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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.

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The Exodus Revisited

 Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” Exodus 3:7-8

This is the story of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. It is revisited in seemingly every telling of their history. Pharaoh made them slaves because he feared their growing numbers. Moses was sent to deliver them out of Egypt, but Pharaoh was uncooperative. God sent a series of plagues upon the people of Egypt until Pharaoh relented, agreeing to let the people go in return for ending the plagues. As they were making their way out of Egypt, however, Pharaoh changed his mind and sent his army after them. Trapped between the Red Sea and Pharaoh’s army, God parted the waters of the sea to allow the Israelites safe passage through. Pharaoh’s army followed and drowned when God released the waters back into the sea after the people arrived safely on the other shore. Once out of the grasp of Pharaoh, the people wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, waiting for their promised entry into the land known today as Israel.

We can read stories in the Bible literally – in this case as a historical reading – or we can seek for an allegorical understanding. I will follow the latter course for this reflection because I believe the story has much to tell us about ourselves, regardless of its historical accuracy. More specifically, I believe the story of the exodus is our story.

Those familiar with the story’s details will recall that the Israelites’ joy of being freed from their oppression in Egypt was short-lived. Life in the wilderness was hard. They expected to be released into the Promised Land quickly, but it took 40 years. In Biblical terminology, that is one generation, meaning the majority of those finally entering the Promised Land had little or no recollection of their years in slavery. More than once, the people felt that returning to bondage in Egypt would be better than wandering aimlessly in the wilderness, waiting on the timing of a God they feared had abandoned them.

There is a story written by St. John of the Cross, a 16th Century Spanish mystic, titled The Dark Night of the Soul. Its simplified premise is that those sincerely seeking union with God will come to a time when they can glimpse what an awakened life would be like, but they are not there, yet. In fact, they are trapped between their old life, to which they cannot return, and the new life they have yet to attain. They find themselves in a no-man’s land that John of the Cross called the Dark Night of the Soul. There is no way out of the dark night except by going through it, trusting in God’s timing and provision.

We all go through various dark nights in our lives, from getting through a difficult week of final exams to finishing an uncomfortable course of treatment for a medical condition. We can see the goal, but we are not there, yet. Dark nights may last for days, weeks, or years. For the Israelites, it lasted a generation.

Many of us, as we pass from the first to the second half of our lives, notice that much of what we worked so hard to attain in our earlier life loses its luster. The image of ourselves that we struggled to build now seems shallow, transitory, and insufficient. The stuff we so desired to accumulate becomes a burden. As we transition into our mature years, many of us long to be unbound from the binds we once so ardently sought. We can visualize a “Promised Land” out there, but we are not there, yet. Like the Israelites wandering through the wilderness, we grow restless and impatient with the current state of our lives, but we feel powerless to change it.

Who and what will we be when most of what we have treasured is left behind? As we age, we seek eternal treasures and shun the non-essentials of earth. Relationships grow in importance. The transition is difficult and can leave us adrift in a wilderness of our own creation. The story of the exodus assures us there is a Promised Land out there, and we will reach it one day – not on our timeline, however, but on God’s.

This is the 17th 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