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Action and Contemplation

 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.  Ephesian 2:8-10

When we speak of a contemplative life, some people mistake that to mean a life of inactivity, of continuous meditation, or one of staring aimlessly into empty space. While some who consider themselves contemplative may follow such a path, an effective contemplative life is one of action guided by contemplation. The two paths are not contradictory; they are complimentary. In biblical terms, contemplation helps to build our faith, and action produces our works. The former is a type of prayerful understanding, and the latter refers to active doing. Ephesians 2 states that we are saved by faith and that faith is a gift of God so we cannot take personal credit for it. A contemplative life does not create faith, but it illuminates and strengthens the God-given faith already present in each of us. Even works, according to this passage, are not cause for arrogance. God created us for good works to be the product of our lives. They are not a way to earn God’s favor but are a natural expression of who we are. Good works grow out of faith, and right action grows out of contemplation.

Whether we consciously chose it or not, our lives are a combination of action and contemplation. Even monks who choose a life of solitude and silence have jobs around the monastery they must accomplish. We only differ by degrees. The typical Western life tilts heavily to the action-side of the scale, largely neglecting a contemplative focus. The downside of this pattern is that our actions tend to become unconscious reactions to whatever we experience, as opposed to consciously determined actions that have a plan and purpose behind them.

Yet, if we believe contemplation is only about planning and purpose, we deceive ourselves. Contemplation is about aligning ourselves and our actions to the unique expression of God we were created to become. It is about applying a holistic knowledge to our lives, utilizing the totality of our God-given centers of intelligence. Such knowledge develops from information collected by our heart, body, and mind. While it is true that contemplation is largely an intellectual exercise, it is only effective to the extent it is informed and guided from the entirety of our being. Heart knowledge is emotional intelligence. It derives information from emotions present in the environment. Head knowledge comes from thinking and processing what we experience.

Bodily knowledge is knowledge from the senses – what we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. For most of us, this is our least developed intelligence center. Our body is the only intelligence center that keeps us grounded in the present moment. When we focus on information coming through our senses, we are in the moment. The type of information received from the body is intuition. We know something to be true, but there is little emotional or intellectual backing for it. Our head and heart centers easily fall prey to past longings and regrets, or future worries and anticipations, removing us from the moment. Each center of intelligence takes in, processes, and responds to information from the environment in unique ways. People in close relationship often misunderstand each other because their primary centers of intelligence process and respond to the same environment in different ways. One is not better or smarter than the others, only different. Each center by itself, however, provides only part of the truth – a partial glimpse of reality – and limits the range of responses we are likely to consider.

There is a saying among carpenters, “Measure twice, cut once.” It means to gather and check one’s sources of information before taking an action that may be difficult or impossible to undo. A practical contemplative life receives information from all centers of intelligence as it considers the most effective action to take. Awakening our lesser utilized centers is part of what contemplative practice seeks to accomplish. Contemplative knowing is holistic knowledge that helps assure the actions we take will be consistent with our status as God’s children. Contemplation and action are two sides of the same coin, given to us by God for the purpose of accomplishing God’s good work.

This is the 3rd in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life.

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How Did I Miss That?

Part 33: Love is (always) the Answer

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. John 15:12

The opposite of love is not hate. Hate is an emotion. The opposite of love is apathy, or not caring. Love is an action we choose to give or withhold. My friend, Stan Hughes, describes love as “caring enough to do something.” Because love is a verb, when Jesus commands us to love one another, he is telling us to care about others enough to take action on their behalf. He says nothing about liking another, or enjoying their company, or feeling that they deserve our care – those are emotions. Jesus tells us to love others as he loved us – unconditionally, sacrificially, and eternally.

There are a number of reasons why loving someone can be difficult. First, love makes us vulnerable. When we do something for another, they may not reciprocate or appreciate our generosity, and then we may feel stupid, cheated, or otherwise taken advantage of. We are to love anyway. Second, loving another can be expensive – financially, emotionally, or physically – and we may feel we cannot afford to love. We are to love anyway. Third, committing to love another takes time and attention away from other important activities. We are to love anyway. Our loving attention is life-giving and is sorely needed everywhere.

When we are puzzled about what best to do in a given situation or with another person, the answer is always more love. Love, when properly understood and applied, will not lead us astray. Obviously, loving someone does not necessarily mean we do whatever the object of our love asks. The term tough love comes to mind, where the loving actions we choose may not be anything the other person interprets as love, at least not at the time. Our actions might even cause him or her pain. There were times, when my children were young, I refused them something they felt they simply had to have. Love is not meek, weak, or unaware. For love to be effective, it must be conscious and intentional.

Robert Greenleaf, in his essay The Servant as Leader, writes that we are to accept “unlimited liability” for others. Even in the business context from which he wrote, Greenleaf believed that leaders should take responsibility for the lives and well-being of those impacted by his or her company, just as a faithful servant would do. A leader committed to serving others will make decisions that consider the effect on his or her employees, customers, shareholders, and community. Accepting unlimited liability means our responsibility for those affected by our actions never ends – love demands that we always care enough to act in what we sincerely believe to be the best interest of those we love.

Ultimately, however, there is a selfish reason to love. In order to love others fully, we must expand our awareness to include their reality. While we do not need to accept their reality as our own, we do need to respect and acknowledge it. In love, we open our minds to be more aware and, in the process, a larger community of others enriches us. We grow closer to the God who is the Divine Parent to everyone; the same God that loves and accepts unlimited liability for all. We grow closer to the One who is the source of love, the One who is love. As we become more loving, we become capable of receiving love, and our world becomes a better, healthier, and more pleasant place for everyone.

Love is always the answer. How did I miss that?

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How Did I Miss That?

Part 19: Worshiping ≠ Following

 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there my servant will be also. John 12:26

Twenty-one times in the four Gospels, Jesus says, “Follow me.” Clearly, Jesus sought for followers. In order to follow, we must commit to two types of action, especially when the leader is not physically present. First, the follower must learn the values and priorities of the one he or she professes to follow. Second, the follower must actually act in ways that are consistent with the priorities of the leader.

In the case of Christians, sometimes we confuse following Jesus with worshiping Jesus. Do you know how many times Jesus asks us to worship him? Zero. Follow me = 21; worship me = 0. Therefore, worshiping ≠ following. I find this bit of math interesting and telling. Jesus does mention the importance of worshiping the Father throughout the Gospels, but never once says we should worship him. Jesus apparently was more interested in our actions on his behalf than in our praise. Jesus laid out a mission and vision for life that he wanted to insure would outlive his days on earth. It had nothing to do with enhancing his personal glory; it had everything to do with tending to and expanding his flock.

I believe this tells me that going to church on Sunday mornings – an act of worship – is not sufficient to claim myself as a follower of Jesus. I am not saying that attending worship does not have value or that it cannot help us grow as followers of Christ. Worshiping is not enough, however, at least not by itself. A good church can help us understand what was important to Jesus, but it is up to us to act on that knowledge. Some of the most spiritual, Christ-following people I know choose not to attend church on a regular basis. If going to church on Sunday mornings does not motivate us to follow Jesus into our world, we may be missing the point. We might as well stay home. I believe our churches need to be more than houses of worship. They also need to serve as an inspirational call to action to make our world a better place for everyone within it.

To worship is to revere, adore, or pay homage to someone. For many of us, worshiping is primarily an intellectual, non-self-sacrificing act, and that is not good enough for Jesus. Jesus wants our mind, yes, but not without our heart and body. A mind can think great thoughts and still accomplish nothing of value. A mind that guides the work of the heart and body into the world can accomplish great things. Jesus called for human verbs, not nouns – he was faith in action, and acts of faith are what he seeks from us.

Worshiping is not necessarily following. How did I miss that?

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The Truth about Truth

Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”  John 8:31-32

When I first learned the truth about fertilizer, I was aghast. How could something so good and necessary for healthy plants come from such nasty raw materials? As our home was being built, I watched as the exposed lumber, nails, pipes, and wires that form the shell of our home were covered over, the dirt and debris removed, and a beautiful home took shape from its messy, ugly beginnings. In Government class, my instructor taught “If you love breakfast and love your country, never watch sausage or laws being made.” Having had the opportunity to witness the law-making process, I wholeheartedly agree.

We uncover truth not as a destination but as a journey. Parts of most worthwhile journeys are difficult, and often unpleasant, even though the end may be beautiful. Jesus says the truth will make us free. Just because we know the truth, however, and just because the truth makes us free does not mean knowing the truth makes our lives easier. In order to get beyond whatever holds us in bondage, we must first experience, understand, and acknowledge the sometimes-hurtful realities that lead us to truth.

In his booklet The Servant as Leader, Robert Greenleaf writes, “Awareness is not a giver of solace – it is just the opposite. It is a disturber and an awakener.” Becoming aware is not necessarily a freeing experience. It is, however, a necessary part of our growth. We cannot begin to understand human behavior without taking a deep dive into the complex and bothersome web of cause and effect that underlies our decision-making. Without acknowledging the good, bad, and ugly of human motivation, however, we will never comprehend the “truths” from which people act, particularly those closest to us.

While knowing the truth makes us free, in one sense, it obligates us to action in another. One can argue that if truth does not motivate us to action, then our understanding of truth is not complete. As we grasp the truth about our world, we can no longer not act. We cannot pretend not to see the desperate circumstances of some of our brothers and sisters.

Significantly, our truths evolve as we grow. My truths are more encompassing today than they once were. Holding lightly to our understanding of truth is a desirable trait. Jesus tells us to continue in the way of discipleship, and we will know the truth. That implies the journey to truth is a lifelong road. It requires an expansive perspective. The minutia of life blocks the view of truth because truth is a product of the forest, not the trees.

Come home to church this Sunday. Building a beautiful life can get ugly at times.

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