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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.

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

[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.

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

[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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