Friday, February 19, 2016

blank pages and the spiritual discipline of writing

I wrote a letter the other day.  When I say that "I wrote a letter", I mean I actually wrote it ... with a pen and actual paper.  I'll have to admit that it was a unique experience.  It wasn't a post it or a memo, it was an actual letter with a beginning, middle, and ending ... on paper ... in ink ... with questionable penmanship.   It was void of all the usual trappings that I have become accustomed to.  There was no spell check, and I couldn't just backspace to get rid of my spelling shortcomings.  There was none of that annoying blue underline grammar check begging the question "are you sure you want to construct this phrase this way?".  I tend to ignore those anyway.
Possibly more of a challenge though was my entering in to this letter without a clear vision of where I was headed.  There wasn't even a blinking cursor to follow across the pages.  Actually, this lack of direction delayed its writing for several days.  All I had was a feeling of where I should head and ultimately it was only this feeling that moved me forward.  I had finally decided that I just needed to sit down, start writing, and follow wherever it led me.  In the end it led me to a completed letter, on paper, in ink, hand written, and a satisfaction that I had arrived where I was supposed to be.
It seems as if this process has become synonymous with the way my life has progressed for the past several years... actually for almost 27 years now.  From the very first time that God had my attention and put a blank sheet and a pen in my hand with a "feeling" that I should follow.  Let me be clear though, this is not what I would consider my preferred method of living.  I never wanted to live out the God and Abram conversation "go to the place that I will show you".  I happen to like maps.  For that matter I like to know where I am going to stop along the map and have a reservation waiting for me when I get there.
God created me as a nearly balanced left brain/right brain individual. In normal circumstances, balanced might be seen as a preferred state.  In this case, I would argue, balanced is not the best plan.  Balanced simply means that I am constantly at war with myself between thinking and feeling.  This means I have a feeling ... a "go to the place I will show you" kind of feeling and I immediately try planning how I'm going to get there.  That's a formula for frustration, exhaustion, and a little bit of crazy.  I want to feel sorry for those in my life who have been dragged along that journey to "the place I will show you" in the same way that I feel sorry for Abrams family.  They had to follow his feeling and hope that it wasn't simply a bit of a mental condition.  My family has had to follow back and forth, sometimes only on nothing more than a literal "feeling".  I want to feel sorry, yet on the other hand I can't argue with the results.  I can't imagine being in a different place or them being in different places.  I want to feel sorry for Abrams family, and yet look at how God's plan unfolded because Abram picked up the paper (or tablet or ???) and began to follow across the page until the story, or at least his part of it, was complete.
Our nature, I think, is to fight against the blank spaces and the unknown in our lives.  We want a plan, people of my profession sometimes claim that there is a formula for finding a pre-written page.  They sell books and fill seminars promising back stage access to the author and an opportunity to dictate our story ahead of time.  It's not true ... and believe me when I say that I want it to be true.  But then it wouldn't be called faith would it.  All you get is a blank page, a pen, and the opportunity to follow one word at a time.  Don't worry about the destination because if you just allow yourself to follow, you could never imagine it anyway.  Just write.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

The fight for optimism

I've never been known for my optimism.  People might even be quick to label me a pessimist, but I would have to disagree.  I consider myself a realist.  In my definition of these terms, and since I'm writing, I get to define them, a pessimist is someone who often or always thinks the worst based on nothing in particular.  A realist is someone who thinks the worst based on past history.  See the difference? For example, I happen to be someone who is very time sensitive.  Some might say anal I suppose ... whatever ... the point is that I live amongst a people who aren't ... time sensitive I mean.  A pessimist would assume that everyone would be late for everything.  I only assume this of people who have proven this to be so.  For the others I cling to my optimism and try not to look at the clock. 
It seems to me, in my corner of the world, that we as a culture are far more pessimistic than I remember us being.  What's more alarming to me is that, for those who share my faith and hope in Jesus and a promised eternity, pessimism seems to be the attitude of the day.  I see far more hand wringing than hand raising.  I hear far more about things of king and country than I hear of the King of kings.  I experience more suspicious and gate keeping conversation than grace and "let me hold the door for you".  I'll admit that with all of the bandwagons passing by it's easy to think that we ought to jump on one lest we miss out on some elusive answer to our anxiety. 
So from one struggling realist to another, let me share 3 spiritual disciplines that I am finding useful in my quest to err on the side of optimism:

1. Screen Fasting
At the risk of showing my ever advancing years I will admit to an anxiety level that rises in direct proportion to screen time.  I currently have my office in a neighborhood workspace community.  I have daily witnessed some of my co-working neighbors literally working 3 or more screen driven devices at the same time.  Just the sight of them nudges my blood pressure upwards.  It's not necessarily the screens themselves that cause anxiety, although there is mounting evidence to support this.  Mostly it is what is contained on the screens.  Facebook, twitter, and email are all landmines that I need to take time away from when I feel the pessimism coming on.  I'd love to say that I'm successful at this, but if anything is going to trip me up it is the idea of screen fasting.  I'm not a fan of fasting period but it can prove to be a valuable time of refocus.  Try it for a planned and designated section of time.  I'm shooting for one day a week.  I have all kinds of excuses why the world needs me to be online, but they are not true. No one ...let me repeat it for those in denial ... no one is so valuable that they cannot unplug for a few hours or days at a time. 

2.  Relational conversation
This continues from number 1.  Try engaging in a real, as opposed to virtual, relationship.  It can be intimidating to actually have to deal with a persons real emotions, body and facial expressions and the like during a real as opposed to texted conversation.  Now my iphone 6 may have a ridiculous number of emoji's all designed to "express" my deepest emotions, but I have yet to see one that really truly mimics a good "middle school girl" like eye roll.  Be honest now ...  how many "misunderstandings" could have been resolved or sleepless nights avoided by a good face to face, "I think I hear you saying", real time conversation?  We are created for relationship, we are wired for it.  So whenever possible, stop texting, turn off Face Time, grab some coffee, a table and friend and just talk.  Laugh out loud as opposed to Lol.  Don't even Rofl.  Just talk, relate, converse, and role your eyes.

3. Sacred listening
If you knew where I lived then you'd know what a stretch that this can be.  Where I live, if there's not traffic, there are cranes.  If there are not cranes, there is crazy lived out in a multitude of "well you don't see that everyday" ways.  So how do the people in my neighborhood resolve this?  Probably the same way you and millions like you do ... they pull out their phones, put in their ear buds, and try to drown the noise of life out by more and louder noise.  As I write this it occurs to me that this seems a bit irrational and perhaps even a crazy way to avoid crazy.  Allow me to share the one thing out of these three that I have found the easiest to accomplish.  I will admit that walking the streets with a great soundtrack or some inspirational words can seem more appealing.  However, you easily drown out what God is doing right in front of you.  We have so conditioned ourselves to believe that God really only works and resides in a church building on the weekends, or for those of us in the Northwest in the trees or on the water.  That is at least bad theology and at worst heresy.  The reality is that God is at work all around us.  To experience it in the buzz of humanity, even traffic and construction, is to give yourself the opportunity to enter in to his work.  To dedicate some of your day to a heads up, phones down, earbuds out, awareness of the life around you is to accumulate prayers that can be offered up, if not on your own behalf, better yet on behalf of those who surround you.

This all comes with a warning.  It is difficult.  Living intentionally can be difficult and living intentionally when everything around you conditions you otherwise is a constant challenge.  I would love to be able to write this as an expert, but I'm only one who is constantly fighting for optimism.  I called these spiritual disciplines for a reason.  First of all, I do think that optimism is a spiritual condition.  I follow one who has promised eternal life.  If that's not cause for optimism, I don't know what is.  They are disciplines because they take discipline to be able to engage in.  Sometimes I do well and sometimes not.  It's hard but, as Tom Hanks said in A League of Their Own, "Of course it's hard.  If it weren't hard, everyone would be doing it.  It's the hard that makes it great".