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Lukewarm Living

 I know your words; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.  Revelation 3:15-16

The author of the Revelation to John received messages for each of the seven churches in Asia at the time (present day Turkey). Some of the messages contain praise for their good works. All the messages contain criticism, some particularly harsh. The message to the church in Laodicea falls into the latter category. If one assumes, as I do, that scripture contains lessons for us as individuals, the criticism of the church at Laodicea hits me hard. This particular church is accused of being “lukewarm,” which I interpret to mean disengaged. There was no passion or life in their worship or practice. The message says, “I wish that you were either cold or hot…” This church would be better off doing wrong things with zeal than doing right things without spirit. Because of this, Christ is about to spit them out of his mouth – to cast them away.

This message is vexing to me because I tend not to be emotionally expressive. The term lukewarm goes beyond emotional expression, however. The church is arrogant in an isolationist way, believing they need nothing from others. They cannot see how wretched and pitiable they are. As with many that Jesus counseled during his time on earth, they are blind to the reality of their situation. The message closes by saying, “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (3:22).

The challenge in reading the Bible, particularly with coded books like the Revelation, is in finding meaningful applications for our lives today. The message to the church at Laodicea is a warning against living half-heartedly or distractedly. Similar to praying with one eye open, when we do not give ourselves fully to the present moment we squander the gift of being human. We not only rob ourselves of the full-embodied experience, we rob those around us, too. Everything we do, down to the smallest detail, affects others. When we live half-heartedly, the experience others receive from us is equally half-hearted.

The message I receive from this passage in the Revelation is that passion is a gift intended for use, and we should apply it, appropriately, at every opportunity. Far from a mandate to fly off the handle half-cocked, it suggests we enter every moment with our entire being engaged – head, heart, body, and soul. One of the commandments Moses received from God on Mount Sinai (Deuteronomy 6:5) is this: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.” Should we not also live our moments with all our heart, soul, and strength? If anything is worth doing, it is worth doing with everything we have at our disposal, whether we are praying, working, resting, or playing.

In art, the color red brings a painted picture to life, just like the blood coursing through our veins, just like splashes of red transform a sunrise or sunset from mundane to spectacular. Our human passions inject zeal into our life on earth. We were not created to be lukewarm. It does no good to die with a reserve of passion any more than it does to limit how often we tell those closest to us how much we love them. The stores of loving energy are infinite, so we need not worry about depleting the supply.

Passion is a precious gift. Yes, it hurts when the object of our passion dies or fails or otherwise falls short of our hopes and dreams. Vulnerability necessarily accompanies giving our all to a person or goal. But what do we have to lose, really? The biggest loss is in not focusing ourselves fully on the situation before us because we cannot retrieve or relive our moments once they pass. The more we give, the more joy, beauty, and pleasure we stand to gain in return. It is not our place to judge whether what we can give is good enough, is better or worse than what others have to give, or that it makes the impact we feel it should. Our gifts are our gifts, and God intends us to heat them up or cool them down, but not allow them to become lukewarm.

This is the 5th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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Staying Awake

 Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak. Mark 14:38

Mindfulness is a popular buzzword these days. Be present to the moment. Be here now. Seize the day. We have many contemporary ways of saying what Jesus told his disciples 2000 years ago – keep awake! In the scripture from Mark, quoted above, Jesus is in the garden of Gethsemane with a few of his disciples after the Last Supper. He goes off by himself to pray and tells his friends to stay awake. He returns a short while later to find them asleep. He wakes them and again requests that they remain awake. Once again he goes off to pray, coming back a third time to find them asleep. At this point, the temple police have arrived to arrest him and begin the events that led to his crucifixion the next morning. In the context of this story, we are the sleepy disciples.

I do not believe Jesus asked his disciples to stay awake because he was lonely. He did not make the request so they would protect or hide him from his imminent fate. Rather, he wanted them to witness what was happening in the moment, to be present to it and see it, to keep awake to the details of what was happening around them. It was a seminal moment for each of them, personally and collectively, and he wanted them to experience it in the fullness of their being. One of the lessons we learn from difficult times is that we must go through our challenges in order to grow beyond them. To go through something requires that we be unwaveringly present to it, whatever it is. When we seek to avoid an experience, we automatically set the wheels in motion for a repeat occurrence. Only when we have acknowledged and accepted what is before us can we move on to something new. In order to acknowledge and accept what is, we must be awake.

Obviously, Jesus is not suggesting we stop sleeping. Rather, Jesus reminds us to pay attention during our waking hours – to the beauty around us, yes, but also to those people and events we find unpleasant, undesirable, or painful. Jesus understands how difficult it is for us; after all, he was human, too. While the text suggests his frustration with the disciples’ inability to stay physically awake for his last moments of freedom on earth, he knows and verbalizes that the “flesh is weak.” In spite of its inherent willingness, the spirit cannot override the tired flesh, at least not for long. The needs of the flesh are too powerful.

We stay awake, we become present to the moment by paying close attention to the information coming through our senses – what our eyes see and our ears hear. Jesus often pointed something out for his followers to examine, saying “Let those with eyes see.” Many of his healing episodes involve blindness – physical blindness, yes, but these stories are also metaphorical pointers a more widespread type of blindness to whatever is before us. Opening ourselves to the full experience of what we see, hear, taste, touch, and smell unlocks the doorway into the present moment. Daydreaming about the future and regretting the past are fast-pass tickets out of the present, as is avoiding what we know requires our attention.

Taking ourselves out of the moment by any of the myriad of enticing ways to do so is like praying with one eye open. We tend not to trust the goodness or completeness of the moment any more than we trust God to protect and provide for us. As a result, we keep one eye open when we pray, and we avert our gaze from the present with an endless stream of diversions. Human nature, being what it is, makes it difficult not to do that! Jesus, however, calls us to transcend our ordinary human nature, not because there is anything wrong with being human, but because our human moments are beautiful, intense, intimate, and rich. Not only do we miss those powerful experiences when we stray from the moment, but God, experiencing through us, does as well. These experiences are only available in human bodies, so it is doubly important to embrace them as the opportunities arise. Jesus’ admonition to keep awake is an invitation to fully experience our humanity, savoring and living every beautiful and painful moment while we are able to do so.

This is the 4th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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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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Contemplative Practices, Part 1

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

I frequently make references to contemplative practices without describing what they are. I will describe a few of the practices that are a part of my daily routine. Before I do so, however, I need to 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 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 consciousness 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.

Several years ago I felt a deep need to experience the presence of God in my life instead of just reading another book about it. Contemplative practices are a way to integrate our bodies, our physical being, into our spiritual work. These practices are not about adding more stuff to our days or reading more books faster. They are about slowing down and going deep, entering a moment or a narrative and experiencing what it has to offer. One of my teachers suggests that if we spend 10 hours a week reading, we should spend one of those hours on a single page, paragraph, line, or thought.

I utilize the two practices I describe below every day. One is a form of prayer — Centering Prayer, and one is a method of study – Lectio Divina (pronounced Lex’-ee-oh Dah-vee’-na). Many other practices are available and useful, and I will describe a couple more next week. These include (but are not limited to) walking meditation, yoga, certain forms of exercise, meditation, sacred dance, chanting, and many variations of prayer.

Centering Prayer. This is a form of silent prayer, where we seek to quiet the internal dialogue that runs non-stop in our minds. The sole purpose is to sit in the presence of God. We are not seeking answers, enlightenment, or comfort. We do not submit our petitions to God. We simply consent to be in God’s presence. Here is the process:
1. Select a “sacred word” of one or two syllables that will symbolize your consent to God’s presence and action within you. I often use “Be still.” Use whatever word seems appropriate to you to symbolize your willingness to consent to God’s presence.
2. Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, take a few deep breaths and silently introduce your sacred word.
3. When thoughts arise, as they will, repeat your sacred word to renew your intent to consent quietly to God’s presence. Allow the thoughts to pass away as you say your sacred word.
Two, twenty-minute sessions of centering prayer each day are recommended, although shorter periods can be helpful, too.

Lectio Divina. This is a four-step method for studying sacred texts, like the Bible. The intent is not to see how much of the text one can get through and how quickly, but to see how deeply one can enter and experience one section of the text. I often select a book of the Bible, reading it from beginning to end, one paragraph at a time, one day at a time. Here is the process:
1. Read the selected passage slowly and aloud. This allows one’s body to hear the words instead of just thinking the words. Listen for a word or phrase that speaks to you.
2. Read the passage a second time and reflect on what touches you about it. Enter one or more of the characters – what are they thinking, feeling, or experiencing? Consider journaling your thoughts.
3. Read the passage a third time and respond with a prayer or expression of what you have experienced and/or what it calls you to do. This step is a call to action – what action in my life is this passage calling me to?
4. Read the passage a fourth time and rest in silence.
Additional information and resources for these and other practices is at http://www.contemplativeoutreach.com.

Contemplative practices are not about getting from here to there but are about delving more deeply into the here and now – wherever we are, whatever our situation, at this very moment. Next week I will provide an overview for a couple of additional practices.

This is the 11th in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life.

Prefer to listen? Subscribe to Life Notes Podcasts at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/life-notes-podcast/id1403068000

 

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