Oct 24 2011

{Day 24} The Contemplative Body, Part 1

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly. –Matthew 11:28-30

A battle has been waged through the centuries, a battle that could be simplistically described as spirit vs body, or body vs spirit.  It’s manifested in many different ways. Either the body is seen as the source of evil, from which the spirit must be freed, or the body is indulged to the starvation of the spirit. Either approach is a merciless and death-dealing way of living.

An early sect, the Gnostics, believed that the divine and the material worlds were in opposition. A small spark of spirit existed in each person and needed to be freed from the evil of the body. Christianity ingested to varying degrees their antagonism toward physical existence.

The important point to remember is that the belief of the early Christians was fundamentally different from much of the philosophies and religious practices around them because they believed that God had not only been revealed in Jesus Christ, but that God had taken on our soma, Greek for physical body: God and human, two natures, inseparable, but distinct.

The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.  We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, generous inside and out, true from start to finish. –John 1:14 MSG

Jesus’ resurrection was viewed not simply as a resurrection of the spirit–the early Christians were already surrounded with Greek philosophies and other religions that promised such an existence–but a redemption and resurrection of both spirit and body.

Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15:44, uses a wonderful, mysterious term to describe this new way of being: soma pnematikos, or a physical body full of spirit. God’s redeeming of the unique beauty of the human person in his or her embodiment was an extremely important part of the good news of Jesus’ coming. This is one of the reasons the early church was fraught with so many discussions and arguments about the nature of Jesus–who Jesus is makes a difference to the hope of his followers.

As a side note, some of the confusion in English translations of scripture comes from the translation of the Greek term, sarx, as flesh. For Paul, this was not the same as soma, or physical existence in itself, but the predilection of death-dealing behavior in humanity.

The incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, taken together means something important for the human body. God did not consider the stuff of the human body as evil. The human body is an important component of humanity that, redeemed, would be in some new and wonderful way, a participant in eternal life with God.

What does this mean for our discussion of contemplative living?

In the pursuit of a life paying attention to the present moment and to God’s presence in that moment, the body will always be an important partner. We began this month simply using our senses to listen and focus.  But so far the focus has been external, now I would like for us to turn our contemplative attention toward the body.

For those of us with experience of chronic illness, practicing contemplative awareness of the body is a fact of life. For many years, I’ve experienced migraines brought on by certain foods. To have such a clear cause and effect, such as “eating cheddar will cause a migraine,” is helpful. I don’t wish to be in pain and have impaired function, so I avoid cheddar. Many of you may already have this awareness of cause and effect.

The challenge is that it is often not that simple. We may be unaware of what is helpful or unhelpful for our bodies; or we know, but don’t believe we can do anything about it; or we think, I can’t stop, even though I know the consequences.

We’ll take on the first part of the challenge today.

Paying attention to healthful and unhealthful habits of living is the point where contemplative, present moment awareness is put into service of the larger, longer view. This practice is not fueled by guilt or “should,” but is the joyful exploration of abundant life in Christ.

We are not simply locked into the moment. Christ is with us in the present, but is calling us to a glorious finish. We have a goal, what the early Christians called the telos.

Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we, an imperishable one. Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing.  No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified. –1 Corinthians 9: 24-27

We are running a race. Paying attention to what helps us run well is critical.

On the other hand, I know that even the thought of running can make some of us want to go back to bed and pull the covers over our head, so as you practice this week, remember Jesus’ words of invitation:

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly. –Matthew 11:28-30

Practice: Imagine that you are partnering with the Holy Spirit to create a “user’s manual” for the incredibly unique image of God that you are. Pay attention to your body this week as you go about your schedule. Take some notes. I find it very helpful to use a monthly calendar with big squares to keep a record. It helps reveal patterns at a glance.

When are you tired? When do you have energy?

When do you feel numbed out? When do you feel restless?

What are frequent pains or discomforts?

What do you eat? How is your sleep?

What is your sense of well-being or ill-being?

What feeds your sense of God’s presence? What supports you in loving those around you? What invigorates creativity? What invigorates prayer and thankfulness?

No need to make any changes, but look for cause and effect relationships.  Bring what you are noticing into your conversation with God.



Jul 30 2011

Creating Space for Beauty

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I’ve found that experiencing beauty as a regular part of my day requires cultivating a welcoming space: physical space, such as having a special area to display something I find beautiful or art supplies at the ready for creating; space in my schedule to intentionally notice beauty, such as walking to a look-out, taking my camera on an urban hike, hand writing a letter, or sharing a meal and seeing the beauty of a friend; and mental space, where I release behaviors and thoughts which clutter my head and blind my eyes to joy, and instead look at life with a gaze of gratitude.

When I invest energy in looking with a grateful eye on all that is beautiful, small things and experiences especially, it balances me and helps me see life as a whole, not just what is painful or difficult in the moment.

When I intentionally cultivate space for daily beauty, I find that any energy invested multiplies exponentially. Beauty is nourished by beauty.

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Awhile ago, I wrote about seeing a lovely cottage and garden near my apartment, and how sad I was, knowing that owning such a place is many years down the road. After pouring out my desire to God, it became clear that I had a choice: live in sadness and scarcity, looking longingly toward a future dream, or make space to be inspired by the real beauty of that garden and to cultivate a similar beauty in my own life.

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Making space for beauty, or really anything, is difficult if we keep a death grip on one vision or image of what must fill the space.

Instead, if we clear the space and then let beauty breathe into it (in-spire it), what fits our particular life and situation can grow organically.

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We make space for the possibility of beauty. Rather than making demands, we invite, welcome, practice hospitality.

For me, after seeing the cottage garden, inviting beauty meant taking time to clean up my balcony and simply sit, allowing a vision of beauty for that space to superimpose itself on reality.

Clearing mental space helped me feel: my hands were itching to get into dirt and to nurture growing life. I realized I didn’t want a ready-made garden, but to start from scratch.

Then, after planting the seeds, patience was necessary to nurture the space, as I waited weeks for any sign of life and then more weeks until flowers bloomed.

Now, when I look out on my balcony, I see the beauty of that cottage garden, but in a form perfect for my situation. The bees buzz, butterflies flutter, and hummingbirds greet me in the morning. A bit of Eden, four storeys up.

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Gardens are all through scripture, places of growth and healing.  A garden at the beginning when all things were new, the garden of Gethesmane when tears flowed and angels soothed, a garden for the tomb when the world held its breath. Even for the resurrection, in the garden, Jesus greeted is beloved friend, and what could happen but, “She thought he was the gardener.”  So true.

And finally, finally, the end and a new beginning: a Garden around a Tree in center of the Beautiful City.

That final glorious Day will come, but the greening, growing beauty of that Day can in-spire our days now.

Clear some space, welcome Beauty, wait and see.

What is a beauty that captures your heart?

This week, clear some space, in your physical surroundings, in your schedule, and in your thoughts for this beauty to find a home.

No need to fill the space, just let it breathe.

What vision reveals itself?

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Feb 2 2010

Blessing Light: Candlemas

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My two favorite feast days of the liturgical year are not big name celebrations.

Certainly, I get goosebumps hearing the first strains of “O come, O come Immanuel” or “Let all Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” each Advent.  Knowing that the palm branches so green the year before become cross-shaped soot smudged on my brow never ceases to quiet me, dust to dust.  And in turn, I wave those palms and wash feet and listen in morning darkness to the story of salvation across the centuries, and wear red for tongues of flame and gifts poured out.

All great and important days.

Yet two less known, not widely celebrated feasts fill me with simple, smiling delight.  The first is sometime around October 4th, St Francis Day.  All the animals get to come to church for a blessing.  Hamsters, cats, dogs, rabbits, birds. Or in rural areas… sheep, horses, chickens, goats, the whole peaceable kingdom come to worship.

“Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds.  Your righteousness is like the might mountains, your judgments are like the great deep; you save humans and animals alike, O Lord.” Psalm 36:5-6

My other favorite day is…today.  Known by a number of names, Candlemas, or the Presentation, remembers Mary and Joseph bringing Jesus to the Temple to be offered in service to the Lord as a first-born son.  In Luke’s Gospel, the family is met by Simeon and Anna, who have both longed to see the Messiah:

“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss  your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.” Luke 2:29-32

In more liturgical churches, Candlemas is when all the candles set-aside for the coming year’s worship are blessed.  At St James Cathedral, Seattle, this is taken seriously: hundreds of creamy beeswax candles are stacked around the baptismal font, enfolding worshippers in their delicious honey fragrance. My mouth waters with the memory.

Although I’m no longer part of a community that celebrates Candlemas, today I light my morning candles with a prayer, honoring the Light which was foretold, birthed in the stable, held to Mary’s breast, blessed by Simeon and Anna, and presented to God in the Temple. Hope. Life. Love.

“The Word was first, the Word present to God, God present to the Word.  The Word was God, in readiness for God from day one. Everything was created through him; nothing—not one thing!— came into being without him. What came into existence was Life, and the Life was Light to live by. The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness; the darkness couldn’t put it out.” John 1:1-5


Dec 25 2009

Welcome Little Child

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From a Christmas sermon by St John Chrysostom (349-407 AD):

“What shall I say! And how shall I describe this Birth to you? For this wonder fills me with astonishment. The Ancient of days has become an infant. God Who sits upon the sublime and heavenly Throne, now lies in a manger…

For this God assumed my body, that I may become capable of God’s Word; taking my flesh, God gives me his spirit; and so God bestowing and I receiving, God prepares for me the treasure of Life…I take my part, not plucking the harp nor with the music of the pipes nor holding a torch, but holding in my arms the cradle of Christ!

For this is all my hope! This is my life! This is my salvation! This is my pipe, my harp! And bearing it I come, and having from its power received the gift of speech, I too, with the angels and shepherds, sing:

Glory to God in the Highest! and on earth peace to all of good will!”


Dec 8 2009

Salty Speech

Good Morning

Good Morning

I often wish I knew how to respond with life-giving and healing words, so as I read through Colossians the past two days, Colossians 4:6 jumped out at me. During lectio divina, a key moment is when a word or a phrase seems to come off the page and my own heart answers with a little flutter, “Yes, I want to know more.”

Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone.

The English translation is curious, because the direct suggestion “Let your speech…” seems to be followed by an effect, “so that you…”  This didn’t make sense to me—how could I practice a certain kind of speech that would in turn provide knowledge about how to speak?  But looking at the Greek, I realized that I was interpreting “gracious” as a human quality,  akin to cordial or courteous, or hospitable. These are good qualities for conversing, yet knowing how to practice them appropriately in a given situation is tricky.  

Gracious in this context is actually grace, or charis–a divine influence upon the heart.  For me, grace is not an obligation, or something earned, or a gold star for good behavior, but the gift of God’s own presence saying, “I love you.”

The text suggests that the first step of speaking is my heart listening to God’s love for me and for the person with whom I am conversing; that speech flowing out of conversation with God, flowing out of a heart itself salted by God’s “I love you,” will be life-giving and tasty.

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