walk through the sea


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What God is Like & Jesus’ Logos

Just recently I started going through Brian McClaren’s book, We Make the Road by Walking, with a few friends. It’s a weekly study that McClaren describes more or less as an introduction to the faith that he wishes he’d had.  I think if I had read it a few years ago, around the time I started this blog, I would have gotten even more out of it, but I am grateful for the things he’s mentioned so far.

We just completed the third week, and the message was about patterns and ideologies that shape our lives and comparing them to the pattern of living and ideology that God presents to us through Jesus.  The more I think about this, the more I am grateful for its practical reminder that Jesus not only reveals the heart of God to us, but he reveals a kind of life that God wants us to live. Ideology and pattern of living are both excellent things to look for while reading the Gospels, but I think the real thing to look for is how God reveals himself–his character, his desires, his heart–through Jesus. That said, I thought it would be useful to list different ideas that make up the pattern of living/ideology revealed in the four different accounts of Jesus’ life story. I am too lazy to look up each of these by scripture referencee. This is just a list from the top of my head:

Philosophical, more cerebral concepts and ideas include:

  1. The first shall be last and the last shall be first.
  2. The truth will set us free.
  3. It’s God’s great pleasure to give us the kingdom.
  4. The Kingdom of God is at hand.
  5. Store up “treasures in heaven” rather than temporary ones on earth.
  6. Don’t be afraid.
  7. Live openly.
  8. Stay true.
  9. Forgive others, again and again and again. Be in a constant state of forgiveness.

Maybe more tangible, “down to earth” examples of Jesus’ pattern of living include:

  1. The “least of these” matter to God.
  2. We should look inward before we judge others.
  3. We should keep from being angry at other individuals or lusting after them.
  4. We should be simple in our responses: “Let your yes be yes and your no be no.”
  5. Reward comes by sacrifice.
  6. Resist trying to get attention, especially from powerful people.
  7. Take the “lowest seat” and wait for someone to call us up to the higher ones.
  8. Live generously; give more than people ask for.
  9. Resist worrying about material things.
  10. Expect trial and tribulation.
  11. Feed the hungry and give water to the thirsty.
  12. We should open ourselves up to being around people who make us uncomfortable.
  13. Turn the other cheek.
  14. Love enemies/pray for persecutors.
  15. God wants to heal us.
  16. God wants us to know that he is generous and loving.
  17. God wants to take care of us.
  18. God wants us to take care of each other.
  19. Loving other people is how we reveal God to the world.
  20. Be careful that we don’t try to exclude people from God’s message because they are sinners or children or “less than.”
  21. Keep an eye out for the rejected and the oppressed.
  22. Seek God constantly.
  23. Expect great things from God.

Each chapter in McClaren’s book concludes with a list of questions, and I especially liked the question from the last chapter where he asks, “How would your life change if you lived by Jesus’ pattern or logos?”

I know from experience that there is a lightness when we “let go of our lives,” entrusting them to God, and trusting him with decisions.  I think if I was able to adopt Jesus’ way of life, I would be less attached to material things, more interested in the people around me, and more centered.  I would be more generous because I would see that money and the things it can buy don’t last, but they can be means to building lasting, healthy relationships with others. Lastly, I would have more confidence that the things I worry about can’t destroy me, and that ultimately, God wants good things for me even if those things aren’t part of my present situation.


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Exhausted After the Internet War with World Vision

 

This whole World Vision fiasco has served only to remind me and a lot of us that for the Christian Evangelical community, ideas are more important than people.

One of my favorite Jesus lines is Matthew 9:13: But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.

Any time we decide we are righteous enough to exclude another person, regardless of what sin we think they are committing, we are missing the call of Jesus.  The more I read Jesus’s teaching, the more I understand that it is not our responsibility to convince other people that they are sinners.  It is our responsibility to repent of our own sin.  The gospel is not a witch hunt, but an invitation to live in the Kingdom of God, where the rule is “mercy over sacrifice.”

Or put another way: “People over ideas.”

Feel free to argue with me about this, but I think I am too exhausted to argue back.

Luckily, the Jesus I serve also says, “Come to me, all you who are weak and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

He also says, “Peace I give yo you–not as the world gives.”

I think we could all use some of that right now.

My prayer is that we will be able to let God transform us inwardly, so that we can be more loving and reflective of Jesus, and that God will somehow resurrect the Body after this terrible week so that we can be more compassionate, embrace more kinds of people into our midst, and have a clearer sense of God’s mercy.

 


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Showing Up

This is the third part of a series of posts I’m writing about Contemplative Prayer via Thomas Keating.

Sometimes I hear Christians describe experiences with the phrase “God showed up.” This means something great happened. It means that the person describing the experience got a glimpse of the Kingdom, of something bigger and more important than what they’re used to recognizing.

I know what they mean, but I’m not sure about that choice of words.  I think what really happens in those moments is that we show up.  We go to some spiritual event looking for God and surprise! There’s God. The truth is, God was also in the car on the way to this spiritual event, and in the moments before that.

From what I’m understanding about Keating’s book, contemplative prayer is a practice of God’s presence (Brother Lawrence, holla). The more time I spend with his ideas, the more I start to consider that the process isn’t just deepening my relationship with God–this is my relationship with God.  It’s the practice of showing up. It’s clearing out distractions so I can pay attention to what God is saying to me. It’s putting away the computer or the cell phone during the time I spend with God.

I think most of us in our culture know what it’s like to spend time with someone who is distracted by a smart phone. That’s pretty much what my relationship with God is most of the time.  I read and listen to a lot about what other people write say about God, but this is not the same as spending time with God (no more than my reading your blog or Facebook profile is spending time with you).  I was raised to believe that spending time with the Bible was the same as spending time with God.  It’s not. Well, not exclusively.

Any time I listen to a sermon, listen to a friend talk about God, or read the Bible, I am taking in that information through the filter of my own thoughts.  Contemplative prayer helps me recognize what that filter is like.  It helps me recognize the thoughts that leave smudges on the filter, and it helps me recognize where the filter is really sparkling clear.

Each time I quiet my thoughts and listen, I remind myself that there is more to me than what I think about me and more about the world than what I think about the world.

It’s weird, and it is something the New Agers have discovered outside of the church, but it is not a truth invented by the New Agers. It’s more like a truth rediscovered.  Contemplative prayer teaches us to “let go and let God,” as some bumper sticker/t-shirt somewhere says.  We are letting go of distractions, letting go of misperceptions we have about ourselves and about other people.  In doing so, we’re “showing up.”

I don’t hear earth shattering wisdom every time I shut off my thoughts during a contemplative prayer session. That’s not the point. The point is to show up.  In showing up, I am surrendering to God.  I can open the Bible with a quieted mind.  I can experience a calmer drive to work.  I can walk into the office alert, knowing that God is there, but so are other people, which means I have an opportunity to reveal a bit of God to someone else.

 


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Contemplative Prayer (II): Interior Transformation

In Keating’s introduction to his book, Open Heart, Open Mind, he describes how this practice of contemplative prayer makes space for “interior transformation.” In order to let God change us internally, we have to open up internally to him.  Part of that means stepping back and examining our thoughts. The process can be scary and uncomfortable.

Keating also mentions a few times that contemplative prayer is not the same as meditation.  This is the part of the practice that is the hardest for me, I think, because when I do it I sort of fall back into my meditation habits, for instance, labeling my thoughts as “thinking,” and then making it my goal to just clear my mind and relax.  The purpose of the time “behind the closed door” of contemplative prayer is not meant to simply help us relax.  Relaxing will happen, but the intention, the purpose, is different. We are cultivating a relationship with God. We are telling God we are here and listening.  Then we have faith that no matter how God responds to this, He will respond in a way that aligns with his character (generous, loving, kind, peaceful, etc).

Cultivating a relationship with God by way of internal transformation makes sense when revisiting the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-8).  Jesus, again and again, redirects our attention inwards. One thing my pastor has emphasized lately   is that rather than Jesus presenting the Sermon on the Mount as an unattainable goal, Jesus is actually inviting us to live a life in effort to attain it.  In effort. It takes effort. Prayer seems to be at the center of this effort. (It’s not a coincidence that I first heard of Keating’s book from this pastor, and then soon after, his sister).

The fact that Jesus wants us to try and live the Sermon on the Mount is kind of hard to accept when you’ve been raised on the total depravity narrative. But yesterday I visited a great Presbyterian church in town, one that is quite Calvinist but also quite dedicated to service.  I saw there that Calvinism still made room for this possibility of inner-transformation–by emphasizing “grace.”  Grace is God’s invitation for us to join with him in a transformative life. Contemplative prayer is putting this transformative life into action.

(In other words, protestants can still enthusiastically embrace this contemplative prayer stuff…)

Inner transformation is not something that I automatically embrace in my Christian life.  One thing this process is doing for me is helping me recognize how much I expect my life with God to be one of external transformation.  I want God to bring me the man/job/publishing contract of my dreams so I can stop worrying about loneliness or money.  I want God to make everyone around me nicer so that I can have an easier time being nice.  I want God to give me the perfect church with great teaching around the calendar so that I don’t have to search for a good word. Etc.

Read Jesus’s teachings closely and this inner-transformation deal starts to make more sense.

 

 


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Meditation and Contemplative Prayer

I wrote about a spiritual retreat a few weeks back and one of the things that I took from those two days was a book recommendation: Open Mind, Open Heart by Thomas Keating. It’s more or less an instruction manual arguing for contemplative prayer as a crucial part of the spiritual life. So far, the book registers with me in such a way that it seems everything in my spiritual life has been leading up to my reading it.  I plan to record my reflections on this blog.  This may be the first in a long series of reflective posts on this book and on contemplative prayer.

Thanks, Buddhists

I first encountered the idea that we are more than our thoughts, or that we have the ability to control what we think, when I lived in Bangkok (2006-2008).  This was the first time I had been exposed to Buddhism on such a large scale. I noticed a huge difference in the energy of the place compared to my experience in Detroit (where I’d lived, which, having lived in several other places now, I can with some authority call a place of acute tension).  Now, Thailand is a human place, and the Thais do have a certain amount of political tension these days, but I’m mostly just talking about daily interactions. Mundane behavior. People reacted to each other differently, in general. For instance, though traffic was terrible, drivers didn’t yell or make gestures when other drivers cut them off.  When my father and brother visited, we got in a car accident on the highway during a taxi ride and all three of us remarked at how chill the drivers were when dealing with the details.

I noticed other practices too–my Thai friends interacted with time differently. They weren’t as aware of what time it was. They weren’t counting down constantly–ten minutes left of this movie, thirty minutes left of this taxi ride, and, as far as a I could tell, there was no “1.35 hours left on this work day…” In fact, I remember we had to have an office meeting about overtime because everyone kept forgetting to punch in and out of the time clock when they stayed late at work.

Two of my best friends there were practicing Buddhists (not just cultural Buddhists), and they answered questions I had about the religion.  This is how I learned how to meditate:

I was sitting on the bus, on a very long bus trip across the city, and I asked my friend what she was thinking about. “I’m not thinking,” she said. I didn’t know how this was possible but it turns out that she was meditating.  She’d shut off her thoughts. She gave me some tools about how to meditate and they surprised me in their simplicity: count your steps while you’re walking. Count your breaths. That’s it.The basics of it anyway.

I started incorporating these kinds of meditations into my own life and, when I remember to do them, I still notice a difference about how I react to my life. I am more aware of my surroundings when I meditate. I feel replenished, spiritually, after shutting off my thoughts.  I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about things that are harmful to me.

Lately I have been distracted by life’s tasks, I suppose, and the future, and all of my jobs, and so I think it was pretty good timing when I got this book recommendation. It takes what I know about meditation from Thailand (and then further readings by champions Buddhism-for-Westerners literature: Pema Chondron and Thich Nhat Hanh) and connects it to the Christian tradition that I align myself with.

Because here’s the thing.  Here is a slice of my spiritual journey: I returned from Thailand crazy about God but not sure if I was a Christian.  Life happened and I found myself having to choose between Jesus–specifically Jesus–or a spiritual life without Jesus and I chose Jesus (and lost a lot of my life). Now I have this Jesus thing but I also have Buddhism and meditation and a spiritual life that incorporates those principles.

Thanks, Keating (and Christian Contemplatives)

I read a lot of Thomas Merton, who also connects Jesus with meditation, but Keating does it a bit less philosophically.  In fact, I suspect that I’ll be able understand Merton a lot better after I get through Keating’s book.

In the introduction, he explains that contemplative prayer is a method of prayer based on Jesus’s instructions to go into a room and close the door when we pray. Keating turns this into a spiritual practice, which he defines as “A process of interior transformation, a conversation initiated by God and leading, if we consent, to divine union” (1).  There is so much me in this, you don’t even know.  Over the years “conversation” and “transformation” have become really important ideas in my faith.  Also, “process.” Yes.

Keating then relates the “method” (I love this word too … ) to Jesus’s command that when we pray, we go in a room and shut the door:

1. Leaving behind external tumult, the environment we may be in, and the concerns of the moment by entering our inner room, the spiritual level of our being, the level of intuition, and the spiritual will.

2.Closing the door, that is, shutting out and turning off the exterior conversation we normally have with ourselves all day long as we judge, evaluate, and react to people and events entering and leaving our lives.

I have so much more to say but no time this morning to say it. So, until next time…


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Other People’s Mail

When I was in college, maybe younger,  I tried to read the whole Bible and then freaked out. It was probably about the Law, which requires a lot of throwing rocks and various folks until they die in front of everybody, but who knows.  Maybe it was the fact that Lot said,”Hey rapists, want my daughters?”

It was probably that. I probably didn’t even make it to the Law.

So then I was asking questions and somebody, who we considered a source of wisdom in the community where I grew up, this person (who I still love) said: Stop reading other people’s mail.

Brian McLaren puts it this way:

We build theologies of forced naiveté, celebrating passages that comfort us and explaining away or ignoring what bothers us.

(Naked Spirituality, 174)

This really resonated with me, as did the rest of his chapter on the “Why?” portion of the perplexity phase in the spiritual life.  He says that we build these theologies that avoid and deny the tough parts of life, so that when we actually get to a tough part of life, we have no idea how to handle it.

That’s exactly what I did. I ignored the tough parts of the Bible because they were “other people’s mail,” and not directed at me.  (I now notice nobody said this of Paul’s letters, which are literally other people’s mail.) When life happened, I had no muscles to wrestle it.  I had no backbone. I had no sense that part of our faith means entering into space with what bothers us, and just existing there for a while.

A pastor at my church has been really big on encouraging people to read the Bible as a narrative that we fit into.  It’s not about who the Bible is for.  Who is any piece of writing for?  If I’m reading it, I’m engaging in it; it’s for me in that moment.

That said, it’s always good, when reading, to think about the intended audience. That definitely adds insight to passages.  It also helps us make sense of commands to wear head coverings or give holy kisses.

One of my favorite Biblical ideas is when God tells Isaiah, “My thoughts are not your thoughts.”  God doesn’t draw conclusions the way we draw conclusions.  How could he? He has a way broader perspective on things.

My best friend back home put it very well in her  reflection on Milton, when she said,

I’m wary of those who have it all figured out, and who approach each story in it as proof of an end they have already determined.

Yes.

In 2013, after a decade and a half of dismissing parts of the Bible as other people’s mail, I finally pulled the bar down over my shoulders on the thrill ride and read the whole shabang in a year.  All of it. Even Judges, which is like the HBO’s ROME of the Bible. In the first chapter of Judges, Israel captures this king and cuts off his big toes and thumbs. His reaction: “That makes sense. I had it coming to me.” I love that story so much because it is crazy and it is in the Bible. I like knowing crazy stuff that doesn’t make sense is in the Bible because guess what? My life sometimes involves crazy stuff that doesn’t make sense.

I can sort of chart out my relationship with the Bible as this:

Phase 1) God’s  message to people who are not me, and then his message to me.

Phase 2) An anthology of a nation’s writings about their relationship with God over thousands of years.

Phase 3) A narrative about the God’s relationship with humans that I fit into because I am a human.

Maybe more phases are coming, but the third phase is a great place to be right now.  I am able to grapple safely with the passages that anger me, all the while remembering the big picture: God made humans because he wanted to love them and give them life.  Humans chose sin and death over love and life. God did not let death have the final word. He has a mission for restoring us and restoring the world and he wants us to be a part of it.

This narrative is living and active, and can’t be “all figured out,” and then dismissed.  It prods our growth.  It hurts sometimes.  Sometimes it feels like Living Water. Sometimes it feels like poison we must drink so we can be resurrected with Living Water.

This is a story God continues to tell in our lives, generation after generation, and it is a beautiful story.


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SPIRITUAL WINTER

I live in North Florida, so I don’t really have winter anymore. But I grew up in Detroit and lived in Ohio, which I hope has earned me street (or snow) cred on this topic.  There is a lot of wisdom to be garnered through winter survival.  From my experience, March is the worst month because it’s when winter never seems like it’s going to end.  February sucks, but March is unbearable. March is like life: some warm days, but when it snows again, it feels like the world is never going to improve, not ever.

Okay, so I’m writing for a friend again. A different friend than last time. She’s living in South Florida but going through what I would call a “spiritual winter.”  It’s a time of doubt. Brian McLaren would call it a time of “perplexity”.* She’s waiting for life to turn a page, for things to get better because right now they are cold and horrible.  As I responded to her thoughts through an email, I got to reflect a bit on my own reaction to the spiritual winters that I’ve endured. I think I am more in a spiritual spring these days (spring with a cold and rainy day here and there), but my latest spiritual winter is close enough behind me that I can still some patches of snow on the ground.

I would define a spiritual winter as a time when everything with God is more complicated, a time when I have more questions than answers, and a time when I’m more prone to depression.

During literal winter:

1. It gets cold, which means we have to bundle up more or we’ll freeze to death.
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2. There are less colors; the sky is mostly gray so it’s depressing.  To get through literal real winter, I had to buy fresh flowers, put out more colorful tablecloths, listen to more upbeat music or I would turn into a dead person.
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3. It snows, which slows everything down.  It takes twice as long to get anywhere. We have to clean the car off, warm it up before we can pull out of the driveway, and we can’t drive as fast or we will crash and spin and possibly fall into a ditch.
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I’ve had some spiritual winters (2001-2004 and one I’m getting out of now 2008-2013.).  I can look back at them now as times when I learned a lot, and times when not everything was bad, actually, I had a lot of happy times in those winters.  But I did have to deal with a lot of cold and snow.  This translates to becoming more aware of the sorts of thoughts that “work” and the thoughts that “don’t work,” which come through a lot of reflection.  Spiritually, dealing with winter looked like this for me:
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1. Bundling up
Surrounding myself with things that warm me up, avoiding things that made me feel cold. I had to eat less ice cream in the winter, or if I did eat ice cream, I had to eat it by a heater.  Ice cream might be the equivalent to anything that could potentially lower my self esteem or make me feel worse about myself if I had too much of it.  I had to be extra careful about who I talked to during winter because depression was always a thought and a half away. I had to learn how to devote my time to things that were good for me.  I didn’t always do this, of course. I bundled up by going through the Artist’s Way, attending a good bible study and church, listening to sermons online, playing music, eating better, etc.
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2. Add color
This translates to working on my perspective via listening to inspirational sermons online, reading good books, getting fellowship.  If the world wasn’t giving me things to delight in, I had to go out and find things.
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3. Deal with the Snow
For me, this meant taking time out to journal, meditate, pray.  It meant slowing down.  I didn’t always slow down and I crashed a helluva lot during my winters, but when I was aware of the snow, I did a lot better.

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*Mars Hill Church in West Michigan is going through McLaren’s book as a sermon series. I recommend the series and the book. This week’s sermon contributed a lot to my thinking about L’s situation as a seasonal thing.