Typically, the church I serve will have 800- 850 in attendance with 30-40 people watching online. We aren’t a big church, or a small one. But we are a loving church, more loving and accepting than any I’ve known.
My Favorite Thing
I love preaching but the preaching isn’t my favorite thing.
Nope. My favorite thing is the children: all the babies, throngs of toddlers, tons of kids and hordes of teens.
This Past Sunday
Sunday morning, the sweetest little four-year-old came running up to see me. She was smiling and laughing, and is just an adorable child. As are her mommy and daddy, whom I had the honor of uniting in marriage seven years ago yesterday. Happy Anniversary friends.
Then a 6th grader and a 5th grader, told me about how they take notes during my sermon. They asked if I could preach longer so they would have more time to capture what’s on the slides up on the screens. They said taking notes helps them pay attention and makes the sermons less boring.
They’re the only ones that have asked me to preach longer. I love them.
Then a 6th grade boy rushed to give me a hug, as he does every Sunday. He’s a sweet kid and one of the best kids I’ve ever known.
During 2nd service, a 4th grade girl was signing for our deaf members. It was her first time and she was so happy. Her face was angelic, with a non-stop smile, for among the group were her hearing-impaired mother and father. She was signing for her parents. Made me cry.
Anyway, My Favorite Thing
I’ve known all these kids since they were born, or very nearly so. And there’s a couple hundred more just like them.
My church is a very loving church, and I am so blessed.
When we feel like there is nothing we can do then we say:
“My hands are tied.”
When we feel too busy to do anything we say:
“I’m all tied up.”
When we are rude about someone, or something, we say:
“The old ball and chain.”
You get the idea.
The choices we make have responsibilities. Our responsibilities have a way of tying us down, restricting our freedom. There are benefits and blessings, but there is a cost.
We live in a neighborhood with many mature oak trees. The leaves fall. And then more leaves fall. Between the neighbor’s tree and ours, we are covered up in leaves. Yesterday, we stuffed eight huge plastic bags.
If I want a nice yard, then I deal with the leaves. The one comes with the other. At the moment, the leaves are a chain on my life. But if I want beautiful trees, then I pay the price.
Coping With Chains
The ups and down of life can make us feel shackled. There are chains of leaves and there are chains of grief, trouble, and misfortune.
Three simple ideas for coping with chains.
Envision the big picture. It’s hard to see purpose when we are in chains. But often, the chains of today will bless others tomorrow, if not ourselves as well. We don’t always see how it plays out in the future, but it does.
Behave ourselves. While chained up, we can still live honorably. Conduct ourselves with good character and integrity. Restrictions may be forced upon us, but we can choose to live a Godly life.
Find joy and beauty. However hard the chains may be, beauty, loveliness, and excellence can still be found, and enjoyed. I can obsess about the leaves or I can embrace the splendor of the tree. Find the art, the music, and the joy.
Chains may be unavoidalbe, but we don’t have live shackled by anger, resentment, or discouragement.
I enjoy the trees all year long. The leaves fall for a couple of weeks, and are a few hours of work.
I guess we all did. We came into the world without speech, mobility, or fine motor skills. But we held great potential. We adapted, learned, and developed. Our first word was probably Mama, or something to that affect.
We Got Better
Soon, we learned enough words to interact with others. We learned that language was effective for getting what we wanted, or needed. Babies cry because they are hungry, wet, or in pain. Or maybe just fussy. The crying was replaced by expression of thought. But was it still about wanting and needing?
As adults, much of our language is still about getting what we want, or need. Some suggest that personal maturity is measured by the percentage of words used to assist others verses serving ourselves. Maybe?
Talking With God
If we were taught to pray, we learned that prayer was about asking for things. We learned that prayer was talking to God but also that God didn’t talk back. That shaped our perception of God and prayer, for life.
“For many of us prayer means nothing more than speaking with God. And since it usually seems to be a quite one-sided affair, prayer simply means talking to God.” (Henri Nouwen, “The Way of the Heart.”)
A Broader View
What if prayer could also be about reflection, meditation, and the opportunity for God to speak back? Does his still small voice still exist? Can the Holy Spirit still place a thought, an idea, or a blessing within us?
Prayer is from the heart, it’s of the soul, not just the mind.
“God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” To worship in spirit is to worship with expression from your spirit, from your heart, not just your mind.
The last seven blog posts have been about spiritual quests, the need for a deeper communication and a closer communion with God. I’ve blogged about solitude, silence, and prayer. And I hope you have been blessed, or at least encouraged, to seek a closer walk with him. This is the final blog on this theme.
God Bless you and keep you, and may the peace of God be yours in abundance.
Contemplative Prayer: also known as Lectio Divina.
Part Six, Blog of Solitude
What Is It?
It’s a Latin term, meaning, “divine reading.” It combines scripture with prayer and becomes an experience for, “praying the scriptures.” It helps in our quest to go deeper to better hear the voice of God.
Let Me Explain
Like all quiet times, begin by being comfortable, preferably in a private place offering silence and solitude. But Lectio Divina can be done anywhere..
A Brief Overview Of The 4 Stages
The Reading: read the Word slowly and reflectively to absorb it. Any scripture works fine, but keeping it to a paragraph in length, or shorter, is probably most effective.
The Reflection: reflect on the text and consider it in such a way that that you receive a blessing, a message from his Word, something from God.
The Response: respond with setting your thinking and thought process aside to allow your heart to speak to God, a response inspired by your reflection on his word. Pray to him, talk to him, share your heart with him.
The Rest: now, as you experience his peace, with your ideas, meditations, and thoughts set aside, you rest in his peace. This is the divine space where you listen at your deepest level as God speaks to you with his still small voice. As you listen, you are affected, instructed, or even altered by his presence.
Time & Structure
The stages of Lectio Divina aren’t rigid rules, but gentle encouragements. The time given to each stage can be shorter or longer. It’s up to you. The progressive nature of the stages should shepherd you towards a deeper and deeper inner silence so the Spirit can increasingly fill the space.
The Practice of Lectio Divina
Begin with prayer. Invite the Spirit to prepare your heart to receive the Word of the Lord.
Read the passage. Listen with the ears of your heart. If desired, read it again, looking for one word, phrase, or thought that jumps up at you. Now say the “one” over and over, repeat it out loud. Savor its meaning.
Reflect more deeply on the one. Relish the words, let them flow deep within you. Be attentive to the thoughts, ideas, and emotions that spring within your heart.
Respond naturally as you continue to reflect on the one. Give a prayer of praise, or thanksgiving, or softly sing a song of praise. Offer your response and then return to focus on the one.
Now just rest in the peace of God. Simply, “be in the presence of God,” as you open yourself to that deeper hearing of God’s Word. If you feel led to go back to the text, then follow the lead of the Spirit.
You can spend two or three minutes on each stage, or five of six, or longer. No rules, no “getting it right.” The right will be what’s right for you
There is nothing mystical, magical, or mysterious about Lectio Divina. It’s a deeper, reverential process of coming into the peace of God through his Word and his Spirit, to experience his blessings and gifts.
From, “The Way of the Heart,” by Henri J. M. Nouwen:
“One of our main problems is that in this chatty society; silence has become a very fearful thing. For most people, silence creates itchiness and nervousness. Many experience silence not as full and rich, but as empty and hollow. For them silence is like a gaping abyss which can swallow them up.”
Solitude in quiet, peaceful places may be hard to find. It may be impossible for some.
Mothers with young children.
People with long, daily commutes.
Care givers with little time for themselves.
People with widely different schedules each week.
Anyone with a lot of people in their home.
In Our Minds?
Can we find it in our minds? Having a mind of solitude and silence can be as challenging as the real thing; it’s why the desert fathers went into the desert. Consider these:
Our brain doesn’t come with an off/on switch.
Our ears pick up sound even when we don’t want them to.
The distractions of discomfort, sound, sight, and touch are inevitable.
Regardless of the location, quiet or busy, crowded or deserted, we can learn to listen for the voice of God. But we must approach it with determination.
Let me offer some steps that may be useful. I’ve learned these from my experience and from the mentoring of others.
The Basic Quiet Time Devotional
If possible sit comfortably, and close your eyes. Focus on your breathing: in and out, in and out, letting go of what’s happening around you. (One minute)
Offer a prayer asking God to bless you with his Spirit. (One minute)
Open your eyes and read a few verses of scripture. You can read though books of the bible or randomly. It doesn’t require much, but read until you find one thought, phrase, or word that jumps off the page. (Three or four minutes)
Contemplate on the one. Why did it appeal to you? What is its value? How is it beneficial. Now, go back and read it again, read it four or five times. Appreciate its beauty and truth to your life, appreciate God. (Ten minutes)
Now, close your eyes and relax your shoulders and arms. Sit quietly. Allow your mind to be receptive to the leading of the Spirit. Resist the need to take control by creating structured thought. This sounds crazy, but try to un-focus your mind. (Five minutes)
Finally, say a prayer of thanksgiving for the benefits you’ve received. After the prayer, sit quietly for another minute or two and enjoy the peace. (Three minutes)
The times can adjust as you like. The suggested times only provide a sense of what can happen in 20 minutes, it’s up to you.
Don’t think of this as a formula or a structured template. It’s only a guideline.
If you are just starting, then try a couple of times a week. If it grows from there then fine. It’s not about a rigid schedule or being able to say, “I’ve had a devotional every day this week!”
“Listening is a positive act; you have to put yourself out to do it.”
“Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.”
“One of the most sincere forms of respect is listening to someone.”
Listening To God
I was taught that God spoke to me through the bible, it’s how I listened to him. It’s true. But through the years, I’ve discovered that his voice can be heard in other ways.
In moments of awesome majesty. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” (Psalm 19:1). God’s heart is revealed in nature. When I’m up in his mountains, I see his heart and hear his voice. For me, the mountains are where the glory of God is truly declared.
In moments of great grief. The Spirit has given me comfort in moments of suffering, grief, and crisis. The Lord has blessed me with thoughts that calmed and strengthened me. His voice is often strongest when I am at my weakest.
In moments of amazing worship. I hear his voice in moments of whole-hearted praise. If I can distance my worried distractions, unshackle my bonds of self-awareness, and freely give my heart, mind, and soul, then his voice is clear.
Things The Voice of God Are Not:
God doesn’t speak to me audibly, at least I’ve never heard him. He speaks to my spirit, for he is spirit, (John 4:24). Long have I journeyed to better hear his voice.
I’ve had a lot of help along the way.
Men and women of God, people of towering faith, who wholly love their holy Father, have taught me much about solitude, silence, and listening, and I have grown.
It’s taken decades.
Just So You Know
There are no three-point plans. No seminars or conferences. There’s nothing man can offer that will rewire your spirituality. Preachers, mentors, books and events provide ideas and point in the right direction. But they can’t change your life.
A vital connection with God isn’t like an exercise machine promising weight loss and restored abs. The machine doesn’t deliver simply because you bought it. But they are easy to get, available for three easy payments, and then are just three months away from a garage sale.
Do we believe that everything important, including God, can be obtained or managed with a short cut, a work-around, or an app? Helen Keller wrote, “There are not shortcuts to anyplace worth going.”
The quest for God is a holy quest. It’s reachable. But it requires the continual seeking of solitude and silence. We must get comfortable with silence and good at listening, so we can welcome the Spirit to speak with his quiet, still voice.
His voice comes nearer when we draw closer, with a listening heart and a willing spirit.
Years ago, while still a student, a bible scholar challenged four of us to meet with him several times a week. I anticipated deep discussions, rich fellowship, and heady moments with a spiritual hero. It was all of that and more. Here was the more: “Go find a quiet place and be quiet. And pray.” I asked, “For how long?” He replied, “For as long as you want.”
I found a quiet place and set the goal of praying for one hour, three times a week. I gave it all I had. After several weeks, my prayers still hadn’t reached an hour, they reached about ten minutes. My mind wandered, I got distracted and fidgeted and repeatedly checked my watch. It was excruciating.
Centuries ago, a man named Arsenius was seeking a closer connection with God. He prayed, “Lord, lead me in the way of salvation.” The response, “Flee the world and you will be saved.” So, he left his palace to seek desert solitude. Again he prayed, “Lord, lead me in the way of salvation.” He heard, “Flee, be silent, and pray always, for these are the sources of a sinless life.”
Flee, be silent, and pray.
What Do You Think?
Should I abandon my palace for a life of solitude? Maybe go off the grid in search of deep spiritual reflection? Actually, I can imagine doing that but I can’t imagine doing it for very long. I have a family I love, a ministry to serve, and forgive me, but financial responsibilities as well. And Jesus called me to be light and salt in the world, among people. And college football starts in seven months.
Don’t judge me!
What Can I Do?
Can I separate from my cherished distractions long enough to listen for the voice of God? Is there a contemporary version of: flee, be silent, and pray ? Or are they only found on mountain tops and desert dunes?
The mentor was teaching me the value of solitude, of quiet stillness, he was teaching me to hear the still, quiet voice of God. I didn’t understand. I was preoccupied with, “Doing it right and following the plan.” I wanted to be able to say that I was a devout man of God who prayed for an hour three times a week. Surely someone would be impressed.
A spiritual quest (SQ) is a goal, or objective. Begin with an idea, something for which you are passionate, then let it mushroom with heartfelt urgency. Not quick action, poor choices, or bad decisions, but an urgency that can’t be ignored.
A SQ isn’t about one’s profession, or avocation. It isn’t a goal shaped by this world. It’s about you and God. It’s a holy desire that must be realized. It’s a quest that must be fulfilled. It calls you, it moves you, and it will not be denied.
Moses seeking God’s face on Mt Sanai.
David’s need to raise God’s honor by defeating the Philistines.
Nehemiah’s brokenness over Jerusalem’s walls.
Jesus with the Father: In the wilderness and the garden of Gethsemane.
Paul wanting to know the fellowship of Christ’s suffering.
The SQ may involve spiritual development, or specific action. But the corner stone of the quest is a holy hunger for God. To know him better, deeper, to experience him.
The SQ will face challenges. Maybe in the form of distraction, road blocks, or persecution. Our world doesn’t encourage spiritual development. Our culture doesn’t facilitate the deeper things of God, to the contrary, it raises hurdles and obstacles.
One of the hurdles may be in hearing the voice of God. Listening is essential to the SQ. Noise engulfs us, permeating our minds. We are distracted by the moving parts.
When do we hear his voice? Are we hearing his voice? A worthwhile SQ could be to reconnect with the heart of God.
From Henri Nouwen,
“Many of us have adapted ourselves too well to the general mood of lethargy. Others among us have become tired, exhausted, disappointed, bitter, resentful, or simply bored. Still others have remained active and involved—but have ended up living more in their own name than in the Name of Jesus Christ.”
A passion for God. A holy hunger. A quest for his presence and deeper meaning in our lives. Does it exist? Can it be found? Where do we look?
Achieving our SQ may require solitude. It may require a desert experience. In fact, finding the listening place for the voice of God may be our first SQ.
When I was 14, I worked all summer at a Christian Bible Camp. The counselors were college age or older and everyone else working there was just older.
It was almost perfect. The exception was that my room was isolated and I was its only occupant. At first, it was cool to bunk alone, but it began to wear me down. I didn’t like being alone, wasn’t used to the solitude.
Sometimes we crave empty spaces. When stressed by people, projects and problems, we escape to someplace devoid of the three P’s.
Sometimes we crave crowded spaces. When stressed by the absence of companionship, contact, and company, we escape to someplace filled with the three C’s.
Still, solitude tends to make us uncomfortable.
There is an idea that, “A Closer Walk With Thee,” is best found through solitude. That the desire to be closer to God gets blocked by our crowded existence, by people, noise, and distraction.
Some say we live in a culture of distraction, that we crave the sounds, voices, and images of everything else and of everyone else.
We have TV’s and smart phones and tablets and computers, and keep them all online all of the time. What have we become? Are we addicts and junkies? Are we constantly craving a fix?
Those who push the drug of distraction are excellent marketeers. They convince us that personal fulfillment can only be realized by an ever invasive technology that populates our homes and preoccupies our minds.
So Where Is God?
Where is God in this culture of noise and preocupation? When does his voice get heard?
Does quiet solitude still exist? Do our addictions keep us from knowing ourselves? Are we afraid to see who we are, of what we’ve become?
Answer this question:
“Are you hearing the voice of God as much and as often as you need to?”
At some point, I had to admit that I didn’t like being alone in the room, and that I needed to do something to make it better.
Are there other things that we need to make better?