Practicing the Present: Race Among the Ruins

When I was a pastor, I found that the hardest part of visiting church members at the hospital was leaving them in the same condition I found them in when I entered the room. It seemed to me that my visits should make a difference. If they did not, what good were they? On each occasion I read Scripture, spoke words of comfort, and prayed. Yet when I was done people seemed no better off.

It’s one thing to talk about practicing the present when life is ordinary. We can face the bread-and-butter struggles of daily living with some serenity, confident of God’s presence. As long as we know that our problems are merely day visitors who show up for a few hours and then go on their way, we can easily put up with them. We might even be willing to bear with them for a few days or a few weeks because we know that in time, things will go back to normal. Our trials are unwelcome guests, but we say to ourselves, “This too shall pass before long.” 

But sometimes the circumstances that visit us arrive for the long term with no sign of leaving. They don’t come for a short stay. They move in and become part of the family. My employer tells me that my position has been eliminated and there is no other opportunity for me with the company. The doctor’s diagnosis indicates that my condition will be prolonged, without any certainty of treatment. My spouse decides to leave me, or my child says that he or she is gay. We have entered into a new “normal” in which boredom is the least of our problems. Suddenly, we hate our life as it currently is. The thought of practicing the present under such conditions not only appears foolish but seems cruel. How do we practice the present when the present is no longer a good place to be? It is almost impossible to offer an answer to such a question that does not sound glib.

Furthermore, the answer that we might offer while contemplating such circumstances from a distance is liable to be very different from the one we would give while suffering through them. The Psalmist might well say, “It was good for me to be afflicted” in Ps. 119:71. But that is the perspective of someone after the trial is over. His tone is very different when he is in the midst of it. Then he cries, “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?” (Ps. 13:1–2)

Frankly, the church has always tended to mistake stoicism for grace. That is why many of us are so inclined to offer platitudes in the face of suffering:

“Suck it up and tough it out.”

“Look on the bright side.”

“Things could be worse.”

These aren’t the things we actually say, but the things we do say often amount to the same sentiment. We dress our platitudes for church, of course. We mention God and talk about things working together. We remind people of the blessings that will come out of this suffering and of the wisdom they will gain as a result. We tell them that obstacles are only opportunities in disguise. What we say is sometimes true and may even help. But they can’t remove us from the circumstance. Our friends move on and return to their ordinary lives while we are left in our suffering to contemplate what has happened to us. “Part of every misery is, so to speak, the misery’s shadow or reflection: the fact that you don’t merely suffer but have to keep on thinking about the fact that you suffer. I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief.”  C. S. Lewis observed.

It took me a long time to realize that my role as a pastor when visiting the sick was not to fix their problems but to practice the present. Every visit was a symbol of God’s presence with them in the midst of their suffering. Scripture promises God’s control and care in even the worst of circumstances. Prayer opens the door for God’s involvement and serves as a reminder that our suffering does not go unseen. Years after those visits, which seemed so impotent to me at the time, church members would tell me how much comfort they derived from them.

This ministry of being present is an important pastoral tool in helping people take ownership of difficult circumstances that are beyond their control. It’s also a tangible reminder of Christ’s presence and His dominion over sickness, death, and destruction. “The kingdom of God is where Jesus Christ is. But Jesus Christ always lingers in the darkest places in the world” pastor and theologian Helmut Thielicke observed.

Practicing the present doesn’t magically make grief or anxiety disappear. When we practice the present we are not transported emotionally into some other realm, so we do not have to deal with the trauma that has happened to us. Nor does it deliver us from the changes that inevitably come. Eventually, our appetite returns. We put on our clothes and go back to work. We pick up the kids from school and feed the dog. But it’s not as if nothing has changed. Everything has changed.

Practicing the presence does not deliver us from turmoil. It does not transfer us into a special state of grace that somehow enables us to float above our circumstances so that we feel untouched by them. We may experience regret. We can be confused about what we should do next. We might feel afraid. We may even be angry enough to scream and sad enough to weep. Or we may feel nothing at all, as we seek a temporary respite from our circumstances in the numbness of shock.

If practicing the present is unable to deliver us from the frailty that attends all mortals when they find themselves in great difficulty, what good is it? What exactly does it do for us? The answer is that it delivers us into the hands of God.

If you practice the present, God will not magically make all the bad things that have happened to you disappear. Things can always get worse. What I can promise you is that if you look for God amid your circumstances, you will find Him. Our afflictions often act as a goad whose uncomfortable prodding compels us to follow paths we would not have chosen otherwise. The landscape may appear barren. It may seem to you that you have been abandoned. Even though you may not sense Christ’s presence amid your circumstances, you can trace His proximity on the map of His promise: “I will never leave you or forsake you. I will be with you always, even to the very end of the age.”

John’s latest book Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now: will be released by Moody Publishers in June and is now available for pre-order from Amazon.com. Order your copy today.

Practicing the Present: The Courage of the Ordinary

When my friend Ray was diagnosed with cancer, he started reading obituaries. He found comfort in the newspaper’s daily litany of the departed. Somehow it made him feel less alone. Like a pilgrim who is traveling in company, instead of someone who stumbles along a difficult path by himself. It was the ordinariness of the thing that helped him the most.

I feel something similar whenever I thumb through the old yearbooks in the faculty lounge. Their faces framed in horn-rimmed and cat-eye glasses, the images of former faculty gaze back at me with pursed lips or shy smiles. I do not recognize any of their names. They are long forgotten by the school they once served. Along with them are rank upon rank of students who are also long gone. They are not remembered either. Indeed, most of them were hardly known when they were here. Like the majority of us, they were just ordinary people.

It’s hard to be ordinary. Especially in a culture which worships the heroic. This is particularly true of the Christian world. Author Wendell Berry writes that the Judeo-Christian tradition favors the heroic. “The poets and storytellers in this tradition have tended to be interested in the extraordinary actions of ‘great men’–actions unique in grandeur, such as may occur only once in the world” he explains. This is a standard that is impossible for ordinary people to live up to.

As a young Christian, I remember being captivated by the story of Jim Elliot, one of the five missionaries who lost their lives when they attempted to bring the gospel to the Huaorani people of Ecuador. When I was finished I got down on my knees and prayed that God would make me a martyr too. It was a foolish prayer, prompted more by romanticism than by devotion. It was a request born of youthful impatience and a rash hunger for glory. Not at all like the real martyrs, most of whom stumbled into their unique calling.

It takes another kind of courage and a different skill set to follow the path assigned to the majority. “The drama of ordinary or daily behavior also raises the issue of courage, but it raises at the same time the issue of skill; and, because ordinary behavior lasts so much longer than heroic action, it raises in a more complex and difficult way the issue of perseverance” Berry observes. “It may, in some ways, be easier to be Samson than to be a good husband or wife day after day for fifty years.”

On some days we feel like we are only going through the motions, merely shuffling along as we pass into oblivion. Instead, we are traveling in company. We are upholding the world with hundreds of small and ordinary efforts. We make the bed. We drive the kids to school and worry about the kind of day they will have. We go to work. We clean the bathroom. We wait for the end of the world and the dawning of the age to come. It is a kind of liturgy.

Practicing the present requires that we reclaim a sense of the eternal significance of the mundane spaces in our lives. We don’t do this by trying to change the quality of our experience in those areas. The mundane will still involve the mundane but by accepting the ordinary as a context in which God is present. The ordinary tasks assigned to us by our calling and life situation are no less meaningful to God than those that are extraordinary. We don’t need to be attempting great things all the time. We don’t need to make a name for ourselves. As far as we know from Scripture, Jesus spent most of the first thirty years of His earthly life doing very little that was worth writing about. He lived in Nazareth and worked an ordinary job. To the people in His hometown there didn’t seem to be anything particularly special about Jesus. He was “the carpenter,” just somebody from the village (Mark 6:3).  

We do not need to resort to extraordinary acts of devotion to experience the reality of God’s presence. Nor does the reality of God’s nearness evaporate when we grow busy or our circumstances become difficult. During those times when we find it difficult to sense the nearness of God, He is as present as ever. From the highest heavens to the lowest depths, whatever situation we may find ourselves in is one in which God is already there (Ps. 139:8).

Although we always inhabit the present, we often feel as if it is moving past us. Try as we might to seize upon the moment and hold it fast, it still slips from our grasp. That good feeling we have passes or the season changes. The song that moved us so deeply comes to an end and somehow replaying it over again does not quite have the same effect. It is easy to think that we are standing fast as time marches past us and fades in the distance. We are caught in time’s irresistible current and swept into the future. As much as we might want to revisit the past, we can do so only in our minds. We have moved beyond the past and cannot return to it, no matter what the science-fiction writers say. The future is as removed from us as the past. We may be moving inexorably toward it, but the future will always remain in front of us. We can only imagine or speculate what will take place there.

But God is the master of time. It serves God’s purpose. The same God who established the regular cycle of day and night, summer and winter, seedtime and harvest also orders the seasons of our lives (Gen. 8:22). Our times are in His hand (Ps. 31:15). God always acts on our behalf at the “right time” (Rom. 5:6). This was true of the birth of Jesus Christ, which occurred “when the time had fully come” (Gal. 4:4). It is just as true in the commonplace things that concern us every day. Why do we brood about the past and fret over the future? According to Jesus, it is because we have lost sight of God. God gives meaning to the present.  His presence sanctifies our boredom and redeems our discomfort. The present is more than a place where the past comes to rest. It is more than a staging ground for the future. The present is where God shows up.

John’s latest book Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now: will be released by Moody Publishers in June and is now available for pre-order from Amazon.com. Order your copy today.

Practicing the Present

I am a sucker for books and movies about time travel. The Time Machine by H. G. Wells, the DeLorean in Back to the Future, and any Star Trek episode in which the crew of the starship Enterprise travels back to the twentieth century—I love them all. But over the years, I’ve learned a few important things about time travel. For example, as far as I can tell from these books and movies, backward is better than forward. When you travel back in time, you know what you’re getting. The future, on the other hand, is unknown and always seems to get worse. But that doesn’t mean that the past is safe. When you travel back in time, you had better not touch anything. Apparently, the smallest change can have devastating effects on the space-time continuum. You may come back to the present and find that you don’t exist.

In real life, time travel is impossible, but that doesn’t mean I have no interest in the past or the future. The truth is, I’m often preoccupied with both. Sometimes it’s because I’m thinking about the past, trying to understand what I have experienced and how it affects my life. Just as often I’m concerned about the future. Maybe it’s because I’m looking forward to what comes next. More often it’s because I’m worried about it. What gets lost in all of this is the present. Like the quiet child in a loud family, it’s often overlooked. Either way I tend to brush by the present, as if it were some stranger I pass on a busy street. Or if I do give it attention, it’s usually only a kind of grudging consideration—the sort you might give to someone who whines until your attention is wheedled away from the thing that really interests you .

“I have been scattered in times I do not understand,” St. Augustine complained. He saw his life as one that stretched in many directions at once. Like Augustine, our minds too are scattered in time, so that our interests range far beyond the present. At one moment, we peer intently into the past, hoping for the mists to clear and longing to catch a glimpse of a present that has disappeared from view. In the next, we skip far ahead, hoping to scout out the future and stake a certain claim. Unfortunately, the beauty and value of the present is often lost. We are here in body but not in mind. We are only halfhearted in our attention and sometimes in our service. To someone whose interest is chiefly on the future, the present is only a way station. Its primary function is to serve as a staging ground for what comes next. For the person whose focus is mostly on the past, the present is a cemetery filled with monuments to the glory days that will never come again or with a painful record of the injuries and slights we have suffered.

I want to propose an alternative. I call it the “practicing the present.” Practicing the present is more than the habit of slowing down and making ourselves aware of what is going on in the moment. It’s a way of locating ourselves in the world. It’s a way of seeing. Practicing the present is the habit of reining in our wandering mind and concentrating our attention on the here and now. This means, first of all, taking stock of things as they really are. What is the real landscape of my life? What do things really look like? We are doing more than assessing. We are trying to orient ourselves to reality. Those who dwell on the past and future are often living in a fantasy world. But God is at work in the real world. As we take stock of things as they really are, we do so with an awareness that God is truly present no matter how mundane or how bleak the circumstances appear.

Those who practice the present believe that God dwells in the midst of the muck and mire of daily life. Practicing the present doesn’t ignore the future or the past. But it does view both with a measure of sanctified skepticism. The future and the past can both be an unhealthy refuge for those who are disappointed with their present. Practicing the present also demands that we rein in, as much as we are able, our ambition and our anxiety. Both are common to human experience, and each in their own way can blind us to the reality of God’s presence. Ambition and anxiety can both cause us to forget the One who has numbered the hairs of our head and who is really responsible for the effectiveness of what we do for Jesus. Both ambition and anxiety can cause us to take too much responsibility for the success or the failure of what we do.

A few years ago, I was diagnosed with cancer. I was shattered by the news. I felt betrayed, not so much by God, but by my own body. I lay awake nights thinking about the thing I had inside me and wishing that I could go back to the day before I knew of the diagnosis. When the doctor told me that my surgery appeared to be successful, I felt like a condemned prisoner who has just been given a pardon. “This is what forgiveness feels like,” I told my wife. Five years after the surgery, my blood work showed a slight change, and I panicked. The doctor assured me that the difference was insignificant. As far as he was concerned, I was still cancer free. Yet the old fear had returned, and I found it difficult to break free from it. What if the doctor was wrong? How did I know that the next test results wouldn’t show that my cancer had come back? I still think about it.

Fear often casts a shadow over the future as we worry about things that might happen. Just as often we fret about the past. Sometimes we worry that we have taken a wrong turn along the way or we regret some choice we have made. We wonder how the past has shaped our present or how it will affect our future. We speculate about how things might be different if we had acted otherwise. The trouble with all such fears is that we can do nothing about them. Once our choices have been made and the action is taken, we cannot go back and undo them. No matter how much we may regret the past, we do not have the power to change it. The future is similarly out of reach. We can speculate but we cannot know for certain what the future will be like. The past is a shadow, and the future a mirage.

In one sense, we can’t help practicing the present. We have no other temporal framework within which to live. Time travel is only the stuff of science fiction. We may remember the past, but we cannot return to it. We may place our hope in the future or dread its approach, but we cannot suddenly transport ourselves there. The truth is that the present is the only context available to us for living out our lives. So we may as well learn how to practice the present.

John’s latest book Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now: will be released by Moody Publishers in June and is now available for pre-order from Amazon.com. Order your copy today.