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May 28 2017

Experiencing Spacious Time

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I’m honored to be a guest blogger at Presbyterian Outlook this week.

Over Easter weekend in 1999, my close friends convinced me to end my Lenten media fast a day early by going to a movie. Based on the good reviews and the promise of an enjoyable evening, I agreed.

The movie was “The Matrix.”

Advice for people who have fasted from food is to ease back into eating with a small, slow meal. After six weeks without media, “The Matrix” was like eating a five-course dinner while skydiving.

Though tame in comparison to today’s movies, the violence shocked me, even as I was captivated by the incredible story. It drove home how the Lenten fast had reset and heightened my senses. Like Neo, when he finally sees the Matrix for what it is, I realized how much immersion in screen stories had desensitized me.

Working with Young Adult Volunteers at the time, I longed to live more faithfully within the Story that God was writing. However, especially after a long day of ministry, it was easy to disappear into a show or movie. While screen stories, such as “The Matrix,” were powerful food for reflection, too much screen-time dulled my sense of participation in my own life and in the lives of those around me.

That Lenten fast was the first of many media fasts I practiced over the years. At the turn of the millennium, it was easier to set boundaries around the internet and TV.

Then everything changed.

Join me for the rest over at Presbyterian Outlook Magazine.


Oct 27 2011

{Day 27} Vegging Out and other Habits of Distraction

Over the past month of considering contemplative living, I’ve invited you to reflect on your activities and start to make cause and effect connections. I would imagine that you’ve discovered that some activities encourage your intention to pay attention to the present moment, and some distract, escape, or numb you–heart, mind or spirit–to now.

Anything can be used as a distraction to contemplative attention. As I suggested in an earlier post, sometimes the present moment is simply too much and we have a desire to take shelter, to feel safe or “get our mind off” something. It’s an understandable response and often a self-protective skill.

Today, I’d like for you to consider that response without judgment.

When used occasionally, sheltering activities are often enjoyable and allow us to relax. But they can over time and practice, become habits of distraction. Then, whenever the troublesome feeling or weariness or need to escape arises, we distract ourselves. Rather than exploring, gently and patiently, what may be the cause of the unpleasant emotions or thoughts or physical feeling, we choose to focus attention elsewhere.  I have a theory that people who are drawn to contemplative living often face stronger temptations to escape the present moment.

Let me offer an example from my own life of how a common activity can easily become a distraction from the present moment.

I’ve always loved stories–I easily get caught up in them. I’m also an introvert. For me, screen media offers the enjoyment of adventure, people, places, ideas, and relationships, all from the safety of my own desk. I need only watch.

A little over a year ago, I wrote about a growing conviction of mine that screen media had encroached upon my ability to pay attention to reading, academic study, and people around me. I had given away my TV years ago, but found that the time I was spending via the internet, involved in the story lives of so many characters were taking a toll. I was no longer simply enjoying the experience, but using the screen stories to distract myself from dealing with my own life. At one point, I asked God about some of my struggles with living a contemplative life and his response was clearly, “Are you willing to do what it takes?”

What it took, initially, was a 40 day fast from all screen media. I told my dear friend Kimberlee and asked her to hold me accountable. For good measure, I put internet blocks on websites like Hulu and cancelled my Netflix account.

The first week was difficult, especially when I was tired. At one point, I found myself pacing my apartment, wanting to escape the silence, wanting desperately to get lost in a story.

What God showed me is that these stories were only a substitute to deeply paying attention to my own.

By the second week, I found my thinking clearer and the sense of resistance that I’d always felt, but could never figure out its cause, disappeared. Everything seemed more real. I had more mental and emotional energy.

Rather than getting lost in a story, I sat with what I was feeling or thinking. Gerald May, in Addiction and Grace, suggests that the way out of attachments is not to find a replacement attachment or addiction–something healthier, yet just as much an idol–but to sit in the spaciousness of what was once present, in all the scary vulnerable openness.

Or I simply rested, since most often the desire to watch a show or movie came when I was weary.

After the initial 40 days, I completed two more 40 day periods.  It didn’t become a permanent change in my life, but I did learn to stay in the moment more often than escaping. I’m currently allowing myself some screen media each week, but very aware that (for me) it is just shy of becoming a distracting activity again. I will most likely be doing another fast for the 40 days of (Celtic) Advent.

What is important about paying attention to our distractions is that, while anything can become a distraction, nothing really is. Just by paying attention to the coping mechanisms you’re using, just by noticing, “Oh, I check my email when I’m craving human interaction,” or “I click over to Facebook when my work starts to bore me,” transforms the distraction into food for contemplative reflection.

Sit with the craving. Sit with the boredom. Let it share its wisdom. Let God meet you exactly where you are.

While the distraction can take you out of the present moment, paying attention to the distraction (and the vulnerability it is masking) brings you right back in.

And, whenever we begin to pay attention, we can asked the question, “Where is God with me right now?”

Practice: You probably already have some ideas about an activity that has become a distraction for you–TV, movies, internet, social network, exercise, shopping, cell phone use, work, a relationship, the list could hold anything.

Choose the one that you are most likely to do when you are tired–the “vegging out” activity.

I invite you to let it go for a time. Instead, sit with your weariness, frustration, sadness, loneliness, whatever it is you’re wanting to leave behind.  Listen to it, don’t leave.

Bring how you are feeling into your conversation with God.


Mar 4 2011

Friday Florilegium

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Feeling scattered these past weeks–where did February go?–I decided to collect all the threads and projects of my life into one notebook. If I’m at a loss for where to begin, I simply open it and see what’s next.

But there is more in here than just to-do lists. It also has joys and thanksgivings, and visions for why the projects are important.  Just having it on my desk helps me remember to look with love, nurture relationships, and see the beauty in the tasks before me–even the most daily and ordinary, like meal planning.

Loving is the way to discover an infinite calendar of time and tie together all the seemingly scattered threads of life.

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This week’s Florilegium is a favorite poem, The Lake Isle of Innisfree, which I often read or listen to when feeling scattered.

Innisfree is not so much a physical place for me, but a slower pace and place of the heart, which I visit by taking time away from screen-life and reconnecting with the trees and birds and wider world outside my window, welcoming a friend for tea, cooking a meal from scratch, getting into a good book, taking a walk with my camera, praying, or writing a snail mail note to someone.

Listen to a lovely sung version of it by Claire Holley


I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,

And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

–William Butler Yeats

Friday Florilegium 1




Jan 26 2010

Screen Life

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” And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”  Colossians 3:14-17

Today this verse brought conviction.

To do something in someone’s name is to have the authority of that person for action, but also to act on their behalf–actions that they themselves would do.  “Do everything” is quite explicit–everything I do each day, how I spend my time, is to be done with both a sense of Christ’s authority and on Christ’s behalf.

The still small voice has been gently suggesting over the past year for me to consider how much time I give to screen living–internet, social networking, and Hollywood media.

As I sought God for help discerning whether I am hearing his voice or my own driven perfectionism, the phrase came to mind: Guilt is a bad motivator for change, but a feeling of conviction is a good reason for repentance and prayer. The first puts all the power of change on me, the second puts me in partnership with God. It has helped to take my feeling of conviction to God and pray, rather than embark in my own strength on “10-steps-to-a-new-and-improved-Susan.”

I do not begrudge small doses of  quality entertainment (I have enjoyed excellent series like “Cranford” and “Emma”), but I can see that in my life, it can seep in through the cracks  of loneliness and promise a false sense of connection. And then an hour or hours later, what was gained?

Instead, God whispers:  Come to me, Susan.  Write, sing, pray, call a friend, send a letter, take a walk, take some photos, have a party.

Does this mean I give up all screen life?  No.  But it does mean that I want to prayerfully consider, with God’s help, alternatives and have them at the ready.

Romans 12:1 comes to mind.  “Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering.”

God, I give you my time in front of any screen. Help me prune it so that it becomes life-giving and honors your Name.

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