Invitation to Solitude and Silence [A Review]

…all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own room.

So says scientist and Christian philosopher/theologian Blaise Pascal. And I tend to agree with him. Silence and solitude are on the endangered list of our society. For many, they are relics of a bygone era, antiquated practices obstructing efficiency and productivity. As I have said elsewhere, our love of noise is equaled by our disdain of silence.

Yet for the Christian, rest found in silence and solitude is essential to what it means to be human. Christians have long held to humankind being made in the image of God; we are God’s ikons, taking our posture and practices from the One we find incarnated in Jesus of Nazareth. I recently heard that in our culture “Yet these three remain: productivity, efficiency, and speed, but the greatest of these is speed.” (Phil Kenneson, Slow Church Conference, 2014). If this is true, living lives that incorporate silence and solitude into intentional rhythms of life are truly subversive.

Silence and solitude are countercultural ways of life.

Taking her cues from 1 Kings 19:1-19, Ruth Haley Barton leads us into a guided journey she has taken herself. Or, more accurately, and to use her language, it is an invitation extended to us by God.

For it is a wonderful thing to be invited. Not coerced or manipulated, but truly invited to the home of someone you have looked forward to getting to know, to a party with fun people, on a date with someone who is intriguing. There is something about being invited that makes the heart glad. Someone is seeking me out, desiring my presence enough to initiate an encounter. (p. 16)

A beckon, a question, a search: God is in the pursuit business.

It is a particular invitation to coupling of solitude and silence. This is intentional in that it forces us beyond the stereotypical understanding of Christian spirituality, namely Scripture and prayer. Yes, these are integral and make their way through the book. However, for Barton

…I have chosen to write about solitude and silence because I believe silence is the most challenging, the most needed and the least experienced spiritual discipline among evangelical Christians today. It is much easier to talk about it and read about it than to actually become quiet. We are a very busy, wordy and heady faith tradition. Yet we are desperate to find ways to open ourselves to our God who is, in the end, beyond all of our human constructs and human agendas. (p. 18-19)

With bringing us theology and practices girded in solitude and silence as her goal, Barton sets off and does just that.

Beginning with her own story of busyness, productivity, and noise, she gives her own narrative that sounds familiar; I’d venture to say a good majority of Americans could have written it. The difference, however, is the approach she took through reflection and allowing her desperation to be an invitation, not a roadblock. As she says,

As strange as it may sound, desperation is a really good thing in the spiritual life. Desperation causes us to be open to radical solutions, willing to take all manner of risk in order to find what we are looking for. Desperate ones seek with an all-consuming intensity, for they know that their life depends on it…Here [in solitude and silence] we give in to desperation and desire until God comes to us and does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. (p. 30, 33)

From here Barton lays out a scaffolding of how to enter into solitude and silence. Time, space, and posture all come into play in these exercises. Again, in a faith tradition (over)emphasizing intellectual assent to the point of becoming synonymous with following Jesus, being aware of the importance physical elements of solitude and silence can be somewhat jarring. Being aware of the posture we take when sitting, what time of day works best, and when our contexts best give themselves to us for silence are essential. We are not following Jesus and accepting God’s invitation in a vacuum. These things matter.

As we follow these general guidelines, Barton wants us to find rest for body, mind, and soul alike. Our propensity to gnosticize (material = bad, spiritual = good) Christianity is rampant, leaving us bewildered by what it could mean to love God with our bodies. Can we rest ourselves to the point of being still? Can we allow ourselves to face our limitations only brought about by a silent mind? Is it possible to allow ourselves to simply be?

For Barton, these disciplines are not ends in themselves. They are the means by which we prepare ourselves for the further journey. Like Elijah in the wilderness, solitude and silence develop and equip us for what is ahead. Facing our emptiness and powerlessness are both the results of these practices and the prerequisites for facing the storm ahead. And through them, we find the presence of God alive and well, beckoning us back into the world “for the sake of others.” “Not only does the love of God come to us in solitude, the love of God begins to pour through us to others.” (p. 133) This disorients us and reorients our ideas of success in relation to others:

Success for me now is measured by whether I am living within the rhythms of work and rest, solitude and community, silence and word necessary so the quality of my presence with God and with people and tasks is characterized by love and attention, wisdom and discernment. (p. 133)

In other words, solitude and silence are both personal and public, both for the revitalization of the individual and the community.

If you are like me – swimming (and perhaps drowning) in the waters of productivity and busyness – this will be a book of respite. I know for me it is a resource akin to a balm after a scorching sunburn. I began reading it and couldn’t put it down as her personal stories, subversive theological perspective, and practices at the end of each chapter pricked a place in my heart and soul. If you were to see my copy of this book, you’d see highlights and stars in the margins on nearly every page. I’d like to share many, many more quotes from this book, but space would quickly run out.

Go get this much needed book. Buy it here.

Advertisements

Speech Therapy and Learning to Live Like Jesus: An Analogy

“Let’s go sit in front of the mirror. Look at my mouth. See how my tongue looks? You try. Good. Let’s try again.

Not quite. Let’s try again.

That’s it. Now, look at how I say ‘n’. Make sure you’re looking. Great. Now you try.”

This was a segment of a speech therapy session one of my students was receiving the other day. I sat in with him to gain some insight into how to help him speak better. Not just how to sound better, but how to actually form the sounds and words with his tongue, lips, and breath.

Speaking is an embodied act. It goes beyond theory, although there is certainly a need for it. However, it wouldn’t do much good to fill my 5 year old student with concepts of how to speak. He doesn’t need information for its own sake; he needs formation. Literally, his mouth, lungs, and a host of other muscle groups and organs must sync in order for correct English speech to come forth.

Within the kingdom of speech therapy, there is a correct manner by which progress is made. And, in this particular instance, it comes by attending to the Queen of the Speech Therapy Kingdom. She knows the why and how of staying within the parameters of the good life found within her kingdom.

The beauty of this particular session was her process of recording this progress. She took my student to a large mirror and demonstrated to him by example the proper way of obtaining an “n”. Every attempt he made, he received either a smiley face or a sad face to indicate whether it both sounded correctly and was properly formed physically. There was not a preconceived set of correct responses he had to attain. He simply had to act upon her instruction and make the attempt. What she was looking for was trust and obedience in listening to her words and watching her mouth. She didn’t leave him on his own; she didn’t set him up for pressured achievement. There wasn’t a “you must get 6 out of 10 correct” for us to continue. It was a “try your best and know I am with you” exercise. It was a “let’s get this down and then we’ll build from here” activity. Every attempt – whether it was done correctly or not – was an opportunity for learning and growth.

I couldn’t help sitting there and seeing a synonymous method by which we learn to live like Jesus. He doesn’t ask us to perform without seeing him do it first. He shows us by example and beckons us to follow. He doesn’t set us up for performance anxiety; he gently invites us to trust him and to try our best knowing he is with us. When we get things wrong, we don’t lose his guidance. No, he challenges us to pick ourselves up, stop doing it that way and try again. And again. And again. There is no giving up found in Jesus. He asks for our obedience to his loving voice as he forms us in his own image.

Akin to speech therapy, learning this Jesus-life comes from doing. Growth takes place as we actually embody what it is he is saying to us. It does us no good knowing the teachings of Jesus devoid of practicing the teachings of Jesus. Discipleship to Jesus is certainly a spiritual thing, but it only comes at the employment of the physical.

This is what Jesus means when he offers us this abundant life. He is the one who knows how to live in the kingdom of God. His relationships between himself and God, himself and his fellow human beings, and himself and his created order are exemplified by justice and rightness. That is, they are how they are supposed to be. And it is to this that he calls. Just like the “Queen of the Speech Therapy Kingdom” can teach the proper sound and formation of an “n”, so Jesus is the King of the Kingdom of God and can teach the proper way of life abundant.

And he does it again. And again. And again.

The Fullness of Silence

…we are none of us very good at silence. It says too much. – Frederick Buechner

There is a growing trend that I have noticed for some time now and it is this: we are a culture constantly surrounding ourselves with and producing noise. It is next to impossible to be anywhere public and there not be a television (or multiple televisions), music, or some form of connection to the internet. Be it supplied by others or of our own doing, we often feel ill-equipped to face the day without noise, be it visual and/or auditory. The socially accepted norm is to envelop ourselves with distracting, noise-producing things, much to the neglect of the world around us.

This has led me to wonder about the why and the how of this and their results. As I ponder these things and their relation to life in general and in following Jesus in particular, I can’t shake the following thought: Our love of noise is equaled by our disdain of silence. Why do we shutter and run from silence? How did this come to be? What are its results?

Liturgies

All of us participate in liturgies everyday of our lives. The rhythms, habits, and practices of our minds and bodies form us in ways both noticeable and unnoticeable, conscious and unconscious. Together they comprise our life and, therefore, it does us good to pause and reflect upon them every now and again.

Whether you consider yourself “religious” or not, you participate in a liturgy. Whether or not you consider yourself Protestant or Catholic, conservative or liberal, Baptist or Pentecostal, you join in ecclesial liturgies that form you in particular ways. It is the inherent nature of life: we employ, cooperate, and perpetuate forms of life carried out through embodied practices.

Peal back these liturgies and you will find a story which each liturgy gives flesh to. Take them to their end and you will find daily habits employed in the workplace, the neighborhood, and in creation. Liturgies never stand alone: they always point back to a communal story and forward to an embodied life.

So, the way you worship on Sunday is a liturgy. They way you move through your workday is a liturgy. The manner in which you grocery shop is a liturgy. All have meaning, all have a story, all have a practiced way of life regardless of these things being known or not.

The interesting thing I find is that many liturgies, both sacred and, to borrow a term from Wendell Berry, desecrated, view silence similarly. They both relegate and/or eradicate silence.

Take a look at many of our modern day Christian liturgies. Many of them have no room for silence, but plenty of room for continual song, sermon, and other verbalization.  We fill our worship time with a parade of noise, yet little time of being still before God. Pomp and circumstance take the stage over as we create one way streets between both each other and God in efforts to create worship services that begin and end on time. This is vital because our communal liturgies give shape to our individual, everyday liturgies. There is an intimate connection between what we do on Sunday and what happens the rest of the week.

Likewise, and not too surprisingly, our desecrated liturgies have little time for silence. For many of us, the moment we wake to the moment we sleep is filled with noise. From morning television, to radio/ipod saturated car rides to work/school, to instant access to an overwhelming inundation of info with the swipe of a finger, we fill our moment-by-moment worlds with noise. We add to this noise ourselves in myriad of ways.

Again, these liturgies form and shape us in ways we don’t always see. Yet in the end they seem to say: We have decided to keep ourselves so consumed that we don’t recognize our need for silence.

Are we afraid of silence?

The eradication of silence within our culture seems to stem from an unhealthy fear of silence. Try and sit with a group of people silently for more than 2 minutes and you’ll soon see; we can’t deal with silence. I think the reason for this is two fold (although there are more reasons, I’m sure):

1. In our culture we are consumed with productivity. We strive for efficiency, potency, and timeliness in all we do. When things aren’t being produced, we often will quickly discard the activity. In regards to silence, we have fooled ourselves into thinking it is an empty thing. Furthermore, since there aren’t any obvious quantifiable results, we think nothing is actually taking place. We prefer to be washed over in white noise than the stillness of silence. We prefer to speak over the silence.

2. When we do allow for silence, we find it reveals far too much about ourselves. Thus, we are fearful of it. It is much easier to anesthetize ourselves with distraction and noise than to face the revealing nature of silence. Like Jesus in the wilderness, we are often faced with our own beasts in silence. Again, we fool ourselves into thinking it much easier to move from one thing to next without silence. We think we can enter into the world as non-reflective beings unaware of our own character and actions.

Some Outcomes

As a result, many of us live lives of (somewhat) controlled chaos marked by a frenetic pace, leaving us weary and weathered. We have somehow found ourselves moving at the speed of the noise we are enveloped by. Similarly, we create a host of noise through our talking and writing, our conferences and meetings, our Skype calls and Facebook statuses sans silence. We have fashioned our technologies and liturgies and now they have fashioned us.

Where we once found dialogue, we now have individual monologues passing each other masked as a conversation. Where we once relied on neighborly relationships, we now have isolated strangers settling for fearful waves separated by fences and driveways. Where there once was a season of faithful planting followed by patient growth, we have superseded it with a chemicals and poisons. Where we once prayed, we now shop.

Communication – the means by which relationships flourish – has been usurped by noise.

Why we need silence

So, in a world where silence is seemingly banished, why would we need it? It seems to me that the aforementioned reasons of fear and non-reflective lives acquiescing to noise-centered lives need to be redeemed through incorporating silence into our individual and communal lives.

Silence opens us up to adopting the postures of participation over domination. Participation entails conversation between beings; domination entails pushing one’s agenda onto another. Participation revels in interdependence; domination seeks independence. Participation engenders a posture of patience; domination is hasty and quick to judge. It seems to me that our noise is the product of our attempts to dominate.

Silence gives us a posture of participation resulting in practices of participation. This manifests itself primarily as listening. In silence we are able to listen first and speak afterwards. We begin to recalibrate the order of communication: listening and then speaking. Too often we speak to God, others, ourselves, and the created order without listening. Silence before these beings allows us to hear their voices and then to respond accordingly. Thus, and I think this is key, embracing silence is a means of non-violent subversion of noise, which actually redeems noise. Silence gives us the ears and the eyes to filter out the noise seeking to do violence to us and through us via exploitation, abuse, and power-wielding. Through silence we find the way to navigate peacefully through the all-encompassing waters of noise. We can enter into the noise without adding to it due to the discernment and wisdom we gain by silently attending to God, others, ourselves, and creation first.

This manner of engaging the world seems especially pertinent for Christians. In a day and age where we are often known for speaking first – entering into means of communication marked by domination – we would do well to balance and harmonize our activity in the world rooted in silence. This does not mean we never speak; rather, we know when and how to speak because we have first been intentional about patiently making room for the other in silence. As Jesus was known for his times of prayer and solitude, we too ought to be marked by a decidedly Christian silence.

In silence may we listen and then pray. May we listen and then love our neighbor and enemy. May we listen and then rightly steward the earth. This, I believe, will begin to demonstrate the fullness of silence.

How has silence been relegated or eradicated from your life – both individually and communally?

Who have you engaged with – be it God, others, yourself, or creation – without being silent first?

What am I missing? Tell me about your experience with silence.

Free: Spending Your Time and Money on What Matters Most by Mark Scandrette (A Review)

Many of us are too busy or distracted to sustain a life of compassionate engagement. We lives lives of hurry, worry and striving, finding little satisfaction in our manic work and recreational activities. Instead of being free to create beauty, nurture relationships and seek the greater good, many of us feel stuck in lives dictated by the need to pay bills or maintain a certain (often consumptive) standard of living. We can’t have it all – the prevailing level of consumption, a life of deeper meaning and relationships and global equity and sustainability. To realize these good dreams we must adjust our values and practices and seek creative solutions. Mark Scandrette (p. 15)

If you’re looking at the title of this book and thinking you’ve read a hundred books on this topic, might I ask you to think again. Please don’t dismiss this book as another time and money accountability/competency resource. It is not. It is much, much more than that.

Method, Purpose, Goals

Three core beliefs have shaped this book and are taken from the invitation of the gospel:

1. We were created with a purpose, to seek the greater good of God’s loving reign.

2. We have enough.

3. We can make intentional choices about how we spend our time and money.

What would it take to realign our lives around these three beliefs?

At its core this is a book about doing just that: aligning our resources – time and money – with our values and talents. Part theology and part praxis combine to make a whole comprised entirely of experiment. Unlike some resources out there that focus solely upon “financial freedom” or obtaining “financial abundance,” the Scandrettes challenge us to pursue the holistic purposes of the Creator through simplicity, gratitude, trust, contentment, generosity and sustainability on personal, communal, and global levels. This call isn’t a mere intellectual assent to particular principles, but, as is characteristic of Scandrette, is to be followed through in the mundane of our everyday lives.

Moreover, this isn’t a call to individualistic freedom. We are urged to do this with others – spouse, friend, or small sized group. Not only does this allow for accountability, transparency, and honesty, it allows for the encouragement and sustainability communal practices embody. Videos, discussion guides, and more are given within the book and/or are found online to ease us into building community.

Our attention is called to developing practical skills by which we can align our resources with our goals and values. Seven steps are given as the book unfolds in chapters by the same names:

1. Name what matters most to you.

2. Value and align your time.

3. Practice gratitude and trust.

4. Believe you have enough.

5. Create a spending plan.

6. Maximize your resources.

7. Live generously and spend wisely.

Within each chapter, stories of the Scandrettes’ journey mix with action-reflection steps. These action-reflection steps come in the form of experiments and tasks. Each experiment takes between 15 and 45 minutes and are various. The underlying design of each experiment is “to help you become more conscious of your thoughts, motives and behavior, and to risk an action that might open you up to new possibilities.” (p. 21) Due to the variety of experiments, one is able to, well, experiment. One exercise might not be pertinent, another might be much needed. “The key is to do something tangible and measurable to see what effect that action has in your life. Be specific and know that intensity is important.” (p. 21)

Tasks are longer in duration and are “specific assignments to help you develop a tangible plan for spending your time and money.” (p. 21) For each task you should devote between 2 and 6 hours as they will require more reflection and long-term thinking. By the end of the book, if you’ve completed all the tasks, you will have a thoroughly detailed and comprehensive resource for actively pursuing a life marked by freedom. Staying on track is much easier since you’ll be able to look back at your values, talents, and goals.

In the end, their hope is to give guidance and encouragement towards a life of freedom found in simplicity. Rather than the prevalent tendencies of challenge through guilt or over-the-top recommendations, their angle is that simplicity is “‘choosing to leverage time, money, talents and possessions toward what matters most.'” (p. 37) This won’t happen all at once, or by ourselves, or through reading through this book once. It is a life-long process of repetition, reflection, and action.

Personal Reflections

I loved this book. Let me say it again: I loved this book. It is simple, but not simplistic. It is challenging, but not burdening. It is difficult, but in the good sense of pushing me beyond the status quo.

This is due to the place in life my wife and I find ourselves and the book’s holistic view of life. We are in the throes of transition and “what’s next.” We now have 3 children and are facing future-oriented questions and realities unlike ever before. The timeliness of this book is tangible as it has allowed us to step back and truly ask the questions of life. Values, talents, and practices are getting honed through the extensive and penetrating experiments and tasks. All areas of life – physical, relational, spiritual, etc. – are up for reflection and action, bringing an interconnected picture of our life into view.

Practically speaking, I read the book first and then my wife. Now, together, we are working through the material with paper and pen. We will eventually type up our answers in a more cogent manner and place the resulting actions somewhere visible. 1 year goals will begin to be worked on as we work in the everyday to maintain and obtain the goals we mutually come to. Revitalization of some latent hopes, dreams, and talents in both of us have been warmly received.

Overall, I would highly recommend this book to anyone wondering what’s next, feels stuck, or is hearing, like us, the whispers of simplicity. Find some friends, a small group, your spouse, and begin the excavating work this book provides. You will be greeted by experienced and wise sojourners – Mark, Lisa, their children and like-minded friends – who speak from years of testing, trying, and applying the thoughts found on these pages.

Purchase the book here.

Full Disclosure: I received this book for free from InterVarsity Press with the condition I would read it and write a review. I was under no obligation to write an endorsement for the book; nor did I receive any monetary incentives. All words, unless cited with a page number, are my own and are not reflective of the authors or IVP.

 

 

 

Living the Subversive Life of Jesus: Question Asking and Community Cultivation

The other day a few of my friends and I were discussing the realities of life. Rootedness, patience, and attending to the ordinary rhythms of life were at the core of our dialogue. For us, life doesn’t make a whole lot sense unless we’re pursuing the actualization of these words. The call to move into our neighborhoods is one we’ve taken seriously and are becoming more and more aware of the postures and practices needed to follow through with this. In a world where the extraordinary and flashy are sought after and valued, we believe faithfully pursuing the mundane of the everyday is where we will see actual growth.

We firmly believe in things like rootedness, patience, and attending to the ordinary rhythms of life because these are some of the things Jesus firmly believed in. And by “believe in” I don’t mean mental assent alone. Belief is something that is manifested through action. Therefore, if you say you believe something, I should be able to see actual actions and habits to support this. Give me a month of observing you and I’ll tell you what you actually believe. We in the Church have done a grave disservice by assigning mere intellectual affirmation to what it looks like to have faith.

Discussing these things in generalities is step one; coming to grips with specifics is step two. So, when my friends asked me what it looks like for Scott Emery to practice contextualized rootedness and patience within the humdrum of everyday life, I had to pause and think for a moment.

Within my life, I have been learning what it looks like to follow after Jesus from the margins. I am thoroughly convinced we are living in a post-Christendom society here in the greater Syracuse area, which changes everything, including our postures and practices in and among the rhythms of our everyday.

Where once the Church was at the center of culture, we have been pushed to the margins. Where once we had a voice and a seat at the table, we have now been booted out the door. Where the story of Christianity held a prominent place in peoples’ collective memory, a vacancy sign now hangs.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: This is a good thing.

Why is this a good thing?

Because I believe it is the impetus to push us into being more like Jesus and less like Caesar.

As I continue to read the gospels, I consistently see a Jesus who is marked by profound question asking. He didn’t possess the assumed cultural power and influence of his time. He didn’t wield a violent rhetoric or forceful legislation thundered from on high. Nor did he browbeat anyone into agreement. (Yes, he did give many answers, but it seems to me that we’ve swung the pendulum too far in the answer-giving direction much to the relegation of questions. In many ways, we’ve adopted our Enlightenment heritage of power through proclamation over the humble way of Jesus.)

Instead, he spent his days subverting the kingdom of Caesar with the kingdom of God.  His primary means of doing this was through constantly asking questions. Think about how many times you hear Jesus ask the person or crowd in front of him a question.

Why do you call me good?

Who is my mother and brothers?

Who touched my clothes?

Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?

Do you love me?

What do you want me to do for you?

You of little faith, why are you so afraid?

The list could go on.

When we look behind the veil of Jesus’ questions, we find his main concern: community. God is always at work bringing disparate things together. The very nature of Godself is community and thus God’s work is always community creating. The same can be said of Jesus since he is always about doing his Father’s work. So, with his questions he is unmasking the struggles people are dealing with. He is destroying the façade people have constructed. In short, questions allow for self-reflection, which produces participation with Jesus, others, and the created order. One cannot stand by idly when faced with the questions of Jesus. And once we are participating, we can be held accountable to our commitments. We are prompted to act in a way that tethers us together. This is the nature of the kingdom of God: tying back together the relational strands between God, humanity, and creation.

Peter Block says it well

Conversations that evoke accountability and commitment can best be produced through deciding to value questions more than answers, by choosing to put as much thought into questions as we have traditionally put into answers…Questions create the space for something new to emerge. Answers, especially those that respond to our quick results, while satisfying, shut down the discussion, and the future shuts down with them. (Block, Community, p. 103)

The trick to this lies within the nature of the questions. When we ask questions that do not produce participation, accountability, and commitment we

collude with people who might attend a gathering and choose not to join in cocreating the value of the event. The point is that the nature of the questions we ask either keeps the existing system in place or brings an alternative future into the room. (Block, Community, p. 104)

This is precisely what Jesus was and is still doing.

There needs to be a delineation between questions with little power and ones with great power (Block’s wording). Questions with little power are constantly asked and are usually the first ones rolling off our tongues. They have almost become part of our vernacular. Block lists some of them as:

How do we get people to show up and be committed?

How do we get others to be more responsible?

How do we get people to come on board and do the right thing?

How do we get those people to change?

Who has solved this elsewhere and how do we import this knowledge? (Block, Community, p. 104)

These questions do not produce participation, accountability, or commitment. Rather, they look for predictable answers and predictable futures, usually coming from ones who have already assumed they have the answers.

Questions with great power are ones that transform us into cocreators of our world. Through them we become actors in the drama of our lives. Passivity is removed and we are given agency. As soon as an answer comes from our mouths and hearts, we have moved from mere spectator to participant.

Block says all great power questions have three essential qualities: being ambiguous, personal, and anxiety evoking. Ambiguity allows each person to “bring their own meaning into the room”; things are not precisely defined. Personal: “all passion, commitment, and connection” grows out of what is personal. Everyone experiences this. Anxiety evoking: you will not move towards that which doesn’t bring some edge along with it. Power lies within evoking healthy anxiety.

So what questions are powerful?

What is the commitment you hold that brought you into this room?

What is the price you or others pay for being here today?

How valuable do you plan for this effort to be?

What is the crossroads you face at this stage of the game?

What is the story you keep telling about the problems of this community?

What are the gifts you hold that have not been brought fully into the world?

What is your contribution to the very thing you complain about?

What is it about you or your team, group, or neighborhood that no one knows? (Block, Community, p. 106)

From here, we can move forward with powerful answers to powerful questions. Questions that produce commitment, self-reflection, accountability, and perhaps most importantly, vulnerability. Spectators step aside as actors take their place.

The beauty with these questions – and the typology they engender – is their universality. What I mean by that is that they aren’t questions just for pastors, missionaries, or other church “professionals.” They are questions you can walk into your context, be it a neighborhood, workplace, third place, or marriage, in an effort to cultivate community. Jesus never intended for things like this to take place solely within the confines of a church. In fact, his main work – and by being his disciples, ours as well – is happening out in the neighborhoods, workplaces, and third places of the world.

What is your default position: question-asker or answer-giver?

Do you resonate more with asking and being asked questions of little or great power?

Who in your life is a subversive question-asker?

Summer Activities: Intentional, Slow, Reflective

This summer has been a sabbatical of sorts for my family and I. For the past 11 or so years, we have been involved in church planting efforts here in Syracuse and in Philadelphia during, and for a short while after, college. As the saying goes, sweat, blood and tears have gone into our efforts and in many ways we are now in need of some rest.

Awhile ago I posted Summer Reading: Intentional, Slow, Reflective. There I listed the books I was going to be engaging with, not for information alone, but for their formative aspects as well. I have since completed the first two and have enjoyed them immensely. “Enjoyed” isn’t the proper word; it is more like finding a soothing balm for my soul. It has been said that God meets us in the things we love. Reading is something I love and have found God’s subtle whisper in many of the pages I have covered.

And yet, rest is not the cessation of activity. It is not a pulling away from work. (Indeed, reading itself is not rest; it requires quite a bit of attentiveness, reflection, and vulnerability. It is not nothing, as some might assume.) Rather than simply putting the brakes on certain things and allowing a void, my wife and I have put down some markers for our summer. Just as I have purposely engaged in intentional, slow, reflective reading as a portion of my formation, we have purposely placed before us some activities that are equally as formative. One might call it a rule of life for the summer. I share them here in hopes you might find some encouragement, insight, or furthering of your own ideas.

Getting In Bed By 10pm

One of the main disciplines I have always struggled with is sleep. Yes, sleep is a discipline. Many of us, myself included, are unaware and thus very unintentional about our sleeping patterns. We have assumed our spiritual lives have nothing to do with our sleeping or lack thereof. Like small children, we all get cranky, apathetic, and/or sick due to insufficient amounts of sleep. For many, our physical bodies have had nothing to do with our Christian discipleship – beyond not having premarital sex – and yet we wonder why lethargy creeps in emotionally, spiritually, socially, and many other ways when we are constantly tired. We are whole beings, living with bodies intimately tied to our souls, both needing rest. For my wife and I, being aware of our sleep, especially with 3 small children, is vital to our overall health, both physical and spiritual, which are eternally tethered.

Working on the Farm

We joined a Community Supported Agriculture community for the summer and early fall. This means that we have financially contributed to the well-being and productivity of a local farm, 1860 Organics, in exchange for a weekly share of their produce. Theological convictions coupled with ecological and economical realities have pushed us into doing this and we have already learned much.

In an effort to engage in hands on learning, we have decided to help out at the farm once a week. Receiving local, organic fruits and vegetables on a weekly basis has already changed our outlooks on food, but we want to learn the skills necessary for cultivating these things. The 15 or so minute drive to the farm is well worth the education we have been receiving in understanding the ins and outs of what it takes to put food on the table. Thankfully, we have been able to bring our daughters to the farm and our oldest daughter has been able to do a small amount of work alongside me. Having their imaginations formed in a way that sees food as something that takes time, patience, and tenderness instead of just easily picked up as a grocery store commodity is something we see as highly beneficial.

Moreover, it has been eye-opening to see the deep correlation between church planting and actual agricultural work. Planting, weeding, watering coalesce with patience, humility, and openhandedness in a way that brings to life many of Scripture’s stories. Yes, it is work, but it is a work that has been subtly formative as we endeavor to understand the dust we are made from.

Being Attentive to Our Neighbors

One of the recurring themes within the missional, church planting movement(s) is being attentive to our neighbors. I firmly believe this to be true, especially as we move deeper into the neighborhood in our efforts to join with God as God works. However, one of the most overlooked and underdeveloped practices of many in the missional conversation is this actual attentiveness to our neighbors. The busyness that comes along with trying to cultivate, organize, and equip missional disciples often manifests itself in leaders who have little to no time for those living next door or down the street. I know this was and is true of me and I have heard similar stories from many church planters.

So, we have been intentionally sitting outside with our girls. And not out back, which is still open to seeing others due to being on a corner lot, but out front. In the little time we have been doing this daily activity, we have already had frequent conversations with our next door neighbors and have also met “new” neighbors. Hearing the stories of our neighbors’ work days, children’s schedules, and summer traveling has furthered the posture we believe Jesus wants to develop in all of us: being listeners. It’s amazing how much learning can be done by simply being present to people.

These are just three areas we are purposely engaging in for the summer – and (hopefully) longer. Each one is intentional, slow, and reflective, for which time, patience, and rootedness are prerequisites. Certainly, there seem to be shortcuts, quick results, or unconscious efforts we could engage in. Unfortunately, we often do seek to skip ahead, fast forward, and ignorantly become concave people. The life this brings about generally reeks of self-importance, self-aggrandizement, and self-contentedness. Our hope is to push beyond this in restful ways this summer.

My prayer underneath all of this is from the beginning of the Benedictine Hours: Apertis oculis nostris, which means “Let us open our eyes.”

The Attentive Life: Discerning God’s Presence in All Things by Leighton Ford: A Review

Attention has been something on my mind quite a bit as of late. Perhaps it is my work with special needs students for whom attention is a constant struggle. Perhaps it is my three little girls all 4 years old and under and their constant need for attention. Perhaps it is my own struggle to be attentive in a world vying for my attention through all things flashy, new, and alluring. It is more likely than not that the synergy between all of these (and more factors, I’m sure) have come to a head in my current stage of life. Regardless, this confluence of seemingly disparate things is the essence of my life and my attention needs to be given to all of them. Even more so, however, I need to be attentive to the God who is working through, in, and among my life events as God pays attention to me.

That is why I am so thankful for this book by Leighton Ford. It has truly been a gift to read and digest. In a time in my life when presence, constancy, and vulnerability – components of attention – are most needed, this book has been a soothing resource.

Structure and Method

There are three areas of exploration Ford wants to bring to the fore in this book:

We will look at attentiveness itself: what is it, and why is it important?

We will see God as the Great Attender, the One who pays attention and calls us to attention.

We will look at the hours of our lives, whether the hours of our days…or the various seasons of life and our spiritual journey, and the kind of attentiveness that each phase calls for. (p. 13)

He does so as a combination of both information and reflection. Each chapter is an explanation of an hour of prayer developed by St. Benedict as he traverses through the entirety of one day of prayer. Hour by hour, Ford gives us not only what the particular hour means for our prayer lives, but also how each one points our attention in specific directions. From waking at 3AM for Vigils, through noontime Sext, and closing the day with Compline at bedtime, each hour is pregnant with opportunity to pay attention to the God who pays attention to us.

A continual thread through each hour is Ford’s reflections connecting the hours with stages of life. Thus, he not only informs us about the history and praxis of each daily hour, but also its deeper significance in our travels through life. Sprinkled throughout are poems, aphorisms, and other words of beauty; some are Ford’s own writings, others are prayerful exhortations to be attentive.

And, finally, every chapter is accompanied by a story of “one who paid attention.” Theologians, missionaries, and authors such as Lewis, Weil, Nouwen, and Mother Teresa fill in gaps with attitudes, events, and postures, making each hour (daily or season of life) potent with both information and reflection.

Personal Reflections

If you haven’t been able to tell yet, I loved this book. To be completely honest, it has been on my radar for some time now. I am beyond thankful to have received this copy for review from InterVarsity Press. Ford’s writing is profound and lucid in a way that was unexpected. There were never any forced, spoon-fed answers. Rather, he wrote in a manner that left me asking more questions than anything else. The aforementioned goals of this book are substantially met by Ford.

Moreover, I resonated highly with his use of the Benedictine hours. As one who finds grace and beauty within the ancient practices of the church, having a routine to give structure and import to my day is most welcome. I particularly found his understanding of Vespers and Compline to be as vital as they were calming. I have begun to (once again) incorporate the prayers of Compline into my nightly routine as I’ve also found resonance with his reflections on Compline as a season of life.

I would give some quotes from this book, but the copious amount of highlighted material is far too much. I’m pretty certain that I killed an entire highlighter reading this book. However, I will give a select few pertinent quotes from the opening introduction. If you are one who struggles with attention and/or wonders how to learn the discipline of attentiveness in a distracted and distracting world, I highly suggest this book.

Paying attention is not a way by which we make something happen but a way to see what is already given to us…’Lord, show me what I am missing.’ Let us start this journey together where we are, with that prayer, and see what he shows us. (p. 15)