Today I’ve invited my friend Adam McHugh to share with us from his most recent book, The Listening Life. This book was one of my favorite reads of 2015 (incase you missed the last 5,000 times I’ve mentioned it.)
If you’re feeling a little scattered and distracted today, you might be surprised to learn what a gift the long walk can be to your soul – especially when you do it as a listener. This practice has been life-changing for me and Adam has been one of my primary teachers.
It seems that everything I read these days has people talking about attentiveness. The bullet train of modern life has our landscapes whizzing by, and some of us have decided we need to slow down or get off the train so we don’t miss what is right in front of us.
I want to propose the spiritual discipline of the long walk. It is long because the monologue racing through our heads takes a while to talk itself out, and it is a walk because moving any faster would make the world blurry, and this is a practice that is meant to slow us down.
We devote too much energy to years and months and hours at the expense of the moment we are currently living. The long walk is about attentiveness, about receiving each moment as a gift and listening to the sermons creation is preaching to us.
The long walk can be practiced anywhere, from a nature walk to an urban neighborhood. The idea behind it is to unplug in order to connect with the Power that surges through the world. I extricate myself from everything, external and internal, that keeps me from being wholly present, and practice a lectio divina of the big book of creation.
For the first ten minutes of my walk I am allowing the fog to drift out of my soul, silencing my mind and heart and giving myself over to God’s gifts in my immediate surroundings.
Then I begin to notice what I see and hear, no matter how big and loud or small and quiet. I’m not trying to insert meaning or concentrate on any one thing; I’m only noticing.
Sometimes if I am wearing glasses I will take them off so I can better pay attention to the sounds around me. Unaided, I have the eyesight of an eighty-year-old man with multiple cataracts, so if I take off my glasses I am largely dependent on my hearing. We tend to take in creation mostly through our eyes, but there is a rich symphony being played if we let our ears do some of the work.
Then, after I have perused the book of creation, taking it in on a large scale, I start to pay attention to anything that flashes or sings out at me, something specific that draws me in.
If the first stage is taking in the symphony as a whole, now I start to focus in on particular instruments. Is it a lizard lounging on the path? Is it a particular birdcall? Is it the wind shaking the leaves? Is it the shape of a branch in a tree? Is it the chorus of nighttime voices?
Whatever it is, study it. Listen to it. What do you see? What do you hear? What seems interesting or significant about it? There is no pressure for our observations to be theological or spiritual; we are simply waking up to the craftsmanship of God’s handiwork around us and listening.
There are plenty of lessons to be drawn from the world if we pay attention. Mountains and oceans counsel patience and remind us to slow down. The author of Proverbs thought the ants were worth paying attention to: “Go to the ant, you lazybones; consider its ways, and be wise. Without having any chief or officer or ruler, it prepares its food in summer, and gathers its sustenance in harvest” (Proverbs 6:6-8).
Jonathan Edwards found great spiritual meaning in a spider web. He concluded a long letter on the subject this way: “Pardon me if I thought I might at least give you occasion to make better observations on these wondrous animals that should be worthy of communicating to the learned world, from whose glistening webs so much of the wisdom of the Creator shines.”
Edwards also used the image of a spider suspended over a flame to portray the terrors of coming before a holy God. The guy had a weird thing for spiders.
If taking a walk is a foreign discipline for you, then you have the Bible as a convenient study guide for interpreting our world.
A rainbow preaches the covenantal promises and mercy of God.
A hen with its chicks reminds us of Jesus’ tender care for his people.
The wind points to the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit.
Rivers echo the justice that will one day cascade down the mountains.
The sunrise is a forerunner to resurrection and new creation.
Grass and flowers remind us of the fading nature of human life and beauty in contrast to the constancy and permanence of God.
A tree takes us into the garden where God gave life in the beginning and takes us to the end when the tree of life will bring the healing of the nations.
Raging bears remind us not to mock a prophet’s baldness.
If something grabs your attention, carry it in your mind and heart as you walk. Let it preach to you for a while. Allow it to draw you into dialogue with the One who imagined it and made it. Let it roll up into gratitude for the beauty, mercy and wisdom he has surrounded us with.
End with “thank you.”
Adam S. McHugh (ThM, Princeton Theological Seminary) is an ordained Presbyterian minister and spiritual director. He has served at two Presbyterian churches, as a hospice chaplain and as campus staff with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. He is also the author of Introverts in the Church and lives in Santa Barbara, California.
Now for the formals: This excerpt is taken from The Listening Life by Adam S. McHugh. Copyright (c) 2015 by Adam S. McHugh. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426.
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