Getting Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable

Being comfortable is of primary concern for most of us. We want things that give us comfort. We want to be isolated from pain. We want a certain amount of money in our bank account. We want stability. We want all of our relationships to be going well. We want to know that things are going to turn out ok. Put simply, being comfortable is very important to us, or at least it is to me.

One year ago this week Anna and I celebrated the release of my book Am I Loved? with a group of family and friends. As I looked around the room that night a year ago I was overwhelmed with gratitude for two things: God’s love for us and His display of love toward us through people. It was simple incredible to stand among a group of people that we get to live life with. One of the things I said in a short reflection with the group that night was that God’s story is always better, always more adventurous and always more creative. Little did I know that God’s story for our family in 2018 would involve getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.

If you know some of our story, or have followed this blog in 2018, you know that things took a downturn with Anna’s cancer in the Spring. You may or may not know that things took a downturn for me as well in May and that due to stress, anxiety and sleeplessness I had to be hospitalized. Standing in front of family and friends in January at the book launch was comfortable for me. Sitting in a hospital four months later wondering if my wife was going to live and if I was going to be ok was very uncomfortable.

A quick reflection on followers of God in the Old and New Testament reveals that human comfort just doesn’t seem that important to God. What seems important to God is for His people to learn what it means to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. I guess more simply put, God is interested in trust. Our learning to trust Him no matter what is going on in our lives. Our willingness to believe that He is for us and with us no matter where life takes us. The wisdom of Isaiah tells us,

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord.
 “For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways
And My thoughts than your thoughts.” (Is 55:8-9)

As our family enters 2019 we are attempting to get more comfortable with being uncomfortable. The last two years haven’t played out the way we thought, not by a long shot. But what we do know now, perhaps more than ever, is that God is with us, and that His love toward us through people has never felt more real.

Anna Cancer Update

Thank you so much for your support and prayers this past year, and especially this summer. Anna completed 12 weeks of chemotherapy in mid-August. We recently had a CT scan to check on the progress of treatment and we are very encouraged with the results. According to the oncologist, the scan shows no sign of the original tumor. In addition, there was extensive lymph node activity in May. As of this latest scan all lymph nodes appear normal with no invasion. There is still a small amount suspect cancerous activity in the liver so the doctor has prescribed an additional 6 chemotherapy treatment in hopes of getting the cancer to full remission. We are taking a deep breath around here and are very grateful for how well Anna’s body is responding to treatment. Thank you for continuing to hold our family through this season of life.

In May a friend was reading Psalm 18 and pictured Anna, the kids and me standing in a wide-open field being held by God and God’s people.

But me he caught—reached all the way
    from sky to sea; he pulled me out
Of that ocean of hate, that enemy chaos,
    the void in which I was drowning.
They hit me when I was down,
    but God stuck by me.
He stood me up on a wide-open field;
    I stood there saved—surprised to be loved!

 God made my life complete
    when I placed all the pieces before him.
When I got my act together,
    he gave me a fresh start.
Now I’m alert to God’s ways;
    I don’t take God for granted.
Every day I review the ways he works;
    I try not to miss a trick.
I feel put back together,
    and I’m watching my step.
God rewrote the text of my life
    when I opened the book of my heart to his eyes. (Psalm 18:16-24)

Anna and I have returned to Psalm 18 many time the past 5 months and we feel like this experience of being held by God and God’s people has come to fruition over and over as we have “placed all the pieces before him.” Thank you for being among those who have held us through this season of life. We are so grateful for you!

Four Life Transforming Experiences

I’ve been reading a book titled, Jesus Plus Nothing. It is impacting me in that the author makes the case that Jesus provides experiences in our lives that we all desire. Experiences that often seem unattainable. As our family goes through this season of cancer we are comforted by these truths of Jesus outlined in the book.

Four Life Transforming Experiences:

The Experience of Peace: Jesus was all about peace.  Peace is not just absence of conflict or cessation of the battles waging in us and around us.  It’s a sense of inner calm that all is going to be alright.

The Experience of Joy:  Joy is different from happiness.  Joy is deeper than that.  Happiness depends upon the happenings that are going on right now.  Joy is an inner quality of seeing things with a positive perspective.  Joy is the ability to enjoy the scenery, when you are on a detour!

The Experience of Love:  Although peace and joy are commonly identified with Jesus, love is the theme of who Jesus is and what he taught.  Most Christian children know the song, “Jesus loves me, this I know.”  Jesus is the epitome of love. To act like Jesus is to do the loving thing. – This love relationship is so tight that a follower of Jesus can actually own the love of God in himself.

The Experience of Grace: Grace is something you don’t deserve, something you didn’t work for, something you weren’t able to plan for or to orchestrate. Grace is given by Jesus, many times with no rhyme or reason to it. – Two of the dynamics within the experience of grace are forgiveness and freedom.

As we reflect on these experiences, we are reminded that we are being invited into the peace, joy, love and grace of Jesus every day, every moment. He is with us, we are in his care.

Anna Cancer Update: On Hope and Suffering

It was late fall 2017 that we last titled a blog post: “Anna Update.” For months there just wasn’t much to report. Anna was feeling good and we were encouraged by her progress. Her December scan showed that her tumor and lymph node activity was the same as the previous scan at the end of the summer. It wasn’t until her scan in early May that we received new news. The news was such that a blog post was the last thing on our minds. The news was that the tumor had grown in size and beyond the original location of the body. After we gathered ourselves and considered viable next steps, we decided together for Anna to begin a 3-6 month regimen of chemotherapy. We are 5 treatments in, and are just now beginning to catch our breath.

I looked back at that last “Anna Update” post and the subject was Waiting and Hoping. Turns out we may not be very good at either. We thought we had learned a few things over the years about waiting and hoping, and perhaps we have, but we know very little about how to actually do it. How do you wait and hope? There is a section of Romans 5 on hope that I have not ever liked,

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,and hope does not disappoint…” (Romans 5:1-5a)”

The part I don’t like is suffering. Paul says that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. Anna and I want to learn to hope but we don’t want to suffer. Who does?!

Suffering isn’t a popular word in our culture. According to Dan Bruner, “Becoming Christ-like will involve suffering. Suffering is what causes us to trace our lives after the example of the suffering King. Suffering is not about pain. Suffering is about giving up and losing control.” Maybe that is what it means to wait and hope. Maybe it’s about embracing suffering, releasing control. And perhaps that is why Paul mentions suffering as the precursor to endurance, character and hope. We want all of those things, but we pushback against the suffering.

So, as I mentioned, we are just now beginning to catch our breath. We don’t know what the days and weeks ahead hold, but we are certain that God is with us in the suffering, in the hoping. The learning process this past year since Anna’s diagnosis has been so valuable for us. We have asked God from the beginning to direct our steps, and to specifically show us the next step along the way. This has been a source of comfort as He has answered that prayer over and over this past year. We see this current treatment as the next step of trusting God in the process.

It’s almost hard to type because it doesn’t make sense on paper, but we are finding ourselves more and more grateful – grateful for the suffering; grateful for the hope that we have in Jesus. And, grateful for the many friends and family who are with us. We have been overwhelmed at the care and support of so many who love us. We are not in this alone, not by a long shot!

Thanks be to God!

A Suggested 20 Minutes of “Doing Nothing”

In my last post I suggested “doing nothing” as a catalyst to growing deeper in relationship with Jesus. The practice that has most practically helped me go down this road is called Centering Prayer. The objective in centering prayer is not to push thoughts away, but instead to express your intention to love God in order to be in His presence, submitting to the healing activity of the Holy Spirit.

A typical centering prayer session is twenty minutes in length. It starts with choosing a “prayer word” and then calmly, peacefully, and lovingly repeating it silently—i.e., “saying” it in your mind, and not speaking it out with your lips.

Find a quiet, comfortable place to do this, one you can return to regularly. My ideal spot to spend time with the Father is next to a stream, or in my living room if I can’t be outdoors. With my eyes closed, I can imagine my special spot by the stream. If a distraction arises (the jumping monkeys), simply acknowledge your mind’s wandering, send your distracting thought downstream, and return to focusing on your prayer word. You can do this as many times as necessary throughout the course of your prayer time.

I encourage you to give it a try. Here’s how:

  1. Sit comfortably in a quiet place where you are not liable to be interrupted. Place your feet flat on the floor and keep your hands loosely folded in your lap or flat on your knees. It is better to use a chair with a moderately soft covering and without close fitting arms. Your eyes should be closed and your head held at a comfortable angle. (If you have an illness or physical disability, sit or lie in whatever way that suits your condition.)
  2. If I were to ask you, “Where is the place that you feel most peaceful and close to God?” what would your answer be? For me, my spot is in my camping chair next to a stream in the San Juan Islands. Perhaps for you it is a place in the mountains among the trees, overlooking a beautiful vista, or by the ocean listening to the lapping of the waves on the beach at sunrise. Can you envision the place that is unique to you in your mind? It can be helpful to close your eyes and imagine your special spot with a seat saved for you as you join the Holy Trinity, who are together inviting you into conversation with Father, Jesus, and Holy Spirit.
  3. Take a moment to relax. It is helpful to take three deep breaths. Fill your lungs by expanding your stomach. Hold the breath for about five seconds and then slowly exhale. Do this three times. I usually do this with a very brief prayer to each person of the Trinity. First breath: “In the name of the Father;” second: “In the name of the Son;” third: “In the name of the Holy Spirit.”
  4. Say a brief prayer in your own words expressing your love for God and your desire to spend these few moments embracing Him in your love. It can be something like this:

Dear Father in Heaven, I love You. I want to love You more. I know that You love me and You have given me the grace to want to spend these twenty minutes in Your presence. I have chosen the prayer word, “Abba,” Father (or whatever word you have chosen), to express this love I have for You. In the power of Your Holy Spirit and united to Your son, Jesus Christ, I now offer You my love through this prayer.

  1. Next, calmly, peacefully, and lovingly listen with the ears of your heart to your prayer word as you allow it silently to repeat itself. Do not whisper it out loud or even use your tongue or lips. Recognize that by this word you are expressing your love for God. Continue to do this fifteen or twenty minutes or longer if you feel called to do so.
  2. Whenever distracting thoughts come (those dang monkeys again) and you find you have given in to them and allowed your prayer word to stop, simply send that distracting thought “downstream” and say: “I will go back to my prayer word,” and do so. Do this as often as is necessary—even many, many times during a twenty-minute meditation.
  3. If, during your prayer time, you should fall asleep, just thank God for the blessing of sleep and go back to your prayer word. Do not be concerned about this—God is not!
  4. Sometimes you will “transcend” your prayer word. That is, as you are silently loving God in the chamber of your heart, your prayer word may stop and you will be in silent repose, loving God without words and without symbols. This is fine. When you realize that you have done this, just say: “I will go back to my prayer,” and do so. Time will pass very quickly when this happens.

When you think your time is up, look at your watch. If you still have a few minutes, go back to your prayer until twenty minutes is up. Then very slowly begin to pray aloud as you would like for a couple of minutes—perhaps something like the Lord’s Prayer, a Psalm, or another prayer of your choosing—so that it takes you a full two minutes to say it. If you find that you would like to go back to your loving prayer, and you have the time, do so. Otherwise your centering prayer time is finished.

Doing Nothing

A few years after my commitment to spend time each morning with God, I found myself longing for even deeper connection with Him. But I didn’t have the faintest clue where to start.

I remember pulling up to a morning meeting a few minutes early and doing a Google search on my phone: “intimacy with God.” A book by Thomas Keating titled, you guessed it, Intimacy with God, popped up on my search. I ordered the book and awaited its arrival on our front porch. As I read the first few pages, I realized it was speaking to that very longing in my heart! I was being invited deeper into the journey of silence and solitude with God.

In the book, the author, Father Thomas Keating, describes a silent prayer practice that helped him (and me!) more closely experience God’s presence. This method of prayer is both a relationship with God and a discipline to foster that relationship. It’s called “centering prayer.”

Now, if you think it’s an arduous task to commit to occasionally spend a day away with God in a culture that screams out that you are as valuable as you are useful, try doing nothing for 20 minutes a day. It will either make you crazy or . . . you just might discover the secret that Jesus often leaned on: silence and solitude in the presence of the Father.

(Am I Loved? Chapter 8 Introduction)

Hearing the Voice of God

After a number of years of spending daily time alone with God, I have realized that perhaps the most significant thing we can do in our time with Him is listen to His voice. You may be thinking, What? Come on now, Shawn. How do you do that? What does that even mean? I hear you. Developing the discipline of listening for God’s voice did not come easily for me. In fact, in the early days I would get distracted by a thousand different things in one sitting. I was annoyed, impatient, and constantly looked at my watch to see when the pain was going to end. Yet slowly, over time, as I continued to return to this place of listening, I began to hear the voice of God.

Now, it wasn’t an audible, booming voice that shot down from Heaven. Sometimes it was simply through Scripture, a passage in a book I was reading, or journaling. Other times it was through the still calmness that overcame me in the moment. But surely and incrementally, over the past 17 years of consistently showing up to listen each morning, God has given me the ability to hear Him. He gives direction for my day, wisdom in decisions, discernment in the moment, and assurance that I am His son. And more than anything, His quiet whisper assures me that I am loved.

Give it a try. Do you best sometime in the next few days to sit with God. Maybe just repeat a verse in your head to get the time started like, “The Lord is my shepherd there is nothing I shall want.” (Ps 23) Pay attention to your breathing. Breathe in calmness and peace, breathe out worry and fear. Allow yourself to just be.