Feeling Distracted? Me too.

I have noticed lately that I am more easily distracted then I would like to be. There was a time in my life when I could literally read for hours on end taking notes, asking questions, summarizing, grasping big ideas and fitting them into a larger web of thought. Seriously, I could sit in one place for hours and hours, no phone, no laptop, just me with books and pens and papers. 

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That guy is long gone. 

Of course, different stages of life call for different lifestyles and I shouldn’t bemoan the change too much, it is at least partly driven by having taken on more responsibilities in the world (family, work, community). At the same time it would be a gross lie to say that is all the problem is caused by. 

I do not want to blame the tools and toys in my life and yet I want to (need to?) recognize that Youtube, Facebook, News media and my phone, are leaving me feeling distracted and play a major role in the way my mind jumps from project to project and idea to idea. Maybe I am not alone in this but in zoom meetings I can find myself checking websites rather than paying as close attention as the meeting requires; or editing a document and checking sports scores mid-sentence. So, in part, I need to be a better control of the tools/toys in my life. 

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If you too are feeling distracted I am praying for you and I would covet your prayers as well. I mean for Pete’s sake even in prayer my mind can wander unhelpfully. 

Taking time to shut the devices down, giving each device a home (not in the kitchen or bedroom), taking of notifications, these are boilerplate suggestions but they are good if only we can implement them, as I sometimes do but often slide away from. 

The best corrective I know for this is twofold. Firstly, I write more by hand and then type it up later. Yes in a sense this takes more time, but I have found that in typing a certain sort of editing happens as the typed words are not exactly the same as the handwritten notes. More importantly, the extra focus means the whole process actually takes less time because I am less pulled to Youtube. 

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Secondly, and more to do with the life of faith, checking in on my meditation practice. If I feel distracted it is almost always true that I have become slack in my meditation. In my experience there is a direct correlation between sitting quietly daily and the ability to focus and remain focused the rest of the day. The challenge of this is twofold: first, starting again is like learning to meditate all over again, the mind wanders and that is frustrating, but it is just part of the process. Secondly, it means I need to review my calendar and fight to protect the space I need for this, only 20 minutes once or twice a day, but I let is slip for a good reason once or twice and next thing I know it hasn’t been on the schedule in a while! Both these challenges are overcome by discipline, by setting the intention to meditate and create the space. As a bonus, much like the longer writing process, as I get into a rhythm of meditation the extra focus I can bring into the other elements of life translates into my having more time. 

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The freeway to Thanksgiving

“Why are you cast down, O my soul?” is one of the plaintive cries of the psalmist that I suspect many of us have empathized with at least once or twice in this life. I cannot speak for everyone, I am only truly intimate with my own experience, still, I have noticed in our culture—so full of distractions—that “missing the moment” or “failing to be present despite being physically present” or “not being mindful” are ideas that are creating a barrage of regret, a lamentation I would like to dodge if I can. 

For example, some folks are now looking back at the summer that was and wondering where it went. Some are watching their kids take off to university and marvel that what once looked eternal has proven short after all. Some got so caught up in wedding preparations they barely recall promising those life altering vows at the altar. Some have lost a loved one and cry at how few “good” memories they retain with clarity though they lived happy lives together. Regrets all around. 

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I am writing about our ability to live life and miss it at the same time. Like the driver of a familiar route who gets to the driveway and cannot recall a single element of the drive home, except instead of a dreaded-drive-worthy-of-forgetting we are talking about lives, and often the best moments in them. 

I know that I am often distracted because I am thinking about what is next in my day, or what else “needs” to get done. In a hurry up culture where “busy” is a badge it can appear that to the runner goes the glory or to the speedy goes the day; but in truth to the sitter goes the satisfaction and to the slow goes the victory. For the sitter and the slow do not miss the moment they are in. 

The practices I have found most useful in this are meditation (which I write about pretty often) and gratitude. The gratitude practice I want to focus on is one I got from a book (I think) and which I was reminded of recently during a spiritual talk with friends. 

Every day, for at lest 30 days, a couple of times a year:

Collect (write down preferably by hand in a notebook you enjoy writing in) three aspects of your day that you are grateful for. 

There are rules:

1- As aspect must be specific* instead of thanks for you child, we might be grateful for how our child handled a certain moment in their day that we witnessed, like if they treated someone weaker than them with gentleness, instead of thankful for the food we ate today maybe we could be thankful for the growers, transporters and cookers of it. The more specific, the more meaningful. 

2- An aspect may only be used once a month* you can only be thankful for your spouse bringing you coffee once, (though you are thankful if it ever happens) or you can be grateful for a sunset once a month even if you make a habit of seeing it and soaking it in. We are looking to expand our horizons of gratitude and repetition is not as helpful as we would like it to be. 

For my part I have noticed that when I am engaged in such a month I experience a lot more of my day because I am always on the look out for what will make the list. I become more focused on the good and less on the aggravating (here’s looking at you OC Transpo). It is astounding how much I have to be grateful for when I slow down and pay attention. I bet you do too. 

Sunny lives pretty regret free, I think

In the end it leads to a less distracted life with far less days ending with a cast down soul and many more with a spirit of thanksgiving, and who doesn’t want that?

What are you pursuing (we are all pursuing something)

Paul writes to the church in Corinth and suggests that if they want to represent Christ well, and if they want to enjoy life as a community of faith they could do worse than turn their attention to pursuing “love and desire Spiritual gifts” (1 Cor 14:1)

I know many of us would like peace, we struggle at times to get along with neighbours, our families and friends. We desire lives of a certain sort and we feel frustrated when our lives do not meet our expectations. Some of the issue is holding our expectations too tightly but some of the problem is also a failure on our part to examine those expectations and to strive in a studied manner towards them.

So, a simple but powerful question for you to reflect upon today is: What do you actively pursue? 

Are you aware of it, like have you decided to strive towards financial independence retire early (fire), or some other such clear long-term goal; or are you unaware of what you are pursuing?

If you are in the later category, regardless of your age and stage, you need to discover it. Failure here means drifting along. It means missed opportunities, it means eventually looking back with regret, it means never hitting the target (though my intentional living means never hitting as in going to – Target:) 

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Whether you know the pursuit or not your calendar and your bank account (or credit cards statements) will help you see what you have been pursuing. The question will become are you happy with the path you are on and where it leads? If not, can you change it, even in a small way?

When you look at how you spend your time and resources does it seem to you – and who else could judge such a question that you are focused on matters worthy of your attention and headed towards a destination you will be proud to reach?

Paul suggests avoiding distractions and pursuing the edification of the church, attracting people to the life well-lived, is a worthy goal for each of us. I have found it personally gratifying to seek a life of faith and at the same time often hard to do so. Paul says to be careful of our true goals (desires). Otherwise noble work becomes pathetic and diminishes us and the work when it is done as an ego-stroke rather than to benefit someone else or to glorify God. Maybe this is what those old Catechisms were getting at when they asked what the chief end of man was and answered that we are to glorify God.  

So what do you actively pursue? Is it worth it? 

We need more praying prayers

It is an unfortunate defect in my character that I am often cynical. I am working on my cynicism but I am skeptical the cynic will pass away anytime soon. Maybe this post has more to do with that reality than what’s really real. 

Lately I have noticed an increase in the number of people asking for “thoughts and prayers” and even more so an upturn in people offering “thoughts and prayers” whenever tragedy strikes. The most skeptical of us think such promises are nonsense only the nonsensical would put any weight in. I leave such thinkers to their thoughts.

My interest at the moment is how often I fail to follow through on praying prayers. I try to be good about it. I have mentally committed to praying for someone right after any conversation that someone asks me for prayer, but even with that simple rule in place a complex and busy life sometimes means I fail. If I (The Minister!!!) fail, I can only assume others do as well. 

It’s not that I think every prayer is answered, at least how we usually think of answering, but that a promise is a promise and when we make them about “thoughts and prayers” we are showing sympathy and telling someone that they will be thought of later, that when they feel lonely they are not alone because others have them on their minds. This is a promise of love. This is important. 

When we pray we lift others up, like this, sort of:)

It is also important, for those of us who believe there is a God in heaven that wants to hear from us, to bring before the Divine the concerns of our days and invite him into them. This has many effects, among them, sometimes God opens my eyes to ways I can help someone in trouble. Sometimes I pray for something to change, anything to change in a given situation, and when it does I can give thanks (I am working at killing the Chris-the-cynic who says it is probably just a coincidence that prayer preceded the answered prayer). At the very least I know that I have followed through on a promise, that I can honestly look the person in the eye and say, I prayed for you, you are not alone, you matter. When we are hurting, hearing that we matter can make a world of difference.  

Whether prayer changes anything or not, whether we believe powerfully in prayer or not (and I hope we do) can we commit to following through with our thoughts and prayers when we offer them? Can we be praying prayers or heartfelt hearts if we say we will? It would do loads for our integrity, our self-confidence, for the love we show others, and maybe the love they can receive.   

Pro-tip: making a little note on a phone, a reminder in whatever app you think will help you, is a really good way to remember to pray for a situation. 

Reliance

I don’t wish to sound weary 

and I hope you can give me the benefit of the doubt as you read this, I am rested and ready to go…

As I return to work after a glorious allotment of family time largely spent outdoors (including a bunch of twilights in tents), I am reflecting on the requirement to trust God.

our first year with kids in their own tent!

When it comes to my kids I do what I can, and I trust God.

When it comes to my marriage I do what I can, and I trust God. 

When it comes to holidays I do what I can, and I trust God.

And now,

When it comes to preaching and teaching I do what I can, and I trust God.

When it comes to leading and guiding I do what I can, and I trust God.

When it comes to connecting with the community I do what I can, and I trust God.

Sometimes we are called to lean in, to put our shoulders to the proverbial grindstone and push push push.   

Sometimes we are called to reach for more, try more harder, raise our vision to impossibly audacious goals.

And sometimes we are called to humble actions that rely on God. 

The bible is full of stories of people relying on themselves, their ideas, intelligence, and insights. It rarely works out. 

I have found that:

Humble reliance on God avoids the encouragement of the ego.

Humble reliance on God leads to thanksgiving for where we see him at work in our lives.

Humble reliance on God diminishes expectations and so extends peacefulness.

Ultimately the bible teaches us that reliance on God leads to securing the very strength of God. 

I invite you to think about one part of your life you feel is heavy, one burden you are holding onto. 

Got one? 

What would it look like for you to humbly rely upon God in that situation?

This might take a while, first thoughts are unlikely the best (or most productive) ones here (Sorry Jack Kerouac). I suggest you write a few. 

Ultimately, you can keep carrying the burden or, you can humbly rely upon God. 

Watching isn’t doing

My face any time I’m about to do anything significant to a bike

I am not a mechanical man, one of my brothers was in his twenties when he asked my dad for a drill so he could chop wood for a fire. I am a man who rode buses and bikes well into my twenties rather than learn how to drive (I know how now), a father of three lads interested in racing bicycles and riding them for long camping trips, and married to a gal who loves cycling, and so my options are limited—either I learn to fix bikes or find a way to make more money so as to pay someone else who knows how to fix bikes—thus despite an almost genetic aversion to such matters I find myself watching Youtube videos with greasy hands.

I’ve spent hours tinkering, taken a day-long course, and watched more videos than you would think there could be able something as simple as adjusting a derailleur. The videos are ultimately helpful, but man do they ever make it look simple, clean, and easy. Maybe you have tried to learn something this way as well, I imagine knitting or needlework, maybe playing guitar, or brewing beer, would be similarly challenging to learn online. There is a vast gap between “knowing what you are doing after watching a video” and “actually knowing what you are doing.” 

nothing like seeing your kid so focused and determined!

Just for fun, here is a video of how to adjust a derailleur by the most straight-forward and clearest of Youtube teachers. If you took the time to watch it (or even part of it) I wonder how confident you would be if my kid came to you looking for help after crashing (again?!?) their bike in a race. Ya, me neither:)

Christian faith can be like this. You can watch all the videos you like, read all the blogs or books or daily devotionals, and still not really be confident to help out so much a child with their childlike problems. Nothing replaces first-hand experience. This is why the mechanic must get repetitions in on actual bikes and why christians must pray, read the bible, and do works of service regularly. Such do not earn us a spot in heaven, that is a matter of grace, but they do help us live lives of faith and help others along their journeys. 

The youngest podiumed that day!

It matters the we take the time because unlike bike repair we cannot elect to pay someone else to do it, there is no farming this job out, your relationship to Jesus is well and truly between the two of you. 

Does your mind wander while you meditate? Not every bike adjustment I make helps, but I improve over time, so will you. 

Does prayer feel stilted or forced? Imagine unmechanical me, wearing an apron standing in front of a bike stand! You get used to it. 

Different kid, different podium, proud of em all

Forget your daily meeting with God? Ask my kids if their bikes chains ever need grease or if they need to remind me of some issue with their bike…God is more patient than my kids, I am confident he will understand and be happy when you come back. 

The point is if you want a robust faith live like I want my kids to have access to bikes that roll smoothly (without having to sell one of said kids to pay for this), you are going to have to put in the work and no matter how hard it is or how discouraged you get at times progress is found in the direction of effort. It is worth the time, worth the effort and failures, no one else can do it for you, and we all love the feeling of being an 8 year old flying down a hill on a bike. 

Crosses by the road

Recently I had the joy of a multi-day bike and camping adventure  with my wife and kids. We cycled and we camped along the way for about two weeks and covered plenty of ground.

One of the strange elements of the trip was the crosses that marked the sides of the roads. Clearly, a lot of people die on our roads. There are so many little memorials to people it is a wonder any of us get anywhere safely. 

The memorials take many shapes and are often extremely individualized. I suppose this is a way to commemorate something unique and important about the person. Maybe we desire to do this especially poignant when a loved one dies in a tragic and senseless way, as these people seem to have died. 

As touching as they are, I sure wish and pray that we wouldn’t need so many of them.

As a christian I find it a bit startling how popular the cross seems to be with these tributes. Are all these people christian? Are their families? Or is it simply a well-known and recognized symbol of death within our culture?

I fear it’s the latter. 

I fear that because statistically it is likely true. Also because the cross is meant to be a symbol of hope and when it is mostly associated with death something has gone sideways and it has reverted to its nasty meaning from Roman Times. It was an ugly, brutal, horrific thing back then that was transmogrified or sanctified, turned upside down, into a symbol of hope but he death and resurrection of Jesus. It went from a symbol of death to a symbol of the empty grave, of the resurrection, of forgiveness and new life. 

Somehow I doubt that is what the crosses by the road connote to most of us. They seem to say, “here died our precious loved one.”

And yet, when tragedy strikes is when I need the truths of the gospel the most. 

When our young people die or when injustice rears its ugly head and looks like it has won the day: these are the times I need to believe that Jesus is lord, that the apparent victory of death is an illusion, that there is life after death and there is justice coming. 

I don’t know how Christians can work to turn the symbol upside-down again, from a symbol of death back to a symbol of life and hopes and dreams and mercy and peace and justice. 

I am going to pray that it would happen, pray that if God desires to use me in making it so that I would hear him. 

Maybe you could pray too? 

What experts are you listening to?

Listening to Real Advice is Hard

There is a story in the bible about a king that would like to go off to war. He is a cocky and boastful man—already rich but wants to get richer—and he likes to be affirmed in what he already believes. He calls upon a bunch of prophets and puts the question to them of whether or not he should lead his people out to war (everyone involved knows that he wants to hear that yes, in fact, he should go to war because he is so powerful and wonderful he is going to win etc. etc.) The prophets duly say what the king wants to hear. Except for one. It is a bit funny because before he even speaks the king is saying “I hate that guy, he’s a downer, he never says what I want to hear.” Instead of listening to the one telling truth the king goes to war and it is a calamity. 

I wonder how often we do this. 

For instance, I used to know a financial planner who said his career was really annoying because for the most part clients had made up their minds about what to do/how to handle their money before meeting with him, if he happened to agree then he had their business and, if not, then not. It was sad he said, because most people were making foolish decisions and going with whatever “Expert” they could find that would agree with them. I don’t think it existed yet, but crypto might be an example of this, if you have already decided crypto currencies is the way to go you will find financial advisers who agree. 

We can do this with our diets, vegan, fire engine 2, Mediterranean, paleo, raw, flexitarian, eats only berries and bananas…once we have made up our mind how to eat we will find experts who confirm our choice. 

In the age of the internet part of the challenge is that we can find so-called experts on just about any topic and then find some that agree with us. This can make decision-making much more difficult because the easy route is to do just that. The hard route is to reflect upon what people we might disagree with are saying and give their concerns real consideration. 

In the spiritual life this is true as well. I am part of a few “spiritual” groups on Facebook and the sorts of workshops and promises made in them are astounding, healing bowl sounds, fairies in the forest we can talk to, inner animals to be re-connected with, whatever your jam is there is someone in my city ready to encourage you (and take your money). I suppose it is hard to be told how to live, we are all stubborn. It is also hard to be told of a difficult route we must take. Save money slowly over time and invest carefully, eat real food and not too much, trust in the goodness of Jesus rather than you own, take care of others, humbly approach the world. These are all great if you happen to already like them, but the majority do not and the prophets and profits are out there to lead us astray by confirming what we already believe and want to be true. 

What experts are you listening to and why? When is the last time you heard advice that sounded hard but you took and ran with it? How did that go?

The Sunk Cost Fallacy in Spirituality

The Sunk cost fallacy: the phenomenon whereby a person is reluctant to abandon a strategy or course of action because they have invested heavily in it, even when it is clear that abandonment would be more beneficial (Oxford Languages). 

My wife and I recently bought some used chairs. Once we got them home it was immediately clear these were not the correct size (they are way to big for our modest space). While we might like to recoup all our costs when we sell them we also need to be aware that they are taking up room in our house and they serve no real function for us. You would think that would make us happy to sell them for less than we bought them for in order to be rid of them quickly. The struggle, of course, is the sunk cost fallacy, because we paid a certain amount we don’t want to lose money or feel foolish, and thus we want the same (at least) as we paid for them. Yet, when it comes to our actually living our lives (and the tiny amount of cash involved) we would be better to give them away to a charity that would pick them up, since they do little more than clutter our dinning room.

I was thinking about this when I read a line in the psalms, Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. The word “renew” is what caught my attention. It suggests that there was a time that the writer identified with a steadfast spirit, but that over time they have moved away from that. I suppose this might have taken any number of forms but they would all involve a sort of investment into something other than God or the life of faith. To ask for renewal suggests changing paths, leaving the one they were on to return to the one they had previously been on. This might mean literally walking backwards to return to an earlier fork in the road and selecting different path (a seemingly costly choice) but recognizing the mistake as early as possible and acting on the recognition because the cost of not doing so will only increase. The chairs will only further aggravate and annoy my wife and I so we do well to change course, even at a cost. 

Many have made decisions about faith in Jesus, either for or against, and have ceased to consider the choice. Yet, we know, don’t we, that such decisions need to be made over and over again as we learn more about ourselves and the world. I think we are reluctant because we have decided that a decision once made must remain made or else the costs will be too high (we will look silly, have to change important elements of our lives, friends, finances, careers, whatever) and so it is easier to stubbornly stick to the path we are already on even if it isn’t working for us. It’s a fallacy we tell ourselves that keeps us from moving forward, even if we sense a move is needed.

A move can be costly, our friends and family might not appreciate what we are going through nor the decisions we are making. 

I won’t lie, often the costs are high when our worldview changes. I lost friends when I agreed to go into ministry, I have given more money away than I can count (never missed it and never lacked no matter what is given away, just sayin’). I sacrifice evenings and early mornings to meetings (with people and with God). I have siblings who tell me that the worst thing I can do for my kids is raise them in church. And yet, those costs are nothing beside the gain that is knowing Christ beside me, Christ within me. 

I trust that God is open to our turning towards him at all times. The psalm I already referred to (#51) also contains these words: My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise. In other words at any time we might admit we have been wrong and turn towards God and he will accept our turning towards him. 

The sunk costs always look worse or harder before we let them go. Maybe they are small and unimportant, like the chairs, or maybe they are larger, like the troubled relationships I must navigate with caution and care and love, either way when it comes to further trust in God, to renewing our spiritual lives and wellbeing, the costs are quickly forgotten or adjusted to as a new reality sets in. May your soul be like my uncluttered dining room! 

Rear Deraillleurs and Prayers 

I am not talking about the prayer of a cyclist as they approach some climb stuck in the wrong gear, though I have been there too. I am writing about how cyclists who don’t know how to maintain their bikes are weirdly like Christians that struggle to pray.

Basically everyone that has ever tried to bike regularly on a bike with more than a single gear has encountered the endless noises and aggravations of derailleur malfunction (and for many men the shame of not intuitively knowing how to fix them). Here is how one website describes it:

The derailleur’s job is to move the chain up and down the cogs in your cassette. The limit screws tell the derailleur when to stop, so your chain doesn’t fall into the spokes or off the smallest cog and into the dropout of your frame. If you are having issues shifting into the smallest or largest cog in your cassette or if your chain is falling off the cassette, you will need to check your limit screw settings.

When adjusting limit screws, tightening (clockwise) the screws will always restrict movement of the chain outward and loosening the limit screw (counterclockwise) will allow the chain to move farther outward toward the spokes or dropout (from Liv bikes).

Great! Now we are all confident we can fix the skipping chain or the non-gear changing hassle, right???

also from liv bikes

Of course not. The only way to get any good at this is to practice it, and to do so over and over again; there is simply no substitute.

Just so, we can read about prayer or listen to others talk about it (trust me the videos of fixing  the derailleurs, while helpful, still require a lot of patience and humility) until the proverbial cows come home, but we will be no closer to being able to pray, to enjoy God’s very presence, than we are to having our bikes run smoothly. Many of us will feel shame about this, we know we should be able to do it, we just struggle to make the time to master it. 

Here’s the thing though, if I take a bike to a bike shop to fix a derailleur they sort of laugh at me and say I shouldn’t need their help for this. It is the intention of many cyclists I know to learn how to take care of this sort of minor issue, the keyword is goal. Similarly, many people ask me to pray, at meals, at meetings, whatever, partly this is my role in society, like the bike mechanic has their role as well, but partly it is based on discomfort or self-perceived inability on the part of the asker. Sometimes (worship services, hospital rooms, weddings, funerals etc.) I am happy to be the “official pray-er” but when I am at your house for friendship and a meal and grace needs saying before we eat…well you can handle that. 

Like all those cyclist not learning/practice how to do basic maintenance many Christians are not learning/practicing prayer. 

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In both cases this is a shame because there is freedom and power in the sort of independence a cyclist gets when they only need the bike shop for the hardest jobs (like they are far less likely to get stuck while out on a ride etc.), and there is freedom and independence (or well, dependence on Jesus) when the christian learns to pray (they are more resilient when life happens to them, ready to pray with joy or sorrow, the bible calls us to prayer, etc.). 

Basically what I am saying is that today is a day to go pray, I need to learn how to fix a derailleur (and it may take me a while:) 

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