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The Sign of Jonah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the 15th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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

[1] Jonah 1:17

[2] Jonah 3:10

[3] Jonah 4:2

[4] Matthew 12:39

 

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Living Beyond Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the 14th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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

[1] Exodus 3:14.

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

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The Five S’s to a God Experience

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

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

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

Silence

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

Stillness

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

Solitude

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

Simplicity

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

Surrender

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

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

This is the 13th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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

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Surrender

See, I am setting before you the way of life and the way of death. Those who stay in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence; but those who go out and surrender to the Chaldeans who are besieging you shall live and shall have their lives as a prize of war. Jeremiah 21:8b-9

Jerusalem was under siege from the king of Babylon and the Chaldeans. The Israelites asked the prophet Jeremiah to inquire of the Lord if God would kindly make them go away. Instead, the answer given through Jeremiah was for the Israelites, God’s chosen people, to surrender or die. Not only that, but God would join the Chaldeans to help assure the defeat and destruction of the Israelites if they did not surrender. Talk about a harsh message!  The lives of the people of Jerusalem had strayed far from God’s designs, and it was time for a reset. Either they could die holding fast to their stubborn ways, or they could surrender and live in Babylonian captivity.

Few of us like to surrender, but sometimes it is our best option. Sometimes, we are better off admitting we are beating our heads against a wall that will not fall. Sometimes we, like the Israelites, need a reset. The term surrender carries negative connotations, not all of which are fair. Particularly in the United States, we believe that if we try hard enough we can accomplish anything. In that sense, surrender is failure and evidence of a weak spirit. What happens when we struggle to climb to the top of the ladder, however, fighting through every challenge, temptation, and warning to descend, only to find the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall? Sometimes, life’s rules, frustrations, and warning signs are there for our own good. In the context of the story of the people of Jerusalem, saving them from the Chaldean siege to continue with the status quo would not have been in their best interest. God showed love by refusing to intervene on their behalf.

Far from a sign of failure, surrender is a necessary part of a spiritual life. We are not all-knowing. Our plans are not always the best way to get to where we wish to go, nor is where we wish to go always a good place for us to be. Being open to God’s guidance, as well as that of our mentors and teachers, is not surrender as in giving up, but is surrender in the sense of trusting in and submitting to the wisdom of another. Of course, God provides the free will to stubbornly follow our own desires – no doubt, at least some of the people of Jerusalem died in doing so – but I am certain God’s heart breaks on our behalf when we need to change course and refuse. I do not believe God wishes us to suffer more than necessary. When we learn and grow from life’s experiences and challenges, we become better equipped to discern when it is best to stop and change direction.

I do not mean to imply that God causes our suffering, or that by the conditions that cause us to suffer we have necessarily done anything wrong. When life puts barriers in our way, we must stop and discern whether this is something we should power through or whether a change of tactics is in order. The discernment process is not easy, nor is it a one-time event. When we push for something that is inconsistent with what is good for us or others, when we insist on making something happen that is best not to happen, we can be sure we will receive pushback. Perhaps even pushback from God. If and when that happens, it is not a sign that God is against us, only that God loves us too much to pave an easy path to our own self-destruction.

Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote the familiar Serenity Prayer[1]:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

The Serenity Prayer is a wonderful summary of the type of surrender that does not deny the importance of hard work, resolve, and courage, but confesses that sometimes the mountains we believe should be moved are not going to budge. To blindly push forward with our own fruitless desires becomes, at some point, like praying with one eye open. What we believe to be faithfulness deconstructs into faithless obstinacy.

This is the 11th 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] https://www.crosswalk.com/faith/prayer/serenity-prayer-applying-3-truths-from-the-bible.html

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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.

 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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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/

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