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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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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

Original Love

God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Romans 5:5b

The essence of Emmanuel is love, and love manifests in relationships. Through the birth of Jesus, God chose to be in relationship, physically, with the people of the time. Today, God chooses to be in relationship with us, spiritually. God reaches to us, but until we reach back and accept God’s invitation, there can be no relationship. At the point of our reciprocating, we come to know, recognize, and respond to God’s favor. Otherwise, God’s love is like a radio wave being transmitted, but not received. God speaks, but the message is not heard.

On this Christmas Eve, I wish to share a song of Love-come-to-earth. You can listen to it on my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. Go to the “Music” page, select “Songs of Christmas,” and click on “The Love That You Are.” Here are the lyrics:

The Love That You Are 

On this night, in the holy silence

Bright star light, pierce the deepest, darkest heart

With the Love that you are… 

Baby’s cry, from a lowly manger

Brand new life, come this night to save us all,

With the Love that you are… 

Holy Savior, Prince of Peace

Love incarnate, sin redeemed. 

Emmanuel, our Messiah

Here on earth to dwell, with a new life to impart,

From the Love that you are… 

Holy Savior, Prince of Peace

Love incarnate, sin redeemed. 

On this night, in the holy silence

Bright star light, pierce the deepest, darkest heart

With the Love that you are,

With the Love that you are.

This Christmas, may you fall into a relationship with Love: Emmanuel – God with us; God with you! That relationship is where true love originates.

Merry Christmas!

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Life Notes

 

Beyond Words

Be still, and know that I am God!  Psalm 46:1a

Be StillI am a man of too many words. I think in words, I speak in words, and, too often, I experience life through the filter of words. I attempt to capture beauty in words and in doing so I invariably lose much of the wonder I try to describe. There is a saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. I experienced the sunset in this picture a couple of weeks ago at the Lake of the Ozarks. I would only detract from the splendor by trying to describe it. Even the picture does not capture the experience, however. A picture is a two-dimensional recreation of a single moment. A sunset occurs in four dimensions, the fourth being the 30 or so minutes it requires to manifest fully.

I enjoy using words to share the insights and wisdom I occasionally find. A part of me knows, however, that the more words I use, the farther I stray from the essence of what I attempt to share. Consider a finger pointing at the moon, where the moon is truth and the finger is its description. The purpose of the finger is to point, to lead others to experience the moon for themselves. Unfortunately, we too readily focus on the words – the finger – instead of the truth – the moon – to which they point. I fall into this trap regularly. I tell myself if I can only find the right combination of words, I will capture an experience for eternity. Certainly, the written word can be beautiful, inspiring, and artful. But words cannot capture the totality of a beautiful experience.

Words are symbols we create to represent something else. The word rock describes a part of creation. Adjectives can make it more precise: a small, smooth, round, brown rock. Even so, the rock and the description of the rock are not the same. We simply cannot capture reality in words. Reality is experiential, and words are just marks on paper. Like the sunset above, reality happens in space over a span of time. If we want a description of an experience, words are great. If we want the experience, however, we must be present. Words can lead us to believe we have experienced something we have only read about.

Saint Francis of Assisi, a 13th Century monk, wrote, “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” In general, we talk too much, and our words can actually inhibit understanding. The Psalmist tells us to “Be still” if we wish to know God. We cannot find God in a dictionary. Neither does God live in books, including the Bible, even though that text is our primary resource for learning about God. We experience God by seeking and listening, not to the words of the voice in our head, but by responding to the pull on our heart. To find God, we must eventually move beyond words.

Come home to church this Sunday. Be still and know.

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Higher Truth and Endless Peace 

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Councilor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace…  Isaiah 9:6-7a

The theme for the 2nd week of Advent is Peace, and I have been doing a lot of thinking about peace, lately. I participate in a number of national discussions relating to my profession, and the debates are not always civil. In fact, some of the comments become downright nasty. It is in this context of disagreement that I contemplate peace.

In my opinion, for peace to exist between two or more people (or countries), there must first be a foundation of mutual respect, as well as an acknowledgement that all points of view have value. I do not have to agree with someone to co-exist peacefully with them. I do not even have to like them. I do have to accept their right to believe as they do, however. It is clear to me that our core differences are exposed by what we cannot discuss civilly. Peace cannot be present when one or both sides are defensive. We become defensive when we feel threatened. As long as another person’s point of view on a particular topic threatens me, we will be unable to have a peaceful or productive discussion on the topic. Rather, we will argue about it. When defensiveness enters a conversation, minds slam shut. When minds slam shut, there can be no dialogue, because true dialogue requires giving and receiving. Closed minds cannot receive.

An open mind is willing to hear and consider alternate points of view. Open minds create opportunities to discover higher truths. A higher truth is one that encompasses both original points of view, but goes farther than either goes alone. It does not deny the truth of the individual thoughts, but it includes and then moves beyond them. This higher truth, once reached, is not threatening to either party since it includes what was important to both. Higher truths allow for civil interaction between people and countries. Only by doing the work to discover higher truths will we know peace in our lives or world.

Jesus modeled higher truths throughout his ministry. He accepted his followers as they were and sought to raise them up to his level. Consider the woman caught in the act of adultery, who was about to be stoned to death (John 8). Jesus invited those without sin to cast the first stone – and no stones were thrown. He pointed out the higher truth that all are sinners. Jesus intentionally sought out those that society rejected in order to bring them into his circle of life. The prophet Isaiah wrote about the authority of Jesus hundreds of years prior to Jesus’ birth, describing how his authority would grow continually and bring endless peace. We cannot imagine this type of peace in our deeply divided world. We can, however, follow the example of Jesus and seek higher truths that accept others where they are and lead us all to a higher, more peaceful co-existence.

Come home to church this Sunday. Reaching for higher truths will bring peace.

 

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The “I” in Faith 

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs on your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. Luke 12:6-7

We often hear the saying, “There is no “I” in team.” The thought conveys that the performance of the team is more important than the performance of an individual team member. Sometimes, what one must do to make his or her team successful is not that which will bring the most glory to the individual. Likewise, one of the most common setbacks for team success occurs when individuals perform in selfish ways that hurt the team. We say, “He (or she) is not a team player.”

Having faith, however, is not a team sport – having faith is an individual decision. While people often give credit to others for instilling a strong faith in them, faith can only take hold when a person makes a personal decision to believe. For example, I could easily say my faith was handed down to me from my grandparents, through my parents. Although my parents and grandparents were people of strong faith, my decision to believe – to develop a faith of my own – had to be mine. Furniture, property, pictures, life stories, and life lessons can be passed from generation to generation. Examples of lives of strong faith can serve as models, but for me to be faithful, I must decide to have faith.

So what, exactly, does it mean to have faith? Among the dictionary definitions are “confidence or trust in a person or thing” and “belief that is not based on proof.” For me, faith is a decision to believe there are forces at work that I cannot see, touch, hear, smell, or fully understand. For example, I do not understand electricity, but I use and rely on it all day, every day. I do not understand how the earth remains in its orbit around the sun, but every morning I believe the sun will rise. Having faith in a person or thing means we do not have to micromanage, or otherwise be in charge of or worry about them. We trust their functional design or their good intentions or their competence, and we rely on them – our faith instills confidence in their dependability.

Because faith is an individual decision, we can choose to have faith in different things and/or people, not all of which will be beneficial to us. Having faith establishes a connection that empowers both ends, meaning both the believer and the believed in. Once we believe in a benevolent God, we acknowledge and empower our connection with God and begin to see evidence of God working in our lives. Until, however, we establish that connection – develop that faith – we cannot see the evidence. If we chose to believe life is a random series of unrelated events, however, we establish a connection that will provide evidence for our faith in the chaotic nature of life. The choice is ours. And our choices impact how we experience life. Faith is not just about church, but about life.

Come home to church this Sunday. The choice for a life of faith is yours.

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Skeletons in my Closet 

Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live.

Ezekiel 18:30b-32

When my daughter was young, I enjoyed hiding in her room as she got ready for bed. While she was in the bathroom, I would go into her closet, turn off the light, close the door, and wait. I never jumped out to scare her, however; it was much more fun to sit quietly and wait for her to muster the courage to open the door to see if I was there. For me, it was a fun daddy-daughter moment I enjoyed immensely. In retrospect, she probably enjoyed the game much less than I did, and my nighttime ritual is probably one of the many fatherly faults that will haunt me on Judgment Day.

In truth, I have a closet full of scary things. It is not a typical closet, for there are no piles of clothes, monsters, or dust bunnies lurking behind its closed door. The skeletons residing in the deep, dark recesses of my consciousness are demons of my own making – hurtful decisions, selfish actions, and cruel words I have uttered over the course of my life. I would like to say the many piles of bones residing therein are old and dusty, but they are not. I add to the pile with discouraging regularity. Whenever I do or say something I know is beneath the expectation for a child of God, I throw it into my private closet and slam the door shut, hoping no one else notices. Perhaps it is an affront to my fragile ego to admit that I am less than perfect, or that I might be the cause of another person’s pain. Of course, such disappointment is a weakness I share with the rest of humanity.

Halloween is the time of year when we pull skeletons and other scary things out of storage and put them on display. Somehow, when that which scares us is brought into the light – such as when my daughter opened the door and turned on her closet light – things are not nearly so frightening. My faith tells me God will forgive me of my skeletons – every one of them. However, I must first let them go. I need to bring them out, own and acknowledge them, and turn them over to God. That is repentance, and God relieves us of the burdens we repent. No one, including God, can forgive that which we will not release.

Come home to church this Sunday. Leave the skeletons in your closet at the cross.

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