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Many Births, Many Deaths

 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. John 3:8

One of the central points of embodiment is that the me that we consider as our life is not a single entity. Our life is actually many lives held together loosely by a single identity. In order to understand our death and dying it is helpful to acknowledge that, at least on the physical plane, there is no specific I am that is us throughout our lives. Our bodies are constantly changing, with component parts being added and eliminated, dying and being reborn. In addition, who we are mentally, emotionally, and spiritually changes on an on-going basis, too. There is a uniting force holding us together, but it is in the spiritual realm where it remains mostly hidden and beyond our understanding. When we equate our life with our body, we tend to see our physical death as an annihilation because the ever-changing form we know as our body will not last another day, let alone forever.

In general, we prefer to keep most of the physical regeneration process out of view by covering our wounds and having dead animals removed from the sides of our roads. Some of our fear of death is from poorly understood projections about the recycling processes of our bodies. Our images are fueled by grotesque recreations like The Living Dead and The Zombie Apocalypse. Such theatrical productions are geared towards macabre entertainment and not reality. We fear what we do not understand, and we clearly do not understand the amazing process of physical regeneration. The parts of creation that make resurrection possible by deconstructing old life forms – worms, maggots, mushrooms and other fungi, buzzards, and various types of bacteria – tend to be viewed with disgust, but new life would not be possible without them. The fact that nothing of the earth is ever annihilated, only reformed, should give us hope that at our death our essence will not be annihilated, either.

Our lives consist of a never-ending series of deaths and rebirths, both physical and non-physical. Every night when we go to bed, a day in our life dies. We do not fear this death because we have confidence that we will wake up (be reborn) the next morning. Every time we celebrate a birthday, wedding, birth of a child, or graduation we celebrate a death of the old and a birth of the new. Again, we do not fear these types of deaths because we see something good on the other side of them. We only fear letting go when what comes next is unknown. For example, it is easier to let go of one home when we are moving into another home by choice than when we let go of a home not knowing where we will find shelter going forward. In the prolonged death journeys of my mother and grandmother, my sense was that the closer they got to death, the more they welcomed it. They began having visions of and experiences on the other side that made the transition more comfortable. It is the unknown nature of the life after this life that causes so much of our discomfort about death.

The Bible is not necessarily a helpful source of information about what happens after physical death, either. It is probably safe to assume that the biblical authors were as much in the dark on that topic as we are. Certainly, there are sporadic references to heaven and hell, but the fact that they make up such a small portion of the Bible may indicate that these presumed afterlife destinations were not as concerning to them as they are to us today. There are many possible reasons for that, some of which I will reflect upon in the coming weeks. In short, I believe that how they saw the afterlife was vastly different from how we see it. Jesus talked frequently about the kingdom of God, but there is good reason to believe he was talking about a present state of being in the here and now, more so than a possible future state after death.

While we have little ability to see or understand the afterlife with any certainty, we should take comfort in knowing that everything else we know in God’s creation is reborn and that only forms are annihilated. Because God created the spiritual realm, too, it seems reasonable to assume that rebirth and resurrection exist there, too.

This is the 5th in the series of Life Notes titled, If I Should Die Before I Wake. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at ghildenbrand@sunflower.com, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning, if you are not receiving them in another manner.

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Embodiment, Part 3

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Embodiment, Part 3

 God speaks to each of us as he makes us, then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall, go to the limits of your longing, Embody me.

Flare up like flame and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.

Just keep going. No feeling is final. Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life. You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

Rainer Maria Rilke[1]

When I began this reflection on embodiment two weeks ago, I noted that the Hebrew word rauch is translated as Spirit in the creation story of Genesis. The same word also means air, breath, and wind. This allegorical story provides a vivid image of God’s spirit (rauch) as the animating force that brings the materials of earth to life. The broad meaning of rauch gives us a clearer understanding of the intimate presence of God’s spirit. It was not just something that entered the earth in the beginning and then retreated to parts unknown. God’s spirit continues to sweep over the face of the earth as air and wind. God’s spirit enters and exits our bodies with every breath we take and envelopes our being with every breeze. That same spirit creates and sustains the life we know. When we take our last breath, that spirit leaves the body, carrying our soul with it. The form we once knew dies, but everything making up that form assumes a new, resurrected form.

The Hebrew people, in the time of Moses, believed God’s name should not be spoken. The name of God, as revealed to Moses in Exodus 3:14, is YHWH, or what we pronounce as Yahweh. It means I am. Some believe we breath the name of God with every inhale and exhale. We breath God’s spirit (as air) into our physical body with each inhale – Yah – and we return God’s spirit into the world around us with each exhale – weh. Consciously breathing the name of God is a practice known as the Yahweh Prayer. It is the first and last Word we utter in the earthly chapter of our lives. It is quite literally the spirit of God, through our breath, that keeps our earthly form alive.

Richard Rohr, in his Daily Meditation for October 3, 2019, wrote, “We are only afraid of death as long as we do not know who we are, but once we know ourselves objectively to be a child of God, we are already home and our inheritance is given to us ahead of time.”[2] As the significance of the presence of God as our very breath begins to sink in, it becomes apparent that we are quite literally God’s children. The moment God’s rauch is removed from us, our physical existence ceases.

The life force flows from the spirit of God as our soul and animates our earthly embodiment. God enters us, enlivens our physical form, and sees and works through us. Most of the time, most of us are unaware not only of the intimate nearness of God’s presence, but also of the work God does in and through us. We feel closest to God when we become conscious co-creators with God in the world around us. This is how we develop a relationship – by acknowledging God’s presence and finding ways to listen for God’s guidance through practices like Centering Prayer, presence to the moment, and mindfulness meditation. In the process of tuning in to the divine presence with and in us, our fear of physical death dissipates because we learn that the connection with the eternal transcends our physical existence. As Rilke encourages: “Don’t let yourself lose me.” Our body is only the vehicle through which God’s work is done through and with us on earth. Although we do not know how the relationship will look after our physical death, we are assured that the bond of our soul to God’s spirit will continue because we have learned that we are inseparably united.

This is the beauty of embodiment, that our soul wraps itself in the substance of the earth for a time in order to experience the extraordinary beauty, depth, change, and pain of physical existence. And with us for every step of the journey is the spirit of God sweeping over the face of the earth as it continues to create, animate, experience, and lovingly claim us as the children of God. Through Rilke, God says, “Give me your hand.”

This is the 4th in the series of Life Notes titled, If I Should Die Before I Wake. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at ghildenbrand@sunflower.com, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning, if you are not receiving them in another manner.

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[1] Rainer Maria Rilke, Rilke’s Book of Hours, trans. Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy. Riverhead Books. 1996.

[2] Richard Rohr, Daily Meditations. Meditations.cac.org, October 3, 2019

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Embodiment, Part 2

For every matter has its time and way, although the troubles of mortals lie heavy upon them. Indeed, they do not know what is to be, for who can tell them how it will be? No one has power over the wind, or power over the day of death. Ecclesiastes 8:6-8a

As I began this discussion on earthly embodiment last week, I wrote that things of the earth are temporal, but things of the spirit, i.e., our souls, are eternal. Regarding things of the earth, this is only true of specific earthly forms, like our bodies. As we observe creation in our specific space and time, we see people and things all around us that were once alive that are now dead. In the woods outside my window there is a dead tree that fell into the crook of another tree. I have seen the dead bodies of friends, family, and loved ones. The leaves of the maple trees in my back yard turn red and orange each autumn before they die and fall to the ground. But is any of this really dead?

The answer to the question depends on what we consider to be alive. The specific earthly form that I knew as a loved one, a tree in the forest, or a maple leaf is no more. But the elements making up that body, tree trunk, or leaf are eternal. Bodies, tree trunks, and leaves, once vibrant with life, lose their old form as they go through the natural decomposition and re-formation process. When I was young, we would rake leaves from the yard into a pile and burn them, reducing their forms to a small pile of ashes. Even so, their elements remained, either being released into the air in the smoke or becoming part of the ashes. Nothing of the earth was lost, only transformed. This is the nature of earthly immortality, as it has been for billions of years. Will we live forever in our current form? No, but the elements our bodies are made from will, as will the soul that coalesces and animates the earthly elements.

We see this process of formation, destruction, and reformation all around us, although much of it occurs on a timeline alien to us. There is geological evidence that my home state of Kansas was once a vast ocean, although it is a thousand miles from the nearest ocean today. A small Missouri town that once sat on the eastern banks of the Missouri River is now a small Kansas town on the western banks of the same river. As the floodwaters of decades past receded, the river changed its course and the town changed its resident state. Over the centuries, rocks crumble and mountains erode. Families, corporations, and dynasties come and go. Teacher and author Richard Rohr says the natural course of everything in creation is order, disorder, reorder. Depending on the form, this life-cycle may occur in hours or eons. Resurrection plays out all around us all the time.

We tend to think of our physical bodies as stable and unchanging, which is far from true. Approximately 50 to 70 billion of our cells die and are replaced each day. Every part of our body is replaced every seven years or so. We exchange elements with the world around us with every breath, and our bodies integrate elements from other earthly beings with everything we eat. There is a constant exchange happening between our bodies and the world around us. Over the course of a lifetime, our bodies will have integrated elements from all over the world. The point is that, appearances aside, these bodies that seem so solid are actually fluid and dynamic.

The separation process of soul from body, as occurs at physical death, almost always requires some sort of major trauma to the body, rendering it uninhabitable. This is often the failure of a key bodily organ or some other traumatic event. Despite the advances in medical practice, and in spite of the constant remaking process, physical bodies reach a point where the soul can no longer hold the form together. The earthly elements of the body remain with the earth, and the ethereal elements of the spirit return to the realm of spirit.

This, then, is a view of the nature of our earthly lives and deaths. A portion of God’s spirit – our soul – takes on elements of the earth and embodies itself for a time. When that time is up, the body and soul go their separate ways. Nothing, however, is lost or annihilated. The form is re-form-ulated, and our soul – the true essence of who we are – lives on.

This is the 3rd in the series of Life Notes titled, If I Should Die Before I Wake. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at ghildenbrand@sunflower.com, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning, if you are not receiving them in another manner.

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Embodiment, Part 1

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Embodiment, Part 1

 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. John 1:3-4

In order to reflect on our death and dying, I want to start by sharing my view on how our earthly lives begin. I vainly claim this to be “my” view, although as with all of “my” thoughts, they are far from original to me. I borrow heavily from many contemplative authors and teachers, including Fr. Richard Rohr, James Finley, Cynthia Bourgeault, Thomas Merton, and others, as well as the teachings of Jesus and the biblical authors. “My” thoughts are formed from my limited understanding of theirs, and that synthesis may not always be true to their insights nor helpful to you. I offer this as fodder for your own ruminations about life, dying, and death.

We have an eternal nature that was never born and will never die. That part of us is our soul. It is a unique expression of the spirit of God, which is the same spirit that “swept over the face of the waters”[1] at the dawn of creation. In the Hebrew language of the Old Testament, the word translated as spirit is rauch, which also means air, breath, and wind. It is the entry of spirit into the material of the earth that causes creation to spring forth into what we know as life. In the creation story at the beginning of the Gospel of John, the resulting creation is referred to as the Logos, which is Greek for Word. This Word is the spirit in an earthly body, or embodiment. The image of God’s creating power as Word follows from the Genesis description of creation occurring at God’s verbal command: “And God said, let there be…” This Word can perhaps be better understood as a strong, creative, vibratory impulse – an energy field – more than simply spoken words as we understand them. Our human ears only hear sounds in a very limited vibrational frequency range, but waves of energy exist along an infinite scale above and below our auditory limits. They arrange and rearrange matter in ways that we often consider destructive. Think, for example, of earthquakes, tsunamis, tidal waves, and storm fronts. These are powerful waves pulsing across the earth, often recreating whatever existed before it. A small-scale example of this is often the theme of science fair projects where a student shows how different sound waves arrange grains of sand on a hard surface into different patterns. Those patterns are consistent with and unique to the frequency of the energy, rearranging the sand as the wave frequency changes.

The point is that a part of God’s animating spirit – our soul – embodies itself in earthly garb in order to become the life we know as us. This is how we begin. Like Jesus, we are a perfect and unique blend of spirit and matter. Our physical body is animated by our ethereal soul. Unlike Jesus, however, we become so consumed in the physical nature of our being that we neglect, ignore, and even deny our spiritual nature. There is a story I’ve read in various forms where an older sibling, perhaps three or four years old, asks his younger sibling to tell him about God because he is starting to forget. By the time we begin school, by the time our intellectual functions of reason and logic begin to develop, we lose connection with the spirit and spiritual life which first animated our existence. Our ego takes root and focuses our conscious attention on the material aspects of our lives, or that which makes us comfortable, rich, famous, or otherwise desirable to others. Of course, none of what makes us comfortable, rich, famous, and desirable is inherently bad, but it is all a part of the earth and will die with our body.

This, then creates much of our fear of death – that we will lose our stuff, as well as everything we identified with during our earthly existence. The seduction of the temporal things of the earth leads us to overly identify with what will necessarily be annihilated at our physical death. Like the folks at the funeral of a rich man wondering how much of his fortune he left behind – he left all of it. When we forget about our eternal, spiritual nature, we fear there will be nothing left of us when we die. In actuality, our true self will remain, as it always has. As we learn to identify more with our eternal, spiritual nature, our dread of physical death lessens.

This is the 2nd in the series of Life Notes titled, If I Should Die Before I Wake. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at ghildenbrand@sunflower.com, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning, if you are not receiving them in another manner.

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

[1] Genesis 1:2

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If I Should Die Before I Wake

 Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep;

If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.

 –Bedtime prayer for children

This week I begin a new series of Life Notes titled If I Should Die Before I Wake. In the coming months I will reflect upon topics related to death and dying. I intend to explore the various types of deaths we go through and witness during our lives on earth, as well as delving into speculations about heaven and hell, resurrection, an afterlife, and other related topics. I enter this discussion not as an expert, but as one intimately impacted by these issues and curious enough to explore them in some detail. As always, I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback. You can communicate with me directly via email at ghildenbrand@sunflower.com, or you can comment through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning, if you are not receiving them in another manner.

The thought of death makes most of us squirm. We sometimes fear if we talk too much about it, we may invite it to come closer. We know that everyone and everything dies, and in many ways we have been in a process of dying since taking our first breath on earth. We joke that the only two certainties in life are death and taxes. One of my mentors, Jim Finley, likes to say that our death is “in the mail,” meaning it is on its way. Even when death is likely decades away, each passing day draws it closer. Death is frightening because of its uncertainty and unknowability. We do not know when it will arrive, in what manner, under what circumstances, or what lies beyond. It hangs like a dismal shroud over everything good, beautiful, and joyful in our lives.

Spiritual teacher Robert Brumet posted a blog in May 2019 titled, Using Death as Your Advisor.[1] He quotes the Yaqui Indian sorcerer, Don Juan, in saying, “Death is our eternal companion. It is always at our left at arm’s length. It has always been watching you. It always will until the day it taps you.” Brumet advises, “The thing to do when you are impatient is to turn to your left and ask advice from your death. An immense amount of pettiness is dropped if you catch a glimpse of it.” He encourages us to assess our priorities in view of our impending demise. If this were my last week on earth, which of my typical worries and stressors would still matter? What activities are worthy of trading for any of my precious moments? It is in this spirit of using our death as an advisor for living that I hope this series of reflections will remain true. I do not wish to be morbid or fatalistic, but I do believe there is much to be learned from the discussion.

I have witnessed physical death in a close and personal way three time in my life, thus far. I was at my father’s side for his sudden death, and I was able to spend extended time with my mother and grandmother as they went through a slower dying process. I am forever grateful for the few hours spent with my dad the night before he died. Neither of us knew, at least not consciously, how life was about to change. I am equally grateful for the days and weeks spent with my mother and grandmother during their gradual transition toward whatever comes next. My grandmother shared a number of experiences she was having of the next world whenever she drifted back to conscious presence with me. Truly, time spent with the dying is a blessed gift when we are present enough to receive it. We must, however, go deeper into the experience than our sadness at losing physical contact with one we love typically allows. Of course, this is easier said than done.

Brumet offers sage advice about death and dying: “Remembering that the span of my life is limited makes my remaining days all the more precious.” My hope is that these reflections will encourage us to reorder our priorities for our remaining days, treating each as a priceless gift. If that occurs, these reflections will be less about death and more about living life to its fullest. May it be so.

This is the 1st in the series of Life Notes titled, If I Should Die Before I Wake.

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

[1] Robert Brumet, Using Death as Your Advisor. May 2, 2019, http://www.RobertBrumet.com

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Praying With One Eye Open (Reprise)

 Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with Thanksgiving. At the same time pray for us as well… Colossians 4:2-3a

Throughout this series of Life Notes I have presented the metaphor of praying with one eye open in a negative light. I have used it as an illustration of how we hold back from surrendering completely to God. There is another way of looking at this, however, in which praying with one eye open might actually be the most appropriate way to pray. First, I’ll take a slight, but hopefully interesting detour.

Most people are aware that our brains have two hemispheres. It is one of the countless and unfathomable aspects of how we were created. In very broad terms, the left hemisphere specializes in small details and differentiates what it experiences into concrete groupings of right or wrong, dark or light, male or female. The left hemisphere, useful and necessary as it is, cannot see the big picture. The right hemisphere specializes in the big picture and attempts to fit its experiences into a larger whole. It seeks similarities and relationships, not differences. Here is an example of the typical functioning of the two hemispheres of the brain, paraphrased from Iain McGilchrist’s book, The Master and His Emissary[1]:

A small bird in search of food must perform two tasks simultaneously. First, the bird must focus narrowly on the ground to identify what is edible from what is inedible, i.e., a grain of wheat from a pebble. This is detail work that is the domain of the left hemisphere, which controls the right eye. So our bird is scanning the ground with its right eye in search of food. At the same time, our little friend must also scan the environment for predators. This bigger picture focus is the domain of the right hemisphere, so the bird is also checking her/his surroundings with the left eye. For its well-being, our bird must be aware of both its internal needs and its external dangers. The divided brain allows it to do so.

I use this example to illustrate the dual nature of our earthly lives. Although we are one being, we have both a spiritual and physical aspect to that being. In a related way, we have an internal life as well as the life going on around us. Our divided brains show how we were created with the ability to comprehend and experience in both detailed and broad ways, in concrete and ethereal realms, and in our inner and outer lives. As we awaken to the amazing manner in which we were created, we become capable of unifying and reconciling what we witness in the world around us with the life we experience within.

In prayer, there is a need to focus on the details of our personal situation and a simultaneous need to be aware of the needs of others around us. Like the hungry bird, we have need for both attention to our inner details and a view beyond our own little world. For prayer to be effective, we must attend to both our internal and external worlds.

When we understand that God created us with physical eyes and senses to perceive the world around us, but also with internal senses to explore our inner lives, then we begin to see the wisdom and practicality of praying with one eye open. In other words, we have been given the capacity to be attuned to our inner and outer worlds simultaneously. In order to close our physical eyes in prayer, we need not turn a blind eye to the suffering around us. Likewise, we need not ignore the struggles and conflicts within, pretending as if they do not exist. Our inner and outer worlds mirror one another and ignoring one simply intensifies the struggle in the other.

We were created as single beings with dual capabilities. We actually can attend to seemingly opposite realities until it becomes clear that they are two sides of the same thing. We can become unifiers of the seeming dualisms and contradictions of our world. We attain the peace of Christ when we embrace all of the diverse realities in this life as a single and good creation, valuable and worthy of our respect and love simply by being. In order to grow into this knowledge of our essential unity, we need to pray with one eye closed, i.e., focused internally, and one eye open, i.e., focused externally.

This is the 36th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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[1] Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary. Yale University Press, 2019.

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Praying With Both Eyes Closed

But as for me, my prayer is to you, O Lord. At an acceptable time, O God, in the abundance of your steadfast love, answer me. Psalm 69:13

In January of this year, I began this series of Life Notes with a reflection about praying with one eye open. I used it as a metaphor for not giving oneself fully to God. Since that time I have written numerous additional reflections about the various ways we find to avoid or otherwise not surrender to God as much as we can or perhaps should. Make no mistake, I do not write these as a person who is particularly good at that type of surrender. Maybe that makes me a hypocrite, but these are topics I struggle with and assume at least some others do, too. I remember Sundays in church as a child during prayer time looking around the sanctuary for people whose eyes were not closed. I always found a few. I think I figured if I got caught, the captor would automatically expose his or her own guilt if he or she called me out. It was not that I was serving as the prayer police as much as it was just difficult for me to keep both eyes closed during the prayers that seemed to drag on forever. I, like most of us, was taught to pray with both eyes closed. I guess it was considered disrespectful to God to be looking around during prayer.

The years have given me a slightly different perspective on prayer. I no longer believe God cares whether our eyes are open or closed. I do, however, believe it can make a difference to our personal prayer experience. We receive so much information and stimulation through our eyes that it is difficult, if not impossible, to focus on something ephemeral, like God, with our eyes open. We believe our connection to God is internal and, as such, that our gaze should be internal, too. That implies that our eyes should be closed.

As I have stated in earlier Life Notes, having both eyes closed makes us vulnerable. We cannot see what is going on around us. We do not know but that everyone else might be staring at something that has gone weirdly wrong with our hair. Keeping our eyes open is probably an instinctual trait dating back to the days when we needed to watch for angry Mastodons that might be coming after us. Keeping our eyes open helps us keep control of our environment, or at least gives us a sense of control. Which is exactly not the point in prayer. Closing our eyes requires a degree of trust and surrender, both of which are helpful orientations in seeking God’s presence. In my experience, God does not compete for our attention.

There is a school of thought that when we are doing something, we should be focused on that one thing to the exclusion of everything else. Work efficiency experts tell us to clear everything out of the visual field in our work space except for the immediate task at hand. Distractions like phone calls, emails, and other projects begging for attention come at a cost in terms of getting our tasks done in a timely and accurate manner. Experts tell us we cannot multi-task nearly as well as we believe, so attending to one task at a time is preferable. Under this methodology, when we pray, we should be completely focused on our prayer, and our eyes should be closed.

Certainly in our relationships, when a friend or partner is speaking, particularly about something sensitive, we want to give our attention wholly to her or him. A quick and sure way to damage the relationship is to check our cell phone while the partner is sharing something close to her or his heart. It is a colossal show of disrespect and an indication of how little we value what is important to him or her.

Perhaps for all these reasons and more, keeping both eyes closed during prayer is the best option. It helps keep us focused on God (at least in theory), and it puts us in an attitude of surrender. Having both eyes closed is a symbolic way of saying we trust God to protect us in our times of vulnerability. Those of us who are parents want our children to trust and feel safe in our presence, so why would God feel differently?

This is the 35th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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Divine Violence, Part 3

 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the words of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. John 9:2-4

As a way to illustrate the shared responsibility for the violence manifesting in our world as mass shootings, human slavery, and various forms of oppression and abuse, consider a sometimes-violent, homeless, and mentally ill man living on the streets of our town. Whose fault is it that he is homeless? We are quick to blame local governments for their inadequate funding for affordable housing. Whose fault is it that he has untreated mental illness? We are quick to blame the government’s inadequate funding for mental health services. Whose fault is it that he is sometimes violent? We are quick to blame the local justice system. Now, follow this chain: Who controls governmental purse strings and priorities? (Our elected officials) Who elects these officials? (We do) Most elected officials are inundated with complaints about high government spending. Others complain that taxes need to increase to take care of people like this man, but they believe someone else’s taxes should increase. We recognize the need, but not our own responsibility to participate in the solution.

So, who is to blame for this homeless, mentally ill man on our streets? Is it the government, local service providers, elected officials, or the voters? The responsibility for the problem and the solution, of course, rests on us. I do not point this out to infuse guilt. This is shared guilt and shared responsibility. It starts, however, with recognizing and taking responsibility for our individual part. Pope Francis, in his message for the 2017 World Day of Peace said, “Jesus taught that the true battlefield, where violence and peace meet, is the human heart: for “it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come” (Mark 7:21). [1] The change we seek begins within. As I noted last week, the external violence in our world mirrors the internal violence within each of us. Our desire to shift the responsibility for society’s ills onto others is a manifestation of that violence. It reveals the split between our true self, which suffers with the suffering, and our ego-self, which focuses narrowly on its own self-promotion.

How do we identify and heal the violence within so we can begin healing the violence we witness in our world? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Identify the areas of internal resistance, the motives and beliefs, inhibiting your ability to recognize society’s problems as your problems. For example, “My taxes are already too high” or “That is not my responsibility.”
  2. Once exposed, work to transform those motives and beliefs from something individually focused to something more socially focused. For example, transform the belief that “my taxes are too high” to “we are all going to have to sacrifice to resolve this issue.”
  3. Form or join like-minded people to influence positive change in your community as a whole. For example, form a group to pressure local officials and voters to adequately and sustainably fund local services for the marginalized.

The essential nature of sin is the sense of separation from others. Many perpetrators of human atrocities are isolated beings trapped in their isolated ego-self. How can we safely and effectively integrate those on the margins into society? How can we expand our boundaries to make them feel included? How can we give them a sense of belonging and social responsibility?

In today’s scripture, the followers of Jesus wanted to know who was responsible for a man being born blind. In his day, many believed the man’s blindness was due either to his or his parent’s sin. Jesus said the man was born blind to reveal God’s works – works performed by the hands and hearts of those seeking to love God actively in the world. Whose fault is it we live in a violent world? Ultimately, it is ours. For what purpose? Perhaps it is so those willing to be the hands and heart of God on earth can manifest God’s glory by transforming divine violence into divine love. That is how we will open the gates to God’s kingdom on earth.

This is the 34th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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[1] Pope Francis, “Nonviolence: A Style of Politics for Peace,” Message of His Holiness Pope Francis for the Celebration of the Fiftieth World Day of Peace (January 1, 2017).

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Divine Violence, Part 2

 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come… Mark 7:21a

Last week I reflected on how we can read the violent sections of the Bible in a metaphorical way that helps us reconcile a loving God with a sometimes violent text. This method of biblical interpretation is based on the foundational belief that our inner struggles not only mirror the violence recorded in the Bible, but also mirror the external violence we witness in our world today. These inner struggles occur between our ego-self – the part of us that is overly identified with our mortal, physical being – and our true-self – the part of us that is inseparably wedded to God, others, and the eternal. These two selves, both of which are us, find themselves in frequent conflict because their goals, values, and perspectives differ widely. Unfortunately, the violence in our world is not metaphorical. The murder of innocents, physical abuse, oppression, and the heartbroken victims and families left in their wake are all very real.

Let me restate the proposition that some will find silly or heretical: The world outside of our selves mirrors the world inside of our selves. As such, our eternal fate is inseparably tied to that of all others. Salvation is not an individual achievement; rather, it is a communal awakening. The traditional view of heaven would not be heaven if we were there alone. That would be hell. We have neither the wisdom nor the perspective to judge who is worthy of either glory or damnation. What we have is a commandment to love each other. Followers of Jesus, by definition, try to do what he did. Jesus reached out to and served those on the margins of society – prostitutes, tax collectors, widows and orphans, the sick and lame, immigrants, the blind. In no uncertain terms he told us to go and do likewise. This command was not simply because loving these people is a nice thing to do, but because bringing them into our circle of care is a necessary step for our own entry into the kingdom of heaven. Remember, our inner life mirrors what we witness externally as their life.

A common question I hear in discussions of mass tragedies like the Holocaust is this: Where was God? That question is as wrong as it is reasonable. We are far too quick to blame God for evil manifestations of human brokenness and ignorance. The correct question is: Where were we? Granted, most of us were not alive during the Holocaust, but where are we with the immigrants at our southern border? Where are we in the mass shootings occurring throughout our country? Where are we in human trafficking and the myriad of other continuing forms of human slavery and oppression? If we are God’s hands and feet on earth, where are we? We are an integral part of the fabric of this society and the communities where we live. We help perpetuate that which we do not oppose. What public action have I taken on gun control, global hunger, immigration, or human trafficking? Personally, I have done far too little.

So here is our dilemma: If the outer world mirrors our inner world, what are we doing about the senseless violence within? I think the answer begins with the degree to which we consciously identify with our ego self. The ego has no problem with personal gain at the expense of another. It has no problem looking the other way when someone else is being beaten or robbed, as long as the perpetrator does not come after it. Is it any wonder we live in a violent, self-centered society? The ego has no social conscience, and a lack of social responsibility is at the heart of mass human tragedies. Assuming personal responsibility for the suffering of others is lacking. The ego is very quick to assign blame elsewhere. And the first to suffer and last to recover are those at the margins – the ones to whom Jesus dedicated his ministry.

Once we identify more strongly with our true self, our connection to others becomes more apparent. We can no longer stand by and witness the persecution of others because their persecution is our persecution. Refusing to consider scripture and the life around us as a reflection of our inner world is like praying with one eye open. We allow into our awareness only those parts of reality that support our ego-self. And those at the margins pay the price for our ignorance.

I will attempt to wrap up the loose ends of this discussion next week.

This is the 33rd in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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Divine Violence, Part 1

 Let burning coals fall on them! Let them be flung into pits, no more to rise! Psalm 140:10

There are a number of methods to interpret what we read in the Bible and other sacred texts. One common method, although it is relatively recent in Christian history, is the literal interpretation. This assumes that God dictated the Bible as opposed to inspiring it, as Timothy states in his Epistle.[1] “It is in the Bible, therefore God said it, so I believe it,” is a common sentiment of those who apply a literal interpretation. Others follow a historical reading, meaning they see the Bible as a historical record that may or may not have current relevance beyond recording events from long ago. Another method of interpretation is the allegorical or metaphorical, which bypasses questions of factuality and seeks the story-within-the-story the reading attempts to impart. For example, Jesus used parables in his teaching, which are not factual accounts but are relatable stories with an important moral lesson. There is a use for each type of interpretation, depending on the scripture passage and our stage in life, but I find the metaphorical reading most useful for spiritual growth and understanding.

One concern that turns many away from the Bible is the violence recorded, requested, and alluded to throughout its pages. Particularly for those who read the Bible literally, God appears to play favorites and sometimes violently so. For example, as the Israelites were seeking their freedom from slavery, God caused a series of plagues to fall upon the people of Egypt in order to convince Pharaoh to grant them their freedom. The tenth plague brought death to all the firstborn in Egypt, both children and livestock.[2] As a firstborn myself, I find this very disconcerting! Not only were the plagues caused by God, but God purposely hardened Pharaoh’s heart following the previous plagues so that Pharaoh would not set the Israelites free.[3] A literal reading of Exodus would mean that God not only caused thousands of deaths to innocent people and animals to send a message to Pharaoh, but God was manipulating Pharaoh in such a way as to prevent him from relinquishing. One must be a nimble biblical apologist to reconcile the literal Biblical record with what we want to believe is a loving and just God.

In the creation story of Genesis, after creating every living thing on the earth, God created humankind and pronounced the whole of creation “very good.”[4] This story does not distinguish the Israelites as better than non-Israelites, although much of the Bible refers to them as God’s “chosen” race (never mind that most of the Bible was written by these chosen ones). My point is that a God who created all things and all peoples and pronounced them “very good” seems unlikely to take sides in squabbles among God’s creation, let alone initiate or support such violent and fatal action against either side. The Psalms are full of accounts of exactly that sort of vicious favoritism, either requested by someone feeling offended or granted on their behalf. My belief is that God’s part in these stories is either a misunderstanding on the part of the author or an allegorical truth-sharing using a non-factual story.

Fortunately, there is another way to understand such texts without portraying God as arbitrary or violent toward innocents. As followers of Jesus, who was unquestionably non-violent, we need another option. A metaphorical reading, while not taking a position on the literal or historical accuracy of the passages, leads one to ponder how the message applies to one’s own life. For example, we can read the story of the exodus as the story of our own struggle to free the true and pure part of ourselves from the ego-self and its bondage to materialism. Pharaoh represents our ego, and the Israelites are our true self. The various plagues represent the numerous attempts we make to free ourselves from the addictive consumer-mentality of our culture. There are many plagues because we must persist with sustained efforts at self-change. The death of the first-born can represent the “death” of some of our “first-born” ideas about life and God that are either wrong or that we have outgrown, many of which we inherit from ancestors. Those ideas and beliefs can be stubborn entities, like Pharaoh, that do not easily relent.

Such metaphorical, internal violence is one thing. The very real and tragic violence in our world is quite another. I will reflect on that next week.

This is the 32nd in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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[1] See 2 Timothy 3:16.

[2] Exodus 12:29.

[3] See Exodus 11:10.

[4] Genesis 1:31.

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A Beautiful Soul, Part 3

I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. John 15:15

The last two weeks I have shared my thoughts about our individual souls. On the one hand, our soul needs to express in physical ways. On the other hand, our soul is not of this world, but is an extension of God’s eternal realm. As such, we can feel wounded when a sincere expression of our deepest essence is not received with the same level of respect and care from which it came.

One of the hardest things to grasp is that we are quite literally one at the soul level – one with God and one with each other. An indication of how much we identify with our physical nature is in how much we feel separate from others. The truth is that we sink or swim together. When others suffer, we suffer, regardless of whether we feel the direct impact that tragedies across the globe have on us. This is why Jesus of Nazareth and other great spiritual leaders manifested as suffering servants. They knew who they were at their core, and so they recognized the suffering of the world as their own suffering. Author and teacher, Richard Rohr, writes, “Becoming who we really are is a matter of learning how to become more and more deeply connected.”

Because the soul is not bound by time and space our connections with others are not limited by time and space, either. That is how we can maintain a close friendship with someone whom we seldom see and pick up conversations from where we left off years before. It is why we can be moved to tears by a symphony written centuries ago by a composer we never knew personally. It explains why certain paintings of long-dead artists can connect so intimately and emotionally with something deep inside of us. These connections are soul-to-soul and they spring from a realm beyond the physical. The concept of soul mates has been hijacked by romantic notions, but it really refers to deep connections with others that transcend space and time. Truly, our soul knows no boundaries.

I attended a presentation by a poet in college. He drew a distinct line between those who opened a channel to their soul for others to experience and those who did not. In his opinion, there were two choices – live life as an emotionally unstable but serious artist or live life as a stable but mediocre (at best) artist. In my opinion, he probably succeeded on the emotionally unstable front, but I found his poetry to be more an expression of his egoic insecurities than reflections of something terribly profound or deep. I do not believe our choices for manifesting the spiritual, soulful part of ourselves to be nearly so stark. In fact, I believe we are meant to allow our souls to embody in all the ways we are gifted to manifest. With an awareness that not everyone will receive our soulful expressions with the appreciation and respect we believe they deserve, we can learn to express from the deepest parts of our being simply for the joy of such expression.

Our ego becomes overly identified with our mortal bodies and with the opinions of others. It is our ego that is fragile and easily wounded, not our soul. When we overly identify with our ego and with our physical being, we will almost certainly turn into an emotional basket case, like the poet mentioned above, anytime anything that springs from our essence is rejected. As we learn to identify more with the eternal, spiritual part of us we are less likely to be wounded by the words and actions of others.

When the veil between the physical and spiritual begins to thin, we can allow our beautiful soul to shine through and touch others. This is evangelism beyond words. We allow others to be touched by the Spirit through us. Whether we manifest great works of art, poetry, music, or just comforting presence is beside the point. Our beautiful soul will draw out the beauty in others, and there is no art form more beautiful or impactful than that. This is how we manifest the healing presence of God; it brings the peace that passes understanding. It is how we live our lives to the fullest, beautiful body and beautiful soul.

This is the 31st in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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A Beautiful Soul, Part 2

 Then Jesus said, “Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

Luke 23:34

Last week, I began a series of reflections about the pure essence within each of us – our beautiful soul. I quoted lyrics from Don McLean’s song, Vincent, that reflect how there is a part of us that is truly too beautiful to be appreciated by or safe in the material world. Only when we connect deep-unto-deep, soul to soul, can our most vulnerable centers express safely. Our physical existence, though beautiful and enticing, becomes cold, cruel, and manipulative when it represses its spiritual essence. Our spiritual nature desires to manifest in physical ways, whether in works of art, dance, food, children, or stimulating conversation. Truly beautiful and timeless works and performances come from a place deep within the artist that connect with a similar place deep within the audience. As long as we are physically embodied, our souls long to connect with other souls in meaningful, physical ways.

Part of our inner struggle results from our souls being eternal while our bodies are mortal. The soul was never born and will never die. Our physical nature clings to that which the spirit creates, not wanting it to change and grow, knowing that growth eventually leads to decay and death. Our souls let go of embodied creation easily and gracefully, understanding that the natural life-cycle for every embodied thing is growth, decay, death, and rebirth. The soul knows that this process allows the earth and everything on it to be reborn as a new creation, increasing diversity, and expressing the fathomless creativity of the Divine.

Our individual souls are conduits for God’s Spirit. They are our connection to God, and through that connection, where we are interwoven with everything else in creation, including with each other. An embodied soul can be (imperfectly) thought of as a clothed body. We put on clothes to protect our bodies from the environment, to fit in with those around us, and to prevent ourselves from being seen naked. Small children have no such inhibitions. As we grow we become ashamed of our bodies, self-conscious of every seeming imperfection, and prefer to hide them. We become more focused on our external persona than the essence within. The same happens with our soul. We fear that expressions of our soul will be denigrated in this physical realm, and so we try to keep them hidden and repressed. We recognize our soulful expressions as manifestations of our most pure and truest self and feel vulnerable when we allow others to see them.

Guitar players develop callouses on their fingers. This is necessary to protect one’s fingertips from the guitar’s strings. Without them, fingers become painfully raw and playing guitar becomes a torturous experience. Every so often, the callouses grow too thick to feel the strings, however, and must be reduced in thickness by filing or picking them off. Guitar players seek a balance between protection and the need to feel the strings. Well-adjusted poets and artists find ways to express their deepest responses to the world while guarding against unhealthy or excessive exposures. These are possible metaphors for the balance we seek in exposing our beautiful soul. The soul wants to express and experience life in all of its raw, physical beauty, but it must at least partially shelter itself from the physical pain that can result from such vulnerability.

A powerful example of a soul seeking to connect deeply with other souls is found in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. He consistently ignored the social and religious conventions that did not encourage soulful expressions. He criticized rules and regulations that served no purpose other than to keep oppressed people oppressed. He sought to free people from that which kept them trapped in their material existence, saying, “for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”[1] Even as he was dying on the cross, he asked God to forgive his executioners because they did not know what they were doing. When we deny the expressions of our beautiful soul, we do not know what we deny to ourselves and others.

Again, in the words of Don McLean from his song Vincent, “They would not listen, they did not know how…”[2] The fact is that we cannot understand or appreciate a soul’s beautiful expressions unless we allow those expressions to connect with and move in our deepest being. Only in such moments of shared vulnerability can a connection be established that allows us to hear and appreciate the unearthly beauty of a soulful embodiment.

More next week…

This is the 30th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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[1] Matthew 6:21

[2] Don McLean, Vincent. Universal Music Publishing Group, 1970.

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A Beautiful Soul, Part 1

 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works, that I know very well. Psalm 139:14

In 1970, singer/songwriter Don McLean wrote what would become the mega-hit song, Vincent. Millions of people, myself included, were obsessed with this poetic story set to music about the 19th Century artist, Vincent Van Gogh. The song is better known by its opening words, based the title of one of Van Gogh’s many paintings, Starry, Starry Night. The lyrics of the song blend the tragic life of this troubled artist with references to many of his works. After struggling with mental illness and poverty, Van Gogh committed suicide at age 37. The line from the song that haunted me then, and still does today, is this:

“And when no hope was left inside on that starry, starry night, you took your life as lovers often do;

But I could’ve told you, Vincent, this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.”[1]

In the mid-1970s and 80s, I was a folk-singer playing at bars and coffee houses, and Vincent was one of the most requested songs in my repertoire. Many people had the lyrics memorized and would solemnly sing along. I believe there is a powerful truth lying beneath these words that many of us relate to in a very personal way. That powerful something is impossible to fully express in words, but it can be triggered by words, as McLean demonstrated. Once triggered, we know the experience in an unmistakable way. It has to do with the fact that each of us, like Van Gogh, has a soul that is too beautiful for this world. Many of us, in our most intimate and vulnerable moments, feel as though no one understands us. We feel mistreated, unappreciated, and alone – just as Van Gogh felt. When the people and circumstances in our world run roughshod over our tender essence, we feel we no longer belong. And we are right – that part of us is not of this world.

What was perhaps clear to Van Gogh, but becomes clouded over in the daily grind of our lives is that at our essence, we are a pure and beautiful soul. This applies to all of us, regardless of how inartistic we may believe ourselves to be. We enter this world as a fully developed soul in a minimally developed physical body. When our physical needs are satisfied, we are a wide-eyed sponge taking in the wonder and beauty of this mysterious, enticing, physical existence. It does not take long, however, to learn that this world, beautiful as it is, does not always reciprocate the love and wonder we attempt to bestow upon it. As we grow and mature, our physical being overshadows our spiritual nature in ways that can make our beautiful soul seem almost non-existent. We are protective of our precious essence, often unconsciously, because we know it is not of this world. Unfortunately, we become so protective as to almost shield it into obscurity. When we believe our beautiful soul may be wounded by this world, we double-down on our efforts to protect it. The abuse of drugs, alcohol, and other overly risky behaviors are often attempts at self-protection that dull the pain the world can inflict on our soft underbelly. Suicide is a tragic and far too common result of this inherently protective instinct.

Clearly, a balance between protection and expression is needed. By opening our beautiful soul to the world, all manner of awe-inspiring works are birthed, as witnessed by Van Gogh’s paintings, McLean’s song, well-prepared meals, and all the amazing works of life and art we enjoy. It is only when a person exposes his or her spiritual essence that an expression of the ethereal, unearthly beauty of the spiritual realm can be made manifest for us to see, feel, touch, taste, and smell. Unfortunately, the opening required for the soul leaves the person vulnerable. Part of the pain is the responsibility of those witnessing the soulful expression of another for not recognizing and appreciating the exposure required. Part of the responsibility rests upon the artist, too, in recognizing and accepting that a part of us really is too beautiful for this world. Finding effective strategies to cope with the tension is vital.

I will delve deeper into this discussion next week. For now, suffice it to say that repressing the expression of our beautiful souls is like praying with one eye open. We cannot become fully alive to our true nature without giving birth to physical expressions of our beautiful souls.

This is the 29th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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[1] Don McLean, Vincent. Universal Music Publishing Group, 1970.

Bits and Bytes

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Bits and Bytes

 Desire without knowledge is not good, and one who moves too hurriedly misses the way. Proverbs 19:2

I took a computer programming class in college in the 1970’s,. The lone computer at the university was the size of a small house with a fraction of the computing power of our mobile phones today. The computer read our instructions with punch cards, which required entering one precise instruction, i.e., “Start with 10,” on a single card before going to the next precise order on a different card. Our final class project was to write a program so the computer would count down from 10 to 0 by ones. It required 80+ punch cards. The slightest mistake in punching or ordering the cards resulted in a failed project. It was tedious, mind-numbing, and unforgiving work.

Bits and bytes are the building blocks of computer language, then as now. A bit (binary digit) is a single data point, either 0 or 1. There are only two options for a bit – on or off. A byte is a grouping of 8 bits. In a computer’s binary byte code, writing 0, 1, 2 looks like this: 00000000, 00000001, 00000010.

Prior to computers, we had pen and paper, typewriters, and slide rules with which to write and compute. Clearly, computers have provided giant leaps forward in making nearly every aspect of our lives easier and more efficient. In order for a computer to work, however, our information must be converted to a digital format – bits and bytes. Computers operate on a completely dualistic system – something must either be right or wrong, black or white, good or evil, on or off. There is no gray area in a digital language. A bit either has an electrical charge or it doesn’t, and therein lies the problem. No matter how small the space between on and off, there is an in between with an infinite range of intermediate possibilities – possibilities where the spirit inhabits.

While I am far from suggesting a return to our pre-computer days, much has been lost in return for convenience and efficiency. I would term was has been lost as depth of experience. It wasn’t that long ago that even an untrained eye could distinguish between a digitized picture, i.e., a pictures taken on a cellphone (which converts the image into bits and bytes), and a picture taken with a good, film camera. The difference was in the depth of field,  color, and contrast. Digital pictures were convenient, but not very representative. Now, with enough pixels (bits and bytes), the untrained human eye cannot tell the difference between a digital and a film picture in most cases. Yet, the difference is there in the spaces the bits and bytes cannot capture.

The situation is similar with sound recordings. The music we hear on the most prevalent sound sources today, reproduce only a small sample of the original sound. The result is usually difficult for the untrained ear to distinguish. The convenience makes it worthwhile for most of us, however, myself included.

Here is my concern in this discussion: Are we becoming blind to the depth of experience we lose for the convenience we gain? Far from suggesting a return to slide rules and typewriters, are there areas where we can distinguish the difference in depth such that the losses do not outweigh the gains?  For example, having a digitized church service available on line is a convenience for shut-ins, but the experience is far less than being present in the sanctuary. Listening to a recording of a live musical performance makes the performance more accessible but is usually a poor substitute for actually being present for the performance. Reading a book about love is not the same as actually experiencing a loving relationship. Bits and bytes, like words and phrases, substitute for the depth of the actual experience. The field of Artificial Intelligence, exciting as it is, is still incapable of reading between the on or off options available to each bit upon which it depends.

When we text or email instead of speaking in person, we are essentially converting the spoken word into bits and bytes by losing all of the non-verbal context. In the same way, we sacrifice the depth of a hand-written note for the convenience of a text.

Again, my point is not that our new technologies should be dropped for the old. Rather, it is that we need to be discerning about when and in what situations we use which method. Will we lose something of value by taking the easier, more convenient path? Our important relationships, like our spiritual development, cannot be captured in nor reduced to bits and bytes.

This is the 28th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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A Den of Thieves

 Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer; but you are making it a den of robbers.’” Matthew 21:12-13

There are few examples recorded in the Gospels of Jesus getting angry. We develop a picture of him as mostly even-tempered. He displayed displeasure at people who were misleading others, under the guise of religion, about what was required for salvation. He was seemingly frustrated by how slow his disciples were to grasp his message at times. But the top prize for flying off the handle goes to what we refer to as Jesus’ “cleansing of the temple.” In the various Gospel accounts, he overturns tables and chairs, runs off the sacrificial animals, and, quoting from Isaiah, says they have transformed God’s house of prayer into a den of robbers. In John’s account of the event[1], Jesus even weaves together a whip of cords to aid in the cleansing.

For the leaders of the temple, the business folks, and probably even for the people there to worship, Jesus’ actions were those of a crazed lunatic. The buying and selling of sacrifices and the changing of money was a normal part of the temple experience. Seemingly, no one but Jesus saw anything wrong with it. And that is exactly the trap we can find ourselves in even today – that we become comfortable with and accept without question the possible turning of our temples into dens of thieves. It becomes so commonplace, we don’t even notice until someone comes in, loses his or her temper, and starts throwing tables and chairs.

The concept of what constitutes a temple is worth reflecting upon. In Jesus’ day, the temple was in Jerusalem and was the center of the Jewish faith. Its innermost part, the Holy of Holies, was the residence of God. No one was allowed entry to the Inner Sanctum except the High Priest, and then only once a year. Today, we often consider the buildings in which we worship – our churches, synagogues, mosques, and other buildings – as temples. But the Bible goes much further, naming our bodies as temples of the Most High. For example, in his first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul writes, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”[2] The temple that Jesus “cleansed” can be seen as a metaphor for us. In what ways have we turned our personal “house of prayer” into a “den of thieves?” In what ways have we blocked the path to our own Inner Sanctum?

Perhaps what Jesus railed against in the temple was the outrageous prices being charged and not just that commerce was being conducted. After all, his accusation was that the sellers were “robbers.” The people were a captive audience in the temple, similar to us in airports today. We pay higher prices because it is more convenient than leaving the area to pay a more reasonable price. Deeper than that, however, one of Jesus’ primary teachings was that the entire sacrificial system – that something else must die to cleanse us of our sins, or that we can buy our salvation – was a sham. God’s love and forgiveness is given freely, and all we must do is receive it. Not only do we not need to earn or pay for it, we cannot earn or pay for it. God’s love is a gift. In that sense, the buyers and sellers were simply expensive and unnecessary distractions from the real point of being in the temple – to be in God’s presence. There should be no cover charge for entry. Everything else simply draws our attention away from the primary purpose. And the leaders of the temple, then and now, smiled because the distractions often accrued to their benefit.

Even so, what about our personal temple? What obstacles prevent our bodies from being houses of prayer? Where are our distractions? Where are we wasting resources and energy to try to earn the gift God freely gives to us? What would Jesus throw out of our temple if he were to enter? Perhaps when we place conditions on the giving of our love and acceptance to others – the very love and acceptance lavished so freely on us – we become more of a den of thieves than a house of prayer. Loving attention is always life-giving and should always be free, whether given or received. Love is not a product for the marketplace.

This is the 27th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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[1] John 2:13-16.

[2] 1 Corinthians 3:16.

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Dealing With Dharma

 In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider; God has made the one as well as the other, so that mortals may not find out anything that will come after them. Ecclesiastes 7:14

The literal meaning of the Sanskrit word, dharma (dar’-mah), is “the law.” It does not mean the law in a dogmatic sense, however. We can break human laws. We can run from the upholders of the law. Through legislation, we can change the law. Dharma refers to a law that we cannot break, run from, or change. Dharma is the law of the moment. It refers to what is, right now. I can choose to be happy, sad, angry, or any of the infinite range of human emotions over the way things are in this moment, but it will not change the dharma – it will not change the situation of the moment. The only control I have over dharma is my response to it.

When we talk about living in the moment, we refer to a state of mind where we are not reliving past experiences, nor are we looking ahead with worry or anticipation over something that may or may not occur in the future. Living in the moment is about being fully present to whatever is occurring in my life right now. Indeed, the current moment is the only one we can actually experience,  even though our attention is usually elsewhere. Remaining in the moment is a perpetual challenge, particularly in the West where our distractions are many.

Dharma is a familiar term in Buddhism and Hinduism. The concept of dharma is not foreign to Christianity, either, but over the past few centuries we have tended to look past it. We (mistakenly) believe ourselves less “victimized” by dharma since we have developed ways to better shelter ourselves from the extremes of the climate and make our lives more comfortable. As more of us have made ourselves safer and more secure from certain of life’s disasters, we have convinced ourselves that there is little that we cannot avoid experiencing, even and especially the present moment. Floods, tornados, hurricanes, forest fires, theft, tsunamis and the like prove differently. We cannot shield ourselves from broken hearts, the loss of loved ones, or the steady decay of our bodies. Our ability to shelter ourselves from some things leads us to believe we can avoid all unpleasantness. Dharma says differently.

In order to deal successfully with dharma we must focus ourselves on the current moment, without dragging any baggage from the past or future. The way things are in this moment is the way things are in this moment, and nothing we do will change that. Changing the moment is beyond our control. Changing our response to the moment, however, is completely under our control, as is making changes in our lives that may help align future moments better with our desires. We are, at best, co-creators of our future moments. That is how we deal with dharma. It is expressed well in the Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

            To change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

The author of the Old Testament wisdom book of Ecclesiastes also speaks of the dharma by  encouraging us to consider that God makes both good days and challenging days, the purpose of which is to keep us from knowing what comes next. As we learn to accept each day and each moment as it presents itself to us and still be thankful, it matters little what comes next. We know there are always blessings and challenges in every moment and getting upset about what is only makes the difficult times that much more difficult. Challenges, like blessings, pass.

Dealing with the dharma is about harmonizing ourselves with reality. It does not mean we accept sub-standard or undesirable conditions, however. It does not mean we cease seeking to better the lives of ourselves and others. It only means we strive to enter each moment deeply and fully, without adding to or subtracting from it. Each moment is sufficient in and of itself. It is about maintaining a sense of equanimity through life’s ups and downs. Every moment passes, for better or for worse. It requires trust that what is is from God, and the knowledge that if it is from God, it will all work together for good. In order to deal with dharma, we must accept – perhaps even enjoy – what we experience moment to moment.

This is the 26th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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The Second Arrow

 A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. The tongue of the wise dispenses knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly. Proverbs 15:1-2

All human beings possess a secret wisdom-power. It is not secret because it is hidden but because it is so seldom used. It is the power to pause and reflect prior to reacting. Taking a short pause before responding to a situation almost always has a positive impact on what happens in the aftermath. As a hypothetical example, I have a strained relationship with a co-worker who angrily barges into my office and accuses me of starting a nasty rumor about her personal life. I vehemently deny starting the rumor and immediately accuse her of being the source of the rumor since all she ever talks about is her personal life. Using the metaphor of arrows, the first arrow, in this case, was my co-worker angrily barging into my office and falsely accusing me. It probably hurt. The second arrow, however, was my angry reaction, which wounded her right back. Which arrow is most likely to perpetuate the strained relationship? The second arrow, of course. Because I responded on gut instinct instead of using my super-power to pause and reflect before reacting, I loosed a second arrow that made a stressful situation worse. We can blame the first arrow for initiating the ugly process, but we cannot grow spiritually until we recognize and accept responsibility for the second arrow.

In Buddhism there is the lesson of The Second Arrow, which goes like this:

“The Buddha was giving a teaching to an assembly of his monks and nuns. He asked, “If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful?”

The monks and nuns replied, “Yes, it is.”

The Buddha then asked, “If the person is struck by a second arrow, is that even more painful?”

The assembly replied again, “Yes, it is.”

Then the Buddha explained, “In life, we cannot always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. The second arrow is optional.”

As long as we are alive, we will have painful experiences, which are like the first arrow. To get all upset by the first arrow and condemn, judge, criticize, hate, or deny the first arrow is like being struck by a second arrow. Many times the first arrow is out of our control, but the arrow of reactivity is not.”[1]

My workplace example, above, is about a relationship with a co-worker. Had I considered how best to react, I might have been able to redeem the first arrow into an opportunity for healing the brokenness between us. I might have invited a deeper exploration of her pain and fear. Who knows, I might have even discovered something in myself that was subtlely contributing to the situation. There is an old saying, attributed as Native American wisdom, that goes, “I will not criticize a person until I have walked 30 days in her shoes.” Everyone is fighting a difficult battle of which we know little.

The lesson of the Second Arrow, however, goes beyond interpersonal relationships to our own inner life. How we react to situations in our lives matters – not just because of its impact on others, but because of its impact on us! We cannot control who wages unfair criticism our way. We cannot control receiving a cancer diagnosis or being hit by a drunk driver or finding ourselves in the path of a tornado. We can, however, always control our response – the second arrow.

The difference between the first and second arrows mirrors the difference between pain and suffering. Pain happens to all of us – physical, emotional, and mental pain. It all hurts, but it is also a shared human experience. We are all pierced by the first arrow from time to time, so there is really no need to describe how much worse my pain is than yours. What we do with our pain, how we respond to our pain, determines the degree to which we suffer from that pain. This is a difficult lesson to learn because we all want to get rid of our pain, and rightly so. When we cannot change it, however, we need to find ways to live with it in the best way possible. That is how we minimize our suffering – by accepting that which we cannot change in this moment. That is how we keep our second arrow in its quiver where it will not deepen the wound already inflicted. That is using our super-power to pause and reflect before reacting.

This is the 25th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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[1] Jerome Freedman, The Second Arrow. http://mountainsangha.org/second-arrow/, January 3, 2015.

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Praying the Details

 Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart.

Luke 18:1

I tend to think of God as a big-picture being. By this I mean to say that God is unfathomably expansive, inclusive, and larger-than-life. Such a God would not get bogged down in the minutia of our lives. If God is keeping planets in their orbits, there is certainly no time to attend to my latest facial blemish or the mixed message I may have received from an acquaintance the other day. Like many of us, I grew up believing that God was big and I was small. Praying for a good grade on a test I had not prepared adequately for was much too trivial an issue to trouble God about.

As I grow older, I continue to believe God is focused on the big picture. I also believe, however, that God is focused on the minutia. If God truly lives in and acts through us, and since the small details of our lives demand a large portion of our attention and resources, then it stands to reason that God attends to every small detail along with us. My teacher and mentor, Fr. Richard Rohr, says that God loves things by becoming them. To the extent that is true, the more we know and understand something in its richest detail, the more we can know and understand about God. Not that everything around us is God, but that God exists in the details of everything around us.

We see this playing out in our relationships with others. We cannot really know a person until we know details about their life and being. Ironically, the more we know about someone, the more difficult it becomes to describe them accurately to others. It is easy to dismiss a homeless person on the street when we keep our distance from him or her. It is much more difficult to ignore their plight when we take a few minutes to visit with them, listening to their story, and learning some of the details of their existence. If we dare to look in their eyes, we may experience a soulful tug that changes something inside of us, making it impossible to continue to see this person as an anonymous member of a homogeneous group outside of our circle of interest. Details matter. We also experience this in race relations. It is too easy to glance at those of other ethnic backgrounds and believe they all look and act alike, lumping them into a single, usually negative racial stereotype. And of course we will not be able to distinguish the unique character of any particular individual until we learn something about their details. We will not see God in them until we look in their eyes and take a genuine interest in who they are beyond their outer appearance.

In praying for others, the details matter. When someone asks for me to pray for them or for someone else, I ask for as many details as they are comfortable sharing with me. On the one hand, I want to respect their privacy. On the other hand, I want to be able to visualize where the pain is so my prayer can be focused there. Knowing the details helps in that process.

In the same way, details matter in my personal prayers. It is not that God is not already aware of every little aspect of my issues, but that my awareness is likely deficient. There are almost certainly parts of the issue that I deny, repress, or otherwise prefer not to acknowledge. There may be connections to my past that I have completely ignored. I am probably reacting in ways that are consistent with the ways I have always reacted to difficult situations, and those reactions may not be helpful or honest. Being up front with God about the entire situation, searching for and sorting through the details with God is helpful once we know God as non-judgmental and accepting of us as and where we are.

Revealing the details of our situation to God and others is uncomfortable because it makes us vulnerable. Making ourselves vulnerable – revealing ourselves in our essential nakedness – allows God to meet us in our pain, which is where healing begins. Praying vague, generic prayers is like praying with one eye open in that we are not fully giving ourselves over in prayer. Praying the details is surrendering ourselves to God where those details can be resurrected into something better.

This is the 24th 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 this 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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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.

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

[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.

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[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.