I’ve spent the last several months reevaluating my intentionalness (is that even a word?) around several areas in my life: reading, listening, praying, meditating, and learning.
I’m what you could call a distracted skimmer. As I would do any activity, I would look / listen for key parts and then move on, always looking for the shiny nuggets that mattered for me to get something done. It makes for great productivity, but lousy growth. I could read book, but not fully engage in it. I could participate in a conversation, but not fully be there. I could read scripture, but not hear God speaking. You can see what this would do to someone’s prayer life, bible reading, and relationships.
While reading two books, things started crystallizing for me that there was a problem. Don Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, and Albert Mohler’s Conviction to Lead started to resonate deeply with me. I won’t get into a review of each book, but the main things I walked away with from both books were the importance of meditation, how time continues to tick away, and how I should be intentionally engaging my mind with challenging things. Recognizing that God would have better things for me in my walk with Him, I’ve set out to slowly change things.
- I’ve started reading books on a non-tablet device, a Kindle Paperwhite. That part about being easily distracted is huge for me. While iPads and tablets are great doing it all together on one device; at least for me, they make for lousy ways to get alone with God and my thoughts.
- I’m forcing myself to read a lot slower. I’ve found I have to intentionally tell myself, sometimes multiple times on a single page, “slow down, reread that, don’t skip sentences”. This has been very difficult, but so worthwhile. I’m retaining more of what I read and feel like I’m much more engaged in the story.
- I’ve started honing in on a particular area of scripture I’m reading and really concentrating on it – sometimes 15 – 30 minutes at a time, asking Gospel-centered questions about the text. In short, I’m learning to meditate and it is glorious!
- Last week I deleted my Facebook and Instragram accounts. I started with just removing them the apps from my iPhone, and decided to fully commit last week. Again, distraction – not just visiting Facebook, but feeling the desire to share everything about what I’m doing, reading, not being where I’m at. I finally realized that I could not come up any good reason to stay on Facebook. In the end, it was a time-sink that offered nothing back. All the people I need to stay in contact with are either are at church, work, or a phone call away. I still have my Twitter account, but no longer have the app on any of my mobile devices. I find Twitter to be very beneficial, although it, too, can get out of control if not managed.
- I’ve started writing out my prayers in a journal that the kids got me for Father’s Day several years ago. I can’t describe how intensely personal this is. It has become some of the richest times I’ve spent with God.
- We took the TV out of our bedroom. Instead of clicking on CNN or ESPN, I’m pulling out my Kindle, talking with Kathi, or getting to sleep on time.
These basic changes are creating calm in my soul. They are slowing me down. They are helping me to also become a better listener, both with people and with God. I’m a work-in-progress, and I’m thankful God knows that.
Kathi and I have been spending the last couple of days talking about safe places of grace – those churches, homes, families and people you long to be with – where it is ok that you can’t bring anything to the table, where you are listened to and not condemned for your unbelief in the gospel to help in that moment of struggle, where agendas don’t exist, where your true identity in Christ is affirmed, and laughter and silliness abound – a place where grace pours out on others because it has been poured out on us.
We all long for those places and are continually seeking them out. We look for people who can be that for us, we look for churches and communities where the atmosphere is thick with grace. The problem comes, though, when we can’t find it. What do we do? How do we cultivate that where we are?
It isn’t top-down, grass-roots, or programmatic. It is doing it right here, right now with where God has you. It is rooted in humility and an outpouring of thankfulness to God for the mercy and grace that He shows us. Out of that, grace will begin to seep through our phone conversations, our talks at the dining room table with our spouses, our listening to the teenager struggling with performance, and the single person battling loneliness – all because we have the Gospel at the center of who we are and everything we do.
If we desire safe places of grace in our home, church, work place, communities and friends, we have to begin by being that safe place for others. We look in to others eyes and listen to their hurts. We ask them questions about how their struggle with contentment shows an unbelief in the gospel and then point them to what Christ has already provided for them. We laugh with them. We drink wine together. We watch movies together and then talk about them. We desire to drive beneath the problem presenting itself to what is really going on within their soul. We ask them questions about where they are getting their value and significance. We don’t hold each other accountable – we remind each other that our identity is found in Christ and not in our failures – now go live like who you really are and stop believing the lie.
Psalm 3 contains some powerful imagery; but, as I was reading this morning, verse 3 showed me God in a new way: “But you, O Lord, are…. the lifter of my head.”
- a nurse lifting a patient’s head to give him water and medicine
- a mother gently caressing her child’s chin, lifting their head, speaking assurance into their eyes
- a father lifting his son’s head to speak strength and encouragement to his soul
- a friend lifting another friends head, reminding him of who he is in Christ
These are all pictures of God – our healer, our encourager, our strength, our identity. He is the one who touches and is the one who lifts.
I talk a lot about how pain and trials are just as much God’s blessings as laughter and joy. We tend to equate good things with blessings and trials as something we must endure to finally get to the “good stuff”. What I’m learning, though, is that the “good stuff” is the journey. God’s blessings don’t always come with a pretty red bow. More times than not, they come with a tear, some anger, and a gentle tug from God reminding us of who we are in Him.
I experienced that yesterday.
I was asked to speak for about 5 minutes during our Sunday School class on a topic I love – ministering mercy to the needy and poor and how God’s grace is our pattern for doing so. I knew my topic and was passionate about communicating it to the class. About 15 minutes before I was supposed to speak, though, a crushing feeling of inadequacy and fear overcame me.
I prayed. I popped extra pieces of gum in my mouth. I asked people to pray. I drank some water. I slowed down my breathing. Nothing was working.
As I stepped up to the mic, everything began to fall apart. I stumbled over my words. I looked at every word I was supposed to speak with fear that they wouldn’t come out. I felt the un-comfortableness of the class and that made me uncomfortable for them. Fears of being judged overwhelmed me even though deep down I knew they weren’t. I started off on the wrong foot, and, as I hard as I tried, I couldn’t communicate what was on my heart. I was an utter mess. Every raw nerve was on display for everyone to see and I felt abandoned by God for allowing it to continue.
I was out of control and I hated every minute of it.
Eventually it all ended and I sat down next to my comforting wife. And that is when the real battle began.
Anger. Tears. Silence. Embarrassment. Out of control. Exposed. Why did those things matter to me? What did those feelings say about what I believed of God? Why was I blaming God for what happened? Why didn’t he help or protect me? I needed affirmation during this dark struggle – why do I need affirmation? God and I worked through those questions all afternoon and all night; and, I am still working through most of them with him right now. In my anguish and feeling of abandonment, He’s showing me himself.
Before, during and after that whole debacle, I had forgotten who I was. Even as I type this, I’m having to remember who I am.
I have the DNA of Christ residing in me and I’m made in his image – not in an image I can control or a situation I can remedy. I’m made in his image. I’m loved and desired by the one who calls himself “I am”. Am I still frustrated that God the Protector didn’t show up? Absolutely. But had he shown himself in that way, I wouldn’t have the privilege of working through these issues with him and knowing him deeper as a result.
That’s the real blessing – God coming along side us and saying “hey, let’s take a look at what happened today and work through that together.” It is him reminding me of who I am in Him, even during what I perceive as my worst moment ever.
As I sat around our fire pit last night with my wife, kids and some great neighbors handing out candy to Dora the Explorer and various characters from Toy Story, I was fighting an inner compulsion to share what a great time we were having with all my Twitter and Facebok friends while we were having that great time.
Here’s a sad, but ironic picture: while posting a picture, sending a text or sharing a tweet about great conversations and laughter we are enjoying, I’m only grabbing bits and pieces of continuing conversations, jokes or stories. After “liking” someone else’s fire pit photo, I ask “Sorry, what was that? I didn’t hear what Jimmy said.” As I listen to my buddy tell an insightful story about how he grew up, I’m mentally processing about how “blessed” everyone else would be to hear that story and I totally miss what he was actually trying to communicate. While my daughter is roasting marshmallows and letting them fall into the fire pit, I’m thinking “I need to grab a picture of that so I can share it with my friends back home” instead of immersing myself totally in what is happening right before my own eyes and ears and enjoying the look in my daughter’s eyes as she loses yet another marshmallow to a fiery inferno. While packing everything up, I’m thinking about the various blurbs I can share on Facebook and what a great night we had, rather than reflecting on the smiles of all those kids as we loaded them up with real candy bars and caused their bags to overflow with more candy than the dentist would ever allow.
In my effort to be social with twenty other people who are not physically with me, I’m emotionally disengaging from the people I’m actually with. How sad is that?
I wonder how more deeply connected I would be with those around me if I viewed my social network spiritually and physically rather than virtually?
My wife Kathi and I attended the TrueFaced Intensive Conference this weekend. It was about grace, sanctification, removing masks, and trusting God and others with who He says we are in Him. It was the most impacting event we have ever attended.
The following is John Lynch, one of the co-authors of TrueFaced and presenters from the conference, on the New Testament Gamble speaking from the perspective of God. I highly recommend the book.
Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a squire from his country-house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
Equally, smilingly, proudly,
Like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really all that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were
compressing my throat,
Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
Tossing in expectation of great events,
Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?
Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army,
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, 0 God, I am Thine!
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)
If we learn the discipline of silence as we engage in conversation and think passion as we quietly listen, perhaps we’ll spend less energy figuring out what to do as experts and more energy allowing the powerful life of Christ to surface within us and be released in the words we speak – Larry Crabb, Soul Talk
One early morning this past week, I sat down to read some scripture and found myself bombarded with noise. It was self-induced and I desired it more than quietness.
The noise was comforting. It created a layer between what I was reading and my soul’s desire to listen.
What does comforting noise look like?
- thoughts of what lay in store for today
- worrying over customer projects
- refilling that coffee mug
- checking email while reading or while someone is speaking
- looking up at the lights
- reading a verse and immediately thinking of application or how it might make for a great article
- anticipating the joy of checking something off
- glancing at the clock
- applying my own filter to what I’m reading
- glancing at my calendar while wrapping up a chapter
- coming immediately to God with needs
- following a bunny trail of links
- reading instead of praying
- notification sounds of emails coming in
- the blinking light on a BlackBerry
- twittering or facebooking something you just read
- seeking the companionship of an iPad rather than solitude
- texting while at the red light
- listening in one ear while someone is talking, while also browsing or typing
That kind of noise is comforting because it allows us to interact on our terms, without commitment, applying our own unconscious filter. It allows us to communicate without listening. It keeps us in the safe zone. It fills our desire to be needed and productive.
We were not made for that, though.
Real communication is found in quietness, when we desire to silence the noise so we can truly hear what the other person is saying. It is a very difficult place to get to and our flesh will fight it. Once we begin to desire silence over noise, though, we’ll finally be on our way to being wherever we are.