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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.

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[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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