What’s Your Selma?

A sermon given on The Confession of St. Peter and based on Mark 8:27-35

Photo courtesy of thechristians.com

Photo courtesy of thechristians.com

The film Selma is a poignant portrayal of the machinations behind the passage of the Voters’ Rights Act of 1965. To bring about this landmark legislation, lives were lost and reputations soiled.  There was every indication that Dr. Martin Luther King should not have pushed President Johnson on federal legislation that would alter the political culture of the South.  First and foremost, King had no support from Johnson. Secondly, a putative march through rural Alabama to pressure the political establishment was a grave risk in view of the inflammatory speech of George Wallace, governor of the state of Alabama. And finally, King’s family tugged at his heartstrings: he was exposing them to terror and death.

At the conclusion of his iconic I Have a Dream speech in Washington in 1963, King was arguably the most admired man in America.  In 1964 he was awarded The Nobel Peace Prize and thereby received international acclaim for himself and the movement of which he was the titular head.  After those two great honors, King could have rested on his laurels.  He could have parlayed his reputation into a pastorate of a college town where he could have taught occasionally and published books.

Yet, there was another destiny driving him, an inexorable destiny from which he could not deviate. That destiny drove King to make the great confession to America from the steps of the Alabama State Capitol.  He had to put the Voting Rights Act in the larger American context.

That larger American context was the abuse of power.

 Photo courtesy of www.cnn.com

“He had to put the Voting Rights Act in the larger American context…” Photo courtesy of http://www.cnn.com

Powerful monied interests in the South foisted a wedge between blacks and whites. Monied interests promoted competition between the two groups to keep wages low. King proclaimed that it was monied interests that destroyed the Populist Movement after the Civil War, a movement that held up the hope for a better life for blacks and poor whites.  According to King, monied interests took the world from black folks and gave them Jesus.  They took the world from poor white folks and gave them Jim Crow laws that made them feel good about being white, though they were as poor as church mice.

Photo courtesy of dusiznies.blogspot.com

“King called on religious leaders from around the country to come to Selma…” Photo courtesy of dusiznies.blogspot.com

King called on religious leaders from around the country to come to Selma to march and expose this abuse of power, which was foundational to slavery and crippling racism since the Reconstruction.  How else does one explain that only 7% of whites owned slaves in the South; and, yet, this 7% had a strangle hold on the federal government since its founding.  Powerful monied interests created a caste system in the South that endured into the 1960’s.  They gave whites a convenient scapegoat for their bad feelings about their economic misery.

King’s Selma speech was one that he had to make. The calling on his life conspired to put him in that place and time to call out the economic interest at the root of racism and discrimination.  King’s Selma speech is arguably his greatest speech because of its hard-hitting social and economic commentary on America.

It was a speech that King had to give; it was a confession that he had to make.

What’s your Selma? 

Selma is a metaphor for something that you are compelled to do.  Your calling in life has placed you on a trajectory from which you cannot deviate.  You feel compelled to act, to speak, to respond. You know that if you do not grab hold of your Selma moment, you will be less a person; you will have missed out on real transformation.  St. Peter had a Selma moment. His Selma moment was to make a confession like King.  Peter was inspired to reveal the real identity of Christ, that he was not merely a man, a prophet, or a rabbi, but the Son of God.

In the text under consideration (Mark 8:27-35), Jesus and his disciples were walking in the region of Caesarea Philippi.  No mention of a name in the Bible is ever superfluous.  Every city name associated with the ministry of Jesus has meaning. It is profoundly significant where Peter is compelled by the Spirit to make the great confession of Jesus’ identity.

Just as Selma was the right place and the right time for Dr. Martin Luther King to make his confession, making it in the heartland of racial bigotry and hatred, so Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Son of God is in the headquarters of Roman power in Palestine.

Caesarea Philippi was the provincial capital of Palestine.  It was where Pontius Pilate, the governor, ruled mercilessly, garnering a reputation as a cruel and tyrannical ruler.  Caesarea Philippi was the seat of Roman power, a visible reminder to Jews that they were a subjugated people.  In the horizon of Rome’s power in Palestine, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”  He got various answers: “You are Elijah”; “You are one of the prophets.”  Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Peter says, “You are the Christ!”  In Hebrew and Aramaic, “You are the Messiah!”

In making that statement, Peter is risking his life. It was a capital crime punishable by death to claim that someone other than Herod the Great or one of his heirs was the Messiah. To name someone else as the Messiah was to create disorder.  Romans abhorred disorder.  Later Jesus would be charged with fomenting disorder.  The Romans discouraged disorder with violent forms of torture and execution like crucifixion.  Nevertheless, in the presence of Roman power and defiance of it, the Holy Spirit empowers Peter to call Jesus the Christ, the Messiah.

In Peter’s confession, we see the nature of a calling from God. A calling is not to be denied.  It is not to be intimidated; it is inexorable.  A calling from God will use whatever unlikely people and circumstances to express itself, to reveal its truths to humanity.  It especially works in the people who are open to receive it and view life and the world from another perspective to remake it according to God’s values of love, justice and mercy.  Such people are courageous.  Even the Romans have to admire the courage of such people who speak and act in support of ideas for which they were willing to die. A church father noted that the church is built on the blood of the martyrs. The martyrs were people like Peter inspired by the Spirit to declare Jesus as the Christ, to declare that he is a better way to live.  He is the source of the abundant life.  Martyrs have the courage to stand in the corridors of power and declare that Jesus is the Christ.

Jesus as the Christ proffers a different understanding of power. After Peter is empowered to make the great confession that Jesus is the Christ, Jesus begins to teach what kind of messiah he would be.  He would be a different messiah than the one generally understood by the people in his day.  He would be a different messiah because he would use power differently.  He would not exploit people to bolster an earthly kingdom, which always ensues from a bloodily use of power.  Rome uses power to dehumanize people and enslave them.  Rome uses power to steal wealth and human potential from vulnerable people. This is what empires do. The Assyrians, the first empire of the ancient Near East, toppled Israel in 722 B.C.E. with their scorched-earth policy.  After the Assyrians, the Babylonians carted off with the talent and wealth of Jerusalem in the 6th century B.C.E.

The Persians became ascendant and displaced the Babylonians as the next imperial power. They allowed the Jews to return to their homeland.  Some returned; most stayed in Babylon, however. The ones who returned to Judah rebuilt the temple with Iranian money. The Persian policy of funding subjugated peoples to build up their religious institutions was not done out of the goodness of the Persians’ heart. This was part and parcel of an ideology that proved more effective and less costly at controlling subjugated peoples than with troops.

The Greeks toppled the Persians and became the imperial world power. Under Antiochus IV in the second century B.C.E. the Greeks sponsored state terrorism, whose intent was to totally destroy the Jewish people.  The Roman Empire of Jesus’ day was the latest avatar of abusive power that dehumanized Jewish people, long familiar with the feeling of being in the crosshairs of abusive power.  Jesus as messiah stands against this use of power. He teaches his disciples that potentates of the world lord over others with power. The disciples of Jesus were not to mimic such abuse of power. Jesus’ disciples were to use power to serve people, to thereby empower others to reach their potential as humans.  On Maundy Thursday, Jesus gives a telling example of his understanding of power when he washes his disciples’ feet. So, they were to use their power to serve and empower others. In the process of serving, you transform others and yourself.  Your Selma moment is when you are impelled to serve, to use power in a transformative way like Jesus. In so doing, you are invited to transform and be transformed.

There is nothing more offensive than when religious people use power to hurt and to maim.  When Dr. King called for religious leaders to come to Selma in support of voters’ rights legislation, he touched their consciences. Many responded, because they knew the sins of the church. They knew historically how power was used to dehumanize and the church was witting or unwitting accomplices in support of a dehumanizing status quo.

Many understood that King confronted them with their own Selma moment, a call to go speak, transform and be transformed as a way to redeem the sins of the past.

Yet, there were many religious leaders who could not see God’s hand in the Civil Rights Movement. For them, Selma was not a transformative moment. They were quite content with the status quo, because they and their people were not being hurt. So, some took refuge in a two-kingdom theology that proved merely to be a hovel of the cowardly. They thought that by ignoring Selma they were being faithful to their theological values and commitments expressed in their presumed two-kingdom theory when it was really their cultural isolation and separatism that informed their failure to respond to Selma.

Photo courtesy of outthereradio.net

Photo courtesy of outthereradio.net

I shall never forget that on the weekend that Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, my beloved pastor who confirmed me at the age 14 never mentioned the death of King. There was no prayer offered up in behalf of the civil rights leader.  It was as though that tragic event never happened and had no relevance whatsoever for his congregation.

I suspect that that quietism over King’s assassination was duplicated many times over throughout the church body to which I belong. God, however, is never left without a witness…

For the many quietistic pastors who saw the Civil Rights Movement merely as a political phenomenon, there were many others who saw more.  My childhood Episcopalian priest, Father Nale, had the eyes to see more in the Civil Rights Movement than what was apparent on the surface.  He heard King’s call to religious leaders to come to Selma and march. Father Nale left his parish in the heart of South Central Los Angeles to heed King’s call.  He marched with King.  It was his Selma moment to transform and to be transformed through a bold confession that power can be used to serve and heal.  Our Selma moments arise when we come to the realization that our own power can be used to transform others and ourselves in service to them; this is a use of power in service of redemptive love.

Where power serves redemptive love, profound reversals of the status quo occur.  The preeminent reversal of the status quo is that of the sinner to saint in the experience of the forgiveness of sins.

A reversal occurs when we pray for our enemies and those who spitefully abuse us.

A reversal of the status quo occurs when we choose to forgive others.

Our hearts get freed of bitterness and rancor.

Finding Your Selma

A profound reversal of your personal status quo occurs when you practice contemplation. Contemplation makes you adept at not tying yourself to the ideologies of this world, as you learn to let go of all thoughts and feelings and thereby refuse to give them more value than they ought to have.

Thoughts generated by mindlessness should never be given value.

Most thoughts have their nativity in mindlessness, when we are not focused. Redemptive love that serves is never mindless. For, redemptive love is an exertion of your conscious self to express such love, as it is not natural to love in this way. To love redemptively demands your attention, your mindfulness.  The ego has another way to love that is turned inward to serve itself.

Contrary to the ego’s love, you consciously exert your will to choose to love redemptively as Jesus teaches.  It takes courage and volitional power to demonstrate redemptive love that reverses your limited worldview, your personal status quo, which is the home of the ego. Contemplation is the daily practice of expanding that status quo, pushing it out beyond the parameters of its theological justifications and rationalizations.

Theology can serve the oppressor as well as the oppressed. The key issue is whether theology serves redemptive love.

Your Selma moment is the invitation to go beyond the power games of the ego to a redemptive love that elicits you to serve and thereby experience transformation.

Your Selma compels you to use power to serve and to love in a redemptive way.

Photo courtesy of worldteamjourney.wordpress.com

Photo courtesy of worldteamjourney.wordpress.com

The Mindful Christ

The film Gravity is a spiritual tour de force.  Sandra Bullock plays the part of “Dr. Ryan Stone,” a brilliant medical engineer on her first shuttle mission to space.  The commander of her shuttle crew is “Matt Kowalski,” played by George Clooney.  While on a space walk, debris from an exploding, Russian satellite destroys the shuttle.  Dr. Stone and Commander Kowalski are the sole survivors of their shuttle crew.  They are completely alone in space.  They are tethered to nothing but each other, spiraling in the darkness of space.

I believe that Commander Kowalski is a Christ figure in the film.  He is curious, calm, centered and collected under pressure.  The veteran astronaut appreciates the beauty of the cosmos as though he were seeing it for the first time. In the end, like Christ, he accepts his death with equanimity, trusting that he would die into something bigger than himself.

"I believe that Commander Kowalski is a Christ figure in the film.  He is curious, calm, centered, and collected under pressure." Photo courtesy of http://gravitymovie.warnerbros.com

“I believe that Commander Kowalski is a Christ figure in the film. He is curious, calm, centered, and collected under pressure.”
Photo courtesy of http://www.gravitymovie.warnerbros.com

Dr. Stone, all alone, tries to get to the International Space Center and from there to the Chinese Space Center.  Facing one crisis after another, in a most poignant scene in the film, in a fetal position Dr. Stone cries, “No one taught me to pray!  I wish someone had taught me how to pray.”

“No one taught me to pray!  I wish someone had taught me how to pray.”  Photo courtesy of http://gravitymovie.warnerbros.com

“No one taught me to pray! I wish someone had taught me how to pray.”
Photo courtesy of http://www.gravitymovie.warnerbros.com

Amid all the technological wizardry, Dr. Stone’s spontaneous burst of human emotion reveals that the human heart has needs that the head will never understand.  Her cry is an indictment against a whole generation of parents who have taken a laissez-faire approach to their children’s spiritual development, not intentionally inculcating in their children spiritual traditions.  Many Christian parents have not even taught their children the Lord’s Prayer.

Dr. Stone’s cry indicts the church in the West, which has not taught people how to pray in a way that is enriching, in a way that would give them a sense of gravitas in the world, especially as they face life’s endemic pain.  Churches have been more concerned with institutional matters that keep them solvent and growing numerically.  They have been more obsessed with what to believe than how to live.  Christianity has long been a theologically-laden religion.  It is for this reason that it comes off as arcane and inaccessible in our postmodern world.

The preponderance of theology and right thinking has gotten in the way of living mindfully in the present with a sense of joy and satisfaction that every moment brings.  Christianity too often looks back at the fall of Adam and Eve and ahead to the end of the world, when everything will have been made right.  Too often we have forgotten about the dash between the beginning and the end.  That dash between the beginning and the end matters because God became a man in Christ Jesus.  That dash is validated by the incarnation of the Son of God.  How we live matters.  Jesus is not only Cristus victor over sin, death and the devil.  He is also Cristus victor over life.  He shows us how to live.

Can we emulate how Jesus lived?

I have recently come across a counseling method that has enriched my pastoral counseling and affirmed my long-held thought that everyone’s psyche yearns for healing and wholeness.  Internal Family Systems (IFS), developed by Dr. Richard Schwartz, combines the therapeutic model of family systems theory with the view that the mind, rather than being a single entity, is instead made up of various parts with their own viewpoints and ways of expressing themselves.  IFS therapy tries to understand how the various parts are organized to protect the psychic system from pain.

In the IFS model, there are three main parts that most people have.  First, there are the exiles.  These parts are informed by lingering pain, shame or hurt from childhood.  Second, there are the managers.  Managers are protective parts that keep the pain of the exiles from coming to the forefront of consciousness, so we can manage our daily lives and get through them with a semblance of order.  And, third, there are the firefighters.  Firefighters avoid the pain of the exiles through compulsive acting out.

Both manager and firefighter parts are protective in nature. Firefighters cause a variety of rash behaviors from drinking binges to inappropriate sexual behavior, or any other compulsion that tries to extinguish the pain of the exiles. In my case, when I feel pain surging in my psyche, my firefighter impels me eat a carton of ice cream. Firefighters try to keep the pain and shame of the exile parts from coming to consciousness.

Everyone’s mind is configured in such a way to avoid pain and trauma; however, there cannot be any meaningful and authentic spiritual growth without facing the pain that is endemic to being human in this chaotic world. To engage your own pain is what it means to pick up your cross and follow Christ, and in the IFS model, that is where the “Self” comes into play.

In the IFS model, Dr. Schwartz identifies the spiritual center as the “Self.”  The therapist’s job is to get people to unblend from their protective parts in order to allow the pain of the exile to come into contact with the healing compassion of the Self. Our parts with their various agendas are a source of so much mindlessness. Rather than responding mindfully to a given situation, too often we are instead reacting in one of our parts.  To the extent that we do, we are limited, not living fully from our true, authentic Self.

What does the Self look like?  It looks like a person who has been long engaged in mystical and spiritual practices.  It looks grounded and wise.  It has a definite personality, a modus operandi. The true self can be characterized by what Schwatz calls the “Spiritual C’s”: calm, curiosity, compassion, confidence, clarity, courage, creativity, connectedness, centeredness, capacity for choice and communion.  The Spiritual C’s are the product of a regular, disciplined spiritual practice that is authentic. They produce a mindful person, fully available in the moment to oneself and others.  The Spiritual C’s are what mindful people look like; it is how they live.

“Matt Kowalsky” in Gravity was the epitome of a person informed by the Spiritual C’s.  He was a most compelling figure as are all contemplative types.  Did Jesus look and live like a person informed by the Spiritual C’s?  Of course.  The Gospel of John reveals that Jesus had these qualities. Granted, you will not find a spiritual practice in the Gospel of John that would foster mindfulness, but you will certainly find the Mindful Christ with whom you are invited to come into communion and be conformed through the energy of his Spirit in the sacramental life of the church.

Jesus certainly faced threats to himself and his ministry with calm.  Unlike Moses and other prophets in the Old Testament, he did not get rattled.  He interviewed Nicodemus and calmly answered his questions.  He did the same with the woman of Samaria.  Ultimately, Jesus faced his own death with calm and equanimity.

Jesus approached the world with curiosity, which is fundamental to learning and an essential openness to the world that facilitates learning and gaining wisdom.  The precocious child Jesus was in the temple questioning the religious leaders and the experts of Torah.  He was curious about the things of his heavenly Father.

Jesus was the epitome of compassion, which is what he demonstrated to the thief on the cross who was crucified together with him.  While on the cross, he shows compassion to his beloved mother when he commended her to John’s care.  He especially showed compassion as a better Moses in John chapter 8 when he refused to condemn the woman caught in adultery.  In the Old Testament, the law was written in stone by the finger of God demonstrating its unyielding inflexibility.  In obvious contrast, Jesus writes his new covenant, the Gospel, in the sand of the ground.

As a mindful person, Jesus was confident.  Throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus demonstrates confidence in his Father to give him what he needs in any given moment.  He was satisfied and could live confidently in every moment.

As the true light coming into the world, Jesus taught and acted with clarity.  People were amazed that he did not teach like other religious experts.  He had clarity of thought and motives.  He demonstrated clarity when he spoke about the relationship between sin, illness and misfortune.  Life’s setbacks can be occasions to experience the glory of God.

Jesus was courageous.  He never wavered from the consequences of where his commitment to his Father would take him.  Inevitably, his teaching of God as loving Spirit would ram him into conflict with the status quo.

Jesus’ teaching demonstrated his creativity.  He taught with parables; he used art to illustrate and communicate spiritual truths that would have otherwise been lost in linear, univocal language.

Jesus had connectedness to his Father and to others.  His teaching on the Trinity reveals God as an essential connectivity of the three persons to each other and to the world.  Jesus could speak profoundly of such a spiritual truth and, yet, in a down-to-earth manner enjoy the presence of people in whatever occasion brought them together.

Jesus had a center to which he was connected.  His centeredness was informed by his relationship with his Father.  He was fully grounded in his God and Father.

Being so centered, Jesus had the capacity for choice.  Having a centeredness through Self actually frees one up to choose without the flailing of the arms in high anxiety.

Finally, Jesus sought communion. He gathered around himself 12 men to mentor and with whom to have a constant communion.  He had other connections with people that afforded him profound communion, namely Mary, Martha and Lazarus.

In the Gospel of John, Christians are invited to come into communion with the Mindful Christ.  There are no standard practices leading to an increase of mindfulness and focus in life.  The assumption is that together with the Mindful Christ and his Holy Spirit, you will develop practices that would enhance mindfulness in your life, so that over time you will reflect the Spiritual C’s.  At the center of all such practices is the incarnation. God becoming human means that this world matters; your body is important.

Everything that supports your body is a gift from God.  All the extensions and connections of the body prove that you live in an interdependent world, at the center of which is God.  To be mindful means to be aware of yourself in your body, in the space and time in which you find yourself.

". . .together with the Mindful Christ and his Holy Spirit, you will develop practices that would enhance mindfulness in your life…" Photo credit: raynoah.com

“. . .together with the Mindful Christ and his Holy Spirit, you will develop practices that would enhance mindfulness in your life…”
Photo credit: raynoah.com

I believe that contemplation is most necessary for the development of mindfulness.  Mindfulness is one of the fruits of contemplation.  Over time, a regular practice and discipline in contemplation make you adept at ignoring thoughts and not running off on mental and emotional wild goose chases.  Granted, given the way that our brains are wired to produce thoughts, we cannot ever stop them. But, we can ignore them, making them as objective to us as the noise of the street traffic in the background as you read this.  We need to objectify our thoughts so that we do not identify with them.  This is what Paul means in 2 Corinthians 10 when he encourages us to take every thought captive. Your true self in Christ has power over all such thoughts.  A disciplined approach to contemplation empowers you to discipline your mind.  You do not let it drift and split in a multitude of directions.  Anxiety comes on the heels of such splitting and cascading to worst-case scenarios.

Through contemplation you become adept at bringing your mind back from the far country of anxiety and grounding it in the moment in which you are living, to let thoughts and feelings flow through you, not clinging to or resisting thoughts or emotions. The fruit of contemplation is a more mindful life, more focused and engaged. Contemplation can so discipline your mind that when you are ready to deal with a thought or an emotion, you do so at your choosing, on your terms; you do it thoroughly so that you can be done with it.

Too often we are “in our heads.”  Being in our heads, life rolls by unnoticed.  It is a most liberating feeling to achieve the awareness that you are not your thoughts.  The Gospel of John invites us to become one with the Mindful Christ, to be born from above through water and Spirit.  Living with the Mindful Christ opens up possibilities to live the way that he lived, to live the abundant life of the Spirit.

There is no reason to carry heavy emotional baggage through life. That abundant life looks like the Spiritual C’s of Internal Family Systems.

The final denouement of the film Gravity finds Dr. Ryan aboard a space capsule she boards at Chinese Space Station.  Her return to the earth’s atmosphere is risky.  Her life is hanging precariously in the balance.  Dr. Ryan’s re-entry plunges her into a vast lake with a shoreline nearby.  She emerges from the space capsule, swims to the shore and crawls onto the ground in elation.  Now the ground and  gravity have become holy things for her.  She beholds the mud in her hands; she kisses it.

"Her return to the earth’s atmosphere was risky."  Photo courtesy of www.gravitymovie.warnerbros.com

“Her return to the earth’s atmosphere was risky.”
Photo courtesy of http://www.gravitymovie.warnerbros.com

She has gained a new appreciation for the mud even though it cannot compare to the beauty she had seen in space. Unlike Commander Kowalski and before her experience, she could never have seen and beheld the beauty of space.  Eventhough she was one of the few privileged to gaze upon such beauty, she was not mindful; she was not a contemplative; she could not see it.  She was focused more on how her knowledge could exploit the cosmos.  After her figurative death and transfiguration, she would no longer ignore life and the grace that each moment brings.  The barriers removed, she could now be mindful.

Why does it take a crisis to wake us to a mindful existence?  Often, God wakes us spiritually through a great love or a great tragedy.  The Mindful Christ is both a great tragedy and a great love.  He teaches us how to die as he accepts his imminent death with equanimity.  He especially teaches us how to live, being open to what God the Father gives us in every moment as a gift at which to wonder.

Living with the Mindful Christ, we become mindful in life and death, more aware of every moment as a gift of grace and an occasion to experience peace, love and joy.

Resource:  Internal Family Systems:  The Center for Self-Leadership: http://www.selfleadership.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.


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.


Christian Contemplation is a method of prayer…

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.

Resting in Peace


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.