This morning I was driving, on my way to work, when I saw my daughter unexpectedly at her day care. Guarded faithfully by her teachers and the school’s playground fencing, she was in lost in wonder among a group of children, swarming in controlled chaos. She was oblivious to my passing by. As I pulled to the side of the road and lingered for a spectator’s moment, it struck me that, in this present circumstance, she had no agenda. One moment, she was in a stream of kids running over to the spring-loaded dinosaur horse. The next moment she had turned her attention to the girl at the playground who had called out her name. Beckoned, she ran back upstream and found herself now immersed in play with her lonely friend. The only thing that this resembles in my life is how frantically I race back and forth between cnn.com and facebook when I’m fatigued with work. This is an adulterated version of living in the present moment. My girl was living in the moment, and life seemed totally integrated for her. My shadow version of this playground experience, laced with technology, fragments me. It made me wonder about the difference between living in the present moment and being fragmented by it.
Bonhoeffer, the modern sage, discovered something about living in the present moment as a capacity fueled by humility. “We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God. God”, he teaches us, “will be constantly crossing our paths and canceling our plans by sending us people with claims and petitions. We may pass them by, preoccupied with our more important tasks, as the priest passed by the man who had fallen among thieves, perhaps—reading the Bible. When we do that we pass by the visible sign of the Cross raised above our path to show us that, not our way, but God’s way must be done…it is part of the discipline of humility that we must not spare our hand where it can perform a service and that we do not assume that our schedule is our own to manage, but allow it to be arranged by God.”
Bonhoeffer’s perspective reveals me for something of what I can become, in this present age. Preoccupied, consuming, easily distracted by the magnanimity of my own to-do list, unaware of hundreds of invitations sent to me by God today. Humility allows us to see life’s many interruptions as invitations. Humility causes me to believe that my to-do list is filled with insignificant aspirations, in light of God’s design. I complete my to-do list, because of my sense of responsibility. That is no bad thing. But my to-do list serves my spirituality. It does no good for it to work the other way around.
On my better days, when I find myself slipping into a posture of slavery to my to-do list and frustrated by my limitations, I am called outside into my back yard (away from facebook) to trim the hedges with a pair of hand-powered clippers, gaining clarity, loosening up my internal knots, and catching a midday funeral procession pass by. I don’t have a hat on to respectfully remove it, so I take off my sunglasses and pause as the caravan moves past. There are only five cars in this lineup. So few. How many times a day do I miss these funeral processions, as I type away in my upstairs office, wooed by the blue glow of my computer?
Life contains steady reminders that the present moment is fleeting and full of little clues to help us stay grounded. Moments such as these invite me to perceive the seemingly-insignificant events of life as invitations from God. Our days are full of higher aspirations to follow and better choices to make, which are lasting and fruitful, such as offering effective gestures of love, meeting the end of an honest day’s work with peaceful ceasing and rest, and an increased sense that ten minutes of listening to a lonely heart is more lasting than taking ten more steps closer to the projects that drive us forward. By all means, have a to-do list that is longer than you could possibly fulfill. But recognize its place in the overall context of your life. Humility convinces us that life is bigger than our best laid plans.