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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 Sign of Jonah

 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” Matthew 12:38-39

Many of us were taught the story of the prophet Jonah as children in Sunday School. It is recorded in the short Old Testament book of his name. God told Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh to warn them of their impending destruction because of their wicked ways. Jonah hated the Ninevites and believed they deserved to die. Because he did not want them to have an opportunity to repent, he boarded a ship headed away from Nineveh. God caused a great storm that threatened to break the ship apart. The others on the ship were terrified and wondered who was responsible for this calamity. Jonah confessed that he had disobeyed his God, who was causing the storm to punish him. He told the sailors to throw him overboard, which they did, and the storm abated. Instead of drowning, however, a “large fish” [1] swallowed Jonah, where he remained for three days and three nights. Jonah repented in the belly of the fish, and God had the fish spew him out onto dry land. God, again, told Jonah to go to Nineveh to warn the people of their impending destruction. He went, provided the warning, the people heeded his words, turned from their evil ways, and “God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them, and he did not do it.”[2]

Jonah was angry with God as this was exactly what he feared would happen. In Jonah’s mind, the Ninevites destruction was a right and just punishment. Instead, God showed mercy to this most undeserving of people. Jonah confessed his reason for trying to flee from God’s command: “…for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”[3] Whether one reads the story of Jonah literally or allegorically, the lesson is the same: God’s actions and purposes do not always fall in line with what we believe is best or just. God will be who God will be, unapologetically.

In the context of the story of Jonah, what does Jesus mean by saying “No sign will be given to (this evil and adulterous generation) except the sign of the prophet Jonah”?[4] It is an interesting question with a number of possible answers. First, when God wants something done, it will be done whether we do it willingly or grudgingly. If we run in another direction, we may find ourselves swallowed by a metaphorical fish and spit up on the very ground where we were directed to go. Therefore, one sign of Jonah is that God’s will will be done, with or without our enthusiastic participation.

Another telling sign of Jonah has to do with God’s inexplicable grace. The people of Niveveh were not good people, at least not by the standards of the day. According to the story, and consistent with other biblical stories, God had every reason to destroy them. Like a benevolent guardian, however, God wanted to warn them of their impending demise and give them another opportunity to redeem themselves. Here is another sign of Jonah: God gives second and third chances, regardless of how we feel about it.

A third sign from the story of Jonah is God’s love for us, even when we are unloving. Jonah fell into a significant sulk after the redemption of Nineveh. He was angry with God, but God understood and loved him, anyway.

Finally, Jesus says that only the evil ask for a sign, as if they need to see a miracle before they decide to change their ways. In the story of Jonah, however, God sent an unwilling prophet to give a reluctant message of repentance. For whatever reason, the people heard and heeded Jonah’s words. Sometimes, even when we feel we need a divine sign, the Spirit moves within us to nudge us in a direction closer to God.

Even though the Matthew passage seems to imply the sign of Jonah is one of judgment and punishment for sin, consistent with many passages from Matthew’s telling, the final message is one of grace. Ultimately, the sign of Jonah is one of love and redemption, and that is the sign given by Jesus.

This is the 15th 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] Jonah 1:17

[2] Jonah 3:10

[3] Jonah 4:2

[4] Matthew 12:39

 

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Living Beyond Words

 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28

It is common to have a narrative running nonstop in our heads. Most of us are more present to the descriptions of our experiences than we are to the actual experiences, and we do not even notice ourselves doing it. The problem is obvious – our descriptions are one step removed from reality. Language is one of the first things we are taught as we grow, and by the time we reach adulthood we have fallen hook, line, and sinker for the detached reality our words describe. We forget that words are metaphors. They point to or describe something, but they are not the thing itself. For example, the familiar words of the 23rd Psalm speak of lying down in green pastures and resting beside still waters. Comforting words, yes, but they are only mental representations of the experiences they describe. God meets us in our experiences, not in our descriptions.

In the book of Exodus, as Moses and God conversed on Mount Sinai, Moses told God the Israelites would want to know God’s name. God answered, “I am who I am.”[1] The people wanted a description of God, a box within which they could place God, some way of limiting God’s nature to something tangible and controllable. Many sacred writings throughout the ages have affirmed that God cannot be known; only experienced. The same is true of our lives on earth – they cannot be lived by description. A contemplative life, in particular, seeks the experience that inspires the description – the life beyond words.

God experiences life in and through us. In other words, God experiences you through me and me through you, which is not to say any of us are God. The true self within –the best, purest, and most holy self we know we can be – is where God resides. It is the part of us that was never born and will never die. It is the part that will live on when our earthly body gives out. This true self is not, however, cause for feelings of superiority because what is true of you and me is true of everyone else, too.

Our words, however, tell us we are not equal and that we are separate beings. Our life descriptions, supported by our egos, tell us we are better than this person, although maybe not as good as another. Descriptions necessarily compare, divide, and define this and that. We assess things not by their similarities but by their differences. By the time we become adults we are so convinced we are independent beings, separate from everyone else that ignoring our neighbors, leaving family members to work out their own problems, and not flinching at the genocide occurring across the globe become the accepted norm. Because we do not see our interconnectedness, and because the words that describe our lives are inadequate to capture any semblance that we are truly one body, we lose the lived experience and responsibility of oneness – one with God and one with each other.

Our words separate all kinds of things that are actually of the same essence, and we are deceived when we believe them. For example, we define light and dark, day and night, north and south in relation to each other, by what we consider their opposite. In fact, they are different states of the same reality. The same is true for Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female. As Paul wrote to the Galatians, we are all one in Christ. Our oneness is NOT metaphorical, even if the words we use are. Even good and evil, in the larger picture, are parts of the same process of growth and evolution. No process of growth occurs without suffering, which often feels like evil when taken out of its larger context.

We are not our descriptions of ourselves; our true essence resides where our experiences meet the part of us that is one with God. Of these experiences, Jim Finley writes, “What is so extraordinary about such moments is that nothing beyond the ordinary is present. It is just the primal stuff of life that has unexpectedly broken through the mesh of opinions and concerns that all too often hold us in their spell. It is just life in the immediacy of the present moment before thought begins.”[2] Once we find that place, even for a moment, we know our true life, indescribably rich, resides beyond words.

This is the 14th 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] Exodus 3:14.

[2] James Finley, The Contemplative Heart. Sorin Books, 2000, pp.  24-25

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The Five S’s to a God Experience

 Be still, and know that I am God! Psalm 46:10a

Over the past few weeks I have covered a few states of being that put us in a position of least resistance to experience God’s presence. They are silence, stillness, solitude, simplicity, and surrender. Interestingly, none of these are typically emphasized in most church services. While churches teach about God, which is a worthy purpose, they are generally not well equipped to lead us to an experience of God. In fact, a church characterized by these five traits would probably shutter its doors quickly from lack of attendance and funding. Many churches do, however, have beautiful spaces that may be conducive to one or more of these qualities – silence, stillness, and solitude, in particular – but likely not during an actual worship service. Nature provides excellent spaces to seek God’s presence. A quiet corner of a home suffices, too.

These five traits are not common elements in our everyday lives either. In fact, an excess of any makes others worry about us. Is it any wonder we often feel so far from God, when neither our daily lives nor our churches provide the conditions most likely to awaken us to God’s ever-present nature? I summarize the five practices below in order to contain them in one place. For additional thoughts on each, check out previous posts on my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com.

Silence

We often confuse the silence of inactivity with the deep silence from which God creates. We cannot simply turn off the television and our mobile devices and expect to find silence. Silencing the noise from our external world is one thing; silencing our internal world is the greater challenge. It is through this latter type of silence that we find entry into the rich moments of our lives, being present to the creative potential and creating reality happening at all times and in all places. True silence provides a blank slate from which to co-create our lives with God.

Stillness

Like silence, stillness has an external and an internal manifestation. Just because there is calm in our external environment does not mean there is stillness within. When our internal dialogue continues to judge and criticize, we are not still. When we rehash past regrets and energize feelings of guilt and inadequacy, we are not still. When we review the things we have yet to accomplish today, we are not still. Stillness cannot occur when our mind strays outside of the moment. It is nearly impossible to experience God when we are distracted.

Solitude

Being in solitude means being free of unavoidable distractions, meaning our only distractions are self-created. Our minds may still wander, but an act of will can bring them back into the moment. Solitude provides a perfect setting for entering the moment, which is the only place we can encounter God. One reason many of us feel so distant from God is that we live in a perennial state of out-of-the-momentness.. The type of solitude that offers the least resistance to a God experience is a four-in-the-morning type of solitude, as if the only other person conscious with us is God.

Simplicity

A simple life is one where there is freedom to do what calls to us in the moment. Granted, most lives are too busy to drop everything to answer to the whims of the moment, but a simple life has the freedom to do so at least on occasion. Our possessions and our relationships, useful and beautiful as they may be, draw us away from simplicity. Finding time and space to just be, unencumbered and undistracted, is vital to enhancing our awareness of God’s presence.

Surrender

Far from a sign of failure, surrender is a necessary part of a spiritual life. We are not all-knowing. Our plans are not always the best way to get to where we wish to go, nor is where we wish to go always a good place for us to be. Being open to God’s guidance, as well as that of trusted teachers and mentors, is not surrender as in giving up, but is surrender in the sense of trusting in and submitting to the wisdom of another.

I do not claim these are the only ways to experience God. No doubt, there are other ways, but silence, stillness, solitude, simplicity, and surrender are reoccurring themes of contemplative authors since before the time of Jesus to the present day. What they share in common is they invite us outside of our comfortable state of being in order to allow something new to emerge.

This is the 13th 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