Two years into my journey following Jesus, I’m still figuring out how to have a conversation with him. 24 months in and it still feels awkward talking, so much so that my preference is to avoid it, to talk around it with other people, to let others do it while I bow my head, close my eyes and try to avoid thinking about things like whether or not Iron Man 3 is going to be The Return of the King or Spider-Man 3 (fingers crossed for the former).

My avoidance of a conversation with God has led to my quiet times being mostly about two things: studying scripture and writing things down for him. That is to say, reading the Bible like I did a Tale of Two Cities, preparing for the discussion in my English lit class in college. Or writing down a list of need-to-haves, nice-to-haves and let-me-know-what-you-think-about-these. Not very much listening.

Which seems such an obvious oversight. I mean, how horrible is it to talk with someone who doesn’t listen? And I’m that guy! With God! It seems even more absurdly horrible and stupid when I consider that I’m communicating with a being who is all-knowing and all-powerful. And I can’t shut up about myself and my amazingly limited viewpoint about things.

I think it’s because, deep down, I don’t want to listen to what God has to say. I want to stay in charge; so I come to God figuring out his word by my own analysis, drawing my own conclusions, presenting to him a list of options approved by me, for me.

I understand that to truly listen to what God has to say about my life and how he wants to use it towards his own will, well it might look like him asking me to do things outside of my comfort zone, outside of my wants, outside of my understanding—maybe more importantly, giving certain things up. All things that might require being humble and having, gasp, faith. And that kind of freaks me out.

Luke 6:12 says:

“One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God.”

The whole night praying. Surrounded by nature. Alone.

Yet, when Jesus gives instruction to the disciples about how to pray and what to say in Matthew chapter 6, it’s rather brief, less than 60 words. And he specifically says “do not keep on babbling like pagans.” Which makes me think: what was Jesus doing out there on the mountainside all night? I doubt he was babbling the whole time. I bet he was out there in the silence of the night, away from the distractions of the gathered crowds and his flock of disciples, head bowed with a heart of humility, ears wide open for the will of his father. Listening.

I took this photo on Saturday morning during my quiet time—an hour long run by myself out on the lakefront path. Before heading out, I said the Lord’s Prayer with all my fiber, focusing on the “your kingdom come, your will be done.” And then I took off running, in silence, ears wide open to listen to my father. 20 minutes later when I arrived at the pier on North Avenue beach, I hadn’t heard anything. I sat down in front of this beautiful view. All I could muster was two words: thank you. It didn’t feel awkward. It felt like praise.

I think it’s the start of a better conversation.

See the comments on Instagram …

This wonderfully quiet, warm and inspiringly beautiful spot served as my Fortress of Solitude today—grateful for places like this in Chicago and the folks who take care of them. Another #storyinastill on its way tomorrow born out of my experience. Until then, sweet dreams, #chihood. (at Lincoln Park Conservatory)

#Storyinastill: I captured this morning light at the Thompson Center yesterday. I paused for a minute, watching passersby walk preoccupied with their day’s plans, talk on the phone, check texts, grab a last minute bite to eat. Everything but look up at what is unarguably one of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring architectural sights in the city—one that was filled with particularly good light that day, soft and golden and warm.

The combination of all the lines, surfaces and reflections bathed in that light was dazzling. It was delicious. And it made me feel so small.

I was on my way back from Brown Elementary, a small school west of the Loop, where I participate in a reading program with other volunteers from @soulcitychurch. It never ceases to surprise and soften my heart the way the kids unabashedly crave and receive attention, tutoring, and love, all with a spirit of receiving and an attitude of joy at discovering the meaning and mastery of a new word in a new book.

I think that attitude of humbly and freely receiving is the one Jesus points out in Matthew 18: “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

I feel like growing up and becoming an adult puts a focus on the things we “make happen” in our lives. Like advancing a career, finding a spouse, saving enough for a down payment on that perfect condo in the right neighborhood. Those are the things we’re busy orchestrating at 8:30 am during our commute, mindlessly walking underneath that Thompson Center scene.

But there’s that light! That light that literally sustains all those other things, the ones we’re so busy with. My prayer for us in Chicago is that we would encounter this beautiful city with the eyes of the kids at Brown, ones that are so easily inspired and awed and so open to receiving the richness available to us today. Eyes that drink in that Thompson Center atrium all bathed in gold. Ones that see that wonderful light.

A good martial artist does not become tense, but ready. Not thinking, yet not dreaming. Ready for whatever may come. When the opponent expands, I contract; and when he contracts, I expand. And when there is an opportunity, “I” do not hit, “it” hits all by itself.
— Bruce Lee, from Enter the Dragon (1973)

Each morning, I pray that I would be ready—ready for whatever may come from this beautiful city, as she rises and breathes and shines and hides, comes together, and falls apart, does these all at once in every moment, and yet through time, pulling us and supporting us as a glacier would, imperceptibly moving forward.

As a photographer aiming to capture that beautiful aliveness, lately I’ve been relying less on the idea of “I” getting better at photo taking.

The danger I think of that approach is that it assumes “I” can approach the scenes of this city with preconceived techniques and a methodology for capturing its beauty—with capturing being about crafting—as if those scenes are relying on “I” to make them, as if their ability to speak is reliant on the language I bring.

Chicago certainly speaks to me, singing in her own distinct language. I don’t think she needs me to “show” that aliveness. Or interpret it. I think she invites me to the infinite opportunities of beauty happening all around, needing nothing to be added, only an admirer who would receive them. An admirer who is ready, not thinking, yet not dreaming.

So becoming better as a photographer seems less about adding to my skill of capturing moments, and much more about removing myself, humbly waiting for opportunities when, where and how #chicagoisbeautiful. “It” will strike all by itself.