Material Measurement

This past Saturday, I helped with a black belt test at my dojo. This is a day-long series of challenges that culminates in receiving this special rank. The moment the belt is placed around the waist is incredibly emotional–it’s the official signification of a long journey’s completion.

It took me a while in my own martial arts journey to realize that achieving new belts is not the overall point. Belts are a piece of cloth. Sure, they symbolize another step, but the more important part is the growth, the deepening of knowledge, the increase of the Four Cs.

Belts are the material measurement. But the bigger part is the journey.

I experience this in my writing sometimes as well. I love to write…it’s a passion and it brings me joy. But at times I get so caught up in how many books I’ve sold or how many views my posts get, and it eclipses my delight.

Material measurement can bring satisfaction or a sense of achievement. It can also cause us to focus on the wrong thing, and ruin our passion and joy.

The Less It Feels Like Lent, the More It Feels Like Lent

When one observes certain annual traditions long enough, you begin to develop layers to your expectations for them.

If you’re used to an annual vacation to the same location every year, for instance, there is the macro level of anticipation for the trip overall. The dates are circled on your calendar, you make lists of what to pack and travel arrangements and figure out who will feed the pets while you’re away. You maybe keep a photo nearby that reminds you of your eventual return.

But then there are further layers down into which you may drill once you reach that special destination. You may have favorite restaurants you can’t wait to visit again, or favorite parks to hike, or little traditions of your own that you just do while you’re there. The more familiar you become with this terrain of your heart, the longer this list of beloved practices becomes.

Many who consider themselves practicing Christians are over halfway through the season of Lent, that holy time leading up to Easter focused on themes of cleansing, repentance, preparation, and humility. It is a time for believers to remember their dependence upon God for mercy and forgiveness, things they cannot give to themselves. As part of this, many adopt practices of piety, self-denial, and prayer for the duration.

As with favorite annual vacation spots, people of faith may anticipate observances such as Lent at both the macro and micro levels. There is the big idea of Lent as a season of making ready for the celebration of Easter, and then there are the many layers underneath it such as particular spiritual practices, specific musical selections, special observances during Holy Week, and the cathartic fanfare of Easter morning.

Lent has been a favorite season of mine for most of my life. I’ve long looked forward to this time of year both in terms of its overarching themes and for the particular practices that are especially emphasized this time of year. When I was a pastor, I did my best to convey its meaning and importance to the people I served, and I was thankful to be both guide and fellow traveler on the journey.

These past few years, however, I’ve been having trouble with the micro side of Lent. I haven’t been able to identify practices to which I’ve been able to commit. I haven’t managed to prayerfully reflect on the macro themes of the season the way I once did. My involvement in a church has helped to counter this, but I’ve largely been going through a drought regarding my own practices.

I mentioned in a recent podcast episode that this time of year has brought some negative associations for me these past few years. This is the time of year when I experienced something that started me down the path out of pastoring and into my current position–a relatively minor disappointment that served as one more fishhook that nagged at me for years before I made a move.

And then this time of year was also when pandemic shutdowns began, moving the final month of my time as a pastor into an online space and limiting opportunities for closure. All of this still lingers inside me, lessening over time but nevertheless present.

As a result, I may still be struggling to focus on the micro practices of this season, its rhythms and music and stories. But the macro practice of seeking God’s presence for meaning and new life are very much with me. It feels like Lent in the deepest sense, and I live in enduring hope of eventual resurrection.

Coffeehouse Contemplative Book Excerpt: Propane Altars

Below is an excerpt from my book, Coffeehouse Contemplative: Spiritual Direction for the Everyday.

Brother Lawrence was a Carmelite monk who lived in Paris in the seventeenth century. He is not really known for any grand speeches, writings, or miracles, but instead something much more subtle: he wrote a brief classic work called The Practice of the Presence of God, in which he shares how he makes it a point to notice God in his daily chores around the monastery. Whether he was sweeping the floor, doing the dishes, or answering the need of a fellow monk, he could sense God in these ordinary acts just as much as if he was receiving the bread and wine during Mass.

The key for Brother Lawrence was constant conversation with God. No matter what he did throughout the day, he imagined himself in a constant communion with God. One’s motive, he was quick to add, should not be the seeking of a pleasurable holy feeling, as that will not always happen. Instead, we may converse with God at all times because we know God loves us and would receive this communication and our selves with grace.

Brother Lawrence’s suggestion would seem to fit with a busy life, or a temperament that finds it hard to sit still for too long. Just as he did, we may be in conversation with God while walking the dog, rocking an infant, taking a shower, or cleaning the basement. God is already there anyway, so perhaps God has something to say to us. For us, the difference that helps lift the veil is intentional awareness and practice, which will transform how we see these activities.

The previous chapter began with an in-depth exploration of my dislike of winter and the frozen precipitation that it brings. By happenstance, this chapter will begin with a time of year as far away from that season as one can get. Once it becomes certain that we’re clear of dealing with snow and ice; the last frost has come and gone, the snow-blower can be tucked away in the garage in favor of the lawnmower, the trees and flowers begin to blossom and the temperature rises, I am able to turn my thoughts and attention to a variety of activities that the warmer weather of late spring and summer allow. By far, my favorite has to be wheeling the grill out to our patio and firing it up for the first time. 

I barely exaggerate when I share that we live off of our grill during the warm half of the year. Many evenings, I forego the stove and microwave in favor of preparing many of our meals over an open flame: hot dogs, hamburgers, brats, kabobs, chicken, fish, and steaks. Our main courses this time of year often feature char marks and the faint taste of smoke enriched by the juices that have run off to make the fire burn higher and brighter.

Over the years, I’ve come to view grilling not just as an exercise in cooking, but as an entire experience. I love everything about it: the unique smells of the food being prepared this way, the sounds of sizzling and popping. I like the chance to be outside and observe the life growing around me as I take in the shade of the trees, the rays of the sun, and the birds overhead scouring the earth for food of their own. I love the creative art that is cooking itself: the experimentation with spice combinations and monitoring the selection of the evening to determine when it’s ready. I love the sense of wider community that sometimes comes with grilling; those opportunities for sharing this food not just with my immediate family, but with guests who have joined us for a meal, whether a special occasion has brought us together or just for the sake of enjoying one another’s company for an evening.

Everything that we do, every moment of our day, can be understood to convey God’s presence and grace to us. For me, grilling has become one such practice where I am a little more aware of our world’s divine underpinnings. It is an exercise when I slow down to observe creation around me and engage in a creative act myself. It is a time when I am preparing something that will bring loved ones together around a common table and meal; an expression of relationship and a sharing of our lives with each other. God is in the creation and creating, in the relationships and in the sharing. And all of this opportunity to notice God’s self-giving grace begins with a little propane and a spark.

And so it can be with any such activity. The simplest task can be an invitation to experience God with us. Through listening prayer, we open ourselves to God’s self-communication, which in turn makes us more sensitive to where God shows up beyond prayerful reflection and our chosen spiritual discipline. Contemplation begins intentionally with scripture, art, or other materials, but over time and after it helps us develop new and holy habits, the entire world and all that we experience in it becomes our object of contemplation, through which God speaks to and is in relationship with us.

Coffeehouse Contemplative: Spiritual Direction for the Everyday is available on Amazon.