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Finding Simplicity

 Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Matthew 11:28-29

We live in complex times. We enter the world simply enough, needing only food, sleep, shelter, and love. We leave the world simply enough, taking nothing of the earth with us (although sometimes the hours, days, and weeks leading up to death may be among the most complex and expensive of our lives – but that is a topic for a future Life Note). In between birth and death, however, our lives become complicated well beyond any reasonable need.

Certainly, raising children ratchets up the complexity meter as parents provide for the needs of the child through various stages of growth. As we go through life, we tend to accumulate stuff that was useful at one time, but has set dormant for years. Unless we are obsessive about purging on a regular basis, our unused stuff can overtake our living space, further complicating our lives. We forget that there are costs to hoarding. The physical and financial cost comes from having to store, move, and care for our possessions. The human cost is borne by those who could use what we hoard.

Our possessions are only one area of life’s complexity, however. In fact, our possessions are both a result of and a cause of unnecessary complexity. Something I have noticed in my limited experience in third-world countries is the comparative lack of complexity. Many people do not have cars, televisions, access to the internet, big homes, or multiple sets of shoes and clothes for different seasons and occasions. While they would be considered underprivileged in the West, it is considered the norm for them because it is a common state of being in their culture. And many of them live happy, fulfilled lives without the necessities of the West. Another difference is that friends, family, and God seem to be real and present parts of their everyday lives – much more so than in the West.

A simple life, in my view, is one where there is freedom to do what calls to us in the moment. Granted, most lives are too busy to drop everything to answer to the whims of the moment, but a simple life has the ability to do so at least part of the time. That could be an intimate visit with a dear friend, taking a long drive, going for a contemplative walk, curling up with a good book, or writing a letter to a shut-in.

Even this Life Note on simplicity is overly complicated. I only wanted to encourage us to enjoy uncomplicated time with friends, family, and God. Spending unhurried, unpressured time with friends is one of life’s richest blessings. To rest in God’s presence without feeling the need to prepare in a particular way, be in a particular place, or come up with only eloquent words to say is a sure-fire way to remain centered.

One of the simplest ways to encounter God is by paying attention to our breath. Our first and final act in this world is to take a breath. Most breaths in between are done unconsciously. In the Genesis creation story, “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”[1] The Hebrew word for wind is rauch, which also means breath. It also means spirit. Every breath we take is a renewal of God’s original and on-going breath of creation. It is God’s spirit flowing through us. Focusing on our breath necessarily calls forth God’s presence in a completely natural and simple way.

The Hebrew word translated as Lord in the Bible is YHWH, which in English is pronounced Yahweh. The Israelites believed this holy name was not to be spoken. Some believe the reason it was not to be spoken is that it was to be breathed: Yah (as an inhale) – weh (as an exhale). In fact, this is a contemplative practice called the Yahweh Prayer – breathing the name of God. Seen in this way, calling the name of God is our first and final act on earth, as well as every act in between.

Paying attention to our breath is a simple and accessible way to open ourselves to God’s presence, even when we only have a minute. Building simplicity into our lives is a way to ease our burdens and find rest for our souls.

This is the 10th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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[1] Genesis 1:2

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The Redeeming Face of Love

 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. 1 Corinthians 13:3

The thirteenth chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is the love chapter of the Bible. It describes love as patient and kind, slow to anger, and not resentful. Love bears, believes, hopes, and endures all things. Love never fails. It sets an impossibly high standard for those of us who are merely human. As we experience it in close relationships, love displays many faces, some of which do not live up to Paul’s description.

Indeed, love evolves through different phases. Perhaps the most elemental form of love is gravity – the mutual attraction between two bodies. Gravity holds us to the earth (even when we are upside down) and holds the earth and planets in their orbits around the sun. In the same way, loving relationships grounds us. There is an inherent need in all of creation to be in relationship with another. Of course, love manifests in romance, but there is also the love between a parent and child, brotherly/sisterly love, platonic love, love of country, love of food or drink, love of deep conversations, love of guitars – the list is endless for the subjects and objects of our love. Each relationship is unique, attractive, and endearing in its own way.

The love of God for us, however, is unconditional. The Greek word for God’s love is agape (ah-GAH-pay). While we talk a good game about loving someone unconditionally, human love is always conditional. The object of our love can only hurt or otherwise betray us so many times before the intensity of our love wanes. We may withdraw some of what we have given in love for our own protection, and sometimes for the good of the other. If the one to whom we offer love abuses us in dangerous ways, self-preservation requires our extraction. We often measure human love by time. A relationship that spans many years is a rare treasure, even though quantity does not always indicate quality. A special bond forms through the endurance of many trials, however.

A common trait to every type of love is the affirming nature of the love experience. It may only be a pet who greets us as if there were no one in the world they would rather see, but there is nothing like being loved in tangible ways to give us a sense of worth and purpose. The absence of love leads people to all sorts of self-destructive behaviors – addictions, associations with abusers, and other unhealthy lifestyles. When we do not feel loved, we question our value, our worthiness, and our reason for being. The absence of love leads to anger directed inward. I am told that infants who are not held and loved in their early days may die in spite of receiving adequate nourishment. Children and adolescents without stable, supportive, loving families often seek affirmation from gangs, drugs, or other less-than-desirable sources. Severe loneliness, particularly among the elderly, is an epidemic today.

When we have no loving relationships – when we feel unloved and uncared for or about – we find ourselves in a hell on earth. Without debating the notion of hell as an after-death destination of eternal punishment for unredeemed sinners (a topic for a future Life Note), we can be certain that hell is a present reality of the here and now for many unloved people. Hell, in any of its theorized states, is a separation from the loving attention of others.

There is no substitute for a one-on-one, face-to-face, respectful and affirming relationship with another. For love to manifest in a reassuring, lasting manner, it must be embodied. Without love, nothing else matters, as Paul makes clear in his letter to the Corinthians. Withholding our loving attention from others hurts both them and us. They will seek love elsewhere, but what will we do – reserve our store of loving attention for someone more worthy? We seriously miss the point in doing so. Others become worthy by receiving our loving attention. That is the nature of God’s agape love, which is the originating source of all manifestations of love. We become loved and loving by allowing God’s love to permeate in and through us, even as it overflows onto others. It is through the giving and receiving of love that redemption spreads to all. It requires little – a card, a phone call, or a smile. Valentine’s Day is a good time to begin…

This is the 6th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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God the Spirit, Part 2

 “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Matthew 18:20

The third person of the Trinity is the Holy Spirit, which is a product of relationship. Relationship occurs when someone is in fellowship with one or more others. Reflecting on my marriage, there is a third something present that has grown out of our relationship, our love and care for each other, and the life experiences we have endured and enjoyed together for over 30 years. That spirit is unique to the two of us, it changes with us and our circumstances, and it is a manifestation of God the Spirit. A description of marriage found in Genesis 2:24 says the two “become one flesh.” That does not mean that either individual ceases to exist, nor is it exclusively a sexual reference. Quite the contrary, it can be read as referring to a third being – a spirit of the relationship that manifests from the connection between the two. Whenever you and I interact there is an us produced, and the essence of that us is the Spirit. We do not perceive this Spirit because we focus on the two people as separate individuals. As we become aware of the Spirit around and within us, we realize there is no such thing as separate individuals because we are all connected. As the apostle Paul writes in many of his letters, together, we are all one Body.

In our bodies, we have largely anonymous groupings of cells called connective tissue. It is everywhere in the body and connects skin, organs, muscles, and bones with each other. It functions to hold things in place as well as to exchange nutrients, water, oxygen, and wastes between the various activity centers in the body. We do not often speak of the connective tissue because most of our attention goes to the major organs. Just as our connective tissue fills the spaces between our bodily parts, so the Spirit fills the spaces between what we perceive as individual beings. In other words, we all are connected in and by the Spirit, even though we cannot see or touch it. We can feel it, however. The feeling of the Spirit may be comfortable among friends, familiar among family, and frightening with those who are threatening.

The Spirit is a product of interaction and proximity, and it is not limited to interfaces between people. The Spirit manifests in solitary walks in nature, while gazing at the night sky, or witnessing a stunning sunset. These, too, are interactions within God’s creation. Likewise, it develops between people and their beloved pets – the joy of being greeted enthusiastically by a wagging tail or the comfort of a purring cat asleep on one’s lap. We see it manifest in intimate relationships, but also among co-workers, students and teachers, parents and children, and everywhere there is conscious interaction. The Spirit is unique to each relationship, although the experience is not always pleasant. Some people walk into a room and seemingly suck every ounce of joy out of it. Their own pain and need is so great that their contribution to the collective spirit is negative. Fortunately, other folks enter a room and immediately brighten the atmosphere.

One way to picture the Spirit in our everyday life is to describe an electrical circuit. For electricity to power something requires a connection between two points, one giving and the other receiving. When the circuit is complete, electricity flows between one end of the circuit and the other and accomplishes a third something – powering our lives. When the connection is broken, our world goes dark. When two or more interact in giving and receiving ways, the Spirit will manifest – a circuit is completed and power is generated. Jesus said: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Love is the substance of the Holy Spirit, and we are connected by that love. The Spirit arises out of God, and the Spirit is God. It is incomprehensibly larger than we are, and yet we are intimately and inseparably woven within it. This love, this Spirit, is more real than anything we can touch, smell, see or hear. The Spirit of love surrounds us always, and in that love we live and move and have our being – forever and ever. Amen.

Note: this is the 35th in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God.

 

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Paul Wrote the Book of Love

Love is patient; love is kind. 1 Corinthians 13 4a,b

My latest book, Paul Wrote the Book of Love: Reflections on 1 Corinthians 13, will be available this Sunday in the FUMC-Lawrence office, and is available now on Amazon, at ContemplatingGrace.com, or directly from me. It is an insightful and quick read and would make a great gift for anyone confused about love! Here is the Introduction to the book:

bookThe 1950’s music group, The Monotones1, asked the question, “Who wrote the book of love?” Six decades later, I answer the question in this book. The apostle Paul wrote it. In his first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul writes a comprehensive essay on what love is and what love is not. No doubt, it was timely 2000 years ago when he wrote it, but it is still relevant today. Our society thinks too narrowly about love, usually limiting love to romance. While romantic love is one important and pleasing manifestation of love, it is far from the only or most enduring. All of us want more love in our lives, but until we know what we lack and what we desire, we cannot begin to find it. The purpose of this book is to help the reader find a true, lasting, dependable love.

Fr. Richard Rohr and other Christian mystics point out that we do not think our way into a new way of acting, we act our way into a new way of thinking. The same is true for love. We cannot intellectualize our way into love. Love is an action, so when we decide to increase the experience of love in our lives, we do so by intentionally acting in more loving ways. Feelings of love may follow, but feelings cannot lead, at least not in a dependable manner.

Therein lies the beauty of 1 Corinthians 13 – it provides a list of specific actions that define love. It provides some of the most straightforward guidance for how to become a more loving person, and in the process become more worthy of receiving the love of others. We reap what we sow, and this truth is never more evident than in matters of love.

The first specific reference to love in the Bible occurs in Genesis 22:2, where God orders Abraham, “Take your son, your only son whom you love,” and offer him as a burnt offering (a fate that ended up not being required). A few chapters later, we find Jacob working seven years to be able to take Rachel as his wife “because of the love he had for her.” There are over 150 references to love in the Psalms alone – God’s love for us, our love for God, and our love for each other. As Moses details the laws of righteousness for the Hebrew people in Leviticus (19:18), he writes, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This commandment to love others is repeated by Jesus in all four Gospel accounts, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (John 13:34) Clearly, there are many variations of love recorded in the Bible, but throughout the Bible, love is non-negotiable.

Love is sacrificial in nature, meaning we hold what is dear to us loosely, willingly offering whatever we possess to our beloved. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac, was evidence of his love for God above all else. The story is immoral and inexcusable by today’s standards, but the lesson is sound – we may willingly sacrifice in otherwise unthinkable ways for the sake of love.

A word of caution as we begin: This book about relationships, but it is not intended to suggest that all relationships should be endured. Abusive, unhealthy, one-sided relationships should be terminated, not withstood. An abusive relationship is perversion of how God intended us to treat each other and is never a loving relationship.

Paul wrote the book of love 2000 years ago, and it remains as profound and vital today as it was in his day. This book intends to help the reader apply the timeless wisdom of the original Book of Love.

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Life Notes

Love Endures All Things

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7

The 15th characteristic of love, as described by Paul, is that love endures. Love is persistent and determined. It does not give up easily. When we think of endurance, we often think of sports and the extended and extensive training required to achieve at high levels. Sports are not a bad metaphor for loving relationships. When we commit to love another – whether in marriage, friendship, or other committed relationships – we commit to being with and for them over the long-term. We agree to support and accompany them in good times, in bad times, in boring times, and in all times in between. We vow to love them when they treat us well, when they treat us poorly, when they act in ways we wish they would not, as well as when they treat us as if we were the only other person in their life.

That we remain committed to another does not mean we simply weather the difficult times, however. It also means we work to shape a relationship from those difficult times into something rare and beautiful. Enduring for endurance’s sake is self-imposed torture – there needs to be a higher purpose for our endurance, a purpose like love. I am told that wine made from grapes whose vines grow in poor, rocky soil and that endure challenging weather conditions have a depth and body that other wines lack. Some of the most beautiful things on earth require time, time necessarily requires endurance, and the difficult times often make the results more beautiful. The rings of trees record the relative ease or difficulty of their individual years. A weathered face reflects a life lived in the elements. Friendships we maintain for many years have a level of comfort and acceptance that simply cannot fully develop otherwise.

This is not to suggest that all relationships should be endured. Abusive, unhealthy, one-sided relationships should be terminated, not withstood. An abusive relationship is not a loving relationship. Where there is a foundation of mutual fondness, respect, and benevolence, however, endurance will take a relationship to levels not otherwise possible. There is a saying in sports, “No pain, no gain,” which suggests we must endure difficult practicing and training in order to reap the benefits of athletic achievement. The same can be said for loving relationships – the benefits come from a wide diversity of experiences with the other, not by only accepting the good and rejecting the not-so-good.

Let us make 2016 the year of love, as love was meant to be.

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