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.



Oct 21 2011

{Day 21} Friday Florilegium

In honor of hearing Eugene Peterson speak at Seattle Pacific University Thursday evening, today’s florilegium quote is from his book, The Contemplative Pastor:

What does it mean to be a pastor? If no one asked me to do anything, what would I do?…

I can be a pastor who prays. I want to cultivate my relationship with God. I want all life to be intimate–sometimes consciously, sometime unconsciously–with the God who made, directs, and loves me. And I want to waken others to the nature and centrality of prayer. I want to be a person in this community to whom others can come without hesitation, without wonder if it is appropriate, to get direction in prayer and praying. I want to do the original work of being in deepening conversation with the God who reveals himself to me and addresses me by name. I don’t want to dispense mimeographed (!) handouts that describe God’s business; I want to witness out of my own experience. I don’t want to live as a parasite on the first-hand spiritual life of others, but to be personally involved with all my senses, tasting and seeing that the Lord is good.

I know it takes time to develop a life of prayer; set-aside, disciplined, deliberate time. It isn’t accomplished on the run, nor by offering prayers from a pulpit or at a hospital bedside. I know I can’t be busy and pray at the same time. I can be active and pray; I can work and pray; but I cannot be busy and pray. I cannot be inwardly rushed, distracted or dispersed. In order to pray I have to be paying more attention to God than to what people are saying to me; to God than to my clamoring ego. Usually, for that to happen there must be a deliberate withdrawal from the noise of the day, a disciplined detachment from the insatiable self.


Oct 20 2011

{Day 20} Cultivating a Relationship with Your Home, Part 4

Where there is no beauty, put beauty, and you will find beauty. –Francis of Assisi, adapted.

One of the books I read when I began to explore church and faith more seriously I found on my dad’s shelf. It now has an honored place with others that I “borrowed” from my parents. I love the fact it has the quintessential good book smell, my dad’s signature on the flyleaf, and his underlinings through-out.

Ernst Benz begins the discussion of Eastern Orthodoxy not with doctrines but with the role and understanding of icons. At the time I first read it, there was no internet (hard to imagine now), so I still remember how some of the concepts made no visual sense to me, never having been in an Orthodox church.  But the message was clear: images played an important part in the Orthodox life of prayer. This I understood.

Living in Germany at the time, I was aesthetically and spiritually formed by the medieval cathedrals with their murals and statues, hidden side altars and chapels. As one of my professors at St John’s put it, churches need secret space and shadows for those times when the soul is called into solitude with God, even in the midst of community. I loved those nooks and cranies of sacred space, the life and color of the images, and the warmth of the candlelight.

Benz’ book offered me two things that have stayed with me. The first is that images reminding us of sacred presence are important. In the violent iconoclast controversy of the 8th and 9th centuries, icons were burned and the Orthodox church nearly went through a tidal shift in its manner of prayer. But theologians of the day called upon Colossians 1:15 where Jesus is called the image (ikonen) of the Living God, his own humanity as a way for our participation with the Trinity.

Icons are not idols, which demand worship for themselves, but windows for humanity to be drawn into the Kingdom through prayer and remembrance. Idols stop the gaze; icons direct the gaze through and beyond themselves to the Ever-Presence of God.

The second idea Benz offered me was the importance of dedicating a specific area of the home to God’s presence.

In the Orthodox tradition, this is called the Beautiful Corner, usually on the eastern side of the house.

Coupled with my love of the secret side chapels in the enormous cathedrals, Benz’ book encouraged me to create a beautiful corner in my bedroom. My parents, bless them, bought me a little table, white eyelet lace cloth to cover it, and some red, green and purple fabric for the church seasons.  On it I placed various images of the cross, Jesus, Mary, and found-objects from nature. Over the years, I’ve collected many different items and frequently change it depending on the liturgical season or what I’m praying about.

The first real icon of my collection I found when I was 14, the day before leaving Germany for the Pacific Northwest.  Mary icons often find their way into the corner because of God’s call to her to birth the Christ–a call I believe each Christian receives and responds through grace in some wonderful and mysterious way. As a woman, I appreciate her witness.

While a beautiful corner sounds peaceful and lovely, I’ve found that it can be a place of conviction and a call to repentance as well. Sometimes, the last place I’ve wanted to be near is a reminder of God’s presence. As I willfully choose to go my own way and ignore the still small voice, the temptation is to simply take back the space and live forgetful of the sacred.

One particularly difficult season a few years ago, I did just that. I took all the icons and images down and tossed them in a box. I thought, out of sight, out of mind.

I told God, “Enough. I’m through.”

For awhile, I went my way and God let me alone. But then slowly, I realized God was still there, still whispering. I may be able to remove the reminders, but God could not be put in storage. Slowly I took things out of the box and said a small yes again to God’s unrelenting love.

What I meant as tantrum, God used to remind me that his presence is more than my small ideas and certainly beyond my control (Thank God!).

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
 if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
 if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you. –Psalm 139:7-12

Practice: Is there a special place, a beautiful corner, that reminds you and your family of God’s loving presence? If not, where would you put it? What would you put there?

If you have a beautiful corner, how long has it been since you changed it? Sometimes what becomes familiar is easily forgotten. I invite you to spend some time rearranging and praying.

If you are going through a season where God is “in storage,” I invite you to wander your house and find one object that calls your heart and thoughts to prayer (photos of little ones always does it for me). Put the object in a prominent location, and slowly, as you feel led, add other reminders to pray or say “thank you”–maybe a leaf from a particularly glorious fall tree, a cross, a verse of scripture that tugs at your memory. Over time, items will be added and you will have a beautiful corner for prayer.

Get young people involved–I think they have a wonderful, playful sense of what makes sacred space beautiful.



Oct 8 2011

{Day 8} Praying Photos

Flickr 10-8-2011

This afternoon, I got to spend a few hours watching a gaggle of children play Perseus. The pinata for Jack’s birthday was the snake-full head of Medusa and each child got to swing the sword while looking at the reflection in the shield. It brought back memories of that wonderfully campy 1981 Clash of the Titans–I still remember the moment when Perseus defeats the Gorgon.

Whether you consider yourself a photographer or not, taking pictures is a great way to step into the present moment.

Paying attention to light and shadows, watching for that one special smile or expression, seeing little things that often go unnoticed and making them center stage, all of these can be forms of contemplative attention.

Since contemplative attention is a way of paying attention to and with God’s presence, photography can be a way of prayer.

Practice: Get your camera and ask the Holy Spirit to direct your focus of both of eye and heart today.

31 Days


Oct 6 2011

{Day 6} Living in the Midst

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To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact , you must give your heart to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in a casket or a coffin…But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from the perturbations of Love is Hell.— C.S. Lewis

Often when we begin to listen and pay attention to what is going on right in front of us, chaos floods our lives, swamps our schedules, and leaves us gasping for breath.

Even to ask a simple question, like from Day One of this seriesWhat do I hear in this moment?–might open us up to hearing and seeing and feeling what we’d rather not. The reason for this is that our carefully constructed walls that protect us from confusion and uncertainty and pain begin to shudder and crack with such a question. Chaos seeps in.

Questions about what we love and what we hope can bring a cascade of joy, but the same questions can bring into stark relief our heartaches and disappointment. They can lead to more questions.

We begin to ask: What do I do now?

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One response to this is to simply stop paying attention. The chaos or grief or even joy is scary. It’s too much. The present moment is too much.

I will be exploring the many creative ways we erect barricades against contemplative attention as this series continues. I will also be sharing some practices from the lives of Christians who have gone before us. While they lived in different ages, their joys and struggles and griefs were not so different from our own.

But what about today? Now?

Keep listening. Keep paying attention.

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Why? Because I believe the only way into a deeper connection with life, those around us, and with God (at least on our part), is through, dealing with what we hear and see and feel directly.

Jesus shows us this path by becoming one of us: The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood. (John 1:14 MSG) He lived through everything that it means to be human.

Many of you who have followed my blog the past few years have read about my experiences in graduate school and the toll that it took on my love of prayer, theology, writing, even life. This past year I’ve spent with God, wrestling through the experience, what it meant (and continues to mean) as I enter my 7th year (shudder!). Everything from slowly regaining my ability to write without panic attacks to (gently and with a lot of running away) facing that I will never bear children to the overwhelming joy of becoming a photographer. In the dogged determination to walk through, rather than build barriers against, the present moment, I’ve tasted more joy than I’ve ever experienced and experienced more deeply the cherishing love of God.

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Words of wisdom that have helped me are from the poet in Rainer Maria Rilke:

Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

Live your questions today.

I would add, Pray your questions today.

Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God,who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? …No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:34-39)

The beauty of our Lord is that he stands before the throne of God interceding for us, and he will patiently walk with us through the questions to the answers.

31 Days

have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

Sep 30 2011

Friday Florilegium

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This past week, dealing with job searching and rejection letters, a Patty Griffin song has been my companion. The song speaks about Mary, a woman who lived with uncertainty and loss, yet even now, her presence of faith and strength shines. I’m reminded that there are greater forces at work, that we are all surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.

Mary’s role in my life was solidified long before I knew about doctrines. She led me to Jesus through the cross on a sky blue rosary when I was 4 years old and, without a doubt, praying the rosary helped me through my high school years. When I happen upon little wooded prayer spaces, like the one above at Seattle University, I feel her presence encouraging me to take a deep breath and remember what is important.

Protestant or Catholic perspectives aside, she birthed and raised the Savior for the life of the world, and lived through all the joy and sorrow that calling entailed. I believe she is somehow still involved in mothering the world and pointing the way to Jesus.

And even more, Jesus would have first learned to pray by her example, so I figure that if I can ask my friends for prayer, then I can ask for hers.

(If you would like to listen, turn off the Music for Dreaming to the right, and then click here.)

Mary by Patty Griffin

Mary you’re covered in roses, you’re covered in ashes
You’re covered in rain
You’re covered in babies, you’re covered in slashes
You’re covered in wilderness, you’re covered in stain
You cast aside the sheet, you cast aside the shroud
Of another man, who served the world proud
You greet another son, you lose another one
On some sunny day and always stay, Mary
Jesus says Mother I couldn’t stay another day longer
Flys right by and leaves a kiss upon her face
While the angels are singin’ his praises in a blaze of glory
Mary stays behind and starts cleaning up the place

Mary, she moves behind me
She leaves her fingerprints everywhere
Every time the snow drifts, every time the sand shifts
Even when the night lifts, she’s always there

Jesus said Mother I couldn’t stay another day longer
Flys right by and leaves a kiss upon her face
While the angels are singin’ his praises in a blaze of glory
Mary stays behind and starts cleaning up the place

Mary you’re covered in roses, you’re covered in ruins
you’re covered in secrets
You’re covered in treetops, you’re covered in birds
who can sing a million songs without any words
You cast aside the sheets, you cast aside the shroud
of another man, who served the world proud
You greet another son, you lose another one
on some sunny day and always stay
Mary

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Friday Florilegium 1


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