use them to justify why I’m right and everyone else is wrong. I want to tell God how things need to be and exactly what I need to have happen.

And so it’s humbling to be reminded that the key to receiving the rest God gives begins with me speaking less and listening more. Grace isn’t a great argument to win but a gift spoken to me.

When it comes to prayer, my words are optional. God’s word is essential.

And so I remember the words I need – You were created for more than this. I remember the words that define who I am – You are my child. I remember the words that order my days – Take up your cross and follow me. I remember the words that call me back – You were bought with a price.

Not words that came from me, words that were given, words that changed everything.

And so what I am trying to do right now, in this season of Lent, is to get close enough to Jesus to hear what he has to say. Not from a distance, but up close, where I can see his face and hear the tone in his voice.

That’s what all of this is about. I’m tempted to speak, to tell him what he needs to notice. I want to tell him where to direct his attention. It takes everything I have not to tell him how to solve a particular controversy. It’s on the tip of my tongue how he needs to set this person straight.

The longer I can go without talking, the closer to him I get. The more of his words I hear the easier it is to see what is in front of us. The more I pay attention to him, the more I begin to act like him.

This is why I want to flee the noise. This is why I crave the silence. This is why I run away from the hustle. This is why I want to rest in being present.

To hear his words and to learn his way.

This is the prayer I need.

 

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Neighborhood Prayer: Seeking a Real God in the Land of Sin, Violence and Death

It doesn’t matter the week, we’re never far from it – the pain, the hurt and the loss.  That’s the beauty and struggle of the Internet – tragedy is closer to us than it ever has been. Packets of data squeeze the distance between us and injustice, bringing the pain into our living rooms.

This week it is Terence Crutcher, a student and a member of his church choir, the latest black man turned into a hashtag after being shot and killed by the police. If you’ve seen the video, you know it’s awful. So bad, in fact, that one commentator called it one of the worst we’ve seen.

It’s a sign of how desensitized we’ve gotten to death – particularly the ones that involve race, police and guns – that one could be described as worse than the others, as if any time someone created, loved and redeemed by God has their life snuffed out isn’t the worst.

A few weeks ago, where I live, it was Kenny Moats, a police officer doing his job when he was ambushed and killed. It was one of the few things in my part of the world with the power to move SEC football off the front page of our newspapers.

We have, of course, settled into a kind of liturgy around these tragedies. Shock and outrage are followed by posts and tweets about whose life matters, a cacophony of blame and anger that doesn’t seem to get us anywhere except in a rage at each other until the next one comes. Then we all begin again.

It’s all enough to overwhelm you, to make you seek escape in anything else, to lead you to avert your eyes and soul, to lock on anything else so you can avoid paying attention. At least, that’s what I want to do.

When I become overwhelmed, I want to retreat and pray about things that are easy. When I don’t know what to say about another murder, another life lost, another family and community fundamentally changed, I want to pray for myself and situations that won’t challenge me.  When I don’t know where to find the words to say both that this violence is far from God’s design and yet that things aren’t as easy to square as the social media screamers would make it, I’m tempted to concern myself with only what God would ask of me.

But faith, as my friend Dana is always teaching me, is about paying attention. We are formed by what we watch and we are shaped by who we listen to.

Gregory of Nazianzus, one of the great theologians of the Church, wrote in the Fourth Century, “that which He has not assumed He has not healed, that which is united to his Godhead is also saved.”

In the Twenty First Century we would say that because in Christ God assumed every part and every dimension of human experience and life, there is no part of our lives, no community among us, no nation on the globe with which God is not concerned and that God is not working to heal.

The world, its people, and the issues we face, all of us and all of them, they all matter to God.

One of the implications of Incarnation – that in Jesus God came into our world – is that our spiritual lives and our every day lives aren’t separate. To borrow from Paul, the flesh is the arena of the spiritual, the spiritual is concerned with the flesh. In short, the distinction we want to make between church life and the lives we live and comment on and interpret is really a distortion of one of our most basic beliefs.

Because of this, we can’t pray as an escape from the world’s chaos and heartbreak. God won’t allow us to find refuge from the cares of the world in a sweet and safe spiritual life.

Instead, for our prayers to be called in any way Christian they have to include the struggles of the world. For our devotion to be consistent with the way of Jesus, it has to be open to the hurts of friends.

For our spiritual life to be big enough to welcome the God who has moved into our neighborhood in Jesus, it has to make room for the struggles of our neighbors, especially the ones we don’t understand.

To engage the world as a Christian I have to ask for God’s help and then do the hard work of watching the video.  It means I have to seek God’s grace and then listen to the lives of the people who are hurting.

It means I have to get prayed up so I can enter into being uncomfortable, because uncomfortableness isn’t an obstacle to faith but instead is most often the path to finding it.

It means coming to grips with the reality that we are a long way from the beloved community and that living into our calling as Jesus’ people means naming the gap between between what painfully is and what really ought to be.

Even when we don’t want to.

So, today I’m daring to pray, both to listen and to speak the words – words that go beyond the easy labels and words that risk more than I’m comfortable with. I’m praying for the grieving – the friends and families whose lives will never be normal, long after the rest of us have moved on to the next thing. I’m praying for God to move us and to help us find a way beyond the arguments and the predetermined talking points, to find a way to live again as if a loss of life was more than an occasion for winning an argument. I’m praying for God to give me words and wisdom to find some way to be an instrument of peace in a world and a nation seemingly constantly at war.

Mostly, I’m praying for courage and for faith – to listen, to speak, to believe and to live as someone who knows that God so loves this world, the one we’re trying to live in, and all the people in it. And because that’s true, everything can be different.

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Beyond Rage: Learning to Pray When The World Makes You Furious 

If you aren’t angry, you aren’t paying attention. 

It’s a cliché of course, one of those tired phrases that appear again and again when the times merit it.  But clichés keep showing up becuase they feel true. And as we approach the end of a summer that has been hot in too many ways, it feels especially true right now. 

It doesn’t require much searching to discover we’ve had plenty to be angry about. It’s been a summer of loss – some of it fueled by prejudice, some of it enabled by our unwillingness to risk our comfort by living our convictions, but all of it heartbreaking. 

It’s been a summer of anger – seen in the way we yell past each other, in the way we demand that everyone has it easier than we do, but most clearly epitomized in the depressing political moment we are living through that falls so short of our ideals.  

It’s been a summer of rage – in cities and in the country, from the young and the old, revealing the disaster that visits you when we continue to treat one another as though none of us have been created, loved and redeemed by a generous God. 

And for many of us, regardless of what side of the debate of the moment we find ourselves stuck in, it’s been a summer of throwing up our hands and wanting to give up. The fear is too much, the hate too entrenched, the anxiety-fueled sin surpassing our capacity to slow it down. 

All of it makes us feel powerless, and even worse, hopeless – like anything we might do would be as effective as harmlessly chucking a pebble into a full-throated hurricane only growing more powerful. 

Returning to Prayer School

The first place I normally turn in my devotional life is to the letters of Paul – he’s practical, he’s blunt and he is always willing to pick a fight.  In some ways he is perfect for this moment. But when I know I need help – and especially when I need help figuring out how or what to pray – I turn to the Psalms.  

In the midst of a hot and hateful summer, that’s where I’ve settled in – allowing the writers and teachers in the Psalms to have their way again. All this anger, violence, yelling and destruction has made it hard to pray. Racial and class divides that are terrorizing people I care about have made it hard to know what to ask God to do. The spirit and divisions in my own denomination have left me feeling frustrated and depressed. Overwhelmed by our inability to listen to one another, frustrated by my own complicity in it all, angry at the way things are and unsure about how to live into my own call to be an ambassador of light in a country gripped by the darkness, I’ve needed the wisdom found in these old prayers. 

And so the Psalms have been teaching me that faithful prayer doesn’t hide these emotions but instead trusts God with all of them. The prayers of the faithful are shockingly transparent – their pain from feeling abandoned, their frustrations with their leaders (both political and religious) and the anger that is festering within them as they keep waiting for God to show up. Nothing is hidden from the Almighty. 

They can pray these honest prayers because they believe no emotion has the power to separate them from God’s love and compassion. Their prayers flow from their trust in God to handle it all – God can deal with their rage, can take on their anger, and is strong enough to handle any accusation that comes from their need for things to be made right. 

Their honesty with God isn’t an obstacle to faithfulness but instead a pathway to it.  Indeed, the Psalmists know that when kept to ourselves the emotions have the power to destroy us, but liberation comes when we release them to God. 

The Psalmists don’t share their lives simply to complain to God,  but because they believe God can and will act. The Psalms live in a world in which God is acting as the decisive force in the world that God created and for the people God loves. 

The Psalms are prayed with the conviction that God cares about the world, participates in it and is not neutral about what happens. They put their hope in the truth that God is working and will continue to work for the faithful, that God is on the side of the poor and those who are struggling, and that when God gets involves everything can change.

As Walter Brueggemann writes in Praying the Psalms, “The God of the Bible is never neutral, objective, indifferent or simply balancing things. The world is not on its own.”

In some instances these prayers are simply demands for God to start acting like it.

These prayers are teaching me to refuse the temptation to pray safe, resigned prayers that ignore the trouble we’ve seen.  No, instead I am learning again to pray honest prayers that flow from the knowledge that we pray to a God who hasn’t abandoned us. 

Prayers shape by the wisdom of these teachers are prayers of bold trust in a God who is with us, a God who takes sides, and a God who is working to close the gap between the way things are and the way they should be. 

So, how should we pray in a world that doesn’t appear to be cooling off any time soon? How do we speak to a God whose world sometimes appears to be being pulled apart at the edges? What do we share with God when the grief has rendered us speechless?

Say what we mean, mean what we say, and trust that God cares and is going to do something about it. 

“Listen to the sound of my cry, my King and my God, for to you I pray. But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy. Spread you protection over them, so that those who love your name may exult in you.”  Psalm 5:2, 11

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