The Middle of Nowhere

I find words fascinating. I reckon that’s why I like to write. Take the word nowhere, for example. It’s a combination of Now and Here and I don’t consider that a coincidence. Long before “New Age” religions and philosophies touted the benefits of living “in the moment” the Holy Word urged all believers to live there, too. Be still and know that I am God… (Psalm 46:10). Brennan Manning wrote, “To be fully in the present to whoever or whatever is immediately before us is to pitch a tent in the wilderness of Nowhere. It’s an act of radical trust – trust that God can be encountered at no other time and in no other place than the present moment. Being fully present in the now is perhaps the premier skill of the spiritual life.” Now, I assure you I’m as bad as anyone at accomplishing that feat. Even in the midst of prayer my little brain goes wandering off into the regions of Yesterdayville and Tomorrowland like an unleashed puppy in an open meadow. I’ll start thinking of something my wife said a few days ago about an acquaintance or I’ll begin to wonder what time we should leave the house to get to a family gathering on time across town. I’m praying but my mind’s not being still and my attention’s not fixed on the Lord. I’m like King Claudius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet when he speaks, “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below; words without thoughts never to heaven go.”

 

Thoreau was a bit of an odd duck but he was also wise. He wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could learn what it had to teach, and not, when I come to die, discover that I had not lived.” He correctly opined that if we’re constantly focused on the past and future instead of the now/here – Nowhere – we’re missing out on life itself. And, if one is a Christian, that person can neglect to be aware of and appreciate the blessings stemming from their privileged status as a redeemed child of the great I AM. The enriching musical soundtrack that accompanies being alive and of use to God Almighty can’t reach our ears if our mind is caught up in replaying events from years earlier or in projecting what might happen later on. There’s a funny story told of a farmer working in a field. A stranger appears and yells from the fence, “Gary, come quick! Your house is on fire!” The farmer drops everything and runs for the road in a panic. Suddenly he stops when it occurs to him his name isn’t Gary and he doesn’t even own a house. We can become so preoccupied with the “what ifs” we lose touch with reality.

 

However, many of us have been in the middle of Nowhere at one time or another and deemed it boring and interminably dull. We heard no beautiful music, only dead silence. We honestly (but mistakenly) assessed it as vastly overrated and not a place we care to be. If we were of the Existentialist persuasion we’d consider it proof life has no meaning. But if Jesus showed up at that instant he’d be justified in accusing us failing to be fully engaged. Else we would be anything but apathetic. He’d tell us in no uncertain terms that our obsession with ourselves is distracting us from seeing what’s staring right at us. God’s glorious creation surrounds us wherever we are, even if we’re sitting in an unplowed field under a cloudy sky in the middle of Nebraska. Are there more stunning vistas to behold? Yes, indeed. But don’t overlook the simple wonder of existence. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating we all become navel-gazing monks, gurus or mystics because that’d be just another form of self-absorption. Marv Levy, former coach of the Buffalo Bills, was on the field before a game in Cleveland. He’d just been diagnosed with prostate cancer but hadn’t told his players yet. He didn’t want his illness to distract them. He scanned the stadium and said to his assistant, “Look around you. What a place this is! Babe Ruth and Jimmy Foxx both hit homers here. Think of the great football players who played here – Jim Brown and Otto Graham. Isn’t it magnificent? I mean, is there any place on earth you’d rather be right now than right here?” He forgot himself and took in the joy of being alive.

 

Manning wrote, “To stand stubbornly in Nowhere, rejecting the restlessness that urges us to move on, silencing the voices that entice us into tomorrow, and blowing off the demonic whisper, ‘Look busy – Jesus is coming,’ is an act of unflappable trust in the presence of God.” There’s a poignant story about a renowned professor who’d led a remarkably influential life. At his funeral one of his pupils was asked, “What was most important to your teacher?” The pupil replied, “Whatever he happened to be doing at the moment.” Our task is to deal effectively with today and serve others as graciously as we can in the here and now. Jesus says in the second half of Matthew 6, Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Isn’t there more to life than food and more to the body than clothing? He then points out the obvious with Look at the birds in the sky: They do not sow, or reap, or gather into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you more valuable than they are? He goes on to give his listeners even more reasons to stop stressing out and fretting over what might be in store for them down the line. And then, with a touch of sarcasm in his delivery, He adds Today has enough trouble of its own.” Can I get an “amen” to that wry statement of fact?

 

Being content in the middle of Nowhere brings freedom from worry about one’s relationship with Christ. Living in the now eradicates the need for overindulging in endless and unproductive self-analysis. When we stop dissecting every impulse and emotion we have, guilt and its twin sibling, shame, mysteriously disappear. The chains our feelings and angst wrap us in fall away and we can deliberately immerse ourselves in God’s unconditional love precisely where we are. I wish I could say I practice what I preach but I’d be lying. I’m rarely happy standing unoccupied in Nowhere. I seem to always be searching for something pithy to impart, for a lyric that’ll convey some deep truth in a unique way or for something exciting or stimulating to happen. Now, I know some folks take it to the moon, preferring serious conflict or drama over anything ordinary or routine but not me. I just yearn to be or do something significant. I find it hard to accept there are going to be days when what God needs most from me is to stay out of His way. I agree with Manning when he wrote, “Aware of my demented tendency to craft every situation into a polished diamond, friends remind me that every day is not a ten.”

 

One of my favorite passages in the New Testament illustrates perfectly how Jesus lived in the moment. He’s preaching on the temple grounds and He’s just been telling his disciples to beware of religious showoffs. Then Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box. He also noticed a poor widow put in two small copper coins (Luke 21:1-2). I envision Him sitting in a crowded, bustling, loud section of the temple with people in constant motion, rushing here and there as they go about their business. Despite it all our Lord spots a lowly widow across the way. None could blame our Savior if He’d been totally preoccupied thinking about the hour of Judas’ betrayal speeding toward Him like an express train but He wasn’t in the least. The two words he noticed speak volumes about Jesus’ attention always being centered on the now. Because of His being ever watchful, conscious, sensitive and perceptive He was able to acknowledge the presence of an inconspicuous old lady who tossed in her pennies and then slunk away into the shadows. He was deeply moved by the faithfulness displayed by the indigent woman and used her selfless act to teach all His followers a vital lesson that hasn’t lost an ounce of its relevance. He said, ‘I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all offered their gifts out of their wealth. But she, out of her poverty, put in everything she had to live on (Mark 21:3-4). You and I would’ve overlooked her altogether or dismissed her as just another bag lady with nothing to contribute. But not Jesus, the Son of God. He was acutely aware of everything going on around Him.

 

Sadly, through the ages this touching scene has been manipulated by men of the cloth to make church members feel like stingy, ungrateful misers if they’re not putting in the collection plate what they’ve decreed they should be giving. Far from being uplifted by and sated with the Holy Spirit, the congregation leaves the sanctuary feeling like grub worms. In these verses our eyes, as always, should be on Jesus, not on how much the widow donated. Our tendency to incessantly moralize every incident recorded in Scripture invariably obscures the wondrous beauty of Christ’s omnipresence. Instead of letting it encourage us to grow and become more Christ-like, we end up thinking we’re to belittle ourselves mercilessly. Gerald May wrote, “The most religious of us are so terrified of appearing selfish that we subject ourselves to unnamable and internal cruelties. And those of us who are more selfish stuff ourselves with poisons and whip ourselves into self-destructive highs.” Look, this wicked world beats us down enough. We don’t need guilt-inducing religious leaders adding weight to our burdens. It seems to me the Bible makes the issue of giving crystal clear. How much of what we earn we’re obliged to give back to God is something to be broached and resolved between each individual believer and Christ. The appropriate amount will be determined through prayer and meditation. The Holy Spirit dwelling inside us will speak to our hearts. A minister’s desire for a raise should never enter the equation. Just sayin’…

 

Our ongoing sanctification solidifies and moves forward best when we’re smack dab in the middle of Nowhere. Having said that, I know full well that living in the moment 24/7 is a psychological, not to mention physical, impossibility for a human being to succeed at doing. Only God and His kingdom exists outside the realm of time and space. It’s also not practical to do nothing. Meals would go uncooked, birthdays uncelebrated, concert tickets wasted, cellphones misplaced, plunging grade averages ignored, bills left unpaid and you’d probably wind up sleeping under a bridge. Expectantly idling in Nowhere is not a legitimate excuse for neglecting one’s spiritual, spousal, parental and work-related duties. Manning wrote, “Calm foresight regarding future engagements and appointments is responsible behavior, so long as it is not a compulsive escape from Nowhere.”

 

We live in an era unlike any other that’s preceded it. Modern communication devices have made it possible for anybody to gain worldwide exposure via a video of some sort or another. The old notion of everyone getting 15 minutes of fame has been pared down to 15 seconds max in order to accommodate the glut of wannabes. And one need not be particularly smart, talented or attractive to achieve large-scale notoriety anymore. One can become a sensation by simply being stupid, foolhardy or particularly vulgar and posting the visual results on YouTube. It seems everyone on the planet, especially those of the younger set, craves to be “special.” (That’s nothing new, of course, but we baby boomers more often than not had to accomplish something commendable or brave to garner widespread recognition.) But if one lives long enough one realizes it’s the ordinary, everyday experiences – those we once deemed vapid, trivial and pointless – wherein real life happens. I’ve always thought that, since angels are perfect entities (at least compared with sinful humans), it’s possible they actually envy us for our challenging, imperfect existence that presents us with obstacles to overcome, trials to endure and temptations to resist. Life on earth isn’t about big words, lofty concepts or profound abstractions but about experiencing who or what we’re immediately confronted with. Manning wrote, “The self-forgetfulness that such experience requires is the essence of contemplative simplicity.”

 

The Scriptures have lots to say about staying active in the moment. Paul said Whatever you are doing, work at it with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not for people, because you know that you will receive your inheritance from the Lord as the reward. Serve the Lord Christ (Colossians 3:23-24). The opportunities we’re blessed with during our brief time on terra firma won’t come around again. Solomon wrote Whatever you find to do with your hands, do it with all your might, because there is neither work nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom in the grave…” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). We must have unwavering faith and the courage it fosters in order to live in the middle of Nowhere. Paul plainly stated, I am able to do all things through the one who strengthens me (Philippians 4:13). He also prodded Christians to live each and every moment, not in fear or dread, but with confidence and a positive attitude. Stay alert, stand firm in the faith, show courage, be strong. Everything you do should be done in love (1 Corinthians 16:13-14). In other words, whatever we happen to be doing during any particular span of minutes or hours, as believers in Christ, we should be ever cognizant of what our Savior has done for us and use those moments to prepare ourselves for the task He’s commissioned us to complete: witnessing to others about His saving grace. So pray for guidance while you’re mowing the lawn. Pray for wisdom while you’re cleaning up the kitchen after supper. Pray for patience while you’re stuck in traffic, etc. Always rejoice, constantly pray, in everything give thanks. For this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).

 

And always be kind. Manning wrote, “The most fascinating and delectable fruit of attention to the here and now is compassion. Looking unhurriedly at a flower, staring at a small child asleep, offering a non-judgmental presence to a hurting loved one – these acts mysteriously stir gentle feelings toward ourselves and others.” When we let go of compulsive self-concern and voluntarily elect to live in the middle of Nowhere we discover we’ve been granted by our Father a tiny, savory taste of what heaven will be like. A ripple of God’s unconditional mercy glides across the surface of our soul, reassuring us we’re accepted as we are, not as we ought to be. We find ourselves satisfied that, because we’ve asked for His will to be done in our lives, God has us exactly where He wants us and compassion now has ample room to expand and flourish in our hearts. Thomas Merton wrote, “In our human relationships we have no need to identify others with their sins and condemn them for their actions: for we are able, in them also, to see below the surface and to guess at the presence of the inner and innocent self that is the image of God.”

 

Perhaps dedicating ourselves to living in the middle of Nowhere is what Jesus was getting at when He said, For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Matthew 16:25). If we reminisce too much about the notorious “good old days” behind us or ache too much for a more luxurious life that may or may not lay ahead we’re not demonstrating childlike trust that God can and will provide everything we need now. Because of the resurrection we don’t have to wait till Sunday morning service to bask in God’s presence. We can lean back into His everlasting arms at any second we choose, knowing He’ll never let us fall. In a show of gratitude we can offer the same serenity, comfort and hope we’ve found in Jesus to others who don’t know who or where to turn to when their world goes haywire. We can only do that effectively if we live now and here with Christ in the middle of Nowhere.

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