Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Call to Simplicity

Yesterday as we drove the freeways during the last part of the peak traffic period of the day, I thought of the harried life many must lead as they face this congestion daily.  I wondered why we choose to life lives that are so complicated, so busy, so stressful.  I thought of my own life, which is certainly less stressful than that of those who must face this twice-daily commuting grind, but is nevertheless more anxious than it has to be.  I prayed silently that my heart would be open to God’s leading me to a simpler lifestyle.  I look forward to analyzing our family finances to make the demands on us less stressful financially, to examining my goals and commitments so that I can make choices that make my life more rewarding and less complicated.  I am praying that I will be open to God leading me to the solutions I seek, as I mull these matters over in the back of my mind and pray about them over the next two weeks as we travel.  I am confident we will have a clear direction about how to live richer, simpler lives when we return home from our travels.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Two Early-in-the-day Occurrences

First, I discovered what purports to be the “Dalai Lama’s Millenium [sic] Practice” as I surfed the internet.  I haven’t been able to verify that these are indeed the words of the Dalai Lama, though I have found the same “practices” on several websites.  Regardless of their authenticity, these suggestions would certainly improve each of our lives:

1. Spend 5 minutes at the beginning of each day remembering we all want the same things (to be happy and be loved) and we are all connected to one another.

2. Spend 5 minutes breathing in, cherishing yourself; and, breathing out cherishing others. If you think about people you have difficulty cherishing, extend your cherishing to them anyway.

3. During the day extend that attitude to everyone you meet. Practice cherishing the "simplest" person (clerks, attendants, etc.), as well as the "important" people in your life; cherish the people you love and the people you dislike.

4. Continue this practice no matter what happens or what anyone does to you. These thoughts are very simple, inspiring and helpful. The practice of cherishing can be taken very deep if done wordlessly, allowing yourself to feel the love and appreciation that already exists in your heart.

As I thought about these words, it seemed to me that they could have just as easily come from a Christian as from a Tibetan Buddhist, raising several questions in my mind.    If one is seeking truth and seeking to live by the teachings of Jesus, but is not a “Christian” in the sense that one accepts orthodox Christian belief, does that mean one is condemned to an eternity apart from God?  How could a God of love condemn to eternal damnation one who lives according to the teachings of Jesus without subscribing to Christian theology?  At this point in my journey of faith, I cannot subscribe to the belief that only those who say that they “accept Jesus as their personal savior” are acceptable to God, and if that position is the wrong one, I pray that God will open my heart to see the truth.  Right now, I believe that this is the conclusion to which God has led me.

Later in the morning, I had a discussion with a fellow musician about the music of the American composer, Stephen Foster.  I had been playing one of his songs and commented that it was unfortunate that so many of the lyrics of Foster songs are racist.  My companion told me that they were not racist because the terms used to refer to black Americans in these songs were terms of endearment that were not meant by the users of them as terms of disdain, racial hatred, or contempt, and that such terms were part of the common language of the day.

This position astounded me.  My perception is that when terms are used to refer to another ethnic group, and the members of that ethnic group find them offensive, such terms are racist.  Terms like “darkie,” sentiments like those expressed in songs like “Massa’s in the cold, cold ground,” and the use of pseudo-slave dialect while appearing in black-face minstrel shows are for me patently racist because they perpetuate a belief in the racial superiority of one group, treat members of another ethnic group as something less than fully human, and glorify a past characterized by the ownership of one group of people by another.

Our conversation brought home to me the great racial divide that still exists in our country.  For those of us who were born and raised in the South and whose families have deep roots in the South the work of ending for all time the racism that has permeated our culture for so long is a long, slow battle.  I am deeply disturbed that, after so many years, there are those who still hold the philosophy used to justify the practice of slavery, and that such persons believe that black Americans are overly sensitive about the language that is used to describe them.

I pray that all our eyes will be opened to the deep scar that still blights our country and that we will allow God to end the discriminatory practices that divide us along lines of race, national origin, wealth, gender, and sexual orientation.  With God’s help, perhaps one day we will become one people.

Friday, September 24, 2010

I Sought the Lord

One of my favorite hymn texts begins, "I sought the Lord and afterward I knew he moved my heart to seek Him seeking me."  This is one of the great assurances of my faith, that God valued me enough to seek me. My own efforts were useless, because what God desired was my opening to God, not my working to find or please God.  For me, finding God was not dependent on me looking for God.  Finding God was accomplished by accepting that God was there all the time if only I stopped and opened myself to God.  What a great relief to know that it was not my job to discover God; my only work was to allow God to come to me in the silence.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

In the Silence

As I continue to explore the topic of Christian meditation, I find that I am uncomfortable with the approaches of Centering Prayer and of the meditation practice of Fr. John Main, OSB.  While I do not criticize either practice, for me the essential practice of meditation is being in silence in the presence of God.  As I sit in silence, I wait to sense the presence of God, a presence that is not within me, but which surrounds and embraces me.  As I sit in silence, I sense God comforting me, giving me confidence, affirming the direction in which I am going, and reassuring me that God is always present.  The silence of my time of meditation sustains me throughout the day.  The silence allows me to acknowledge the presence of God at the beginning of the day, and this awareness remains with me through the busy-ness of life.

I have no problem with using a mantra or sacred word which is repeated as an aid to a time of meditation for the purpose of relaxation and stress relief, and this is a technique with which I am also experimenting.  Using a phrase such as "God is love" or "Come, Lord Jesus" serves to impart a sacred intent to this meditative practice, but, for me, it is not prayer.  It is more about my inward experience.  Prayer is about the Other, about God.

When I was younger, we often sang hymns such as "God Himself is with us, " which contains the phrase, "All within keep silence," or "The Lord is in His holy temple, Let all earth keep silence before Him."  Such hymns are seldom sung now, probably because it is ironic to sing a congregational song about being silent in God's presence, but such songs did acknowledge that we often find God in the silence.  I once worked with a minister who insisted that there be no silent periods in worship. He wanted every moment to be filled with either speech or music because he believed that silence made people uncomfortable.  My wish is that in our services of worship there would be more silence. I believe that if we made time for sacred silence as we worship, we would have a greater experience of God in our worship.

One of my fondest memories of my years as a high school music teacher was an experiment that I conducted each spring.  I would insist that my students come into the rehearsal in silence and that we sit in silence for five or so minutes before beginning class.  After the period of silence, I asked them what they had heard.  Most were amazed at the many noises of which they became aware: the singing of birds, yelling of students in the courtyard below, a teacher talking across the hall.  All of these had always been there, but we were unaware until we stopped to listen. Perhaps we don't hear God, because we don't stop to listen, and for me, that is what my meditative prayer is about.

Christian Meditation?

Yesterday I did some research on the internet to find out more about meditation.  I was especially interested to learn more about Christian meditation in comparison to other forms of meditation.  Meditation is something that is new to me.  For too many years I have spoken to God, but I haven’t sought to enter his presence and just be still with God.  Several things emerged as I did my research.

First, I was disturbed to find evidence of some who are trying to take advantage of those who are seeking a genuine experience of meditation, of those who want to be in the presence of God through meditation.

Second, I was affirmed in my approach to meditation, that is, in seeking just to be still and focus on allowing myself to be present with God, I am finding peace and affirmation.

Third, there are fundamental differences between Christian meditation and other forms of meditation, the most important of which is that Christian meditation is focused on God rather than self; Christian meditation allows God to come into one’s heart and mind, rather than emptying out one’s self, clearing the mind of all thoughts.

As a novice at meditation, I have so much to learn and experience, but the rewards I have already seen are enormous.  This new way of experiencing God has been a revelation to me, and I don’t think I would ever return to my former practices of prayer.  I would love to hear from others who have been practicing meditation, Christian or other forms, about the changes meditation has brought to their lives.  Are there those who are experiencing meditation with a group, and, if so, how does that experience compare with private meditation?  I hope that I can hear from others who can help guide me along the path to a deeper awareness of the presence of God through meditation.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Quick Prayers

As I went out to my back yard to scatter some bread for the birds, I found myself saying a prayer of thanks for the beauty of some flowering moss my wife had planted.  It suddenly occurred to me that I was saying quick prayers of thanksgiving throughout the day with no conscious effort on my part, with no intention or preparation.  I realized that God was working in my heart to transform me into a more mindful person. Everywhere I turn there are reasons to give God thanks.  As I began writing this post, Jesus' words, "when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words" (Matthew 6:7) came to mind.  I wonder if Jesus was urging us to speak to God in the quick prayers of thanksgiving that seem to be popping into my head.

Monday, September 20, 2010

A Quiet Sunday Morning

Last Sunday, I was at the home of my father and his wife. In the morning, I wrote the post below, but was unable to post it, since there is no internet access at their home.

The morning has begun quietly and yet time has flown by. I awoke at 6:30 and already it is 9:30. Soon I must dress for church. I am filled with a great peace, enjoying the silence that surrounds me. The fan across the room hums quietly and faint light from outside filters into the room. Even with that light and the light from a table lamp, the room is dark, almost cavelike.

Soon there will be people all around as I go to church, people from my childhood and people that I don’t know. The surroundings will be familiar, a simple church with beautiful multicolored windows in a random pattern. The church, too, is cavelike. Simple wooden beams from floor to ceiling and across the ceiling. Pews of light stained wood with maroon cushions. An elevated pulpit with a choir loft. A Communion table on the floor in front of the pulpit. A light colored industrial tile floor. The plainness of the room makes it beautiful. It is a place designed for worship in a plain style, without elaborate rituals or distracting images, a place to sense the presence of God.

The Discipline of Gratitude

Each day one of my goals is to list the special joys that have come to me that day in a prayer of gratitude.  This practice began as a written prayer, but lately I have prayed this prayer of thanksgiving as the last conscious thoughts that I have before going to sleep.  In my thanksgiving prayer,  I list each unique blessing that has come to me that day.  For instance, one recent prayer contained a list of these seven items that had special meaning for me on that day:

  • an unusual quiet solitary time at the end of a very hectic day
  • the safe arrival of our son’s weekend guest
  • an unusually productive day that had gotten off to a slow start
  • the feeling of peace that my wife had found at the end of the day after a series of misfortunes earlier in the day
  • a late afternoon bike ride that helped clear my mind and left me with a feeling of peace
  • a wonderful meal eaten later than usual with good conversation and some good wine given to us by a friend
  • a great sense of serenity as I brought the day to a close

None of the things may seem unusual, but for me the day had been especially trying.  I had prayed at the beginning of the day for joyful acceptance of whatever God sent to me that day, but, though I had tried to find joy in the events of the day, I was disappointed that the day hadn’t turned out as I had hoped.  Throughout the day, I had sensed God speaking to me, telling me not to give in to irritation or frustration, to keep my energy focused on being present for my wife and trying to meet her needs rather than insisting on my own way.  I had done that, and, in the end, she was at peace and filled with joy, though earlier she, too, had been frustrated by the way the day had turned out.  Suddenly, I realized that God was giving me joy that had been delayed throughout the day and that if I had simply taken the day in stride, offering the unplanned mishaps and delays as joyful offerings to God, I could have had that same joy all day.  God was working to transform me from the selfish person I wanted to be into the disciple of Jesus that God wanted me to become.

During my bike ride, I sensed God speaking to me, telling me that I had accomplished much, even as I was asking forgiveness for allowing anger to enter my heart because of the way the day had gone.  God reminded me that the act of keeping my frustrations from boiling over into angry outbursts was an achievement for me, allowing my wife to experience the joy that I wanted her to have despite her frustrations with the way the day had gone.  When I returned home, my wife was smiling and looking forward to the meal with our son and his guest who would be staying with us for the weekend, and I knew that God was at work in her life.   What a wonderful gift it was to end the day so filled with joy and to let go of the bitterness over the day’s disappointments.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

My Pattern of Prayer

As I seek to develop a habit of "mindfulness," one of the things I am trying to avoid is getting into repetitious patterns.  Yet there are certain disciplines that I seek to make a part of each day.  One--my listing of those persons, organizations, groups, and the like--I mentioned in an earlier post.  The disciplines that I seek to incorporate into each day are (1) an early morning Scripture reading and prayer, (2) the prayer that utilizes the list I mentioned above, (3) a prayer of gratitude, (4) a solitary "think" time, and (5) the quick prayers that come as a result of the prompts about which I posted earlier.  These disciplines seem to be helping keep me mindful of the presence of God throughout the day, and I find sensitivity to that presence is becoming more frequent, almost constant.  (My goal is to eliminate the word "almost.")

I want to post today about my early morning discipline.  The first thing I do each morning is to go to my "quiet spot" in our den and open my computer, where I access the reading for the day.  I am focusing on reading the four gospels now.  I read a brief passage, one of the divisions within the chapters in the NIV.  I have completed Mark and Luke and am near the end of Matthew.  I will, of course, read John's gospel next.  My intention after completing John is to reread the gospels using a "harmony."  Once that has been done, I want to explore the context of the gospels, that is, to learn more about what life was like in Roman Judaea and Galilee during the lifetime of Jesus.  My goal is to immerse myself in the life and teachings of Jesus as much as I possibly can and to study the life and teachings of Jesus without the filter of the epistles.

After my reading, I begin my morning prayer by writing a brief summary of the reading and my interpretation of it.  Next I write questions about those things I do not understand and ask God to lead me to understanding.  I continue writing my prayer using a word-processing program, offering thanks for the joys of the past day, listing the plans I have for the new day and asking God to guide me to the tasks God wants me to accomplish, and praying for my family.

After writing this opening section of my prayer, I stop to pray in silence and to listen for God's direction and reassurance.  I meditate using a short phrase, such as "God is love," and when I sense that it is time  to end my quiet time of prayer, I write my closing sentences, asking for God to help me stay open to God's presence, to be prepared for whatever work God wants to do in my life to transform me into the person God wants me to be.  I thank God for the forgiveness of my sins, and end by praying these prayers through Jesus, using a phrase based on the reading for the day.

I've not always prayed in this fashion, and I'll post another time about the "start-of-the-day" prayers I used to employ.  This new, less structured way of praying has been a rewarding practice for me.  The idea of sitting in silence, listening for God, has made me more keenly aware of God's presence not only during this initial time of prayer, but throughout the day.  I'll post about the other disciplines I use throughout the day in later posts.  I would be interested to know how others begin their days with God, the disciplines others employ to keep God in their hearts and minds during the day.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Life Well Lived

Tonight I heard that a woman I greatly admire has died.  She devoted her life to improving life for children in one of the poorest third-world countries.  She worked tirelessly to raise funds for these children's education and inspired a host of others to join her in the work of improving life for these children.  She even found time to write personal letters of thanks to each and every contributor to the foundation she started.  What a wonderful example she was!  I pray that I can trust God to transform me into a disciple of Jesus who is as caring as this great saint was and is.

When Bad Things Happen . . .

So often when someone dies, I hear things like, "God has called him home," or "God needs her more than we do."  In times of misfortune, too, some will say that God sends misfortune to test our faith or to help us grow.  I can't believe that God makes bad things happen to us.  God allows such things to happen, because without having the bad along with the good, there could be no freedom for us.  Among my deepest beliefs are: (1)  that God is the source of all that is good in our lives, (2) that God desires only the best for us, and (3) that God is working for good in our lives as much as we will allow it.  Sometimes bad things happen to us because of our own bad choices, but often these bad things are random events.  God can use the bad events in our lives for good if we choose to allow God into our lives to help us through the bad parts, but I cannot accept the idea that the tragic events that come to us are caused by God.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Joyful Offerings

One of the things I enjoy least is running errands.  I find myself getting frustrated with the seemingly endless minutiae of life--picking up groceries, going to the cleaners, finding the right part for something that's broken--all those things that are necessary to keep day-to-day life functioning.  Today as I ran errands, though, something odd happened.  Each time I felt myself becoming angry about doing what needed to be done, I was reminded that there are things that I am missing by not paying attention as I drive.  Suddenly, I was surprised to discover that errands could be pleasurable, and I began to look for the good in the experience.  The errand-running became a joyful offering to God, rather than a miserable, but essential, chore.  I realized that this had become an "aha" moment that God sent me, and it transformed my entire day.

I wonder if others have had such moments when God has awakened them to the pleasure that can be found if you're willing to allow God to show it you.  Maybe God is transforming my life and helping me to become more open to the joy that is all around me.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Justice, Mercy, Faithfulness

This morning I read the last section of Matthew 23.  In this passage, Jesus condemns the religious leaders for failing to observe the essential teachings of the law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness.  This is an obvious reference to Micah 6:8, a passage with which these learned religious figures would have been familiar.  The concepts of justice and mercy are set against the fate of Jesus, who will soon be condemned to the ultimate injustice of crucifixion by the very people about whom he is speaking .  Jesus lived a life filled with mercy, healing the sick without concern for whether healing was merited and associating with those these religious leaders believed to be "sinners."  By contrast, the quality of mercy was missing from the thinking of the religious leaders, who were more concerned with finding evidence of breaking the ritual demands of the law.  

As I thought about these three qualities and the observance of 9/11 yesterday, I was reminded of Jesus' teaching in the gospels about love for one's enemies, such as the passage in Luke 6.  It seems to me that much of our discourse has been about hate and punishment, rather than about justice tempered by mercy.  The injustice of lumping whole groups of people into stereotypical categories based on the actions of a few seems to be rampant in our country now.  Laws that presume someone to be an "illegal" based on appearances and that require the one so classified to present evidence to the contrary seem to run counter to what Jesus taught.  The presumption that someone is a "radical" based on that person's ethnicity or religion is another example of our ignoring what Jesus taught, especially when such injustice is practiced by many who talk about returning the US to being a "Christian nation."

Justice, mercy, and faithfulness to the ideals of Jesus are the essential traits of a follower of Jesus.  My prayer is that God will work in my heart and mind to transform me into one who is consistently just, merciful, and faithful to these core ideals.  I would be interested to know what others think the meanings of these three words are in the context of Jesus' teachings.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

What I Mean by Mindfulness

Mindfulness for me is the act of opening my mind and heart to the presence of God.  Over the past several months, as I've tried to become more alert to the presence of God in my life, I've tried using several "triggers" or "prompts" to remind myself that God is at work and to become more conscious of God's activity in my life.  The most helpful prompts have been acknowledging God's presence each time I open my laptop and each time I rise from a sitting position.  I don't know why these prompts have been more successful than others I have used, but they seem to work for me.  I know others who've set alarms to prompt them and who've used other regularly occurring events in their daily lives.

Another act that keeps God in my mind is listing all those for whom I pray on a daily basis. I review this list while I'm in the midst of some repetitive activity, like running errands or going on my daily bike ride.  I try to review my list once every day, but I do this apart from my regular devotional time.  Calling these names to mind and acknowledging my concern and interest in these others is an act of devotion, reminding me that God is at work in their lives, acting for their good, and that this action of God continues whether I pray for these loved ones or not.

My hope is that as I become more mindful of God throughout the day, my "mindfulness" will become a fixed habit that keeps God in my mind all day, not just when I am prompted by the acts of opening my laptop or rising from a seated position.  I wonder what prompts others may use and how successful others are in becoming increasingly aware of the presence of God.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Blogging and Vanity

As I begin this blog, it is with a great deal of self doubt.  I have no special attributes, knowledge, or insights, and it would be presumptuous of me to suggest that I was any more than one who seeks the path that God wants me to follow.  The spiritual journey that has motivated me to share my experiences with others has compelled me seek out others who may be traveling the same path.  I hope that this blog will help me to find like-minded travelers.

As a lifelong Christian, my journey of faith has taken many detours, and, as I enter my mid-60's, I am becoming more convinced of the presence of God in each of our lives, whether we acknowledge it or not.  I have come to believe that each person shares the "divine spark," the "still, small voice," of God that was planted there by the One who created us, and that our most profound duty is to ask that God make us mindful of that spark, that voice.

For many years, I believed that the Christian life was a struggle, that each of us had to work to defeat the evil that sought to control us and to come between us and God.  I have come to believe that such struggle is futile.  Instead, it is God that does the work, and our duty is to open our hearts and minds to God as God transforms us into the person God wants us to be.  The work of transformation into what God would have us become is not ours to do, but the power of God working in us.

So, I hope that others may have insights that will enable me to become more open to the voice of God, and that my experiences in opening myself to God will offer some encouragement to others.