The Battle on Two Fronts

My husband and I went out for breakfast this morning to celebrate his birthday. As our slow_down_sign_reed_college_portland_oregon_2013conversation drifted to his recent retirement and the changes we are experiencing, he commented on how nice it is to be able to enjoy a leisurely breakfast on a weekday morning, having nothing he has to rush to do. As I thought about his comment, I became increasingly aware of my own state of being. I was revving up. We had finished our meal, and I was physically preparing to rush on to the next thing. Except, there wasn’t a “next thing.”

It seems to me that my body is hard-wired to rush. It’s not that I have a lot of nervous energy…I’m not a leg-jiggler or a foot-tapper. I don’t drum my fingers. I’m not even particularly energetic. But my body is always poised to move on to whatever is next on the to-do list.

As a wife and mother,  a homemaker, a businesswoman-turned-pastor, I have been busy the majority of my life. I learned early on that time management was essential to successfully juggling my varied roles and responsibilities. My days were for the most part carefully planned to maximize every minute so as to accomplish not only what I needed to get done, but also have time for what I wanted to do. It was not uncommon for me to pack more into a day than was feasible to do. I’ve conditioned myself to be productive, and to be productive requires being on the move.

My life has changed significantly in the last six months. I quit my marketplace job to spend more time in ministry. After two years of providing care for my mother, she suffered a stroke and died. Subsequent weeks were spent tying up the loose ends of her affairs. Then my husband retired, and the holidays were upon us. With the whirlwind of activity behind us, we are settling into a new routine, a slower pace. Time to relax over a leisurely meal, or go to a movie in the middle of the day. The problem is that my body doesn’t know how to do that. I feel as though I’m fighting a battle to make myself slow down. That’s the battle on the physical front.

But the battle is also being fought on another front, a spiritual front. All this busyness I’ve prided myself on over the years has also conditioned my spiritual self to stay on the move. I devoured books, yet couldn’t really tell you what I’d read. I would have a revelation from scripture, but wouldn’t remember it days later. Rather than take the time to process what I read and perceived, I was rushing ahead to the next spiritual thought or epiphany. Now I am learning how to sit quietly and listen–really listen–for the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Solitude is becoming something I desire regularly.

Equally important, I am learning to be still and truly listen to others. Just as I rushed physically from one thing to the next, I also rushed conversations. The temptation to think about how I wanted to respond or simply being impatient to move on to another topic meant that I often didn’t give attention to the other person’s words, much less to what might be hiding behind them.

I’m learning that it’s impossible to be attentive to the present moment when the body and the spirit are persistently rushing on to the next thing on the to-do list or on to the next thought. This business of slowing down is hard though! The battle against pushing forward, refusing to idolize both physical and spiritual busyness, is intense.

The lesson that needs to settle deep in my spirit is this: What’s next is not guaranteed. Only this moment is real. To rush past it is to lose the battle and forfeit the opportunity to experience God in the here and now. And so each evening I thank God for all the blessings of the day, the ones I caught and the ones I missed, asking him to reveal those overlooked blessings so that I may be consciously grateful for them, too. My prayer is that this tool–this examen at the end of the day–will help me win the battle of being fully present on both fronts, physically and spiritually. Amen and amen.

 

Everyone has an agenda. What’s yours?

White Christmas is one of my all-time favorite movies. I faithfully watch it every year—have for more years than I will admit to here! I was reminded today of a particular scene… Early in the movie, Wallace and Davis encounter the Haynes sisters in a contrived meeting. When Betty confesses that her sister Judy set up the meeting under false pretenses, Wallace chuckles and comments that “everyone has an angle.” In today’s parlance, we might say “everyone has an agenda.”

The reason this scene came to mind is that I was reading about a pastor who entered a resistance-to-changenew pastorate with some pretty high expectations. When he encountered resistance to his agenda, he became angry at the people who were opposing him. He couldn’t understand how they could disagree with him on several fundamental issues of the faith. He fell into a pit of despair.

Are you familiar with that pit? I am! Want to know the quickest way to fall into it? Insist on your own agenda without listening to those who will be impacted by it.

Years ago I served on the staff of a large church that prided itself on its Wednesday evening programming which had for years been a mainstay of their discipleship offerings. It had begun during an era when most churches had Wednesday night services. Consequently, schools did not schedule extracurricular activities on Wednesdays. Offices and retail establishments closed their doors at 5:00pm. Kids had homework that could be completed in under an hour, and usually without the aid of a parent. But as all that began to change—businesses remaining open until all hours of the night, kids having homework that requires hours to complete and parents pushed to help them if anyone is going to get to bed at a decent hour, and schools scheduling extracurricular activities every night of the week–we struggled to have enough volunteers. I found that my agenda became all about feverishly recruiting volunteers to cook and serve the meals, lead Bible studies for adults and children, and keep the nursery. I became angry and frustrated with what I heard as excuses for not cooperating with my agenda and, eventually, I fell into that pit of despair because I failed to make them see serving as I saw it: a fundamental faith issue.

By God’s grace, I had a conversation with a mother of three kids whose husband traveled extensively. This woman served faithfully in a couple of ministries, but as she shared her struggle each Wednesday to get the kids home from school, start homework, make it to church in time for dinner, stay for Bible study afterwards, then return home to finish homework and get them in bed in time for a full night’s rest, my heart gave way. Expecting her to serve on Wednesdays was saddling her with an unbearable burden!

I began listening to other parents of school-age kids and heard much the same story over and again. Parents said that they came in the door and their family splintered, kids going one direction and adults the other. No wonder my agenda of recruiting more volunteers was meeting with such resistance!  We were encroaching on the precious little family time they had!  What we meant for good was in reality straining for our families. It was obvious our Wednesday night programming needed to be modified. Interestingly, when I brought this to staff meeting, suggesting that we scale back our Wednesday activities, I met with the same resistance I had been offering. No amount of explanation would sway the staff’s thinking. Their agenda was set in stone.

This reflection has been a good reminder for me, and I share it in case you need to hear it, too. Whenever we meet resistance to our agenda, it is wise to stop and listen. We should ask questions that are motivated by a sincere desire to understand, rather than a selfish desire to push our agenda. We need to listen carefully to the answers…listen for the voice of God through the voices of others who oppose our agenda. It may be that God isn’t a fan of our agenda, either!

Joseph’s Bones

And the people of Israel went up out of the land of Egypt… Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for Joseph had made the sons of Israel solemnly swear, saying, “God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones with you from here.”  -Exodus 13:18b-19

In her Advent devotional Lighted Windows, Margaret Silf suggests that the Israelites carried the bones of Joseph because “he was their dreamer, the symbol of their God-dream.” She goes on to encourage us to carry our dreams with us, too, because it gives us the energy we need to continue our journey. Ministry is hard work. Indeed, it is joyful work…but hard, nonetheless. When we get tired, it’s easy to lose our way, to forget why we began this journey in the first place. Our vision becomes cloudy and the Voice that called us seems so distant now.

Advent is a notoriously busy season for anyone in ministry.  For those serving on the staff of their church, there is a church to decorate, extra worship services to plan, Christmas celebrations to attend, and visits to the homebound and the sick. For those in ministry outside the church walls (i.e., all Christians!), there are angel trees to coordinate to provide gifts for the poor, Christmas banquets to feed the hungry, coats and blankets to collect to give some measure of warmth to the homeless. Add to all of that the decorating of our homes, the gifts we purchase and/or make, the extra baking for cookie exchanges… Suddenly we find ourselves tired and confused, wondering why we began this journey in the first place.

That’s when it’s time to take out Joseph’s bones.

Create space for some quiet reflection. Remember the times when God unmistakably touched your life, when he called you to this particular ministry path–whether it is in the church, in the home, in the community, or in the marketplace. Remember when you knew beyond a doubt that God was leading you purposefully. Margaret Silf refers to this place of remembering as “a sacred space and a still center in all our confusion,” and she encourages us to return to it regularly for replenishment.

God’s voice is still there, even in the midst of the busyness of this Advent season. We just need to remember the sound of that Voice in our ears, then wait quietly and listen patiently once again.

advent