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Archive for the ‘meditation’ Category

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Creative Stillness

He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” Mark 4:39-40

One of the few Bible verses I ever successfully memorized as a child was the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…” This Psalm draws an analogy between the way a good shepherd watches over his sheep and the way God cares for us. The second verse reads, “…he leads me beside still waters.” Still waters are important for sheep as they need to drink, but can easily drown in a strong current. A good shepherd makes sure the water quenches the thirst of the sheep without stressing or endangering them. A lack of stillness stresses us, too. A hectic life feels like being sucked into a whirlpool, with no easy way to stop being pulled beneath the surface. Too often we become human doings instead of human beings. While it is important to complete the work that is ours to do, it is equally vital to seek regular stillness in order to renew ourselves. Too often, our schedules go out of control because we fail to recognize the importance of rest in our lives.

Like silence, stillness has an internal and external 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 only occurs in the moment and cannot occur when our mind strays outside of the moment.

Stillness is not the same as sleep, however. The opening verses of the Bible describe a scene of anticipatory stillness, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep…” (Genesis 1:2). The earth was not inert; rather, the earth was waiting. There is a significant difference between stillness and inactivity. It is one thing to prepare for God to act in and through us but quite another to be lazy, slothful, or unmotivated. There is a heightened awareness and an invigorated aliveness to the stillness from which God creates. The earth may have been a “formless void,” and darkness may have “covered the face of the deep,” but there was tremendous energy waiting to be unleashed by God’s Word. When we seek God in stillness, there is a sense in which we surrender ourselves as a formless block of clay for God to shape and mold. We surrender, not in the sense of being squelched against our will, but to the excitement of knowing God will work in and with us to birth something new.

Many believe creation was a one-time event, thousands or billions of years ago. Creation, however, is a continuous occurrence with every new day and in each fresh moment. Our bodies completely remake themselves with new cells every few years. In spite of the cold, the trees outside my window are breaking bud, preparing for their spring rebirth. With an outside temperature in the teens, a cardinal was welcoming the sunrise this morning. Bluebirds have returned, striking a stunning contrast against the snow remaining on the ground. Life is not something that happened long ago and is now in a slow demise towards its ultimate death. No, new life is happening now! It is relentless and unstoppable. Everywhere and in every moment, creative energy lies in wait in the anticipatory stillness of winter or of darkness or of depression, illness, loneliness, or whatever hell we find ourselves in. Lurking beneath the misery and hopelessness is a spark waiting to be kindled into a flame to burst forth and rebirth itself from the ashes of the old. New life cannot wait to explode forth.

Seeking stillness in a busy life is challenging. Sometimes, such quiet time must be scheduled. A calm environment is helpful, but far more important is finding a time and space where we can sit quietly and disengage our mind and body from the activities of the day. Slow, deep, attentive breathing is always a good way to begin. Being still before God is not laziness. Being still before God prepares us for the next phase of creation, which is already welling up inside of us.

This is the 8th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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Keeping Silence

 Then Moses and the levitical priests spoke to all Israel, saying: Keep silence and hear, O Israel! This very day you have become the people of the Lord your God. Deuteronomy 27:9

The late Father Thomas Keating, a pillar in contemporary contemplative life, wrote, “God’s first language is silence.”1 In the creation story told in the first verses of Genesis, the author describes God as speaking creation into being: “And God said, ‘Let there be…’”. This is the Word of God, the originating impulse for everything that is, and this Word continues to be spoken in absolute silence. And so we must be silent to hear it. I daresay the most common experience we have of God is silence. We ask a question in prayer and receive silence. We cry out in desperation and hear silence. We climb a mountain in order to connect with the divine and hear only a deep, vast silence. While there are some who occasionally report receiving an auditory message from God, for the vast majority of us, God is silent.

Silence, however, is far from a non-answer, nor is it evidence of being ignored. If life grows out of silence, we know there is an awesome power residing within it. When a response to an inquiry of the divine is silence, it is an invitation to delve into a deep reflection on the question. Focused meditation is one way to receive insight. Sometimes, however, the formation of the response occurs subconsciously, as if in silence. I often find that insights come when I am not actively seeking them, as I go about my daily activities.

My third grade teacher, Mrs. Everett, told the class that we have two ears and one mouth so we should listen more and speak less. It is trivial and cliché, perhaps, but important. One of the hardest lessons in a committed relationship is the inestimable value of strategically keeping one’s mouth shut and listening. Obviously, to do so requires our willingness to be silent. The same is true in our relationship with God. Does our constant internal chatter combine with the drone of the world around us to separate us from a genuine experience of others, including God, in silence? I believe it does.

In general, we are uncomfortable with silence. Indeed, it is hard to find a quiet place in which to engage with silence because we live in a noisy world. Extended periods of silence may seem like missed opportunities to catch up on the latest gossip, activities of friends and family, or entertainment. Most of us fear silence because of the uncomfortable vacuum it creates. Awkward pauses in conversation send our minds into overdrive, searching for something to say. Receiving the silent treatment from a partner can be agonizing. Silence is uncomfortable because it puts us in a situation of not knowing – not knowing what the other is thinking, not knowing what to say, not knowing what we do not know. It creates internal tension with its unusual auditory void. The tension comes from our unfamiliarity with silence. We are forever describing our life experience in words, both to others and to ourselves, and those very descriptions separate us from the silence within which the experiences arise.

We often confuse the silence of inactivity with the deep silence from which God creates. In other words, 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. Striving only for external silence is like praying with one eye open – we are not fully committing ourselves to the depth of silence from which God works in and through us. It is through the 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, which is both frightening and exhilarating.

Entering a state of internal silence is a skill we can develop with practice. A foundational tool is Centering Prayer,2 which is a method of praying silently. By keeping silence, as the author of Deuteronomy writes, we have the opportunity to experience God. Jesus referred to this as entering the kingdom of God.

This is the 7th 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

  • Thomas Keating, Intimacy With God. Crossroad Publishing, New York. 1994, p. 175.
  • See my Life Note from December 20, 2018 for an overview of the practice of Centering Prayer. Resources are also available at ContemplativeOutreach.org.

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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.

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

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