Learning Patience in an Anxious Time

The novelty of our current stay-at-home routine has worn off.  Though most Americans agree that “social distancing” makes sense for curbing the spread of the Coronavirus, we all yearn to reconnect with our family, friends, and congregation members.  We are tired of being cooped up in our homes, tired of business restrictions, tired of doing everything on line. We desire social touch and social interaction.  We yearn to be back in our church building, singing hymns and drinking coffee with our friends.  We want the pandemic OVER!

But yearning, desires and wants do not always line-up with reality.  We might all wish for the pandemic to end, but the virus will not magically go away on its own.  The vast majority of public health officials agree that the pandemic will ebb and flow over the coming months.  Now I am NOT a scientist and I am not a public health official, but as a pastor I know that the pandemic has caused wide-spread anxiety in our community.  The future has suddenly become very unclear and potentially dangerous.  Many people have lost their jobs and sources of income.  Others are totally isolated in their houses or apartments.

Every day I pray the Serenity Prayer, written by Reinhold Niebuhr.  It starts with the familiar words, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things that cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”  But the prayer has so much more – see the whole prayer here.   One line in particular stands out to me, “taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it.”  This is a call for patience.

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Photo from PxHere

Patience is the wonderful ability to live in the present moment without feeling compelled to rush forward to something else.   You see patience in fishermen who are slowly and methodically casting their line into the deep in search of the big one.   Or in a scientist who is focused on researching the corona-virus in search of a treatment or vaccine.  Or in a mother who is sitting with her children and teaching them the first steps in reading.  They might want to rush forward to the landed fish or the completed vaccine or the skillful reader, but they know that to accomplish their goal they need to be patient in their daily tasks.  They cannot jump ahead, taking shortcuts that sabotage the results.

Patience is one of the Christian virtues that we are exhorted to embrace.

Gal. 5:22 the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness.

Col. 1:11-12 May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from God’s glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father.

Romans 12:12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.

Patience is not a part of our present world culture.  We want instant gratification.  We can buy on credit what we want now.  We expect instant answers, quick results, and fast turn-arounds.  We want the pandemic over NOW.

Is it possible that in this Great Pause, God is teaching us to stop our frantic, driven way of life and calling us to patiently grow deeper in our love of God and each other?   Is it possible that at the heart of this storm is God, patiently calling us to trust and love?   God is in the NOW, in this moment, in “this sinful world” as Niebuhr states in the Serenity Prayer.  Jesus promised, “Remember, I am with you always” (Matt. 28:20).

One way that I grow in patience is through Centering Prayer, a Christian form of meditation.  I sit quietly in silence each morning and evening for 20 minutes, with the sole intention of relinquishing my life, my desires, and my control to God. I have written about Centering Prayer here and here

There are four simple (yet challenging) steps to Centering Prayer.

  1. Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.
  2. Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, settle briefly and silently introduce the sacred word as the symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within.
  3. When engaged with your thoughts, return ever-so-gently to the sacred word.
  4. At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.

This spiritual practice has strengthened and nourished my love of God while also manifesting the fruit of the Spirit such as patience in my daily life.  If you want to learn more about Centering Prayer try contemplativeoutreach.org or please contact me below.

What are practices that have strengthened your patience?

ALL THINGS

Wedding Plaque

All things work together for good, Romans 8:28

Above the desk in my small home office is the above plaque. It was a wedding gift that has followed me for 40 years.  The scripture has a provocative message in the season of Covid-19: that something good is being birthed.

At present, most of us see only the pain, the disruption, the uncertain chaos surrounding us during the pandemic.  We feel only the fear and anxiety that the suffering evokes.  We are trapped by endless loops of mental agitation that bounce around in our brains.  We yearn for physical and emotional connections that has been stifled as our society seeks ways to stop the spread of the pandemic.  We hate this disruption and we long to return to normal.

Yet St. Paul makes a radical declaration for us to consider.  He states, in a matter-of-fact-way, WE KNOW that God is at work in ALL THINGS.  And ALL THINGS includes a COVID-19 pandemic.   And that the ALL THINGS works together for GOOD.  God is not out to punish us or afflict us.  God is working to bring GOOD to God’s children , TO THEM THAT LOVE GOD.

Could this chaotic, fearful, stressful, lonely time be a birthing process to something new?  Some good that God wants you and I to experience in the depth of our being?   A wake-up call to the reality of God’s abiding, loving presence in ALL THINGS?

Earlier in the eighth chapter of Romans, Paul writes about the groaning of new birth.  We know (again that common knowledge) that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pain until now; and not only the creation, but we are ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait adoption, the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:22-23).

God is birthing something new during this season.  Something that pushes us deeper into the reality of God’s abiding love and grace.   Such “knowledge” does not remove the pain and suffering, but it can bring hope and meaning as we awaken to God’s abiding purpose “to work all things together for good.”

Perhaps this is the promise of God to which we need to cling.

Work and Wait

man wearing blue scrub suit and mask sitting on bench

Photo by Jonathan Borba on Pexels.com

The Divide

Right now there is a tremendous divide in our nation as together we face the COVID-19  pandemic.  Those who work and those who wait.

The Essential Work

Many millions of people are overwhelmed and overworked: doctors, nurses, and other health care workers; public health officials and scientists, government leaders and grocery clerks, mask producers and delivery drivers. A member of my congregation cleans the local hospital’s ICU and she is worried and burdened by the challenges she sees.  They are our front-line workers in the desperate battle to mitigate and eventually end the pandemic.

They need our prayers and unwavering support.

Almighty God, we call out to you for help.  Your children are being overwhelmed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Bring strength, compassion, and hope to all who are working day and night to stop this pandemic. Guide our leaders with your wisdom.  Empower the nations to work together.   We cannot do this without your grace and power.  Amen.

The Essential Wait

Yet as millions work and work to find a way through this pandemic, tens of millions are at home not sure what to do.  I am writing this post primarily for those who are staying home, waiting for the pandemic to pass,    And waiting is so hard.

As Americans we hate to wait.  Our culture values action, doing, and productivity.   We are measured by what we accomplish.    We become restless if we don’t have something to do.   We want instant gratification and satisfaction.  We hate to wait.

But now so many must wait.

Perhaps, just perhaps, this is our opportunity to learn how to wait?  How to simply be?

Those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength.  (Isaiah 40:31)

Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord! (Psalm 27:14)

Be still and know that I am God.  (Psalm 46:10)

Rather than learning to wait and be patient, many of us are practicing panic, worry, and anxiety.  We become overly saturated with news and information.   We succumb to despair rather than abide in hope.

Many spiritual practices that can help in the waiting.  Scripture study and meditation is one; hymn singing and chanting is another.  Many are finding new ways to volunteer, even in this season of social distancing.

The practice that I have embraced in recent years is Centering Prayer, a form of Christian meditation that I practice daily.   I have written about this in other posts of my blog: here and here.   You can also learn more at Contemplative Outreach.  The practice of Centering Prayer deepens my trust in God and continues to transform my life from the inside out.

Perhaps this is your season to begin such a practice?  In the next week or two I will be starting an online centering prayer group though the online Meditation Chapel.   I will have more information in the coming days on this blog.

Centering Prayer will not be an instant pacifier.  But it can help you learn to wait and stay calm as the present storm intensifies.

How are you handling this time of waiting?

 

Hide and Seek with God

Andrew_peekingWhen my children (and now grandchildren) were small, a favorite game we played was hide-and-seek.  One of us would close our eyes and count while the others scattered through the house to hide.   The basement closet, the upstairs bathroom, under the bed – no room was off-limits.  The seeker would search every room, look behind every door to find the hidden ones.  If I was hiding, I sometimes would make special shouts – “Ookookachoo” – to help them in their search.  We would all squeal with delight when the hidden were found and then a new person would close their eyes and start to count.

When I was a child I imagined God was playing an ongoing game of hide and seek with me.  I knew that God was somewhere in the house but that he was hidden in some way and that I had to find him.  If I prayed long enough, or studied the right scriptures or behaved the right way, God would suddenly pop out of his hiding place and we would embrace.  I experienced moments of shared spiritual intimacy and wonderful joy, but then, in a moment, God was hidden again.

In this season of COVID-19 pandemic, one might think God is hidden, beyond our normal sight lines.  Our regular practice of gathering for worship has been interrupted.  The comforting taste of Holy Communion and church coffee has been locked away.  The familiar sounds of congregational songs are silent.   We sit alone searching on our computer screens for the hidden God.

Yet what the Bible teaches and what my contemplative prayer practice affirms is that God is always present, especially in the suffering of life.   When the great leader Moses died, his young protégé, Joshua was called to lead the people into their promise land.   Joshua was frightened by the unknown challenges ahead.  In that moment of uncertainty, God spoke to Joshua, “Be strong and courageous, do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”  (Joshua 1:9)  God did not magically remove Joshua’s obstacles (nor our pandemic) but God gives us courage and strength to walk through the challenges, the fears, and even death itself.

What I am learning -and it is a life-long process- is that God is not hidden, but rather I am the one who has closed my mind and heart to the God.  She is always with me.  And the ironic thing is that it is often when I close my eyes, quiet my racing mind, and open my heart in centering prayer, I hear the still small voice of God shouting, “I am here, I am always here.”

Be strong and courageous, friends.

Let Go of Words

wordleA young man came to my office years ago looking for help with his marriage.  An older friend had recommended me because “Pastor Keller is really good at prayer.”   I was surprised and a bit flattered by the recommendation but also confused.   How would someone know that I was “good at prayer?”  The young man clarified his friend’s recommendation, “When you pray in worship you seem to say the right phrases and words for talking to God.”  The young man continued, “So I am wondering, could you pray for my marriage.”  I did pray with him, asking for God to intervene and restore his marriage.  A few months later I learned that his divorce was finalized.

I remember that story not so much for the outcome but for that recommendation (and my reaction) based on my public prayers in worship.  As a pastor I am often asked to pray in public setting and I normally comply with my best words and ideas for addressing God.  Recently I prayed at the dedication of new fire station and felt honored to be part of a simple civic ceremony.  Yet, as the years go by, I wonder if all my words are becoming more of a barrier than a bridge to communion with the Divine Mystery that we so easily call God.

The barrier question is definitely part of my personal devotion.  For many years I have kept a spiritual journal, pouring out my thoughts, feeling and concerns to God on the written pages.  At times these words helped me come to some clarity in my relationship with God, yet often the writing just seem to stir up the dirt and garbage inside, like shaking a jar of glacial river water and seeing all the silt swirling around in the jar.  It is only when one sets the jar of river water aside and allows the glacial silt to settle does the water become clear.  That has been my discovery with silent contemplative prayer.  I need to stop the swirling words and allow the sheer silence of God to speak (I Kings 19:12).

I have learned that I am not alone. In his book. Without Buddha I could not be a Christian, Paul Knitter, a Roman Catholic theologian, writes,

So often in Christian liturgies I find myself gasping for breath because I am suffocating on words!  Christian prayer, especially liturgy, is so verbose.  . . . God is Mystery and must remain so — the unknown part of God is much, much larger than the known part we are expressing in our prayers and services.  Our words don’t seem to respect that Mystery not just in their quantity but in their quality. . . .  Words are not only always inadequate in expressing the Divine Mystery, but they can actually be impediments to experiencing the Divine Mystery. . . .  In my own personal practice of prayer I have grown to feel the need for silence.” ( page 136)

Paul Knitter is not alone.  Ruth Haley Barton, an evangelical Protestant, writes in Invitation to Solitude and Silence.

In silence we begin to recognize that a lot of our God-talk is like the finger that points to the moon. The finger that points to the moon is not the moon.  Pointing to the moon, talking about the moon, involving ourselves in study and explanation about how the light of the moon is generated is not the same thing as sitting in moonlight.  It is the same with God. Our words about God are the not Reality itself.   They are only the finger pointing to the moon. In silence we give in the fact that our words can never contain God or adequately describe our experiences with God.  When we give in to the exhaustion that comes from trying to put everything into words and mental concepts, we give our mind permission to just stop. We give ourselves over to the experience of the Reality itself (page 75).

Enough words for today.   May I recommend that you seek some silence for your soul.

Let Go with a Limp

hiking with Springloaded technology braceA few months back I wrote about my experience in letting go of running.  You can read about it here.  One thing I should make clear is that the physician who diagnosed the osteoarthritis in my right knee talked about me not running marathons again, but she did not rule running out entirely.  She prescribed an off-loading knee brace and said, “You might be able to run with it; I don’t know.”

FusionMensOAPlus_100

The Breg Fusion® OA Plus Osteoarthritis Knee Brace that I have. 

In early December I was fitted with the brace and started using it.  I noticed that I had a slight limp or hitch in my walk as I use it.  I mostly wear it when I go on longer walks of three to four miles. Also I have worn it on occasion at the gym, using it with an elliptical trainer and walking on a treadmill.  I have not as yet tried to run with it.  Partly because it is winter in Minnesota and I fear slipping on some patch of snow or ice.  Partly because I want my body to adjust to wearing the brace during walking.  This spring, when I feel the urge, I will try a short run.

For now, at this moment, I have set running aside.  I may be able to run in the future, but for now I am not.  What mindfulness continues to teach me is to live in this moment, accepting as life is, not as I would like it to be.  In the past I have wasted a lot of mental and emotional energy regretting some event or yearning for something different.  Learning to live in this moment is challenging.  My mind seems to have a default mental state (sometimes referred to as the default mode network) that likes to ruminate about some past event or fret about some future challenge or problem.

Jesus warned about the danger of future worries in Matthew 6:34

So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Centering Prayer is retraining my mind to let go of these ruminations and worries while coming back to the simple awareness of God’s presence.  As one sits in centering prayer, one may notice the mind wandering to some thought, feeling or judgment. When one notices the mind moving off on this mental tangent, whether it be some joyful anticipation or some anxious though,  the practice of centering prayer is to gently let go of whatever thought or feeling my mind is following and return to my chosen sacred word.  I may do this dozens of times during my twenty minute session. It is the continual practice of letting go and turning to God that is the exercise portion of centering prayer.  (You can read more about centering prayer here.)

Like walking with my brace, my practice of centering prayer still feels like it has a pronounced limp. Yet my trust is not in my feelings during centering prayer, but in the fruit of the Spirit that has come with the practice in my daily life.  I have discovered that I am more consistent in letting go of my worries and my attachments, such as my fixation on running.  At least for the moment, which is sufficient for today.

Let Go

landscape bookcase

Several years ago, I started giving away my books.  Early in my ministry, I took pride in the collection of theological and ministry-related books I had in my personal library.  I had various Bible translations and commentaries.   Using books, I earned a Master of Divinity and a Doctor of Ministry.  I thought that if I had all the right knowledge, I could discern God’s path for myself and my congregation.  If I could fill my head with the right ideas, concepts and principles, I would succeed.

I discovered the knowledge path can be a dead-end. Though I did learn many wonderful and helpful things, I found less and less deep satisfaction in knowing ideas, concepts and principles. Knowledge did not equal wisdom.  I needed to learn to “let go.”

For over a decade, I taught a course called BeFrienders which trained lay people in my congregation to do basic pastoral care through the practice of active listening.  At the beginning of each new training course, I and my co-leaders would tell an ancient story about a young man search for wisdom.   He traveled to a wise elder and began to tell the elder all that he knew about wisdom.  As the young man talked, the elder poured tea into the young man’s cup.  The young man kept talking and as the elder continued to pour, the tea cup overflowed.   The young man looked in horror at the overflowing cup and shouted, “Stop, my cup is already full.”  The elder stopped pouring and says, “Yes, it is.  The cup is like your mind.  Your mind is so full of itself that it cannot take in anymore.  You need to empty your mind in order to receive wisdom.”  It was several years before I  caught up with the story’s full impact.

The scripture that guides my path towards wisdom is Philippians 2:5-7

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,  but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.

I have thought a lot about what it meant for Christ Jesus to empty himself. Emptying is a way of letting go.  Since Paul is talking about the same mind that was in Christ Jesus, it makes sense that Jesus gave up being “all-knowing,” an attribute that many Christians give to God.  Throughout his ministry, Jesus was not all-knowing, but rather asked questions (Mark 2:8-9, Mark 5:30, 10:51).  Furthermore, Jesus strongest rebuke was for the religious know-it-alls: the Pharisees and scribes (Mark 7:1-13).  Now I understand Jesus more as a “love-it-all”  rather than a “know-it-all.”  A big part of love is letting go.

In the next few weeks I plan to write more on this theme of letting go.  Letting go of my past, letting go of words, letting go of status and pride.  It hasn’t been easy, but as backpacking has taught me, “a lighter pack (or mind) creates a more pleasant hike.”