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Embodiment, Part 1

 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. John 1:3-4

In order to reflect on our death and dying, I want to start by sharing my view on how our earthly lives begin. I vainly claim this to be “my” view, although as with all of “my” thoughts, they are far from original to me. I borrow heavily from many contemplative authors and teachers, including Fr. Richard Rohr, James Finley, Cynthia Bourgeault, Thomas Merton, and others, as well as the teachings of Jesus and the biblical authors. “My” thoughts are formed from my limited understanding of theirs, and that synthesis may not always be true to their insights nor helpful to you. I offer this as fodder for your own ruminations about life, dying, and death.

We have an eternal nature that was never born and will never die. That part of us is our soul. It is a unique expression of the spirit of God, which is the same spirit that “swept over the face of the waters”[1] at the dawn of creation. In the Hebrew language of the Old Testament, the word translated as spirit is rauch, which also means air, breath, and wind. It is the entry of spirit into the material of the earth that causes creation to spring forth into what we know as life. In the creation story at the beginning of the Gospel of John, the resulting creation is referred to as the Logos, which is Greek for Word. This Word is the spirit in an earthly body, or embodiment. The image of God’s creating power as Word follows from the Genesis description of creation occurring at God’s verbal command: “And God said, let there be…” This Word can perhaps be better understood as a strong, creative, vibratory impulse – an energy field – more than simply spoken words as we understand them. Our human ears only hear sounds in a very limited vibrational frequency range, but waves of energy exist along an infinite scale above and below our auditory limits. They arrange and rearrange matter in ways that we often consider destructive. Think, for example, of earthquakes, tsunamis, tidal waves, and storm fronts. These are powerful waves pulsing across the earth, often recreating whatever existed before it. A small-scale example of this is often the theme of science fair projects where a student shows how different sound waves arrange grains of sand on a hard surface into different patterns. Those patterns are consistent with and unique to the frequency of the energy, rearranging the sand as the wave frequency changes.

The point is that a part of God’s animating spirit – our soul – embodies itself in earthly garb in order to become the life we know as us. This is how we begin. Like Jesus, we are a perfect and unique blend of spirit and matter. Our physical body is animated by our ethereal soul. Unlike Jesus, however, we become so consumed in the physical nature of our being that we neglect, ignore, and even deny our spiritual nature. There is a story I’ve read in various forms where an older sibling, perhaps three or four years old, asks his younger sibling to tell him about God because he is starting to forget. By the time we begin school, by the time our intellectual functions of reason and logic begin to develop, we lose connection with the spirit and spiritual life which first animated our existence. Our ego takes root and focuses our conscious attention on the material aspects of our lives, or that which makes us comfortable, rich, famous, or otherwise desirable to others. Of course, none of what makes us comfortable, rich, famous, and desirable is inherently bad, but it is all a part of the earth and will die with our body.

This, then creates much of our fear of death – that we will lose our stuff, as well as everything we identified with during our earthly existence. The seduction of the temporal things of the earth leads us to overly identify with what will necessarily be annihilated at our physical death. Like the folks at the funeral of a rich man wondering how much of his fortune he left behind – he left all of it. When we forget about our eternal, spiritual nature, we fear there will be nothing left of us when we die. In actuality, our true self will remain, as it always has. As we learn to identify more with our eternal, spiritual nature, our dread of physical death lessens.

This is the 2nd in the series of Life Notes titled, If I Should Die Before I Wake. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at ghildenbrand@sunflower.com, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning, if you are not receiving them in another manner.

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[1] Genesis 1:2

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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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Magnifying the Lord

 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” Luke 1:46-47a

In the days before the birth of Jesus, Mary visited her relative, Elizabeth, who was pregnant with the child who would become John the Baptist. Mary, pregnant with Jesus, sings her Song of Praise, recorded in Luke 1:46-55, which begins, “My soul magnifies the Lord…” (emphasis added). Some Bible versions translate this as “My soul proclaims the Lord…” I am generally uncomfortable splitting hairs over different translations, but this distinction is important to me. To magnify is to make larger or more visible. To proclaim is to tell about. Mary, in agreeing to birth Jesus, allowed God to become visible in the world. Thus, she magnified the Lord.

It is hard to know how much of the coming decades were known to or suspected by Mary at the time. From the retrospective view of the gospel of John, however, her soul truly did magnify the Lord. Indeed, two thousand years later, Mary is remembered and celebrated nearly as much as Jesus for her role in his birth. Mary, while not usually considered divine, does represent the feminine archetype in an otherwise patriarchal religious hierarchy. Symbolically, Mary represents the earth. She is the “formless void” the Spirit of God hovered over in the Genesis creation story, receiving and birthing the Word of God into physical existence (See Genesis 1 and John 1). To the extent that Jesus of Nazareth was 100% God and 100% human, the human part of Jesus came into being through Mary. God, being spirit, required a willing and human servant to give birth under divine circumstances in order to manifest on earth as Jesus. Mary willingly assumed that servant role.

In the passage above, Mary’s soul magnifies the Lord. Although the definition of a soul is somewhat ambiguous, it generally refers to our innermost, spiritual essence. Our soul is our eternal connection with God, and it existed before we were born and will continue to exist after our physical death. It is the conduit through which our material and spiritual natures meet, allowing God to access us and allowing us to access God. When we pray, we are communicating through this invisible channel of the soul. Just as our bodies form and develop within our mother’s body, so the body of God formed within Mary. The way I picture this is as a spiritual spark emanating from God and penetrating the malleable material of the earth (Mary), causing it to coalesce into a physical human body. In this way, Mary was impregnated with God’s Word, and she birthed a human body in which the spark of God would manifest physically. Thus, God was magnified through Mary’s soul and became visible to us in human form.

The point is not that God is so small and meek as to require magnification. The reality is that our free will allows us to pay attention to whatever we choose, and most of us choose to focus away from God. God becomes nearly invisible to us as we lose ourselves in the busyness of our daily lives. The distractions of the earth are seductive. In addition, an experience of God is not something that is imposed upon us. It is always available, although few of us choose to attend to it. Mary is celebrated today because she chose, of her own free will, to allow God’s spirit to work through her in order to enter our material world as one of us. Her decision came with the high price of giving up life as she knew it. For many of us, giving up the life we know and cherish on this earth is a step too far.

Like Mary, whether or not we consciously recognize it, our souls magnify the Lord. The grandmother of a friend told him that a little piece of him rubs off on everyone he meets. His challenge was to make sure it was a good piece. And this is our charge, that a piece of God is magnified in everything we do and to everyone we meet. It is our job to make sure that what we magnify through our words and actions is a good reflection of the spark of God within.

 

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God the Son, Part 2

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Luke 1:26-28

A virgin is one who is pure. Mary, the mother of Jesus, modeled untainted, non-desecrated earth – a willing and surrendered canvas upon which God could create. One can picture her in a way similar to the “formless void” of the earth described in Genesis 1:2. Just as the spirit of God overshadowed the amorphous earth to give birth to creation, so the spirit overshadowed Mary, and she gave birth to Jesus, Son of God. The tangible birth of Jesus substantiates the ethereal creation account in Genesis. It helps to make creation and God’s work in our world personal and relatable.

We often confuse the Son of God and the Christ. Christ is a designation for one who has attained an exceptional awareness of their relation to God, as in Jesus the Christ. It means anointed, or to make sacred, or to dedicate to the service of God. In Eastern philosophy, Christ Consciousness is attained when one perfectly unites their essential physical and spiritual natures. Recognizing we, too, are children of God – products of spirit and earth – it is getting in touch with the spirit within that saves us. Such knowledge rescues us from the fear that we can ever be separated from God. Here is how we become lost: We grow enamored with our material existence early in life and lose sight of our spiritual, eternal nature. When our lives are out of balance on the physical side, as most lives are, we identify with earthly, non-permanent stuff. Do not get me wrong, there is true beauty and pleasure in the things of the earth. They are impermanent, however, and so cannot provide the security we seek. Referring to our physical natures, Genesis 3:19 says, “…for out of (the ground) you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The spiritual side of us, however, never dies. That part of us comes from God and takes on an earthly body for a time. When our body gives out, our spiritual essence lives on.

As long as our spirits are embodied, physically, we are living in the Son of God – God’s creation. Our access to and relationship with God is through the Son. Unfortunately, we continue stubbornly to focus on our temporal, physical natures. We think we are our jobs or homes, but jobs and homes are lost every day. We think we are our possessions, which wear out, break, or are stolen. We think we are our thoughts, which distractedly flitter and flutter in every direction. We think we are our bodies, which wither and die. Is it any wonder we become such insecure, frightened beings?

The Christ is creation when its spiritual essence has opened into conscious awareness. Jesus of Nazareth displayed that realization, whether by birth or by growing into it, becoming the perfect combination of earth and spirit we are to aspire to. Because we live in the Son of God, we are known and loved completely, just as we are. When Jesus looked upon the suffering people in his midst, he encouraged them not to identify with their pain or their problems. Rather, he encouraged them to look at themselves through him, to have faith, to believe in his reality, knowing his was their reality, too. It is as if he were saying, “I know you, and you are so much more than your suffering. Your pain will end, but your life in me will never end.” It is in the Son of God that we live and move and have our being. God in us, Emmanuel, is our true identity and our eternal nature, and that cannot be taken from us. As we increase our ability to manifest our divine nature, we become instruments for God to work through on earth.

In some ways, our task is to become like Mary, ready and willing to surrender completely to the urgings of the Spirit. And one day, by the unfathomable grace of God, the Spirit may overshadow us and manifest the Son of God, the child of the Most High, the Christ within us – Emmanuel.

Note: this is the 33rd in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God. 

 

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God the Son, Part 1

 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. John 1:1-4

Any attempt to capture in words that which cannot reasonably be explained, let alone understood intellectually, will ultimately seem futile to both the reader and the writer. Such is the case with the mysterious and primal reality of the Trinity. We can only talk around this foundation of our faith. Further, I address the three persons of the Trinity separately in order to point out distinctions in the ways they manifest to us. In reality, the three persons – the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – are a single Unity that we call God. They are inseparable, interdependent, and constantly in dynamic communion with one another and with us.

God the Son is the Incarnate (embodied or manifest) Word of God, as opposed to God the Father, who does not have a physical body. God the Father enters into and shapes the material reality of the earth to create life as we know it – humans, plants, animals, hills, rocks, trees. Creation, in its many forms, is the child of God. As with our discussion of God the Father, God the Son necessarily implies a relationship. In other words, for there to be a Son (or daughter), there must also be a parent. What I attempt to describe is a relationship more than a specific being, and our lives are an integral part of that relationship.

To use sexual imagery, God the Father – the divine masculine energy – penetrates the formless void of the fertile, maternal Earth (see Genesis 1:2), and creation results. The Father is the creative force, the Mother is the receptive Earth, the Son is the resulting creation – God’s offspring, God’s prodigy. The ultimate example of the impregnation of earth by spirit manifested in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. He is the perfect combination of body and spirit, being 100% God and 100% human. Jesus’ seamless integration of divine and human natures makes him our Savior, our Messiah, the Anointed One. It is the lived experience that we are both body and spirit that “saves” us because, as Jesus so graphically displayed on the cross, only the body part of us suffers and dies. That which rises from the earth falls back to the earth. The rest, however, lives on.

The Genesis account of creation provides the image of God speaking creation into being. In John’s account of creation, the Word is created reality. That Word, in its ever-changing forms, has been one face of God since the beginning. John says, “All things came into being through him.” In addition, John writes, “What has come into being in him was life.” The words in and through are keys to understanding the Word, or the Son, or the creation of God. We come into being through the Son and live in that incarnate aspect of God. This is why we often close our prayers by saying, “In Jesus’ name” or “Through Jesus Christ our Lord.” We live, physically, in the manifested reality of the Son of God, even as we are influenced by the non-manifest energies of the Father and the Spirit. We cannot know this intellectually, we can only recognize our participation in this Oneness experientially.

In a dynamic, ongoing process, the creative impulse of the Father penetrates the fertile womb of the Earth and creation results: light separates from darkness; the waters above part from the waters below; dry land divides from the waters; vegetation appears; seasons, stars, sun and moon rule the day and night; birds fill the skies and fish fill the seas; animals of every kind spring up from the earth; and humankind appears. The Creator creates, and the created gazes back in awe. This, then, is one way to picture the unfathomable relationship between us, God the Father, and God the Son. Creation – the Child – is the physical manifestation of the Spirit of God in everything created. The Christ is the Spirit clothed in flesh, completely aware of its Oneness (body and spirit), embodied in the stuff of the earth, and perfectly displayed in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the Son of Man, and the Son of God.

Note: this is the 32nd in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God.

 

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God the Father, Part 1

 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, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. Genesis 1:1-4

One person of the Trinity, the one probably most often associated with God, is God the Father. This is the eternal creator, the mysterious one working behind the scenes, constantly making all things new in ways inconceivable to us. This is the face of God seen most often in the Old Testament, appearing, for example, as a pillar of cloud leading the Israelites out of Egypt. The people believed if they looked upon this God they would die. When Moses asked this manifestation of God for a name, God the Father said, “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14).

Mysterious. Unknown. Unknowable. When these terms are used to describe God, they often refer to the person of God the Father, although the terms can be applied appropriately to any manifestation of God. From a human perspective, unpredictable, moody, and frightening are also apt descriptors. God the Father, in actuality, only appears this way to us because this manifestation of God is the one we are least capable of relating to in a personal way. Psalm 139:6 says, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high I cannot attain it.” This is the face of God that places and holds heavenly bodies in their orbits, that sets atomic particles in motion, and sustains every part of creation in between. This aspect of God is simply incomprehensible to us, completely beyond anything we can imagine, not to mention being indescribable with words. Yet, we try.

In C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, the God-figure is a full-grown lion named Aslan. Aslan is described as always good, but never safe. The message is that, from our perspective, there is a wild, untamed aspect to God that will threaten everything we hold tightly to for safety, security, and stability. Of course, the reason God seems so threatening is that there is no safety, security, or stability outside of the love of and trust in God. We dare to believe God the Father is always for us, but we also recognize that this life can cause immense suffering until we fully trust that God will always make all things work together for good.

In the opening verses of the Bible, God sweeps over the waters and speaks creation into being. And God said let there be… God then breathes life into creation. It is instructive to look at speaking and breath and to remember that the word used for breath is the same word used for spirit. When we speak, we use our breath to set our vocal chords in motion, vibrating in specific ways that create specific sounds. Those vibrations create sound waves of particular frequencies. Waves of sound at specific frequencies will rearrange matter. On a large scale, this is what happens in an earthquake or a tsunami, which are vibrational waves with the power to recreate, albeit in destructive ways. Think of lithotripsy, where inaudible sound waves break up kidney stones inside the body. A violinist playing notes over a table will rearrange grains of sand into patterns consistent with the wave frequencies emanating from the violin. Sound waves manifest in infinite variety and intensity, well beyond our limited ability to hear them, so we only perceive a tiny portion of the infinite range of vibrational possibilities. This, then, is the image of the biblical account of creation. That God spoke, or that creational vibrations emanated from (and continue to emanate from) God to shape and reshape earthly elements into all created things. God’s spirit then hovered over these shapes and breathed life into them. This is not a scientific explanation of creation, nor is it intended to be. Whether we believe in a seven day creation or a big bang is irrelevant. The miracle of God speaking, shaping, and breathing life into being is beyond comprehension, both to scientists and theologians.

God the Father’s fingerprint marks everything that is; God is present in all things, and God is forever creating and recreating. Nothing is safe because God’s creation is in constant motion. Nothing is safe because no created thing remains the same. In its changing, however, everything is drawn closer to its true image and likeness in God.

Note: this is the 30th in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God.

 

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The Faces of God: The Creative Voice

 Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.

Genesis 1:3

Many years ago, I saw an opera singer break a wine glass by holding a certain note. She sang a high, loud, sustained tone, and the glass shattered. Not an opera fan at the time, I thought maybe the glass opted to disintegrate on the spot rather than subject itself to that sound. I have since realized that the vibration of the note was incompatible with the structure of the glass. Similarly, I remember reading that marching armies had to stop marching in time whenever crossing a bridge to prevent the bridge from swaying uncontrollably. The vibration and power of the march could force the bridge into a destructive rhythm. Everything on earth vibrates in a certain range, and when an incompatible vibration works upon it, either the impending vibration or the object itself must change. Most vibrations around us are outside of our conscious, perceptual range. We tend to ignore their presence and power, at least until we experience or see the results of an otherwise invisible wave, such as the impact of an earthquake.

We do consciously experience vibration in music, however. A string player plucks or bows a string, causing it to vibrate at a certain pitch. That vibration transfers to the wood, creating an audible sound. We speak and sing by forcing air across our vocal chords, causing them to vibrate in an audible way. When multiple notes vibrate in harmonious ways, we hear chords. When one of the notes is dissonant in relation to the others, we hear musical chaos. Our experiences around other people are similar. With some folks, we vibrate in harmony, and we enjoy their company and get along well. With others, we feel as if our relational energies are consistently incompatible.

It is interesting that the Bible describes God as speaking creation into being. “Then God said, let there be…” I picture an enormous wave of energy emanating from God, forming the shapeless earth into what has become the world we know today. I suppose one could also accurately call it a Big Bang. To imagine a sound wave forming elements into something cohesive, we only need to watch the demonstrations of sound waves applied to sand. We see the malleable material form into designs consistent with the vibration applied, changing shape with changes to the creating tone. We experience this, to a degree, when a car pulls up beside us with a bass-thumping stereo. The vibration of the low frequencies penetrates our bodies such that we feel the sound pulsating through us as much or more than we hear it.

One of the faces of God is a creative voice vibrating through and around us, ever forming, ever healing, ever destroying and rebuilding, ever dying and being reborn. We live and move and have our being in an ongoing song of creation endlessly emanating from the being of God. All of creation dances to the rhythm, seldom conscious of its divine existence or nature. When we dance in tune with the celestial beat, we experience heaven on earth wherever we are. When we fall out of time, we descend into a hell of our own making, a world of sin and separation. Fortunately for us, the invitation to rejoin the dance is always near, only a slight vibrational adjustment away.

The face of God is speaking. Can you feel it?

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