Spirit and Synchronicity

He's been there for me forever

“His death left a void in her heart…”

A member of my congregation wanted to share with our prayer group an experience that she found most comforting, but was hesitant for fear of what others might think. She is an elderly woman who lost her husband the year before. His death left a void in her heart, a void that even her adult children and grandchild could not fill.

Speaking haltingly, she told the prayer group that she had a dream about her husband. She looked at each of us as though seeking our affirmation before continuing, and opted to take the risk and share her experience:

“I saw my husband in the back of the church. He was smiling; his aura was brilliant. I was in the front of the church working in the pews like I usually do on Fridays, getting things ready for Sunday. He didn’t startle me, but rather, I felt a real calm. It gave me so much joy to be with him again in the church.”

That was all she shared about her dream.

She smiled nervously, awaiting a response from the people in the prayer group who had gathered that Vigil of Pentecost Eve to pray together.  She most certainly took a risk by stepping out of the box to share her experience with us.  This traditional, Lutheran woman deviated far from her comfort zone and, because of the nature of this mystical experience, she felt vulnerable.

Photo courtesy of jeffcarreira.com

Photo courtesy of jeffcarreira.com

In my experience as a pastor for 30 years, many people have confided in me this same type of experience and I have no doubt that they happen with frequency in traditional churches throughout America.  People are having spiritual experiences they cannot understand, and these experiences are deeply meaningful and spiritually impactful.

Not having the words or theological categories to articulate such experiences, some people feel like odd balls when they relate them to their communities of faith.

Bereft of the proper theological framing for the experience, many keep to themselves their brushes with reality, which are profoundly meaningful and even mystical.  They are inclined not to share such experiences with their pastors for fear that they may be judged as theologically unorthodox or doctrinally unsound.  Or, their experiences are so meaningful that they keep them from their pastors for fear that their well-intentioned, spiritual leaders might dogmatically explain away an experience that is deeply meaningful.

The experience becomes their special secret, confirming that God can do infinitely more than we could ever imagine.

This begs the question: how might a doctrinally-sound pastor respond to this woman’s story about her dream? The conversation could go like this:

“Your dream is interesting. Dreams are strange things, aren’t they?  Who can understand them?  Your husband is in heaven with Christ, assured of his victory over death through the resurrection of Christ. The resurrection is your assurance that your beloved is alive in Christ.  Don’t fixate on the dream.  Fixate instead on the objective word.  That is your assurance.”

Of course this is true. Indeed it is the word of God that informs the cultural and psychic context that makes that dream even possible for this woman.  The image of the church, oneness in Christ with her husband, and the joy of working in the church that has been the anchor of their lives were all prompted by the Word.  The dream is her subjective expression of what she knows objectively through the Word.

But could this conversation from a pastor rob her of her experience?

These subjective, mystical experiences happen more often than we pastors think, and here is the rub…

We pride ourselves in making everything nice and objective so that we can control it.

We are quite adept at handling the objective reality.  That’s our currency in traditional churches.  At the same time, however, our subjective experiences have no context in traditional churches. We concede this subjective sphere of our lives to late night dinners, demons, and two-bit pandering psychics because we are uncomfortable with the spiritual and mystical experiences that may arise from the subjective realm.

I shall never forget what happened during a retreat I conducted at a Southern California abbey for members of my church. I had just finished doing a Lectio Divina exercise with the retreatants.  Afterwards, I invited them to share what God conveyed to each of them in this spiritual exercise.  A young man commented on what he had experienced.  He said he saw the sun, bright and warm.  As he gazed on its brilliance, a dove emerged from the sun, descended and landed on him. The symbolism was obvious, informed by the John 1:4 text on which we had just meditated, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.”

It was a powerful experience for him and the other retreatants concurred.

However, later that evening, an avalanche of thoughts that discredited the experience hit the young man.  He got the impression that he was doing something illicit by entertaining such a vision.  It was as if he had betrayed his allegiance to the objective word of God.  His culture and tradition had failed him—not being broad enough to accommodate this type of spiritual experience. He felt vulnerable by stepping outside the box in the manner in which he did.

I consoled him by encouraging him to rethink his reaction. I helped him to understand that his experience was not a threat, but instead a place of inspiration. It was the place of art and creativity.  We would not have Bach’s cantatas without such a place of inspiration.  The visual art that inspires us and heightens our devotion to Christ comes from the heart, that very same place of subjectivity.

Why do we fear this kind of mystical experience?

Photo courtesy of atbowles.com

Photo courtesy of patbowles.com

We are adept at dealing with what we believe is the objectivity of our religion, namely Word and Sacraments; but we are less adept at dealing with the subjectivity of it, namely the spiritual center, which invites us to learn the language and the movements of the heart in addition to the head.

We fear the heart and don’t trust it; we believe that it is woefully corrupt according to Jeremiah.  Yet, the heart, the center of the subjective sphere, is where we, together with the Holy Spirit, wage battle against the concupiscence (proclivity to evil) that remains in the heart subsequent to Baptism. The daily dying to this proclivity through repentance initiates spiritual movements of the Spirit in the heart, which create beauty that informs worship and devotion to God.

We must be OK with dealing with the heart and its stirrings; we must be OK with the subjectivity of the heart, indeed the unique way that God communicates to us in peace, love and joy, the very contours of beauty.

When you engage in spiritual practices like contemplation that silent your inner self-dialogue and other people’s dialogues in your head, you make room for God to expand your experience of reality.  One of the benefits of contemplation is that you begin to pay attention to the life around you, which you are all too prone to ignore when you are only in your head.  By spending too much time in our heads and being beset by a multitude of thoughts, we miss out on life; we fail to see its deeper connections.

As your restless mental activity is gradually silenced through the practice of contemplation, you are empowered to see more.  The universe comes to life.  You can appreciate beauty in all its manifestations.


Synchronicity is the ability to meaningfully connect unrelated events, people and things. It breaks down barriers, it stirs things up—it wakes you out of your “dogmatic slumber.”

Photo courtesy of http://starrystez.com

Photo courtesy of http://starrystez.com

The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875 – 1961) proffered the concept of synchronicity as a worldview to account for both the linear causality of the mechanistic world and the non-linear, non-causal world of meaning.  According to Jung, things can be causally connected; however, they can also be meaningfully connected.  Coupling Jung’s concepts with Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum psychics, synchronicity opens up the universe, making it come to life, making it a mysterious place that throws into doubt ironclad religious and scientific dogma.

Synchronicity gives you a glimpse into the world outside space and time, whose currency is meaning. It is in this resultant synchronicity that the causal world and non-causal world interlock and interpenetrate each other.

Synchronicity is best experienced and not talked about.  You know it when you see it.  Who hasn’t had the experience of thinking of someone and a moment later, that very person calls you on the phone.  Or, perhaps you had a dream that you forgot about in the morning that you remembered at the right time later on in the day.  At just the right moment, the dream gave you enlightenment about a situation that you were dealing with, yielding an “aha moment.” These experiences have a way of opening you up to other possibilities, breaking you out of the mechanistic linear world of cause and effect, from which vantage point we think that we might somehow control life.

Howard Thurman, the spiritual and theological mentor of Dr. Martin Luther King, relates the story of his ardent desire to attend college as a boy.  In the early 20th century, his impoverished African-American family could not afford such a luxury, as indeed most Americans couldn’t in those days.  To cover their shame of being poor, his family tried to steer him in another direction.  But he could not be deterred.  He decided to apply to Morehouse College upon graduation from high school. When he boarded that bus from his home in Florida bound for Atlanta, he had no idea how he would pay for a college education.

When he arrived on campus, surprisingly Thurman discovered that his tuition, room, board and all fees were paid in full.  His poor circumstances, his desire to attend college and the provision of the money were not accidently connected; they synchronistically became deeply and meaningfully related in Thurman’s mind and heart.

Meaning can be a powerful nexus among people, things and events. There need not be an explanation in terms of cause and effect…

Photo courtesy of beautiful.coolphotos.in

Photo courtesy of beautiful.coolphotos.in

Another Member’s Experience

I have a member of my congregation who lost her father when she was 5 years old, a vulnerable age.  She told me about an experience she recently had while watching a TV program about a woman who also had lost her father as a small child.  The woman spoke of the impact of not being raised with a father, how it skewed her perspective on men.  Strongly identifying with the woman’s story, my member was touched deeply; she couldn’t take her eyes off the TV.

All of a sudden, the TV turned off.  Even though it was a still and warm spring evening, a small gale of wind blew through her opened sliding door, and she felt it on her face.  Attached to her patio cover, there was a wind chime with a central clapper surrounded by five elongated chimes.  Rather than the usual way a wind chime rings, the capricious gale wind did not ring all five chimes randomly.  Instead, only one chime tone rang distinctively and repeatedly for several moments.

The cutting off of the TV, the small gale wind, and the repeated ringing of one chime tone were not causally related.  As she told the story to me, my member was able to give value and meaning to the experience by relating the circumstances to each other as a single orchestrated, synchronistic event.

She was able to recognize and appreciate the spiritual synchronicity present in her experience.

A disciplined practice in contemplation teaches you to appreciate both the causal world and the world of meaning by teaching you to live and rest in both by conditioning you to be fully open and available to both.  No dualism!

You learn to negotiate in the world of cause and effect and yet be open to the mystery of the world of meaning, which is foundational to beauty.

Your eyes get opened, and you see more connections in the schema where the spiritual world interpenetrates the material one.

In short, you achieve a spiritual synchronicity, and the vehicle that enables you to create meaning is the Holy Spirit.  You learn that what may seem like a set of random events instead becomes related meaningfully to you through the Holy Spirit.

On the first Pentecost after Easter, an outsider looking at the group of 120 disciples of Jesus in prayer would have felt the wind, seen the tongues of fire and the subsequent ecstasy, empowerment and boldness of that motley group of illiterate Galileans. However, without the Holy Spirit, the disinterested outsider would not have been able to meaningfully connect that random set of events as the profound transformation of Jesus’ disciples that would alter their tragedy-laden consciousness and empower them to change the course of human history.

The Holy Spirit meaningfully connects seemingly random events that are non-causally related, thereby luring us to be in conformity with Christ. Authentic spiritual experiences are made so by the Holy Spirit.

If a spiritual experience opens you up more to Christ and you become like him in a life informed by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, then that experience was tailor-made for you.  Who am I to dogmatically argue away such an experience that is deeply meaningful to you?

One of the many fruits of contemplation is that you give up the desire to argue and fight, insisting that things must go your way.  You come to see that God has the whole universe with which to communicate to humanity.  And, in God’s time, God can be most convincing.

The Spirit gives you eyes to synchronistically see.  Be open and ready to receive.

Pastor Tim in the sanctuary at St. Luke Lutheran Church

Pastor Tim in the sanctuary at St. Luke Lutheran Church


“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.

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


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.