Finding Peace in Chaos

Preparing for Storms

Emma and I moved to Cocoa Beach in July 2016, and in October of that same year Hurricane Matthew hit Florida. Having spent so much time inland, we didn’t know much about mandatory evacuations and were told that once the winds reached a certain speed the bridges would be closed and anyone who stayed would be on their own. Although we were fortunate to have my parents’ house in Lakeland as a refuge, we were not prepared for the evacuation. We didn’t have a hurricane kit and most of the stores were sold-out of staple items. I had no idea how to board-up the windows, and as the evacuation deadline quickly approached all we could do is clear the lawn of potential projectiles, throw our kids and five pets in the cars, and drive into stand still traffic. As weather reports predicted a 6-8’ storm surge, I was scared that we would return to a house underwater, especially since we didn’t have flood insurance. Emma wrote on Facebook:

“I am awake in bed two hours away from our new home in Cocoa Beach, glued to the storm coverage, and I keep wondering what we will find when we go home. I can’t help but think about things I left behind, like the kids’ baby books and that growth chart I’ve been keeping since Isaac was a baby… I should have grabbed those. We should have boarded up the windows. Why didn’t we fill sandbags? Exactly how far above sea level IS our house?”

Since Hurricane Matthew wobbled off its projected path, Cocoa Beach avoided a direct hit. Our home was not flooded and there was minimal damage to the property. Lakeland was not affected much either, so we didn’t need the supplies that we failed to prepare.

This was a big lesson for us. Immediately upon getting home, I purchased flood insurance. The church also installed hurricane windows in the parsonage. As the next hurricane season approached, we got a hurricane survival guide and prepared a kit, which proved helpful when we were evacuated again in 2017 for Hurricane Irma. We returned to Lakeland fearing a direct hit to Cocoa Beach, only to discover that the storm changed directions and we had evacuated into its direct path. The eye of the storm tore through my parent’s neighborhood, causing significant damage. Fortunately, we learned how to better prepare after navigating Matthew and, with the help of family and friends, had all that we needed to weather the storm. Had we not learned how to better prepare after Matthew, we would have been in real trouble with Irma.

How many times have you had to navigate storms? And I’m not just talking about the weather, but about emotional and spiritual storms too. Were you prepared? How did you handle it? Did you learn important lessons from one storm to another?

 

To Be Like Jesus: Finding Peace in Chaos

While the disciples never weathered a hurricane, they did have to navigate some fierce storms, and according to the Bible, Jesus expected them to learn important lessons in the process so they could be better prepared for whatever life threw at them. What is interesting to me is that the disciples often failed to meet this expectation, and this irritated Jesus.

Take for example the storm that we read about in Mark 4:35-40:

That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”

Jesus’ questions at the end are striking, especially when we consider that the disciples encountered other storms throughout the Gospel of Mark that provoked a similar response in both the disciples and Jesus. Take for example the story of Jesus walking on water in Mark 6. The disciples were once again on a boat when another storm breaks out. As they were fighting the storm, they saw something across the water that looked like a ghost and were terrified. Walking on the water, Jesus identified himself, told them not to be afraid, and calmed the wind. Then Mark says that the disciples lacked understanding because their “hearts were hardened” (vv. 48-52).

After following Jesus day in and day out, listening to his teachings and observing his way of life, after witnessing him calm storms and perform other miracles, the disciples failed to learn important lessons about faithfully navigating difficulty. Repeatedly, Jesus questions their fearful reaction, which culminates in Mark 8 when an exasperated Jesus says, “Do you still not perceive or understand? Do you have eyes and fail to see? Do you have ears and fail to hear? And do you not remember?” (vv.17-18). Jesus is disappointed because they frequently miss the whole point of following him—to be like him, especially in the face of challenge when it really counts. Jesus shows them repeatedly how to prepare for and navigate storms, how to stay close to God and cultivate a calm spirit, a wise mind, a peaceful heart, and a strong faith, all of which are necessary to handle suffering in mature and faithful ways. But instead of growing in spiritual maturity and developing the resources needed to act like Jesus in the face of challenge, they remained immature, demanding that Jesus do everything for them.

Notice their response in the story recorded in Mark 4. First, they are unprepared, caught off guard and consumed with fear. In desperation, when they finally call on Jesus, they essentially accuse him of being absent and uncaring when they needed him the most: “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” They seem to mad at Jesus for not preemptively rescuing them.

We often do the same. We go through life without paying much attention to Jesus. We might pray before meals, go to church on Sunday, and occasionally share a Christian meme on Facebook, but we don’t spend much quality time with Jesus in serious, daily discipleship. Neglecting things like prayer and meditation on scripture, which help us regularly connect with God, we’re left unprepared when storms come. Like the disciples, we are caught off guard, overwhelmed with fear, and demand that Jesus miraculously change realty to match our desire. We even get angry with Jesus or blame God when things don’t go our way and we experience suffering. Without the ongoing spiritual growth that happens through the consistent practice of spiritual discipline, we fail to see how these compulsive reactions to fear are misguided, entitled, and immature.

In contrast, Jesus wants us to grow-up in the faith. Instead of remaining the same from day to day and expecting him to do everything for us, Jesus wants to cultivate in us the same spiritual resources that empower him to faithfully and wisely navigate storms. Through a close relationship with him, Jesus wants to increase our awareness God’s perpetual presence, which serves as a conduit for the virtues we need to deal with difficulty: wisdom, faith, courage, patience, and peace. The good news of the gospel is not that God will miraculously prevent you from facing fear and pain, or that Jesus will do everything for you so that you don’t have to do anything for yourself, but that Jesus can empower you to faithfully navigate storms like him.

So how do we prepare for storms? By imitating the life of Christ day in and day out. Jesus could calm storms because he was deeply connected to the powerful presence of God through a life of perpetual prayer. As one who was constantly connected to the peace of God, he could remain calm in the face of chaos. As one who was constantly connected to the wisdom of God, he could make wise choices when all hell broke loose. The closeness of his relationship with God served as a conduit for everything Jesus needed to handle whatever life threw at him. But he didn’t wait until to storm broke-out to prepare.

As a faithful Jew, Jesus was intentional about growing his faith through the practice of spiritual discipline. Day in and day out he prays, meditates on scripture, teaches, and serves. He was intentional about staying aware of and connected to the presence of God, which shaped his heart and mind in ways that prepared him for stormy seas. Then when the storms came, the chaos didn’t rob him of his peace, but his peace brought calmness to the chaos. In this way, Jesus models a way of life that transforms us into his image. As we daily imitate the pattern that he sets forth, we gradually receive the wisdom, faith, courage, and peace required to handle difficulty like him. Our preparation for the storms of tomorrow happen today. We don’t wait until the bridges are being closed. And when the storms to come, we draw on the hard-won spiritual resources to help us stay true, knowing that even in failure there is grace and there are lessons to be learned that will better prepare us for the next storm.

 

Time Away for Rest and Meditation

In addition to daily spiritual discipline, Jesus gives us another important practice when we find ourselves in the middle of a storm, straining against the oars: physically separating ourselves from the chaos by going to a peaceful place. Throughout the Gospel of Mark, Jesus gets worn down by his service to the crowd. He deals with this challenge by frequently going to a quiet and deserted place to rest and pray. In addition to doing this himself, he encourages his disciples to do the same (Mark 6:31b).

We all need time away from the busyness and chaos that swirls around us. This is why God commands us to keep the Sabbath, to set aside at least one day per week for rest and re-creation. We ignore this command at our own peril, especially when navigating storms that result in seasons of suffering. In addition to weekly rest, sometimes we need to literally walk away from the noise and chaos, to physically withdraw to a quiet place for rest, prayer, and meditation.

Most of us easily go to conversational prayer when facing trouble, but when navigating storms mediation is just as important. Since mediation is a lost disciple for many Protestant Christians, I offer several teachings on this topic that can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes. When chaos is swirling around us in and in us, meditation is the best tools for quieting the mind, body, and spirit so we can get meet God at the deepest level of soul, where God gives us access to divine wisdom, courage, strength, and peace. It is no coincidence that Jesus calms the storm in Mark 4 by saying, “Quiet! Be still!” And Jesus says the same thing to us today to calm the storms of our hearts.

Meditation (or contemplation) clears space in our hearts and minds so we can find clarity about our next best steps, but to calm the storm on the inside we sometimes need to, first, calm the storm on the outside. We need to get away from the noise, busyness, conflict, and competing demands of others, finding a quiet and peaceful place for rest and prayer. Do you ever give yourself this gift?

It’s important to note that if we don’t prepare for storms through daily spiritual practice, or if we fail to handle the storms with wisdom and faith, Jesus doesn’t abandon or reject us. The Bible is clear that Jesus abides with us always, and when we fail he offers grace and forgiveness. However, our lack of discipline and preparation will make it more likely for us to make unwise, and even sinful, choices that result in even more difficulty, pain, and confusion.

 

Challenge

So, let us commit now to a life of daily spiritual discipline. Being a Christian is not just about a one-time decision in which we ask Jesus to be our personal lord and savior. It’s a way of life based on the imitating Jesus. It’s about a radical transformation that makes us more loving, compassionate, faithful, and wise. In addition to daily conversational prayer, let us also commit to daily meditation, the practice of stilling our hearts and minds in silence, so we can become increasingly aware of the presence of God in every single moment of life. If you need help with meditation, you might consider attending our Christ centered yoga class or acquiring some other good resources. Like Jesus and disciples, let us commit to taking time away from the noise and chaos for rest and prayer, whenever the need arises. And when we return from our deserted place, let us commit to getting help from other Christians, especially those who are farther down the disciple’s path. Christianity is not a spectator sport or an individual sport, it is a community affair. We need each other. We need good traveling companions and guides. This is the main reason we offer the Quadratos Companioning Group and other groups, studies and classes to support you.

Don’t wait until the storm arrives to start preparing—start now through the practice of daily spiritual discipline. If it’s too late and the storm is already raging in your life, then get help from other more mature Christians and do your best to commit to prayer, meditation, and the study of scripture, which will help you to be faithful and to pay attention to the lessons that God wants to teach you in the process.

 

Prayer

Gracious God, teach me how to stay close to you day by day through the imitation of Christ so that I can be prepared for storms.

 

(This post is the eleventh in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

 

Surfing, Yoga, Discipleship

Being an older surfer in Cocoa Beach can be challenging. While we sometimes get good swells, we also suffer through days, even weeks, when it’s flat. This means that you can’t rely on surfing alone to stay in good surfing shape.

Although I enjoy playing sports, I’ve never enjoyed exercising. I’ve tried weightlifting, jogging, and even “surfing workouts” in the gym, but eventually I lose interest and stop. When a good swell rolls through, I struggle to find my rhythm in the water because I’m out of shape. Winded paddling out, slow to pop-up, and sore to the bone after a two-hour session, I tell myself, “You’ve got to get back in the gym.”

Not too long ago, I remembered a conversation with an older surfer at The Longboard House. He said that, after turning forty, the best thing he did to improve his surfing was take-up yoga. While I tried yoga in college, it didn’t stick. But now I needed to do something to stay in shape between swells, and it seemed better than repping-out squats next to a guy flexing in a mirror while drinking water out of a gallon jug. So I started going to Infinity Yoga with my friend, Dan.

My initial logic was simple: Dan does yoga, and Dan rips. Maybe if I do yoga, I will rip too.

While I’m not as consistent in my practice as I want to be, I’m doing yoga more often and experiencing some real benefits, both physical and spiritual.

Before going to class today, I read Psalm 106:1-5 during morning prayer, which led me to meditate on mercy. When I got to yoga, the instructor (as usual) led us through some deep breathing, reminded us of the importance of remaining open and compassionate, and invited us to “set an intention” for the class. After silently saying the Jesus prayer in cadence with my breathing, I set my intention on what I had already been pondering, mercy.

As in all meditation, the mind wanders. In the middle of class, when twisted in a challenging pose, the instructor, Martha, said, “Notice in your body what feels good, and focus on that.” While this initially brought my attention to physical sensations that I would have otherwise missed, it also got me thinking about life. About how we often feel comfort and discomfort at the same time, and how we have a choice about where to focus our attention. It got me thinking about the benefits of to learning to be comfortable in uncomfortable positions, and how to relax under stress.

My wandering mind came back to the room when Martha reminded us to return to our breathing and refocus on our intention. After a couple of deep breaths, it suddenly struck me, “I’m praying.” In addition to exercising, my time on the mat was turning into an extension of my time with God in morning prayer. It also occurred to me that throughout the class my awareness of others waxed and waned. I noticed an inward and outward movement of attention; a rhythm of going inward to pray alone, followed by a going outward to pray with others. Which led to another realization: yoga is a kind of worship experience.

This was a joyful discovery because, as a pastor, I often feel like my responsibilities for leading weekly services leave me with little time to sink into the presence of God with others in corporate worship. But this is exactly what was happening on the mat today, and it’s exactly what I needed.

At the end of class, the instructor offered positive, loving, and encouraging words. She reminded us that we are full of light and that we should share that light with others. This warmed my heart because light has long been one of my favorite mediation images. While meditating during my devotional time, I often imagine breathing in light until my heart glows and then breathing out light as my whole body is illuminated. (Check out Matthew 5:16.) So the final words at the end of practice felt like one of many little confirmations that I’m on the right path in this season of my life.

What better way to stay in shape than to practice a form of meditative exercise that will not only improve my surfing but also make me a better human being.

Who knows, maybe this is a form of exercise that I will finally stick with, even if it doesn’t make me rip like Dan.

The Burden of Light

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

I recently heard these familiar words of Jesus at a clergy retreat, but in a radically new way that continues to gnaw at me.

In the past, when considering this passage, I understood Jesus to be saying, “If you stick with me, I’ll help you with your problems and make life more bearable.” Commentators explain that Jesus may have been referring to a double yoke in which two animals walk side by side, pulling the same load. The analogy seems clear: Jesus walks beside you, helping bear your burdens. This is a comforting message for people feeling burned out and worn down. Most of us need rest, and not just rest for our bodies, but also for our souls.

So, I thought I knew what this passage meant. But God has a way of breaking through familiarity and turning what we think we know upside down. Hear the words again:

“For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

“. . . my burden is light.”

“. . . my burden is light.”

“In the beginning was the Word . . . . in him was life, and that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:1, 4-5)

“You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14).

With a flash of insight, I heard a still small voice, “My burden is being light in a dark world.”

Followers of Jesus bear the burden of light. In a world where people can no longer distinguish the truth from a lie, we are called to honesty. In a world that venerates the arrogant, we are called to humility. In a world that worships the wealthy, we are called to love the poor. In a world where people sell their souls for power, we are called to take up a cross.

And this is exactly why Jesus was killed. Evil empires operate in darkness and Jesus is light. As the powers of this world nailed him to a cross, what they were really saying is, “Turn off that light!”

Not much has changed in this present darkness, and for those trying to follow Jesus as light in a dark world, it can feel like a heavy burden:

“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves . . . . they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me . . . . you will be hated by all because of my name.” (Matthew 10:16-18, 22)

If we embrace the alternative lifestyle of radical love, we will experience ridicule, rejection, and even abuse.

However, in the presence of Jesus we are promised that this burden will become light.

The burden is light because it’s a way of life characterized by surrender. Instead of constant grasping, striving, and achieving, Jesus says, “Let go.” Let go of control. Let go of expectations. Let go of trying to be good enough. Find ways to relax into the presence of God, to just be—be who you are and where you are, knowing that you are accepted by unconditional love.

This is where we find rest for our souls. This is where the burden is made light. This is where we become light.

But, paradoxically, surrender may be the hardest thing we ever have to do.

Learning to let go, to relax into the presence of God and just be, seems to run contrary to our very nature. The shift from a willful to a willing spirit is the very heart of conversion, and it cannot be accomplished by what often passes for prayer today—words carefully crafted to convince ourselves or others of what we already believe to be true. (Or, even worse, long, syrupy, cliché monologues intended to solicit approval from other churchy people.) No, a true renovation of the heart requires the kind of prayer that goes beyond words, the kind of prayer that helps us awaken to the presence of God, so we can relax into that presence and just be—be ourselves and be with God. A kind of prayer that puts us in touch with our soul, so we can listen in stillness, solitude, and quiet. Indeed, a difficult kind of prayer for frenetic hearts navigating a frenetic world.

So, while Jesus’ yoke might be easy, insofar as he helps us carry our burdens, the burden itself—being light in a dark world—is, paradoxically, heavy and light, hard and easy. And I’m not sure exactly what to do with that right now, except let it continue to gnaw at me.

Loving People in Pain: Humility and Compassion

Sometimes we are impatient with the weakness of others. When those closest to us exhibit neediness, it’s easy to recoil in judgment. Their vulnerability triggers our fear: fear of being blamed, fear of unreasonable demands, and fear that our own neediness will become visible. The result is distance, leaving the other person feeling abandoned in their pain. While this reaction may provide a fleeting sense of control, over time it erodes trust and makes intimacy more difficult.

When people experience weakness, their soul cries out for compassion and support. They need trusted loved ones to draw close, to empathize and tell them that they are still loved. Deep down inside, most of us want to offer these gifts, but fear and pride compel us to withdraw. If this results in shame, we can justify our callousness in the name of tough love or healthy boundaries, thereby increasing the disconnect and adding insult to injury.

The cure is humility.

Humility is a misunderstood virtue in our culture. It is usually associated with impotence and confused with humiliation, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Genuine humility is about self-awareness. It’s about knowing, showing, and embracing our strengths and weaknesses, our beauty and brokenness. It’s an affirmation of our common humanity (our imperfection), which counteracts the tendency to elevate or degrade ourselves in relation to others. Humility teaches, “The weakness that I see in you is the weakness that resides in me.”

When clothed in humility, our response to neediness can be supportive. Instead of compulsively withdrawing in fear and judgement, humility empowers us to connect with the pain of others through empathy, and in this way humility is the gateway to compassion.

Contrary to popular opinion, humility and compassion require enormous strength. It is easy to react in fear, defensiveness, and judgment, leaving others feeling abandoned and bereft. It is difficult to enter someone’s pain and hold them there. In fact, we cannot muster enough courage to love in this way without drawing on a power greater than ourselves, without grace.

So, let us pray for that which makes love possible: humility, compassion, and patience. And let us practice these virtues as others trust us enough to show their weakness and pain.

My Morning Prayer

Lord, grant that I may greet the coming day with spiritual tranquility. Grant that in all things I may rely on your holy will. Whatever news may reach me today, teach me to accept it with a calm soul, knowing that you are always with me, that you will never give me more than I can bear in the power of your Spirit, and that you are working all things together for my good because I’ve been called according to your good purposes. Empower me to die to self and be emptied of ego so that Christ may fully reign in and through me. Forgive me of my sins and give me the courage to accept my acceptance. Teach me to live as one who is truly forgiven. Fill me with your Holy Spirit. Direct my thoughts and feelings in all of my words and actions. Bend all of my desires to your will, teaching me to love what you love and want what you want. Grant that I may deal firmly and wisely with all in my care, speaking the truth in love without unnecessarily provoking or hurting anyone. Help me to see my life, with all the joy and all the sorrow, all the faithfulness and all the failure, as a gift given by you to be received in gratitude and celebrated with others. Remove all fear from my heart, teach me to trust you in all things, and give me a sense of peace I rest in your presence today. Teach me to make good use my time, creating gifts that point to you and freely releasing them into the world without expectation. May I focus on faithfulness not outcomes. Teach me to pray, to hope, to be patient, to forgive, and to love. I pray these things in Christ’s name, who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

____________________________________________

I have been writing, rewriting, and editing this prayer for years. It began with a prayer written by the Fathers from the Orthodox Monastery of Optimo, but I changed it over the years to fit my own spiritual journey.

To Thine Own Self Be True: The Path to Lasting Joy

“Franciscan alternative orthodoxy doesn’t bother fighting popes, bishops, Scriptures, or dogmas. It just quietly but firmly pays attention to different things-like simplicity, humility, non-violence, contemplation, solitude and silence, earth care, nature and other creatures, and the ‘least of the brothers and sisters.’ In Francis we see the emergence of a very different worldview, a worldview that is not based on climbing, achieving, possessing, performing, or any idealization of order, but a life that enjoys and finds deep satisfaction on the level of naked being itself–much more than doing or having.”

This quote by Richard Rohr gestures toward my own Lenten focus this year.
What are the things that give you deep joy? What activities make you feel alive and energized? What deepens your sense of meaning, value, and beauty? What are your natural abilities and spiritual gifts? What are you passionate about? What are the things you have always known how to do without having been taught?
As you patiently ponder these questions and answers emerge, you will discover your gifts to the world–things you can offer that add value to the lives of others and provide a deep sense of belonging. You will discover your purpose and unique contribution to life. These are birthright gifts that no one can take away, gifts that you can enjoy and share wherever you are, regardless of your circumstances. And if you build your life around these things, you’ll be empowered to develop what Henri Nouwen calls a “holy indifference” to the wavering opinions of others.
Remember, most people in the world form opinions of you based on how you conform to their expectations. Since everyone has a different set of expectations (that vary in degrees of spiritual and emotional health), it is impossible to make everyone happy all the time. So allowing other people to define you and tying your happiness to the approval of others is like playing a rigged casino game–you will always lose.
In contrast, the path to lasting peace, joy, and love is figuring out who you really are as a beloved child of God and living in that truth come hail or high water. “To thine own self be true,”  and let the chips fall where they may.
“What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” -Jesus

Life in the Deep End: Meditation in the Christian Tradition

One of the biggest dangers that we face today is the temptation to live life on the surface in the perpetual distraction of frenetic busyness. Too often we are overwhelmed by the flood waters of our circumstances, and instead of responding with clarity and wisdom we compulsively react out of anxiety and exhaustion. We intuit that something is wrong with this way of being in the world but feel powerless to do anything about it. According to the Bible, the spiritual disciplines of solitude and meditation are important tools to develop a different kind of life. Check out this message to see how the recreating silence of mediation can lead to a stable, non-anxious existence grounded in wisdom, freedom, contentment, and peace. The audio of this message is also available on iTunes: 

https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/pastor-mark-reynolds-podcast/id952866724?mt=2.

Meditating in the Presence of a Three Year Old

For the last ten years I have lived as a single man in a big house, and my only constant companion has been Aslan, my German Shepherd Dog. For longer than I can remember, my daily routine has been fairly consistent. I wake-up slowly at 8:00am, make lots of coffee, and spend two hours in complete silence, praying, studying scripture, reading spiritual classics, and meditating on what I hear from God during this time. After devotions, I use the first part of my day to write sermons, lectures, Bible studies, and articles. In order to be at my best, I need more . . . you guessed it . . . uninterrupted silence. Unless there is something pressing, I usually do not enter the busy world of meetings, classes, appointments, and visits until around 1:00pm. This discipline of devoting the first half of my day to devotions and creative projects has made an incredible difference in my quality of life and leadership, and I have come to cherish this time.

However, on August 8th I became the joyful husband of Emma and proud “2Pop” (stepfather) of Isaac (5) and Evie (3). This week has been unique because we are at the tail end of summer break and Emma had to return to work early for new teacher training at McKeel Academy. In order to save $150 in childcare expenses, I decided to stay home with the kids and work around structured times of fun with them. This has created some challenges in practicing the routine mentioned above, and it is precisely through these challenges that God spoke to me.

This morning I asked the kids to give me one hour for devotions, and I intentionally exercised patience and prayed through the noise coming from the living room. For the first time in a long time, I was finally doing what I had been asking moms to do for years in my sermons on prayer. It’s not that I was completely unprepared to be Mr. Mom for two weeks. After all, I raised two little boys myself, Jobe and Jackson, and had already had several conversations with Emma about what it would be like to co-parent small children again under the same roof. The fact that I love Isaac and Evie as my own children make this adjustment a joy, but it is still an adjustment.

During my meditation time, I had a powerful insight: My first responsibility as a pastor is to be a decent human being. Just as soon as I started pondering this insight, I heard a knock at the door. I remained silent. The door opened, and I heard 10 small feet walking all around me. It was Evie with two dogs in her wake. Amidst the jingle of collars and the sounds of panting and scratching, I heard a voice, “Mawk, I’m tirsty.” God said, “Be a decent human being,” so with my eyes still closed I gently put my arm around Evie, smiled, rubbed her back, and said, “Give me just a few more minutes until my meditation timer goes off.” She said, “Ooook” and walked away leaving me with two excited dogs and an open doorway where sound could flood in without restraint. I thought about yelling across the house, “Evie, shut my door,” but again I heard a still small voice say to me, “Be a decent human being in this situation without trying to change it.” God was calling me in this moment not to be a decent human being as a pastor but as a father, and I was obedient. After my timer went off, I did ask Evie to close my door so I could say my final prayer. Halfway through, right after I uttered the phrase, “Lord, empty me of myself,” she came barreling in again. I slowly opened my eyes and saw her beautiful, innocent, yet mischievous face, and all I could do is chuckle as my heart smiled. God helped me to see that I was meditating for Evie and Isaac today.

This is the fruit of meditation: it empowers us to be decent human beings to whoever we meet, including those that we love and get frustrated with the most. The spiritual giants of ages past help us to see the importance of setting aside a specific time each day for meditation, because it is here that we experience a much needed emotional and spiritual clearing. For a brief time, we detach from the world, surrender all distractions, and die to self in a recreating silence. But all of this is for the purpose of intimate communion with God so that the peace, love, and joy we experience in His presence can become a way of life in service to others. When we open our eyes after meditating, we see our children, spouse, friends, coworkers, neighbors, and even strangers in a new light. When we leave our prayer closet, we enjoy new resources that empower us to love more deeply, forgive more empathetically, endure more patiently, and live more wisely. Indeed, meditation helps us to become better human beings.

God gave me a chance this morning to practice the gifts of meditation in very real and concrete ways. I was taught once again how to be a decent human being, even when things don’t go according to plan. I was taught how God can children to eradicate all remnants of selfishness in sacrificial love. I was able to be a little more like Jesus who said, “Let the little children come unto me.” These are the gifts that come with the challenges of meditating in the presence of a three year old.

Hold on . . . I hear her again . . . “Come wipe my butt!” I have to go practice the fruits of meditation again.

Stages of Growth in Prayer: Moving Beyond Magical Thinking to the Gift of Contemplation

We often hear about the importance of prayer in the life of faith, but few receive significant teaching on this subject. As a result, some longtime Christians experience the limitations of an immature prayer life. In an effort to address this challenge, I think it is helpful to think about prayer in terms of three different stages.

Stage One: The “Me” Prayer of a Child

The operative image of God in stage one is a heavenly Santa Clause, and prayer is mostly a monologue in which we present God with a long list of requests and demands.  Our goal is to persuade God to use his power to change our external circumstances so they will conform to our internal yearnings. This often leads to magical thinking that does not align with reality. The gift that we receive in this stage is a growing desire to pour our hearts out to God with childlike humility, and growth is evidenced by a gradual shift away from a Christmas list to an authentic sharing of our interior life.

Stage Two: The “We” Prayer of Conversation

Sharing with God from the heart helps us to get in touch with our deepest needs as human beings, and this generates a growing desire to hear back from God. Brief moments of silence create the possibility of hearing a word from the Lord as a salient insight, keen intuition, strong conviction, or deep sense of peace. For those of us who inhabit a therapeutic culture, the operative image of God in stage two is a divine therapist, someone who listens to all our problems and gives us sound advice. In a way analogous to a therapy session, prayer starts with us doing most of the talking, but periodically we pause to seek guidance from God. This is the beginning of a genuine conversation.

Since this is a transitional stage, our expectations about what should change as a result of prayer are often conflicted. On the one hand, we still want God to use his power to make our external circumstances conform to our internal desires. While this might not entail the Christmas list of stage one, our desire to hear from God is still driven by something we hope to gain: we seek advice that will empower us to continue doing what we are already doing but with better results. We pray in hopes that God will help us to realize the kind of life we envision for ourselves. On the other hand, the very practice of prayer leads to destabilizing experiences that upset our expectations: sometimes God answers our prayer in unlikely ways and sometimes God does not answer our prayer at all. These unsettling experiences raise important questions. Is there something more to prayer? Am I praying for the right things? Should I uncritically accept everything my heart desires as God’s will? Maybe instead of asking God to change my circumstances, I should ask God to change the way I am responding to my circumstances so I can live more faithfully, even in unfavorable seasons. This line of thinking leads to a new kind of prayer: “Lord, teach me to pray.” As prayer matures in and through stage two, more questions than answers are generated, which is exactly what is needed to enter stage three. Before this happens, we have to surrender the desire to leverage God’s power and wisdom to realize a life of our own creating. When we stop asking, “How do I get what I want?” and start asking, “What does God want?” we discover that what God wants is simply to spend time with us.

Stage 3: Prayer as Contemplation

In quiet moments that emerge by pondering of difficult questions, we hear a whisper say, “Be still and know that I am God” (1 Kings 19:12; Ps. 46:10). If we are obedient, the Holy Spirit can use this divine silence to utterly transform our prayer life. In stage three, we experience a growing awareness of the greatness of God, which explodes all the categories of human thought and language. We try to grasp more fully what it means for God to be the Creator, the ground of being, or the giver of the power-of-being itself. We contemplate God as the Spirit of life in whom we live, breath, move, and have our being. God becomes the mystery of the world that explodes all of our images of the divine and leaves us speechless. We sit in silence—awestruck, reverent, worshipful silence—and the “me” in prayer almost entirely vanishes. When we finally find our tongue, it breaks forth in spontaneous worship and praise.

What we expect to change in stage three is the “me” that is praying. I change. My understanding of God changes. The way I pray (and what I ask for) changes. What I expect to change itself changes! No longer do I try to leverage God’s power and wisdom to give me the kind of life that I want, because what I want more than anything is simply to be in the presence of God. We still come to God with childlike humility and a deep desire for intimate communion, but we let go of all expectations and wait upon the Lord in silence. It is in this stage that we begin to understand what Paul meant in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 when he tells us to pray without ceasing.

Conclusion

The stages mentioned above are not intended to be taken literally as a prescription for prayer. If you literalize this interpretive scheme and imagine that growth in prayer proceeds in strict linear fashion from one stage to the next, it can actually narrow and distort your understanding of prayer (which is the opposite of my intended goal). In our lived experience, we might find ourselves praying in different “stages” on any given day. Indeed, it is possible to find all the stages reflected in a single prayer. As mentioned at the beginning, all such interpretive schemes have their limitations. However, if we understand this approach as one model among others and resist the temptation to push it too far, it can be helpful in expanding our understanding and practice of prayer.

If you are interested in learning more, check out the sermon on which this article is based:

Don’t Fight the Lazy River: Finding Spiritual Power Pockets

I just got back from vacation at Atlantis in the Bahamas. One of my favorite things to do at the resort (in addition to eating) was riding down the lazy river on a double tube with my fiancé, Emma. The first time we pushed out into the current it was surprising to discover that many parts of the river were not so lazy at all! At several points, we were pulled into class two rapids and hit with a series of big waves generated by a damn that repeatedly opened and closed with ten second intervals. About halfway around, you could get out, climb a series of stairs, and ride your tube down slides that dumped back into the river. The rapids, waves, and slides were exciting, but in between these fast places the river got so lazy that it felt like you were standing still. We even got stuck in a few places against a wall and had to paddle back into the current to get going again. Every time things slowed down, my natural response was impatience. I knew that things were supposed to slow down at various points (after all, that’s why they call it a lazy river). I also knew that the contrast between the fast and slow parts of the river made the fast sections more fun. Finally, I knew that when things slowed down if we just relaxed in the tube then the current would pick us up again. But it was hard to relax and our compulsion was to paddle ourselves back into a power pocket or jump out and walk the tube back into the fast part of the current. As we navigated the lazy river a few times, I thought of several connections with my real life.

Sometimes we are shooting the rapids, riding big waves, and flying down slides. Life is exciting and we have lots of momentum. Other times we feel like we are standing still or stuck against a wall. During these times our natural instinct is to paddle—to push, work, or otherwise exert effort to create momentum. If we are stuck against a wall then some paddling might be necessary, but don’t forget that there is a current to help you along. I really believe that the Holy Spirit is at work in the world creating a stream of life—a current—that moves the world in a certain direction, toward God’s preferred future. If we forget this and just start exerting a bunch of energy to get unstuck then we might find ourselves inadvertently paddling upstream, which will result in an exhaustion that leads nowhere fast. But if we remember that we live, breathe, and have our being in the stream of life generated by the Holy Spirit then we can cooperate with this current by paddling into spiritual power pockets that will launch us forward. You don’t have to create all the energy and forward momentum by yourself! The real question is, “Where are the power pockets?” and the way to answer this question is by spending time in prayer and meditation on scripture. And if you are not stuck but things are not moving as fast as you like, then maybe you don’t need to paddle at all. Maybe you just need to relax, appreciate the gifts that a slow pace provides, and trust that the current is strong enough to move you forward.

Another connection I made was related to my relationship with Emma. When you are riding in a double tube all of this stuff gets more complicated! Both people have to remember and trust the current, both have to communicate about when to relax and when to paddle, and both have to find the power pockets together. Sometimes one person is saying “Relax!” and the other person is saying “Paddle,” but when you are connected in a life-long partnership you can only move forward as a team—you have to act in harmony. This requires two people that are willing to stay in the tube together, good communication, and real patience.

Where are you on the stream of life and how can you work together with the people you love to find the spiritual power pockets that will propel you toward God’s preferred future?