Distractions ...

I have been noticing lately that I am much more distracted than normal. My mind seems to wander in ways that it never used to. I am having a harder time focusing on one thing for an extended period of time. And I am fairly confident this has nothing to do with turning 50 this summer.

For instance, I sit down to read and within minutes I find my mind wandering away from what I am reading and almost without conscious thought I step away from the book and am checking my e-mail, making a pot of coffee, or throwing a load of laundry in.

Or, I am watching television and am checking and re-checking my phone during the entire show or movie in case I might be missing something exciting that someone might want to tell me about online. Seriously?

Or, I am working on a teaching and find that I need to keep a notepad next to my computer in order to record all the tangential thoughts that keep pinging around in my mind while I am working.

I  have a feeling I am not alone in this.

I remember reading that our brains are being rewired to expect, and even desire distractions. We have become accustomed to being constantly interrupted by a link, a video, a notification of a new e-mail, so much so that our brains have simply come to expect and look forward to these interruptions.

I am not a technology basher. But I do want to stay awake to how I am living. And what I am noticing is disconcerting to me.

So I am engaging in a little exercise, which I hope may re-train my brain to stay focused for an extended period of time when I am attending to or working on things that matter. Let's say I am sitting down to read. Once I start, I set a timer for 30 minutes, and I simply refuse to get up and attend to other things during that time. My mind still tries to interrupt me... "Check your e-mail!" "Google that piece of information you want!" "Get up and get a piece of gum!" but I simply refuse to give in. I stay focused for 30 minutes, no matter what. And after that 30, I take a little break, and start again.

This re-training practice will help me stay focused when I sit down to read and reflect on the Scriptures. I want to be able to be focused enough to hear God speak to me; to hear his words through His Word. I want to stay with a passage of Scripture or a set of passages long enough that I can plumb the depths of its meaning, or meditate on how it might intersect with my life. I can't do these kinds of things if I am constantly distracted.

I don't know if this will work. I tried it yesterday, using my phone for a timer, and within 30 seconds I got a text from one of my kids and then one from my husband, and I told myself , "I'll just check this one text..." and before you know it I was in a full-blown texting party with my family.

So, I will try again today. I want a mind that can focus on the most important things. I don't want to give up that ability for something as shallow and relatively meaningless as spam e-mails or the next ice-bucket challenge video on Facebook...

Prayer

One idea that has helped me with prayer more than almost any other comes from a Norwegian Christian named Ole Hallesby.

In his classic book, simply called Prayer, I first encountered this idea:

"Prayer is simply helplessness combined with faith."

Hallesby says more to help us understand this simple, yet profound truth:

"Prayer and helplessness are inseperable. Only those who are helpless can truly pray."

"Your helplessness is your best prayer."

"Prayer is for the helpless."

I so often find myself facing things - either internal issues of the heart, or external circumstances - about which  I feel very, very helpless. And so often I don't know howto pray; don't even know whatto pray. And then I remember Hallesby's admonition that it is this very helplessness that opens the door to prayer. I just need to combine that helplessness with faith the size of a tiny mustard seed and then offer my concerns to God. And trust He will hear and respond.

Now, anyone can do that!

What is it you feel most helpless about today? Know that your helpless feelings are the very heart of prayer... they are one of the very profound ways in which God uses our weakness to demonstrate his strength.

Helplessness + Faith = Prayer

That is a math equation I will actually make use of my whole life!

Endless Busyness

Mark Buchanan is one of my favorite writers and thinkers. He is a pastor from Canada and often writes brilliant one-liners that say more than an entire paragraph!

Here is one I've been pondering this entire summer:

"Endless busyness is earwax against God's voice and a blindfold to God's presence."

So many of us wonder why we don't hear God. We complain about not sensing his presence. And yet we run around all day and into the night like chickens with our heads cut off. Endless running. Endless noise. Endless busyness.

The diagnosis is not difficult to make.

The question always is: What are we going to do about it?

God seeks ...

We are told that if we seek God with all our heart, God will be found. (Jeremiah 29:13)

This is a beautiful image - the human soul desiring God and seeking after him with all that is within us. And God, we are promised, wants to be found, and even promises to be found. A strong motivating force.

But have you ever considered that God, too, is a seeker? He is seeking after us...

The parables in Luke 15 play this out:

The Shepherd seeking after the lost sheep...

The Woman seeking after the lost coin...

The Father watching and waiting (seeking, even!) for the lost son...

God is seeking us.

Simon Tugwell puts words to this stunning truth:

"So long as we imagine it is we who have to look for God, we must often lose heart. But it is the other way around - He is looking for us."

When I find myself feeling far from God, when I am not a very good seeker, when the "far country" I often live in feels too far, I rest in this heart-stopping truth - the God who is called "the hound of heaven" never, ever stops seeking after me.

He never, ever stops seeking after you.

Not good, honest ...

"Prayer is not the place to be good; it is the place to be honest." (John Coe)

Honest prayer ...

I am a strong proponent of honest prayer.

I really have no time for pretending I am more holy, more pious, more cleaned up than I actually am. Too much pretending exhausts me.

And I believe that prayer is one of the primary places in our lives with God where we are deeply tempted to pretend.

That is why I like Anne Lamott.

For many, she is too irreverent.

For me, she is just about right.

Here is a prayer she wrote:

Hi, God.

I am just a mess.

It is all hopeless.

What else is new?

I would be sick of me, if I were You, but miraculously You are not.

I know I have no control over other people’s lives, and I hate this. Yet, I believe that if I accept this and surrender, You will meet me wherever I am.

Wow. Can this be true? If so, how is this afternoon – say, two-ish?

Thank you in advance for Your company and blessings.

You have never once let me down.

Amen.

How’s that for honest?

When you are scared ...

I don’t know what you tend to do when you are scared, but I tend to freak out.

I am not a “good” scared person, whatever that means.

But I do have one thing I do that helps. I recite Psalm 23 aloud, from memory.

I am not a huge “memorize passages of the Bible” person; I just didn’t grow up that way. But I do find that I have some passages embedded in my head and my heart. Psalm 23 is one of them.

So on the morning I was flying from Iowa to Philadelphia to be with my son after he had undergone emergency surgery the night before, I was scared. A little teary …

And on the short, dark ride to the airport, my husband and I were quiet and tense. But God whispered to me, “Say Psalm 23 … for both of you.”

So with a lump in my throat, and tears streaming down my face, I started in:

“The Lord is my shepherd … I shall not want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures, He leads me beside the still waters, He restores my soul.

He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil.

For you are with me;

Your rod and your staff they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies,

You anoint my head with oil,

My cup overflows.

Surely your goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life,

And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever and ever.”

My fear was abated a bit, my panic level dropped.

And both Chuck and I felt held, protected, loved, strengthened … for whatever was ahead of us that day.

A life of gratitude ...

Thinking a lot about gratitude these days …

Some mornings I am just undone with how much I have to be thankful for.

It almost hurts sometimes. Do you know what I mean?

So, I thank God. I try to keep an attitude of gratefulness going all day.

Reminds me of this bit of wisdom:

“Praising God isn’t something we do, an activity we engage in among other activities.

It is a fundamental way of being  toward God …

Praise links us to God in love.

The praise of the psalmist is an expression of delight, and so is our own praise.

Of course God wants it.

It is the recognition, both conscious and unconscious, that God’s name is hallowed in all things.”

(Roberta C. Bondi)

A great question to lead off the year:

Is your fundamental way of being toward God one of gratitude, or one of complaint?

If complaint, how might you go about developing a way of being that is all about thankfulness?

What really separates ...

What really separates us from God?

Is it sin, or something else?

I  have been pondering this question lately.

Listen to this:

"Our misdeeds are not  the real root of the problem. They are just what the tradition called actual sins.

There is a much more serious problem, what the tradition called original sin.

It is much more subtle and inevitably hidden from us.

The relationship is broken by the presumption of our ethical behavior, our morality, our good deeds, our insistence on doing it ourselves.

The relation is broken because these too turn us quite simply against grace...

The Almighty God desires simply to be known as the giver of the gift of absolute grace.

To this we say "No."

We say, rather, that we intend to make it on our own, that grace is 'too cheap.' 

Then the relationship is destroyed just as surely as it was by our immorality."

(Gerhard Forde - A More Radical Gospel)

Have you ever pondered the thought that it is your own self-created "goodness" that keeps you from God?

Somehow ...

Somehow in thanksgiving I see clearly,

if but for a fleeting moment,

that much, much has come my way as a normal part of my dependency,

without my being aware of it…

Perhaps, it is always true that the test of my thanksgiving is the humility which it inspires.

Self-examination, thanksgiving, humility:

let us experience them in our quiet time in the presence of God.

(Howard Thurman, 1899 – 1981)

 

           
                                                                                       

 


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I do know how to pay attention ...

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.


I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down


into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,


how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,


which is what I have been doing all day.


Tell me, what else should I have done?


Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?


Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

(Mary Oliver, 1935 - )

 

 

           
                                                                                       

  

The greatest of virtues ...

"Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others."

(Cicero)

You must have a room ...

Sacred space is an absolute necessity for anybody today.

You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you.

This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be.

This is the place of creative incubation.

At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.

(John Campbell)

What is the use?

This really struck me this morning...

"What is the use of praying if at the very moment of prayer, we have so little confidence in God that we are busy planning our own kind of answer to our prayer?"

(Thomas Merton - Thoughts in Solitude)

Come to him poor and helpless ...

"If we know how great is the love of Jesus for us we will never be afraid to go to Him in all our poverty,

all our weakness,

all our spiritual wretchedness, and infirmity.

Indeed, when we understand the true nature of his love for us,

we will prefer to come to Him poor and helpless.

We will never be ashamed of our distress.

Distress is to our advantage when we have nothing to seek but mercy.

We can be glad of our helplessness when we really believe that His power is made perfect

in our infirmity.

The surest sign that we have received a spiritual understanding of God's love for us

is the appreciation of our own poverty in light of

His infinite mercy."

(Thomas Merton)

This is how the Kingdom works, my friends...

The act of letting it go ...

Thinking lately about the power of the spiritual practice of intentional silence in a very noisy world.

Was reading through one of the best books ever on spiritual formation, Invitation to a Journey by Robert Mullholland, and came across his section on silence.

Here are a few bits of his wisdom:

"We tend to think of silence as simply being still.

But the silence of which the mothers and fathers of the church speak goes far beyond mere quietness.

Their silence is the deep inner reversal of that grasping, controlling mode of being that so characterizes life in our culture...

The practice of silence is the radical reversal of our cultural tendencies.

Silence is bringing ourselves to the point of relinquishing to God our control of our relationship with God. 

Silence is a reversal of the whole possessing, controlling, grasping dynamic of trying to maintain control of our own existence.

Silence is the inner act of letting it go."

Mulholland has a profound ability to describe something as simple as silence in such a way that it becomes a rich, complex, beautiful thing. 

Silence becomes a way of allowing God to transform us at the deepest level.

Silence; really letting go, really trusting God... 

It is free.

It is available at a moment's notice.

Anyone can do it.

And yet it is one of the most difficult spiritual practices ever.

Probably because we do not want to "relinquish control."

Free me from care ...

A few days ago I wrote about a deeper kind of silence described by Robert Mulholland.

Today, I simply want to share one of the most profoundly helpful "tips" ever offered to me as I think about what I am supposed to do when I am silent.

Have you ever asked yourself, "What am I supposed to do during times of silence?  :)

This is what Mulholland writes:

"A helpful means to [transformative] silence is the prayer, 

'Free me from care for myself.'

If used regularly as part of the daily [routine],

God will gradually awaken us to the mutiple layers of controlling, grasping 'noise' in our lives:

the defensive postures by which we justify our control of people and circumstances;

the attack dynamics by which we extend and maintain our possession and control of others and our world;

the indulgent habits by which we grasp things and others for ourselves;

the manipulative practices by which we inflict our will on the world;

and especially the ways in which we attempt to use God to support and justify these structures."

Now, if you don't struggle with any of these things, of course, don't pray the prayer.

But, if you are human and willing to admit to these struggles, these 6 simple words, prayed over time,

will change your life.

"Free me from care for myself."

God writes the gospel ...

"God writes the gospel not in the Bible alone, but on trees and flowers and clouds and stars."

(Martin Luther)

Knowing is not the same as doing ...

I have been working on a health-related issue lately.

Part of my "work" involves making sure I include certain things in my diet: more calcium, more potassium, more magnesium, etc.

Here's what I've noticed.

I can make a list of all the foods I am "supposed" to eat on a daily basis, and somehow because I know what is on the list and I know why I'm supposed to eat it, and I agree with the concept of eating it... it makes me feel as if I have eaten it.

When I haven't.

And so I wonder why my issue is not resolved. Hello???

Today, I forced myself to go through a list of the foods I am supposed to eat and to literally say aloud (to myself) whether I had actually eaten them today or not.

Surprisingly, I had to say "no" way more than I should have.

Banana? Nope.

Kiwi? Nope.

Calcium rich dairy? Nope.

Dark, leafy greens? Well, maybe a few...

And I thought to myself, "Knowing the value of something is NOT the same as doing it!"

And it reminded me of spiritual practices, and how dangerous "knowledge" about them can be.

Knowing a cool way to pray is not the same as praying.

Knowing that St. Ignatius believed the prayer of examen was his most valuable spiritual tool is not the same as praying the prayer of examen.

Believing in the power of grace-based fasting is not the same as fasting.

Understanding the power of reflection on Scripture is not the same as opening the Book and opening my life...

Believing in the power of community is not the same as calling a friend and saying, "I'm lonely..."

This is such a dangerous little trap.

So today I need to actually eat the banana. Not just think about how good it is for me.

Today, I need to actually bow the knee and pray. Not just think about how powerful it could be.

How about you?

What do you know a lot about but fail to do?

What might happen if you just did it... today?

Don't fear the darkness ...

One of the main reasons we don't slow down is that when we slow down our demons emerge.

This just happened to me.

I have taken some intentional time off, and as always, the darkness closed in.

I figure when this happens, I have three choices:

1. Get busy! Nothing like a packed schedule and noisy heart to drown out the voices of despair.

2. Give in to the dark, become depressed, withdraw, engage in self-condemnation. Mope. Complain. Engage in self-pity.

OR...

3. Trust God enough to sit with him while the demons attack. Stay quiet and slow and start to name what hurts inside of me in God's presence. Begin to speak what feels true while I sit at Jesus' feet. Decide to let him untangle the knot that is my soul. Let him tease out what is true and what is false, what is real and what is delusion. Rather than developing elaborate plans to "fix myself"...  intentionally give God control of it all. Recognize that it is the darker times of the soul that are fertile ground for God's good tilling and pruning and weeding and (eventually) growing.

This time, I decided to select option #3.

It may be the very first time I have made this selection. Options #1 and #2 have been lifetime favorites!

So, God woke me up at 5 this morning and said, "Let's get started. Shall we?"

And I said, "Ok."

And God and I were very honest with each other.

And nothing is "fixed."

But I feel hopeful.

And as the rain pours down outside, I feel God is saying to me, "Don't fear the darkness. I often do my best work in the darkness. Just stay real close..."

And I said, "Ok."