The Challenge of Contemplation

I’m leading my faith community through a teaching series concerning the connection between emotional health with spiritual health. Part of the series are daily soul-training exercises, posted on our Facebook page and on our blog,  designed to reconnect ourselves to the roots of contemplation as taught by the Desert Fathers. In posting these soul-training exercises to the web, I have allowed for a potentially insidious thing to happen: the same devices most of us use to navigate our lives – computers, iPads and smartphones – can actually be a distraction to the very contemplation I am advocating. Follow me.

Author and business guru Tony Schwartz writes often about the electronic distractions we face daily as we try and work. With just a keystroke or two we have access to Google, YouTube, Facebook, blogs and books, not to mention TV shows, newspapers, magazines and Twitter. The same can be said of our attempts to be contemplative.

Social critic Linda Stone has coined the phrase continuous partial attention to describe the divided way we attempt to focus. Her basic point is that we keep one thing at the top level of our focus while at the same time scanning the periphery in case something more exciting or engaging emerges. In her words, “staying singly focused on a task in this digital era is like trying to resist eating while sitting in a bakery as cookies, pies, cakes and tarts emerge fresh and fragrant from the oven.”

Finding that quiet place, as free of distraction as possible, has always been my secret weapon for contemplation. I had never really considered how the very technology I use to assist my contemplation might actually be detracting from it. What do you think?

 

 

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Letting Go

In an early morning ceremony today, groundhog Punxsutawney Phil emerged from his burrow in Pennsylvania and signaled to the world that he saw no shadow today, thereby foretelling an early end to winter. Over the century and a quarter that the ceremony has taken place, Phil has seen his shadow only 16 times including today. The last time he didn’t see a shadow was in 2007. Today’s smaller than usual crowd, who stood in freezing rain to watch the ceremony, responded with a subdued clap of the hands.

An early spring. A decidedly difficult concept yet appealing concept for us North Texans. We’re enduring a second straight day of record-breaking low temperatures and iced-over roads. Thousands of Super Bowl bound visitors are stranded in airports around the country waiting for the airports in our region to get back to full service. Snow and icy roads. Schools and offices closed. Rolling electrical blackouts. It’s inconvenient. It’s a hassle. It causes us to let go.

We hate to let go. We need to be in control. Most of us are shocked to discover how great this need is. What’s true in work-a-day life is true in our spiritual life as well. We seem to prefer a clear and comfortable theology to the mystery of followership. Contemplative spirituality creates in us the ability to let go of our need to be successful, of our need to be right and our need to be in control. Letting in go is not easy. Perhaps a few more snow days might allow the lesson to sink deeper into our souls.

 

On Barth, Faith and Advent

A key element of living with Advent anticipation is faith. What I’ve discovered about a life of faith is that it generally does not come with precise boundaries. It’s less about a journey with GPS-like precision and more about discerning the ink-blot movements of God with all the help from Rorschach I can get.  We want Advent to be the season in which all uncertainty is banished. And in a way, it is. The certainty of Advent is that God has made his way to us in the form of the God-child Jesus and that he one day he will make His way back again. Only this second coming will be a triumphal one in which the restoration of all things is made complete. Until that day, we live in the season of Advent and every season of life by faith.

Karl Barth, in his Epistle to the Romans, writes this about the demands of living by faith: “If we fix our eyes upon the place where the course of the world reaches its lowest point, where its vanity is unmistakable, where its groanings are most bitter and the divine incognito most impenetrable, we shall encounter there – Jesus Christ…the transformation of all things occurs where the riddle of human life reaches its culminating point. The hope of His glory emerges for us when nothing but the existentiality of God remains, and He become to us the veritable and living God. He, whom we can apprehend only as against us, stands there for us.”

As the Advent season marches toward its culmination on Christmas day, may we be reminded to fix our eyes on the Christ-child.

Of Advent and Coterie

“Reaching out is an act of wholeness, not only for others but for us.” I read those words by Eugene Peterson this morning as I sat comfortably in my favorite leather chair in the coffee house that is my second home. The people who frequent this establishment have reached out through an Angel Tree Christmas program to help a needy family in my faith community. My daughter asked me yesterday why these people would do something so kind for someone they don’t even know and will probably never meet. I think Peterson’s quote goes a long way toward answering that question.

Peterson goes on to suggest that we cannot be whole enclosed in our own habits even if they are pious habits. We cannot grow to maturity confined within what he calls our own “coterie” (an intimate, exclusive group), even if it is a very orthodox coterie. We cannot grow oak trees in a barrel any more that we can grow a human in isolation. The larger the world in which we live, the larger our lives must develop in response.

Faith communities tend to betray this reality. We huddle and retreat within our buildings. We forget and even ignore outsiders. We go about life and faith as collecting friends who look and think alike. It’s anonymous people like those who participated in the Angel Tree who go beyond the people and places that they know who find wholeness in this Advent season.

On Advent, Kierkegaard and Crowds

The great Danish philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard insisted “the crowd is untruth.” Consider this quote from his classic text The Point of View: “There is a view of life which conceives that where the crowd is, there is also the truth, and that in truth itself there is need of having the crowd on its side. There is another view of life which conceives that wherever there is a crowd there is untruth, so that even if every individual, each for himself in private, were to be in possession of the truth, yet in case they were to get together in a crowd – a crowd to which any sort of decisive significance is attributed, a voting, noisy, audible crowd – untruth would at once be in evidence.”

Kierkegaard goes on to qualify his position: “Perhaps it may be well to note here, although it seems to me almost superfluous, that it naturally could not occur to me to object to the fact, for example that most preaching is done or that truth is proclaimed, even though it were to an assemblage of hundreds of thousand…but if they should put the truth to the ballot, that is to say if the assemblage should be regarded as the authority, if it is the crowd which turns the scale – then there is untruth.”

Author Eugene Peterson suggests that approval by the masses is accreditation. Engagement of a majority of people in an activity is thought to give evidence of legitimacy. The result is that truth is flattened to fit in a slogan – Just Do It! Image is Everything! You Deserve It! He goes on to say that any part of our lives that is turned over to the crowd makes it and us worse. The larger the crowd, the smaller our lives.

So what do crowds and Kierkegaard have to do with Advent? My friend Michael Blewitt says this about advent: “Jesus comes not just for a visit, but to take up residence. He comes not to elicit kindness, but to establish a Kingdom. He comes not for a meal; He comes for communion.” Advent is about creating margin in our lives to live in expectation of God’s fulfillment of His promise to restore all things. While the crowd calls for us to reduce this season to a time of conspicuous consumption, Advent calls for us to practice the disciplines of faith. Every time we retrieve even a small part of our life from the crowd and respond instead to the still small voice of God, we are that much more ourselves. We are that much more human.

 

Soul-Training Practice – Awareness

For centuries, great theologians have pointed to the beauty of the created world as the first sign of the goodness of God. Simple things like sunrises and sunsets, the beauty of colored of leaves in the fall and the intoxicating scents of spring often go unnoticed in the hustle and bustle of modern life.

Maureen Conroy, co-founder and spiritual director of The Upper Room Spiritual Center (www.theupper-room.org <http://www.theupper-room.org> ) advises us to become absorbed in creation as a way of training our soul in God’s goodness and love. She advocates taking a walk outside paying specific attention to the sights, sounds and colors of nature.

Consider taking an hour this week to go to the Nature Preserve or another outdoor park simply to delight in the goodness of God. Take along a sketchpad or something to write on so that you can jot down what you see. Imagine that your task is to describe for the blind man in Mark 8 the beauty of God’s creation. Note the colors around you, the different types of vegetation and even the sounds and smells you experience.

If you are able to practice this exercise, reply to this post with what you did and how you felt about it. What, if anything, did you learn about the goodness of God through the exercise? What stood out to you as you paid closer attention to the created world around you?

Nicknames

One thing I wanted desperately as a kid was a nickname. One of my best friends growing up was Tyler Weaver but everyone just called him Tigger (as in Tigger the Tiger of Winnie the Pooh fame).  All my favorite golf heroes had nicknames. Ben Hogan was The Hawk. Arnold Palmer is The King. Gary Player is The Black Knight. Jack Nicklaus is The Golden Bear. Everyone calls Frank Zeller Fuzzy. Craig Stadler is The Walrus. Ben Crenshaw is Gentle Ben. Greg Norman is Shark. Freddie Couples is Boom Boom.  Retief Goosen is The Goose. Colin Montgomery is Monty. Tim Herron is Lumpy. Phil Mickelson is Lefty. Tiger is, well Tiger.

In Old Testament times, names were significant. They held identity as well as identification. The name Yahweh – or the tetragrammaton, YHWH – is used  nine times in Psalm 96. It is most often translated LORD because the Jewish community substituted LORD for this proper name of God for fear of speaking his name in vain. It is the verb form “to be,” which in Mosaic context signifies being present. Here might be a suitable nickname.

He is here. He is in the middle of all the stuff of life. He is the present one who has come to set thing right. He is our present rescuer. He is the one present to act. He is. What will your response be?