Tag Archives: distractions

An invitation to breathe deeper

Apparently Huffington Post has dubbed 2014 the “year of mindful living,” and TIME magazine alleges there’s a “mindful revolution” in the wings.**

There’s been all sorts of talk about the value of the creative pause, the importance of sacred space (I swear I’ve linked to this article before, but it’s still great), and the benefits of meditation.  

And, predictably, especially given the title of this blog and its content, I couldn’t agree more! 

The snowy Princeton campus.  Photo by Serena Stein.
The snowy Princeton campus. Photo by Serena Stein.

But I have to admit that I don’t always practice what I preach.  

While I’ve been wildly productive when it comes to the dissertation and ticking things off the baby-prep list, I’ve been flittering away downtime with a host of media distractions.

This isn’t the end of the world, of course.  Social media can be wonderfully connective, and much-needed breaks from the rigor of our working lives with tv, youtube, etc. are understandable.  But when I think about what I really want to get out of life, I realize how much I don’t want to distract myself from what God’s doing.  Rather than check out, I want to check in.  And rather than emptying my mind, I want to be filled with the mind of God.

Through the distractions, I hear God’s invitation to breathe a little deeper.  And this morning as my dear friend and I sat basking in the word of God, simply breathing together, we felt anew how good it is to simply be in the presence of God.  I don’t love the phrase, “carving out space for God,” because I think it’s misleading to suggest that we’re the ones who should be doing the carving.

And yet, I think there’s something to be said for embracing the silence that God grants.  There’s something to be said for choosing not to be distracted.  And there’s certainly something truthful about remembering that the invitation to the spiritual life is just that, an invitation, which we can either accept, despite all its inconveniences, challenges, and grace, or decline for the meagerness of our own devices.

Pretty Princeton in the glow of snow.  Photo by Serena Stein.
Pretty Princeton in the glow of snow. Photo by Serena Stein.

How can you embrace the silence, the invitation from God in your life to breathe a little deeper today, tomorrow, and this year?

**Check out The Huffington Post’s critique of the TIME article here.

You never change

Watching the rain come down in Yunnan, Kunming, China, May 2012.

It’s amazing what a quiet moment, a rainy Sunday, and a good friend can do for the soul…and the book of James.

“Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change,” my friend and I read during our time of centering prayer this Sunday from James Chapter one, verse seventeen.

And so it is that God reminds me that as often as I oscillate between those shadows and those mountaintops, from the villages of China to the streets of Princeton, New Jersey, as much as all that seems relevant in my life might change and shift and move, our God stays the same.

In Lion Hill Park, Guangxi, Nanning. January 2012.

Yes, the same God who knew me and was with me through the challenges of living and growing in China is the same God who finds me here.

It is so easy to become distracted by the circumstances in which we find ourselves, so easy to think our best maneuvers will help us find success, peace, or resolution.  But I’m learning time after time, day after day, that God remains my resting place, and if I earnestly seek God during these days, I’m bound to be found by God, bound to be in the realm of blessing, comfort, and peace.

A withered lotus flower.

And I’m slowly relearning, in this context, just like any other, what it means to live a life of faith, that along the meanderings of my thoughts yesterday, James says that, “if any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.  Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:26-27).

The author with a foster child in Guangxi, Nanning. All photos by Evan Schneider.

And that challenge, although I know I will fall short, is one I am humbled to accept.

How to not speak of God

Allen Ginsberg – view from my kitchen window, 1984

It’s been a whirlwind few weeks, from the great plains of Oklahoma, buying a car, insurance, and learning (or should I say not really learning) how to use our smart phones.  And then packing up that car and driving it some 1500 miles cross-country, in the good-old great American road trip fashion.

I’m very much a creature of habit.  

I love routine, because it keeps me balanced and aware.  Writing this blog has added to that discipline of seeking to be aware of God in every moment, so I’d like to attribute my lack of connection with God as of late toour transience and our busy-ness.

But I can’t.

To do so would be not only dishonest, but also misleading.  The fact is, God is everywhere and in everything (after all I managed to adjust to my unpredictable fieldwork and life in China), and even if there truly are more distractions here in America, it is I who choose to be distracted by them.

In the moments where I’ve been present with God, God’s presence has also been palpable.

Like at my dear friends’ wedding this past weekend, where I had the honor of praying for the the bride before she walked down the aisle and praying the blessing at the reception.  And so many friends and strangers, from so many walks of spirituality, came up to me confirming God’s presence in those moments.

Or the funny little discipline my husband and I found in reading Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother aloud to one another on our road trip, and pausing to discuss Chinese culture, life, and relationships.  Or regarding God’s breadth and goodness as I hear my professor’s husband confirm that God must have heard our prayers for his cancer from China, because his progress has been steady, his condition remarkably stable.

But there have also been too many moments where I’ve referred aloud to God’s provision as luck, when I’ve tucked my faith and my vulnerability out of earshot, not wanting to burden anyone with the fact that I’m not sure how well I’m doing with being back in the US, or admit that I’ve spent less time talking to God as of late, and I’m wondering what to say or how to pray.

So I’m confessing here that I’m all too often an expert at how not to speak of God rather than how to, and that doing so, even for a budding minister, is difficult, risky, important, and takes practice.  

And while I’m feeling disappointingly aware of the moments where I should have spoken up, and the moments where I’ve failed, I’m also feeling confident in God’s presence, despite my absence.  And this evening I’m trusting in God’s ability to keep growing me toward God and others this day, tomorrow, and in the future…wherever that may be.

Abide in me…

I sat in silence last night for the first time in far too long.

My practice of Centering Prayer has been so gratifying in China, especially in a bustling city teetering on 7 million or so, I crave silent time with God, and yet, I am so distracted by the day’s tasks, and I make excuses to avoid meeting God just when I need God most. This evening the meditation I read was on Jesus’ visit to Mary and Martha and this business of being distracted, or rather, choosing to be distracted.

Centering Prayer itself is an exercise in releasing ourselves from the things that distract us everyday (for me, it is often the thought that I need to start my work immediately in the morning, so therefore, I don’t have time to pray; or, it might be the thought that my Chinese is inadequate, and therefore so am I and all the plans God has for me here; or, simply, the thought that is more pressing than the words coming out of my husband’s mouth), and repeating a prayer word to remind us of God’s presence and our intention to dwell within that presence as our mind inevitably wanders (as mine just did in the above parenthetical!).

For years my prayer word has been grasp, and the word has held great meaning and a powerful reminder for me that just as I am grasping for God, God is always, ever intently grasping after me. Since I arrived in China, though, I have felt compelled to discover a new prayer word, which is no small task, given that I have literally lived and breathed the previous one for over six years.

However, the word, abide, has gently, but firmly marked my silent prayers here in China. And tonight as I was imagining myself at the feet of Jesus, looking into his eyes and straining to hear what he has to say to me, alongside Mary and Martha, I stumbled upon two things.

One is the sense in which distraction is really a choice, and not a force to which we are passively and powerfully subjected.

Martha feels trapped by the tasks which she finds a great distraction from Jesus, but I think Jesus himself implies that distraction is a choice, when he says of her sister, “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” I recently read an article in which a brilliant professor who is busy with multi-million dollar grants and projects had the revelation through spending about a week in nature away from computers, text messages, and the like, that he could, indeed, stand to become a better listener.

And I hear God saying to me that I can choose to be distracted and let my life pass me by, or I can choose the best thing, the only thing, which is to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen. I can choose to listen to others, and I can choose to be fully committed and fully attuned to things that really matter.

The second revelation was to do with this prayer word abide.

It occurred to me this evening that there is nothing modern about the word abide, because it harbors no sense of time, contemporaneity, or measurement, but a sense of longevity, eternity, and perpetuity. The phrase I often repeat as I pray and process the distractions in silence is, “abide in me, as I abide in you,” (John 15:4), and tonight as I repeated it, it was as if I was hearing it for the first time.

I realized in my spirit that abiding is the opposite of distraction: abiding is the experience of dwelling with one another, of being content, of listening and relishing silent presence. I was sitting with my knees propped under my chin as I began to pray, and for the first time that day I noticed the tightness in my shoulders, but as I repeated my prayer word, dwelling, abiding at Jesus’ feet, far away from the distractions, the kitchen where I had previously been alongside Martha, clamoring away, I not only felt the tightness dissipate, but I felt almost as if there was a hand upon my back supporting me, and I allowed myself to lean back into it, resting, abiding, and relishing God’s presence.

Thankfully, this choice to abide, to choose against the distractions of this world, and to choose ‘the better part, the only thing’ comes also with God’s promise to support us, to hold us up as we go on living, and that can ‘never be taken away from us.’