A Prayer Away

My sermon for Sunday, October 20, 2013

A woman sat on a park bench observing the people around her.  She felt the pain of a child who had fallen down off his bicycle.   She felt the tiredness of an old man who was slowly making his way home.  She felt the joy of the children playing together on the jungle gym.  She saw the happiness of a couple walking hand in hand.

"Some people glanced her way as they passed the bench on which she was sitting.  They never, however, gave her a thought." Photo courtesy of http://l.navarro.tripod.com/jlnavarro/

“Some people glanced her way as they passed the bench on which she was sitting. They never, however, gave her a thought.”
Photo courtesy of http://l.navarro.tripod.com/jlnavarro/

People glanced her way as they passed the bench on which she was sitting.  They never, however, gave her a thought.  No one noticed the unshed tears in her eyes as she sat there watching and feeling. “So much pain in the world.  So much happiness and so much loneliness,” she thought as she reflected to herself. 

As she continued to watch, the woman’s mind drifted to another place, another time.  It was a time when she was like the people that she observed—all wrapped up in their own misery and joy.  Sometimes she wished that she could return to those days, and yet.

Her attention lingered on the image of her face that was reflecting in the pond.  She hadn’t seen that face in a long time.  It was a face that reflected contentment, joy, peace and love.  Wiping away the remnants of tears, she stood up and headed toward the fallen child.  She helped him up.  She wiped his tears.  She smiled at the child.  She offered to help the old man home with his shopping. 

She thought, “No, I don’t want to return to the old daysthose were days when loneliness was unbearable.” Though she is still lonely for human company, she has love in her heart because comfort was just a prayer away.

Indeed comfort is always only a prayer away because the person to whom we pray is a God of comfort.  God’s love is what informs God’s work of comfort.  Being blessed with the comfort of God in Christ Jesus, we are empowered to look beyond our own pain and help others in theirs.  Therein is our comfort.

God has great pain when God looks over the good creation that God framed.  Sin damaged it.  Sin brought corruption.  Sin brought tragedy of one kind and another.  The ultimate tragedy that sin brought was death.  Might God have remained in pain, ignoring humanity’s pain on earth?  God could not do that; God’s heart is too big. It is in comforting others in Christ Jesus that God’s pain is comforted. There was great pain in the Father’s heart.  How could the Father cast humanity into oblivion? 

God had an undying love for humanity, proven poignantly when God created humanity from the dust of ground.  God took a handful of dirt and breathed into it God’s Spirit.  God gave God’s very self in the Spirit.  There is no demonstration of love greater than that.  Even Steven Spielberg could not dramatize a greater love than that of God breathing into mud-people God’s Spirit.  That is an undying love. A person who loves that way cannot remain content while others suffer.  Such a person will indeed reach out to comfort.  Such a person will reach out to comfort because that person feels deeply the other’s pain. 

Jesus so felt other people’s pain that he made it his own.  Whenever Jesus sighs deeply, he breathes in other people’s pain.  He makes it his own.  That drives him to heal, to love and to forgive.  Jesus cannot help but sympathize and empathize.  He cannot help but comfort, for that is what his Father does.  Like Father—like Son.

It would only follow that any words addressed to Jesus and his father will be taken seriously.  Any words generated from pain God will hear and address.

God not only hears words; God especially hears the heart that prays them.

God sees the heart that prays.  God communes with the heart that prays.

God strives with the heart that prays.

God lives with the heart that prays.

God accompanies you as you travel through the shadows of death, and the Light of Life is always with you.

God is always in you, by you, above and around you.

God is closer to you than you are to yourself.. 

"God sees the heart that prays.  God communes with the heart that prays." Photo courtesy of: http://www.saintbrigid.net/blog/belonging/

“God sees the heart that prays. God communes with the heart that prays.”
Photo courtesy of: http://www.saintbrigid.net/blog/belonging/

That is not just any God.  That is the Father of Jesus, who is a God of comfort in this vale of darkness and tears called life.

In the Old Testament, God was with Jacob in his moment of crisis.  Unfinished business was lurking at the door of Jacob’s heart.  No matter how hard he tried to forget how he had cheated his brother Esau out of his inheritance, he could not.  No matter how hard he tried to ignore all the pain that he brought to his family because of his selfishness, he could not.  He was severed from his family in a distant land far from his beloved mother and father.  You don’t appreciate your family until you have lost them.  With every waking moment, Jacob thought about his beloved home.  His ambition could not give him the joy that he got at home with his parents.  The memories caused his heart to ache.  Those memories never go away.  They remind you that experiences count, especially experiences that stretch your soul to such capacity that you can experience even more, the even-more of eternity. You will die with the memories of your life, your parents, your friends, and your children, for they make up who you are.

Jacob had to meet his brother Esau.  He fretted over that impending confrontation.  His mind had engaged in splitting—it went to the worse case scenario as he thought about meeting Esau.  He was told that Esau was on his way to meet him and he had amassed four hundred men in preparation for that confrontation.  Overly dramatic, Jacob’s mind knew no rest about what that impending meeting would entail.  He thought that he would die.  He thought that his children and wives would be cut up by the sword.

Jacob had every reason to be frightened.  He had every reason to be troubled in heart, mind and body.  After organizing his families and giving them instructions in how to meet his brother, he spent time alone with God.  He cried.  He expressed anxious thoughts of the ghoulish images he foresaw, the torture and death of his children and wives.

We’ve all been there: Jacob’s mind went to the worse case scenario. It is the frame of mind of which ulcers are made.  It is the frame of mind that causes the body to close up on itself.  The mind entertains the ultimate escape: relief in death.  Death seems better than continued living.  You have been there.  You know what that means.  If you do not know what that means personally, then you know people who have gone through such dark nights of the soul where death is preferable to life; death seems like a pleasant escape. 

Jacob is in such mental anguish that he wrestles with God.  After the battle, God changes his name.  No longer will be called Jacob, the one who deceives.  He will now be called Israel. The etymology of the name Israel is uncertain.  It has been the subject of scholarly debate for many years.  In its purest meaning, Israel means God conquers; God wins.  Jacob is given that name.  Why?  He had to learn that God conquers.  God will have God’s way. 

Jacob Wrestling With God, painting by artist Jack Baumgartner Photo courtesy of http://theschoolofthetransferofenergy.com/

Jacob Wrestling With God, painting by artist Jack Baumgartner
Photo courtesy of http://theschoolofthetransferofenergy.com/

Jacob’s deceiving ways have gotten him into so much trouble since the day that he reached out of his mother’s womb to try and overtake his brother Esau.  His lying and deceptions have brought nothing but grief.  By changing Jacob’s name, God is giving Jacob a new operating system.  No longer will he strive against men and God.  He will let God win; he will let God have the right of way.  

Jacob finally surrenders to God.  His prayer fundamentally changed how he was to act in the world.  He was to put away the insecurity that caused him to rely on his own devices to get what he wanted. 

Jacob will let God win and conquer.  He will learn to pray.

Prayer is letting God win.  It is surrendering.  In prayer, the troubling circumstances of life lead you to surrender, to put away your attempts at figuring things out.  You come to realize that you cannot figure things out.  You learn to surrender amid all the ambivalence that spawns insecurity and all the wrong ways we try to address our essential insecurity about what is always just around the corner.

We learn what Jacob learned: God is just a prayer away and God is always there. God desires to comfort. What is winning to God other than comforting you through love, for God lives with you; strives with you; in God you live, move and have your being. 

Prayer is a confession that God has a better way to face the “Esaus” of your life, especially the self-inflicted Esaus that come back to haunt you, causing your stomach to churn and keeping you up late at night in your own battle with yourself and God.  The only way to face all such Esaus is through surrender.

Paul encourages the young pastor Timothy to to remain fully engaged in the Word of God, the scriptures, for they can make him wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.  What does it mean to be made wise for salvation? It means to live a life of wisdom that will usher forth in salvation.  God is not only concerned with saving our souls.  God is also concerned with how we live in this life.  Sacred scriptures, inspired as a gift of the Spirit, can lead us in such wisdom.  In the Bible you have the collective wisdom of the ages.  You have a record of people’s dealing with God.  You have God’s laws and strictures on how to live a godly life.  Everything in the Bible can build you up in wisdom and preserve you until God calls you out of this life. With such wisdom you become competent and you don’t have to rely on the kind of struggles that you see in Jacob.  Jacob was not wise.  He was smart and clever, but he was not wise.  His lack of wisdom got him into one trouble after another.

"Each of us has all of God." Photo courtesy of http://nealobstat.wordpress.com/2012/01/

“Each of us has all of God.”
Photo courtesy of http://nealobstat.wordpress.com/2012/01/

God does not want to be a mere rescuer.  Let us not make our lack of planning and unwise decisions constitute a crisis for God.  At the core of a wise life is a prayerful life, especially a prayerful life informed by the word of God.  The prayer that is most informed by the word of God is worship.  Worship is through and through the word of God: we sing the word in the hymns and liturgy; we hear the word in the readings; we hear the word in the sermon; we pray the word in the prayers; we eat the word in the Eucharist; and we finally apply the word to our bodies in the benediction as we go out into the world.

Each of us has all of God.  Each of us has all of God’s attention, because God is already moving and breathing as you traverse this life.  That’s an even greater motivation to take all your needs to God, to a God who is only a prayer away.

Some of you still labor under the misconception that God does not care a whit about you. If that is your idea of God, then you have to change it.  It is wrong.

God became a man in Christ Jesus to die for your sins and to be the true Israel, the one who conquers, the one who wins, Cristus Victor over sin, death and the devil.  In him you have eternal life.  In him you have the Holy Spirit who preserves you in wisdom until the end of your life.

This is a God who is most concerned about you, in a deep and personal way.

This is the God to whom you pray, for this God is only a prayer away.  Forgiveness is a prayer away.  Joy is a prayer away.  Love is a prayer away.  Comfort is only a prayer away.

"This is a God who is most concerned about you, in a deep and personal way." Photo courtesy of www.saintbonaventureparish.org

“This is a God who is most concerned about you, in a deep and personal way.”
Photo courtesy of http://www.saintbonaventureparish.org

Trash Talk

Muhammed Ali, the great heavyweight boxer, was a prolific trash talker.  As an athlete that talked trash, Ali was not unique.  Trash talk is standard operating procedure at any sporting event.  Opponents on the

Photo courtesy of www.spottr.hu

Photo courtesy of http://www.spottr.hu

gridiron, the diamond and the court conduct a quasi psychological warfare against each other, intentionally distracting their opponents, causing them to lose focus, and commit mental mistakes for one purpose: to get the edge.

Ali took trash talk to a poetic level. On February 25, 1964, before his big fight against boxing’s Heavyweight Champion of the World, Sonny Liston, Ali emerged on the world stage rhapsodizing:

           Clay comes out to meet Liston and Liston starts to retreat.

           If Liston goes back an inch farther, he’ll end up in a ringside seat.

           Clay swings with his left; Clay swings with his right,

           Look at young Cassius carry the fight.

           Liston keeps backing, but there’s not enough room.

            It’s a matter of time till Clay lowers the boom.

            Now Clay lands with a right, what a beautiful swing.

            And the punch raises the Bear clean out the ring.

            Liston is still rising the ref wears a frown,

            For he can’t start counting till Sonny goes down.

            Now Liston disappears from view; the crowd is frantic,

            But our radar stations have picked him up over the Atlantic.

            Who on earth thought, when they came to the fight,

            That they would witness the launching of a human satellite.

             Hence the crowd did not dream, when they laid down their money,

            That they would see a total eclipse of Sonny.

Capturing the heavyweight title, trash talk would become Ali’s staple.  Ali mesmerized his opponents and the world with his facility for words.  The sole purpose of his trash talk was to distract and intimidate his opponents, to keep them off-balance—if he could get his opponents to hate him, then he would have the edge over them.  The most vulnerable people are those who hate, for being enmeshed in the emotional muck and mire of hate, they lose their concentration. Competing maximally in a sports competition is just as much mental as it is physical.  The athlete who places mind over matter emerges victorious.

Photo courtesy of http://usahitman.com

“The athlete who places mind over matter emerges victorious.”
Photo courtesy of http://usahitman.com

Each of us has a quasi Ali inside of us that has a facility with words.  This inner Ali talks trash.  He talks incessantly.

Spiritual growth involves gaining mastery over the inner voice that is adept at trash talk.  When we begin something new, the trash talk starts right up: “You can’t do that…You failed before…What are you trying to prove?…Just give up…Don’t work so hard.”  So, we do give up. Trash talk can show up at the most inappropriate times, when our focus should be on the sublime.  It drags us through the dirt.

Last August, I performed the wedding service for someone whose wedding I had long wanted to do.  I first met Cynthia at UCLA when I was a campus pastor and she was 18 years old.  She became a part of our campus ministry as a freshman and remained active through all four years as an undergrad and a grad student.  Over the years we kept up with each other.  She would end her emails reminding me that, when she married, she wanted me to perform her service. She wanted to be married—it was only a matter of finding the right man whom she found a couple years ago.  And so, I had the pleasure of marrying her in her beloved city of Boulder, Colorado last summer. The ceremony took place in a mountain pavilion that overlooked the city of Boulder and the University of Colorado.  It was a most beautiful wedding.  The setting was inspiring.  As the ceremony began, I was eager and ready to enjoy myself, which is hard to do as an officiant.  Nevertheless, I made a conscious effort to be present to the ceremony, to savor every minute of it.

“The ceremony took place in a mountain pavilion that overlooked the city of Boulder and the University of Colorado.”

“The ceremony took place in a mountain pavilion that overlooked the city of Boulder and the University of Colorado.”

All of a sudden, it started.  In my own head, I heard such trash talk that I could not turn off: “It looks like it’s going to rain. …Why is that guy smiling at me like that? The music should be louder…Why is the flower girl stopping…Kids are fun but unpredictable—they can really mess up a ceremony…I hope my robes hide that few pounds I’ve packed on…”

The trash talk went on and on.  I could not stop it.  I was literally being taken from the moment. I was being robbed of the joy that I had long anticipated savoring.  I took a few breaths to gather myself, to firmly place myself in that moment.  Then I proceeded and performed the wedding trying to be fully aware of what I was doing, trying to get out of my head to serve Cynthia and Phillip.  This had never happened to me before. . .

Contemplation is the best way I know to deal with trash talk. Time in contemplation will expose the inner trash talker that we all have in us.  This trash talker is known by many names: the ego, the false self, the old Adam. I call it the historic self, because it is a composite of many voices and experiences.  It has so much ammunition to use in unending ways to frustrate you and to enslave you. The theme is always the same: a wall of resistance that interferes with action you take to better yourself, to become more spiritual, to grow into what God wants you to be.

It is this trash-talking self that we have to engage on a regular basis, taking on a life of its own, a judgmental life, a negative life that at times seems foreign to us; yet, it is very much a part of who we are.

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“…it is this trash-talking self that we have to engage on a regular basis…”
Photo purchased through istock.com

It highjacks moments and keeps us off balance in the way Muhammed Ali engaged in psychological warfare against his opponents: to weaken them, to wear them down, to make them surrender their will to fight.

This is the voice we have to quiet.  How so? You confront this trash-talking voice in contemplation, which gives it a platform, allowing it to be revealed.  It is exposed, reaching your awareness. You become adept at watching it.

Through contemplation, you are able to watch that voice from your true self in Christ Jesus. You watch at rest.  The author of Hebrews says something quite profound in his letter.  He says, “Let us strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.  For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.  And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”  (Hebrews 4:11-13)

The word of God is Christ in you, your true self.  He is living and active.  Your true self enables you to objectify and look at yourself, so that you can see what thoughts are from your true self (spirit) and what thoughts are from your false self (soul), the trash talker that talks incessantly.  This is the self that exhausts you, keeps you off-balance, keeps you locked up in guilt and shame.

We over identify with this trash-talking false self.  It is not you.  Thoughts are not you, least of all ones from this false self.  It was liberating for me to come to know that I am not the sum total of the thoughts that I have, especially the ones from my false self.

We are not our thoughts, but we place a premium on our thoughts.  Rather, we need to put all thoughts in perspective: they are not the essence of who we are.

Photo courtesy of www.lssacademy.com

Photo courtesy of lssacademy.com

The 16th century French philosopher Rene Descartes said, “I think; therefore, I am.”  With that statement, Descartes and other idealists made thoughts all-powerful.  That is not true. Thoughts are mere objects that can be ignored.  We do not have to pay attention to every thought that comes down the mental and emotional pike. “Take every thought captive to Christ Jesus,” said Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians.  The true self clearly separates in us what is from the true self and what is from the false self.  Too often the two get merged in us. The true self begins the process of objectifying thoughts and feelings so that you can ignore them.

Contemplation empowers you to look at trash-talking thoughts and then let them go.  The key to overcoming trash talk is to realize that it is trash. It is not you.  It is not true. You are much more than merely a composite of historic thoughts and feelings acquired from your childhood home, your culture, your tribe. You are eternal in Christ Jesus, made such through God’s personal invitation to divinize you through the sacraments.  A church father said it best, “God became what we are to make us what God is.”  Nothing is hidden from this divine self in Christ Jesus.  It is this self that gives you rest from the compulsive, incessant trash talk of your false self. In contemplation, you let the trash talk come as it may; you face it, but you ignore it. You watch it and let it flow by as a boat floats down a river.

It is most liberating to believe that you are not your thoughts. Thoughts can come from anywhere.  Thoughts arise that you should ignore. The more you do contemplation, the more adept you become at identifying the origin of trash-talking thoughts and the deficient parts of you from which they arise.  You are not depression.  You are not anxiety. You are not fear.  Be wary of the trash talk that these produce and ignore them.

What brought on my trash-talking episode at Cynthia’s wedding, with its endless commentaries that were petty and negative?  The episode was informed by the pressure I had put on myself to perform a perfect wedding for her. I wanted her wedding to be flawless.  The idea of achieving perfection fired up my fears.  That fear showed up as trash talk that muscled its way into my thoughts as I awaited the procession of the bride.  I couldn’t run from the trash talk; I couldn’t shut off the endless, insidious commentary.  I had to let it run its course and just not identify with it.  Had I identified with it, I would have brought fear into the occasion and ruined it for all present.

The boxers that were victorious over Ali were the ones who could ignore his trash talk and focus on the task at hand.  They knew his psychological warfare was meant to distract and make them vulnerable to him. The key is to sit in the seat of your higher self and watch the endless parade of thoughts that only abate when you face them and yet ignore them.  That is your true power over the false self.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Van Glider www.contemplativeoutreach.org

Photo Credit: Jennifer Van Glider http://www.contemplativeoutreach.org

“Pencil Me In.” – God

An unknown author tells the story of the Pencil Maker who took aside a pencil before putting it into the box. “There are five things you need to know before I send you out into the world,” he told the pencil. “Always remember them and you will be the best pencil you can be.”

“One: You will do many great things, but only if you allow yourself to be held in Someone’s hand.”

An unknown author tells the story of the Pencil Maker who took aside a pencil... Photo credit: www.startwoodworking.com

An unknown author tells the story of the Pencil Maker who took aside a pencil…
Photo credit: http://www.startwoodworking.com

“Two: You will experience a painful sharpening from time to time, but you’ll need it to become a better pencil.”

“Three: You will be able to correct any mistakes that you make.”

“Four: The most important part of you will always be what’s inside.”

“Five: On the surface on which you are used, you must leave your mark. No matter the condition, you must continue to write.”

The pencil understood and promised to remember. It went into the box with purpose in its heart.

Of course the story is a metaphor of our relationship with God, our creator. The story illustrates a fundamental truth that Saint Augustine, the 4th century African church father, taught when he said, “God made us for himself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in him.”

Humans realize their potential in relation to God. In contemporary terms, we are hardwired to be in a relationship with God. For Augustine, it is in relation to the Ultimate Good (God) who is the only Real Being (God) that we garner the virtues to avoid falling over the precipice of death and nothingness. Indeed each of us is the pencil, who needs to be held by Someone (Spirit), and it is in being held by Someone that we achieve our ultimate purpose in life.

contemplation 1

Contemplation, apophatic in nature because it uses neither words, symbols nor images, invites us to experience the love of God who is always near…
photo credit http://www.jagaro.net/2011/01/what-is-contemplation-insight-and-wisdom-part-3/

Practice of Christian Contemplation

This story certainly bespeaks our ultimate purpose in life: to be in a relationship with God in whom we find our rest. The story also works as a primer when introducing contemplation. Contemplation, apophatic in nature because it uses neither words, symbols nor images, invites us to experience the love of God who is always near. Many Christians suffer under the illusion that God does not care a whit about them. They somehow have the notion that God has bigger fish to fry in the universe, more important things with which to be concerned than us lowly, mud people. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Just as you have access to the world through your smart phone in the palm of your hand, so you have access to God. One hundred people in a room with smart phones would have full access to the internet, and by extension the world. And so it is with God. With God, you have all of God all the time. God is not a zero-sum game; God is not finite. Saint Paul said it best when he said that in God we live, move and have our being. Father Thomas Keating, known as one of the architects of centering prayer, says that God is ever-present—so much so that it is impossible to get away from him. Wherever you go, God is there.

Father Thomas Keating

Father Thomas Keating
Photo credit: http://www.contemplativeoutreach.org/

First, note that when you do contemplation, you are resting yourself in Someone’s hand, the Holy Spirit’s hand, whose hand and total presence you received when you were baptized. Water comprehended by God’s word was applied to your body when you were baptized. The Spirit made you a temple of the Holy Spirit, wherein the Spirit resides. You got all the Holy Spirit as did all other Christians who were born from above of the Father’s will. In contemplation, you rest in this Spirit who is with you all the days that you traverse this vale of tears.

DSC00224

Photo credit: Jane Ann Munroe, taken at St. Luke Lutheran Church, Claremont, CA

Second, just like the pencil during contemplation you may experience a painful sharpening, a refining. As you sit quietly, the matters of the heart come up. This may be fear-provoking to some, for we do all we can to ignore our pain, to pretend as if it does not exist. Yet, it always comes out in other ways, sometimes embarrassing ways. I recall a woman at her husband’s funeral. Though at times she felt like crying at the funeral, she refused to do so. As she related, that was a sign of a lack of faith. She feigned a happy, calm exterior because she was confident where her husband was going. There was no need for tears, only celebration. We all marveled at her stoicism during the service. But, when we arrived at the grave site and assembled for the final rites, and when the pastor said, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection from the dead. . .” the woman came undone: throwing herself over the casket, she cried a river of tears. Fully absorbed in her pain and grief and losing control, she cast aside the stoic pretense of herself. Had she been real, and expressed her grief and emotions at the funeral instead of repressing them, she would not have been caught off-guard and embarrassed by these repressed emotions. Contemplation gives you a time and space to deal with repressed feelings and pain. Welcome the painful sharpening in contemplation.

Photo credit: www.deviantart.com

When you sit in contemplation for 20 minutes…
Photo credit: http://www.deviantart.com

When you sit in contemplation for 20 minutes, all kinds of feelings crop up. Let them come. If you feel like crying, cry. When you feel anger, do not push it away. Let all feelings run their course; the trick, however, is not to fixate on them. You see them coming; you feel them coming; then you let them go. Frankly, there are two challenges to contemplation. One is sitting in silence for 20 minutes without moving. The other is dealing with the feelings that your psyche will inevitably bring up. You can never be free of thoughts and feelings. You can look at them and then ignore them. When you do this enough, the thoughts and feelings that haunt you will no longer do so. You can see your thoughts, feel them, and then ignore them in favor of experiencing God’s love in that 20 – minute session, in that space and time.

Third, you sit in love, for God is love in Christ Jesus. Your sins are forgiven in him. He thereby brings you into relationship with his Father. In Christ, you can erase the mistakes that you make. You can let go and let God. Guilt may crop up during contemplation; let it go. During contemplation, you may get distracted by the cares of everyday life. When you feel yourself being carried off by a guilty or anxious thought, let it go and return to the intention of sitting in the silence, in the love of God. Your only intention during contemplation is to experience God’s love in Christ Jesus in the Holy Spirit. When your mind takes you on flights of fancy, just return to the intention of basking in God’s love.

Photo credit: http://www.flcws.org/september_2012.html

What is inside you is your regenerated spirit where the Holy Spirit is housed….
Photo credit: http://www.flcws.org/september_2012.html

Fourth, contemplation reminds you that what is inside you is what is most important about you. What is inside you is your regenerated spirit where the Holy Spirit is housed. It shall never pass away. It is your true self in Christ Jesus that does not lie or deceive you. It speaks lovingly. Unlike the false self, it does not chastise or condemn you about past mistakes. It whispers peacefully, affirming and validating.

Fifth, the fruit of contemplation is often discovered in what you do after contemplation and how you live. The fruit of contemplation will be peace, love and joy in all that you do. The Pencil Maker told the pencil in the story, “On the surface on which you are used, you must leave your mark. No matter the condition, you must continue to write.” In all circumstances of life, you want the mark that you leave to be characterized by the peace, love and joy that contemplation yields.

Photo credit: http://sagesplay.blogspot.com/2010/06/jumping-for-joy-childs-play-and.html

The fruit of contemplation will be peace, love and joy in all that you do…
Photo credit: http://sagesplay.blogspot.com/2010/06/jumping-for-joy-childs-play-and.html

A Method of Christian Contemplation

15 to 20 minutes of measured breathing without moving your body will go a long way in getting you to rest in God’s love. If you are starting the practice of contemplation for the first time, start simply. Find a place where you can be alone and where you can sit in a comfortable chair. Set the timer on your smart phone to 15 or 20 minutes. Sit in the chair with your feet flatly on the ground and the palms of your hands turned down in your lap. Once you get comfortable, stay in this position for the duration of the session. Do not move. Without moving the rest of your body, slowly and methodically inhale and exhale full, measured breaths that expand your diaphragm. Fill your lungs without hyperventilating. Where you sense tension in your body, mentally tell that part of your body to relax.

http://sacramentalsightings.blogspot.com

Christian Contemplation is a method of prayer…
http://sacramentalsightings.blogspot.com

After sensing your body at rest, now listen to the sounds about you: the birds chirping, the rustling of trees, or children at play. Pay more attention to the sounds than the thoughts in your head. In fact, ignore the thoughts as you focus on the intention of being present in the moment, in the now. Once again, you can never get rid of thoughts, so do not fight them. But, you can ignore them.

Some people have the idea that contemplation is emptying your mind and giving it over to the demonic. Nothing could be further from the truth. Contemplation is not about flights of fancy, or astro projecting yourself around the universe. During contemplation, you are not looking for spiritual or theological insight; even those thoughts should be ignored. Contemplation invites you to be keenly aware yourself in the moment in which you are. Contemplation is about awareness of yourself in the space and time that God has given you.

Photo credit: Dr. Jane Ann Munroe, taken at St. Luke Lutheran Church, Claremont, CA

Photo credit: Jane Ann Munroe, taken at St. Luke Lutheran Church, Claremont, CA

When you find yourself caught up in the tyranny of the past or the future, return to the sounds that you hear while breathing deeply. In time, you may develop a sacred word. Your sacred word could be spirit, love, peace, or Jesus–whatever puts you in the center of God’s love. You will become so adept at using your sacred word that when you find yourself in moments of anxiety outside your designated time for contemplation, that word will bring into that anxious moment the peace, love and joy that you experience during contemplation. Your sacred word encapsulates your intention of resting in God’s love. When your thoughts or feelings carry you away, mentally say your sacred word to yourself. You may have to say that word to yourself as many times as you get caught up in a thought or feeling.

Your sacred word will become special to you, as it puts you in mind of God’s goodness and love…
Photo credit: Jane Ann Munroe, taken at St. Luke Lutheran Church, Claremont, CA

Your sacred word will become special to you, as it puts you in mind of God’s goodness and love. Commit yourself daily to this practice. Contemplation is an apophatic, spiritual practice that invites you to sit and rest in God’s loving presence. On its face it sounds easy. Like most good things in life that are good for you, it is challenging and takes discipline to maintain, but the long-term benefits are life changing.

A caution: westerners, a.k.a modern thinkers, will expect tangible and immediate results from a 20 – minute session. They will be tempted to judge contemplation’s effectiveness by what occurs during a session. The real fruits of contemplation will be realized in your everyday life after your time spent in contemplation. Slowly, imperceptibly, you find yourself responding and reacting differently to your life. Situations that would typically cause anxiety and stress will lose their tyranny, as you create a buffer zone where you can interpret situations and thus see life differently—a perspective from your true self in Christ. All this to say, don’t judge the progress of early efforts by what you feel during a specific session.

Contemplation is a holistic process. It is not merely a spiritual practice that is limited to a specific time and day in a ritualized form. It is a mindset that is created by your full engagement with your true self in Christ. In contemplation, you learn to be with that true self. After contemplation, you take that self with you into the world.

For Further Reading:

Keating, Thomas. Intimacy with God. New York: Crossroad, 1994.

Keating, Thomas. Invitation to Love: The Way of Christian ContemplationNew York: Crossroads, 1992.keating book

Keating, Thomas. Open Mind, Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimension of the GospelNew York: Continuum, 2002.

McGinn, Bernard. The Foundations of Mysticism. New York: Crossroads, 1994.

McGinn, Bernard. The Growth of Mysticism. New York: Crossroads, 1994.

McGinn, Bernard. The Flowering of Mysticism. New York: Crossroads, 1998

Underhill, Evelyn. Mysticism. New York: Image Books, 1990.

CrossFit Spirituality

"My middle-aged colleague joined a Crossfit gym..."Photo credit: www.crossfitatlanta.com

“My middle-aged colleague joined a Crossfit gym…”
Photo credit: http://www.crossfitatlanta.com

I have a middle-aged colleague who recently joined a Crossfit gym. Crossfit has become the rage, as Crossfit gyms are cropping up everywhere. On her initial visit, surrounded by buff guys and fit females, when asked about her fitness goals, she answered honestly, “When I’m 85-years old, I want to be able to get off the toilet unassisted!”

The secret to Crossfit’s success is that it works through the element of surprise...it tricks the body, keeping it off balance so that it does not get used to an established regimen....Photo credit: www.riverregioncrossfit.com

“The secret to Crossfit’s success is that it works through the element of surprise…it tricks the body, keeping it off balance so that it does not get used to an established regimen….”
Photo credit: http://www.riverregioncrossfit.com

The secret to Crossfit’s success is that it works through the element of surprise. By varying the workout daily, it tricks the body, keeping it off balance so that it does not get used to an established regimen. This element of surprise keeps the body on edge. When muscles are kept off-balance, they expend more energy, netting more effectiveness from the workout. Before a workout at her Crossfit gym, she has no idea what the workout is going to be, which tricks the body—clever beast that it is. By contrast, I have been doing the same repetitive, tried-and-true workout for the last few years. Long ago, I hit a wall as my body has gotten used to this regimen.  Apparently, the body needs a diversity of physical challenges to stay fit, to build muscle. This diversity keeps the body engaged so that it does not fall into an exercise rut.  If the body needs such diversity, so does the spirit.

…the Body of Christ is coming to appreciate the many and varied spiritual practices that we can cull from those stories that may enhance our spirituality. Photo credit: http://www.firstchurchwg.org

“…the Body of Christ is coming to appreciate the many and varied spiritual practices that we can cull from those stories that may enhance our spirituality.”
Photo credit: http://www.firstchurchwg.org

With greater communication across denominational lines and greater access to our various stories in Christianity, the Body of Christ is coming to appreciate the many and varied spiritual practices that we can cull from those stories that may enhance our spirituality. Spiritual theology recognizes two major categories of spiritual practices: kataphatic and apophatic. Both Greek words, kataphatic means spiritual practices characterized by words, images or symbols. Apophatic means spiritual practices not characterized by words, images or symbols. The liturgy, music, icons, statues, reading the scriptures, chanting the scriptures, studying and meditating on scripture are all kataphatic in nature. Contemplation, centering prayer, is apophatic.

God does things in a hidden way that we can never understand"...Photo credit: purchased on www.iStockphoto.com

“God does things in a hidden way that we can never understand…”
Photo credit: purchased on http://www.iStockphoto.com

Kataphatic spirituality derives from positive theology and apophatic spirituality derives from negative theology. Positive theology ascribes to God the virtues that we see in humanity but to an eternal degree. Humans are merciful, kind and intelligent. God is merciful but to an eternal degree. Negative theology refuses to posit what God is because God is utterly transcendent. It speaks of what God is not in relation to flawed humans who often take ownership of God to be an apologist for their tribe and culture. This is the source of religious evil.

The distinction between positive theology and negative theology is informed by the fact that no language or symbol can exhaust God. Martin Luther spoke in the same vein when he distinguished between the Deus Revelatus and the Deus Absconditus: “The Revealed God” and “The Hidden God.” According to Luther, we deal only with the revealed God in scriptures. And yet, God does things in a hidden way that we can never understand. God’s thoughts are not ours. There has to be a healthy respect for the transcendent God who reminds humanity that it is not the yardstick of universal value. God refuses to be humanity’s cosmic bellhop. This healthy respect is preserved by the distinction between the revealed God and the hidden God.

We need to experience God through images, words and symbols and we need to experience God without them....Photo credit: www.choose2befit.com

“We need to experience God through images, words and symbols and we need to experience God without them….”
Photo credit: http://www.choose2befit.com

We dare not set up a dualism when speaking of kataphatic spiritual practices and apophatic ones. This is a challenging thought for some Christians: we need spiritual practices that are both kataphatic and apophatic. We need to experience God through images, words and symbols and we need to experience God without them. Your relationship with your beloved is illustrative. As an example, you do not have to use words to experience the loving bond that you have with a beloved—you can talk, but you can also simply sit in your beloved’s presence and use no words at all and your bond would be just as vital and alive. That bond transcends words, especially your words, which sometimes are difficult to manufacture. This may be one of the many reasons that people turn off to prayer. They think that they have to say the right things to unlock God’s bounty, to get God’s attention. In contrast, the relationship you have with God is not limited or confined by words. This love, the grounding of the relationship, can be experienced with or without words. Western spirituality has been of the kataphatic variety. We have created great art, liturgies and systems of doctrine. We have not been as adept at apophatic spirituality.

Because westerners have so much trouble with apophatic expressions, Lectio Divina is an accessible entrée to contemplation. Lectio Divina is a hybrid of kataphatic and apophatic spirituality. It is difficult to get the western mind to sit for 20 minutes in silence; yet, this is just what the psyche needs. Lectio can initiate you into the discipline of sitting in silence. The Lectio Divina that I suggest is a model—it can unfold in many ways. However your practice of Lectio Divina unfolds, it must have two key elements: meditation on God’s word and contemplation, resting in the completed work of Christ, or resting in God the Beloved. Contemplation presents a greater challenge to us westerners, for the idea of sitting and doing nothing is counterintuitive to our cherished notion of multitasking and production. Here is a suggested method for newcomers to Lectio Divina:

The Practice of Lectio Divina

Lectio Divina is a Latin phrase meaning “Divine Reading” or “Sacred Reading.” It derives from the 5th century

Benedictine community. Its purpose is to foster a deep reading of the text, whereby one reads not merely with the head, but with the heart as well. Luther may have used this practice in his days as a monk. The German mystics who influenced Luther, Johannes Tauler to name one, certainly did. Lectio Divina provides a good entrée into contemplation. For further reading, see M. Basil Pennington, Lectio Divina: Renewing the Ancient Practice of Praying the Scriptures (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1998).

Getting Ready: Choose one or two verses to pray. With your feet flatly on the ground and the palms of your hands on your lap, inhale and exhale measured breaths. Inhale and exhale slowly, filling your diaphragm without hyperventilating. As you breathe, tell your body to relax. Where you sense tension in your body, tell that part of your body to relax. Throughout the Lectio, discipline yourself not to move except when picking up the Bible to read it and setting it down after reading it.

Step One: Reading (Lectio): Read aloud slowly and deliberately the verse(s) you chose. Read it seven times. Between each reading, pause for a few moments. This is scattering the seed of the word.

Step Two: Meditation (Meditatio)As you read, you were drawn to a word, a phrase or even an image. Continuing to inhale and exhale measured breaths, mentally say to yourself that word or phrase every time you inhale. In the case of an image, observe it as you inhale and exhale. This is implanting the seed of the word into the soil of your soul.

Step Three: Prayer (Oratio)Continuing to inhale and exhale measured breaths, ask God why you were drawn to that word, phrase or image. Dialogue with God. Ask questions and wait for God to speak through your inner voice. God may also speak in images. You may see a series of images that tell a story like a dream. What’s going on in your life that you were drawn to that word, phrase or image? This is harvesting the fruit of the word.

Step Four: Contemplation (Contemplatio): Continuing to inhale and exhale measured breaths, now rest in the love and grace of God. Be fully in the moment. Listen to the sounds of the environment. Get out of your head; ignore the thoughts of your ego. You can never be rid of thoughts, but you can certainly ignore them as you focus on stillness and peace where God’s love is experienced. The prophet Elijah heard God’s voice not in the wind and earthquake, but in stillness.

Photo credit:www.stperegrineshrine.blogspot.com
Photo credit: http://www.stperegrineshrine.blogspot.com

Motorcycle Mindfulness

For the first time at a public venue, at the August 2013 Teen Choice Awards when he was awarded the Ultimate Choice Award, Ashton Kutcher revealed his real name. Jettisoning his first name “Chris” at the age 19, Kutcher divulged that he changed his middle name “Ashton” to be his first name when he became an actor at that age. Kutcher went on to dispense wisdom to his teen-packed audience—wisdom that would help make them happy and content in life,

advice from which people of all ages might benefit. He is convinced that sexy is more about being smart than it is about being attractive: it’s not the hot girl or cute guy but rather it is the intelligent geek who is the sexiest person at the party. The media’s definition of sexy is externally driven and exploitable. He challenged them not to buy into the media hype of what is sexy and beautiful. According to the 35-year old actor, sexy and beauty are internal qualities, informed by intelligence. Finally, quoting Steve Jobs, whose professional life he portrayed in film this summer, Kutcher told the teens to be proactive: “Build a life; don’t live one.”

Everybody has glommed onto those words, because on their face they make sense. Tough-minded entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs live by that credo. They are proactive in life; they do not wait for opportunity to come to them. They discover opportunity in the process of creating a business, a lifestyle, a future, for themselves and their families. Avant-garde entrepreneurs witness the same truth: while active in one thing, focused on their purpose, opportunity sneaks up on them. For conservatives, “building a life” is a worthy, hard-nosed proposition that is commensurate with life at its barest: the spoils of life go to those who pull up their own bootstraps, who are not passive, not dependent on others to care for them.

Steve Job’s words, “build a life; don’t live one.” Photo credit: phillipkay.wordpress.com

Steve Job’s words, “build a life; don’t live one.”
Photo credit: http://www.phillipkay.wordpress.com

Steve Job’s words, “build a life; don’t live one,” denote something else. They reveal the spirit of the age in which we live, where the available tools for building a life are many. Knowledge is disseminated through the internet and thereby available at the stroke of a key. People have tools with which to mold the kind of life they want informed by their desire and ambition. Long gone are the days when the Latin Bible was chained to a desk and very few had access to it. In those dark ages of Western Civilization, the cathedral was the place where the illiterate masses learned the stories of their faith through stained-glass windows. In this Information Age on steroids, anyone can make for oneself the kind of life one wants. All they have to have is intentionality.

We live in a hybrid world where people build themselves by picking and choosing from an infinite swatch of experiences and traditions. The flip side is that people do not trust the ready-made life, a life that is prepackaged by tradition, especially a tradition that they consider bigoted and limited in universal scope. They distrust such packages and the recognized authority figures behind them who barter them as wisdom from a golden age that transcends space and time. Today people are too sociologically sophisticated to be impressed by the notion that people who did not drive cars or use smart phones have a profounder take on the human condition than they.

Furthermore, many people refer to themselves as spiritual, not religious. The religious person is the one who lets life passively come to them in the prepackaged forms of tradition. The spiritual person is intentional about building their

The spiritual person is intentional... Photo credit: www.mommymindspa.com

The spiritual person is intentional…
Photo credit: http://www.mommymindspa.com

own relatedness to God and using many sources to do so. This presents a challenge to the church as a tradition-laden reality. Tradition says that we have a connection to the past and the wisdom that is inherent in it. Yet, to one living in this Steve Jobs era, tradition means merely living a life; letting life come to you, not really engaged in building one.

We who value tradition and believe that it can communicate wisdom have to become mindful of our tradition and mindful of ourselves. One of the many fruits of Christian contemplation is mindfulness.

Mindfulness is not merely paying attention to the world around you. It is how you pay attention. An adrenalin-induced hyper-vigilance is certainly not mindfulness because it is closed off to the full perspective. Mindfulness is not merely psychological awareness or consciousness. The real issue is how you are aware and conscious in the world. Mindfulness is being psychologically aware and conscious from the perspective of the whole—your whole self, body and spirit. This calls for an illustration.

Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana Photo credit: www.ccle.org

Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana
Photo credit: http://www.ccle.org

I attended seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Once I arrived at seminary, I did not leave the campus much except to attend worship on Sundays. Every Sunday, a few of my friends and I would load into the car and travel to worship at the various churches in the city and its suburbs. As we drove along to our appointed places of worship, we would talk, share our concerns, joke around, do all the things students do to ease their anxiety when not studying. I looked forward to traveling through those rural areas and worshipping at those churches, some built in the 19th century. I especially liked attending a German service at a church in the country some 20 miles from the seminary. For those long drives, all along the way, our focus was solely on each other. I would pay hardly any attention as I passed by peaceful meadows, glancing at them in only a perfunctory way, for I was absorbed by what was going on inside the car.

One Sunday, I had the pleasure of riding a friend’s motorcycle to the German church service.  Even though it was a trip that I had made many times before, by leaving the bubble of the car’s confining interior, I experienced this same Fort Wayne countryside from a different perspective.  I almost didn’t recognize my surroundings, like I’d never seen them before.  I experienced a new beauty.  No, I was in the beauty, fully immersed. Traveling on that familiar road was now a feast for all my senses: the wind kissing my face, the colors rich with the visual tang of spring flowers, the change in air temperature from warm to cool as I traveled in and out of the sun through the shadowy comfort of trees. The changing perspective brought that countryside to life, which I could not have experienced in the isolation and distraction of the car. Same trip, different experience—a paradigm-shift because that motorcycle ride made me suddenly mindful.

Riding to the German service on a motorcycle was a feast for all my senses... Photo credit: www.roadrunner.travel

…leaving the bubble of the car’s confining interior, I experienced this same Fort Wayne countryside from a different perspective….
Photo credit: http://www.roadrunner.travel

Mindfulness causes a change of perspective. Mindfulness helps us slip the thoughts, the comforts, of the conscious mind. It allows us to experience the world through the perspective of all the senses, the whole self, the true self who sees in wholes. It is the conscious mind that limits by parceling out the experiences of life in a piecemeal way. The conscious mind focuses on the trees and ignores the forest. The true self sees and experiences both the trees and forest as a whole.

Mindfulness is informed by intentionality. It is the intention of being fully available and present to life, which comes to us in many forms. Indeed everyone is challenged to build a life. One must do so in some kind of context. No life is built de novo, out of thin air. There was a context to Steve Jobs that predisposed him to pursuing the activity that he did. And, in a sober moment, I suspect that he would be grateful for the context that gave him the possibilities to actualize himself in the way that he did.

From genetics to culture, your life’s context is informed by many things. These are realities over which you have no power. In all the alacrity to build a life for yourself, you have to concede that you are the product of a culture and

Photo credit: http://darrellyoung.blogspot.com

Same trip, different experience—a paradigm-shift because that motorcycle ride made me suddenly mindful.
Photo credit: http://darrellyoung.blogspot.com

history that continues to inform your thinking and being. You are always living out of some context. The issue is: can you be aware of it? Can you be mindful of it? Can you be mindful enough to appreciate it as you would appreciate life from the perspective of a motorcycle ride?

Time spent in contemplation creates in you a striving to be integrated with your whole self, your whole environment. Contemplation lessens the rub between the life that comes to you through tradition and the life that you intentionally build. Those two aspects of life need not be at odds with each other in some dualistic way. The intentionality to create yourself anew can coexist with the self that has come to you by way of history and environment, namely your context. How is it that we do indeed become mindful of our traditions and mindful of ourselves?

Contemplation is living with your true self... Photo credit: lightworkers.org

Contemplation is living with your true self…
Photo credit: http://www.lightworkers.org

Contemplation is living with your true self. The time that you spend in contemplation is an occasion to live in your true self in Christ Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit. This self is infinite and full of possibilities for peace, love and joy. In contemplation you sit with this true self. You learn to respond to its movements, to listen to its voice of love. Over time you get to know this true self. In contemplation, you become adept at intentionally ignoring the thoughts from your everyday context. That everyday context can be shrouded in lies, deception, falsehood and sin. The false self, whom Paul calls the Old Adam, has its origin there in that context. You sit in the presence of your eternal context in Christ Jesus. The more adept you become at sitting with your true self in Christ Jesus, the more you realize that you are firmly grounded in Christ. You take him wherever you go, for there is nowhere you can go that he will not be with you. Taking this divine person with you wherever you go is the true life that you build, for wherever Christ is, life gets amplified by the fruit of contemplation.

Saint Paul says in Philippians 4:8f, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true; whatever is honorable; whatever is just; whatever is pure; whatever is lovely; whatever is commendable. If there is any excellence; if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” These things are Christ. Whenever we engage Christ in worship, in study and in

prayer and in contemplation, these things amplify life, heightening possibilities, enabling you to intentionally build a life based on these Christ-like qualities that come to fruition in your life because they at the front and center of your life in your true self in Christ. Mindfulness has its beginning in the contemplation of Christ in you, your true self. The mindfulness that is spawned in contemplation spills over into your everyday life.

Throughout the day, a few deep breaths and the saying of your sacred word will center you on Christ, and make you mindful. It creates space in your day to fill with the fruit of contemplation. The more mindful you become throughout your day, the more spaces of peace and quiet you will experience. When confronted by a an angry driver, you will know how to step back into this space of peace and handle the situation with a kind and solid spirit, which you cultivated through being with your true self in Christ in the practice of contemplation. A few deep breaths and a saying internally your sacred word can put you in the present, fully in the now. Have the intentionality to live by this self and you will build your life and you will not just live a life. When feelings of anxiety overwhelm you, you are just living a life. When any overwhelming feeling highjacks you and takes control, you are merely living a life that is the byproduct of that feeling. But, you are bigger than that feeling. You are not that feeling. You are much more in Christ. Accordingly, there is peace in you. There is love in you. There is joy in you. They all are possibilities for you in any situation, for your true self transcends all circumstances and yet is fully available to you in all circumstances.

...she would smile with the joy of the Lord.  She transformed everything that she touched... Photo credit: sharonjaynes.com

…she would smile with the joy of the Lord. She transformed everything that she touched…
Photo credit: http://www.sharonjaynes.com

Though they are in the worst of circumstances, there are people who glow with peace, love and joy. Esther Trahms, the wife of the pastor who confirmed me, was one such person. She was always teeming with the joy of the Lord. Even in the last stages of her life, when she was confined to a wheelchair, she would smile with the joy of the Lord. She transformed everything that she touched; her wheelchair was a mere staging ground from which to disseminate the love of God. She is the perfect example of one who built a life. She was always in the process of building a life, for she was very mindful. Traditions come to life when you are mindful. Everything that you say and do gets heightened when you are mindful, fully present to the experience you are in. The liturgy is an invitation to be mindful and experience Christ who is present in fulfillment of his promise where two or more are gathered in his name he is present. Where Christ is there is peace, love and joy in that place. These are the products of the true spiritual kingdom through which he rules in our hearts. You come to life when you are intentionally mindful. What is presented to you in your body through the vehicle of your five senses, you receive as the gift of God. A moment, a gift. You come to appreciate even the breaths that you take in all such moments.

Photo credit: www.bloomu.edu

Photo credit: http://www.bloomu.edu

In 1985, Steven Spielberg directed a great movie titled The Color Purple. “Shug Avery,” an attractive, charismatic singer played by Margaret Avery, tells “Celie Johnson,” a downtrodden woman with a low self esteem played by Whoopie Golddberg that it must make God angry to walk by the color purple and not notice it, to ignore it. Too often we do that in life. We walk by so much that God offers us as gifts. We let life’s significant moments pass us by because we let emotions highjack us out of the present.

With more mindfulness, you discipline yourself to be fully available in the present. A significant engagement in contemplation teaches you to sift through the noise and lies of the false self to be fully available to the true self in Christ Jesus. This engaging of the true self fosters a profound mindfulness that enables you to experience every moment of your life as the gift that it is.

Resting in Peace

king-march-washington

Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream”
Photo credit: http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/

On August 28, 2013, our nation commemorates to the day the 50th Anniversary of The March on Washington. As a six year old, I watched the march on our black and white, six-station Philco television with rabbit ears to boot. Of course, I had no idea what I was watching, but the singing grabbed my attention. I heard songs that I had heard in church. Indeed the music and lyrics of We Shall Overcome, the emblematic song of the Civil Rights Movement, were so indelibly imprinted on my psyche that when I learned to play the clarinet some years later, We Shall Overcome was the first song that I learned to play by heart, actually teaching myself based on the tune that I had carried in my heart throughout the 60’s.

We shall overcome; we shall overcome

We shall overcome someday;

Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe

We shall overcome someday.

We shall live in peace; we shall live in peace

We shall live in peace someday;

Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe

We shall live in peace someday.

How we yearned to live in peace in those turbulent times when things seemed to be unraveling before our eyes! Three months after The March on Washington, President John F. Kennedy would be gunned down in Texas. Commenting on Kennedy’s assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King noted that America was sick. The real question to entertain, according to Dr. King, was not who killed John F. Kennedy, but what killed him. King had a premonition that he, too, would undergo the same fate as the 35th president.

President Kennedy meets with Civil Rights leaders.

President Kennedy meets with Civil Rights leaders.
Photo credit: http://www.dallasnews.com

What killed Kennedy is still a relevant question to ask. The question of what killed Kennedy gets at the systemic reality whose tentacles have reached into every aspect of our lives. That systemic reality is the trauma of sin, which undergirds various forms of psychic trauma. We all share in it in one way or another and it keeps us in a state of unrest until we come to terms with it and garner a semblance of peace. Though we are keenly aware of the ways that we are damaged and traumatized, yet we yearn to live in peace. Peace is a possibility for us because in connection with Christ we have overcome. Christ is our peace. He is our peace with God. His cross is the sign that the condemnation of the law has been broken inasmuch as he took upon himself the law’s condemnation. The law’s condemnation was our yoke to bear. Yet, motivated by love, and desiring to reconcile us to the Father, Jesus took the yoke of the law from us. There is peace with God in Christ Jesus. This tangible peace in Christ Jesus is personally offered to us in the sacramental life of the church. What Christ accomplished many years ago is given to us individually in the waters of Baptism, the bread and wine of the Eucharist and in the evangelical words of Confession.

There is peace with God. How do we rest in that peace deep in our hearts? The practice of contemplation can assist us here. Contemplation is a many-splendid thing: it means many things to many people like most things in life. Also known as centering prayer and mindfulness, contemplation is not the sole possession of any one tradition. There are many ways to do contemplation and each practitioner molds it based on their worldview and what they deem valuable and what they hope to gain out of the practice. There is, however, one fruit of any serious and disciplined practice of contemplation. That fruit is silence. The noise of the soul gets shut off or, at least, becomes manageable. It is out of that silence that we act in disciplined ways because the disparate parts of the soul are integrated by the love of God that is experienced in the silence. Once we are readied by the love of God in silence, we are ready to hear from God in order to act in the world in a way that is informed by discernment. Howard Thurman, noted mystical theologian, said, “Prayer is getting ready to pray.” The same could be said of contemplation. Contemplation is getting ready to pray, getting ready to worship, getting ready to work, getting ready to study, getting ready to play, getting ready to hope and to dream, for silence makes us available and present to those experiences.

There are two dominant voices that need to be shut down, namely guilt and anxiety, for these take us out of the present. Guilt has to do with the past; anxiety has to do with the future. We are to live in neither. Silence emerges out of resting in the accomplished work of Christ, which imbues us with love, which empowers us to live now in the present. Love gives us the courage to face our own pain and society’s pain. There is no getting around pain; you cannot avoid it, though we try through various distractions. But, the distracted soul is most noisy. To rest in the accomplished work of Christ is to rest in God’s love, for God is demonstrably love in Christ Jesus. Think of a session of contemplation as basking in love that gets you ready to live in the present with all its noisy pain and trauma. Love unfolds in peace, the peace that passes all understanding. The disparate parts of our traumatized souls cannot give us this peace; they are frozen in their trauma and speak out of that perspective and make our hearts noisy. Deep in our hearts, we do believe; we shall live in peace, especially in our noisy souls. That is a possibility for us in the love of God that we experience in contemplation. The experience of the love of God in contemplation is the pure experience that we seek.