Reflections by Jerry Webber

Monday, June 18, 2018

"You have heard it said . . . but I say to you . . ."

"For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. . . .

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. . . .

“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

“Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you."

(Matt. 5:20 - 22; 27 - 28; 31 - 42)

I've done my share of moralizing throughout life, and probably more than most, trying to get things just right. My basic approach to life has been strong-willed, following rules and carrying out a well-scripted plan. Ask me another time how well that has worked out for me.

For several days, the daily readings suggested by the lectionary have offered an entire series of Jesus' teaching from the Sermon on the Mount, each of which begin, "You have heard it said . . . but I say to you." These sayings radically move the center or focus of religious life, spiritual attunement, and daily action from the externals of "righteousness" to the human interior. Jesus was not unconcerned with behavior and deeds, but he continually drove the focus of religious life and connection with God from the outer "will" to behave to the interior landscape which produced the deed or behavior.

Behavior and exterior actions have interior sources; therefore, in a religious sense, righteousness entails much more than proper conduct or right behavior. Jesus bores down to the interior, to motivation -- which is the inner landscape of behavior -- to the attitude and stance which bring about particular behaviors.

It is one thing to will oneself to a particular kind of action or behavior, to rely on strength of will to change who we are in the world. This is the determined intention, post-summer camp or post-revival meeting, that resolved to do better, to "live without sin," to clean up that one area of life that seemed to be out of control.

And for a few days, may a couple of weeks even, it worked. I've been there, done that. By force of will I could make myself avoid what I needed to avoid, or to adopt a habit I needed to adopt, or to treat that prickly co-worker with the kindness I didn't think she deserved, or to embrace a way of life I had previously resisted.

But after a few days of altered behavior, fortified by the camp or the evangelistic services, my will began to fade. My hard-wiring would slowly kick in again, and all those neuro-pathways that had been grooved for decades within me would lead me right back to where I was before . . . and now with a nice side-order of guilt -- that I had totally botched my commitment to do better -- and a dish of shame -- that I had just proven my incompetence and utter failure at being a decent human.

The basic problem with a "works-based righteousness" -- that is, a religion that is mostly concerned about behavior -- is that few of us have a will strong enough to govern our behavior in every life-situation.

Jesus radically moves "righteousness" from outward action to interior motives and stances. "You have heard it said" mostly leans into the Law that governed behavior and external action. "But I say to you" drives the matter to the interior, speaking to our need for some way to reshape our inner life.

Surprisingly -- to me, anyway -- institutional religion has focused on the behavioral, moralistic components of faith for centuries, largely bypassing Jesus' words in his Matthew 5 Sermon on the Mount. To the extent the Church has sought to address the human interior, she had been ineffective, for the most part. (The most judgmental, spiteful, and unmerciful people I've known in my life have been highly "religious" people, faithful in church attendance, in teaching the Bible, and in zeal for their religious beliefs.) By appealing primarily to worship attendance, small group participation, and a life of personal devotional (intercessory prayer, Bible-reading, tithing, witness, and acts of service), the Church has sought to transform persons. None of these practices are bad. In fact, the list sounds like good religion! (And to be fair, I have also known a handful of people in my days who have become kinder, more generous, and more compassionate by attending to these externals.) None of these expressions of faith, however, tend to be aimed at interior transformation, to the core from which we live.

Too often, the universal Church desperate for change appeals to fear, guilt, and shame as outward motivators in order to persuade persons to ethical living by strengthening the will and fortifying resolve (which, by the way, also fortifies the ego and the sense that "I'm can do this . . . I'm good enough . . . I'm strong enough"). The Church also provides information on life-change (classes, conferences, books, etc.), as well as promoting group accountability. Both information and group accountability, though, are subtle forms of outward motivation, external-based means of shaping the inner life.

[Small group accountability is assumed by many to be the key to behavior change and "right living", in which other persons hold you accountable for your resolve and commitment to live a certain way or to carry out certain promises. The underlying motivator is peer pressure, since you don't want to show up for the group and have to report that you have not carried out the commitments you have made. Who wants to exposing themselves to embarrassment and possible ridicule? The desire not to be seen as a failure by others drives the accountability group. The ego hates to be revealed as a fraud or a failure, and so will do anything, even keeping unrealistic promises, so that it doesn't have to confess to failure. To be sure, this kind of accountability is helpful and gives hope in certain situations. I'm thinking now of recovery work, the healing role of a sponsor and the power of a 12-step meeting where accountability comes from honestly naming the way things are, rather than hiding behind fear. The role of this kind of group "support" cannot be discounted. A safe setting of honest accountability can certainly bring a measure of healing, but that healing must also include a more interior dimension for health and wholeness to be long-lasting.]

Contemplative spirituality is the only spiritual "system" I know of that addresses human behavior or "righteousness" from the inside-out. It is not a grit-your-teeth method of self-improvement, not a self-help strategy that you can manipulate to your own good. Rather, it is a slowly evolving stance or way of being with God, self, others, and the world that fundamentally shifts the inner landscape . . . re-formed, renewed, re-created as our interior is re-shaped by God.

This less willful approach actually leads to long-term change, an inner transformation rather than temporarily adjusted behavior. The painfully slow inner shift happens over time, as old ways of thinking, seeing, and being soften, then are gradually re-shaped. It takes a long time for the old pathways of thought, action, and will to be rewired, to be redirected. But all of contemplative prayer and practice seem to soften this hardened soil, to deepen who we are in God, to slowly alter how we see ourselves, others, and the world.

In essence, by seeking to address the core or the center -- in Jesus' image -- we address causes, motivations, and the underlying influencers within us . . . not just the behaviors that are manifested for the world to see.

Religion as mere behavior change is hollow. It has no center, and thus no power for lasting change, either within the human person or within the world.

Jesus advocates another way to change us and to transform our world. "But I say to you . . ."

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Rilke: Flare up like flame

God speaks to each of us
by Rainer Maria Rilke
I, 59

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you:
beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

[Rainer Maria Rilke, “Gott spricht zu jedem nur, eh er ihn macht,” I, 59, Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, trans. by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, 88.]

Rilke imagined our creative beginnings as God's walk with us out of the darkness, speaking into us the words we will take a lifetime to recover, to hear fully, and to live into. We hear them dimly. Any journey of enlightenment or illumination is partially the journey of recalling our original purpose, our original identity.

Part of what we slowly hear again is the invitation to "flare up like flame." Perhaps this became Rilke's way of saying, "You are the light of the world." Let the inner fire of your origins, your purpose, your identity become flame. Live from the center of that fire, so that which enflames your life will enlighten others also.

Rilke was a complex man -- aren't we all, after all, complex? -- who heard faint voices most all of his life. I imagine he, like me and you, "dimly heard" these words. Did he live them well? Or not so well? Did he, in his life, "flare up like flame"? I do not know.

But I do know he heard the voice, if only dimly.

And I know we are here, a century later, reading his poem and talking about his vision of our genesis.

YOU are the light of the world. Flare up like flame.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

You ARE the Light of the World

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven."

(Matt. 5:13 - 16)

Some people, writing about these Jesus-words, think the metaphors point to our human potential in connection with God. Even Sacred Space 2018 -- which I find very helpful day-in and day-out -- writes of these verses, "Jesus seems recklessly confident of our potential."

But Jesus is not making a statement about our potential as much as stating the way things are, naming our actual being, and daring to claim the reality of what it means to live in union with God. "You ARE the salt of the earth . . . You ARE the light of the world," he says. This is not potential, but actual reality, the way life is in connection with God.

You are the light of the world -- already! -- so you cannot ask, "How do I become light?" or "How do I get more light?" You cannot not trade in your own light for a brighter light, for someone else's light. The state of light within you has been conferred upon you by virtue of your creation in/by God and then affirmed in your baptism.

You are the light of the world, not as an achievement, nor an accomplishment, nor an attainment. This is who you are in connection with God, who is all Light and who created you in God's own image. Your center is Light, the Light of Love in the imago Dei.

So live from that very Center. Allow the Light to illumine you, to illumine all of you . . . to see and to be seen. Allow the Light to illumine the parts of you that are good and whole and find healing. And allow the Light to illumine that within you which is embarrassing, crippling, and hidden in the shadowy recesses, lurking in the shadows of your inner world.

Let your light shine. That is, just live from your Center. Live your light in your world. Let it shine in the place where you live, not hiding it but putting it out there normally, naturally as the center of who you are. You don't have to make an effort to be a witness, to shine your light. Simply live from your center. Live from the inside-out. Walk your life-path according to this interior fire, rather than according to the exterior guides of social pressure and cultural expectations and narrow tribalism and fearful protectionism. Let your Light-filled center -- enlightened! -- guide you. That's all. If you do that, the light burning and flaming and enlightening you will shine for others, for the world.

Simply allowing the Light to illumine you, your relationships, your way of being in the world, your way of working . . . this in itself will enlighten the world.

I know people for whom this has and is happening. The Light that flames within them shines in the world, not because they are bold or extravagant or extroverted or good speakers. They simply live from the Center, inside-out, and the Light that illumines their interior shines in how they are in the world.

I think this is at least partially what Jesus means when he says to you and me: "You ARE the light of the world."

Friday, June 8, 2018

On Being Contemplative (part 3): "Oh, that we might see better times!"

In two previous posts, I've offered thoughts on being contemplative, reflecting on Thomas Merton's ideas about how active contemplation shapes our lives. I offer these words today as a kind of real-world-fleshing-out of those ideas.

For context, I'll begin with a psalm-prayer:

Offer sacrifices in the right spirit,
and place your trust the Lord.

Many are saying, “Oh, that we might see better times!”
Let your face smile on us, Lord.

You have given me greater joy
than in seasons of abundant harvests of grain and new wine.

I lie down in peace and fall asleep at once,
for only you, Lord, make me dwell in safety.

(Ps. 4:5 - 8)

If the nightly news and up-to-the-minute news feeds via smartphone are your barometer for the world's sanity, then the entire planet is going mad. Each day seems crazier than the last, and each tomorrow promises something even more outlandish that hasn't yet been imagined.

"Oh, that we might see better times!" I read that in Psalm 4 a few days ago and just stopped in my tracks. How perfectly that short line expresses what I feel. And I sense that across the borders separating nations, across political parties, across the many belief-systems to which we cling, this is the prayer -- both quiet and shouted -- that the world's people are praying.

I feel the daily struggle within my own self to hope for and work within some movement, some uprising of people who would honor the dignity of other humans, even those different from my own tribe . . . who would value the planet which is our home more than the monetary gain we can scratch from it . . . who would put the well-being of the whole above self-interest or political gain.

And I know the temptation of looking to some political party or mass movement to gain a return to sanity. Daily, it seems, I have fallen into that trap, scanning news stories looking for some sign that better days are ahead . . . looking for hints from candidates and political parties, initiatives coming from the private sector, something or anything that would be a glimmer of light and would bring some level of sanity to a world gone mad . . . in short, hoping for some change to come by some worldly means.

At least momentarily, this psalm-prayer drew me back to reality. Trust in a political party or in a significant movement or in some legal action is really no trust at all, or at least is not a trust that can bring authentic joy and peace.

In my lifetime, I've watched evangelical and fundamentalist Christians embrace right-wing conservative politicians, parties, and policies, hoping the embrace would lead to systemic change in social/cultural mores. I've also watched moderate and mainline Christians embrace left-wing liberal politicians, parties, and policies, hoping for a systemic re-balance of some of those same social/cultural mores. In effect, Christians from across the spectrum have sought to bring their own brand of Christianity to the public realm by means of political systems. In short, they have trusted organizations, parties, and political appointments, rather than the One who is the Center of life, using cultural systems to bring about spiritual ends.

Most moments, I'm not immune from placing trust in some human institution. Because the desire "that we might see better times" is so deeply rooted within the human psyche, we'll use most any instrument at our disposal to make our notion of "better times" come to pass. In my more grounded moments, though, when I've allowed my roots to run deep and silent into the One who is beyond ideas, programs, and get-better schemes, I recognize that trust in any god that is not GOD goes by the name "idolatry." A political system or economic reality does not have the power to bring about the deep sense of God-connection which is the center of human experience. External systems, ultimately, are insufficient.

At the same time, movements, protests, and altered political landscapes are necessary in order to overturn, or at least speak to, systemic injustices, to right the wrongs which have been ignored. Thus, active engagement in the social and cultural arena may be one of the ways the contemplative person enters the world . . . . in order to serve and act from a core that is being altered by prayer and ongoing attentiveness to the Divine. Deep connection with God, after all, DOES make a difference in who we are with God, self, others, and the world.

So in the moment, some kind of involvement is called for, some kind of stepping into the world's fray. Because the contemplative cannot ignore symptoms or manifestations of societal ills, which have very real consequences for human beings who are in trouble or difficulty . . . wandering refugees, those unjustly incarcerated, abused women and children, immigrants herded across miles, and those on the lower rungs of society who are trapped beneath massive systems of oppression. Those needs are real and the contemplative cannot ignore them.

The engaged contemplative, then, does not withdraw from the world-gone-mad, but rather engages that world from a different center. He/she sees underneath the actual events, the difficulty of situations, the injustices that seem to prevail . . . and as Merton said in a previous post, the contemplative sees the real direction in which events are moving . . . sees the genuine facts in the movements that are characteristic of our times. The contemplative sees the world through a God-shaped lens, and thus is invited to engage the world from an enlarged, more expansive, more loving and merciful center. So the contemplative does not withdraw, but engages with different vision.

Movements and political parties are not the ultimate answer for the contemplative, for movements, parties, and policies can never completely speak to the complexities of the human experience, the human desire for meaning and wholeness. The contemplative, from his or her interior life, seeks a way to step into the world's pain in a way that makes a real difference, in a way that offers mercy to all, in a way that leads to healing and wholeness for the entire human family.

Back to the psalm-prayer . . . which in the end, advocates trust in God's mercy, a connection rooted in God's heart that feeds, nourishes, and sustains . . . and thus keeps a person held in peace, shalom, wholeness, and well-being, no matter what is happening in the world.

I lie down in peace
at once I fall asleep
for you, Lord, make me dwell in safety.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Active Contemplation: On Being Contemplative (part 2)

In the previous post, I offered Thomas Merton's thoughts on being contemplative. [If you did not read that post from June 5, you might start there before reading on in this space.] In the larger context of that essay, Merton is describing kinds of contemplation. The words I quoted in that essay refer to what is known as active contemplation, that is, contemplation that a person intends and which is initiated by some exercise, practice, or prayer method on the human side. Centering Prayer and Christian meditation are exercises of active contemplation, for example. The human role in active contemplation is important, in setting our intention, making space for the practice, and actively engaging in a practice that disposes us of union with God. (Classically, active contemplation is held side by side with infused contemplation, in which God acts in God's own way and in God's own time upon the person, apart from the human initiative.)

For Merton, the intent of active contemplation is to see what is real, genuine, true, or authentic. He writes about the "deliberate and sustained effort to detect the will of God in events and to bring one's whole self into harmony with that will." So the contemplative question in a personal event, a national situation, or a world event asks, "What is God's will in this thing happening?" "What is God doing in this situation?"

Contemplative practice (active contemplation) allows a person, over time, to see beneath the surface of events, to detect the current underneath the obvious, to discern the spirit or animating presence that undergirds a circumstance. This kind of contemplative stance, then, does not lead to knee-jerk responses to what lies on the surface, but rather seeks out the deeper meanings, the ways in which God is woven throughout the fabric of events in subtle, almost unseen ways.

The contemplative, for example, might discern that what looks chaotic and divisive on the surface of things, actually is necessary for the dismantling of unjust and oppressive systems. In other words, with a different lens from which to see, the contemplative observes the world from a very different perspective, noticing what is actually happening in a situation rather than what merely appears to be happening.

Merton says, "Active contemplation is centered on the discovery of God's will, that is to say the identification of the real direction which events are taking, especially in our own life." (italics mine)

And again, contemplation "remains in living contact with that which is genuinely true in any traditional movement." (italics mine)

And then, "the contemplative today might be expected to have an intuitive grasp of, and even sympathy for, what is most genuine in the characteristic movements of our time . . ." (italics mine)

This "intuition" for the "real" or the "genuine direction" in events and happenings does not come quickly from our contemplation. It grows slowly over time, as we faithfully, regularly give ourselves to contemplative practice, to silent listening, to interior prayer. And further, it generally comes only when it has been tested over time with what has actually played out in life. In short, what is "real" or "genuine" may not appear for a very long time.

In contemplative prayer, there is a slow, gradual cleansing of my own biases, my own motivations, many of which are unknown to me, at least consciously. Those biases and motivations which have provided the lenses through which I see God, self, others, and the world are slowly revealed through interior prayer. Slowly those biases and motivations are re-formed -- often many, many times -- as God shapes and re-shapes my life, making me the person I was created to be.

Typically, this slow, gradual cleansing of my interior includes seeing God, self, others, and the world in more expansive ways. In my experience, I have never seen someone truly given to active contemplation, who over time saw God, self, others, and the world more narrowly. The movement is most always toward inclusion, not exclusion . . . toward a wider vision of the world, not a more limited vision . . . toward more creativity and expressiveness, not more legalism . . . toward a more expansive view of God and human-kind, not a more limiting view of God and humanity . . . toward a more global perspective, not a more tribal outlook.

Gradually personal biases are more readily noticed. A person active in their contemplative practice is more likely than before to see an issue or an event from the perspective of "the other", more able to consider a circumstance from the vantage point of someone outside their own tribe or affiliation.

Because active contemplation drops us beneath the layers of thoughts and ideas that fill our minds, and into a pure, naked silence with God, there also grows in the contemplative a posture of less judgment. Judgment usually comes as a result of mental commentaries and the predisposed ideas about God, self, other, and the world that live inside us. To drop beneath thoughts and ideas into the pure silence of contemplation, we are connecting with God apart from thoughts, concepts, and verbalizations; thus, there is little space for judgments. Judgment is always connected to a thought or a commentary about life or about "the other", and is rooted in our deeply ingrained ways of seeing life. Apart from thoughts, those judgments have nothing to latch onto. Active contemplation gives us methods for dropping deeper than thought and idea to that place where judgment falls away.

In the excerpt, Merton also says that the contemplative is "able to live within himself/herself."
"She learns to be at home in her own thoughts."
"She becomes to a greater and greater degree independent of exterior supports."

What are exterior supports? They are the opinions, beliefs, ideas, and thoughts of others . . . books, podcasts, newsfeeds, movies, conversations, and more . . . anything outside ourselves from which we gather information. (This blog, I must admit, is an "exterior support"!!) Indeed, each of us relies to some extent on what others think, what others share with us of their own learning or perspective. But our reliance on others can lead us to adopt a structure or belief system that is not truly our own, but rather is an assemblage of what we have picked up from others . . . I am this part Richard Rohr and that part Thomas Keating; this belief comes from Ignatius of Loyola and that insight from Teresa of Avila. We may be stirred or inspired by what someone else thinks or writes or says, but the contemplative asks, "Is that mine?"
Or, "What part of this idea is mine to live out?"
"Does that thought speak to my unique spiritual path?"
"How does that idea inform my own union with God?"
"What is God's invitation in those words for me?"

Those are the kinds of questions carried into our spiritual reflection, our journaling, our creative exploration . . . for these, too, are contemplative practices.

Merton calls it "spiritual creativeness":
*thinking one's own thoughts;
*reaching one's own conclusions;
*looking at one's own life and directing it in accordance with his/her own "inner truth, discovered in meditation and under the eyes of God."

I recognize that some people cannot take this much freedom. Fundamentalism and much conservatism is bound in a narrowly prescribed, dogmatic formula of do's and don'ts, so that a person never has to come to grips with his/her own inner truth. One never has to think one's own thoughts or reach one's own conclusions. He/she believes only what the group believes, what the denomination, the association, the party, the nation, the tribe believes. Once the "true word" or the "party line" is set forth, all personal (and inner freedom) is forfeited for the sake of the so-called "truth".

So we become a mass of men and women who are automatons, thinking only what Fox News or CNN tell us to think . . . only what "being patriotic" tells us to believe . . . only what "being Baptist" or "Pentecostal" or "United Methodist" tells us to think.

According to Merton, being contemplative connects us to God in such a radical way that this Divine union transcends all these other movements and allegiances.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

On Being "Contemplative"

In the mid-1990's, I was a Baptist pastor searching for my soul, trying to discover a more grounded, spiritual path for moving through mid-life. I was reading everything I could get my hands on about prayer. Perhaps more importantly, I was experimenting with what I read, trying out the different methods and approaches suggested by Richard Foster and Madame Jeanne Guyon, by Eugene Peterson and Thomas Kelly. I explored liturgical prayer, quiet prayer, charismatic prayer, contemplative prayer, and more. The exploration itself was energizing and somewhat dangerous, especially for a Baptist pastor.

At one point, a friend shared with me some notes he had taken at a "School of Prayer" hosted by his congregation. The "School" was led by Bill Clemmons, a retired Southern Baptist seminary professor. I was drawn to the notes -- and eventually to the person -- first because he was a like-minded Baptist who dared to talk about and write about prayer, but then because within his notes were glimpses of what I had experienced in my own experimentation. I read and re-read those notes, gleaning from them all I could from lifting words off the page.

At some point, I decided I wanted more Bill Clemmons in my life. I got his contact information from my friend and called him in Memphis. One phone call led to another, and soon I found myself being guided by a wise Baptist saint, unlike any other Baptist I had known to that point. At some point, I casually asked if he would be interested in coming to my Baptist congregation on the east side of Houston to offer his School of Prayer. I didn't expect that he would actually do that, and I wasn't prepared for his "Yes!" I had not selected potential dates for the School, nor run the idea past the church leadership, which I would learn over time was not a wise practice. Nevertheless, his answer was "Yes!" and we set in motion plans for him to come to Houston for a Friday, Saturday, Sunday edition of his School of Prayer.

I don't remember a lot of details about that weekend. As with most relationships that turn out to be significant for any of us, my connection with Bill over a long stretch of years shaped me much more than this single encounter. However, the one detail I DO remember from the weekend took place Saturday in the early afternoon. Bill made it clear that whenever he traveled to Houston, he packed plenty of antacids, because he wanted to eat the best Mexican food possible. The antacids meant that he knew his stomach would pay a price, but still he wanted to eat good Mexican food. So after he led the Saturday morning session, I took Bill -- along with my children Sarah and Bradley -- to the Original Ninfa's on Navigation on the East Side of town. We ate outstanding Mexican food. Bill loved it. We talked about Mexican food. Bill engaged with my two children. He and I talked about our experiences of prayer.

And there, over Mama Ninfa's enchiladas, Bill asked me, "How long have you been a contemplative?"

I had never been asked that question before. And I don't think, up to that moment, I thought of myself as a "contemplative." I was exploring the landscape of prayer, and I had explored some contemplative forms of prayer. But never in my wildest imagination had I considered myself a contemplative.

I have no idea what prompted Bill to ask. I never asked him in all the subsequent years of our friendship. And I don't remember how I answered him.

I will say, though, that within 5 years of those Ninfa's enchiladas, the word "contemplative" was one of the key words I began using to describe my desired way of being in the world, the way I wanted to see the world, the way I wanted to relate to God, self, others, and the created world.

Bill Clemmons helped expose me to others who would help give expression to what it means to be contemplative in the world. Among those Bill commended to me was Thomas Merton. Merton articulated as well as anyone the meaning and importance of being contemplative. Merton was convinced that a contemplative stance toward life, centered in God and active in the world, could change the world in which we live.

I'll share some of Merton's ideas here [from The Inner Experience: Kinds of Contemplation (IV), selected and edited by Patrick Hart from articles reprinted in Cistercian Studies Quarterly Review 18 (1983), pp. 290ff], then in another post try to give some flesh to what it means to be contemplative in the contemporary milieu.

In active contemplation, there is a deliberate and sustained effort to detect the will of God in events and to bring one's whole self into harmony with that will. . . . Active contemplation is centered on the discovery of God's will, that is to say the identification of the real direction which events are taking, especially in our own life. . . .

The contemplative mind is, in fact, not normally ultra-conservative; but neither is it necessarily radical. It transcends both these extremes in order to remain in living contact with that which is genuinely true in any traditional movement. Hence I would say in parentheses that the contemplative mind today will not normally be associated too firmly or too definitively with any "movement" whether political, religious, liturgical, artistic, philosophical or what have you. The contemplative stays clear of movements, not because they confuse him, but simply because he does not need them and can go farther by himself than he can in their formalized and often fanatical ranks.

Nevertheless active contemplation should be to a great extent in contact with the logos of its age. Which means in simple fact that the contemplative today might be expected to have an intuitive grasp of, and even sympathy for, what is most genuine in the characteristic movements of our time -- Marxism, existentialism, psychoanalysis, eirenism [aimed at making peace; reconciling various denominational traditions (jw)]. They may even at times present a serious temptation for him. But if he is a genuine contemplative he will be able to resist temptation because his contemplation itself will instinctively avoid becoming enmeshed in conceptual systems. I say if he is a genuine contemplative, meaning, "if he is sufficiently initiated into the meaning and value of a spiritual life to prefer its simplicity to all the complexities and pretenses of these intellectual fads and campaigns".

In active contemplation, a man becomes able to live within himself. He learns to be at home with his own thoughts. He becomes to a greater and greater degree independent of exterior supports. His mind is pacified not by passive dependence on things outside himself -- diversions, entertainments, conversations, business -- but by its own constructive activity. That is to say that he derives inner satisfaction from spiritual creativeness: thinking his own thoughts, reaching his own conclusions, looking at his own life and directing it in accordance with his own inner truth, discovered in meditation and under the eyes of God. He derives strength not from what he gets out of things and people, but from giving himself to life and to others. He discovers the secret of life in the creative energy of love -- not love as a sentiment or sensual indulgence, but as a profound and self-oblative expression of freedom.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Another Kind of Kingdom

In my last post, I wrote about a kind of freedom which is quite different from what we ordinarily think of as freedom.

Mark 10:17 - 27 records the encounter of a young man of moral and religious upbringing who in every outward way was a model of propriety. He lived according to the expectations of devout religious life. And he would have been seen as "successful" by cultural norms, which valued wealth as a sign of virtue and God's favor. In short, from the brief description of him contained in the Gospel account, he had everything going for himself.

Jesus saw, however, that he was attached to his wealth, and could not part with that which he had accumulated. By clinging to his possessions, he declined Jesus' invitation both to extend charity to those in need and to follow Jesus as a disciple. His attachment to what he possessed meant he was not inwardly free to move as the moment dictated. His movements, rather, were governed by what he held onto . . . or perhaps better, by what held him.

The man sulks away from Jesus, sad because he has not been able to part with his wealth. He has missed an opportunity to do good for others and to follow the Messiah.

[It may be worth spending time with the story at this point. The man "went away sad, because he had great wealth." What was the source of his sadness? I'm pondered several possibilities:
**Was he sad because he recognized that his wealth had a hold on him?
**Was he sad because he knew he was not inwardly free enough to follow?
**Was he sad because Jesus asked so much from him, something that he was not able to do at that moment?
**Was he said because he truly wanted to follow Jesus, just not as desperately as he wanted to hold onto his wealth?
Why did he go away sad?]

Today I want to say a word about Jesus' editorial comment, offered to his disciples after the man went away sad.

“How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”

The disciples were amazed at Jesus' words, so he said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

The kingdom of God is not a "kingdom" in any way in which we are accustomed to thinking. For one, it is not a place. Jesus is not describing "heaven," and is NOT saying that it is hard for the rich to get into heaven. The kingdom of God does not equal heaven. It is not a physical place that looks like Narnia, or like a New Zealand-ish Lord of the Rings set, or like streets of gold.

The kingdom of God -- or the kingdom of heaven, depending on which Gospel narrative you read -- is a way of being and seeing and doing life that is characterized by God at the center. It means taking upon oneself a particular stance for life, adopting a particular posture for life . . . a stance or posture shaped by God which has at its core a God-connection which animates all of life. For example, I've heard Fr Thomas Keating talk about our lives as a "lived experience of Jesus", and that gets pretty close to what I'm trying to convey. To enter the kingdom of God means to enter this centered way of doing life on God's terms and in God's way, to take on this life-stance for oneself.

What does it mean to be a God-connected person and then to live out life in a God-animated manner? I'm not talking about our ideas of what being "God-connected" or "God-animated" look like. I'm not talking about what preachers preach or what theologians speculate. I'm talking about the actual experience of entering this alternative way of being, seeing, and doing.

This stance toward life is resisted, for example, by the posture that has our own self-interest at the center, or our own attachments at the core. In the Gospel story we've considered, the man's wealth seems to be at the center of his decision-making and life-choices. He is attached to his possessions and thus, those possessions impact the stance or posture from which he does life. He is not inwardly free enough to enter the kingdom of God, that is, to be, see, and do from his God-center.

Of course, your attachments and my attachments, the things which prevent us from entering the kingdom of heaven, may be altogether different from the money at the center of this man's issues.

I think it is worth noting that while the man in the story is "rich" in possessions, in material wealth, we are all rich in some way -- just as we are all "poor" in some way. Having an abundance of money is almost a ready-made attachment for most people. Even those who do not have much money or material wealth can obsess about having more, so Jesus' saying about riches is not merely for those who have large bank accounts and portfolios.

But in truth, it is difficult for those who are "rich" in anything to enter the kingdom of God. It is difficult, no matter where your own "riches" lie:
** rich in money and possessions
** rich in education
** rich in intellect
** rich in creativity
** rich in talent or skill
** rich in relationships
** rich in ___________

Wealth, in whatever realm, is always heavy. Being rich in anything weighs us down, lures us to trust our riches, and can become a hindrance to living fully the life that God has designed for us. Riches hinder our capacity to say, "Yes!" to entering this life-stance called "the kingdom of God."

So even if you and I do not think of ourselves as rich in possessions, we are invited to hear Jesus' words about the areas of life in which we ARE wealthy.

The camel-through-the-eye-of-a-needle reference is outrageously glorious. YOU can't do this, no matter how hard you try. I can't do this, no matter how hard I try. It's just not gonna happen! But God's realm is working in people who live with some combination of wealth and poverty, who are rich in some things and poor in others. What we cannot do, like shoving a camel through a needle's eye, is entirely within the realm of God's doing.

In other words, on this one day the rich man may have sulked away sad because he could not respond to Jesus' invitation; however, on another day perhaps he would return again, this time realizing that his efforts/wealth/money could never outpace God's love, mercy, and generosity.