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Practice Makes Present by Paul J. Pastor

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Practice Makes Present by Paul J. Pastor

Why the timeless Christian discipline of listening is timelier than ever.

This guest post is part of the Good Ways blog series, a collection of stories and practices for finding God in hardship.


Heating with a woodstove is a gift from heaven. The crackle and snap of the dry logs, the smell of pine sap and woodsmoke, that radiant, deserted heat—it is wonderful. 

Until you have to do it. 

Downed trees to cut with a never-sharp-enough chainsaw. Rounds, knotted, to split with maul and wedge, all the time thinking just how much time each piece will take to season and how little to burn. Scraped fingers, smashed fingers, filthy fingers, splintered fingers, tired fingers. The constant math of cordage and BTUs as winter creeps up your calendar: I think we have enough wood. But it might be extra cold this year…

The woodshed fills, so does the kindling box. Your kids scurry the autumn woods, gathering up dry twigs to pad out the supply. I could have just called someone and bought some stinking wood, you think every year. But you never do.

But for all the romance of the fireside, and all the work of woodcutting, there is a third thing that the woodstove brings into your house. Rhythm. What most of the developed world does with a thermostat, you do over months and weeks. You eye dead snags in the woods. You find yourself knocking on stranger’s doors, leaving your pickup running, pointing to the tree the arborist just dropped. “You gonna use that?” 

The woodstove brings gifts of inconvenience into your house. And the gifts of inconvenience are not to be despised. 

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Truly being in the place where we are seems to be a dying art.

We are trained from birth in America to value the fast and easy. We have, after all, some kind of collective national destiny we’re supposed to be about (Living, and being Liberated, and frantically Pursuing Happiness). This, as you know already, creates minds warped against the true curves of time. So great is our focus upon our personal futures, that we find ourselves straining like horses bridled to a millstone—always pulling forward, in the same gritty circle. But it is our lives we are grinding away. 

In such a circle, we disdain the past and fear the present. We are never at peace. In the rare moments that we brush something truly larger than ourselves (such as True Love or Cancer), we awake for a moment. We hurriedly take stock of our lives, pledge to never again live “out of touch,” post some Rumi quotes on Instagram, and then, when the feeling wears off, return to the old Stockholm host—the promising bondage, the constant pull, the constant strain, the slow, never-landing leap forward into a future that never lets us land. 

This is all a long way of saying that we all love sitting by the woodstove. But how we hate the slow, everyday hassle of feeding a year-long fire.

This propensity creates A.W. Tozer’s “monstrous heresy” at the center of our modern religion. It is the lie that “noise, size, activity and bluster make a man dear to God.” 

How vicious this lie is! It cuts the good pith out of life and faith. It allows the shell to remain, while our insides drain away, leaving an ever-growing spiritual façade, and an ever-shrinking life to fill it up with. Like Sarah Winchester’s madhouse, we are forced to never stop building. But it is only and always for show; to divert attention from the shivering thing that crouches within. We are afraid to be alone with ourselves. We cannot stop. We must not. Who knows what will find us if we do? Forward. 

And slowly, the stone crushes out the things that call Christ into our lives, that make us wholehearted and pure. The things that make us happy.

The solution to this may be stated without many words. We must practice presence. We must assert our true selves—the selves that Christ and the truest parts of his Church seek to whisper out of us—against the lie of the age. We must gather what powers of attention are left us, and reclaim seconds, minutes, and hours from every day. Out of these pieces of time, true life may be rebuilt.

To be present is, at its root, to be attentive. To truly see, to truly hear. It is not only to listen, but to have the capacity for listening. It is not only to hear, it is to have ears for hearing. Against the lie of the constant future, we stop, we listen for a voice that can only be heard in this moment. And in that irrelevance, we find timeless life (but it is very slow, and not often impressive, and rarely yields quotes to pad the Twitter feed).

Lawrence the Carmelite found this practice in his monastery’s dishwater. So, I hear, does Ann Voskamp. For me, it has been the woodpile. For others it will be a commute, washing out diapers, weeding. Curiously (I do not know what to make of this), it is the chores that do this better than any “quiet time.” The only word for such a crusty, splintered kind of presence is surely “practice.”

Practice does not make perfect. At least not without a lifetime or so. But practice of this kind can make present, and present (fortunately) is the goal. God cannot be known in the past that we disdain. And we will never reach him in the future, no matter how hard we strain forward. We can only know him now, in the ever-present Present. We can only know him in the place where spirit meets life as it is, and (instead of forcing forward) invites God to say hello. 

God, in his own way, answers. 

To me, his voice usually sounds like popping wood and it smells like the dusky smoke of many pines. 

What does it sound like to you?


Practice:

Find some small rebellion against efficiency to insert into your daily schedule. Walk, don’t drive. Write a letter, don’t text. Make the coffee at home, don’t do the espresso drive-thru. 

Allow yourself to be present in the inefficiency. 

Ask God to speak through that time. 

Listen.


Paul J. Pastor is author of The Listening Day: Meditations On the Way (Zeal Books). Find him at www.pauljpastor.com. Twitter: @pauljpastor. Mailing address: P.O. Box 36, Bridal Veil, OR 97010.

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This Is My Body by Mariah Lefeber

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This Is My Body by Mariah Lefeber

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This guest post is part of the Good Ways blog series, a collection of stories and practices for finding God in hardship.


I grew up in Nebraska, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor and a music teacher. When I was a little girl, like many of us, I took the world I grew up in for granted – unaware that my life might be different from anyone else’s. It was only as I got older, and especially after leaving home, I began to appreciate this churched, midwestern world that was my early existence. I also began to examine and understand the emphasis and sacredness on liturgy and ritual that defined my own religious upbringing. 

As I started thinking about writing this post, I realized that my message was set to be released during Holy Week, on Maundy Thursday nonetheless. This felt so fitting, with the Lenten season of the church year overflowing with the sacredness of ritual. I thought about growing up celebrating Palm Sunday with the waving of cool, real palm branches, practicing the Passover Sedar, and my father’s heavy Bible slamming to signify the solemn end of the Good Friday service. And above all, I thought about communion – during Holy Week and every Sunday – with the reminder always echoing in my ears: this is my body, broken for you, do this in remembrance of me.

With the workings of the church woven into my very being, my own journey has also been one of creativity – and specifically – of dance. Pursuing my love for this art form, and in the midst of working towards my undergraduate degree in dance, my father was diagnosed with cancer. Many years later, I still don’t have the words to sufficiently describe the pain of his three year battle, of horrors that a hardly twenty something (let alone anyone) should never have to endure. Even now I struggle to grasp all that cancer stole from me, but because I didn’t know // couldn’t know how to press on without it – all throughout the chemo treatments and the surgeries and the pain pumps – I kept dancing. My own creative practice held and grounded me during that season, as it has in difficult seasons since, in a way that I came to understand only in retrospect.

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Just two months after my father’s funeral, I moved to Chicago to pursue the studies in dance/movement therapy I had deferred a year prior. During this pivotal time, drowning in grief and drinking from the fire hose of graduate coursework, I realized that at some point I was going to have to integrate my journey of faith with my world as a dancer. Unfortunately, the words of John Gordon Davies (1984), rang far too true in my own life: In Western culture, relatedness, whether to God or interhuman, has been conceived and practiced in terms mainly of the spoken word. Acknowledging that we are communicating beings, stress has been laid on verbal communication. From this has stemmed an undervaluation of the bodily aspect of the dialogue.  

The church, while steeped in deeply rich traditions of many kinds, hasn’t always done a great job of reminding us of the holiness of the incarnate experience – whether our own bodily and physical experiences, or God’s desire to enter the incarnate experience through Jesus’ life and death. Jesus reminds us – this is my body, broken for you – do this in remembrance of me. Once I was able to recognize and honor the sacredness of the incarnate experience (even amidst its brokenness and suffering) in my faith, I was able to fully understand how the practice of dance allows me to feel more connected to myself, to the world, and to God.

Much like the church I grew up in, the culture of dance is thick with rituals. A culture that is home to me, I forget at times that my willingness to be barefoot anywhere or my proclivity to hug or touch even strangers makes me a bit of a foreigner in the other worlds I inhabit. Yet the truth is that the marley floors of the dance studios of my life are just as much church to me as the sanctuaries where I’ve received communion. My body laid out in a giant X shape across the cool floor, I’ve surrendered my weight into the ground below me, trusting it will support me and hold me up – again and again. The ritual of dance class, of turning off the racing chatter in my brain in order to let my body take over and just be in the present moment, has reminded me repeatedly of the beauty of the incarnate experience. 

I know that for me, personally, great healing happens when I enter the sacred space of the dance studio. I’ve also learned in my work as a dance/movement therapist about the uniqueness and relative nature of each of our personal journeys. Our embodied experiences and needs are vast and varied. Sometimes we don’t have the luxury to practice that which our body wants or cries out for; even knowing what that might be is in itself a luxury. Yet, a practice that sustains me, and that I hope can do the same for others, has the potential for simplicity. I’ll break it down like this:

  1. Know that your incarnate experience matters. Yes, your thoughts and your mind matter – but equally sacred is your bodily, felt, lived experience. 
  2. Listen to your body. Your body is very wise. Take a minute every day to be still and to listen. Inhale and exhale slowly a few times. What do you notice in your body? When you think back to that meeting at work, that important phone call, or that argument at home – can you remember what you experienced in your body? Where you felt something? What are the messages your body is sending you right now?
  3. Respond to you body. Turn on your favorite song and dance it out. Take a run and pound into the pavement with every ounce of strength you can muster. Lie on the floor in a big X shape or curl up in a ball and let the tears flow as they may. Trust that the ground below is there to hold you up, and that God is too.

The beginning of the Lenten season always brings forth memories of the yearly imposition of ashes – the ritual of my father marking the ashen cross on my forehead and reminding me, you are dust, and to dust you shall return. There is great freedom in recognizing the impermanence of our broken, earthly existences – and great beauty in embracing them in the meantime – the messy, holy, incarnate experience that is being in our bodies for today. May you find the freedom to dance in the interlude.


Mariah LeFeber is a dance/movement therapist and counselor who lives in Portland, Oregon, where she has killer living room dance parties with her husband Paul and their two daughters, Adah and Junia. You can learn more about her at mariahlefeber.com or find her on Instagram @mariahdancing

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Art from Ugliness by Mandy Smith

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Art from Ugliness by Mandy Smith

This guest post is part of the Good Ways blog series, a collection of stories and practices for finding God in hardship.


A few years ago our family went on a once-in-a-lifetime family reunion trip to my homeland of Australia.  While there, my husband had many meetings about jobs there so, after fifteen years away, I gave myself the luxury of calling the sea and the kookaburras mine again.  But after we returned to our life in inner city Cincinnati, and heard that the job had fallen through, I fell into a dark place.  The simplest tasks took all my energy and I could hardly get out of bed.  The part of my soul which waits and hopes shriveled into a bitter lump.  And all around me, instead of birdcalls and beaches, I found urban ugliness.  As I walked the sad streets, my beach-combing habit continued but instead of shells, I filled my pockets with bits of broken glass and rusty bolts.

Around this same time, a friend asked me to make art for his inner-city counseling center.  I wanted to make something hopeful but not sugary sweet, honest but not cynical.  It had to acknowledge both brokenness and healing because the kids who visited the center would see right through any attempts to gloss over the challenges of life and certainly didn’t need any more darkness than they already had.  So the natural medium for the art was the growing pile of junk by my back door.  With a bit of care and a lot of glue, green wire twisted its way into leafy tendrils and smashed amber tail-light covers were reborn as golden sunshine.  And somewhere along the way I got dragged into the whole rebirth thing.  The habit of forcing myself to find beauty and meaning in brokenness leaked over into my life.

But the story goes on.  While I was working on these junk creations, a young woman in our community (I’ll call her Sophia) was savagely attacked in inner-city Cincinnati.  Her sister visited me and tearfully shared her family’s story and suffering.  In the weeks following the attack, Sophia was too distracted to read and too disturbed by violent images to watch TV.  Drawing on the healing I was beginning to experience, my first question to her sister was “Does Sophia make anything?”  As I looked at the city around me, a city with a struggling school system, ongoing racial tension and more than its fair share of pollution, I knew I had to make the process available to others.  And so I created a city-wide art project which I called The Collect.  

For two months, all Cincinnati was invited to drop pieces of junk (we called them "artifacts") at local coffee shops.  Cincinnati responded with bike wheels and sunglasses, doll parts and Christmas ornaments.  Somebody gave an entire collection of watch-bands and someone else emptied out their camera lens case.  People provided stories with their pieces:  “This is a shoe that walked me through my college years.”  “This is the rusty hoop that tripped me up and made me smash my teeth on the pavement.”  Then I gathered all the "artifacts" and laid them out for one of the most unusual parties ever to take place in the basement of a church.  Seventeen artists had finger foods and mingled as they picked through what looked like the remnants of a very dismal yard sale.  In their eyes, the rusty jetsam became teapots and aliens on bicycles and all manner of marvelous things.  And off they went, with boxes of junk under their arms, with the summer to work their magic.

In the Fall, my church’s cafe hosted the most motley and meaningful art-show I’ve ever seen.  There was a delicate porcelain doll torso with a corsage made of old keys, a concrete table inlaid with a tiny nest filled with jewel-like eggs and a purple foot-bridge made of an old shoe.  The grand finale of the month-long show was an auction event with free food and live jazz where all the proceeds went to ArtWorks, an urban youth art program.

There was no doubt that the artwork positively glowed with the message of brokenness reborn.  But, of course, for me the best art from ugliness was the faith and friendship that was born in broken human hearts.  At least, in this broken, human heart.  Throughout the course of the six-month project I’d heard so many stories and made so many friends.  In the eyes of junk-collectors, café owners, and artists, I’d seen a dogged determination to find meaning and beauty.  It became apparent to me that the greatest work of art was the community that had formed around all this resurrection until eventually Cincinnati once more was safe and, to my surprise, home.


Originally from Australia, Mandy Smith is lead pastor of University Christian Church, a campus and neighborhood congregation with its own fair-trade café in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is a regular contributor to Christianity Today publications and the Missio Alliance Blog and the author of The Vulnerable Pastor: How Human Limitations Empower Our Ministry and Making a Mess and Meeting God. She is also the creator of The Collect, a citywide trash-to-art project. Mandy and her husband Jamie, a New Testament professor at Cincinnati Christian University, live with their two kids in a little house where the teapot is always warm.

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Grace in the Mess by Leah Renee Chambers

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Grace in the Mess by Leah Renee Chambers

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This guest post is part of the Good Ways blog series, a collection of stories and practices for finding God in hardship.


I remember sitting at an unknown burrito place with a good friend, perched at a hightop table, feeling so desperate. After several years of trying to get pregnant, undiagnosed infertility, and a failed bout with foster care, I had almost completely lost myself. We were trying to have an important conversation, about me, about us, and all I could think was, how is my face

Is it appropriately sad? Is it too sad? Am I scaring her by revealing too much? Am I sitting up straight enough? Am I holding my head right, are my gestures normal? Do I seem erratic? Should I tell her I’m not doing ‘fine’? Is this going to be the end of us? Does she still want to be friends? Does she see me as a diminished version of myself? But, wait. Was that self really myself? The one from before? If not, does that mean that THIS, this now, this self is myself? Because, oh God, if that’s true, what do I do now?   

Navigating life had always been easy for me, but it seemed desperately hard now. 

"Breathe" by Leah Renee Chambers

"Breathe" by Leah Renee Chambers

It seemed to me that all the ways I used to interact with friends, family, and God, had shifted without my permission—shifted to the point where the logic of them failed. Before, I would say this and they would say that, we would spend time talking and our friendship would grow. After, I would say something and they would respond strangely. We would go out to lunch and I would cry in the car afterwards, doubled over with tears and slashing pain. 

With friends, they would ask how I was doing, and I would freeze. I would try to be honest, but I never knew whether to answer for that particular moment, for the week, for my life? I would scare them sometimes. They really just wanted to hear that I was better, that things were looking up, that God was giving me peace. I wanted to tell them those things, but I also wanted to be truthful. I would try to be honest. Try to let them in. Try to be gracious in my pain. But most times, I would just get a side-arm hug and a “hang in there” as they walked away…as if I was radioactive. I knew that no one knew what to say, but I longed for them to say just that—that this situation was awful, and terrible, and I didn’t deserve it. That it was okay to be broken, okay to mourn, okay to be in the “middle” and not at “the end.” I wanted them to carry hope for me, assuring me that I was mendable, and my mended self would be breathtakingly beautiful. 

Mostly I just wanted them to say that they would be with me…no matter how ridiculous or awkward or broken I got. 

With God, I would try to worship. Try to pray. Try to read my Bible. Try to ask. Seek. In the past, that would have “worked,” and I would have grown closer to Him or found peace or hope. But in the midst of this clouded season, nothing seemed to do the trick. I wasn’t readily finding what I had always found in the past, and I also was thinking things about God that weren’t quite in line with the way I had thought before. If I remove myself from the standard faith responses of my younger self, what is left? What do I think God says? What promises can I cling to? What does it mean to have hope…real, godly hope? How much does He care?

All questions I couldn’t really answer. And God didn’t seem to be getting any closer while I floundered. 

"Grace" by Leah Renee Chambers

"Grace" by Leah Renee Chambers

One day, while walking through San Francisco on my morning commute, I had this urge to write a poem. So, before I could really think about it, I snapped a picture of the rainy street corner in front of me, typed three lines of un-rhyming verse onto it, and posted it to Instagram. 

And my soul breathed. 

In that single moment, I gave of myself fully. To myself I offered a valid space to be, without explanation, detailed analyses, or caveats. To others I offered a glimpse into my pain and my creativity. To God I offered an invitation, a longing, for Him to find me exactly where I already was. 

Startled and excited by that brief sensation of lightness, I started desperately looking and writing. Every day I would take a picture and attempt to put words to this life I was in the midst of. Many were dark, some were bright, and a few didn’t make any sense to anyone but me, but they were all true. 

Slowly, slowly, God found me there. I would see something that brought me joy, or I would hear a whisper of hope as I wrote a poem about my pain. I could physically feel the tightness start to loosen, and my soul seemed slowly won over by gentleness. I started to feel gratitude. And I started seeing, feeling, and sensing grace. 

I believe that was God doing His work…while I practiced offering myself, in gratitude and grace.  

A Practice

Take a moment today, to find your own glimpse of hope and beauty and truth. You don’t have to go anywhere special—stand in your kitchen, on your street, or under the sky. Breathe. And then look, and appreciate what you are being offered in this moment.

"Awake to Hope" by Leah Renee Chambers

"Awake to Hope" by Leah Renee Chambers

Stand there, and consider how you feel.  

How does your body feel? Is there a lightness in your feet? A heaviness in your chest? Do you feel grounded? Does your breath flow smoothly in your lungs?

Stand there, and look around you. 

What do you notice? What stands out to you? What do you hear? What is beautiful in your eyes? What isn’t beautiful? What does it offer to you? What might God be saying to you?

Take a picture and write a few words. 

The picture can be anything—your feet, a shadow, the sky, the corner of a cabinet. Try not to judge what words come up for you. Write them down. Appreciate them for what they are. Give thanks, and allow yourself to accept grace.  


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Leah Chambers is an artist and creative in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her poetic works call attention to the beauty and hope that exist in spite of the darkness. Find her at ontheflypoetry.com and on Instagram as @leahreneechambers.

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Good Ways

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Good Ways

Dear friends,

If I were to name the essence of my spiritual life (not its theology or beliefs, but its practice) I would say this: When we open ourselves to God’s love through spiritual practice, God transforms us.

I have felt much freedom and grace since naming this truth. I don’t need to overanalyze my spiritual growth; I don’t need to evaluate whether or not I really believe what I profess; I don’t need to measure my closeness to God with some cosmic yardstick. I simply need to walk—to continue to move toward God in practical, real ways—and transformation follows.

I first discovered this truth in a season of hardship. My old ways of connecting with God didn’t resonate the way they had before. I struggled with depression and fear about who I was deep in my soul. With the guidance of mentors and friends, I tried new (and old) practices, which opened me in a new way to God’s love, and that love transformed me. The book I wrote about that revelation, A Good Way Through, releases next week. 

But here’s the thing: My story and practices are not enough. Yes, I believe they will be helpful to other people and many kinds of people will find truths and practices that speak to them in its pages, but that is not enough. The way God speaks to each of us is as unique as we are.

And so, it is with great joy and gratitude that I announce a guest blog series, beginning right here one week from today.

For at least the next six months, each Thursday I will share a new story and practice, writings collected from (so far) 26 friends: writers, teachers, accountants, pastors, mothers, and filmmakers. These are wise practitioners of the Christian faith, and I know the collection will be robust, varied and insightful. I am honored to host such a series. I sense already the blessing it will be.

Get excited, my friends. Good things are coming.

-Krissy

 

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