Learning to be Present

Learning to be Present

Psalm 37:1-9

So, it’s an interesting thing to “manage” worship. In our church, how late will people arrive? How many announcements are there this morning? Do the hymns have five verses or three? Are the children “chatty” today during the children’s time? Am I? (Honestly, sometimes I just get lost in having fun with them.) Joys and concerns? Wow…there’s a wildcard. You just never know how long that might go. How long is the special music? How timed is my sermon? Oh my gosh…no…it’s communion Sunday. And (cue the music from “Jaws” (dum, dum…dum, dum…da, da, daaaa!) today is the annual budget meeting following worship: “We’ve got to keep this ship moving!”

It is possible to get so caught up in trying to manage things that we forget to be a part of things…right? It’s the truth that is lived out every morning—potentially—as you get yourself off to work or as you get your children off to school. We’ve got places to go and things to do and we need to get there on time—because being on time does matter. (Trust me—if the Hindmans aren’t 10 minutes early, in our minds, we are late.) You tick things off the list. You get things done. Then, one day, you wake up and think, “Oh my gosh…the only thing we forget was to actually worship, or to actually connect in a loving way in our home or to take in the fact that we are alive and well for another day.

If you gather a bunch of pastors, one of the topics that will come up fairly frequently is the question, “When do you get to worship?” Leading worship is different than worshiping. That’s just the truth. I haven’t heard a sermon on a Sunday morning that I haven’t heard over and over again all week for a long time. (If you think about that, you’ll get what I mean.) Maybe this is why centering prayer is sometimes the most powerful 40 minutes of a week for me—just silence, just sitting and emptying things.

The truth, though, is that having led worship for so long, I’m really not very good at worshiping, myself. I sing too loudly because I’m used to sitting a long way away from anyone who can hear me. I fidget and wiggle, just like I did when I was a kid. My mind wanders. And, honestly, it’s hard not to go to that evaluative place, “Well…that’s not what I would have said…” I hate that kind of thinking so I battle it but it is there. If you’re honest, if you’re at your job or you are watching someone else parent or someone else being married, I bet it’s easy for you to slip into that evaluative place, too, right?

Whatever we are doing, the job in the end is to be present. If you spend all your time thinking about how you wish things were different or thinking about how they would be different if you were in charge or being angry that you can’t quite get things under control, you are never going to be present. You are never going to find the joy that comes when we can forgive ourselves and others and life, itself, for not being perfect. You are always going to be an observer and never a participant. You are never going to discover the meaning that is waiting to be discovered today.

To put it in the simplest terms, if you’re going to be a pastor then you better learn how to worship, yourself, while you are leading worship. You have to learn how to manage a service but still allow yourself to go down the rabbit hole of a great moment in a children’s time or stay with the joy or the concern or pray deeply, or let your guard down and feel some things yourself, or just share a great laugh. You have to learn that you can lead and be fully present at the same time. This, of course, is no different than learning that you can manage a household or be a parent or be at work and be fully present and fully human, too.

The problem is that if you don’t learn how to do these things and be present, you will burn out. You’ll become resentful. You will look for ways to anesthetize yourself. You will keep shelving what you are feeling until things come out sideways. You will not only have failed to perfectly control things because no one perfectly controls things, you will also have lost the one chance that you will ever have to live today. In Jesus’ words, “What good does it do someone to gain the whole world but lose their soul?” So you finished worship on time or your kid got to school on time or your project at work finished on time but how hollow do you feel if you got there by stomping on everything else that mattered?

None of us set out to miss out on life. No one wakes up in the morning and thinks, “Today, I’d like to be a bystander!” “Today, I would like to move my children through our morning rituals like cattle!” “Today, I would like to lead a really efficient but hollow worship service!” You get there by being overwhelmed by anxiety and fear and anger. You get there by losing perspective on what it is that really matters in the end.

Our Psalm for this morning outlines a bunch of the traps that can snare us. We can look around us and compare ourselves to others. Our translation talks about the “braggarts.” Think of all the internet postings you’ve ever seen about the perfectly great time that someone else is having on their perfect vacation with their perfectly well-behaved children. This induces “F.O.M.O.” (At this point, you should be shocked that this is coming from someone who has never made use of social media!) What is “F.O.M.O.?” It’s the fear of missing out.

Here’s the secret: the internet didn’t invent the fear of missing out. I’m pretty sure that some caveman looked at the meat cooking over the spit of the caveman next door and thought to himself, “What did he do to deserve that meat?” It is such a built in human tendency—to want to compare ourselves to others, to come up with all the reasons why we must be okay because we are “better” than them (reality t.v., anyone?) or to come up with all the reasons with why life is unfair because that person who brags or that person who cheats or that person who doesn’t care about anyone but him or herself is doing better than us.

We want to know that we’re doing okay so we compare ourselves to others. And sadly, we live in a society which exploits this tendency. “Are you feeling insecure? Try this toothpaste, this deodorant, this political point of view. Try driving this car. Try on this job title. Put this number in your bank account and let’s see how you feel.” We live in a society which tells us that we are only one purchase or one more 80 hour work week or one more bit of plastic surgery away from being okay. And honest to God, that message is toxic.

The Psalmist tries to convince us that the braggarts and the wicked and all the other people who drive us crazy will “get theirs” in the end. They’ll wilt like cut flowers in the sun. They’ll shrivel like cut grass. The cynic in me says, “No…they’ll just keep running the stop signs in their Range Rovers! They’ll just keep getting promoted. They’ll just get to take the trip that I really wouldn’t mind taking.” The Psalmist and I can argue that one out…

The truth that he tells is that if we want to live differently then we have to ground our lives in a different way. We have to find a way to feel okay about ourselves that is deeper and more enduring than whether things go my way today. The Psalmist tells us to do something good—which sounds so simple but is such a powerful truth. Having a bad day? Try to make someone else’s day better. Tell me that doesn’t help. Instead of drowning in your misery, reach out and connect to someone and “ride the wave” that is today, together. You have the power to do this.

Even more importantly, you have the power to ground your life in connecting to God. The Psalmist tells us to “keep company with God.” Have you ever walked through a day with God? “Nice sunrise! Nice work on those flowers! Wow…God, you’ve got to be kidding me here. What just happened was hilarious!” The Psalmist tells us to “open up before God.” What would it sound like if you were fully honest with God, if you took your frustrations and anger and complaints and owned them and spoke them in prayer and then asked God for help not by “smiting your enemies” or “making the wicked suffer” but by helping you regain perspective? Perhaps, most radically, the Psalmist tells us to “quiet down before God.” You know what this is like. You have that person to whom you are so close that you don’t have to talk all the time to be close. You can just be together. What if you were that close to God? What if the key to really living and to really being faithful is finding a way to be non-anxious and present in life.

I was reading an article a while ago by a guy named Massimo Pigliucci about Stoicism and modern life. I was attracted to it because I think we are so caught up in an age of reactivity. These days, as soon as I discover that we disagree, the rule seems to be that I need to attack you as hard as I can. Stoics aren’t ruled by the emotional tidal wave of the present moment. They live with a sense of perspective. Pigliucci suggests five things to practice if we want to be a little less reactive, ourselves…

First, we need to learn to separate what is and isn’t in our power. So much life energy is lost by trying to control things over which we have no control.

Second, look for the broader perspective. Give someone else the benefit of the doubt, even the person with whom you disagree. “What are they seeing that I am missing?”

Third, think ahead of time about the challenges that are coming in the day. Some challenges will be surprises. Some, though, are known. Things are going to go better if you are less stressed when you get to that challenge. What would help you lower your stress so that you are more ready?

Fourth, stay present. The past is behind you. Let it go.

Fifth, ask yourself at the end of a day, “What did I learn today?”

What if the best we get to do in this life is to be a non-anxious presence in an otherwise anxious and reactive world? What if the Christ-like response to an anxious world is the simple answer, “I’m right here…”

Mark Hindman