Tag Archives: God

Away and Towards: Cultivating Solitude in a time of Isolation

The Desert Fathers and Mothers have been a continuous wealth of spiritual knowledge and insight, their teachings passed down in various volumes and compendiums.  One lesson has been particularly popularized.  As the story goes; a monastic brother went to Abba Moses and asked for a word of advice regarding the cultivation of a robust spiritual life.  Abba Moses responded famously: “Go sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” The encouragement to “sit in your cell” points the spiritual seeker to the necessity of solitude in the spiritual life.  One must step away from all that obstructs progress in the spiritual life. Make no mistake, this advice is not to be confused with an urge to passivity.  Solitude isn’t the same as aloneness.  Sitting in one’s cell, for the desert monastics, took an active form. The cell was a place of struggle, even battle.  As much as solitude involved a retreat from the frenzied distractions of the city, the desert fathers and mothers saw solitude as a way to grasp the presence of Jesus more intently.  Solitude was about creating the internal space needed to step toward the Lord, and embrace the Spirit’s movement in their lives.

 Solitude doesn’t merely have a strong place in desert ascetical tradition.  Like all legitimate disciplines of the Christian life we see this discipline modeled in the life of Jesus. The opening pages of Mark’s gospel contains a humorous scene wherein the disciples waken to find that Jesus has wondered off to a solitary place for prayer (Mark 1:35). Similarly, after the feeding of the five-thousand, Jesus dismisses both the crowds and the disciples in order to spend some time in solitude (Mark 6:46). It seems that Jesus frequently cultivated times in which he physically removed himself from the pressing demands of crowded life.

This discipline, however, is not merely one that Jesus cultivated for himself. He instructed his disciples to engage in solitude as well. In one instructive periscope, the disciples return from their missionary journey filled with zeal and excitement.  They long to tell Jesus all they had experienced.  This desire is thwarted by crowds of people who descend upon the scene. As Mark records it, the picture is so chaotic that the disciples do not even have time to eat.  Then, from somewhere within this frenzy, Jesus turns to his disciples and instructs: “Come away with me by yourself to a quiet place” (Mark 6:31).  Herein is the definition of Solitude.  Solitude is a stepping away from the frenzied chaos of life, with its noise and clamour, in order to step towards the abiding and life-giving embrace of Jesus.

This dual stepping of solitude, stepping away in order to step towards, mirrors the external and internal nature of the discipline.   Externally, solitude calls us to strip away that which blocks the flow of the Spirit in our lives.  Christian literature often pairs solitude with the disciplines of simplicity and silence for this reason.  Necessary to the cultivation of solitude is the need to physically remove one’s self from the noisy distractions of our lives.  As much as we are capable, we intentionally, and possibly forcefully, separate ourselves from all that might distract our time with the Lord.  We silence the radio. We turn off the TV.  We step away from the computer. We physically remove ourselves from others.

Of course, we never live our lives in a vacuum.  It is impossible to fully remove the noise of life from our lives, or the existence of other people for that matter.   Furthermore, in this time of isolation, it may be hard to step away from people in your own home.  Importantly, spiritual disciplines are meant to be lived out in the cluttered tapestry of our lives, whatever that might look like.  God’s grace is sufficient for our labours.  We should not make the mistake of believing that experiencing solitude, or any discipline for that matter, is contingent upon a perfect environment.  We engage the spiritual discipline in whatever manner it is best cultivated.

They to the external reality of solitude is to match, as best we can, our external environment to the inner solitude we are attempting to enter. Externally we cultivate an environment of quietness or stillness so that we might realize an internal stillness.  Solitude is more of an internal work than an external work.  We do a disservice to this discipline if it we believe it is just about stepping away.  We must step towards.  In solitude we humbly lay our lives before Christ.  Like two lovers who wish to steal away together, in a solitude we give the lover our souls our undivided attention.  Internally, we provide space for the Spirit to do a transforming work within us.  Solitude is about resting in our soul’s longing for Jesus and reaching out towards him.

So how might we experiment with solitude?  Ruth Haley Barton provides a simple and easy practice in her book Invitation to Silence and Solitude.   Barton reflects on Elijah’s experience at Horeb wherein God approaches Elijah, not in grand chaotic activity, but in stillness and quiet.  In this moment, Elijah is approached with a penetrating question: “What are you doing here Elijah.”  This question serves as an invitation for Elijah to disclose his inward self, and the chaos he carries within.  Similarly, Barton suggests, we may, in solitude, answer this same question.  As we sit in our time of external quietness and stillness, we may imagine the Lord asking us: “What are you doing here James?”, “What are you doing here Lisa?” As we sit with this question, never forcing a resolution, we may find that an answer begins to emerge from deep within.  Like Elijah, in solitude we may then disclose to this internal reality to the Lord, who longs to hear from us.

Whereas solitude is not the same as isolation, we may, if we be so bold, turn periods of isolation into a times of solitude. It need not take much time.  Like training for a marathon, we don’t launch into Olympic endeavors.  We simply start with where we are; five minutes here, five minutes there.  It may not be long, however, before we begin to see that these simple moments of solitude begin to remain with us throughout the day.  Richard Foster observes that there is a ‘solitude of the heart that can be maintained in any circumstance” (Foster: Celebration of Discipline).  Solitude can be a powerful practice because it stands against the whirlwind of activity that defines most of our lives.  With the current pandemic, much of life’s activity has come to a fast and violent halt.  For this reason solitude may be the very discipline wherein we may hear the Lord speak powerful to our souls.

Lamentations: Recovering a forgotten discipline.

This article first appeared as an article for The Anglican Church of Canada at https://medium.com/ministrymatters/discovering-lament-why-crying-out-to-god-may-be-good-for-our-souls-23cf60ccfe3a.

While out for a walk with my family the other day, we came across another family, also out for a stroll. Mom and Dad were following their two small daughters, each on bright pink bikes with streamers. As we approached each other, without saying a word, each family adjusted course appropriately. My family moved off the sidewalk and onto the grass. The other family stepped off the sidewalk and onto the curbside, their bike-riding daughters pulling to the far side of the sidewalk. We passed each, smiling of course, with a good four or six feet between us.

There is a sadness in the fact that such physical distancing has become so normalized that it occurs without speech. Life has changed. We have grown comfortable with words such as “self-isolation” or “physical distancing.” Such concepts have become the necessary boundaries through which we navigate our lives. As we grow more and more comfortable with this new reality, we cannot deny that there has been a tragic loss. With startling quickness, our lives became turned upside down. Plans were instantaneously changed or cancelled outright. That long-awaited summer trips have been indefinitely postponed. Jobs have been lost. Doors have been closed. Perhaps we, or those we love, now face a time of illness in isolation.

How do we respond to this situation faithfully? What practices or disciplines may help us navigate this new normal, and give voice to the strangeness of life as we experience it currently? I suggest that the discipline of lament might be exactly what is need in this time.

We often fail to think of lament as a spiritual discipline to be cultivated. Literature detailing essential habits of the Christian life rarely speak of this practice. A read through Scripture, however, clearly displays this spiritual practice. This goes far beyond the specifically classified “Lament Psalms.” Old Testament books such as Job or Jeremiah are filled with laments, and of course we can’t forget the biblical book which bears the name “Lamentation.” More profoundly, however, we see prayers of lament modeled by Jesus himself. In Gethsemane, for instance, Christ throws himself down to the ground and cries out “Father, if possible, take this cup away from me.” This is a lament, a prayer disclosing the deep burden of his soul. Furthermore, on the cross, Jesus quotes Psalm 22 (a psalm of lament): “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If we are to pattern our lives after Jesus, adopting the spiritual practices evidenced in Christ’s life and teaching, then engaging in prayers of lament is one of the ways we can do that.

Lament, simply described, is an unburdening of the soul. We may think of this as a type of grieving. We grieve the loss of your summer plans — or the inability to gather with family. I know several people who have had to cancel long-awaited trips overseas and they are grieving the loss of that which they so eagerly looked forward to. Alternatively, we might think of lament as a sense of soul-heaviness we carry within, because of our concerns or anxieties. Questions such as “what’s next?”, or “how long”, or “where are you?” often dominate a prayer of lament. In lament, we pour out how we are feeling at the deepest core of ourselves. They are prayers that give words to our thoughts and feelings around the difficulties or struggles we may be experiencing.

Lament, as uncomfortable as it may seem, is rooted in two important realities. Firstly, Christ is Present. Christ is not absent from us. In fact, Christ has promised never to leave or forsake us. This may not be what we feel in the moment. Our laments may take the form of asking God to act or questioning why God seems absent. Yet the simple act of crying out to God is one of boldly acknowledging that we are not alone in our struggles. Thus, laments are an acknowledgement of our confidence in Christ’s unyielding presence. Secondly, Christ lovingly invites us to lament. Christ invites us to bear our soul before him. He does not shy away from laments, or from our bold complaints or questions. If we think our own liturgy of corporate confession, we see a fabulous invitation: “Dear Friends in Christ, God is steadfast in love, and infinite in mercy….” This reality is also expressed in our prayers of lament. In Christ’s love, we are invited to disclose our hearts in all its raw messiness.

These two realities are important for they ensure that our prayers are laments and not curses. We never curse God. For all the stark honesty of their lamentations, neither Job, nor Jeremiah, nor David ever curse God. As much as we may describe how much we may be angry at God, or feeling abandoned by God, laments hold true to the claim that God is present in love. Cursing amounts to pushing God away. In lament, we grab God close.

With these realities in mind, how might we make our lament? The Psalms particularly can be a great guide for us. You may consider using one of the lament psalms as a pattern for your own. Psalms 6, 13, or 77 would work wonderfully in this regard. In general, there are three guiding steps to making our lament, and most psalms of lament follow this three-fold pattern (there are exceptions — consider Psalm 88).

Firstly, be honestPretending does not help our prayer-life, or our spiritual growth. In lament there is little room for being appropriately Anglican, reserved and stoic. Similarly, pretending that we are not affected by a situation, or not struggling in faith, hampers our spiritual lives. God wants to hear from us in prayer. As we keep the two aforementioned realities in mind, careful to not curse God, we disclose our hearts in all raw and unhindered honesty.

Secondly, we cry for help or assistance: Fundamentally, laments are a reaching out to God. Thus, ask Jesus to respond to your situation, to your feelings, or to your experience. This is what prayer is. Sadly, many have been taught that it is selfish to ask God to respond to our personal situation, that it amounts to using God. Yet scripture is awash with instances of people asking, or begging, God to respond. Again, consider Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Father, if possible, take this cup away from me.” As you make your Lament, ask for divine help, whether that be help in healing, in understanding, or in perseverance.

Lastly, end with a statement of trust: Most psalms of lament conclude by affirming the two realities spoken of previously. The lament ends by be grounding the individual in the truth that God is present and loving. In this way, we can think of our lament as a prayer that moves from complaint to confidence, or from trouble to trust. Thus, end your lament by acknowledging the blessing you have previously received, or a statement regarding your faith that God will be with you. Again, Psalms 6 and 13 are a good examples of this.

It may seem strange to say that offering a lament can be beneficial to our spiritual growth and formation. Laments, after all, seem so negative. In this time, however, where our lives have been turned around so dramatically, giving voice to our unsettledness may just be the discipline we need.

Hubris and Humility, When I get too big for my britches.

We know David to be hero of the Old Testament.  He is the man noted to be “after God’s own heart” (1st Samuel 13:14); he slew Goliath when everyone else was too scared to enter the battle field (1st Samuel 17); he grew to be a mighty warrior, a successful king, a consummate leader.  To top it all off, it is of “David’s line” out of which the Messiah is to come.  You can’t get much more of a compliment than that!

All that beings said, we cannot forget the David is also a man with flaws. In scanning David’s life, we see that David was a man who frequently lived out a sense of entitlement.  David lived and acted with a great deal of hubris.  This self-confidence served him in his tasks, but as he progressed from fabled hero, to military strategist, to mighty King, we see David’s confidence turning to pride.  David begins acting out whatever desire or wish that enters his fancy.

One of the most intriguing examples of this is David’s desire to build the temple of the Lord.  We read about this in 2nd Samuel 7.  Having been named King and now residing in the palace, David reflects on a lack of a “house” for God.  Here he is, in a palace of Cedar while the ark of God lies in a tent.  Surely this shouldn’t be the case, David thinks.  And so, resolved to rectify the situation, David sets out to construct the temple.

To be fair to David, I am sure that his desire to build God’s temple was born initially out of faith.  Furthermore, he did go to the prophet Nathan and seek counsel (it was Nathan who spoke out of turn).  Yet part of me wonders if something more is going on within David.  Is David’s desire to build the temple entirely altruistic?  I wonder if this is an instance of David being too big for his britches? I wonder if David believes that the Lord needs David to manage the LORD’s affairs in the world.  After all, he was the one who slew Goliath; he was the one who brought the ark back to Jerusalem; he was the one who was the continually saved the nation, he was the glorious king of Israel.  I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to believe that David thought “now the LORD needs me to build the temple, because nobody else is able to.”  The fact that building the temple would establish David as the head of the political and religious life of the nations probably didn’t hurt either!  Such an action would have only served to strengthen David’s authority and garner allegiance from all of Israel. (As smart as savvy as he was, I can’t believe that this escaped his notice). The point is, instead of humility and humbleness, David moved to erect the temple out of a misplaced attempt to manage where God resided, and how God was approached.

Do I ever live out such hubris?  Do I ever fall in to a mistaken belief that Jesus needs me to micromanage his affairs in this world?  Instead of humility and acceptance, do I ever believe that I am the one who gets to call the shots, with the Lord dutifully falling in line behind me?  Honestly, there are probably times when I do this.  I probably do this when I believe that God’s presence and activity in church is contingent on my perfect sermon or the perfect execution of liturgy.  I probably act like David a bit too much when I assume that God thinks about everything the exact same way I do; and when I assume that the head of the Church needs me to save his Church, am I not getting a little too big for my own britches?

David does not build the temple; he is told to cease-and-desist.  Nathan comes to him with the divine word that he is not the one to build the temple.  Yet, God’s response to David in this is beautifully instructive.  David isn’t just told “no”, he is reminded of the LORD’s power and guidance in the establishment of the nation, and his own family.  David is told how God has moved with the Israelite’s each day and how no ruler of the nation was ever tasked to build the LORD a house of cedar. I think there is a not-so-subtle reprimand here.  God is, in effect, saying “Who do you think you are to assume that you are the one to do this?”  David, with all the hubris flowing through him, is called to humility. He is reminded of his rightful place before the true and rightful King.

And then God says something profound.  God takes David’s desire, stated in verse 2, and flips it on its head.  In light of David’s desire to build God a house, the LORD affirms “I will provide a place for my people Israel, and plant them so they can have a home” (7:10).  Furthermore “The LORD declares to you that the LORD himself will establish a house for you” (7:11).  Again, David is lovingly put in his place.  The LORD does not need David to establish a house, because Israel’s future is in the LORD’s hands.  God is in control. David’s task in life is not manage God’s presence and activity in the world, but to humbly receive the blessings that God bestows.  David is asked to follow God’s lead; to do that which Gods him to do, and to not do what God does not call him to do.  Instead of crafting a house for God, God will establish a house for David.  Despite the great accomplishments and accolades David may have to his name, in the end, he is but a servant of the heavenly King.

It can be hard to be taken down a peg, to have God address our prideful hubris.  But this is necessary if we want to live our lives faithfully before God. In love, God reminds us of our place as part of His creation.  We are people formed of the earth, crafted in God’s image, redeemed by His love.  As such, God calls us to the place of submission.  We are called to receive, not create, the will of the Lord.  Furthermore, in those times where we may not know what the next phase of our journey is, we are called to wait for the Lord.  God does not need our management-strategies or our directions. God does not need us to create a path, construct a legacy, build a future.  These things are in God’s hands, and despite our knowledge or insight, God’s plan will prevail.  Instead of attempting to manage divine things, therefore, we should use our energy to be diligent in prayer and humble in spirit.   After all, as David’s son once put it, “Unless the Lord build’s the house, we but labour in vain.”

Getting our feet wet

Scripture speaks into our lives.  The words we read, in Old Testament and in New, penetrate our hearts and our souls, addressing the dynamics of our own lives.  As we place ourselves before scripture, allowing the Word to address us, we find that the words of scripture open up new perspectives in our life of faith.  Stories and events of scripture highlight the idiosyncrasies of our own lives.  Looking at how the faithful before us have tackled some of life’s difficulties gives us opportunity to uncover new ways of living our lives of faith.  Sometimes, the detail in which scripture unfolds implications for our lives can be startling; Consider this reading from Joshua chapter 3 (the Lectionary reading for last Sunday)

 The Lord said to Joshua, “Today I will begin to exalt you in the eyes of all Israel, so they may know that I am with you as I was with Moses.Tell the priests who carry the ark of the covenant: ‘When you reach the edge of the Jordan’s waters, go and stand in the river.’”

Joshua said to the Israelites, “Come here and listen to the words of the Lord your God. This is how you will know that the living God is among you and that he will certainly drive out before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites and Jebusites. See, the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth will go into the Jordan ahead of you. Now then, choose twelve men from the tribes of Israel, one from each tribe. And as soon as the priests who carry the ark of the Lord—the Lord of all the earth—set foot in the Jordan, its waters flowing downstream will be cut off and stand up in a heap.”

So when the people broke camp to cross the Jordan, the priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant went ahead of them. Now the Jordan is at flood stage all during harvest. Yet as soon as the priests who carried the ark reached the Jordan and their feet touched the water’s edge, the water from upstream stopped flowing. It piled up in a heap a great distance away, at a town called Adam in the vicinity of Zarethan, while the water flowing down to the Sea of the Arabah (that is, the Dead Sea) was completely cut off. So the people crossed over opposite Jericho. The priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord stopped in the middle of the Jordan and stood on dry ground, while all Israel passed by until the whole nation had completed the crossing on dry ground.

So what implications can we draw from this passage?  What truth does is speak into our lives?  I offer three reflections.

1: Naming the Obstacles

Joshua, and the people of Israel faced a huge task.  At this point in Scripture, they stand before the Promised Land.  The people of Israel had wandered in the desert for 40 years under the leadership and the guidance of Moses.  Now, Moses had died and the mantle of leadership had passed to Joshua, a young and inexperienced leader.  There were probably some questions as to whether Joshua was ready for the task.  After all, claiming the Promised Land wouldn’t be the simplest of jobs.  Additionally, Israel stands on the wrong side of the Jordon.  The river separates the people from the land of promise.  As scripture records, the Jordon is at flood stage during the harvest season.  The picture is of a deep, violent and rushing river that stands between Israel and their new home.  Crossing it would be easy.

To top everything off, (if you remember the story), the spies of had returned from their mission declaring that those who inhabited the land were giants (Numbers 13).  The spies had returned convinced of that moving into the land would be impossible.  New leadership.  Raging waters. Gigantic barriers.  The hurdles seem insurmountable.

What hurdles are you facing?  What obstacles do you feel are too big for you to overcome?  Do you feel that your life is butting up against an immovable barrier at work, at home, among friends?  Life is not always easy or strait forward.   There are times we can feel that we are moving confidently toward our goals only to find that we turn a corner and find ourselves face to face with something that stops us in our tracks.

2: Claiming the Promise

Amidst the obstacles that Israel faces, as they stand on the precipice of completing their desert journey, God issues words of power and deliverance. “Come here and listen to the words of the Lord your God. This is how you will know that the living God is among you.”  God declares to Joshua, and to the whole company of Israel, that His power would be shown.  God would prove faithful to the promise he spoke to them at the beginning of their journey.  The nations would be driven out and God would fight for His chosen.  God declares that the river would be parted – the obstacles would be removed – and His power would be revealed.

These words sound good.  Better yet, they are true!  In the times when we come up against our own insurmountable hurdles, we must claim the promise of God’s presence being for us.  Like Israel, we journey through our lives accompanied by a God who is not only powerful, but is also faithful to all His promises.  God’s power will be revealed.  God will deliver, protect, and guide us.  If we do not claim this truth, we will never be able to move forward in our life of faith.   Faith demands that we dare to believe that the obstacles we face do not constitute God’s abandonment.  Could it be that overcoming our hurdles are just the opportunity we need to live from the standpoint of faith, and experience the wonder of God’s magnificent presence?

3: Getting our feet wet.

The declaration of God’s power for His people is a wonderful affirmation.  Yet such an affirmation is essentially empty if Israel did not choose to live out that reality.  They had to embody a faith that radically took God’s declaration of presence and power to heart.  In the midst of obstacles and fright, Israel had to step into that reality . . . literally.  Yes God declared that the waters of the Jordon would part, but notice what comes first. “And as soon as the priests who carry the ark of the Lord—the Lord of all the earth—set foot in the Jordan, its waters flowing downstream will be cut off and stand up in a heap.” The people had to get their feet wet.

Just as Israel wasn’t called to be passive in their faith, neither are we.  We don’t simply sit back, facing our hurdles, waiting for a miraculous display of divine power.  No, we walk ahead.  We proceed in faith.  We trust that God, in God’s time, will prove faithful.  And so we step into our own River, whatever that may be; we journey toward the future that God is leading us toward.

Where are you called to get your feet wet?  After you have named your obstacles, and taken the proclamation of God’s loving power for you, where could God possibly be calling you to step forward?  It doesn’t have to be the biggest of steps – a step is still a step.  Yet by doing so, you may just be participating in the dismantling of the very obstacle that you faced in the first place.

Israel did step into the waters.  The river did part, and they did enter the Promised Land.  God did prove faithful and power and trustworthy.  True, things after that didn’t always go the way they wanted, but life never does.  But time after time, Israel was able to experience the miraculous provision of God, when they allowed themselves to move ahead in a spirit of bold and radical faith.

So look squarely at the obstacle you face, claim the promises of God, and go get your feet wet.

3 hints when practising Lectio Divina

Recently, Facebook reminded me that we have been doing the practice of Lectio Divina at the church for over one year.  Since that time, many have asked me to come and help them explore Lectio Divina further.  As one clergy-friend remarked; “Lectio Divina is your thing!”  I’m not complaining, I love this discipline, and I love encouraging others to explore it.  I have spoken at several churches, and lead various small group in the practice of Lectio Divina.  I have also received several emails asking me about various dynamics this discipline.  Thus, I thought I would offer three helpful hints which may serve to encourage others in their exploration of Lectio Divina.  I have found these hints profoundly helpful in my own practice of Lectio Divina.  These hints pertain to three spiritual attitudes we would do well to keep in mind whenever we attempt the discipline of Lectio Divina.

Spirit of Boldness If you think of it, Lectio Divina is really quite radical.  It is not a quaint or timid discipline.  One begins the practice of Lectio Divina in the radical assumption that scripture will speak into our lives.  We boldly claim the promise that ‘the word of God is living and active.’  You can think of this spirit of boldness as involving three different affirmations.  Firstly, we boldly affirm that we gather in the presence of God.   This may seem like a silly thing to write, however unless we believe that our heavenly Lord surrounds us, then there really is little point in practising the discipline.  The goal of Lectio Divina is intimacy not information; it is fellowship, not facts.  We are called to affirm that Jesus is present with us as we go through the movements of Lectio Divina; through the Holy Spirit, we can interact with him.

Secondly, we affirm that God speaks into our lives.  Again, there is little use of Lectio Divina if we don’t believe that God will speak to us.  In fact, throughout Scripture, this is one of God’s fundamental critiques of idols.  Idols are mere objects crafted by human hands, with no eyes to see, ears to hear, or mouth to speak.  In contrast, God’s word does not return empty.  The word is not only spoken, but it is also incarnated in our lives.

Lastly, we must boldly affirm that God’s voice can be recognised.  We simply must believe that, if God has a word for us, God will speak that word in a way we can discern it.  After all, Jesus says ‘My Sheep know me, they listen to my voice and they follow me.’   This is the grounding of Lectio Divina.  The distinguishing characteristics of God’s voice can be identified; we can become familiar with the cadences and rhythms of the Lord’s words.

Spirit of Intimacy:  Lectio Divina is not about results, it is about intimacy with our Lord.  In prayer we attend to the voice and the presence of the one who made us and redeemed us.  It is important to remember this fundamental goal of the discipline.  Often, when people begin Lectio Divina, they find that it produces a ‘spiritual high’; a hearing of God’s voice in some profound way never experienced before.   This encourages them to continue on in the practice.  Yet, as time goes on, they find that the practice doesn’t produce the same experience.  Frankly, this can seem upsetting, even disturbing, to some.  We need to remember that Lectio Divina isn’t a spiritual ATM machine dispensing products for our consumption.  Our relationship with God has ups and downs, ebbs and flows.  There are times, in God’s own purposes, that we hear the activity of God’s voice clearly and profoundly; similarly, there are times where, in God’s love for us, we sit silently together.  This doesn’t mean that Lectio Divina ‘failed’ or that we did something wrong.  In Lectio Divina, we open ourselves to experience God’s presence in whatever manner God wishes that to occur.

Spirit of GraceLectio Divina includes a lot of silence, a silence that we might not be used to, or comfortable with.  Because of this, as we begin to quiet ourselves down and attend to the presence of God, we can end up experiencing a wandering mind.  Henry Nouwen called this dynamic ‘jumping monkeys on a banana tree.’  Despite our desire to listen and pray, our mind seems to jump from one thought to another.  When we experience this wandering mind we either A: condemn ourselves for our lack of spiritual strength; or B: begin to fight against our wandering mind.  Either action leads us away from the discipline of Lectio Divina.  After all, if we spend our entire time meditating on our wandering mind, then we are not meditating on God’s voice.  The ancient writers on prayer stress that the way we push through the wandering mind is to acknowledge it, not fight it.

In Lectio Divina, we claim grace.  Grace is the very atmosphere of the discipline.  The fact is, everyone experiences a wandering mind in prayer; it is but a dynamic of being an imperfect person, living in an imperfect world.  So if your mind wanders, don’t beat yourself up.  It’s ok – You aren’t failing at the practice.  Simply acknowledge that your mind has wandered, and go back to your meditations.  This is why it is good to have a candle lit, or a cross placed in the centre of the room. These things are reminders of God’s Lordship and presence, but they are also aids for us if we need to refocus our minds.   Similarly, if there was a word or a phrase that seemed to have more weight to it (as you began the practice of Lectio Divina), repeating that word or phrase can help you focus on the presence of God. Even if you spend 9 minutes out of 10 with wandering thoughts, the grace of God is such that God rejoices in that one minute of heartfelt, meaningful, meditation.

None of these hints are earth shattering by any stretch of the imagination.  Still, I have found these hints beneficial for me as I have practised Lectio Divina.  Ultimately, Lectio Divina is never a skill that you master.  Our goal should never be to get ‘good at’ Lectio Divina.  We are labouring to hear God’s voice, spoken into our lives through the pages of the Biblical text, and it is to that end that these hints can prove helpful.

Choosing Simple

We live in a world of constant noise and distraction. There is always something to tear us away from what we focus on in any given moment. Images flash before us, ever changing what we are thinking about or reflecting on. Music provides an endless soundtrack to life; we find it in malls, in banks, in hospital waiting rooms. The frenetic pulses of the world we live in, like a migraine that won’t end, eventually takes it’s toll on us. According to a 2011 paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, It only takes a person 4 seconds become uncomfortable with a silence in conversation. Personally, I have noticed the strangest urge within me. Every time I sit at my desk with my Bible open, in preparation for sermon work or Bible study, a small voice goes off in my brain demanding that I check the current feed on Facebook. I wonder if you have ever struggled with a similar thing? Even if we are unaware of it, we are used to something else always going on, demanding our time and our attention. We live in a world where slow, methodical, focus is a detriment and multitasking is a virtue. Because of this we say things like ‘I wish there were more hours in the day’, ‘If I only had a few more hands’ or ‘please stop the world I’d like to get off.’ We feel exhausted and tired because of the ceaseless pace of the world we live in.

Is this there a way to break out of this type of life? Can we combat the overexposure of sights and sounds, the barrage of messages highlighting self-indulgence, and that internal sense of being overwhelmed? Can Jesus lead us into a different way of living?

In her book, Abundant Simplicity, Jan Johnson describes the message of Jesus as a radical denunciation of a life lived ‘in bold print’. Jesus points us to a life of unhurried grace. He calls us to not worry over “what we shall eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Pagans run around after all these things, and your heavenly father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.’ I have grown up with this verse. I have sung it as a hymn in churches many, many times. Yet I never really thought about what that verse points us to. What does it mean to seek first God’s kingdom in our lives? How do we go about this? And how does living for or in the kingdom of God, differ from living for or in the kingdom of this world?

Have you ever seen the movie City Slickers—starring Billy Crystal and Jack Palance? In this movie, Palance plays an old rugged cowboy named Curly, while Crystal acts the young mid-life crisis-baring city person. Crystal’s character is in awe of Curly because, as he says ‘your life makes sense’. In the central scene of the movie Curly, with cigarette dangling from his mouth says to the burden-baring Crystal, “You city folk are all the same. You spend 50 weeks tying knots in your rope and then think two weeks up here will untangle them for you. None of you get it. Do you know what the secret of life is. This. (Curly holds up his finger) One thing. Just one thing.’ Of course, here, Hollywood takes a turn and it is suggested that everyone must find their one thing, but until then, what Palance talks about is very much like the type of life Jesus is pointing us to.

Looking back at what Jesus says in Matthew 6, it seems that Jesus makes a stark difference between two fundamentally opposed manners of living. There is the way of seeking the kingdom, first and foremost in our lives; and there is the way of ‘The Pagans’. The way of the kingdom is unhurried, focused, and diligent. The way of the ‘Pagans’—the way of the world—is to run around in an intolerable scramble trying to achieve that which we are worried about yet can never fully receive.

The way of seeking the Kingdom is different, because the rule of God in our lives becomes the one thing that our lives are directed toward. Jesus tells parable after parable about this very thing; it is a person searching for a rare pearl, a woman searching for a lost coin, a shepherd searching for a lost sheep; a father searching for his lost son. The kingdom of God is to be the sole focus that redefines all of life. Unlike life according to the world—telling us we are to flit about in ten thousand directions at once, chasing everything and finding nothing; spending week after week ‘tying knots in our rope’—a simple, kingdom focused life arranges all actions, duties, and tasks around one unified and definitive principle and goal—life in the kingdom of God; life as a disciple of Jesus.

It seems to me that to living out this singular, simple, kingdom-focus will have dramatic effects in how we live our lives. But maybe that’s what Jesus wants. Our life in the kingdom isn’t to be so internal that even we forget what it means! The kingdom of God should effect how we interact with the world around us. It should change how we speak, how and what we purchase, how we serve one another.

Over the next little while I will be exploring what this singular, simple, kingdom-focused life will mean, both to my inner heart of devotion and faith, and also to the various outward way that we engage in the world around us. I invite you to take this journey with me, and even offer your own insights and suggestions.

What is one outward thing you can do to ‘simply’ your life? Remember ‘Simplicity’ should be defined as a single-hearted focus on Jesus and his Kingdom.