The Practice of Noticing What Is


“Few of us ever live in the present. We are forever anticipating what is to come or remembering what has gone.” – Louis L’Amour


This past season, I have been trying to practice a simple spiritual discipline: celebrating what is instead of focusing on what isn’t. In all kinds of ways, it’s been helpful. At The Refuge, during our first few years, the only things I seemed to center on were who wasn’t there, what wasn’t happening the way-I-thought-it-should-be, the things we lacked. At home, it was the projects that weren’t done, the things I hadn’t taught my kids yet, the ways-that-I-always-fell-short. In my personal life it was the same way—I centered my gaze on all the things that weren’t instead of honoring the good that was.

And it always lead to emptiness, shame, and frustration.

A while back, we did an art experience at a Refuge gathering, using contemplative photography that I will always remember. Armed with our camera phones, we set out to see ordinary things with new eyes. It sounds so simple, but let me just say—it was beautiful! I was amazed by the loveliness that we all “saw” when we opened our eyes to it.

Reflecting back on this experience, it reminded me how focusing on what is and not what isn’t has not been nurtured in my faith experience over the years. In fact, so much of my church practice has been centered on striving to get better, to change how I am now. Embedded in this theology is the reality of dissatisfaction. We’re not good enough, smart enough, spiritual enough, squared-away-enough until we ______ (fill in the blank). Then, once those things happen, we’ll be okay.

I believe this line of thinking goes back to the core theology of total depravity vs. being created in the image of God. This distinction is important; when the focus is on what isn’t (all the ways we fall short and suck) instead of celebrating what is (image bearers, with all of God’s glory there to be uncovered), it creates an insecurity and blindedness that robs many of us of life now.

We end up only focusing on what we aren’t instead of honoring what we are.

We also end up focusing on what people around us aren’t instead of celebrating who they are.

We end up spending all of our energy on how-we-fall-short instead of experiencing being fully loved by God, here, now, in spite of our character defects.

It creates an insidious and invisible bar-of-expectation that steals joy and peace in our daily lives.

We develop in-grown eyeballs where we are always failing personally, spiritually, practically.

We see the ugly and miss the beauty of what is right in front of us, here and now.

“Noticing what is” doesn’t mean we don’t care about transformation or change or that we are settling for less. It doesn’t mean we don’t desperately need God’s help and Spirit-at-work-in-our-lives to constantly transform us. It doesn’t mean we don’t want things to be different in our lives, our relationships. As someone dedicated to recovery and healing, there’s no question that there will always be an awful lot of inner-work to be done in my life!

But I think we often miss a lot of beauty that’s happening in the moment because we are so focused on the past or think we need to get to the future faster.

Noticing what is, not what isn’t, is noticing the good in today because today is all we have.

It is celebrating God’s work in our lives so far instead of being so mad about all the things that aren’t there yet.

It is having eyes to see beauty in the midst of the ugly—our own beauty and beauty in other human beings, too.

It is practicing gratitude instead of disdain for our present circumstances.

Noticing what is, not what isn’t, is not all about our inner journey, either. It’s apparent in many other ways, too–in our ministries, our vocations, our relationships, our families, our present circumstances. In each of these areas it’s easy for me to think of all the things that aren’t instead honoring and noticing beauty in the things that are.

Something very interesting happened to me during the contemplative photography exercise that has lingered. On my initial walk to the place of quiet, I didn’t see much. I was focused on finding a spot. I was focused on getting where I needed to be. If anything, I thought the walk was pretty ugly.

However, as a space opened up for quiet and contemplation, it was wild to see my eyes open to what I easily could have missed. I began to see God’s beauty poking up out of the hard ugly ground. I noticed the crisp air and the blue sky.

I saw the contrast of the rusty railroad spikes next to lovely colored broken glass.

On my walk back, I was much more aware. The colors were more vivid, the beauty more apparent.

I began to have new eyes to see.

It was very simple, very profound and a lesson that has continued to linger.

SheLovelys, I know how easy it is to focus our energy on what isn’t. I pray for all of us that we would cultivate eyes to see what is and notice beauty this month in all kinds of unlikely places.