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Praying With Both Eyes Closed

But as for me, my prayer is to you, O Lord. At an acceptable time, O God, in the abundance of your steadfast love, answer me. Psalm 69:13

In January of this year, I began this series of Life Notes with a reflection about praying with one eye open. I used it as a metaphor for not giving oneself fully to God. Since that time I have written numerous additional reflections about the various ways we find to avoid or otherwise not surrender to God as much as we can or perhaps should. Make no mistake, I do not write these as a person who is particularly good at that type of surrender. Maybe that makes me a hypocrite, but these are topics I struggle with and assume at least some others do, too. I remember Sundays in church as a child during prayer time looking around the sanctuary for people whose eyes were not closed. I always found a few. I think I figured if I got caught, the captor would automatically expose his or her own guilt if he or she called me out. It was not that I was serving as the prayer police as much as it was just difficult for me to keep both eyes closed during the prayers that seemed to drag on forever. I, like most of us, was taught to pray with both eyes closed. I guess it was considered disrespectful to God to be looking around during prayer.

The years have given me a slightly different perspective on prayer. I no longer believe God cares whether our eyes are open or closed. I do, however, believe it can make a difference to our personal prayer experience. We receive so much information and stimulation through our eyes that it is difficult, if not impossible, to focus on something ephemeral, like God, with our eyes open. We believe our connection to God is internal and, as such, that our gaze should be internal, too. That implies that our eyes should be closed.

As I have stated in earlier Life Notes, having both eyes closed makes us vulnerable. We cannot see what is going on around us. We do not know but that everyone else might be staring at something that has gone weirdly wrong with our hair. Keeping our eyes open is probably an instinctual trait dating back to the days when we needed to watch for angry Mastodons that might be coming after us. Keeping our eyes open helps us keep control of our environment, or at least gives us a sense of control. Which is exactly not the point in prayer. Closing our eyes requires a degree of trust and surrender, both of which are helpful orientations in seeking God’s presence. In my experience, God does not compete for our attention.

There is a school of thought that when we are doing something, we should be focused on that one thing to the exclusion of everything else. Work efficiency experts tell us to clear everything out of the visual field in our work space except for the immediate task at hand. Distractions like phone calls, emails, and other projects begging for attention come at a cost in terms of getting our tasks done in a timely and accurate manner. Experts tell us we cannot multi-task nearly as well as we believe, so attending to one task at a time is preferable. Under this methodology, when we pray, we should be completely focused on our prayer, and our eyes should be closed.

Certainly in our relationships, when a friend or partner is speaking, particularly about something sensitive, we want to give our attention wholly to her or him. A quick and sure way to damage the relationship is to check our cell phone while the partner is sharing something close to her or his heart. It is a colossal show of disrespect and an indication of how little we value what is important to him or her.

Perhaps for all these reasons and more, keeping both eyes closed during prayer is the best option. It helps keep us focused on God (at least in theory), and it puts us in an attitude of surrender. Having both eyes closed is a symbolic way of saying we trust God to protect us in our times of vulnerability. Those of us who are parents want our children to trust and feel safe in our presence, so why would God feel differently?

This is the 35th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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The Five S’s to a God Experience

 Be still, and know that I am God! Psalm 46:10a

Over the past few weeks I have covered a few states of being that put us in a position of least resistance to experience God’s presence. They are silence, stillness, solitude, simplicity, and surrender. Interestingly, none of these are typically emphasized in most church services. While churches teach about God, which is a worthy purpose, they are generally not well equipped to lead us to an experience of God. In fact, a church characterized by these five traits would probably shutter its doors quickly from lack of attendance and funding. Many churches do, however, have beautiful spaces that may be conducive to one or more of these qualities – silence, stillness, and solitude, in particular – but likely not during an actual worship service. Nature provides excellent spaces to seek God’s presence. A quiet corner of a home suffices, too.

These five traits are not common elements in our everyday lives either. In fact, an excess of any makes others worry about us. Is it any wonder we often feel so far from God, when neither our daily lives nor our churches provide the conditions most likely to awaken us to God’s ever-present nature? I summarize the five practices below in order to contain them in one place. For additional thoughts on each, check out previous posts on my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com.

Silence

We often confuse the silence of inactivity with the deep silence from which God creates. We cannot simply turn off the television and our mobile devices and expect to find silence. Silencing the noise from our external world is one thing; silencing our internal world is the greater challenge. It is through this latter type of silence that we find entry into the rich moments of our lives, being present to the creative potential and creating reality happening at all times and in all places. True silence provides a blank slate from which to co-create our lives with God.

Stillness

Like silence, stillness has an external and an internal 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 cannot occur when our mind strays outside of the moment. It is nearly impossible to experience God when we are distracted.

Solitude

Being in solitude means being free of unavoidable distractions, meaning our only distractions are self-created. Our minds may still wander, but an act of will can bring them back into the moment. Solitude provides a perfect setting for entering the moment, which is the only place we can encounter God. One reason many of us feel so distant from God is that we live in a perennial state of out-of-the-momentness.. The type of solitude that offers the least resistance to a God experience is a four-in-the-morning type of solitude, as if the only other person conscious with us is God.

Simplicity

A simple life 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 freedom to do so at least on occasion. Our possessions and our relationships, useful and beautiful as they may be, draw us away from simplicity. Finding time and space to just be, unencumbered and undistracted, is vital to enhancing our awareness of God’s presence.

Surrender

Far from a sign of failure, surrender is a necessary part of a spiritual life. We are not all-knowing. Our plans are not always the best way to get to where we wish to go, nor is where we wish to go always a good place for us to be. Being open to God’s guidance, as well as that of trusted teachers and mentors, is not surrender as in giving up, but is surrender in the sense of trusting in and submitting to the wisdom of another.

I do not claim these are the only ways to experience God. No doubt, there are other ways, but silence, stillness, solitude, simplicity, and surrender are reoccurring themes of contemplative authors since before the time of Jesus to the present day. What they share in common is they invite us outside of our comfortable state of being in order to allow something new to emerge.

This is the 13th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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Surrender

See, I am setting before you the way of life and the way of death. Those who stay in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence; but those who go out and surrender to the Chaldeans who are besieging you shall live and shall have their lives as a prize of war. Jeremiah 21:8b-9

Jerusalem was under siege from the king of Babylon and the Chaldeans. The Israelites asked the prophet Jeremiah to inquire of the Lord if God would kindly make them go away. Instead, the answer given through Jeremiah was for the Israelites, God’s chosen people, to surrender or die. Not only that, but God would join the Chaldeans to help assure the defeat and destruction of the Israelites if they did not surrender. Talk about a harsh message!  The lives of the people of Jerusalem had strayed far from God’s designs, and it was time for a reset. Either they could die holding fast to their stubborn ways, or they could surrender and live in Babylonian captivity.

Few of us like to surrender, but sometimes it is our best option. Sometimes, we are better off admitting we are beating our heads against a wall that will not fall. Sometimes we, like the Israelites, need a reset. The term surrender carries negative connotations, not all of which are fair. Particularly in the United States, we believe that if we try hard enough we can accomplish anything. In that sense, surrender is failure and evidence of a weak spirit. What happens when we struggle to climb to the top of the ladder, however, fighting through every challenge, temptation, and warning to descend, only to find the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall? Sometimes, life’s rules, frustrations, and warning signs are there for our own good. In the context of the story of the people of Jerusalem, saving them from the Chaldean siege to continue with the status quo would not have been in their best interest. God showed love by refusing to intervene on their behalf.

Far from a sign of failure, surrender is a necessary part of a spiritual life. We are not all-knowing. Our plans are not always the best way to get to where we wish to go, nor is where we wish to go always a good place for us to be. Being open to God’s guidance, as well as that of our mentors and teachers, is not surrender as in giving up, but is surrender in the sense of trusting in and submitting to the wisdom of another. Of course, God provides the free will to stubbornly follow our own desires – no doubt, at least some of the people of Jerusalem died in doing so – but I am certain God’s heart breaks on our behalf when we need to change course and refuse. I do not believe God wishes us to suffer more than necessary. When we learn and grow from life’s experiences and challenges, we become better equipped to discern when it is best to stop and change direction.

I do not mean to imply that God causes our suffering, or that by the conditions that cause us to suffer we have necessarily done anything wrong. When life puts barriers in our way, we must stop and discern whether this is something we should power through or whether a change of tactics is in order. The discernment process is not easy, nor is it a one-time event. When we push for something that is inconsistent with what is good for us or others, when we insist on making something happen that is best not to happen, we can be sure we will receive pushback. Perhaps even pushback from God. If and when that happens, it is not a sign that God is against us, only that God loves us too much to pave an easy path to our own self-destruction.

Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote the familiar Serenity Prayer[1]:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

The Serenity Prayer is a wonderful summary of the type of surrender that does not deny the importance of hard work, resolve, and courage, but confesses that sometimes the mountains we believe should be moved are not going to budge. To blindly push forward with our own fruitless desires becomes, at some point, like praying with one eye open. What we believe to be faithfulness deconstructs into faithless obstinacy.

This is the 11th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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[1] https://www.crosswalk.com/faith/prayer/serenity-prayer-applying-3-truths-from-the-bible.html

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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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A Challenging Peace

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. Matthew 10:34

“For a child has been born for us…and he is named…Prince of Peace.” Isaiah 9:6

The season of Christmas is identified as one of peace. Unfortunately, our world is never at peace. There is turmoil across the planet and across the street. For too many, there is violence across the room. In Isaiah, Jesus is named the Prince of Peace; yet in Matthew, he claims not to have come to bring peace, but division. Father against son; daughter against mother; nation against nation. How do we reconcile the Prince of Peace described in Isaiah with Jesus’ own words in Matthew? I believe the answer is in our understanding of peace and what it requires. Jesus invites us into a different kind of peace – a non-violent peace built upon justice that we seldom see modeled or taught.

In war, “peace” comes when one side is beaten into submission and reluctantly surrenders to the other as a last resort. In business dealings between competitors, “peace” sometimes comes through acquisition, often as a hostile takeover. Peace gained by force is not peace, but only a delay in the conflict. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, when your only tools are knifes and forks, you have to cut something. In other words, when getting our way by force is the only way we know, the violence cannot end. The only peace we know is but a temporary reprieve, as the defeated attempt to rebuild themselves to a level of strength sufficient to strike back at their oppressors.

A lasting peace comes by willing surrender and carefully crafted consensus, and the peace of Jesus requires both. As individuals, we surrender to the positional and divine authority of Christ. The consensus required is one that respects, values, and includes all of creation in all of its wonderful diversity. It strives for unity of being, not uniformity. When all are recognized as being created in the image of God, none can be left behind or excluded. When we consciously submit to the higher knowledge and power of God, we willingly take our place as equals with our brothers and sisters in the family of God. There is no longer a need for anyone to forcibly take, nor withhold, anything from anyone else. We understand our blessings are not ours to hoard; rather, our blessings are gifts from God and are multiplied in their sharing (see John 6:1-14). We live in an abundant universe, and there is plenty for everyone when no one stockpiles beyond their need.

In Matthew 10, Jesus uses the language of violence to clarify his purpose, saying he did not come to bring peace, but a sword. The context of the verse and the entire life of Jesus, however, indicate no violent intention on his part. Jesus’ words are a call to war, but to a war on injustice, exclusion, and suffering. These are the underlying causes of violence in our world. We have the capability to eliminate much of what keeps large swaths of humanity in bondage and desperate need. Do we have the will to do so, however? The perpetual habit of reacting to the violence instead of identifying and resolving the underlying causes gets in our way. I think it is to us – those with more than enough – that Jesus points his sword. Until we commit to eliminating the sources of violence, there can be no peace. True peace cannot come to any until it comes to all. And peace cannot come to all until everyone has their most basic needs met. Unless we follow Jesus’ command to love one another our reality will divide us like a sword, and there will be no silent night.

We cannot attain peace by physical or emotional violence, nor is peace possible in the absence of justice. There can be no peace until everyone has adequate shelter, enough to eat, and recognition as a child of God. This is the different sort of peace of which Jesus speaks. We wonder why others attack us, steal and beg from us, and in our wondering we answer our own question. We are why there is no peace on earth. Serendipitously, we hold the key to attaining peace on earth, uncomfortable and challenging though it may be.

 

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