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A Contemplative Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Finding Simplicity

 Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Matthew 11:28-29

We live in complex times. We enter the world simply enough, needing only food, sleep, shelter, and love. We leave the world simply enough, taking nothing of the earth with us (although sometimes the hours, days, and weeks leading up to death may be among the most complex and expensive of our lives – but that is a topic for a future Life Note). In between birth and death, however, our lives become complicated well beyond any reasonable need.

Certainly, raising children ratchets up the complexity meter as parents provide for the needs of the child through various stages of growth. As we go through life, we tend to accumulate stuff that was useful at one time, but has set dormant for years. Unless we are obsessive about purging on a regular basis, our unused stuff can overtake our living space, further complicating our lives. We forget that there are costs to hoarding. The physical and financial cost comes from having to store, move, and care for our possessions. The human cost is borne by those who could use what we hoard.

Our possessions are only one area of life’s complexity, however. In fact, our possessions are both a result of and a cause of unnecessary complexity. Something I have noticed in my limited experience in third-world countries is the comparative lack of complexity. Many people do not have cars, televisions, access to the internet, big homes, or multiple sets of shoes and clothes for different seasons and occasions. While they would be considered underprivileged in the West, it is considered the norm for them because it is a common state of being in their culture. And many of them live happy, fulfilled lives without the necessities of the West. Another difference is that friends, family, and God seem to be real and present parts of their everyday lives – much more so than in the West.

A simple life, in my view, is one where there is freedom to do what calls to us in the moment. Granted, most lives are too busy to drop everything to answer to the whims of the moment, but a simple life has the ability to do so at least part of the time. That could be an intimate visit with a dear friend, taking a long drive, going for a contemplative walk, curling up with a good book, or writing a letter to a shut-in.

Even this Life Note on simplicity is overly complicated. I only wanted to encourage us to enjoy uncomplicated time with friends, family, and God. Spending unhurried, unpressured time with friends is one of life’s richest blessings. To rest in God’s presence without feeling the need to prepare in a particular way, be in a particular place, or come up with only eloquent words to say is a sure-fire way to remain centered.

One of the simplest ways to encounter God is by paying attention to our breath. Our first and final act in this world is to take a breath. Most breaths in between are done unconsciously. In the Genesis creation story, “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”[1] The Hebrew word for wind is rauch, which also means breath. It also means spirit. Every breath we take is a renewal of God’s original and on-going breath of creation. It is God’s spirit flowing through us. Focusing on our breath necessarily calls forth God’s presence in a completely natural and simple way.

The Hebrew word translated as Lord in the Bible is YHWH, which in English is pronounced Yahweh. The Israelites believed this holy name was not to be spoken. Some believe the reason it was not to be spoken is that it was to be breathed: Yah (as an inhale) – weh (as an exhale). In fact, this is a contemplative practice called the Yahweh Prayer – breathing the name of God. Seen in this way, calling the name of God is our first and final act on earth, as well as every act in between.

Paying attention to our breath is a simple and accessible way to open ourselves to God’s presence, even when we only have a minute. Building simplicity into our lives is a way to ease our burdens and find rest for our souls.

This is the 10th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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[1] Genesis 1:2

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Finding Solitude

 For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation. For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him. Psalm 52:1,5

To be in solitude is to be alone – really alone. Solitude may happen by a personal choice, or it may be forced upon us. Either way, we find ourselves alone. Aloneness can have a couple of different manifestations, too. We can be alone because there are no other persons around. We can also be alone because we do not speak the same language as or have little in common with those around us.

For most of us, being in extended solitude is an uncomfortable experience because it is unfamiliar. We are used to being around other people – spouses, family, roommates, co-workers, neighbors, or fellow students. It could be the noise of a television, music, feet shuffling across the floor, or a muffled conversation from the other side of a wall, but we get used to the constant din of having others nearby. The downside of being around others, although it mostly floats beneath our conscious awareness, is that we often judge ourselves when others are near – am I dressed appropriately? Am I contributing appropriately to the conversation? Is my music too loud? Do others find me as dull as I sometimes find myself? Our internal dialogue measures our current state of being against some imagined expectation of others. There is tremendous pressure in being around others, most of it extremely self-critical, making it nearly impossible to relax and just be. When was the last time we felt secluded enough to dance naked without fear of anyone seeing or judging us for it? Maybe not since I was one have I felt that uninhibited and free.

Being in solitude means being free of forced distractions. For example, some of the clatter around us is too loud or too engaging to ignore. In solitude, however, our only distractions are self-created. Our minds may still wander to the flippant remark we unthinkingly made last week, but by an act of will we can bring ourselves back into the moment. Solitude provides a perfect setting for entering the moment, wherever we happen to be. The reason many of us feel so far from God is that we live in a perennial state of out-of-the-momentness. In other words, we have our attention focused in the past, future, or otherwise away from where we are right now. God, however, is only accessible in the present. Jesus told us many times and in many ways that the kingdom of God/heaven is near.[1] We cannot enter it when we are outside of the moment.

Being mindful of our moments is not easy. We, particularly in the West, have too many distractions and too many earthly obligations. Making the time and finding a place to sit in solitude, being silent and still, is hard. The first and most important requirement is to get our attention out of our heads – to stop thinking, judging, assessing, planning, and regretting. Most of our regular mental activity focuses our awareness to the past or future and draws us out of the moment. When we are in the moment, we experience the information coming through our senses in real time. The saying, Stop and smell the roses, is an invitation into the present. Just pausing for a quick whiff before going about our business, however, accomplishes little – that is another form of praying with one eye open. We need to engage our noses, yes, but we also need to gaze intently at the detail in the petals, leaves, and stems. See how they reach to the sun, and listen for the breeze singing within them. With a finger, trace the veins of the petals and leaves. By appreciating and acknowledging its unique features, we get to know this being called Rose. This is a moment with another of God’s amazing creations, and we share it without judgement, without condemnation, and without assessing the need to trim the rose.

Whether we chose it or not, solitude provides an opportunity to experience the moment with God, whenever and wherever that moment occurs. It allows God to experience God’s creation through us while allowing us to connect with God in us.

Clearing[2] (Martha Postlewaite)

Do not try to save

the whole world

or do anything grandiose.

Instead, create

a clearing

in the dense forest

of your life

and wait there patiently,

until the song

that is your life

falls into your own cupped hands

and you recognize and greet it.

Only then will you know

how to give yourself

to this world

so worthy of rescue.

 

This is the 9th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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

[1] Matthew 3:2, 4:17, 10:7; Mark 1:5; Luke 10:9, 10:11, 21:31.

[2]https://wildandpreciouslife0.wordpress.com/2013/06/20/clearing-by-by-martha-postlewaite/

United No More

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United No More

 If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Matthew 10:13-14

The General Conference of the United Methodist Church (UMC), its governing body, recently voted to affirm and strengthen the church’s current prohibitions on the ordination of practicing homosexuals and disallowing the performance of same sex marriages by UMC elders or in UMC facilities. A council of UMC Bishops, seeking a way forward from the denomination’s stalemate over issues of sexuality, developed several proposals for consideration. The “One Church Plan,” which allowed individual congregations and pastors latitude in their practices to faithfully witness to Jesus Christ, was defeated. The “Traditional Plan,” strengthening the church’s current position, passed.

I am blessed to have formed relationships with a number of LGBTQ family members and friends before any of them came out as gay. I witnessed the spiritual gifts each possessed and knew them as genuine, loving people of inestimable value long before I could be tempted to think they deserved less than others because God gifted them with a different sexual orientation than I. It is through this experiential lens that I view the UMC’s decision.

The UMC’s statement of belief, from its website, reads:

As United Methodists, we have an obligation to bear a faithful Christian witness to Jesus Christ, the living reality at the center of the Church’s life and witness. To fulfill this obligation, we reflect critically on our biblical and theological inheritance, striving to express faithfully the witness we make in our own time.[1]

I find this statement consistent with Jesus’ oft-repeated instruction, “Follow me.”[2] Jesus, likely intentionally, left much leeway regarding the specifics of how best to follow him, and I respect those whose well-reasoned practices differ from mine.

Here is the crux of my disagreement with the UMC’s Traditional Plan (also called the scriptural option): In my study of the life of Jesus, and in my opinion, following Jesus and following scripture can lead to different positions. For example, in the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery,[3] scripture mandated that she (and her partner) be put to death.[4] A group of Temple devotees asked Jesus for his thoughts. His response, a significant deviation from the scriptural mandate, was “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”[5] Elsewhere in the Gospels, he selectively quotes from scripture, leaving out passages he apparently disagrees with. For example, in Mark 4:18-19, Jesus reads from Isaiah 61:1-2, but skips the middle of verse 2, “and the day of vengeance of our God,” before reading the remainder of the verse. In addition, Jesus reinterprets scripture, even when it is unambiguous. For example, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’”[6] Then he alters its focus: “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”[7] Finally, consistent with his focus on love over condemnation and inclusion over exile, Jesus lumps the concrete mandates of scripture into two statements with broad and imprecise applications: Love God and love your neighbor.[8] My belief is that following Jesus requires far more than a literal application of scripture. When scripture and Jesus diverge, whose authority do we follow? My reading of the UMC’s statement of belief is that Jesus, as “the living reality at the center of the Church’s life and witness, is primary.

No church I am aware of follows scripture to the letter. Everyone, certainly the UMC, picks and chooses which parts to emphasize and how to apply them. For example, scripture states that women should not speak in church,[9] nor are women allowed to teach or have authority over men.[10] One would expect that a church following the letter of scripture would not ordain women. In addition, given what Jesus said about divorce and remarriage,[11] such a church also would not ordain anyone who was divorced and remarried. Thankfully, the UMC does not prohibit either of these from occurring. Yet somehow, the UMC justifies singling out LGBTQ persons for special exclusions. There is no record of Jesus addressing homosexuality or gay marriage. Rather, his apostle, Paul, reminds us that “…in Christ Jesus (we) are all children of God through faith.”[12]

Those who preached the letter of the law and ignored grace were the targets of Jesus’ harshest criticisms.[13] He called them hypocrites. I find every reason to believe Jesus’ application of scripture was selective and conditional – not random, but purposeful, inclusive, and reconciling. He used scripture to encourage us to look within, not to judge others. The hallmark of Jesus’ ministry was the inclusion of those exiled by the government, church, or society. He openly welcomed tax collectors, adulterers, lepers, foreigners, thieves, and those possessed by demons. I find no Jesus-based reason to exclude anyone from full inclusion in the church, including those in the LGBTQ community.

Being united means bringing persons of difference together around a common purpose. It implies harmony. When one part of a body imposes rules prohibiting another part from carrying out its sincerely held beliefs regarding witnessing to Jesus, there cannot be unity. Today, the UMC is neither united nor harmonious, and should it persist with its current position, a respectful, amicable split will be in order. Those of us who feel exiled by the overreaching rules of the UMC will let our peace return to us, shake the dust from our feet, and move on in love.

Disclaimer: I am a lay member of the First United Methodist Church of Lawrence, Kansas. I do not speak for or on behalf of my church or the global United Methodist Church.

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[1] http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/basics-of-our-faith, sourced February 28, 2019.

[2] Matthew 4:19, 8:22, 9:9, 16:24, 19:21; Mark 1:17, 2:14, 8:34, 10:21; Luke 5:27, 9:23, 9:59, 18:22; John 1:43, 12:26, 21:19, 21:22.

[3] John 8:1-11.

[4] Deuteronomy 22:22

[5] John 8:7.

[6] Matthew 5:27.

[7] Matthew 5:28.

[8] Matthew 22:37-40.

[9] 1 Corinthians 14:34-35; 1 Timothy 2:11.

[10] 1 Timothy 2:12.

[11]Matthew 19:9.

[12] Galatians 3:26..

[13] Matthew 15:7, 22:18, 23:13, 23:15, 23:23, 23:27, 23:29; Mark 7:6; Luke 12:56, 13:15.