Be present: finding peace with the past and the future

In the previous post, we looked at the difficulties of being present in the moment, of redeeming the time, as Paul says, and making the most of each kairos moment. When we sit quietly and try to be present with God, so often distractions come flooding in. Sometimes it’s memories from the past that distract us, and sometimes it’s worries about the future.

When the past keeps us from the present

Sometimes we don’t want to be fully present in the moment, because our mind floods us with thoughts of the past. Things we’d rather not think about.

Maybe when you try to sit quietly, ugly emotions like pain and anger come flooding in. Maybe it’s because you’re remembering a time you’ve been hurt by someone else.

Or maybe you start thinking about something you wish you hadn’t done, and instead emotions like shame and regret come creeping in. You remember something you said to someone that you really wish you hadn’t. Humiliating moments replay on a loop in your head.

When we try and sit in the stillness, the things our minds throw at us aren’t always much fun.

I think the psalmist who wrote Psalm 32 had a similar experience of wanting to block out thoughts of the past. It sounds like there was something that weighed heavily on him, and he was resolutely avoiding bringing it to mind. But he acknowledges here how that avoidance made him feel; the anxiety it brings him:

When I kept silent,
    my bones wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.
For day and night
    your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
    as in the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you
    and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
    my transgressions to the Lord.”
And you forgave
    the guilt of my sin.

Psalm 32:3-5 (NIV)

Sometimes we do keep silent, even in our own heads, about the things that are affecting us from the past. Maybe we avoid talking to God because we think we need to get in some kind of ‘right’ frame of mind before praying to him. Maybe we’re angry, at a particular person or situation, or even at God, and we feel we shouldn’t be, so we just don’t say anything at all. Or maybe we feel like all we have to offer God is something that God won’t be happy with. So we just stay silent, like the psalmist. We try and avoid being alone with God until we can “get right in our heart” first. Until we feel like what we have to offer is worthy of him.

Honesty is the best policy

But as I’ve said before, God doesn’t care if our prayers aren’t perfect. God doesn’t mind if we come to him with ‘offensive’ emotions. Shocking though it may sound, I remain a firm believer that God prefers us getting angry at him than not speaking to him at all. The important thing is just to be present with God. Be honest about the ugly stuff that’s going on inside. Even if it means getting angry, or confronting feelings that you’d rather avoid and pretend aren’t there.

Whatever tough thing from the past is affecting you in the present, there’s no way out but through. If we feel ashamed, if we feel regret, we need to let ourselves acknowledge that. Just feel the awkwardness. Let yourself sit in it, name it for what it is. Bring it to God. Then you can move towards repentance, and receiving God’s grace.

And if you feel angry or hurt, don’t shove it down and pretend it’s not there. Acknowledge it. The vulnerability involved in admitting you’ve been hurt or sinned against can be difficult sometimes, but honesty with ourselves and with God about these things is key to moving on, towards forgiveness and freedom.

So when we’re struggling with the past, and with the feelings that it brings about… let’s stop choosing avoidance. Don’t be afraid to sit with those feelings, to name them, to bring them before God, to let yourself feel them. There’s nothing right or wrong about feelings, they’re just feelings. God isn’t going to judge you or turn you away for having them. But the only way to move beyond them, to stop the past keeping you from the present, is not to ignore them, but to be honest with yourself and with God.

Not letting the future overwhelm us in the present

Maybe it’s not the past that’s the problem. Maybe you’re one of those people who, when you sit quietly for a moment, worries about the future come rushing in. What needs to be done today? Tomorrow? Next week? What’s left on the to-do list? Have I even written a to-do list? What time is that appointment again? How on earth will I fit that in along with everything else? What if I fail? Embarrass myself? Forget something important? What if I don’t have enough – time, money, food, ability, people who care – fill in the gap in whatever way fits you best.

And it all piles up, and it all comes rushing in, and it all seems too much. What’s the point of sitting still and doing nothing when there’s all this stuff left to be done? How will it ever all get done?

Jesus had a reminder for us that’s relevant here:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? … Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

Matthew 6:25-26, 34 (NIV)

Don’t worry about tomorrow – each day has enough worries of its own. Wise words, often quoted. “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof” might be how some of you remember it.

It can be easier said than done, though, can’t it?

Leave eternity to God

Look – let’s not mistake Jesus’ words for saying “don’t plan for the future”, as I think some people would like to interpret them. Because saying “don’t be anxious about tomorrow” is not the same thing as saying “don’t be prepared for tomorrow”. Planning and making to-do lists can in fact be helpful tools in stopping us from worrying about the future, because preparing, learning, and doing the best we can now is a concrete thing we can do in the present.

But what it does mean is that we let go of the outcome. We let go of trying to hold eternity in our own hands, of trying to figure out all possible endings ourselves. And we trust that our preparation now will help us be where God wants us to be then. We trust that, as the saying goes, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” and so we trust that whatever small step we’re taking now will set us in the right direction on that journey.

So let’s stop being ruled by regrets over the past, and anxiety over the future, and instead focus on right now. Because what we do have, what God gives us as gift right now and for all eternity, is this present moment.

In the next post I’ll talk about a habit I’m trying to adopt, to help me stay present when I feel the past or the future rushing in to take over my thoughts.

Redeem the time: Kairos moments

See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is.

Ephesians 5:15-17 (NKJV)

Time keeps passing

I’m finding it hard to believe nearly two months of the year have disappeared already. In my mind it still feels like early January, like we’ve only just had Christmas and New Years, and honestly, I’m still kind of in holiday mode.

But in reality, the year is well and truly in swing, and time is getting away from me.

Sometimes, time feels like our enemy. The days slip past and we’re not quite sure where they go, but before we know it, one month, two months, ten months of the year have gone by and suddenly people are telling you how many days it is until Christmas again and when did that happen? What about all those things I was going to achieve this year?

And so then I say, oh well, I guess there’s always next year, and then the whole process starts all over again… and before I know it a decade or two has gone by and I seem to be no better at using my time well.

I still keep talking about the 90’s like they were only ten years ago. Where does the time go – and how do we get it back again?

How do we redeem our time?

Time management: a problem throughout the ages

It can’t be just me that has this problem. Time management has become a whole industry now. My iPhone now pops up with a little notification every Sunday morning to inform me just how many minutes I’ve wasted looking at Instagram during the week, or playing Solitaire, or checking my mail, and how many minutes more or less than last week it was. Honestly, I’m not sure I really want to know. It’s an interesting insight into my own behaviour I guess, but I’m not entirely convinced it actually helps me use my time any better.

But these kind of apps, techniques, tricks – they’re everywhere now. Countless ways to try and keep ourselves accountable for every minute, every second that slips by. We devote so much energy towards looking for an answer to that one question:

How do we use our time better?

And we say it’s a modern problem, but you know, I think humans have always struggled with this question. It seems like it was an issue back in Paul’s day, when he was writing to the Ephesians.

“See then that you walk circumspectly,” he writes, “not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil.”

Redeem the time, he says. Rescue it, recover it, get it back again, because the days are evil. Get it back from all those competing demands, all those unseen forces that just seem to siphon it away from us, make it seem like we never have enough of it. If you look at that verse in some other translations (like NIV or NLT), you’ll find it’s sometimes translated as “making the most of every opportunity”.

Making the most of our time. It’s a familiar ambition, isn’t it? And they didn’t even have smartphones in the first century.

Kairos time – redeeming the moment

There are two words for “time” in the ancient Greek of the New Testament. You might have heard of them: there’s chronos, and there’s kairos.

The first one, chronos, is where our word chronological comes from. This is talking about sequential, measurable time – days, hours, minutes, seconds. I think most of us have a tendency to interpret time in a chronos kind of a way. It’s fairly natural to mentally break up our days into 24-hour chunks, and our weeks into seven days. We have lists of things to do, and only so many hours to get each job done. We mark out time on our calendars and daily planners, keeping track of it, measuring it, and basically trying to exert as much control over it as we can.

The second word used for time in the Bible is kairos. Kairos time isn’t measured chronologically, the way we usually think of time. You might say that kairos is measured the way God sees time – not marked by the number of hours or minutes or seconds, but marked in moments that have eternal significance. Kairos means an appointed time, or a due season. A kairos moment is the right moment.

A kairos moment is one of those moments when time, as we know it, almost seems to stop.

And this is the word for time that Paul uses in Ephesians 5:16. When he says “redeem the time,” he’s really saying “redeem the kairos.”

Redeem the moment.

Not hours, minutes, and seconds, but moments.

Does that put a different spin on things?

Being present in the kairos moment

Time is just a series of individual moments, isn’t it? Right now I can’t use yesterday’s time better, or tomorrow’s time better. All I can do in this moment is use now better. To redeem my time, I just need to be more present, here in this moment. That should be simple enough.

But sitting in that kairos moment, when it happens, can be tough. If you’re like me, you have the experience that when you’re busy, you long for free time, away from obligations, time to just be, relax, enjoy. But then when that time actually comes, we don’t always know how to make the most of it. We’re so used to urgency, to the hustle and bustle of everyday life, that those rare moments of stillness can be hard to handle. Confronting, even. Often we look around for some distraction until the moment passes by.

Being fully present, here and now, is a challenge. Maybe we’re distracted by the past, or maybe we’re distracted by the future – either way, we’re pulled away from this current moment. And then, before we know it, it’s gone.

What happens when you just sit, quietly, just you and God, with no distractions? Where does your mind go? How long before you’re itching to get up and check your messages, call a friend, turn the TV on for background noise, even do housework… anything to get away from the unrelenting stillness of this moment?

Next post we’ll look into this in more detail, but in the meantime I’d love to hear your thoughts.

How do you redeem your time? What distracts you from being present? What techniques do you have to bring back your focus?

(This is Part 1 of a series of posts adapted from a sermon delivered on 23 February 2020.)

Eternity in the human heart: sitting with the mystery

He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.

Ecclesiastes 3:11

This verse from Ecclesiastes is my favorite verse in the Bible. I remember the first time I read it, feeling stunned at the truth that seemed to ring in my soul at those words.

God has set eternity in the human heart. A longing, a yearning for something greater than this. A sense there is something beyond ourselves.

I wasn’t raised in a Christian family, but still I always had this sense – this odd feeling that there was something bigger, more meaningful, more important out there than what I could perceive around me with my senses. Some purpose behind it all, some intention holding it all together.

Even before I had the language to describe this feeling as God, God had set eternity in my heart.

I think we all have inside us this unexplainable sense of infiniteness. But at the same time, no matter how hard we try, we can’t ever fully comprehend it. We cannot fathom what he has done from beginning to end.

We do try, though, don’t we? It’s so tempting to want to explain eternity, to conquer it, to squeeze it and mold it into our own created paradigms. Sometimes it even works, to some extent, for a little while. Sometimes we come up with an explanation that seems to help, to give us a little glimpse of what it all means. But then it all falls down again, and we realise just how great and vast eternity really is, how infinite God is, how impossible it is for our small, finite minds to grasp any kind of complete understanding of it all.

At some point we have to accept the mystery; to wonder at it; to worship.

Head or heart? Faith has room for both

There’s a lot of talk about how faith in God should be a “heart relationship, not a head relationship.”

But let’s be honest for a moment here. Our hearts don’t always do what we want them to do.

What about those days (… weeks, months, years?) when you just “don’t feel God”? Does that mean your faith is useless?

I don’t believe so: here’s why.

Faith is a journey of mountains and valleys

We don’t get to float through on the mountain-top experiences all the time. Sometimes walking in faith means we keep doing the hard work of trusting, even though we don’t have any real feeling of assurance to go on. All we have to go on are past experiences, and the commitment we’ve already made to believe.

Sometimes all we can do is fall back on our head knowledge: pray the Lord’s Prayer, read the Psalms, let the spiritual disciplines we’ve learned carry us through. Pray that in doing so, eventually the joy of that “heart knowledge” will return.

Head and heart

Perhaps it’s a false dichotomy to talk about “head vs. heart”. I wonder even if this is a particularly western kind of division to make. Apparently the Hebrew word for heart and mind is in fact the same word (lebh). The same is true in Chinese (xīn 心 ),1 and I would suspect a number of other languages as well. There’s a different kind of cultural understanding at play here, one that sees the heart and the head as working in harmony with one another, rather than as diametrically opposed.

Jesus certainly doesn’t seem to favor faith-with-the-heart over faith-with-the-head. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength,”1 is his exhortation — the first, most important commandment! — that we know so well.

Jesus seemed to advocate a whole-of-body kind of faith. His was a dirty, messy, hands-on faith that involved putting mud on people’s eyes and spitting on the ground. It involved the messy actions of feeding people, tending to their needs, listening to them, weeping with them. It involved his heart, his soul, his mind, and his strength — no one part more or less than the other.

But it wasn’t always about “feeling” the right way. At the pinnacle of Christ’s story, as he hangs on the cross, Jesus has nothing to go on but his head-knowledge of who He is, and of who His Father is. His heart-cry to the Father, on the other hand, is one that breaks our own hearts to hear: “Why have You abandoned me?”

Lean on the ‘head’ until the ‘heart’ catches up

So if believing with your “heart” is something you can’t quite muster up some days, take comfort that you’re not alone in having experienced this. Trust in the remembrance of times past; the things God has done for you. Pare everything back to the foundations of your faith: what unshakeable truths do you know about God? Start from that. Sit with that, and trust God in the midst of the unknowing.

Many times, for me, it’s about going back to the Gospels and re-reading who Jesus is; the kind of person He lived as. When all else seems murky and unsure, I trust that this person, this person who lived and loved in such a revolutionary way, is the revelation of who God is. I trust that his life lived in rebellious love is the only real answer we have in our broken world.

And this head-knowledge carries me through, until my heart can sing out in praise again.

Unanswered prayer: the bogeyman of Christian faith

I often remember this particular moment in a small group I was once a part of. We were talking about prayer, and the joy of answered prayers, and people were listing off various things they’d prayed for that had been answered by God. After a while, there was a pause, and I asked quietly, “Do you think we sometimes avoid praying for things we don’t believe will really happen?”

For a few moments, the room went dead quiet. Then after a while, people started to nod. The group then began to acknowledge and talk about that scary problem of unanswered prayer — one of those things that as Christians we don’t like to talk about or think about, to the extent that we might even not pray about certain things to avoid having to deal with the issue.

It’s one of those things that for Christians can be a real challenge to our faith. It’s a problem that we don’t really have a pat explanation for. There’s plenty of attempts at explaining, but none of them seem to be completely adequate for those times when God just… seems… silent.

Why are our prayers sometimes unanswered?

So why do some of our prayers seem to go “no higher than the ceiling”? Maybe you’ve heard some of the following explanations put forward for unanswered prayer. While I don’t think any of them are adequate for all circumstances, they can certainly be true in some instances. There are plenty of times when I’ve found one or more of these explanations to be helpful to my own situation.

  • Sometimes the answer is there, we just haven’t recognised it, because it’s in a form we don’t expect.
  • Sometimes the answer is “not yet”. Maybe it’s about learning patience; maybe it’s about growth of some other kind: being formed, being prepared. It might be about other factors that we can’t see; other people involved who need to go through their own process of growth.
  • We might be asking for something that’s not in God’s plan for us. Guess what: that’s ok, and it doesn’t mean your prayer was “wrong”. God’s not going to hold it against you. We don’t have a perfect knowledge of God’s will, and we don’t need to pretend that we do. The truth is, sometimes we do want things that aren’t what’s best for us. Healthy, honest prayer involves bringing those desires out in the open, so God can work with them.
  • Sometimes the prayer has been answered, but we didn’t like the answer all that much. So we pretend we didn’t hear, hoping for a different response. Does this sound familiar to you? I know I’ve been guilty of this. And I know, too, that God remains frustratingly silent until I deal with whatever it is God has already asked me to deal with, whether it’s giving up something that’s not good for me, or taking a leap of faith that scares me.

Trust God in the unknowing

Any of those explanations might be true for your particular situation. Or maybe they’re not. Sometimes, the uncomfortable truth is that we just can’t know the reason for our unanswered prayer. Maybe you’ve asked God why, over and over, and still, He just… seems… silent.

And that’s the hardest thing, isn’t it? That’s the part that gets painful, that can sometimes even tempt us to pack it all in and give up on prayer altogether.

Sometimes the reason for our unanswered prayer is simply that we live in a broken, messed up world. Romans 8 describes all of creation as groaning as in the pains of childbirth. Creation has been “subjected to frustration,” it says, in the hope that one day we will be liberated from all this frustration, and “brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God”.1

God’s will is being worked out, but even so: not everything is going to be as it should be in this lifetime.

That doesn’t mean we give up on praying, though. We pray in spite of the brokenness — and we pray because of the brokenness. We pray because God is right there with us in the grieving and the hurting.

I don’t have all the answers about how prayer works, and why sometimes it feels like it doesn’t. But I will say this: Don’t let it stop you talking to God.

Trust God in the midst of the unknowing. Remember that prayer changes us, too, and that even in those periods of “no answer”, there is change happening in us and around us that we might not even be aware of.

Prayers of lament

There is a place in prayer for crying out and expressing our frustration — for lamenting. Many of the Psalms are psalms of lament. Look at this passage from Psalm 44:

You have made us a reproach to our neighbors,
    the scorn and derision of those around us.
You have made us a byword among the nations;
    the peoples shake their heads at us.
I live in disgrace all day long,
    and my face is covered with shame
at the taunts of those who reproach and revile me,
    because of the enemy, who is bent on revenge.
All this came upon us,
    though we had not forgotten you;
    we had not been false to your covenant.

Psalm 44:13-17

Wow… this psalmist certainly isn’t afraid to be upfront with God about their disappointment! What a great reminder that God doesn’t need our prayers to sound perfect, or for us to pretend our uglier feelings aren’t there. He just wants us to be honest; to give him our hurts and our grievances. He can take it.

God is with us

Even if we can’t see any change at all, even if it seems we’re still in that foggy, in-between place of unanswered prayer, remember that God is still listening. He never stops listening. He hears what we have to say, and he keeps on loving us, no matter how we express it, or how angry or hurt we get, or how many times we repeat ourselves.

God is with us. He’s with us in the dark places, as well as in the light. He’s with us even when he seems silent; even in the times when he feels most distant. He’s with us even when we’re not sure where we are ourselves, or where we’re going. Sometimes that knowledge is enough to carry us through.