I am writing this blog to share with you a practice that is vital to my spiritual life: contemplation. I have been a practitioner of this form of prayer for over 20 years. It was through my reading of church history that I came to appreciate contemplation and it was my experience as a pastor living in a postmodern world that I have come to see its value for our times.
I am a Lutheran pastor in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. I have been a pastor for 35 years. My experience in ministry has been diverse. My first parish out of seminary was an African-American parish in South Central Los Angeles. After 10 years there, I took a call as a campus pastor at UCLA. I spent 9 years at UCLA in that intellectually stimulating environment. Presently, I am pastor at St. Luke Lutheran in Claremont, California, where I have been for the past 15 years. I hold a M.A. degree in New Testament and a Ph.D. degree in Hebrew Bible at Claremont School of Theology. My research interest is apocalypticism, mysticism and postcolonialism.
As I look over the course of my life from the vantage point of my five decades, I recall behaviors even as a little child that were indicative of the contemplative calling on my soul. My response to the turmoil of Los Angeles in the mid-60’s was to find a place of refuge, a place far away from the chaos of Watts. That refuge was sitting in churches. I was especially comforted by sitting in the church of my favorite priest, Father Nale. It was the highlight of my weekend to hang out at his church and attend worship on Sunday morning. Not only did we have access to the gym on the campus, we also romped through his parsonage, playing Hide and Seek. His wife would offer us treats of every kind. He made us feel right at home and welcomed.
As much fun as hanging out with my friends, brothers and cousins was, I still had a desire to be alone, to be in a place of silence. As the games finished and kids were eating snacks, I alone would sneak off to the church to sit in one of the pews. It was a holy place; it was an otherworldly place, made such by the soft glow of votive candles and the subdued light of the stained glass windows. I would sit there for what seemed like hours, my eyes especially drawn to the corpus on the cross just above the altar. When I sat in that inner-city Episcopalian church, I experienced something different with each encounter. During the week when I needed a respite from the chaos of my home life, when I needed a quiet place, I would walk a couple blocks south of our apartment building on Figueroa to the Catholic Church, which was always open and inviting. I experienced the same feelings in that church that I did in Grace Episcopal.
Just after and as a result of the Watts Riots, my family moved east of Los Angeles to Pomona. Many African-Americans moved east and south of Los Angeles as a way to escape the turmoil. This sudden migration of blacks out of South Central Los Angeles caused “White Flight,” where whites moved further east and south into Orange County. This was a time of racial tension and unspoken uneasiness. Fortuitously, my family joined a Lutheran church just east of our housing tract in Pomona. Since there were no Episcopalian churches near our home, we joined Peace Lutheran because its liturgy was soothlingly familiar to the one that we had experienced in the Episcopal Church.
As an African American boy, viewing blacks and whites drinking from the common cup during the Eucharist made a great impact on me, symbolizing the spiritual unity of blacks and whites in our small Lutheran church. Given the racial sensitivities of the time, this was miraculous in my eyes and a telling contrast to what was occurring in American society.
I shall never forget the day when my pastor gave me a key to the church. I was in high school and this was obviously an unusual privilege for a boy my age. I was in heaven! Often I would go to my church and just sit like I used to do as a child in Los Angeles. I would pray; I would read. I was always drawn to a place of refuge, a place where I could be silent.
I did my vicarage (internship as pastor-in-training) in St. Louis, Missouri. It was an African-American church in a rough part of town. Surrounded by dilapidated houses, St. Matthew was a bulwark of strength and stability in the community. As one drove through the various neighborhoods surrounding the church, one could easily distinguish the homes of the members of St. Matthew. They stood out as being well-cared for with their manicured lawns and well-groomed facades. The church was beautiful. The brick edifice was that of the traditional, mid-western Baroque. Off to the side of the altar there was a little-used room. It used to be a vestry where the pastor would dress for worship. It was most conducive to quiet reflection and contemplation. It had a prie-dieu (kneeler) that faced a colorful stained glass window from the ceiling to the floor of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. This room, the vestry, had sadly become a mere storage room filled with discarded junk. I could sense the room’s potential; so, I felt compelled to clear away the junk. I cleaned it; I vacuumed it. In front of the prie-dieu I placed a wing chair. That room became my place of refuge, my place of quiet and contemplation, though at this time I did not have any idea what the practice of contemplation involved. All I knew was that I had a need to be quiet, which I had since childhood, a need to experience God in the whisper of life as Elijah did after his battle with the false prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel. I spent many hours in that room. This experience cultivated my desire for a regular structured practice. Little did I know that the tranquility and quiet I garnered in that room by way of my spiritual practices would bolster me for ministry in that chaotic and crime-ridden area of St. Louis.
As a newly ordained pastor, my first call was to a small church in South-Central Los Angeles. A pastor’s first year in ministry is difficult because his second education commences in the parish, in the real world. My first call was stressful. True to form, the way I dealt with the stress was to seek out a place of refuge. My church did not have an unused room where I could cultivate the requisite quiet. I had to make my place of refuge in my home office. My life as a young pastor became so stressful that I gave serious consideration to leaving the ministry.
My deliberations whether to remain in the pastoral ministry went something like this: It is true that the pastoral office is a continuation of the office of the apostles. Yet, “Why can’t I do what the original apostles did?” I believed that I had been given gifts in my ordination to conduct the ministry to which I had been called. However, I felt inadequate. The stresses and strains of a struggling church and a new family caused me to seek refuge like I had always done. I sought quiet. It was during this time that my interest in contemplation and its concomitant spiritual practices began in earnest. As I began to read the spiritual writings of church fathers like Augustine, what I had previously sought in places of refuge in a precursory way became intentionally full blown. Consequently, I began to study spiritual theology and the history of spirituality in the Christian Church. I came to understand and appreciate contemplation and other spiritual practices that enhanced my appreciation and study of God’s Word.
Contemplation changed my life. It quelled the anxiety, thus making me a better pastor who was emotionally available to my people. When anxiety took hold of me, I ground my teeth at night. My underarms would sweat like a ruptured pipe when I had to preach or do any public speaking. Through the discipline of contemplation, sitting in the loving presence of God, those fears and anxieties abated.
Sadly, we have lost the contemplative dimension of religion. We have lost our religion’s natural conduit to everyday life through such contemplation. Contemplation is the way to connect the pulpit with everyday life, for it seeks to foster a moment-to-moment awareness of the loving presence of God in one’s everyday life. Churches have become louder and noisier as the constant key is celebration—even funerals have become celebrations. Churches are no longer places where a
full range of emotions may be expressed and space reserved for such expressions. Little wonder we do not know what to do with ourselves Monday through Saturday, as the contrast between what is experienced an hour or two in worship on Sunday and how we live our lives all the other days is striking.
The purpose of this blog is to share with you the benefits of contemplation as a way to enhance your life and your personal relationship with God. If you are like most people, then your prayers are limited to the confines of words. We think that if we could just pray with the right words in the right way, then God would be compelled to act in our best interests. Contemplation
gets around this problem, as the main emphasis is not on words. As Paul says in Romans in chapter 8, there are times when we cannot pray; we are unable to pray; we do not have the words or the mental energy to articulate anything meaningful. It is during such times, especially during contemplation that the Spirit prays for us. Daily, disciplined growth in contemplation will enrich the other ways that you pray and experience God.