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The Redeeming Face of Love

 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. 1 Corinthians 13:3

The thirteenth chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is the love chapter of the Bible. It describes love as patient and kind, slow to anger, and not resentful. Love bears, believes, hopes, and endures all things. Love never fails. It sets an impossibly high standard for those of us who are merely human. As we experience it in close relationships, love displays many faces, some of which do not live up to Paul’s description.

Indeed, love evolves through different phases. Perhaps the most elemental form of love is gravity – the mutual attraction between two bodies. Gravity holds us to the earth (even when we are upside down) and holds the earth and planets in their orbits around the sun. In the same way, loving relationships grounds us. There is an inherent need in all of creation to be in relationship with another. Of course, love manifests in romance, but there is also the love between a parent and child, brotherly/sisterly love, platonic love, love of country, love of food or drink, love of deep conversations, love of guitars – the list is endless for the subjects and objects of our love. Each relationship is unique, attractive, and endearing in its own way.

The love of God for us, however, is unconditional. The Greek word for God’s love is agape (ah-GAH-pay). While we talk a good game about loving someone unconditionally, human love is always conditional. The object of our love can only hurt or otherwise betray us so many times before the intensity of our love wanes. We may withdraw some of what we have given in love for our own protection, and sometimes for the good of the other. If the one to whom we offer love abuses us in dangerous ways, self-preservation requires our extraction. We often measure human love by time. A relationship that spans many years is a rare treasure, even though quantity does not always indicate quality. A special bond forms through the endurance of many trials, however.

A common trait to every type of love is the affirming nature of the love experience. It may only be a pet who greets us as if there were no one in the world they would rather see, but there is nothing like being loved in tangible ways to give us a sense of worth and purpose. The absence of love leads people to all sorts of self-destructive behaviors – addictions, associations with abusers, and other unhealthy lifestyles. When we do not feel loved, we question our value, our worthiness, and our reason for being. The absence of love leads to anger directed inward. I am told that infants who are not held and loved in their early days may die in spite of receiving adequate nourishment. Children and adolescents without stable, supportive, loving families often seek affirmation from gangs, drugs, or other less-than-desirable sources. Severe loneliness, particularly among the elderly, is an epidemic today.

When we have no loving relationships – when we feel unloved and uncared for or about – we find ourselves in a hell on earth. Without debating the notion of hell as an after-death destination of eternal punishment for unredeemed sinners (a topic for a future Life Note), we can be certain that hell is a present reality of the here and now for many unloved people. Hell, in any of its theorized states, is a separation from the loving attention of others.

There is no substitute for a one-on-one, face-to-face, respectful and affirming relationship with another. For love to manifest in a reassuring, lasting manner, it must be embodied. Without love, nothing else matters, as Paul makes clear in his letter to the Corinthians. Withholding our loving attention from others hurts both them and us. They will seek love elsewhere, but what will we do – reserve our store of loving attention for someone more worthy? We seriously miss the point in doing so. Others become worthy by receiving our loving attention. That is the nature of God’s agape love, which is the originating source of all manifestations of love. We become loved and loving by allowing God’s love to permeate in and through us, even as it overflows onto others. It is through the giving and receiving of love that redemption spreads to all. It requires little – a card, a phone call, or a smile. Valentine’s Day is a good time to begin…

This is the 6th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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Lukewarm Living

 I know your words; 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

The author of the Revelation to John received messages for each of the seven churches in Asia at the time (present day Turkey). Some of the messages contain praise for their good works. All the messages contain criticism, some particularly harsh. The message to the church in Laodicea falls into the latter category. If one assumes, as I do, that scripture contains lessons for us as individuals, the criticism of the church at Laodicea hits me hard. This particular church is accused of being “lukewarm,” which I interpret to mean disengaged. There was no passion or life in their worship or practice. The message says, “I wish that you were either cold or hot…” This church would be better off doing wrong things with zeal than doing right things without spirit. Because of this, Christ is about to spit them out of his mouth – to cast them away.

This message is vexing to me because I tend not to be emotionally expressive. The term lukewarm goes beyond emotional expression, however. The church is arrogant in an isolationist way, believing they need nothing from others. They cannot see how wretched and pitiable they are. As with many that Jesus counseled during his time on earth, they are blind to the reality of their situation. The message closes by saying, “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (3:22).

The challenge in reading the Bible, particularly with coded books like the Revelation, is in finding meaningful applications for our lives today. The message to the church at Laodicea is a warning against living half-heartedly or distractedly. Similar to praying with one eye open, when we do not give ourselves fully to the present moment we squander the gift of being human. We not only rob ourselves of the full-embodied experience, we rob those around us, too. Everything we do, down to the smallest detail, affects others. When we live half-heartedly, the experience others receive from us is equally half-hearted.

The message I receive from this passage in the Revelation is that passion is a gift intended for use, and we should apply it, appropriately, at every opportunity. Far from a mandate to fly off the handle half-cocked, it suggests we enter every moment with our entire being engaged – head, heart, body, and soul. One of the commandments Moses received from God on Mount Sinai (Deuteronomy 6:5) is this: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.” Should we not also live our moments with all our heart, soul, and strength? If anything is worth doing, it is worth doing with everything we have at our disposal, whether we are praying, working, resting, or playing.

In art, the color red brings a painted picture to life, just like the blood coursing through our veins, just like splashes of red transform a sunrise or sunset from mundane to spectacular. Our human passions inject zeal into our life on earth. We were not created to be lukewarm. It does no good to die with a reserve of passion any more than it does to limit how often we tell those closest to us how much we love them. The stores of loving energy are infinite, so we need not worry about depleting the supply.

Passion is a precious gift. Yes, it hurts when the object of our passion dies or fails or otherwise falls short of our hopes and dreams. Vulnerability necessarily accompanies giving our all to a person or goal. But what do we have to lose, really? The biggest loss is in not focusing ourselves fully on the situation before us because we cannot retrieve or relive our moments once they pass. The more we give, the more joy, beauty, and pleasure we stand to gain in return. It is not our place to judge whether what we can give is good enough, is better or worse than what others have to give, or that it makes the impact we feel it should. Our gifts are our gifts, and God intends us to heat them up or cool them down, but not allow them to become lukewarm.

This is the 5th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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Staying Awake

 Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak. Mark 14:38

Mindfulness is a popular buzzword these days. Be present to the moment. Be here now. Seize the day. We have many contemporary ways of saying what Jesus told his disciples 2000 years ago – keep awake! In the scripture from Mark, quoted above, Jesus is in the garden of Gethsemane with a few of his disciples after the Last Supper. He goes off by himself to pray and tells his friends to stay awake. He returns a short while later to find them asleep. He wakes them and again requests that they remain awake. Once again he goes off to pray, coming back a third time to find them asleep. At this point, the temple police have arrived to arrest him and begin the events that led to his crucifixion the next morning. In the context of this story, we are the sleepy disciples.

I do not believe Jesus asked his disciples to stay awake because he was lonely. He did not make the request so they would protect or hide him from his imminent fate. Rather, he wanted them to witness what was happening in the moment, to be present to it and see it, to keep awake to the details of what was happening around them. It was a seminal moment for each of them, personally and collectively, and he wanted them to experience it in the fullness of their being. One of the lessons we learn from difficult times is that we must go through our challenges in order to grow beyond them. To go through something requires that we be unwaveringly present to it, whatever it is. When we seek to avoid an experience, we automatically set the wheels in motion for a repeat occurrence. Only when we have acknowledged and accepted what is before us can we move on to something new. In order to acknowledge and accept what is, we must be awake.

Obviously, Jesus is not suggesting we stop sleeping. Rather, Jesus reminds us to pay attention during our waking hours – to the beauty around us, yes, but also to those people and events we find unpleasant, undesirable, or painful. Jesus understands how difficult it is for us; after all, he was human, too. While the text suggests his frustration with the disciples’ inability to stay physically awake for his last moments of freedom on earth, he knows and verbalizes that the “flesh is weak.” In spite of its inherent willingness, the spirit cannot override the tired flesh, at least not for long. The needs of the flesh are too powerful.

We stay awake, we become present to the moment by paying close attention to the information coming through our senses – what our eyes see and our ears hear. Jesus often pointed something out for his followers to examine, saying “Let those with eyes see.” Many of his healing episodes involve blindness – physical blindness, yes, but these stories are also metaphorical pointers a more widespread type of blindness to whatever is before us. Opening ourselves to the full experience of what we see, hear, taste, touch, and smell unlocks the doorway into the present moment. Daydreaming about the future and regretting the past are fast-pass tickets out of the present, as is avoiding what we know requires our attention.

Taking ourselves out of the moment by any of the myriad of enticing ways to do so is like praying with one eye open. We tend not to trust the goodness or completeness of the moment any more than we trust God to protect and provide for us. As a result, we keep one eye open when we pray, and we avert our gaze from the present with an endless stream of diversions. Human nature, being what it is, makes it difficult not to do that! Jesus, however, calls us to transcend our ordinary human nature, not because there is anything wrong with being human, but because our human moments are beautiful, intense, intimate, and rich. Not only do we miss those powerful experiences when we stray from the moment, but God, experiencing through us, does as well. These experiences are only available in human bodies, so it is doubly important to embrace them as the opportunities arise. Jesus’ admonition to keep awake is an invitation to fully experience our humanity, savoring and living every beautiful and painful moment while we are able to do so.

This is the 4th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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Treasure in Heaven

 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Mark 10:21

In this story from Mark, a man asks Jesus what he must do to enter heaven. The man says he has kept all the commandments since his youth. Jesus says the man still lacks one thing – he must sell everything he owns and give the money to the poor. “When he heard this, (the man) was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” (Mark 10:22).

This story is interesting and discouraging. First, the man believed that following the commandments was what was required to enter heaven (as if we could earn our way into that state of grace). Turns out, he was wrong. I daresay, many of us today believe the same thing. Entering heaven is not about following rules, however, but about following the person of Christ, as modeled by Jesus of Nazareth. Following the commandments may be the result of our commitment to follow Christ, but they are not an end to themselves. In other words, the rules are not the goal; the behavior is the goal.

A second point, discouraging for many of us, is that we cannot have treasure on earth and treasure in heaven, at least not at the same time. To the extent that our possessions possess and encumber us, we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. Our attachment to earthly things binds us away from the freedom to follow Christ with our whole being. When we devote our time and resources to caring for and adding to our stuff, we cannot devote the time and resources available to us to serve others. Serving others in need was the sole focus of Jesus’ life on earth. We cannot devote ourselves to two different and mutually exclusive causes at the same time. We must make a choice – one or the other. In the story, the man is shocked and grieved because he had many possessions. So am I, because so do I.

A third interesting and perplexing aspect of this story is that Jesus is NOT talking about heaven as a destination after this life is over. Jesus speaks about the kingdom of heaven as a present reality. The concept of heaven as an after-death destination is a relatively recent theological interpretation. Jesus says things like, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand,” and “The kingdom of heaven is near.” In the current story, Jesus indicates that once the man sells his possessions and gives the money to the poor, at that time he will have “treasure in heaven.” The man is then to go to Jesus and follow him. It is all present life.

The more I carefully study Jesus, the more I realize he is hard-core about serving the less fortunate. I fear we soften his message in order to allow ourselves to feel holier. Most of us in the West make up the wealthiest of the world’s citizens at any time in history. We live well beyond what is required to sustain our lives comfortably. While there is nothing unholy about living a comfortable life, the countless brothers and sisters across the globe lacking the most basic necessities to sustain life should at least concern us. Jesus gave everything he had, including his life, so others could live. Does entering heaven require us to do the same? Of course, our physical death will force the release of our material attachments. Our decision is whether to wait for death before releasing at least some of them.

Make no mistake, I have no plans to sell everything I own and give it to the poor. It is proof that I pray with one eye open, not fully trusting in God’s provision for me. My challenge, and I believe yours, too, is to consciously consider my options with the resources I have at my disposal; if not all, then at least some. If I choose to buy another guitar, making me happy for a time, I simultaneously withhold resources that could relieve the suffering of another for a time. It is my choice. The story of the rich man in Mark is our story. One way to heaven is to keep both eyes closed in prayer – trusting in God – but both eyes open to the needs of those around us.

This is the 3rd in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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Trusting Divine Provision

 When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Matthew 10:19-20

In this passage from Matthew, Jesus talks to his disciples about how to handle persecution. He tells them they do not need to prepare what they will say – how they will defend themselves – ahead of time, for that guidance will be provided to them at the necessary time. The consequences of persecution in Jesus’ day were dire, compared to what most of us experience today, at least in the West. In Jesus’ day, persecution for unacceptable beliefs or behaviors could lead to a wretched death, as evidenced by Jesus’ crucifixion.

Jesus frequently warns against worrying about future events. For example, in Luke 12:22, he says, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear.” He emphasizes that life is much more than the things about which we worry. Worry is always future-oriented, but life only occurs in the present moment. It is not that food, clothing, shelter, and our responses to others are not important, but that it is God who assures the meeting of our needs as the needs arise. Jesus reminds us that God knows our needs. We become anxious when we suspect we might need something in the future and fret because we do not have it now. In the context of persecution, why waste time and energy formulating a response before we know a response will even be required? We only get caught up an a whirlpool of negative thoughts and emotions that have no substance.

Jesus seems to be saying that worrying about a possible future need is like praying with one eye open – it is evidence of our lack of faith and trust in God’s provision. What you are to say will be given to you at that time. Why? Because it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. God lives and works in and through us in all circumstances. We cannot keep one eye focused on God while the other gazes into the future. It is not that Jesus discourages us from planning for the future; rather, Jesus tells us not worry about the future. Worry helps nothing. We have everything we need in any given moment, which should reassure us that we will have whatever we need in our future moments. We absolutely should select a path to follow into the future, understanding that all paths are fraught with difficulty and uncertainty. The future, however, is never in doubt, even though it may not unfold as we envision.

It is a natural tendency for us to want to be in control and plan for future eventualities. Unfortunately (or fortunately), we are not in control. In fact, I think anytime we try to be overly controlling, the universe objects and arranges something to show us how little control we actually have over events. Obsessing over the future only removes us from the present moment, which is the only place we can actually find joy. There are few savings accounts large enough to pay for a serious health crisis; there are few homes strong enough to survive a direct hit from a tornado; no one is safe from a terrorist attack anywhere on earth. Far from a license to live recklessly or with no thought of the future, the reality is that life sometimes brings unexpected and unplanned-for disasters, and God can be trusted for the recovery from those disasters, large and small. In the Lord’s Prayer, we ask for our “daily bread.” We do not ask for tomorrow’s bread until tomorrow.

When we live our lives as if we are praying with one eye open, we live without faith in God’s provision for our needs at the time of the need. Jesus assures us that God can be trusted to provide – maybe not in the manner or time-frame we desire, but God will provide. We can close both eyes, relax, enter the moment, and trust the Divine provision. Admittedly, however, not to pray with one eye open – hedging our bets against God’s provision – is easier to say than to do.

This is the 2nd in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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Praying With One Eye Open

 You shall not make for yourself an idol,.. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God… Exodus 20:4a,5a,b

The book of Exodus records Moses’ visits with God on Mount Sinai. On one of those visits, God gives Moses the Ten Commandments. One of those commandments warns against making idols for ourselves because God is a jealous God. I always found this particular commandment troubling because of the description of God as jealous. Jealousy seems too petty for an all-powerful, all-loving God. I remember jealousy as the product of teenage hormones running wild, combined with insecurity and immaturity. Jealousy was ugly, hurtful, and certainly not befitting of God. Besides, what could possibly make God jealous of us?

Based on my nebulous experiences of God over the years, I think using the contemporary understanding of jealousy is misleading. God’s jealousy, in part, has to do with our free will. No one wants love forced upon them, nor does anyone want to be loved because another feels sorry for or obligated to love him or her. That is charity, not love. Deep love is always offered but never imposed. We can accept God’s love or not. God’s love for us does not diminish because we refuse to acknowledge or reciprocate it. Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-31) illustrates the point well. The younger son turns away from his father, but the father’s love for his wayward son never wanes. God does not turn from us like a jealous, spurned lover; rather, we miss God’s reaching out to us because we are focused elsewhere.

God is described as jealous because our experience of God is fickle. We are so wrapped up in our earthly existence that encounters with God are difficult to recognize. Such experiences are usually subtle and easily missed when we are not paying attention. God seldom comes to us as a thunderbolt, but as the wind whispering gently through the trees or a hummingbird visiting the honeysuckle. Paying attention to God and seeking God’s presence is difficult with our endless opportunities for distraction. Our modern-day idols are not carved images of animals or pagan gods, but are our addictions, smart phones, social media, and television – things that keep us out of a deep experience with the present moment. Our seductive idols draw our attention away from rich encounters with loved ones, including our experiences of God’s love. God is not jealous because we spend so much time with the objects of our obsessions. Rather, God hurts because our obsessions keep us from noticing God’s nearness, which hurts us. God hurts for us, not because of us. It is not so much God’s heart that breaks, but ours that would break if we knew what we were giving up for the temporary high of an idolatrous encounter. There is no permanence or security in our distractions, only a diversion from what matters most.

Lest this sound like a holier-than-thou, guilt-imposing diatribe, I confess my own on-going tendency toward diversion from the present moment. I know I cannot experience God anywhere or anytime other than right here and right now, but I struggle mightily with sincerely seeking God on a more than infrequent basis. That is part of our human nature and not cause for guilt or self-deprecation. Rather, it is an opportunity for spiritual growth. God waits patiently for us, as did the prodigal’s father, and in the context of eternity, there is no particular rush. Our very human obligations prevent us from focusing on God in every waking moment, anyway. It is comforting to know, however, that God is accessible should we need a divine encounter.

Praying with one eye open is a metaphor for not giving oneself fully to God. When we close both eyes to pray, even for a short time, we make ourselves uncomfortably vulnerable – danger could approach that we would not see. We could miss something we want to see – like praying in front of a televised sporting event. Someone might notice and think less of us. Our addiction to earthly affairs causes us to keep an eye open, even though we know we cannot fully give ourselves over to God without loosening the grip our material interests hold over us. God speaks most often in silence and darkness. God’s still small voice cannot be heard over the commotion of our lives, nor will God’s presence draw our attention away from Facebook. God knows we need to turn away from our idols on occasion, close both eyes, and rest in the loving presence of the Divine.

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A Rhythm of Life

 Instruction in understanding and knowledge I have written in this book…Happy are those who concern themselves with these things, and those who lay them to heart will become wise. For if they put them into practice, they will be equal to anything, for the fear (light) of the Lord is their path. Sirach 50:27a, 28-29

Integrating contemplative practices into one’s daily routine is the foundation for establishing a contemplative rhythm of life. The purpose is not to avoid performing our daily tasks or to add to the stresses of our days. Such a rhythm will not rid us of the challenges of aging, abuse, sickness, or suffering. This rhythm of life will not necessarily make a person more popular or successful, at least not in the ways the world defines popularity and success. The purpose of establishing a contemplative rhythm of life is to surround the activities of the day with regular practices that remind us that God works in and through us in every minute detail of our days. The practices do not bring God nearer to us, as God is always near. Rather, contemplative practices help us remember, acknowledge, and draw upon God’s constant presence, allowing us to carry out our daily activities from a more centered, trusting, and grounded perspective.

One excellent example of a rhythm of life practice is that of devout Muslims, who pray five times every day: (1) before sunrise, (2) early afternoon, (3) late afternoon, (4) after sunset, and (5) before going to bed at night. The practice is a habitual reminder of God’s sovereign presence. When we forget that God is present, we fall into all sorts of unhelpful and unhealthy activities – worry, stress, gossip, fear, and complaining, to name a few. One of Jesus’ final instructions to us, given during the Last Supper (Luke 22:19), was to “do this in remembrance of me.” The this he refers to is our routine, daily activities – everything is this. We are to remember Christ’s presence with us in whatever we do. Establishing and maintaining a contemplative rhythm of life is an effective way to follow that instruction.

The philosopher, Socrates, said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” While I am not as fatalistic, I believe the underlying sentiment is valid – that we benefit from time spent examining our life on a regular basis. Journaling is a contemplative practice designed to accomplish that – to reflect on our days, thoughts, feelings, frustrations, and hopes. What did I notice today that caught my attention? What was annoying and why? Where did I find beauty? In what ways did I notice God active in my life? In what direction do I feel God nudging me? These types of self-reflective questions are beneficial to consider as a part of our rhythm of life. The answers guide us forward on our spiritual journey, even as the answers change. The answers to such questions are never adequately captured in words, but the effort inspires growth.

We establish a contemplative rhythm of life through habitual practice, keeping to as regular a routine as possible. Not unlike sunrise and sunset bookending the day and night, or the seasons marking the phases of a year, our rhythm of life clothes the activities of our daily routines with a contemplative circadian rhythm. As an example, here is my contemplative practice:

  1. Upon waking, I spend 60 to 90 minutes in prayer, study, and journaling. This always includes Centering Prayer, Lectio Divina, and meditative reading.
  2. In the evening, I spend 30 to 60 minutes in reflective study – reading or listening to the challenging thoughts of others.

These two activities bookend my days. Throughout the day, I intersperse other contemplative activities as I remember and am able, such as Welcoming Prayer, Meditative Walking, writing, and studying. My current practice pushes me, and although I am inconsistently faithful to it, persistence is important. It is necessary to find a practice that assists us spiritually, but that also allows for the completion of our daily tasks.

It can be frustrating to establish a rhythm of life that we practice for many years and notice only the subtlest of overt changes. Contemplation, however, is a way of life and not a stop along the way, like a blanket that covers us through the night. It does not assure more restful sleep or calmer dreams, but it is a constant, comforting, and dependable presence. A contemplative life is not a life without problems, but it is truer to the life from which we were created – the life that was never born and will never die, which is our eternal life as children of God.

This is the 13th in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life.

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