Chew Before You Swallow

God has been talking with me recently about my digestive system. Not a terribly spiritual sounding conversation, right? Try to stay with me anyway.

He wasn’t talking about my physical digestion. He was making a comparison. He pointed out how quickly I move from task to task, conversation to conversation, book to book, quiet time to quiet time, experience to experience . . . without taking time to process. Although I think of myself as contemplative and introspective, there were large parts of my life that were going unexamined. And, as Socrates famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

But I protested. That’s not me! After all, I take time for prayer. I occasionally manage to do an examen* before going to bed at night. I have deep conversations with friends about the big stuff of my life. I even take a personal prayer retreat once in a while. Certainly all that counts as reflection, right?

Well, yes. But apparently there’s more.

God challenged me to pay attention to how I go through a typical day. How much space do I leave between activities? How much time do I take to consider what was really said during a conversation? How much do I remember to pray about at the end of the day? Do I stop to think about how an experience or encounter leaves me feeling?

Need I say that I quickly discovered that I digest far less than I’d thought? On a typical day I processed through email after email without stopping. I went from appointment to appointment without thinking. I did task after task with no sense of the bigger picture. I was reading four books concurrently, without assessing their impact. I had conversation after conversation without taking in very deeply what the other person needed, or how their words affected me. I was scarfing down life, swallowing it whole, not really taking time to enjoy it or gain all the nourishment from it that I was supposed to.

Okay, Lord, I get it. I see. I need to chew. Pause between “bites.” Digest. I need to stop inhaling life, eating experiences whole, taking in too much without letting it feed me the way You want it too. I need to slow down. I need to create space.

So I’ve been trying to do that. Like the other day. Someone told me very excitedly about a ministry opportunity her mother is seeing open up before her. I listened and said supportive things, as I normally would. But after she and I parted, I paused. Lord, is there more You want me to see here? And He talked to me about it—that He is moving and guiding and creating something new, and that I should remember to pray about it. He wants me to show my support not only by engaged listening, but also by prayer and follow up.

Or there was the email I received a week ago that put me in a bad mood. I read it quickly, deleted it, and tried to forget it. But it sat like lead in my stomach for a couple of days. After a couple of days of “indigestion,” the Lord reminded me to digest. So I tried. Why did that email affect me like that? I asked Him. And He talked to me about it. He helped me name my feelings and understand what they represented. Then He showed me how to release them and to love the email writer, without requiring her to change, and without requiring me to just stuff my emotions. And what do you know, the “indigestion” was gone.

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. I don’t ordinarily observe Lent by giving up foods or changing my diet. But this year I will. As a reminder to myself that I need to focus on spiritual digestion, I will also make a few changes to help me focus on physical digestion. The main point is spiritual, but I imagine there will be things to learn and benefit from physically as well.

So, with God’s help, I intend to take the next 40 day slowing down. Paying attention to my chewing. Allowing space between bites—both physically and spiritually. I look forward to taking time to process and digest life. To invite God into every conversation, task, email, and experience, so that I gain the full nourishment of all that He wants me has for me in every part of my day.

To allow me more time to digest, I will be taking a break from posting during Lent. So I wish you a meaningful season of reflection on the life and death of our Savior and His love for us that caused Him to voluntarily give Himself up for unworthy sinners so that we might experience eternal life with Him. Perhaps you’ll also want to use this season to slow down, chew, and digest. If you do, please let me know how it goes.

See you again at the end of March, after Resurrection Sunday!

 

*To learn more about examen, check out http://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-examen

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What He Said

This is going to be a highly unoriginal post. It will consist almost entirely of the words of an author I just “met”—someone who has such good things to say about listening to God that there’s no point in me even trying to add anything. So here you go—good stuff on hearing God from Adam S. McHugh’s The Listening Life.*

It is the nature of God to speak. If we’re honest, this puts us in both a joyfully reassuring and utterly dangerous place. Somehow we find ourselves both in the warmth of the womb and on the edge of a cliff. To know that we are not alone, that the echoes of God’s voice resound to the ends of the earth, reminds us that the world is a perfectly safe place to be. (p. 58, with footnote attributing the “safe world” idea to Dallas Willard.)

Perhaps the most common question asked about this subject is “Why can’t I hear God’s voice?” but I wonder whether the real question is “Why won’t I hear God’s voice?” The scriptures present a God who speaks to humanity regularly, in a myriad different ways, and yet who charges us with not listening. The psalmist pleads, “O that today you would listen to his voice! Do not harden your hearts! (Psalm 95:7-8) Spiritual deafness is not an issue with the ability of the ear to hear but with the softness of the heart.  (p. 58)

Why would God speak so softly in a world that so often needs a blaring wake-up call? I have to conclude that God’s speech patterns indicate how important he considers our listening. If God shouted, listening would not be required, but a whisper forces us to pay attention and to strain to hear his voice. A whispered message assumes that the listener is in proximity to the speaker. The closeness required by a whisper requires that we are in close relationship with the Lord, aware of his presence and walking with him, poised to do what he says. God’s hushed tones also necessitate that we are quiet and still enough to recognize him. (p. 76)

A loud, overcrowded, hyperactive life is the antithesis of the listening life. The hyperactive life is so often trying to prove its worth, make its mark and justify its existence. The listening life waits, quietly and humbly, for God to make his mark on us. (p. 77)

I have found, over the years, that I have grown more restrained both in my speech about God and my speech to God. I share fewer of my experiences with others, and I have come to see prayer more as a way of being with God and less an opportunity to talk. …Endless words spoken in a heavenly direction—prayer soliloquies—have a way of closing us to the relationship that is offered to us. We all know people, even well-intentioned ones, who habitually dominate conversations, and we can walk away from those conversations feeling more distant from that person than we did before the conversation. For a tradition known for its emphasis on personal relationship with Jesus, evangelicals are not exactly known for their listening abilities. Yet listening is how you get to know a person. You can’t present a monologue to a person and have any confidence that you are learning anything about that person. It’s in listening that you gain access to their mind discover who they are and what they are like, and whether they can be trusted. (pp. 80-81)

Listening is about more than straining to hear voices; it’s about preparing the conditions of our hearts, cultivating openness inside us. In this way, listening is a posture, one of availability and surrender. We don’t control how or when God will speak, but we can control the acoustics that receive the sound. We want to prepare an inner place that is open and hospitable to God’s voice. That inner place requires humility, patience, attentiveness, and trust. We must have hearts already surrendered in order to recognize his voice when he calls. (pp 81-82)

*The Listening Life by Adam S. McHugh, © 2015, published by InterVarsity Press. Adam’s blog can be found at http://www.adamsmchugh.com/.