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Posts Tagged ‘prayer

That moment when you’ve realize you’ve been doing it wrong all these years

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Father Jacob and Question #4: “Where Does My Ladder Lean?”

The blind old priest in rural Finland hired an ex-con to read his mail. Maybe she was a murderer. Maybe she was innocent. Whatever the case, she brought enough real-world cynicism to her reading job to sway the old man.

Letters came. People wanted help with this and that: Sickness. Poverty. Death Troubles with the law. More sickness. They wanted God-help and the priest’s duty or calling or reputation was that he prayed and stuff happened in the real world. So the ex-con read the letters and the priest prayed. Except the ex-con’s readings, which included critical questions for the priest, gradually exposed his shaky foundations.

What a fool I’ve been, all these years.

The Finnish film “Letters to Father Jacob” continues with a twist, but the question “How have I spent my life and what do I have to show for it?” is central to all that happens next.

What do you desire?

What do you desire?

Seven critical questions help frame how we progress in our quest to balance work, art and economics in real life. One of those questions has to do with where we aim all our efforts: “Where does my ladder lean?” Common assumptions about work include the notion that you want the corner office and the big stock options that come with the high-octane positions. Of course you do: money and power are on everyone’s radar. Writers and artists want fame and money. Athletes want wins and fat contracts. Televangelists want souls with wallets. We all aim at something because that’s how we motivate ourselves.

It’s worth asking again and again what it is we are aiming at. At any point on the ladder it makes sense to stop and consider our end-goal. Especially because our work or art exacts a price from us. We’re used to the notion of the corporate executive who sacrifices family life and interpersonal relationships in his or her climb. But the craftsman or artist also pays a price: maybe relationships. But for certain the crafter or artist pays a price of looking at the world in a particular way. They move through the world with that bit of art or craft as a centerpiece—their own tool set for processing the world. Or perhaps the ladder is a ladder of faith and suddenly you wonder if it leans against, well, anything.

Anything at all.

This is not a rant against aggressive career movement. It is not a diatribe against capitalistic acquisition. It is a lament that there are not more Father Jacobs out there with an existential intelligence and a passion for listening and, well, seeking help for others. And maybe this is a plea for some to keep on seeking and to keep on waiting.

Perhaps there are unseen things worth desiring.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Decentered. As in “not the crux of all things.”

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A place for everything and everything in its place

I’ve put a recurring early-morning block on my calendar titled “Decenter.” The block or early morning quiet and focus has actually been on my calendar for decades, but I’ve recently retitled it based on a cue from Merold Westphal, a philosopher who teaches at Fordham University.

Westphal, writing in The Phenomenology of Prayer (NY: Fordham University Press, 2005), introduces prayer as a “decentering” activity. As a conversation, prayer takes me out of the center of my universe. Like the prayers of the old poet-king or the prayers of the inveterate letter-writer, these are conversations that recognize some other as the center of everything. Those two saw God as the center—I’m with them on that.

There is mystery beyond our convenient placeholders.

There is mystery beyond our convenient placeholders.

Of course, “de-centering” is not the way we could describe many of the prayers we pray. We send up endless lists to some imagined order-taking god, with caveats about when (“Now works for me. How about now?”) and where and how. And especially how much. But listen to Westphal:

…prayer is a deep, quite possibly the deepest decentering of the self, deep enough to begin dismantling or, if you like, deconstructing that burning preoccupation with myself. (Prayer as the Posture of the Decentered Self, 18)

Again and again I find myself at the center of all existence. Maybe you do too. We’re sorta set up for that, given eyes and ears that operate from a central pivot, constantly swiveling about to take in all we possibly can.

It seems natural enough to think everything revolves around us.

The truth is we need help to back away from this “burning preoccupation.”


Dumb sketch: Kirk Livingston

Give Your People Presence

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Is Drawing a Spiritual Discipline?

Betty Edwards, in her Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1999) calls for a different way of seeing as a beginning point for drawing. In my 60+ days of producing a dumb sketch daily I can say with certainty that my seeing has been altered. I’m open to and actively looking for much more detail in ordinary life. In particular, in the back of my mind I spend my days looking for scenes or objects or people I can reproduce (badly) on paper. And I see far more detail in buildings and structures and postures and faces than I did two months ago.

Starting to see differently feels like a small victory.

Can a dumb sketch help you be present?

Can a dumb sketch help you be present?

Edwards has a long section on brain functionality, how the left brain works versus the right brain. I have a growing skepticism about the neatness of those two categories. I think there is some truth in the distinction. And the distinction works well for release from our typical analytical state into a more meditative zone of creativity. I’ve long depended on that zone for more creative writing assignments. But the research citations feel a bit dated and frankly I’m always a bit skeptical of forced black and white interpretations of complex physiology.

But this notion of sitting with stillness before a scene to observe, capture and (potentially) understand—it feels like a life skill that could and should translate into all sorts of different settings. Slowing to see and hear has begun to awaken all sorts of new thoughts in my brainpan. I find the practice encroaching on normal conversations, on meetings, on writing, on driving and even as I pray.

Especially as I pray.

I cannot help but wonder if learning how to observe, capture and (potentially) understand is a step toward being more present with all the beings in our lives.


Dumb Sketch: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

February 9, 2015 at 9:00 am

Letters to Father Jacob

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And when your life work is revealed as futile:

Stacks of letters arrive daily at blind Father Jacob’s house. People ask for help and he prays for them. Sometimes he does more. Father Jacob’s previous reader is now in a nursing home. So he hired the convicted murderer who was recently pardoned: Leila. But these readings, followed by Father Jacob’s out loud prayers, feel particularly pointless to Leila.

And they start to feel pointless to Father Jacob as well.

And quite possibly Father Jacob is slipping into dementia.


This 2009 Finnish film, which is beautifully photographed, has the pace you might expect of a hermit or ascetic. Not exactly slow, but each frame full of meaning. The film asks about the result of our life work. Where did that passion lead and what was the result?

Our literature of success in the United States hints that passion + patience + perseverance lead directly to success. But real life is more full of falling forward and marching backward: ups and downs that depress and invigorate. Despair swings by. Elation makes an appearance.09242014-MV5BMTU0MDY1NDczMl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTgwNjQ5Mg@@._V1__SX1617_SY848_

Letters to Father Jacob is more like real life than our success literature. And the conversations between Leila and Father Jacob reveal far more than mere words let on.

The storytelling in this film will stay with you long after the 74 minutes it takes to watch it. That is because after joy turns to sorrow you begin to see the real story threaded already in your brain.

It’s masterful stuff.

Letters to Father Jacob left me hopeful.


Image credit: IMDB

Written by kirkistan

September 24, 2014 at 8:25 am

Listening has an Ugly Step-Sister: Waiting

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Surprise: She Has a Lot to Say

The problem with listening has always been the other person talking. When will they stop talking so I can talk about myself and my interests? You know—the important stuff.

And so we wait.


Turns out there are lots of opportunities to wait in life. Beyond waiting for our turn to talk or the sheets to dry, there are lines at the grocer, lines for on-ramps, waiting for Netflix to load, waiting to get a job/spouse/house/liver/reprieve/break/two-bedroom spot in the nursing home.

What we do while we wait—that’s key. Some say stay busy. Some say pray (seems a good strategy to me). Some say stay curious. Some say pursue your passion.

And then there is listening

Listening while you wait.


Deep in the spinning cogs and meshed gear-works of waiting there is a mechanism that also tunes interest. If I listen intently I may just see my desire shift ever so slightly. I scraped and saved for years for a new car but when I had the money, I realized desire shifted: I didn’t want to spend it on the new car. A used car does fine, and I’ll spend that savings for the other thing that became important in the meantime.

Is this partly how prayer works: deep desire and constant asking followed by shifts in desire and asking that turns to listening?

When we wait we are ripe for deep listening.

What are you hearing while you wait?



Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

April 28, 2014 at 9:36 am

Please Write This Book: A Year in Chesed

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of course there is dancing

In A Year in Provence, British copywriter Peter Mayle, moved to France and wrote about this place of exceptional food, wine and beauty. Mayle provided his reader with nearly first-hand experiences of cooking, shopping and conversation. Along the way we saw hints of a different way of living.

I want to read a book that takes a similar journey, but rather than air travel to a glorious foreign country, I want the author to settle into a land devoid of anxiety and full of bonhomie toward men and women. I want the author to get there by following the thread of meaning from a very particular foreign word: “Chesed

Google chesed and you’ll find a central Jewish value that means (for starters) “lovingkindness,” but points to much, much more. This old Hebrew word appears 247 times in the Torah and 127 times alone in the Psalms. “Chesed” has shades of meaning in the Torah, variously translated to English as: loving-kindness, mercy, favor, pity.

I imagine living in chesed is something like life in a foreign country. My glimpses of this country come mostly through the Psalmists who use the word again and again as they respond to or acknowledge God’s care. It is a word that describes a way of life that is the polar opposite of my country’s “Black Friday,” and all that consumerist orgy represents.

As you write this book, please take long, generous expeditions into this land of living in gratefulness and thanksgiving. Explore how the inhabitants of this land depend on materials and attitudes already in their possession. Please show me what contentedness looks like. Show me how they brush off the slights and insults and lack of fame because they are grounded with a deeply-rooted faith-joy in the creator. I imagine this land as anti-Kim Kardashian: Sopping with contentment. Joy. Stability. Not glamorous. Not narcissistic. Not attention-seeking. So that means your book won’t get on the news every evening. But I’ll buy a copy.

Spend a full year there. Show me what happens when the crops are not bountiful and enemies encroach. Show me chesed when taxes are due and when plans go terribly wrong.

Please write this book soon because my land is teaming with insects whose bite results in a longing for more shiny stuff and much daily fame. In the meantime, I’ll keep looking through the postcards the psalmists sent.


Image Credit: Via 2headedsnake

Written by kirkistan

December 7, 2011 at 9:15 am

Verbatim: Where will you stumble on mystery today?

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Stuff Lingers Just Outside Our Explanations

Leviathan: Run. Or not.

Him: “Our biker friend crashed pretty bad. We went to see her in the ICU.”

Her: “All the bikers said they were praying and thinking about her. One gal wrote on the web page she was ‘sending her best wishes’.”

Him:  “You know, ‘We’re sending you energy.’”

Her: “But we came in with words from the Spirit. They know we are Christians and bikers. Lots of people ask us to pray because it’s no big churchy thing. We just stop and pray for people wherever we are.”

Him: “We just try to tune in to what God is saying when people ask us to pray.”

Her: “We spent time with her. We prayed. We hung around.”

Him: “It felt substantial. Like something had happened.”

What happens in a conversation? What happens when God shows up?


Photo credit: Caroline Claisse for Art Observed

Written by kirkistan

May 13, 2011 at 8:47 am

I’m Writing a Book called “ListenTalk”

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I’m writing a book about talking and listening. I’ve become crazy about what happens in our best conversations: we come alive. We learn something about another person and in the spontaneous moment of creation as we frame up words to describe our own situation, we often suddenly learn something brand new about ourselves. Something we didn’t know before we started talking. I’ve begun to think that when we are in conversation, we are more truly ourselves. And the best conversations have a way of making us very present to each other.

I call this book “ListenTalk: You’re Boring. Let’s Change That.” I think we were created to be in constant, deep, creative, spontaneous conversation. Not just with each other, but with God. That’s why parts of the book develop a theology of communication, starting with God’s act of creation, where His speech-act created dirt and air and giraffes and coffee beans and people, among other things. So you can see that with my book I hope to bring together something of JL Austin’s work on communication with a commitment to faith. Maybe I’m trying to do something impossible. I’m not sure. In a few days I’m scheduled to talk with a philosopher and speech-act theory expert at the University of Minnesota. I’m interested in his response to my notion of combining these things.

Two more pieces of this book project capture my attention in a big way.

Derrida and Welcoming the Other

One has to do with Derrida’s notion of welcoming the other. I recently finished James K.A. Smith’s “Jacques Derrida Live Theory” (Amazing: the book retails for $120! No wonder I cannot afford most of what I read) and was pleased to see a philosopher working from a faith perspective dealing with Derrida’s thoughts. I was impressed to see overlap between Derrida’s notion of welcoming the other into conversation and the God of the Bible’s commitment to welcoming the other. The Bible talks about reconciliation, and that definitely includes welcoming the other. What reconciliation does not mean (and here is where Derrida is particularly helpful in helping throw off some of my Christian cultural baggage) is making the other like me. We’re all tempted to make those around us like ourselves. But that effort misses the point of the kind of conversations that will sustain us.

Is Prayer a Model for Conversation?

Pulling more from theology than communication theory or philosophy on this last point, one of my chapters looks at prayer as the Bible talks about it and posits that we were meant to communicate with each other along these lines. Nothing really mysterious or unorthodox, I just wonder if the way we communicate with God (listening followed by moments of intense listening, and then very frank speech) is meant as a model for how we communicate with each other. Maybe listening is to take more of our effort than talking, which is a lesson advanced people of prayer seem to know.

Social Media is a Way Forward

This book ends with the notion that people of faith are currently presented with a rich opportunity to create and be in conversation. People of faith would do well to place ideas out in the public common areas, since there are far fewer gatekeepers, and see how people respond. This is part of the class I teach at Northwestern College called “Building Community using Social Media.”

What do you think? Would you read a book like this?


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