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.
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?
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.