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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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A Contemplative Life

 For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel: In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.  Isaiah 30:15

What exactly is a contemplative life? How is it different from a regular life? Most of our lives are too busy to add anything new, so where does a contemplative life fit? I intend to make a case for why contemplative practices are important additions, even to hectic lives.

First, a contemplative life is not typically a silent, inactive life of naval-gazing. Rather, many contemplative people are active and involved in effective and efficient ways that positively impact the life and lives around them. A contemplative life is not an escape from life’s activities, but a technique to become increasingly and effectively present to life’s moments. In spite of our best efforts, we can only truly live in the moment. Typically, we find ourselves stuck in our thoughts, mired in regretting the past or worrying about the future. A contemplative life is one that seeks to become increasingly present to the moment while giving less attention to the past and future.

In his first letter to the Thessalonians (5:17), Paul describes a contemplative life when he writes, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” This may sound like a way of life for someone who has no life. Rejoice always? Pray with out ceasing? Give thanks in all circumstances? Most days, that is simply laughable. Laughable, that is, when we stray outside of the moment. Contemplative practices focus us. Even our most hectic and stressful daily activities become works of prayer and acts we do with God. We cease feeling that life is being done to us or being forced upon us. We acknowledge the presence and action of the Spirit in all things and at all times. Knowing that God works in and through us gives meaning and purpose to everything we experience, both pleasant and unpleasant.

Most of us were taught that prayer is a special time we set aside to be with God. We learned techniques for praying “correctly.” Prayer before meals required a bowed head, closed eyes, and folded hands. Prayer before bed occurred at the bedside, on our knees, hands folded on the bed. Prayer at church meant being quiet, eyes (mostly) closed, hands folded in one’s lap. When these images comprise our total understanding of prayer, it is no wonder that to pray without ceasing seems like the impossible dream. Must we become something we normally are not in order to please and communicate with God? I believe God cares less about how we pray and more that we integrate prayer (intentionally being with God) into our daily lives.

One aspect of a contemplative life, then, is that it strives to be one, continuous, unbroken prayer. That requires our willingness to expose ourselves to God in naked surrender of all our imperfections, all our failings, and everything we do that may or may not meet expectations. We acknowledge that God walks with us on every step of every day, no matter where we are, what we do, or who we are with. And that God loves the pure and raw essence of who we are regardless. God rejoices when we rejoice, God weeps when we weep. There is no trick to get God to join us in our everyday moments. The trick is to acknowledge to ourselves that God is with us in our everyday moments whether we recognize it or not. When we know we can never stray from God’s love and that God will never reject us, we can embrace and fully experience the moment, regardless of the circumstances. We can even laugh at our absolute and flawed humanness, knowing God finds even our most annoying quirks endearing.

A contemplative life does not separate being with God from anything else. Rather, it allows us consciously to affirm God’s presence in all things. We cannot hold God at arm’s length, so why pretend as if we can? Three traits of a contemplative life named in Isaiah 30 are rest, quietness, and trust. Interestingly, those are exactly what I crave on my most difficult days. In the coming weeks I will explore ways to integrate contemplative practices into our daily lives.

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This is the 1st in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life. For a list of contemplative activities in Lawrence, Kansas, go to www.ContemplatingGrace.com/contemplativelife

[1] The Cloud of Unknowing and the Book of Privy Counsel, trans. Carmen Acevedo Butcher (Shambhala: 2009), 224-225.

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Pray Then in This Way, Part 1

 Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.

Matthew 6:9-13

Prayer is a consistent challenge for many of us. How do we do it? What do we say? Does God actually listen – or answer? Must we be on our knees? I understand each of these questions because I have asked them many times myself. In his letter to the Romans (8:26), Paul writes, “…we do not know how to pray as we ought.” Jesus says, “Pray then in this way,” and gives the prayer that forms the basis for what we call The Lord’s Prayer. Did he mean for us to pray these words, or did he mean for us to pray in this spirit? I think the answer is both. Sometimes, we need to use words because that is the way we learned to communicate. As we age, at least in my case, prayer becomes deeper and richer in the silence before and beyond words.

What confuses many of us is our need to capture what we experience with words. We forget that words are metaphors. Words represent something, but they are not the thing, experience, or person. For example, I say the word tree and you picture a tall plant with leaves, branches, and a woody truck. But a description of a tree, even of a specific tree, is not the tree itself. The words tell us nothing about the life history of the tree, how it experiences dormancy in the winter, or how it experiences me as I sit beneath it. The word tree is a metaphor pointing to a living reality. In the same way, you cannot know my essential nature by knowing my name, age, height, weight, profession, gender or any other descriptive term about me. When we think we know or understand someone based on a verbal description, even a description based on our interactions with that person, we remove ourselves from the essence of that person. The description of our interaction with another is not the same as the actual interaction. Words, though helpful, are deceptive when we confuse them with what they represent.

Rumi, a 13th Century poet and mystic, wrote, “Silence is the language of God, all else is a poor translation.1” God does not communicate with words. God communicates heart-to-heart or spirit-to-spirit. I can imperfectly illustrate this by describing how I write. I receive an idea or inspiration that I attempt to capture in a song or on paper. The initial inspiration is like an image or an internal “voice,” but it is wordless until my mind latches onto it and begins describing or translating the inspiration, effectively reducing it to words. It happens so quickly that it is easy to believe the inspiration was given in words. Where the initial inspiration and the resulting song or essay part company is in my inability to find adequate words to capture the inspiration. In fact, it is impossible to perfectly capture an image or interaction in words. Everything I write suffers from my inability to translate the purity and beauty of the inspiration into words. The best I can do is to describe a place beyond words, with words that point you to a similar place. The words, alone, cannot carry you there.

We know the words to the Lord’s Prayer, but what would praying silently in the spirit of the Lord’s Prayer be like? I believe it begins with setting our mind and heart with the intention of being with God, as opposed to talking to God. Numerous passages in scripture tell us God knows what we are going to say before we say it. Our words are never necessary, except perhaps for our own comfort. In fact, I believe our words get in the way of entering into God’s presence because we focus on the words instead of the reality pointed to by the words. Reading a review of a nice restaurant will not give us the experience of fine dining.

Jesus’ words, “Pray then in this way,” are an invitation. The Lord’s Prayer provides a nice template for how to set our intention to be with God, wordlessly, which I will explore further next week.

This is the 36th in the series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

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1          https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/27617-silence-is-the-language-of-god-all-else-is-poor, accessed September 3, 2018.

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Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 2: Alone Time is Important

And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Matthew 6:5-6

Growing up, I learned to pray in community. My father prayed before family meals, and our pastor led us in prayer at church. Of course, the Lord’s Prayer, spoken collectively, was a common fixture in worship. There was also a prayer at bedtime, spoken with a parent, that went,

        Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep;

        If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.

I remember sitting in church as a child wondering how the preacher could possibly think of so much to pray about. The prayers seemed to drone on, and it was very difficult to remain focused. I kept my eyes clamped shut as long as I could, afraid someone might catch me peeking. Prayer was not very comforting in those days.

I am not certain when I learned to pray by myself, but however it happened, time alone with God quickly became my favorite method of prayer. I am an introvert, so time alone is a necessary part of my life. Jesus modeled this for us. Many times in the Gospels, he goes off alone to pray. Like spending time with a close, intimate friend, words are not always necessary in prayer. In fact, I find more of my prayers as I age to be of the silent type. I have no idea what I would say to God that God does not already know better than I can put into words. Being in God’s presence is more than enough. In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought.” I find this to be true. In his first letter to the church at Thessalonica, Paul writes, “Pray without ceasing.” This seems to be an encouragement toward wordless prayer – staying in communion with God at all times, but not necessarily with words. St. Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the Gospel always. When necessary, use words.” This applies to prayer, too. We can remain in constant contact with God without all the dialogue. In fact, our dialogue makes it impossible to hear what God might be trying to tell us.

My point is not that we should always pray silently. Rather, alone-time with God is important. We need worry less about what we say and more about being present. Whether in meditation, contemplation, reflection, yoga, or any number of other methods, a quiet mind ignites our awareness of God’s presence. If Jesus needed quiet, alone-time with God in order to center himself, recharge, and reconnect in the days prior to television and the internet, think how much more we need it today.

Alone time with God is important. How did I miss that?

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Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 1: Faith Heals

Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak., for she said to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.” Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And instantly the woman was made well. Matthew 9:20-22

The relationship between healing and faith is difficult to understand, impossible to predict, and a connection Jesus mentions many times throughout his ministry. He often healed someone, only to give credit to that person’s faith. I used to believe Jesus was being modest. After all, he was a humble man. He credits faith with healing so many times, however, that I find myself rethinking his modesty. Dare we believe that faith truly does heal?

I have tried to apply faith with instances of serious illness in people I know, but with ambiguous results. I remember praying hard for my mother’s recovery from a stroke. She had been a healthy, determined woman, and I could easily visualize her fighting her way back to health. But she never did. Rather, she slipped into a steady decline and passed away 10 weeks later. The times when an unlikely healing has occurred, and there have been a few, I find myself wondering if it was a God-healing or a talented physician. Clearly, God works through the hands and hearts of God’s people. If I were keeping score, however, of the number of times I believe my faith brought the outcome I prayed for, faith would be losing by a landslide. Is this due to my weak faith, or my lack of understanding about healing?

Not all healings are equal, nor all they all physical. When we pray for healing, we are generally praying for restoration to a prior state of being. We pray for what we, in our limited understanding, believe to be the best outcome. Do we possess the perspective to know what is best in any situation? There are numerous examples of physical healings in the Bible, but we can assume all those people died of something, eventually. There are also instances where God does not heal the physical ailment of a faithful person – Paul comes to mind. Paul used his infirmity as a reminder of his total reliance on grace. Even Jesus, the night before his crucifixion, prays for God to “take this cup from me.” Ultimately, he yields by saying, “Not my will, but yours be done.” I have often wondered why God did not rescue Jesus from the cross. But wait – Jesus was rescued, just not in the way we humans would have requested.

If faith truly does heal, there is a lot of pressure on us to be well. Wellness comes under our control, instead of our being victimized by illnesses we can do nothing about. Faith is our connection to God – it is the thread by which the human meets the divine. Faith assures us there is more to life than what we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell – there is more beyond our human knowledge and efforts. Would God grant us a desire contrary to our ultimate good? There were many times, as a parent that I refused to grant a desire of my children, knowing they were better off without having their wish granted.

What is out there, and how and when it may or may not bless us remains a mystery. Dare we believe that faith heals? Dare we believe it does not?

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