The Point Is PresenceBlog / Produced by The High Calling
“How’s your soul?”
John Ray tosses this inquiry across the table with an easy smile. This is John’s standing Friday morning question, and I know that he will wait in the silence until I answer. He is a patient pastor and spiritual director, one whose thirty years of ministry have shaped him into a sage listener.
I feel the gravitational pull of the question and would rather avoid it. Instead, I choose the next best option and spill superficial ramblings about morning devotions and prayer. John sees through the ruse. “Stop,” he interrupts. “Take a deep breath, consider the question, and try again.” I pause, close my eyes, and take a deep breath. But in this brief pause, my inner dialogue comes screaming into the silence.
I need to file those papers today, and I can’t remember if I notified the client; I’ll check my sent email items first thing; yes, I also need to order Jude’s medical records; the girl at the counter, why does she keep looking at me; do I know her? Wait … what was the question? Oh yes, how is my soul?
The deluge of thoughts is like a wall of icy water, and my breath draws short with anxiety. I open my eyes and say, “My soul is chaotic. In silence, I have great difficulty hearing from God because of the cacophony of thoughts chattering in my mind. It distracts every act of prayer. It is soul-sucking.”
John laughs, forks a bit of raspberry muffin into his mouth, and then says, “Wow, I’m sure glad I don’t have that problem.” He finishes the bite, swallows, and after a moment’s deliberation, says, “If Jesus were standing here with us, and if he had the rest of his disciples in tow, what do you think he’d say to your confession?”
“I have no idea,” I say and look into the bottom of my near-empty cup.
“I think he’d hold out his hands, motion to the disciples, and say, ‘Join the crowd. See these Yahoos? They’re constantly distracted by the things of the world.’”
I chuckle, and John turns straight-faced. “No, really. You’re simply struggling with what Jesus called the ‘cares of the world.’ The chaotic inner voices are the things that threaten to creep in and choke out the Word planted in you.”
This is a reference to Jesus’ great parable of the sower. There, God is personified as a sower who scatters the seeds of his words in the field. Some seeds fall among the thorns, and though the Word takes root in good soil, the cares of the world spring up like thorn bushes and choke the Word to death.
“Have you considered pulling up the brambles from your times of silence and prayer?” John asks.
“I’ve tried, but I can’t quite sort it out. It is so difficult to hold these cares at arm’s length in the silence.”
“It’s not complicated,” he says. “But it won’t be easy. It’ll require some discipline and a notebook. Set aside a few times of prayer throughout the day. Open your notebook and as you pray, when those cares of the world come screaming in, write them down and release them to God. Ask God to be fully present with you and to help you be fully present with him. See if that helps clear the clutter.”
Over the lunch hour, I close my office door and pull a legal pad from the lower desk drawer. The first three pages are littered with facts from a stale case that was settled some years back. I rip the pages from the pad and toss them in the garbage can beside my desk. Then, pen at the ready, I turn to prayer.
I whisper, “Dear God.” Within a nano-second, the rush of thoughts come. I turn to the pad and begin scrawling the thoughts as they come.
Were yesterday’s filings completed?
Did I book a reservation for my dinner date with Amber?
What about the songs for Sunday morning worship service?
As I write these stray thoughts on the pad, I pray, “God, calm my mind and be with me. These thoughts are distractions for another time. Be present with me, and make me present with you.”
I continue the practice, and as I write the intruding thoughts on the paper, as I release them, I notice something curious. My anxieties are decreasing, and I can hear the still small voice of God. “I will never leave you or forsake you; let’s rip out these cares together,” he says.
It is a short prayer time—only ten minutes—but as I close, I sense the cares of the world receding. I sense the calm that comes with having communed with an abiding God. And here, I resolve to incorporate this practice into my daily routine, at least for a time.
The following Friday, I am swirling coffee in my mug when John asks, “How’s your soul.” I take a deep breath, and return John’s easy gaze.
“Much better,” I say. “I’m still distracted in prayer but I’ve been practicing listing my concerns, my to-dos and to-don’ts, and then releasing them. I’ve been practicing this sort of prayer in the morning and at my office, and it’s bringing such clarity. I feel much more present to God in both prayer and scripture study.”
“There’s an added benefit to all this sort of spiritual discipline, too,” I say. He looks up from his muffin. “Yeah? What’s that?”
“At the end of every prayer time, after the cares of the world are pulled from my time with God, after I say the last amen … ,” I pause and take a slug of coffee for effect, “I have the most comprehensive to-do list on the planet.”
We share a knowing laugh. I will never mark the things off those prayer-generated lists. But that’s not the point. The point is much simpler. The point is presence.