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Contemplative Practices, Part 2

Put these things into practice, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress. 1 Timothy 4:15

Contemplative practices do not have the same purpose as other things we practice. When we practice a musical instrument, we have a tangible goal to be able to play a song. We are certain that with enough practice we will have something to show for our efforts, something we can even show off to others. Contemplative practices are different because the work is internal. The only outward show of progress might occur when someone notices we have something in our manner that is spiritual, soothing, or healing, but he or she will probably not be able to verbalize what it is. Spiritual development is subtle and mostly invisible to the outside world. In his book The Inner Experience1, Thomas Merton wrote, “More often than not, the way of contemplation is not even a way, and if one follows it, what (s)he finds is nothing.” He continues, “One of the strange laws of the contemplative life is that in it you do not sit down and solve problems: you bear with them until they somehow solve themselves. Or until life itself solves them for you.”

In last week’s Life Note, I described the contemplative practices of Centering Prayer and Lectio Divina. I will give an overview for two additional practices here: Welcoming Prayer and Walking Meditation. Before I do, as I did last week, I wish to first issue two cautions:

  1. While most contemplative practices are relatively simple and can be self-taught, I recommend learning them from a teacher or experienced practitioner. There are nuances to the practices that are easily overlooked or missed in self-teaching, resulting in an ineffective practice.
  2. One of the ways contemplative practices aid in spiritual growth is by opening a channel from our subconscious levels of being to our conscious awareness. While this is subtle and slow enough for most of us to process without difficulty, for some people a flood of difficult memories and unresolved experiences may ensue. If this happens, discontinue the practice and seek professional assistance.

Welcoming Prayer. This is a prayer practice intended to be used whenever one feels stressed or in pain. Once one is familiar with the process, the prayer can be done quickly and just about anywhere. The purpose is to remind us of God’s active presence and work with and within us, including in our pain. Here is a condensed version of the process as presented in Welcoming Prayer: Consent on the Go2:

  1. Feel and sink into what you are experiencing this moment in your body.
  2. Welcome what you are experiencing in the moment in your body as an opportunity to consent to the Divine Indwelling.
  3. Let go by saying the following sentence: “I let go of my desire for security, affection, control and embrace this moment as it is.”

One can use the Welcoming Prayer throughout the day as needed or desired. More detailed information is available at www.ContemplativeOutreach.org.

Walking Meditation.  This practice involves walking, but not as exercise or as a means to efficiently travel from place to place. Here is the practice:

  1. After taking a few deep, meditative breaths, move slowly and deliberately, savoring each step.
  2. Quiet your mind, focusing on the contact between the bottoms of your feet and the earth.
  3. Feel the energy of the earth rising up through your feet, loving you, embracing you.
  4. Each step IS the destination. Be present.
  5. Engage your senses: What do you see, hear, smell, or feel?

Walking meditation should be done in a quiet, safe place. Walking barefoot through the grass is a sensual experience for those comfortable in doing so. Practicing meditative walking for an hour or more is sometimes required to effectively quiet the mind and feel God’s presence entering one’s body through the earth, but shorter time periods can be helpful, too. A good resource for this practice is www.walk2connect.com.

The justification for committing to regular contemplative practice is well-summarized by author Barbara Holmes:“(Contemplative) practices beckon earthbound bodies toward an expanded receptivity to holiness…Receptivity is not a cognitive exercise but rather the involvement of intellect and senses in a spiritual reunion and oneness with God.”3 These are not superficial self-improvement methods to help us avoid the unpleasant parts of our days. Contemplative practices help us get into our days and experience deeply whatever the day brings, pleasant and unpleasant, knowing and acknowledging it all as a gift from God.

This is the 12th in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life.

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  • Thomas Merton, The Inner Experience. HarperCollins, New York. 2003, p. 2.
  • Welcoming Prayer: Consent on the Go. Contemplative Outreach, Wilkes-Barre, PA. 2016.
  • Barbara A. Holmes, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, 2nd edition. Fortress Press. 2017, p. 3.

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A Listening God

Then the Lord appeared to Solomon in the night and said to him: “I have heard your prayer…If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land. 2 Chronicles 7:12a,b,14

There was a movie in the 1970’s starring George Burns and John Denver called, “Oh God!” George Burns was God, in the person of a spry, elderly, outspoken gentleman. John Denver was an inquisitive, young assistant manager in a supermarket with a lot of uncertainty about life, strife, and God’s role in the world. John Denver’s character, over the course of the movie, grew fond of God and gained new perspectives on life. As God walked away at the end of the movie, John Denver’s character called out, “Wait a minute, what if I want to just talk to you sometime?” God answered, “You talk, I’ll listen.” And then God disappeared.

The “You talk, I’ll listen” theme is one I suspect many of us experience when it comes to God. We can never be certain that God is listening, however, except by faith. We hope that is the case, although our prayers seem to be answered in such haphazard ways, it is difficult to know if God actually listens. Sometimes, when God answers our prayer in a way different from what we desire, we wonder if God’s hearing is faulty. The Israelites experienced the same uncertainty. Through the many challenges during their time of bondage in Egypt, through the exile, and even after they finally arrived in the Promised Land, they complained that God was not listening to their cries for help.

In 2 Chronicles, God sets out conditions for the Israelites under which God was willing to listen: humble themselves, pray, seek God, turn from their wicked ways. Rather than making pious demands, I suspect God was giving instructions for how to become sufficiently spiritually attuned to experience God working in the world. If the people remained arrogant, trusting in their own powers, living only for themselves, they simply would not be in a personal state to know God’s presence. It was not a matter of God withholding anything from them, but a matter of their ability to recognize what God was willingly offering them. Some things do not change over the centuries…

The “You talk, I’ll listen,” motif lays a solid foundation for many friendships, counseling sessions, and marriages. I must constantly remind myself that when someone shares something that is troubling him or her, that person seldom wants me to solve a problem for them. Many of us cannot gain clarity on what is bothering us until we talk it out. Once we have contained the problem in words, we sometimes find there is either no solution needed or that there is no actual problem after all. Often, allowing him or her to frame the issue verbally is all they need from me. Anything more is not only unhelpful, but it can be harmful to the relationship. The day my father died, my best friend came and sat with me as I wept. He did not say anything, because there was nothing worthwhile to be said. I did not need to hear that everything would be all right, that God must have needed my dad in heaven, that I would see him again in the afterlife, or that I would feel better in a few days or weeks. I needed to grieve. He listened as I talked and made sure I did not suffer alone.

Sometimes, what we most need is for someone to simply listen to us without judgement, without offering advice, and without trivializing what is weighing heavy on our minds. God always has a willing and ready listening ear.

Note: this is the 20th in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God.

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A Lonely God

They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?”

Genesis 3:8-9

Adam and Eve are in the Garden of Eden after eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In the Garden, Adam, Eve, and God lived peaceably together with the rest of creation. After eating the forbidden fruit, they became self-conscious and felt exposed in their nakedness. They hid from God, presumably because they were ashamed. God calls out, “Where are you?”

One question from this allegorical story is this: If God is all-knowing, as it seems safe to assume, why could God not find Adam and Eve? I remember playing Hide & Seek when my children were young. They would hide while I counted to ten, and I always knew where they were hiding long before actually “finding” them. Here is where the story gets uncannily timely and personal. Perhaps the hiding done by Adam and Eve was not physical. Perhaps they were hiding their attention from God. Perhaps they were intentionally turning away from God. After all, our attention can only be given; it cannot be taken, not even by God.

Throughout the Bible, it is clear that God wants to be in relationship with us. An important part of any relationship is the willingness to give the other our attention. Attention is life-giving. We have all had experiences, however, when someone was physically present with us but not all there – their attention was elsewhere. In this age of smart phones and multitasking, it is common to attempt to converse with someone while they (or we) are texting or trolling someone else that is not physically present. It is annoying and inconsiderate. Sometimes, I want to ask, “Where are you?” when someone is standing in front of me looking at their phone. Unfortunately, I return the favor too often.

What motivates us to divide our attention away from those we are with in a given moment? Are we too busy? Are we not interested? Are we easily distracted? These are common maladies with so many seductive diversions readily available, inviting us out of the present. Adam responds to God’s question, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself” (3:10). Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the snake, and we have been scapegoating others for our poor self-esteem ever since. Why were they suddenly afraid of God? Adam and Eve had changed. Instead of delighting in the beauty, abundance, and divine fellowship of the garden, they began seeing everything – including themselves – as good or evil, black or white, right or wrong, naked or clothed. Neither one was comfortable in God’s presence any longer, and the extension of the story is we are still uncomfortable today. A similar discomfort led society to crucify Jesus. God calls and we turn away. While we cannot turn God’s attention away from us, we can refuse to reciprocate by withholding our attention. In so doing, we miss the love, acceptance, and grace God willingly offers. When our nakedness is exposed, as it necessarily must be in God’s presence, we forget about our divine kinship, and we feel ashamed. In truth, it is our innocent nakedness that God most desires to receive.

There is a modern-day fable of a person having a near-death experience. Her spirit journeys to a wonderful place where she finds herself in the presence of God. What she experiences is pure, unsullied love. She feels a call back to her body, however, and just before returning, she asks God if there is a message to bring back to her earthy companions. God says, “Yes, tell them I miss them.”

A lonely God desires your attention. Where are you?

Note: this is the fourth in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God

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Life Notes

24 Hours

Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all. For no one can anticipate the time of disaster. Like fish taken in a cruel net, and like birds caught in a snare, so mortals are snared at the time of calamity, when it suddenly falls upon them. Ecclesiastes 9:11-12

I am not one to pay a lot of attention to dreams. For one thing, I seldom remember them. Last week, however, I had a vivid dream that stuck with me. I was working at the nursery that employed me during college. My boss came up to me, clearly angry, and said, “Greg, you need to be here more! You’ve got 24 hours.” The message was that I would be fired if I did not change my priorities quickly. It was puzzling, as I had never had that sort of encounter with my boss.

Three things stuck with me about the dream. First was the urgency of the message. Clearly, something had to change, and it had to change now. Next was my boss’s exhortation to be here. Finally, the 24-hour deadline made no sense in the context of my job, but it was obviously important. As I considered the dream, I concluded that it was a reminder that in the next 24 hours my life might change dramatically or – gulp – end. I recalled my mother losing her ability to communicate, my father’s death, and a friend’s paralyzing injury – all happening in an instant. The message, then, was if this were my last day on earth as I knew it, what would I do differently?

Clearly, the urgent message to be here is the key. When we are fully present to the moments in our lives, we are less likely to miss opportunities we might regret later. We make sure that those we love know. We do not allow a beautiful sunset to pass unnoticed. We appreciate and acknowledge the blessings around us. We fix broken relationships and forgive past hurts. We develop and use our gifts and talents for good. When we live our lives intentionally, we do not relinquish a moment of our limited time without receiving something of value in return. Time is a constrained gift, not an entitlement. Certainly, being present does not mean that we let needed tasks go undone. It does mean, however, that whatever we do and however unpleasant the task may be, we take charge of our attitude and experience the available blessings. Being present also means we reevaluate the necessity of certain activities that may have no significant value.

The fact that this might be my last 24 hours on earth, which is a true statement for all of us, should change me. As the writer of Ecclesiastes writes, “no one can anticipate the time of disaster.” The challenge, in the absence of a known and imminent calamity, is to live as if the time is near. That knowledge should change us for the better.

Come home to church this Sunday. What will you do with your next 24 hours?

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