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The Contemplative Symbolism of the Cross

 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 1 Corinthians 1:18

To Christians, the cross symbolizes the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It is a sign of pain and suffering, yes, but it is also a sign of hope. God, in the person of Jesus, endured a horrific persecution, humiliation, and death on a cross. Because God has been there, God understands and empathizes with our persecutions, humiliations, and suffering. There are countless innocent victims of human and natural violence, and the cross reminds us that God knows the futility of senseless suffering better than anyone does. Many believe Jesus died as payment for our sins, ending the bloody sacrificial system of atonement that had been in place for countless generations. All of this and more comes to mind when reflecting on the cross.

The cross is also a contemplative mandala for a mindful life. The horizontal line represents the time continuum of our physical existence on earth, stretching from past to present to future. Every point along that time-line is a moment, and we can chose to go deep into any moment. Doing so brings a vertical line into our awareness, symbolizing our spiritual life. The vertical line stretches endlessly above and below our earth-time awareness, opening access to another dimension of experience. The spiritual dimension exists outside of time, so whenever we decide to become present to a moment, time loses its sequential nature and becomes largely irrelevant. We may choose to go deeply into the moment of smelling a rose, closing our eyes and entering the sweet fragrance. It may transport us back to a time in childhood when our father gave our mother a bouquet of flowers for Mother’s Day. We may remember a walk through a rose garden, holding hands with the one we loved. We may enter  springtime, with the soft green grass and the rebirth and flowering of God’s creation. All of these possibilities exist within that single moment of smelling the rose, but they exist outside of the time continuum in which we bring the petals to our nose. Here is another example: When reading a passage that moves me, I can continue reading, or I can enter into that which moves me. I can become a character in the story and place myself in the scene. Being present to a moment is experiencing the moment on a level deeper than simply reading about it. It is taking an experiential detour along the vertical dimension of the cross as opposed to floating along the horizontal in surface-consciousness. We cannot enter the moment without committing our awareness to it, whatever it may be.

Lest I paint an inaccurately restricted image, entering the moment is not about lamenting the past, projecting the future, or losing ourselves in daydreams. Rather, it is about entering a deeper dimension of our life experience and understanding that we are always at the crossroads of infinite possibilities, symbolized by the cross. When Jesus was nailed to the cross, he was held at the intersection of the material and spiritual worlds. When he invites us to take up our cross and follow him (Mark 8:34), Jesus invites us to meet him at that intersection. When he says he goes to prepare a place for us (John 14:3), the doorway into that place is at this intersection. It leads to heaven on earth, or as Jesus calls it, the Kingdom of God.

The cross not only symbolizes a passage into a deeper experience of the moments of our lives, but it also illustrates how to get past the trying times of our lives. When Jesus was on the cross, he was held at the intersection of body and spirit by the nails. Just as he did not seek to be removed from his anguish, so we cannot ignore or seek shortcuts around our suffering – it will only return to us in new form. We must go through our suffering as if nailed to it, symbolized by Jesus’ crucifixion, in order for transformation to occur, symbolized by Jesus’ resurrection.

This, then, is one reading of the contemplative symbolism of the cross. All of our opportunities for growth and transformation exist in the moment. When we make ourselves vulnerable enough to fully enter a moment, new possibilities arise and unimaginable depths of experience open to us. Contemplative practices help us to enter and experience the intersection of matter and spirit in a way that opens us to the presence of God.

This is the 9th in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life.

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Knowledge vs Experience

 Should the wise answer with windy knowledge, and fill themselves with the east wind? Should they argue in unprofitable talk, or in words with which they can do no good?        Job 15:2-3

I am a life-long lover of knowledge and learning. There are usually several books on my nightstand and other reading materials scattered throughout the house with which I actively engage. My interest in the spiritual nature of creation has dominated my curiosity since early adulthood. I am not as interested in organized religion as much as in the connection between spirit and body, the point where the tangible and visible merges into the ethereal and invisible. That point seems to be a nexus from which magic arises.

A thirst for knowledge in the written word, however, cannot provide the experience the words describe. By overly focusing on head knowledge, we neglect our other two centers of intelligence – the heart and the body. It is common to focus on one of the three and have only a partial life experience because of it. Too often, I anchor myself to head knowledge at the expense of the rich, emotional life of the heart and the visceral, sensual life of the body. I reach a point where my learning stagnates. For a well-rounded life experience, I know I need also to feed my heart and body, and book-knowledge alone cannot make that happen. This manifests in modern-day religion when we confuse God’s living, dynamic Word with the words written in the Bible and other spiritual texts. If we do not allow God’s Word to permeate our mind and heart and body, we come to know the words on the page but never the living experience the words describe.

The anonymous 14th Century mystic and author of The Cloud of Unknowing, wrote, “I encourage you, then, to make experience, not knowledge, your aim. Knowledge often leads to arrogance, but this humble feeling never lies to you.1” This author makes a not-so-subtle accusation that knowledge lies to us, but experience does not. It is not that knowledge provides something that is not true, but rather that head knowledge only provides part of the truth. We miss a lot when we live in our heads. One illustration is the difference between reading about the fragrance of a rose and actually holding the thorny stem between our fingers and smelling the flower. The former is only a description of the actual experience – perhaps not a lie, but certainly not the whole truth. There is another slap in the face to knowledge-obsessed folks like me from this author: “Knowledge leads to arrogance.” This is illustrated in the passage from Job. We can actually obtain an intellectual grasp of written materials, so we feel we have mastered them, that we own them, that we know everything about them. In reality, we cannot master, own, or know much about anything in its essence. The more we experientially learn about something or someone at its core, the more we realize there is actually very little we can put into words. One of my teachers, Jim Finley, says that we can say a lot about someone we do not know well. But once we’ve known someone for a very long time we do not know what to say about them. Words cannot contain such knowledge. Deep and sustained experiences humble us.

The fact is that head knowledge is a collection of words, and words are metaphors with no immediate contact with reality. Words represent something, but they are not the thing itself. While they are important and necessary, words provide only partial truths. Head knowledge without heart or body knowledge is an intellectual exercise subject to becoming shallow and deceptive. Bodily experience without intellectual context or loving guidance from the heart can lead to all sorts of heathen, abusive tendencies. Living from the heart without intellectual context or bodily grounding leaves us in emotional turmoil, paralyzed by the seeming insensitivity of the world around us. A contemplative life actively works toward the integration of mind, body, and heart.

A contemplative life, then, is a balanced life. It experiences what is with the head, heart, and body, requiring that we sometimes pause to allow one or more of the intelligence centers to catch up. In my case, my head jumps ahead of my heart and body when I am not intentional about being present with the entirety of my being. The purpose, meaning, and beauty of human incarnation is found in the total experience.

This is the 2nd in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life.

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

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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.

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

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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Love One Another

 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

 John 13:34-35

The “love one another” saying of Jesus is one that appears in each of the Gospels, although in different variations and contexts. In Matthew 22:34-40 and in Mark 12:28-34, a religious leader asks Jesus which of the commandments is the greatest. Jesus says the greatest commandment is to love God, and the second is to “love your neighbor as yourself.” In Luke 10:25-28, a lawyer asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him to love God and to love his neighbor as himself. The lawyer then asks, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds with the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37), where a man was beaten, robbed, and left by the side of the road. A couple of religious leaders pass him by without offering assistance. A Samaritan (a despised foreigner) stopped and bandaged his wounds, took him to a town, and paid for his care.

In John’s telling, Jesus was with his disciples at the Last Supper where he gave them a new commandment: to love one another. Further, Jesus told them they should love one another as he had loved them. A few verses earlier, Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, modeling humility and a readiness to serve. Jesus gave his time and attention to all who came to him. He healed infirmities and fought ignorance by sharing wisdom. He accepted those whom society rejected. The love of Jesus was laser-focused on the needs of others, not personal emotions or feelings.

On a recent trip to New Orleans, I encountered panhandlers throughout the French Quarter, sometimes five or six per block. One haunting example was a young female who looked to be high school or college age. Her sign said, “Homeless and pregnant.” Her gaze was fixed on the sidewalk in front of her, as if in shame and despair. Like the religious leaders in the story of the Good Samaritan, I passed her by. I justified my insensitivity by rationalizing that I could have given thousands of dollars and made no significant dent in the needs of the area, or possibly even in the needs of this one person. It was overwhelming. In retrospect, I know I could have done something for a few – at least for this desperate girl – but I chose to keep walking. I failed even to acknowledge these unfortunates as fellow children of God by saying “Hello,” or by sitting to hear their stories. Would Jesus have passed them by? How would I judge those, like me, obliviously passing by if I were in their situation? Perhaps the sorrow I saw in them was their pity for me, a well-to-do middle-classer unwilling to share his abundance.

One of the reasons I find myself bypassing opportunities to love and serve others is my tendency to project out of the present moment. In each of my moments in the French Quarter there was one person in front of me with a need. Had I remained in the moment, I could have loved another by attending to that one person in some way. Instead, I looked at the immensity of the needs of the many outside of that moment and ended up not serving any of them. The immensity of the need outside of the moment distracted me from what I could have done to help someone in the moment. I was reminded recently that we only meet God in the moment. God does not reside in the future or the past, only in the present.

Jesus says, “By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Active love is the mark of a Christian. Using Jesus as a model, and not allowing past failures or future worries to remove us from the needs God places before us in the moment is one way to follow the example of love and service we see in Jesus. While I do not believe we are condemned for passing by those in need without helping, those are God-given opportunities to respond in kind to the love and service shown to us in Christ. By loving one another we display the mark of Christ for others to see. At the same time, we relieve a bit of the suffering in our hurting world. And both are desperately needed.

This is the 39th in the series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

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Humble Yourself

 Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 18:4

In general, I try to build people up and make them feel good about themselves and their lives. Never mind that some of my friends are gagging now because I also enjoy humbling others on occasion (for their own good, of course). Nevertheless, I truly believe that everyone and everything is an amazing and unique work of creation, unlike anything created before or that will be created in the future. We are literally the only one of ourselves out of countless trillions of beings. In that sense, we are special beyond comprehension. Our specific blend of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual traits will never again see the light of day when we pass. We could interpret this as a reason for arrogance.

While some may agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment, others are suspecting there is a catch. And there is. Are you ready? Yes, you are unique in all of creation. BUT (make sure you are sitting down for this). Here’s the catch (take a deep breath now): Everyone and everything else is a completely unique creation, too!!! This includes the pebble in your shoe and the gnat you swatted away from your food at dinner. God expresses absolutely uniquely in and through the specific nature of everything. I once heard a bit of business wisdom that goes, “If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.” The corollary on the topic of uniqueness is this: “If everyone is a unique creation, no one is unique.” While this is may be overly cynical, it does perhaps shed some light on why Jesus tells us to humble ourselves.

The context for Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:4 is that he is sitting with his disciples who ask who will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus responds by setting a child on his lap and saying, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” Indeed, the call for humility is not unique to Jesus in the Bible. The Old Testament prophet Micah (6:8) wrote, “…and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God!”

It is interesting and instructive that Jesus uses children to illustrate humility. Many parents, myself included, put enormous amounts of energy into building our children’s self-esteem and trying to assure they develop a positive self-image. We want our kids to celebrate their distinct place in creation and to know themselves as a beloved child of God. While we do not want them to feel inferior, we also do not want them to believe themselves superior to others, either. Uniqueness does not equal preeminence.

In general, children are curious, optimistic, joyful, easily awed, and have short memories. They are not “smart” in the ways of the world, but they learn to shape their unique character into the puzzle of the life around them. Children possess important traits of humility we often forget as we grow up and become “wise.” Children are more likely to be present to the moment, and in that moment to see and appreciate the beauty and joy in the specificity of everything around them. Jesus warns that the childlike traits we shed as we age are the very ones we should most strive to retain.

One might wonder about the purpose for our unique blend of skills, characteristics, and insights if not for us to gain an advantage over others in life. At least two responses come to mind. First, we are creations of God, created in God’s image and likeness, so whatever uniqueness we have comes from God and not from anything we have done. Where, then, is our cause to brag? Secondly, we are given special qualities in order to make this world a better place for ourselves and others. For every talent we are given, there is a need nearby that we alone are uniquely gifted to meet. The biggest question is whether we are humble enough to use our talents in service to others (like Jesus did). That, I think, is becoming humble like a child and holds the key to the kingdom.

This is the 6th in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

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The Kingdom is Near

 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  Matthew 4:17

According to the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, Jesus’ first instruction to his followers was to “Repent.” He follows this directive with a brief justification. In my paraphrase, Jesus says: “You need to change the focus of your life because the kingdom is very near and available to you here and now, but you will never experience it from the path you are on.” The kingdom of heaven Jesus refers to may or may not be a place we go when we die, but it most certainly is a state of being here and now.

It is difficult to overemphasize the central position the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God (I believe the terms are used interchangeably), has in the teachings of Jesus. This kingdom is the nexus from which his teachings emanate. Jesus refers to the kingdom of heaven/God 85 times in the four Gospels. He refers to the kingdom another 34 times. Clearly, there is something significant about this kingdom that Jesus invites us to know and experience.

Most of us were taught to think of heaven as a faraway place where the good and faithful go after they die. The alternative, hell, is where those not qualifying for heaven go. Our stay in either place is rumored to be eternal. While I do not wish to speculate about possible states of being after our physical death, I have certainly experienced both heaven and hell on earth. It is to these present states of the human condition that I believe Jesus is referring when he tells us the kingdom is near.

What Jesus says about the kingdom is instructive. Aside from the many comparisons he draws, i.e., the kingdom of heaven is like…, Jesus refers to the kingdom as a place that is very close. In Matthew 4:17, Jesus says “the kingdom of heaven has come near” (emphasis added). Elsewhere in Matthew (12:28) he says, “the kingdom of God has come to you.” In Mark 12:34: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” From Luke 17:21: “the kingdom of God is among you.” The unmistakable common theme is that this kingdom is not somewhere far away, but this kingdom is here. As if this is not convincing, in Luke 9:27, Jesus says: “But truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.” Point number one is that the kingdom is near. Point number two is that the presence, knowledge, or experience of Jesus is integral to our ability to enter the kingdom. Third, while many Christians believe Jesus is the entry point to heaven (Jesus, in fact, claims as much in John 14:6), I do not believe the Christian experience of Jesus is the only entry point. Rather, all points likely require a knowledge or experience of God in the flesh, which is exactly what Christians believe of Jesus. In other words, entry into heaven on earth requires a Jesus-like encounter with the divine, which is available to all, including those who have never heard of or experienced the Son of God manifested in Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus, in referring to the kingdom, is talking about a state of being that is present now, while we are alive on earth, and we enter it through Christ, the Son of God. We are not separate from God; only our lack of faith makes it seem so. In a recent Daily Meditation1, Richard Rohr wrote, “The belief that God is ‘out there’ is the basic dualism that is tearing us all apart. Jesus came to put it all together for and in us. He was saying, ‘This physical world is the hiding place of God.’” Although the body of Jesus left this planet 2000 years ago, he is still present through the reality of the Spirit, offering us entry into the kingdom whenever we are ready – right here, right now, next week, or when we die (death likely changes our focus for us). The ticket to the kingdom is repentance – rearranging our priorities. Once our heart is set on the right path, Jesus will lead us to the kingdom, as will become apparent as we continue to explore his teachings.

This is the 3rd in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

 1  Richard Rohr, Daily Meditations. January 5, 2018. http://www.cac.org, Sourced January 15, 2018.

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My Face

 Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…” Genesis 1:26a

According to the creation story recorded in the first chapter of Genesis, humankind was created in the image of God and according to God’s likeness. Not only that, the account is recorded as a conversation within the Godhead: “Let us make…” We assume this is a discussion among the persons of the Trinity, which is one of many biblical hints that God, while One God, is not a single being, at least not as we understand single beings. Rather, God’s core essence is relational. The Trinitarian paradigm describes a God that expresses in different but interrelated ways. Indeed, this series of Life Notes about The Faces of God has attempted to describe a number of the ways our one God manifests in our lives. The descriptors of those manifestations are familiar to us because many describe very human traits – lonely, sorry, demanding, militant, merciful, vengeful, intimate, calm, submissive, creative, and loving. If we are indeed created in the image and likeness of God, why would we expect anything different?

While I believe it is accurate to claim that we reflect aspects of God’s nature, I am not making a case for pantheism, which is the belief that everything is God. Rather, the more correct term for our relationship to God is panentheism, which is the belief that God is in everything. The difference is far from trivial. A pantheist would say “I am God (and so are you),” where the panentheist would say “God is in me (and also in you).” That I do not perfectly reflect God’s nature is an understatement and a relief. There is, however, a portion of God’s nature reflected in me. Richard Rohr, in his book A Spring Within Us, writes, “We cannot bear the impossible burden of being God, but we can and should enjoy the privilege and dignity of being with and in God” (p. 356).

The first faces of God for most of us are those of our parents (an illusion quickly overcome in adolescence). Imagine an infant gazing up at the loving faces gazing back at him or her. The parents are so much larger, so much more powerful, so much smarter and worldly, and the infant is completely dependent upon them. It must be difficult for an infant to imagine how these incomprehensibly vast beings could be so captivated by one so small, unworthy, and helpless. When parenting works as designed, however, a powerful bond forms between parent and child. For the rest of our lives, even once our parents are gone, we long for that intimate, accepting, caring connection, particularly during our toughest trials.

When we are in the presence of one we care deeply about, when we feel loved and accepted for who we are and as we are, we enter a state of heightened awareness of who and whose we are. In these experiences, God within us connects with God within the other. Sometimes, the connection is so powerful that we feel more like witnesses than participants. In those moments, heaven and earth merge, and we know the ground we are standing on is holy. Those moments cannot be forced by strength of will; they are gifts of grace that can only be received when and as given.

When we live with the knowledge that God lives in and through us we begin to understand that our bodies truly are temples of the Most High. God looks out through my eyes and sees God looking out through your eyes, and together we say, “Let us create in our own image,” and life springs forth from the relationship. When I identify with God living through me, my prejudices, my biases, and my judgmental vision fall away, and I see the world around me with a clarity not otherwise possible. And I know everything is just as it should be, right here and right now. Obviously, there is work to be done to help the world become as it will be; but for this moment, I can simply enjoy what is in a worshipful, contented way. The moment is always enough when we center ourselves on the presence of God in us.

One of the many faces of God is my face. Another is yours. Divinity lives within us as Emmanuel.

Note: this is the 36th and final in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God

 

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