Tag Archives: spiritual discipline

On Waiting. Or Why There Are No Christmas Trees in the Sanctuary on December 10th

In the church I serve, it’s the 10th of December, and we have no Christmas decorations up. No trees. No ornaments. No lights. Just an Advent wreath, our striking blue Advent paraments, and some paper globes hung randomly around the sanctuary. The globes make make a tie-in to our Advent preaching theme. But they are clearly NOT Christmas decorations; they are NOT Christmas trees.

Some have alerted me of their displeasure that there are no Christmas trees up yet on the 10th of December.

If I wanted to be snarky, I could answer right back about the logic of the matter. Look at the church calendar. It’s Advent in the church. It’s not Christmas.

Of course, they could also trip me up on the logic of our practice. We don’t wait until after the 4th Sunday in Advent. We usually put the trees up sometime mid-December. Too early for some; way too late for the “Christmas starts the day after Thanksgiving” crowd. A kind of middle of the road practice that probably satisfies no one. So, if we’re not actually going to wait all the way until Christmas, why wait at all? Put up the damned trees the day after thanksgiving. Just be done with it. Who would care?

It’s unlikely that logic will bring satisfaction to anyone on this matter.  It’s Christmas, and all kinds of emotions and memories and expectations are tied up in all of this. For you, for me, for those in my congregation who wish our trees were up.

So, why wait?

There’s this passage in Isaiah. “They who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength.” Honestly, it’s always stuck in my craw. I don’t like waiting. I avoid restaurants where I have to wait in line. I will get off the interstate and try to find another route if traffic is backed up. Even if it takes the same amount of time, at least I am moving and I have the illusion of progress. I. Hate. Waiting. How could there be strength in waiting?

This is true: there are some things that I cannot control. There are some things about which I have no choice but to wait. If I want to bake a cake, there is a certain amount of time between mixing the batter and cutting it into serving-sized pieces. When my wife became pregnant with our sons, there was no choice but to wait through the 40-week gestation period. There are some things that I simply cannot control.

Which is a good reminder. Because a lot of the time, we live with the illusion that we can control things. I can control where I live. I can control who I work for. I can control where I go to church, and if I contribute enough and bluster enough, I may even be able to control what the pastor says from the pulpit. Or when the Christmas trees get put up.

But having to wait is a reminder that I am not in control. And I should not be in control. My whole life is a mystery and a miracle. The fact that I am alive at this moment is a function of grace. I can’t DO anything to make my heart beat. I can’t DO anything to make my brain keep up its command center monitoring of my bodily functions and my emotions and my thoughts. Those things are outside of my control and are a sign — at least for me — of the goodness of God.

So, waiting has something to do with a reverent acknowledgement that my life is in God’s hands. And that God may be working in some way that I cannot see, not only for my benefit, but for the benefit of the human community and all of creation. Sometimes, waiting is necessary for what God is cooking up to come to completion. I need to realize that. I need to practice that. I need to live that. In a culture where we often live with the fiction that we are in control, waiting is a wholesome practice. It reminds me that some things are not manageable and are not instant. Some things require gestation. Some things only emerge in the waiting.

So if there is a wholesomeness to waiting, should there not be a place to practice and develop the discipline of waiting? Intentionally. Purposefully. Reverently. In the full knowledge that not only is God present in the waiting, but God is acting in the waiting, eager to reveal the fulfillment of a promise?

So, where shall we practice the wholesome discipline of waiting. If not the church, then where?

Hence, a sanctuary devoid of Christmas trees on December 10.

Pray without Ceasing?

Over the past six months, I have been working at cultivating a more regular prayer life. And I cannot report the effort an unqualified success.

Prayer is supposed to be part of the life of every Christian (every religious person?), and certainly it ought to be part of the life of every church leader. I get that in my head. I have found it hard to put into practice.

To be fair with myself, I pray. But it happens mostly in gatherings with other people.  Prayer is obviously a part of our weekly Sunday services, and I pray as I write sermons, and as I join in the corporate prayers of the gathered people of God.  Our church staff meets for a brief service of scripture, reflection, and prayer every morning, Monday through Thursday. I’m usually there. Prayer is a significant part of those services and I engage seriously and sincerely. So, it’s not like I never pray.

The challenging part has been developing that regular, every day, at the same time every day, discipline and practice of regular private prayer. It seems like I go a few days in a row and then suddenly it’s been a week without. It shouldn’t be that hard, should it?

Almost a year ago, I registered for the Grace Institute of Spiritual Formation, figuring that after trying to go it alone for years with not much to show for it, maybe I needed some professional help. The spiritual formation process consists of 8 three-day retreats spread over two years. Each retreat includes a cognitive element in which we learn intellectually about some aspect of spiritual discipline and spiritual practices and each retreat includes time to engage in those practices both alone and in the context of a small covenant group.

I’ve now attended two of those retreats and while they’ve been helpful, they haven’t been a magic bullet. I’ve gotten instruction and some practice in different kinds of prayer. I’ve gotten encouragement to develop a more disciplined prayer life. But what I have not gotten is some easy, foolproof solution to what I have viewed as a problem for a long time – how to develop a disciplined and regular prayer life.

Part of what I’m trying to come to grips with is that my challenge to pray is not just about prayer. It’s about the contours of my life and personality. I do not like routine. There are things I do regularly, but find that I need to switch them up often. I exercise regularly, but don’t like doing the same thing over and over. I don’t like my days to look the same day after day. I find that after a few months of using the same process for sermon generation, I need to change it and do it a different way for a while. I don’t like cooking the same things week after week and am always on the lookout for new recipes.

So accepting that this is the way I am, what I’m trying to figure out is how to make prayer a regular part of my days, knowing that a rigid routine is probably not going to work for me.

In all of it, what I’m learning is that for me at least, developing the habit and practice of prayer is work; it is hard. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to keep trying, but it does mean that the magic bullet, the whiz-bang solution are probably not out there. I let you know how it goes.