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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.

Feed My Sheep

Feed My Sheep

 He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”  John 21:17

For me, this is one of the more touching passages in the Bible, occurring after Jesus has been crucified, buried, and resurrected. He meets the disciples on the banks of the Sea of Galilee and makes them breakfast. Jesus turns to (Simon) Peter, his most passionate and zealous follower, and asks, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter answered, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus responds, “Feed my sheep.” This exchange repeats itself three times, in slightly different form, with Jesus asking Peter if he loves him, Peter affirming that he does, and Jesus telling him first to feed his lambs, then to tend his sheep, and finally to feed his sheep.. Jesus closes the conversation by repeating the words he had first spoken to his disciples three years earlier, “Follow me.”

The need to repeat three times his instruction to care for his sheep indicates the importance of the directive. The emphasis could not have been accidental. It was as if Jesus were saying, “If you forget everything else I say or do, at least remember this, ‘Care for my family.’” It is obvious that Jesus is not referring to livestock, but to his followers – those he had taught, fed, and healed during his earthly ministry. He knows he will not be physically present to care for his people any longer. He needs his followers to take care of each other and to continue the work he began. It does not require much of a leap in understanding to know Jesus was talking to us. This instruction, from 2000 years ago, was also given for us, today.

There are subtle, but important distinctions in Jesus’ responses to Peter’s assurances about loving him: “Feed my lambs,” “Tend my sheep,”, and “Feed my sheep.” First is the distinction between feeding and tending; second is the difference between lambs and sheep. The latter is the most obvious, since lambs are baby sheep. Lambs are cute, playful, and lovable, not unlike human children. They are often easier to care for and about than many of their adult counterparts. There is an innocence to a lamb that brings out our protective and nurturing instincts. Biblical authors name Jesus as the Lamb of God, referring to his untarnished purity and meaning he was unbound by earthly entanglements. In numerous places, Jesus tells us to become like, as well as to take care of the little children. In his telling of Peter to feed his lambs, Jesus is reminding the disciples of the importance of caring for the poor, lowly, and weak, regardless of their age.

The second distinction is between feeding and tending. Feeding his sheep has the obvious connotation of making sure the physically hungry have something to eat. Indeed, we cannot turn our lives toward anything but our next meal when we are hungry, nor can we expect others to understand words of wisdom on an empty stomach. Jesus’ stories about feeding the crowds are a reference to the need to attend to physical needs. There is another type of hunger, however, which is spiritual in nature. We are also hungry for the unconditional love of God. When Jesus says in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” he is not referring to food or drink called righteous. Rather, he is referring to an internal hunger, a personal desire to know and do what is right. He says those with such a hunger will be filled, meaning that type of hunger will be satisfied. To tend has a slightly broader meaning than just feeding, which includes protecting, nurturing, and creating a safe place for growth and development.

Finally, the message is for all of his disciples, even though his words were directed to Peter. Although Peter became the head of what would become the Christian church – the first Pope – there was no expectation for Peter to do this alone. The entire community of believers was to care for Jesus’ flock, including caring for each other. That community extends through space and time to include us today. This final instruction of Jesus to us, repeated three times for emphasis and inarguably tied to our love for him, is to feed his sheep.

This is the 40th in the series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

 

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Love One Another

Love One Another

 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

 John 13:34-35

The “love one another” saying of Jesus is one that appears in each of the Gospels, although in different variations and contexts. In Matthew 22:34-40 and in Mark 12:28-34, a religious leader asks Jesus which of the commandments is the greatest. Jesus says the greatest commandment is to love God, and the second is to “love your neighbor as yourself.” In Luke 10:25-28, a lawyer asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him to love God and to love his neighbor as himself. The lawyer then asks, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds with the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37), where a man was beaten, robbed, and left by the side of the road. A couple of religious leaders pass him by without offering assistance. A Samaritan (a despised foreigner) stopped and bandaged his wounds, took him to a town, and paid for his care.

In John’s telling, Jesus was with his disciples at the Last Supper where he gave them a new commandment: to love one another. Further, Jesus told them they should love one another as he had loved them. A few verses earlier, Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, modeling humility and a readiness to serve. Jesus gave his time and attention to all who came to him. He healed infirmities and fought ignorance by sharing wisdom. He accepted those whom society rejected. The love of Jesus was laser-focused on the needs of others, not personal emotions or feelings.

On a recent trip to New Orleans, I encountered panhandlers throughout the French Quarter, sometimes five or six per block. One haunting example was a young female who looked to be high school or college age. Her sign said, “Homeless and pregnant.” Her gaze was fixed on the sidewalk in front of her, as if in shame and despair. Like the religious leaders in the story of the Good Samaritan, I passed her by. I justified my insensitivity by rationalizing that I could have given thousands of dollars and made no significant dent in the needs of the area, or possibly even in the needs of this one person. It was overwhelming. In retrospect, I know I could have done something for a few – at least for this desperate girl – but I chose to keep walking. I failed even to acknowledge these unfortunates as fellow children of God by saying “Hello,” or by sitting to hear their stories. Would Jesus have passed them by? How would I judge those, like me, obliviously passing by if I were in their situation? Perhaps the sorrow I saw in them was their pity for me, a well-to-do middle-classer unwilling to share his abundance.

One of the reasons I find myself bypassing opportunities to love and serve others is my tendency to project out of the present moment. In each of my moments in the French Quarter there was one person in front of me with a need. Had I remained in the moment, I could have loved another by attending to that one person in some way. Instead, I looked at the immensity of the needs of the many outside of that moment and ended up not serving any of them. The immensity of the need outside of the moment distracted me from what I could have done to help someone in the moment. I was reminded recently that we only meet God in the moment. God does not reside in the future or the past, only in the present.

Jesus says, “By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Active love is the mark of a Christian. Using Jesus as a model, and not allowing past failures or future worries to remove us from the needs God places before us in the moment is one way to follow the example of love and service we see in Jesus. While I do not believe we are condemned for passing by those in need without helping, those are God-given opportunities to respond in kind to the love and service shown to us in Christ. By loving one another we display the mark of Christ for others to see. At the same time, we relieve a bit of the suffering in our hurting world. And both are desperately needed.

This is the 39th in the series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

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