I have spent a good part of the weekend cleaning and organizing and decluttering around the home. For me, there is a very spiritual connection to that process. It is a sense of freedom, a way of letting go of the negativity and creating positive space in which to move forward. The clutter can be physical and emotional. Both stifle me; both weigh me down and keep me from being fully myself. This Independence Day is about giving myself the freedom to be completely okay with myself as I am. And cleaning and organizing the home allows me a real physical sense of making space for what needs to come, the better things that are ahead. Take a moment this Independence Day to think of what you need for your own independence. Make space for yourself and what you need to take care of yourself and to move forward in positive ways to the person you are meant to be.
[There have been a number of important events in the United States these past two weeks, and I have been struggling to decide which one to discuss first. It seems that once I have reflected on a topic, another significant event takes place that warrants study and discussion. I have at last settled on the post below. Other important issues will find their way in subsequent posts.
I want to begin today’s reflection with questions I have discussed in the recent past: what is the purpose behind a church community, and what should a church community look like? Near the end of last month, I reflected on the latter question (you can click here to read my May 28 post on the topic), and not long before that, I reflected on Peter’s willingness to accept non-Jews into the Christian community (click here to read my May 18 post). On May 28, I wrote, “the ideal Christian community would be as diverse as the surrounding population is diverse.” On May 18, I wrote, “Christians have the obligation to show everyone the love that God gives to all of us.”
A Christian is obligated to show Christ’s love to everyone; therefore, a church community ought to be the embodiment of this mission. Also, a Christian church community should meet the spiritual needs of its members.
Tradition and Law
For a lot of Christians, this is where they get stuck in a complex web of tradition and law. They know what culture has dictated in the past–they expect traditional acts to occur in specific ways because that is how things have always been done–and they know what specific Bible passages say concerning every aspect of life.
Such and such is right because in specific passages the Bible says such and such. Christians love clear and irrefutable answers to difficult questions.
A Court Ruling that Has Changed the American World
On June 26 of this year, the United States Supreme Court ruled that gay marriage is legal in all fifty states. This ruling only applies to U.S. governments, so it has no impact on church rules. Nevertheless, Christians are talking about the decision. The General Convention of the Episcopal church will likely discuss possible changes to its policy on marriage very soon, and I have read comments attributed to several Episcopal representatives who voiced clear support for change. Representatives of other denominations have already expressed outright rejection of change: they point to biblical passages that clearly define marriage as the union between a man and a woman.
Should Christian Churches Institute Gay Marriage?
During the past few days, I have spent some quiet time asking God this question. Whether asked from the liberal or conservative Christian point of view, one answer keeps sounding in my mind again and again: if someone has chosen to follow Jesus, then the church must embrace that person.
It is not enough to only welcome that person during Sunday worship, however: a church community has the obligation to support its members throughout all major life events. Would a Christian church community ignore someone’s tears when a loved one passes away? Would a Christian community turn away someone who has lost a job or a home? And what about the joyful times? Shouldn’t a loving church community celebrate the day when a person’s prayers are answered or when someone’s illness is cured? Shouldn’t a church community rejoice when a member of the congregation is moved to volunteer for a ministry? All Christians need a loving church community throughout their lives, not just on Sundays, and gay Christians are no exception.
Intimate relationships are also a vital part of every human’s life, and within those relationships are spiritual needs that only a loving religious community can support. If gay couples are called to follow Jesus, how can a church deny them the spiritual support that is offered to everyone else? The Gospels show that the apostles were astonished when Jesus met with all sorts of people outside of the traditional Jewish definition of who was safe to hang around. After The Lord’s resurrection, the apostles were moved to accept gentiles, criminals, even people who killed Christians. With such a diverse list of people that the apostles were willing to embrace, why would modern Christians insist on limiting the community membership?
A Selfless Love
It is important for me to emphasize that I am referring to gay couples who choose to follow Jesus Christ. There are many gay couples who prayerfully make this choice, and If a gay couple is called to follow Christ, then isn’t it right to assume that God has already settled the matter? Why would God attract people who are not worthy to be part of a loving community? If a gay couple has chosen to abandon self-centered living and join a community of love, then how can a church say no? And if two gay people meet those criteria and wish to live the rest of their lives together as both spiritual and physical partners, then how can a church deny them the sacrament of matrimony?
Marriage is a term reserved for a selfless love, the same love that comes from God, the same love that fills the entire universe, the same love that the church needs if it is to survive. I know gay couples who possess and project this love–it is time for the church to accept that God’s love exists within all of humanity.
Journal work has an extraordinary connection to prayer for me. I am a writer, and I function best through words. Journal pages can be a powerful way to express prayers. I often struggle with the concept of praying boldly and specifically and directly. Writing out the prayer can be a way of adding preciseness to the process.
Just start with yourself and your family and close friends as what is going on most intimately with you. Then you might want to branch out to larger issues. You can even begin to organize categories of prayers. If the prayer list starts to feel too overwhelming, you can focus your attention to particular prayers needs based on categories and even divide them by days of the week. For example, an extra focus on the needs of the world one day and for particular strangers you’ve encountered on another day of the week. You can pray for your Church or School or workplace on another day. Any kind of category system can work.
Another part of connecting journal writing with prayer is to record responses. Review your prayers in your prayer journal and note when prayers have been answered. Review those journal entries and remind others that you have prayed for them. And make a note and a prayer of gratitude when a prayer gets answered in a serious way!
Journal entries with your prayers can be a specific expression of your prayers and a record of the prayers. The pages can also be a powerful reminder that prayers are answered. Some answers come very quickly while we wait much longer for others in God’s perfect timing. A journal of prayers has also shown me with enough time that sometimes a no answer is the great blessing. The whole process of making notes about the way in which the prayers are answered becomes a type of gratitude list for me. I see the answered prayers over time, and the gratitude is overwhelming.
What does it mean to practice contemplative prayer? There are different views on this subject, but I am going to focus on my own personal definition of contemplation as I practice it in my daily life.
My Personal Definition of Contemplation
For me, contemplation is the act of being aware of the heavenly truth that exists in the world. Some contemplatives close their eyes when they focus on God, some keep their eyes open, but, either way, contemplation is a focused awareness.
When I take time to reflect on a Bible passage or an event that has occurred in my life, I try to comprehend the truth that exists in that passage or event. First, I try to understand what is literally there, but then I try to understand what spiritual truth exists within the passage or event. (Read a little further to see an example of this process.)
So far what I am describing sounds like focused thinking or deep concentration, but there is more to contemplation than mere thought. When I contemplate, I try to have a conversation with God. Many spiritual leaders describe prayer time as a conversation between you and God; I treat contemplation time the same way. I suppose one could speak to God out loud throughout this sort of experience, but I always hold the conversation silently in my mind. Usually, I tell God (silently) what I see and then I ask questions. If no answers come to me, I might propose some answers. This does not feel like a solitary exercise.
My Contemplation Process
So here is an example of my own contemplative process. Today’s reading comes from the first chapter of John. When I decide to reflect on a Bible passage, I will first read through the entire passage and try to get a literal understanding of what it says. (“Try” is an important word here because some passages are more difficult to understand than others.)
After reading the text for literal understanding, I read it again and wait to see what statement or image grabs my attention. This time, the last two sentences pull at my heart, so I begin to reflect on them.
“No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”
If no one has ever seen you, God, then how is it possible for any of us to know you? Is it true that we have to accept Jesus in order to have a relationship with you? Doesn’t this mean only one type of person (someone who needs to see a physical human in order to believe in a God) has the opportunity to be with you?
Notice that I am asking these questions directly to God. I do not know if every contemplative Christian reflectis in this way, but it is important for me to keep the conversation personal.
This time, responses come to me right away. (And this is a blessing because often I will not receive a response right away.) No, Jesus is not for one group of people. He is for everyone, but different people will relate to Him in different ways. For those who need a more human image of God, Jesus is there in the flesh. For those who need a set of rules to better connect with God, there are the many teachings that Jesus provides. For those who best understand God through community, Jesus provides the template for such a community. This is how Jesus serves all people from all backgrounds.
I will not reproduce the rest of the conversation here, but you get the idea. In case you are wondering, no, I have never heard the voice of God in an auditory way–God’s responses never come to me in the form of a voice. How do I know that the responses to my questions are from God and not something evil? I used to say a prayer for protection before beginning my contemplation time, but I am not as concerned about this danger today. I know ideas are from God if they focus on peace and love. Any idea that threatens to disrupt peace and love in the world does not come from God and should be ignored.
One Piece of Advice
I will end this blog entry with one piece of advice for anyone interested in trying this or any form of contemplative prayer: do not come to the conversation expecting answers. Most Christians believe that God answers prayers, but the answers may not come right away. I do not worry if I do not sense any kind of reply to my questions–perhaps I am not ready for the answer. Perhaps God will answer my question at a time that is best for me or for anyone else that may be involved. The goal should not be to obtain answers to all questions; the goal is to form a closer relationship with God. If you live closely with God, solutions to life’s many mysteries will gradually come to you.
1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 15(John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ’) 16From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
Did you enjoy this entry? Feel free to “like” today’s reflection. You are also welcome to add a comment below.
Our prayers go out to all who are suffering from the floods in the U.S. As you may know, Tara and I live in Texas (in the Houston area), so we are familiar with many of the affected areas.
What would the ideal Christian community look like? In one of my previous posts, I reflected on the need for church communities to be more welcoming toward visitors and strangers. Today’s passage seems to direct my mind toward this subject again, and I believe Christians would serve their communities well if they all reflected on the issue more often.
Jesus says to his apostles, “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” As we see time and time again within the Gospels, Jesus does not tell his followers that only people from a particular genealogical background will have a close relationship with God, and He also doesn’t limit the group by race, nation, or tribe. Jesus advocates a very broad community, and He does so because God loves all people.
The “commandments” that Jesus gives throughout the Gospels add up to a long (and repetitive) list. For me, the most difficult commandment is to accept that Jesus is of God “the father” (or that God is within Jesus), but understanding the great mystery of how Jesus and God can be one and the same has always been a struggle for me. (Click here to read a past entry on this struggle.) For other people, the difficult commandments might be to love our enemies or, perhaps, to give up our selfish needs and follow Jesus.
Despite the long list, most of Jesus’ commandments are radically simple, but this does not mean they are easy. Just about anyone who wants to abandon all selfish acts can follow them, so a life with God is available to everyone from every background, but how many people do you know who are truly selfless? To not focus on oneself is a challenge for most people.
This brings my thoughts back to the opening question: what would an ideal Christian community look like? The short answer is it would be full of selfless people.
First of all, the ideal Christian community would be as diverse as the surrounding population is diverse, and this is where many churches today fall short. We all want to hang out with people who are just like ourselves, and this can result in communities where everyone looks alike and shares the same tastes. Most people enjoy this human-uniformity, but I find such a place utterly boring. Why would I want to see a church full of clones? I can’t even stand to listen to the same music from day to day, so nothing about a community where everyone thinks alike appeals to me. I think the ideal Christian community would be diverse: a church filled with people from all sorts of backgrounds with a multitude of views about life and God.
Another feature of the ideal Christian community is that the parishioners would get together outside of church. The community would function more as a family than a typical church community, and this requires the community members to actually commune. Yes, they should get together to pray, but a healthy community also works and plays together, so there might also be groups who gather to work on each other’s automobiles or to help renovate a community member’s house. Perhaps there could be cooking groups or sewing groups. All of these examples describe people who support and help each other, and we can create such communities with relatively little effort and money. Unfortunately, most of us resist such close ties with our fellow human beings, and that is what prevents us from attaining the vision that Jesus presents. If we cannot embrace the rewards found in community, then we do not understand God’s love.
21They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.’ 22Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, ‘Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?’23Jesus answered him, ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.
25 ‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26But the Advocate,* the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. 28You heard me say to you, “I am going away, and I am coming to you.” If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. 29And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.
I was a teen when I took my first creative writing class. The first priority on day one was to discuss keeping a journal. The first homework assignment was to get that journal quickly. There weren’t many parameters on that boundary. It was to be a journal that felt good to us. We would be writing daily. Our teacher referred to journal writing as sacred time. I didn’t give that phrase much thought at first, but I came to understand the concept very quickly. Journal writing is sacred time and sacred space. It is a daily practice for me—an experience that is about as non-optional as brushing my teeth or eating. It connects intimately with my prayer life. Sometimes my writing is calm and peaceful. Sometimes there is something urgent I just need to get something out. There are times when I relish the quiet presence of the pen and paper; other times I need desperately to write through a situation. The journal writing as a prayerful, sacred experience for whatever I need.
Sometimes, writing, like prayer, is hard for people to begin. How do I start the prayer? What do I say? How do I start with this blank piece of paper? What do I write? The honest answer is that you can begin absolutely anywhere. But I know for many, begin anywhere is about the least helpful thing to hear. So let’s start with just creating a safe, sacred space. Where are you quiet and calm and comfortable? Is there a particular room where you live that is your refuge? Do you have a favorite desk or comfortable chair? Sometimes my home office desk is perfect; other times I’m on the sofa with a lap desk/table. For many people, the kitchen or dining room table is the perfect place. Make sure you’re changed into your most comfortable clothes and get yourself a cup of coffee or tea or a bottle of water. Your journal is a good friend with whom you can relax completely.
If a particular writing focus doesn’t come to mind, one approach is to begin by describing the space. What items are around you? Do you connect any particular memories with anything in the room? Are there any items that are particularly special to you? Maybe there is something that is not expensive but extra sentimental. Maybe there is a special hand-made gift of some kind. Maybe something was particularly hard-earned or took great effort to obtain. Maybe an item comes from somewhere very special or exotic. Perhaps there is an extra funny story about how something came to be with you. Give your journal pages a detailed tour of the room!
In today’s passage, Jesus says his disciples “do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.” I have always found much of this gospel difficult to understand, but, as an amateur contemplative, I try. Here, I do not believe Jesus declares that the earth is literally bad–after all, the Bible emphasizes that God created the earth. Instead, Jesus refers to a state of existence that imprisons many people. Instead of being imprisoned, Jesus and anyone who has obtained the enlightened awareness of heaven are free: I believe what Jesus is really describing here is a healthier state of mind.
With all of the miracles and challenging parables, the central message of the New Testament is that we should change our mindset? It sounds too easy, doesn’t it? On the one hand, the recipe for spiritual enlightenment is simple: just change your thinking from a self-centered perspective to a loving, selfless perspective. Quit focusing so much on yourself and instead help others. Many churches try to adopt this spirituality-is-simple approach. They repeat week after week a message of simple Christianity, but there is a serious problem with this message: changing the way you think is not easy. In fact, it is just about the toughest thing you can do.
I need to make a confession here. Negative thinking is the natural state of my mind; for my entire conscious life, even during my childhood, I have lived with the expectation of the worst outcome, and I suspect my mind will always suffer from this condition. Adopting the optimistic (and courageous) view that Jesus advocates throughout the New Testament is very difficult for me.
Jesus’ mindset is one that accepts peace will ultimately vanquish all suffering. This does not mean people who achieve a healthy state of mind will no longer suffer, but they understand there is an ultimate good that comes out of the pain all humans experience. There is also good that comes out of the joyful moments in life. Good is within every particle that makes up life in this universe, and people with a healthy mindset understand that all evil that exists in the surrounding universe will be vanquished.
This healthy mindset can only be achieved through selfless thinking. It requires the conscious act of focusing on others instead of yourself, and it requires constant practice. Many preachers try to make this change sound easy, a quick transformation that happens with little effort and results in a neverending euphoria, but the truth is very different. Focusing on the needs of others instead of yourself takes diligence and work.
The effort yields many rewards, however. Selfless acts fill me with a unique happiness, and I do not need to describe the joy that I feel when I do something out of love. In the end, the spiritual realm that Jesus refers to is one made of love, and this love has to be worth all of life’s struggles.
11And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. 12While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. 13But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. 14I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 15I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. 16They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 17Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.
Recent events in my life have reminded me what it feels like to be a new member of a church community.
The new person begins his membership as a visitor, a stranger who has perhaps found the church through research but is a complete stranger to the community. A stranger is in a vulnerable position and can feel alone even if the church is full of people. It can be a frightening experience made even more frightening by the order of the worship service, the style of music, and the arrangement of the seating that are unique to that community. A new place can feel like a different planet.
The transition from visitor to community member can be short or it can take months depending on the community. How accepting are the parishioners? Are they willing to let in someone who is from a different place? More importantly, are they willing to show the visitor around and help him learn the nuances of their spiritual community?
Today’s passage in Acts serves as a guide for church communities, but it is also a reassuring message for people who are strangers to a new spiritual home. Peter’s willingness to baptize gentiles highlights a central feature of the Christian faith: everyone is welcome to the community. Christians have the obligation to show everyone the love that God gives to all of us, but it is easy for Christians to fail in this obligation.
Today’s reading says, “The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.” The passage suggests that the Jewish members of the early church were astonished that people from other faiths can have a connection with God. My mind wonders if much has changed all of these years later. Would I be astounded if Jesus appeared to a Buddhist friend of mine? What if my friend is so moved by the experience that he chooses to follow Jesus’ teachings but at the same time chooses to remain a practicing Buddhist? Should I then consider my Buddhist friend a member of my church community, or is he still outside of my church community?
God does not follow our labels, and this truth should be at the center of the Christian way of life. A Christian must accept a world full of different people–diversity should not be a mere goal for this faith: it is an unambiguous command.
44 While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, 47‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ 48So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.
This entry is more of a confessional than a reflection. I do not completely understand God, even now after years of reflecting and praying. There is no way that I am alone with this dilemma, but I see it as a good problem. The only harm it has caused me is a feeling of embarrassment–it feels silly to profess a belief in something that I cannot fully understand–but in my mind this is not a defeat.
The lack of understanding simply encourages me to keep thinking and praying about God.
My dilemma came to the forefront of my mind recently when I tried to think of a way to explain my Christian belief system to a non-Christian. What is up with this Jesus? Was he a holy man or was he actually a God? The answer is both, but that is a nonsensical answer. The biggest religions in this world profess to not worship a human, but to an outsider it sure looks like we Christians worship a human being.
Since this is a confessional, I will come out and say that my mind has yet to fully understand the nature of Jesus and the Christian God. I do not understand the religion’s concept of a many but one God, but I choose to stick with this belief system anyway.
Christianity makes a little more sense when I consider the diverse needs that people have. People connect with God in a variety of ways, and when I consider a typical church community, I can see how a church can serve those different needs. For the more thoughtful group, a church service will contain philosophical mysteries. For those who better relate to action instead of reflection, a typical church will offer many volunteer opportunities. Some people better connect with God through physical activity, so the ministries that involve physical work (building houses or constructing irrigation systems, for example) can offer them a spiritual experience.
This idea of diversity and inclusiveness is the closest I can come to explaining why I have not given up on my belief in God, and it is my best explanation of the impossible-to-understand Christian God. God is made of several different forms because different people have different needs: this does not have to result in a religion of chaos. God embraces all of us, and we in turn should embrace each other: this is the truth behind the Christian faith.