It’s summer in Laguna. There are plenty of indicators. June gloom every morning, for one thing. Long delays at every crosswalk. Tourists with awkward tan lines. Crowded beaches and the lingering scent of sunscreen wherever you go.Read More
“Those who love their own noise are impatient of everything else. They constantly defile the silence of the forests and the mountains and the sea. They bore through silent nature in every direction with their machines, for fear that the calm world might accuse them of their own emptiness.” Thomas Merton
We live in a noisy world, don’t we? Noise is like the air we breathe. It is always there, like a constant buzz. It is white noise. Soon the chatter and disruption becomes almost soothing. We don’t even realize how overstimulated our minds have become.
Until we are quiet, even for a moment. And in the pause the silence overwhelms us. We fidget. We want it to stop.
My friend, Chris, who is also our worship leader, often pauses at the end of the final song on Sunday mornings. He waits. He listens. The whole church goes silent.
And you can slowly feel the stress level rise. “What are we supposed to be doing?” “Why the pause?” Sometimes people will even shout out a praise or prayer. Nothing wrong with that…but I wonder if it is sometimes just to break the awkward silence. To bring relief by filling the ominous void of dead space.
But the space isn’t dead. This is where we hear the still, small voice. And if we lean in to the silence, if we persevere through our discomfort, there are all kinds of gifts and invitations that quiet brings.
Noise allows us to divert our attention away from emotions and anxieties that are begging to be felt and heard. When we tune them out, they don’t disappear or even fade away. They lurk. They find residence within us. And they do their best to steal our attention. They present themselves as fear, or anger, or impatience. They cause stress and keep us from being present.
When we enter into silence, we are invited to listen to our hearts. We become aware of all the noise, the disruptions, the worries. And one by one, we hold them before God. We show him ourselves. It is painfully vulnerable, but vulnerability miraculously destroys shame. It allows us to be seen. To be loved.
My favorite part of Lent has become our evening services. Chris and I get to work with John Schreiner on the structure and content. John is an orchestrator. He curates a service. They are beautiful, deep, thoughtful, and quiet. The pace slows. His piano playing is so rich. There is room in the service to listen and hear. It is sacred space.
Every week, I find myself wrestling with some logistical or technical issue immediately before the service starts. I’m sweating a bit. I’m frustrated. But it always comes together just before we start. As I take the microphone and begin, I feel the pace of my heart beating too fast. As I prepare us for a time of contemplation, I am painfully aware of just how badly I need it myself.
These services have been wonderful times of refreshment for me. It usually takes several readings or songs before I feel God’s presence. But when I do…everything in me breathes a sigh of relief. That comforting presence carries with it the assurance that all shall be well.
This last Sunday, our final Lent service for the year, was probably my favorite. As we finished communion, I went up on stage. I paused. And then I closed with a blessing. And no one moved. Seriously. Everyone just sat there.
I had a brief moment of panic. Maybe I wasn’t clear. “You are dismissed.” Still no one moved. And it finally dawned on me…no one wants to leave. When God’s presence falls like that, it is so moving. I could see tears in many people’s eyes. I could see the calm on each face. God is here.
I love that statement of Jacob… “Surely God was here and I knew it not.” Which is why we must pause. Otherwise we miss it.It is why we need moments where all the sound and words have ceased. Where we listen. Where our hearts are seen. By us and by God. I’ve treasured these times where I’ve experienced the quiet presence of God in my Lenten journey this year. To be in that presence is such a wonderful gift.
“In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength.” (Isaiah 30:15)
Today, honestly, I feel empty. It feels like the sauna door has been left open too long and my heart feels tepid. Room temperature. It feels like I have so little to give.
Which makes me worry. Because my self-perceived value is so tied to feeling strong. Without emotional energy I feel vulnerable. I risk being exposed. I become ordinary. Flawed.
Because confidence is what we find attractive, right? Neediness is not. It takes energy to speak with authority. It takes emotional reserves to be present and to lead. At least it does for me. Without energy, I’m always one step away from saying something I’ll regret.
There are days like this. Seasons sometimes. My week feels cluttered. I can’t find the patterns and connections that give life its clarity and meaning. I am bouncing between meetings and appointments and am getting to the end of the day feeling disoriented and even a little noxious.
What I need is retreat. But sometimes retreat is a luxury I can’t afford. There simply isn’t the space for it. I probably need better boundaries. But often those boundaries are unrealistic. Sometimes you just need to toughen up a bit.
Part of the desert experience is aimlessness. It involves wandering. Questions remain unanswered. Needs are met with silence. God rarely acts in accordance with my self-interest. There is a greater plan, I know. But apparently it is on a need to know basis, and I don’t need to know.
One of my favorite places to turn to on days like this is to the Psalms. There are Psalms written for every season, be it worship and praise, trust and faith, and even lament. The theologian, Walter Bruggeman, talks about the importance of the Psalms of disorientation in his book Spirituality and the Psalms. Psalms of disorientation are honest, raw, and ragged. They are often Psalms of complaint. They refuse to minimize the sufferings in life.
“The dominant ideology of our culture is committed to continuity and success and to the avoidance of pain, hurt, and loss. The dominant culture is also resistant to genuine newness and real surprise. It is curious but true, that surprise is as unwelcome as is loss. And our culture is organized to prevent the experience of both.”
Isn’t this true? The work of avoidance describes so much of what robs me of my emotional energy. And the rest of it is spent trying to control what cannot be controlled. The desert is a place for releasing these illusions and accepting that today is what it is. It is often the end of our rope. And, as Dallas Willard says, that is God’s address.
And though God is often silent in these moments, He will often draw near. He reminds me that this, too, will pass. That my tendency to place personal value on what I do or say is unnecessary, and, in fact, a waste of time. And that tomorrow brings with it the newness of reorientation. Finding my way back.
And usually that way back is a surprise. It comes in unlooked for, in a way that I’m not anticipating. And, as a result, I see something new. And in the newness comes the return of hope. Because in the desert, God gets bigger. And somehow, through it all, so do I.
Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.
The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to tread on the heights.
My family is taking a break from screens during Lent. All of us, to one extent or another. Obviously, we can’t totally unplug. My kids do their homework on chrome books. Patty’s work life revolves around social media. Most of my office work is on my MacBook. Screens are a necessary part of life these days.
But what we’ve cut out is the mindless entertainment portion. Scrolling, flipping, binge watching, gaming, YouTube. You’d think we’d given up nicotine or caffeine. My kids are in agony. Every day is a protest, often ending in tears, or stomping, or pouting. It has been rough. Who knew just how dependent we had become on our phones!
Initially the boredom was overwhelming. “What am I supposed to do now?!” “I don’t know, read a book?” “But nothing I read is interesting! I need something that will just grab my attention.”
Exactly! Screens are effortless. We don’t have to engage…they do all the work. What good is free time if you must be creative, if you must practice, if you must get through the first 30 pages before the story draws you in?
Instead we prefer to scroll through copious amounts of digital content that we aren’t interested in looking for that one thing…that thing that…wait, what are we looking for?
And so we go from one YouTube to another, chuckling at random falls or cute cats, until our eyes are red and everything around us feels irritating. At least that is how it goes in our home. When free time is spent looking at your phone, real life becomes an annoying intrusion.
It is an interesting dilemma. In his Pensees, Blaise Pascal talks about the weariness we all face and how diversion has become our primary coping mechanism. He writes,
“Nothing is so insufferable to man as to be completely at rest, without passions, without business, without diversion, without study. He then feels his nothingness, his forlornness, his insufficiency, his dependence, his weakness, his emptiness. There will immediately arise from the depth of his heart weariness, gloom, sadness, fretfulness, vexation, despair.”
Yep. All those.
Without diversion, the pain in our lives becomes evident. The emotions we’ve been avoiding become inescapable. We see our loneliness, our disconnection, our insecurity, our inferiority, our worry.
These are our weeds. St. Theresa of Avila tells us that we must sit in them…with God. But this is easier said than done.
When the screens are gone the silence can feel suffocating. Our minds race. We fidget. We can even panic. We pick up our phone and start scrolling. Until we get caught… “Hey! No screens!”
But my family is slowly starting to detox.
In the space we’ve created, I now see my kids reaching for their guitars, pulling out the markers or colored pencils, grabbing a board game, sitting down at the piano, picking up a book. And what they don’t realize is how happy they sound. They aren’t bickering or complaining. They are laughing, giggling, teasing each other. Connecting.
We are giving the best parts of ourselves to each other, instead of to the screens. And life is richer and deeper. Our eyes are clearer. And we start to notice more.
This is one of the hidden gifts of Lent. Sometimes all we can think of is what we’ve given up. But what we often overlook is the gift or the invitation that awaits us in the empty space. By turning off our screens we aren’t creating a vacuum. No, we’re allowing ourselves to slow down to the pace that real relationships require. Our minds calm, our hearts rest, and our joy returns. There is space for each other, and for that still small voice of God.
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Blaise Pascal
It is the second week of advent and this week’s theme is on Peace.
I’m struggling for a good definition of peace. Most of the places I’ve looked define peace by what it’s not. It is the absence of conflict, the freedom from disturbance, a lack of worry or contention, or the cessation of war. A peaceful environment is one free from threats or the things that trigger our anxieties. If we’re safe, secure, and in control we’re at peace.
Except that we aren’t. At least I’m not.
I’d like to think that the external things that threaten my peace are like germs and if I can sterilize my environment from disturbances, then my heart will be calm. If I could just remove the irritants, I’d go back to my normal place of rest. If my kids would just do their homework without needing constant reminders, I would be able to relax and not stress. If the guy not letting me merge in on PCH would just be cool, I wouldn’t have to mumble bad words under my breath. If the guy that just paddled into my wave hadn’t dropped in on me, I’d be having the best surf session of my life. And on and on.
If only this was true. But it isn’t. The worry and fear isn’t out there. It’s in here. And it goes deep.
Often it is in moments of quiet that I become aware of just how troubled the waters of my soul truly are. My natural state of rest is anything but restful. It is uneasy. It is insecure. It longs for distraction, for diversion. Anything will do…endless Instagram scrolling, bored Facebook meandering. Videos of cats and cucumbers.
Pascal writes this about diversion. He says,
“What people want is not the easy peaceful life that allows us to think of our unhappy condition, nor the dangers of war, nor the burdens of office, but the agitation that takes our mind off it and diverts us. That is why we prefer the hunt to the capture.”
That last line is so convicting. It isn’t the prize we’re after, it is the thought of the prize. Most of us know by now that the new thing we’re saving to buy won’t deliver the satisfaction we hope for, but we’ll keep playing that game. Why? Because it is what we like. Even if the process is broken. Even if it is hopeless. Any time those piercing thoughts pass by we pull out our phones. We pull out our credit cards. Peace is just one purchase away.
Of course, it isn’t actually. We already know this. But the hunt is often enough to divert our attention away from this reality. Diversion is just another form of self-medication.
True peace is costly. It is painful. It requires us pressing further into the anxiety. It requires an uncomfortable amount of vulnerability. It is humbling, even humiliating. We are letting light shine into our closets and exposing the shadow sides of ourselves. The road to peace is anything but peaceful.
Merton says that what we find, when we remain in this honest place without diversion, is “the one truth that can help us solve our ethical and political problems: that we are all more or less wrong, that we are all at fault, all limited and obstructed by our mixed motives, our self-deception, our greed, our self-righteousness and our tendency to aggressivity and hypocrisy.”
It reminds me of that story about G.K. Chesterton being asked the question by the London Times, “What is wrong with the world?” Chesterton’s response: “I am.”
This is the birthplace of peace. It begins with the painful dying of the ego and the humiliating admission of our own insufficiency. We can’t do it alone. This is the beginning of hope.
Because as our hands open in helplessness, we realize that the God of peace is always already there. Richard Rohr writes, “This doesn’t take a lot of thinking. It doesn’t take a lot of theology. It doesn’t take a lot of education. It doesn’t even take a lot of morality. You just have to walk and breathe and receive and give, and –voila!- you’re in the flow.”
This is one of the most beautiful reminders of advent. Emmanuel means God with us. As Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” (John 14:27)
The key is not in us avoiding conflict, nor is it us detaching from pain, but moving through it with humility and accepting the gift of peace that has already been given. If it sounds too simple, I would just say, give it a try.
This sort of peace can’t be hoarded. When we accept this peace, we realize that all those around us are equally as deserving. We are empowered to forgive by the forgiveness we’ve received. We extend mercy because we’ve been shown mercy.
Merton writes, “If we can love the men we cannot trust (without trusting them foolishly) and if we can to some extent share the burden of their sin by identifying ourselves with them, then perhaps there is some hope of a kind of peace on earth, based not on the wisdom and the manipulations of men but on the inscrutable mercy of God.”
Amen to that!
My prayer for this week is that we would allow the light of God’s truth to illuminate our hearts, and that, in this place of humility, we would accept the tremendous gift of God’s love and mercy, and allow the peace of God to fill us and flow through us to a world in such desperate need.
The advent season has officially begun. Advent, in Latin, means coming, and at Christmas time we celebrate the reality that we live in the space between the first and second advent. We celebrate the coming of the divine to earth in the birth of Jesus, and we look forward with anticipation for the coming day when all things will be made new.
The advent season is a place of tension. It is a liminal space. Our hearts are lifted with joy at the remembrance of Christ’s birth, death and resurrection, and yet they groan with the weight of suffering and pain that continues in our world today.
It is in this place of tension that the true depth and reality of our hope are seen and felt. Christ comes not with sentimental assurances and easy answers. He comes with the kind of love that seeks after the broken hearted, that extends grace to one’s enemies, that endures hardship and enters into the sufferings of others.
This kind of love requires a gaze that is fixed ahead of itself. Dallas Willard defines hope as the joyous anticipation of the good. This is how Christ endured the cross…it was the joy set before him. The joy of a world set right and intimacy with mankind restored. This reality is what allows us to enter in to the brokenness and mess of our world without avoiding the pain. Our hope is fixed on what lies beyond. The difficulties, in light of eternity, become light and momentary.
Our hope is fixed on the second advent. As C.S. Lewis writes,
“Hope is one of the Theological virtues. This means that a continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth “thrown in”: aim at earth and you will get neither.”
To live in this middle place, between advents, is to experience the kingdom of heaven on earth. It isn’t simply remembering, nor anticipating, but being caught up in this moment of God with us. Jesus continues to enter in to our broken hearts, and through the joy of that reality, extend hope to a world that is in such need.
As Meister Eckart wrote,
“What good is it that Christ was born 2,000 years ago if he is not born now in your heart?”
” Lord, we do far too much celebrating your actual coming. I believe in God, but do I believe in God-in-me? I believe in God in heaven, but do I believe in God-on-earth? I believe in God out there, but do I believe in God-with-us?”
“Lord, be born in my heart. Come alive in me this Christmas! Amen.”