The power of subtracting

A great German thinker named Meister Eckhart said,

"God is not found in the soul by adding anything but by subtracting."

I remember where I was when I first read this line. I was laying on my couch reading the book in which it was contained. Ever have one of these moments?  The whole world just kind of stood still, got real quiet, and I felt a gentle whisper in my ear that said: "Pay attention to this."

What if less really is more?

What if there are things God wants me to subtract in order to know him more deeply?

What might those things be? And am I willing to subtract them?

This fall, as everything seems to ramp up and the push to add more things to your days and weeks and months is very strong, take a moment every once in a while and ask God, "Is there something you would like me to subtract from my life during this next season?"

And if He answers, by all means subtract it!

Less is more.

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...

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?

We need both ...

I often hear the argument, "I am not the kind of person who engages in spiritual practices," or "I am too busy engaging in ministry and serving others for things like prayer, reflection on Scripture or prayers of examen."

I sympathize with these arguments and I struggle with them as well.

However, I still argue that all of us, no matter our personality, need to include specific activities in our lives that allow God access to our hearts, that allow space and time for our souls to "come out," and that give our relationship with God more than mere "lip-service."

The Catholic writer and mystic, Thomas Merton, said: "He [or she] who attempts to act and do things for others and for the world without deepening his [or her] own self-understanding, freedom, integrity and capacity for love [through the quieter spiritual practices], will not have anything to give to others."

Don't we intuitively know this is true?

When I engage in intense seasons of ministry without creating space for rest and reconnection with God, my service to others often ends up being no service at all.  Especially to those poor people I am trying to serve.

Perhaps this is why, after a period of intense engagement with the world, Jesus would often say to his disciples, "Come away with me and rest awhile..."

Simon Chan, in his book Spiritual Theology, puts words to this: "A comprehensive spirituality stresses a balanced approach to the cultivation of the spiritual life. It recognizes that true spiritual growth consists of rightly balanced opposing acts."

Even the extrovert must make time for silence, solitude, reflection on Scripture.

Even the introvert must get up from the desk to serve and speak and engage others.

Is your spiritual life "rightly balanced?"


God is slow

I have been noticing lately that the pace around our church is... well, picking up!

Last night, after a full day's work, I arrived home out of breath, a bit frantic, wound up, anxious to get to the next day so I could plow my way through my to-do list in the hopes of getting "caught up," whatever that is. It did not feel good, and I had a pretty hard time drifting off to sleep. My mind was full and whirling with thoughts.

And then, in my reading this morning, I was struck by this quote from a 19th century writer named Frederick Faber:

"In the spiritual life God chooses to try our patience first of all by his slowness. He is slow; we are swift and precipitate. It is because we are but for a time, and he has been for eternity... There is something greatly overawing in the extreme slowness of God. Let it overshadow your souls, but let it not disquiet them. We must wait for God, long, meekly, in the wind and the dark. Wait, and He will come. He never comes to those who do not wait. He does not go their road. When he comes, go with him, but go slowly, fall a little behind; when he quickens his pace, be sure of it, before you quicken yours. But when he slackens, slacken at once: and do not be slow only, but silent, very silent, for he is God."

Well, then.

That puts all my frantic human energy in its place, doesn't it?

If God is slow, perhaps I should just settle down a bit, trust his pace, and like Faber says... "Do  not be slow only, but silent, very silent, for he is God."



Rule of Life

I was reading through some old notes last night and came across this little snippet of wisdom from Dallas Willard,

“To drift in this society is very dangerous.”

It reminded me why the ancients used to create and then adhere to a “rule of life,” which was a term used to describe specific practices, or habits, that each person wanted to intentionally include in their days. Some monasteries had specific communal “rules” that each monk followed. Others created their own individual “rules” that were unique to them.

Here is an example from Pope John Paul XXIII. Notice how simple it is:

* Spend 15 minutes in prayer first thing in the morning

* Spend 15 minutes reading spiritual literature

* Before bed, spend a few moments examining my conscience and making a confession to  God; then identify the issues I want to pray    about in the morning

* Set aside time for prayer, study, recreation and sleep

* Make a habit of turning my mind to God in prayer throughout the day

What do you think of this?

Do you have a “rule of life?”

Most of us do, whether it is an intentional one or not is really the question.

Pay attention to your life this week and see where your time and attention are going …

Are you drifting and hoping you will just float to where you want to be?

Or is it time to provide a bit more gentle intentionality to your days and weeks?

Stillness ...

“Be still, and know that I am God …”

How rarely we do that; just be still. Just let God be God.

It is so hard.

Because if he is God, then I am definitely not.

And sometimes that is just tough to face.

So, we run and run and run, hoping somehow to prove our worth, to find meaning, to justify our existence.

Is it too much for God to ask that one day a week we “be still?” Is it too much for God to ask that every once in awhile we simply allow him to be God?

This poem from Mary Oliver helps me do these really hard things:


Today I’m flying low and I’m

not saying a word.

I’m letting the voodoos of ambition sleep.

The world goes on as it must,

the bees in the garden rumbling a bit,

the fish leaping, the gnats getting eaten.

And so forth.

But I’m taking the day off.

Quiet as a feather.

I hardly move though really I’m traveling

a terrific distance.

Stillness. One of the doors

into the temple.

Silence ...

I went out to lunch with my parents yesterday, which is always a treat.

My parents are almost 80 years old. My dad still works full-time as the senior partner in his law firm. My mom works for my dad most afternoons. They go out to lunch together almost every day. Occasionally, I get invited along.

We had great conversation. They are some of the only people besides my husband who love hearing about my kids … in detail!

However, during one part of our conversation, I noticed I was not listening well to my mom. She (a nurse) was trying to explain something medical to me, and I kept talking over her, explaining to her that I already knew what she was trying to tell me.


Why did I do that?

Why do I often do that?

I use my words to try to control people. To try to explain to them how much I know. To try to correct them; fix them, even.

I want to be a better listener. Do you?

First, then, we must start with silence.

“Silence frees us from the need to control others … A frantic stream of words flows from us in attempt to straighten others out. We want so desperately for them to agree with us, to see things our way. We evaluate people, judge people, condemn people. We devour people with our words. Silence is one of the deepest disciplines of the Spirit because it puts the stopper on that.” (Richard Foster)

Oh silence, will you be my friend?

What pours out ...

“If we believe in Jesus, it is not what we gain, but what He pours through us that counts.

It is not that God makes us beautifully rounded grapes, but that He squeezes the sweetness out of us.

Spiritually, we cannot measure our life by success, but only by what God pours through us, and we cannot measure that at all.”

(Oswald Chambers)

What if this was the way we assessed our lives?

Or, better yet... What if we just stayed so close to Jesus that He couldn't help but pour his love and grace into us, and then right out through us into our broken world?

And then perhaps we wouldn't even be bothered to think about assessing ourselves or trying to measure success.

We would know that our only job was to stay real, real close to Jesus. As if that were enough. Because it is.

The Only Thing That Counts ...

I wonder if I really understand the challenge Jesus gives when he tells me the most important commandment is to love God and love neighbor.

I often convince myself the call to love is too simple, too shallow, too easy. I make up other goals, other things I believe matter more. And I aim for those things rather than aiming to become more loving.

But to love in the way Jesus tells and shows us to is not only of utmost importance, it is truly the challenge of a lifetime.

And one I must admit I am not very good at yet. I have so much more to learn about what it means to love like Jesus loved.

Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement says it so clearly:

“If we could only learn that the important thing is love, and that we will be judged on love – to keep on loving, and showing that love, and expressing that love, over and over, whether we feel it or not, seventy times seven, to mothers-in-law, to husbands, to children – and to be oblivious of insult, or hurt, or injury – not to see them, not to hear them.

It is a hard, hard doctrine … We have got to pray, to read the Gospel, to get to frequent communion, and not judge, not do anything but love, love, love. A bitter lesson.”

Paul writes, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Galatians 5:6)

Peter writes, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers a multitude of sins.” (1 Peter 4:8)

What might today look like if your sole purpose, your only goal … was to love?

Not good, honest ...

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

The discipline of being sick ...

I am a terrible sick person.

I rail against being sick. I hate it. I fight it. I try to doctor myself. I can’t rest well. I try to stay productive even though my head is pounding like a freight train.

And this tells me something about myself:

I have a hard time being human, being vulnerable, being weak.

And this tells me even more about myself:

I have a hard time surrendering to the truth of the moment; I want to create my own reality.

I have a hard time letting God be God; I want to run the show.

I have a hard time giving up control, dropping the reins, saying to God, “Thy will be done …”

And so today, on my second full sick day, I am going to practice “the discipline of being sick.”

It is a new spiritual discipline I just made up.

And it looks like me being kind to my very human and frail body. It looks like surrendering to the sick day rather than fighting it. It looks like resting, rather than railing against my need for rest. It looks like finding joy in the space and time away from productivity rather than struggling to be productive in the pain.

It looks like trusting that God can take care of the universe very well on His own, thank you very much, without my teeny-tiny bit of assistance.

It looks like giving in to the fact that I am human after all.

In the end, it looks very much like actually trusting God.

We do not save ourselves ...

I think one of the reasons God wants his people to take a Sabbath is so he can regularly drive home the point that we do not save ourselves.

We need practical ways to keep this truth in the forefront of our minds, lest we forget.

Stopping, ceasing, resting, recovering, worshipping … and did I say resting? These are all things God wants us to do once a week so that He can whisper to us on a regular basis:

It is not all up to you …

Trust me …

Watch me work …

Rest in me …

I got this …

I have been loving some good ol’ Martin Luther quotes lately, and he – the leader of the great Reformation – pounded on this idea hard.

I believe he pounded it because we need it pounded into our thick skulls over and over:

“The sin underneath all our sins is to trust the lie of the serpent that we cannot trust the love and grace of Christ and must take matters into our own hands.”

What matters are you trying to take into your own hands these days?

Would you consider taking some time off from work and worry to simply practice re-trusting the love and grace of Christ for yourself?

A walk, a nap, a rest, just a nice long sit … all these will do.

Let your absolute inactivity drive the point home.

Be a tree ...

"A tree brings glory to God by being a tree."

(Thomas Merton)

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.


How’s that for honest?

A bit of travel ...

After a two full weeks of not feeling well, and a full weekend of serving, I am so happy to be taking off for a 5-day trip to see my kids.

That makes my soul happy.

I won’t be posting to my blog while I am gone.

I am just going to focus on the joy of travel, time with my husband, great food in great cities and the joy of being with my favorite people!

In the meantime, I hope you will spend some time exploring one of my favorite websites …

Some of the best writing I know on slowing down, paring down, simplifying, pursuing generosity and contentment and really living, rather than just running.

Enjoy …

Live gladly ...

To tie in to yesterday’s post about how God gives us everything for our enjoyment …

These two quotes from the ancient mystic Julian of Norwich:

“The greatest honor we can give to God is to live gladly because of the knowledge of his love.”

And …

“What God most wants is to see you smile because you know how much God loves you.”

What if the most powerful way we can express our love and gratitude to God is by simply living gladly, enjoying all things, and smiling?

I think we make this whole “friendship with God” thing way, way too complicated. Way too hard …

And then we fuss about it all the time, always trying to “get better” at it, “work harder” for God, “do better” for him …  while missing the fact that he has provided all we need and simply wants us to live with joy because of all he has done.

Live gladly...

It seems the very least we can do.

Laughter ...

"... the laughter of the heavens is too loud for us to hear."

GK Chesterton

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.

The details of life ...

My husband and I have been having conversation lately about the power of distraction and getting bogged down in the details and minutiae of life.

I think it was Thoreau who said that life often is frittered away by details.

For instance, we have been frittering our lives away with the details of getting a new post light out near our driveway ever since a huge branch fell off a tree and crushed our old one.

Oh, the details!! Picking a new one. Buying it. Returning it because it is broken. Buying a new one. Putting it on. Looking at it. Deciding it is too small and looks stupid. Taking it off. Packing it up. Returning it.

And, now we need to find another new one.

I came across this quote from Epictetus, a Greek Philosopher, who lived a long, long time ago.

He describes our thoughts perfectly:

There is a time and place for diversion and amusements, but you should never allow them to override your true purposes. If you were on a voyage and the ship anchored in a harbor, you might go ashore for water. Along the way, you might happen to pick up a shellfish or a plant. But be careful; listen for the call of the captain. Keep your attention directed at the ship. Getting distracted by trifles is the easiest thing in the world.

What are your trifles?

What details cause you to fritter your life away?

How can you better stay attuned to the call of the captain?