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Fear and Awe

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Fear and Awe

 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”

Luke 1:30

Fear may be our biggest barrier to a happier, more fulfilled life. True, the Bible tells us that the fear of God is the beginning of knowledge,[1] and that we are to fear our God.[2] Fear, however, may also be our biggest barrier to a closer relationship with God. The type of fear referred to in these passages, however, is better described as awe than by what we consider fear today. Awe is the feeling of looking out over the edge of the Grand Canyon or gazing into a clear night sky without the interference of city lights. Awe is the feeling when a newborn wraps her tiny fingers around yours. Awe is our response when experiencing something breathtakingly beautiful, yet completely beyond words. When we are gifted with such an experience, when we are touched by such grace, our natural tendency to try to understand or explain falls away and leaves us stilled in not knowing and, somehow, not needing to know.

There are numerous biblical references encouraging us to fear God and many more telling us not to be afraid. As we learn to distinguish between fear and awe, we understand this is not a contradiction. God is so far beyond our comprehension that the only reasonable reaction to pondering God is awe. Fear, on the other hand, results from a lack of faith – a lack of faith in the inherent goodness of ourselves and others, a lack of faith that we are loved and cared for, and a lack of faith that God will make all things work together for good.[3] That sort of fear stands as a barrier between us as we are today and the person God encourages us to become. We can begin to overcome our faithless fears by developing a more intimate relationship with God through scripture.

One helpful way to read and understand the Bible is as a personal message from God. Granted, this requires more than a cursory reading. In fact, it often involves reading a particular passage many times, slowly, and out loud. It is helpful to read a commentary about each passage, researching the context and culture from which the passage arose. What did it mean when it was written? How does it translate to the world today? What is God saying to me in this story or passage? Where do I fit into the story? Engaging the Bible in this manner is a way of praying the scripture – entering the message in an intimate and open way. Fear springs from a lack of knowledge. Once we better understand what underlies our fear, our sense of helplessness eases. As we come to know more about the nature of God, our fear gives way to awe.

Placing ourselves into scripture is a key. The Old Testament stories of the Israelites’ road to freedom is our story – from what form of bondage are we trying to escape? How does their struggle mirror ours? In the story of the Good Samaritan,[4] are we the beaten person left by the side of the road? Are we among the religious folks who pass him by? Are we the one who stops to help? Chances are we have played each of these roles at different times in our lives. What if God’s message to Mary in Luke 1:30 is God’s message to us: “Do not be afraid, (insert your name here), for you have found favor with God.” When we place ourselves into the stories of the Bible, scripture comes alive for us.

The Latin term for reading the scripture in this manner is Lectio Divina, or sacred reading. It is a formal method of praying the scriptures, or placing ourselves into scripture. Perhaps finding ourselves in scripture is more accurate. It is one way for God to speak directly to us through a sacred text. God has spoken through scripture to hundreds of generations before us, and will continue to do so for countless generations to come. You can download a copy of my Introduction to Lectio Divina at: https://lifeworshipnotes.files.wordpress.com/2019/06/intro-to-lectio-divina.docx

Our search for a happier, more fulfilled life necessarily creates a desire to know God more. While we are incapable of knowing God in all of God’s fullness, by praying the scriptures we can assure ourselves that God will not desert us. God’s love, presence, and care through all of life’s challenges is dependable. Life is not always easy or pleasant, but praying the scriptures helps us live in God’s presence with more awe and less fear.

This is the 23rd in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

A Special Invitation: For readers of Life Notes living in or near Lawrence, Kansas, we will be performing Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s Mass on the World on Saturday morning, June 22, 2019, as a way of welcoming and honoring the Summer Equinox. Meet us at the Baker Wetlands Discovery Center Overlook (1365 N 1250 Rd), at 5:50 AM for the sunrise and at 6:00 AM for the service. It will last about 20 minutes.

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[1] Proverbs 1:7

[2] Levicticus 19:14

[3] Romans 8:28

[4] Luke 10:25-37

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Walking Prayer

 Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisble though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. Romans 1:20

I have heard and believe that the original Bible is creation itself. In other words, for those desiring a knowledge of God in the days before written scrolls and before most people were able to read any scrolls they had access to, people could learn everything they wanted to know about God from nature, as we can still today. To me, it makes perfect sense. If all of creation springs from God, all of creation must be imbued with God’s nature. In other words, I believe God is in all of creation, and so by absorbing an in-depth knowledge of the essence of any created thing, we find the imprint of God. Believing that God is in everything is called panentheism, as opposed to the belief that everything is God, which is pantheism.

To believe that God is in everything means, to me, that God experiences through us. As we go through life’s sorrows and joys, God rides the waves of our emotional ups and downs with us. God weeps as we weep, hurts as we hurt, laughs as we laugh, and loves as we love. When we say that we are God’s feet and hands, we mean that God literally works through us – serving the needy, healing the sick, welcoming the outcast. Of course, God also grants us free will, so we must cooperate in order for God to work in and through us.

The following prayer, written by St. Teresa of Avila, expresses the panentheistic nature of God well:

Christ has no body now but yours.

            No hands, no feet on earth but yours.

            Yours are the eyes through which

            He looks compassion on this world,

            Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good,

            Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world.

            Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,

            Yours are the eyes, you are His body.

            Christ has no body now on earth but yours.[1]

One of the many ways we can connect with God in nature, as well as allowing God to experience nature through us, is through walking prayer, also called meditative or mindful walking. It involves walking in an unhurried, deliberate manner, focusing on the various details our senses take in. We stop to gaze at the amazing intricacy of a single leaf and the veins of a pebble, we breathe the intoxicating fragrance of the honeysuckle, listen to the soulful coo of the mourning dove, or taste the sweet nectar of a buttercup. We take our time and focus our attention on the amazing particularities of the world around us, one small detail at a time.

We focus particularly on what is rising into our body from the earth through our feet. We feel the firm, dependable support of the earth beneath us. More than that, however, we feel the spirit, the energy rising from the earth – the earth from which our bodies were formed and to which they will return. There is a constant flow of loving energy between us and the earth that we completely miss as we hurry about our days. The gravity that holds us to the earth is loving energy cradling us to itself, as is the gravitational field keeping the earth in its orbit around the sun, and the force holding atomic particles in their infinitesimal structures – all divine love in action: attracting, giving, and receiving. We recognize ourselves as one station in the infinite flow of love energy, permeating the unique creation we are, and sent off again into the universe with a blessing only we can give. As we mindfully move in walking prayer, we sense our part in this flow of the life in which we live and move and have our being. Walking barefoot, where it can safely be done, is optimal.. Even seated, with bare feet in the grass, can connect us with the earth in wonderful, moving ways.

Getting in touch with God in nature through walking prayer is one way to focus our awareness on God’s constant presence with and within us. Once we are aware, and once we consent to God’s promptings within, we become available as instruments of good for God’s will and work on earth, as St. Teresa reminds us is our calling. Walking prayer is one way for us to be Christ to God’s creation, while allowing God’s creation to be Christ to us.

This is the 22nd in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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[1] https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/66880-christ-has-no-body-now-but-yours-no-hands-no

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Praying Together

 Pray then in this way… Matthew 6:9a

Earlier this year I spent several days with a group of Benedictine monks south of Boston. I was allowed to join them during parts of their daily schedule, including the five daily worship services. One part of most worship services was what they consider praying together, which in this case was chanting the Psalms. They sat in two groups facing each other and chanted passages from the Psalms, sometimes one side at a time, other times in unison.

For the most part, I was taught that prayer was a solitary activity – me and God. Certainly, there were prayers before meals and bedtime where one person would pray on behalf of those present at the table or bedside. In church, the pastor would pray on behalf of the entire congregation. Those were community prayers, but it was still one person doing the praying while the others sat in silence. The exception was The Lord’s Prayer, which was recited in unison as a community. With those exceptions, I considered prayer a solitary activity.

It is interesting that the prayer Jesus instructed his disciples to pray was a community prayer. The language is distinctly communal:

Our Father;

Give us this day our daily bread;

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us;

            Lead us not into temptation;

Deliver us from evil.

I have tried praying this prayer in an individual way, i.e., My Father; give me this day, etc., but it feels wrong and selfish. Perhaps that is because I learned it as a communal prayer; or perhaps the prayer loses its power when removed from its communal context. It is also interesting that three verses before giving his disciples The Lord’s Prayer, Jesus says, “But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (Matthew 6:6). The latter prayer process is a distinctly solitary activity.

I suspect Jesus’ message is that both individual and community prayers are important. Nor should this surprise anyone.The community aspect of prayer, however, is the one I find most challenging. Actually, it is my ego that finds community prayer most challenging. My ego self desires a special relationship with God – one that sets me apart from others as a unique creation in God’s eyes. And there is biblical evidence for that very uniqueness (see Psalm 139). What trips me up is that everyone is a unique creation of God, loved and known for their individual traits by our doting, divine Parent. Wouldn’t that make any individual, i.e., me, less special? Although my ego is bruised at the thought, I believe we are all precious beyond belief in God’s eyes.

In his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before his crucifixion (John 17), Jesus prays that we, as in all of us, might be one with him just as he is one with God. There is an unmistakeable communal inclusiveness to his words. In Paul’s letters, he describes us as the body of Christ (see Romans 12), identifying individuals as various parts of the one body. Again, this is not welcome news to the ego self who is more than willing to forego the salvation of many others in order to assure salvation for itself and those it deems worthy.

As I age and the more I read, the more convinced I become that salvation is communal. In other words, we become one with God together – as one body – or we do not become one with God at all, except perhaps in brief awakenings. This is why healing the sick and easing suffering and feeding the hungry and including the outcast – the hallmarks of Jesus’ ministry – are so vitally important for us to continue today. As we awaken to our oneness, we understand that we cannot be well until others are well. And so praying together should be an important part of our prayer practice. It is an affirmation of our unity.

Personally, I recite the Lord’s Prayer as a regular part of my daily devotions. When I do, however, I try to assume the posture of being one part of a large body praying for and with the entire community of my brothers and sisters. No doubt, there are countless others across the globe and through the ages praying it with me.

Jesus gave us a new commandment, to love one another. Praying together is one way for us to fulfil that commandment.

This is the 21st in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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Silent Prayer

 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. Romans 8:26

Most of us learned to pray with words, by which I mean we spoke our prayers. Because language is how we were taught to communicate with each other, why would we not also communicate with God in the same way? It makes sense, and nothing I say after this point is intended to belittle or discourage the saying of spoken prayers. There are other types of prayer, however, that one may find comforting and effective, depending on the need. Silent prayer is one such type of prayer for me.

I have heard various estimates of how much of our communication with each other is actually transmitted by the words we use. A common estimate is about 10%, meaning approximately 90% of the communication received is non-verbal – body language, tone of voice, facial expression, attentiveness, etc. If I tell you that I love you while I am looking at my cell phone, what message do you receive? Certainly not one of love or devotion. The words lose their literal meaning because my non-verbal behavior is inconsistent with what comes out of my mouth. Could the same be true with God – that the words we use in prayer falter when our attitude and body language are not consistent with our words?

I receive regular reminders that I should speak less and listen more (for good reason, no doubt). When I interrupt or say something flippant in an attempt to lighten the mood or redirect a conversation, I send the message that I am not engaged with what is being said. Regardless of whether that is my conscious intent, regardless of what words I use, regardless of my body language, that is the message that will be received. The point is that what we communicate and the words we use are often very different, whether we are talking to a friend, a significant other, or God.

While God, no doubt, is interested in what we have to say, I believe God already knows. The Bible tells us that God knows what is in and on our hearts, probably better than we know. Certainly, one of the benefits of spoken prayer is simply the exercise of putting what is on our minds into words – not for God’s sake, but for ours. Sometimes the very act of putting feelings into words helps define what is troubling us and may even suggest a course of action. On the other hand, perhaps God has a message for us — one we cannot receive until we stop talking and listen. Thus, the importance, at least for some of us, of incorporating silent prayer into our prayer practice.

In my experience, listening for a message from God is different than hearing a message from a friend. I, personally, have never heard God speak in words or with a human-like voice. Opening our ears to God is more like assuming a responsive stance that opens us to God’s guidance. Again, in my experience, an occasional short period of waiting to hear from God is not likely to produce anything useful, nor do messages from God necessarily come at the time we seek them. It is not that God is not willing to communicate with us. The problem is that our distractedness prevents us from being able to receive God’s communications. I find God’s messages arriving as inspirations while I am going about my daily activities. Sometimes God speaks through an inspired thought that enters my head, sometimes it’s an inspired meaning from a scripture passage, sometimes it’s in something I read or hear from a friend. I believe a regular assumption of a silent, receptive posture for extended periods – 20 minutes at a time, once or twice a day – helps orient something within us toward receiving an occasional divine message.

Sitting in the presence of God in silence is more of a communion than a conversation. Saying a prayer with words is doing prayer; silent prayer is being prayer. Both are useful and important. To use only one method is like praying with one eye open. The technique of silent prayer native to Christianity, dating back many centuries, is called Centering Prayer. You can download a free copy of my Intro to Centering Prayer at this link: https://lifeworshipnotes.files.wordpress.com/2019/05/intro-to-centering-prayer.docx

Because God is non-verbal for most of us, finding non-verbal ways to commune with God are essential in establishing a two-way relationship where we seek to listen and not simply to be heard.

This is the 20th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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Difficult Decisions

 I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. Revelation 3:15-16

I learned the most useful life lessons from a professor in graduate school who was effective because of how he taught, not because of what he taught. His teaching method was the same, regardless of the topic. His classes met once a week, and he assigned a number of journal articles about a specific issue every week. Two hours prior to each class, students had to submit a paper describing the issue of the week, taking a position on the issue, and defending their position. The first hour of class was spent with the professor standing in front of the students, one at a time, announcing that student’s position and initiating a class debate over that decision. While this professor was my most effective instructor, he was also the most uncomfortable and challenging. His classes were difficult because we knew that regardless of the position we chose, there would be strong arguments on the other side of the issue. This professor did not care what position we took as much as that our position was reflective of the assigned readings and that our position was definitive and defensible. If a student had not taken the time to carefully consider the options and reason through his or her decision, the professor would quickly expose the lack of preparation to the class.

The difficult decisions we make in life are hard because there are good arguments for more than one option. If there were only one good option, the decision would not be difficult. We have to choose based on the information we have at the time, accepting that our decision may prove less than optimal from a retrospective view in the future. Difficult decisions are a part of every life for several reasons. First, we cannot make a difference in life by riding the fence on important issues. Life gains richness by exploring diverse options and new paths, so we miss much by attempting to live in a small, safe, non-confrontational world. Second, we cannot fully enter a decision by also keeping other options open. Like praying with one eye open, we cannot fully give ourselves to God or anyone or anything else by being tepid when it’s time to make a choice. Finally, we learn to trust in God’s goodness by making bad choices and failing, much more than we learn from good decisions and successes. The latter simply reaffirm our belief in our self-sufficiency. We learn that God works with us regardless of the choices we make, co-creating something good from the mess we often make of our lives.

Those of us in the United Methodist Church (UMC) face a difficult decision. The governing body recently affirmed and strengthened its position on the less-than-full inclusion of the LGBTQ community. It will almost certainly split the denomination, its churches, and family and friends within those churches. Individual congregations, and more importantly, individual members, have a difficult decision to make – remain a part of the UMC as it is currently constituted, or leave and go elsewhere. There are biblical arguments for the position adopted by the UMC, and there are biblical arguments against it. There are good, faithful people who support the position, and there are good, faithful people who do not support it. I believe UMC members, myself included, find themselves at an uncomfortable crossroads and must choose a path, recognizing that at some point, even doing nothing is a choice.

The question is not what the UMC did or will do. It is not even what my particular church family will decide. The key question is this: What will I decide and why? Can I defend my position in a well-reasoned, informed manner? This is a spiritual test, and we will be measured not so much for the choices we make, but for the methods by which we make our decisions. Did we defer to others? How did we prioritize the issues? Who benefits from this decision? Who does it exclude? Difficult decisions call for courage, regardless of the issue. This is not a time to rush to judgment, nor is it a time to be paralyzed into inaction.

My understanding of the message in Revelation to the church at Laodicea, quoted above, is to take a stand, hot or cold, right or wrong. It is time to weigh the options, make a choice, and trust God for what follows.

This is the 19th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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Finding Spirit in Our Surroundings

 Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. Psalm 139:7-8

A primary reason, I believe, we live in such a lonely, isolated, and narcissistic society is our conviction that God is a distant God. We have done our best to contain God in a box that some take out on Sunday mornings, or during times of crisis, or for baptisms, weddings and funerals. There is good reason to fear inviting God into our everyday lives. The most common contemporary portrayals of God are as a vengeful tyrant, watching over us from a high throne of judgment, meticulously assessing our every word, thought, and action, seeking any reason to rain thunderbolts down on our heads or to condemn us for all eternity into a Dante-like (and non-biblical) Hell. As a result, we attempt to wall that God away from our lives, and understandably so. The God many of us came to believe in, however, is more a God of mythology than the God of the Bible and other sacred texts. The latter God always makes everything, no matter how desperate, work together for good, lovingly weaving the disparate pieces of our lives into an unfathomably stunning tapestry. In the words of Richard Rohr, “Everything will be all right in the end. If it’s not all right, it is not yet the end.”[1] While we cannot change what happened in the past, with God’s help we can always change the ending.

In a recent Daily Meditation, Rohr states, “…the greatest dis-ease facing humanity right now is our profound and painful sense of disconnection. We feel disconnected from God, certainly, but also from ourselves, from each other, and from our world.”[2] While it may be our fear of a God we misunderstand that causes us to pull away, the antidote to our lack of meaning and purpose is not separation but reconnection, reconciliation, and ultimately, redemption. The solution is not in becoming less of who we truly are, but more. Fortunately for us, God is always ready to meet us where we are. Again from Rohr, “God comes disguised as our life.”[3]

For some of us, the path to God is not in becoming more religious, at least not in our current practice of religion, but in becoming more human. Human beings, as is true for all of creation, are a product of the physical elements of the earth held together by an ethereal energy we call spirit. Spirit is present in all created things, and it is in connecting with the spirit in others that we experience God’s shared presence in ourselves. Actually, it is not connecting with the spirit because the spirit is already inseparably present. It is in recognizing, or perhaps remembering the connection we already have. When God’s spirit in us consciously reconnects with God’s spirit in another, we awaken to the truth that we are never alone. We willingly give ourselves to others in love, knowing there is complete safety in love infused with spirit. Rohr says, “One completely loved thing is all it takes.”[4]

Fr. Richard suggests starting simple, like with a stone. When we can find God’s presence in a stone we will be able to recognize God’s presence in others, and our experience of the world will transform. We forget that spirit is in every thing. The challenge is to recognize it. We will know when we find spirit in another because we will recognize the unbreakable connection with the spirit in us. In order to find the spirit in something or someone outside of ourselves, it is helpful ask questions. For example: What is uniquely beautiful about this person or thing? What will be lost to my world should this person or thing disappear from it? In what ways does this person or thing mirror something within me? God loves this person or thing – why? What would be required of me to love this person or thing unconditionally? What internal resistance hinders my willingness to love him, her, or it? What message from God does this person or thing hold for me?

In order to awaken spiritually, we must find God in all of the mundane details around us. God permeates every aspect of our life experience, especially the plain, the ordinary, and whatever we consider ugly, boring, or worthless. When we find God there, we will find God everywhere.

This is the 18th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

 Prefer to listen? Subscribe to Life Notes Podcasts at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/life-notes-podcast/id1403068000

[1] Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ, Convergent Books, 2019.

[2] Richard Rohr, Daily Meditations, www.cac.org, May 7, 2019.

[3] Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality. Franciscan Media, 2007, pp. 15-17.

[4] Richard Rohr, Daily Meditations. www.cac.org, April 30, 2019.

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A Contemplative Life

 For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel: In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.  Isaiah 30:15

What exactly is a contemplative life? How is it different from a regular life? Most of our lives are too busy to add anything new, so where does a contemplative life fit? I intend to make a case for why contemplative practices are important additions, even to hectic lives.

First, a contemplative life is not typically a silent, inactive life of naval-gazing. Rather, many contemplative people are active and involved in effective and efficient ways that positively impact the life and lives around them. A contemplative life is not an escape from life’s activities, but a technique to become increasingly and effectively present to life’s moments. In spite of our best efforts, we can only truly live in the moment. Typically, we find ourselves stuck in our thoughts, mired in regretting the past or worrying about the future. A contemplative life is one that seeks to become increasingly present to the moment while giving less attention to the past and future.

In his first letter to the Thessalonians (5:17), Paul describes a contemplative life when he writes, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” This may sound like a way of life for someone who has no life. Rejoice always? Pray with out ceasing? Give thanks in all circumstances? Most days, that is simply laughable. Laughable, that is, when we stray outside of the moment. Contemplative practices focus us. Even our most hectic and stressful daily activities become works of prayer and acts we do with God. We cease feeling that life is being done to us or being forced upon us. We acknowledge the presence and action of the Spirit in all things and at all times. Knowing that God works in and through us gives meaning and purpose to everything we experience, both pleasant and unpleasant.

Most of us were taught that prayer is a special time we set aside to be with God. We learned techniques for praying “correctly.” Prayer before meals required a bowed head, closed eyes, and folded hands. Prayer before bed occurred at the bedside, on our knees, hands folded on the bed. Prayer at church meant being quiet, eyes (mostly) closed, hands folded in one’s lap. When these images comprise our total understanding of prayer, it is no wonder that to pray without ceasing seems like the impossible dream. Must we become something we normally are not in order to please and communicate with God? I believe God cares less about how we pray and more that we integrate prayer (intentionally being with God) into our daily lives.

One aspect of a contemplative life, then, is that it strives to be one, continuous, unbroken prayer. That requires our willingness to expose ourselves to God in naked surrender of all our imperfections, all our failings, and everything we do that may or may not meet expectations. We acknowledge that God walks with us on every step of every day, no matter where we are, what we do, or who we are with. And that God loves the pure and raw essence of who we are regardless. God rejoices when we rejoice, God weeps when we weep. There is no trick to get God to join us in our everyday moments. The trick is to acknowledge to ourselves that God is with us in our everyday moments whether we recognize it or not. When we know we can never stray from God’s love and that God will never reject us, we can embrace and fully experience the moment, regardless of the circumstances. We can even laugh at our absolute and flawed humanness, knowing God finds even our most annoying quirks endearing.

A contemplative life does not separate being with God from anything else. Rather, it allows us consciously to affirm God’s presence in all things. We cannot hold God at arm’s length, so why pretend as if we can? Three traits of a contemplative life named in Isaiah 30 are rest, quietness, and trust. Interestingly, those are exactly what I crave on my most difficult days. In the coming weeks I will explore ways to integrate contemplative practices into our daily lives.

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This is the 1st in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life. For a list of contemplative activities in Lawrence, Kansas, go to www.ContemplatingGrace.com/contemplativelife

[1] The Cloud of Unknowing and the Book of Privy Counsel, trans. Carmen Acevedo Butcher (Shambhala: 2009), 224-225.