One of the tensions that comes with living and leadership (whether leading a classroom or a family, a church or a company) is that you need to be thinking about tomorrow. “Where is this ship headed?” is one of the primary questions that leaders need to be asking, and it forces them to think about tomorrow, and even the day, or year, or decade, after that.
Then along comes Jesus, and as he turns the gaze of the crowd towards the birds he says, “Look at these little creatures. They’re not worried about what they’re going to eat or wear, not worried about productivity reports or GDP growth. In fact, they’re not worried about anything, so content are they to rest in their confidence of God’s provision. He continues by saying, “Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes” (Matthew 6:34 – ‘The Message’)
Too often, though, this is interpreted as a calling to pursue some sort of zen emptiness as, for example, in another book I’m reading, which says: Every moment we are wondering at the path of wind across the water or smiling to see a dog rest in the sun, we are not rehearsing our misfortunes. I’m all for looking at my trees, and pondering the path of the ducks at the lake, but I think Jesus isn’t telling us to perpetually drop out. So what is He saying?
The answers come to me from climbing. I was able to get out on real rock recently for the first time since a late fall ski injury. (pics here) My son, along with two other friends, went climbing. To be out on the rock is to be reminded of what it means to live in the present moment. I was able to lead climb a short and simple little face of rock and when one is leading, one isn’t thinking about yesterday’s failure, or the drive up, or the pretty birds. One
is thinking about this: “What’s the next move? How can I stay balanced while moving my left foot? Shall I jam my hand in that crack, or reach for the little pocket in the rock?” There’s nothing but the present – but the present is nothing more than an endless succession of ‘steps’ and then ‘what’s next’, all of which are leading to the goal.
I love this about climbing. While doing some other activities, I too often brood, thinking through lists of failures and concerns and if the run is long enough, I’ll think up a few potential worries that aren’t even real yet, a list of “what if’s” that leaves my mind aching as much as my joints. I’m prone to this in real life as well sometimes, what I call, “poisonous introspection.” But when I’m climbing, I’m utterly present, and that’s the kind of person I need to be in real life as well. Somehow, that capacity to be present is lost on as, as cataloged in the book, “Distracted” and evidenced by our increasingly short attention span and openness to interruption. We need to swim upstream against these tendencies, and I’m profoundly grateful that I still enjoy enough health to do that, because in climbing, like in real life, I need to:
1. Know the goal for which I’m heading – This is why I like to take some time out periodically and prayerfully consider whether I’m climbing the right mountain. My wife and I talk about where our marriage is heading. Our staff and church council will meet in the fall to ponder “where is our church heading?”
2. Climb – The top of the rock is the goal, so. 1) put on climbing shoes, 2) put on harness, 3) check that harness is secured properly 4) attach carabiner, 5) tie figure eight note in rope, 6) attach rope to carabiner, 7) check that carabiner is locked 8) talk to belayer 9) ponder route on rock, 10) do first move, 11) look ahead, 12) do next move. 13) repeat 11 and 12 until you’re done. This isn’t climbing. This is life. When I’m in the zone, I’m so focused on the present that time disappears, along with worries, regrets, and fears.
Living fully in the present, then, doesn’t mean disengaging from life, or blowing up all your goals. It means knowing the goal, knowing the steps, taking them, and continuing to live, picking yourself up with mercy and forgiveness when you fall, rejoicing when you don’t, and finding the wholeness and fruitfulness that only comes when the gift of the present overtakes the shadowy inner voices that too often paralyze.
The present is the best gift we have, which is why learning to live in it is so important.