Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Practice, Practice, Practice...

From time to time it is a useful to revisit the great spiritual classics. Each time I do this, I find those profound thoughts and words which seemed so familiar are fresh and new. They are full of new interpretations in light of the change and growth that happens within me over time. Recently, I have been re-reading one of those well-known classics: The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection. Brother Lawrence was a 17th century French monk. His writing is simple and direct and readers immediately feel that he understands our spiritual struggles and failures.

One of the aspects of Brother Lawrence’s thought that grabbed my attention as I read through it again was his singleness. There is one thing he calls us to do and there is nothing complex or incomprehensible about it. Again and again, he draws our attention to one thing simply put: we must be given entirely to God. Every thought, every action, every word belongs to God. In all things, we must first dwell on God’s presence and then think, act, and speak from that presence of God. No matter how trivial our thought, word, or deed may be, even picking up a piece of straw, it must be done to the glory of God. This is the single message. This is what Brother Lawrence says we must practice.

So we set about giving ourselves entirely to God and practicing the presence of God, and within moments, we have become distracted. We have begun to focus on the next task and this great task is forgotten. It is the nature of being human. We can only truly focus on one task at a time. If we are entirely focused on God, we become no “earthly good.” Imagine trying to explain to your boss that you missed a deadline because you were trying to practice the presence of God! But then, if we focus on the earthly task, we forget to give ourselves entirely over. This is our constant struggle.

If Brother Lawrence were with us today, I can imagine him knowingly nodding his head as we describe this dilemma. He would simply tell us to start again. And again and again and again. I wonder if we might come up with some parallel experiences to draw upon. Have you ever tried to change your attitude about something; to think differently by shear effort? “I’m not going to be angry!” “I’m not going to let so-and-so ruin my day!” “I’m determined to enjoy myself under difficult circumstances.” I imagine we have all thought these things from time to time. We know that we can control our thoughts and attitudes. But sometimes it isn’t so obvious. It can be subtle and difficult. But the more we practice it and the more familiar the new attitude becomes, the easier it is to maintain. We can have an attitude of worship. We can cultivate an attitude of obedience. We can develop an attitude of love in all things. We can grow in singleness of heart. Our new attitude may not be constantly conscious, but it can underlie all of our thoughts, words, and actions.

Practicing the presence of God means that our thoughts, words, and actions are always grounded in that Presence. Perhaps our conscious thought is not always about that Presence, but it is always there. Perhaps it is like the love we have for another person. Over time, that love grows. It may not always be at the top of our thoughts, but when we act in relation to that person, we act out of that love. That love is always there whether we are thinking about it or not. It forms every thought, word, and deed that we practice as we relate to the loved one. One difference with the practice of the presence of God is that all of our thoughts, words, and actions are in relation to God. Everything we do, say, or think is formed by that love of God. Everything we do, say, or think springs from the loving practice of the presence of God. This is but one way to begin to grasp what Brother Lawrence has for us.

For Brother Lawrence, there is nothing that requires superhuman smarts about practicing the presence of God. It is simply what must be done. Even for him, it took years of practice. He had to bring his mind and heart back to God again and again, and over time, that singleness became imprinted in his subconscious and constantly bubbled up into his thoughts, words, and actions. He was totally, unreservedly given over to God. The practice of the presence of God became the ground of all else in his life. In those years of practice so many more great insights came to Brother Lawrence.

If you would like to know more about Brother Lawrence and his Practice of the Presence of God, join us for our Blessing the Workplace online retreat, which begins on January 24th. Registration opens on January 10th. Go to for more information.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Now or Never

In his Testament of Devotion, Thomas Kelly spends quite a bit of time trying to explain the full experience of now: He refers to time-nows and Eternal nows. Again and again, he returns to the concept of the Eternal Now, each time taking a different path so that we can begin to grasp what he is trying to say. He is trying to explain the ineffable. He is trying to help us understand what cannot be understood intellectually, but only through personal experience. To some degree we can hear what Kelly is trying to say, but his explanation requires stepping into the experience through prayer and meditation.

In prayer and meditation we can begin to know what it means to exist outside of time. When we have lost ourselves in those moments of union with God, we step outside of time into eternity. This is the nature of relationship with God – it is eternal. When we enter into relationship with God, we enter into eternity. We transcend the chains of time and are free to be present in the eternal now. The past and future cease to exist – they become one with the now. The eternal now becomes vast, beyond the words of explanation that we try in vain to attach to it. Like anything else, once we have stepped outside of time, our understanding and existence in time is fundamentally changed.

One thing that is different is that our view of the importance of the time-now is transformed. It is the Eternal Now that takes precedence over the time-now. The eternal now informs what we do and how we think in the temporal moment. For one, we understand the present moment in itself, detached from the past or the future. We begin a process of holy forgetting – forgetting the past so that we can live in the present. Not that we lose what is of value from our past experience – after all, that is what makes us who we are today, and thus is a part of the present moment. But we don’t dwell in the past, ruminating on what is finished and thereby forgetting the present. What is done is done, and we cannot change it. So we manage some holy forgetting, letting go of those things that tie us to the past. We also live in the present moment by losing our worrisome thoughts for the future. Through faith and trust, we can let go of those things in the future that keep us from living in the present and trust that God knows our needs even better than we do. We realize how useless it is for us to worry about the future when we don’t really even know what it is that is needful. God knows, not us. The question is, in truth, a question of how much we trust God. If we trust God to know what is needful in the future and to care for us better than the lilies of the field, then worry is not an issue. Now, of course, this is not a license to be irresponsible. Part of how God cares for us requires our own participation. We do what we can. Trust that it is what God requires of us; trust that God will provide what is needed. It is amazing how this happens if we can let ourselves let God.

The experience of the eternal now changes how we view the past and the future and permits us to live in the present. It is an experience that may come through prayer and meditation. We provide the space and the time, and God meets us in that sacred moment. Life is changed and we begin to live each moment to the fullest. What grace it is to forget the nagging business of the past. What grace it is to leave the future to God. In the present we live with God and touch eternity. We dwell in the moment.

Without the nagging past and worrisome future to hold our thoughts hostage, we can be present to the presence of God. Here we find ourselves praying without ceasing, finding praise and thanksgiving irresistible. We respond to the world from that place with God, directed and guided in each thought and conversation. We exist in a new dimension, living both in time and in the eternal. Although it is the nature of creation, and us human beings as part of creation, to exist within time, it doesn’t mean that this timely existence must blot out the eternal existence and the present moment. The present moment becomes the dwelling place and the past and the future are incidental. What is important is immediate, which is God. And it is this experience of immediacy where we learn to love as God loves. The world comes into our love and care more and more as this immediate God desires our love and care for it. We are able to be carriers because we have been present to the present moment and have stepped into eternity to bring that great love back with us. The one who receives this love of God is transformed. We have been transformed in the eternal now so that others may be transformed. The world is changed.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Tracks in the Snow

A week or so ago, we had some snow at my house. It wasn't much, but it was enough to cover up all that old dirty snow and give everything a glittering clean fresh covering. It is always beautiful around here after it snows. Snow followed by sunshine makes the world sparkle. Sometimes it is so bright, it is hard to look at!

One of the things that you can't help but notice a few days after a good snow is all the tracks that are made. The human tracks are logical, going from garage to house, or mail box to house, or car to house, or whatever. Those animal tracks, though, go every which way and seem to lead to no place in particular. They are all different sizes: fox tracks, rabbit tracks, raccoons, squirrels, deer, elk, even mountain lions and bears leave their mark. Those tracks make me realize just how much is going on around my house!

Those tracks also make me think about the tracks that I leave. I think we leave a lot more tracks than we know. One reason I think that is because I can remember many people who have left tracks in my life that probably don't know it. Some of those tracks have been very positive and helpful, some haven't. I remember a couple that I was acquainted with. They were always so friendly and helpful to strangers. I would watch them interacting with others and think that I should be more friendly and helpful to others. They helped me to examine my own behavior and try to be a better person. Whenever I am tempted to be overly shy or to ignore a situation in which I can be helpful, I remember that couple and try to step out of my shell and reach out to others. Those were fine tracks that were left in my life. I appreciate them and remember them often.

Then there are those tracks we would like to cover over. There was a man I worked with who didn't like me much. He was mean! He would send nasty, aggressive emails and say sarcastic things to me. He often said things that were demeaning. Of course these things were all said with a smile and a warm tone of voice. I could never respond fast enough - you know how that is - two days later you figure out what you wish you had said. I always felt demeaned and angry after seeing him. Fortunately, I don't ever have to see him again, but I still get angry when I remember the tracks he left. In fact, I think he was stomping his tracks into me. Someday I suppose those tracks will be filled in and forgotten, but right now, they are still a little fresh.

Well, I know which kind of tracks I would like to leave behind. I also know there are many times I leave the wrong kind of tracks. Some of the tracks I have left make me ashamed. Some of them make me embarrassed. Some of them make me sad. I have finally gotten to the point that now, when I know I have done that, I try to go back and smooth them over with people as soon as possible. This usually requires a change of heart and a sincere apology. Even then, I can only hope that the tracks are truly wiped out. But I'm sure I also leave tracks I don't even know about, so I try to remember to be self-aware and thoughtful.  Perhaps there are times when I leave some pretty good tracks, maybe even times when I don't know about it. I hope so, but I can't say. That's for others to know about. I don't really need to know.

God leaves some pretty interesting and challenging tracks in our lives. For me, those tracks are tracks that have taught me how to love and forgive and play and grow. When I look back on my life, I see tracks all over the place that are made in that beautiful new snow. The world of my soul sparkles brightly under the sun light and those fresh tracks may look like they are going every which way, but somehow they make sense. God's tracks are big and small, delicate and subtle, sometimes deep and powerful. There's a lot going on around my soul! How about the tracks in yours?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

How 'bout those Saints!

I remember quite a long time ago listening to a talk about the nature of holiness and humanity. There was a large audience, a couple of hundred people or so. The speaker asked us to raise our hands if we thought we were holy. My hand immediately went up - I didn't even need to think about that one! But I looked around and realized I was the only one. I was mortified, it was one of those most embarrassing moments! I didn't have a chance to explain my point of view, and in fact, the rest of the talk was about how it was impossible for us human beings to be holy. I wanted to crawl under my chair and sneak out the side door! The speaker claimed that we were not holy people and could not be holy people. Obviously, I was the one crazy person in the room and had some kind of god complex.

When we think of being holy, we think of saints, and many of us probably think about it in terms of what the Roman Catholic Church teaches about saints. A saint is someone who has been dead for a good long time and has performed miracles. A saint is someone who behaves beautifully all the time and never does anything sinful or wrong. We might think in terms of a mysterious, perfect kind of person. Saints have become intermediaries, untouchable, and frankly, discouraging for all us "normal" folks. When we think of these perfect saints, we might remember the saint count in heaven:144,000 – the number of those who made it. When you think of all the human beings on this planet, these are worse odds than the lottery! I may as well give up now and live the high life! With those standards, I am no saint and I certainly ain't makin' it to heaven. I suppose holiness really is impossible!

But wait a minute! When that speaker asked that question, I was wondering why everyone didn't know that they are holy. I thought every person should have raised his or her hand. I have always thought about holiness as a matter of degree: no one is perfect but we all have some holiness in us. We're not perfect saints, but we are saints, and we're working on doing better. When you look a little more carefully at that 144,000, we find that this number it isn't about limiting the people in eternity with God, but it is about describing a limitless number of people. Twelve is the number for completeness or everything. When this number is used in the Bible, it means all or everyone. When you take that number and multiply it by itself, that means all times all. And then, the Biblical writer multiplies it again, times ten times ten times ten! That's everyone times ten three times! I think that means everyone several times over! How much more emphatic can the meaning be?!

So I think the question becomes not are we saints? But how saintly are we? There is holiness within every person, so how is that holiness doing? Is the holiness being nurtured or stomped out? It the holiness growing or diminishing? Just how holy am I? Maybe part of what this life is about is holy making. With God's help, each of us grows in holiness and spreads that holiness in our world. Every one of us is called to be holy, to make our world holy, and to see that holiness in others. Holiness is not reserved for an elite few. It is the nature of all people. We are created with that spark of holiness within, and we have only to cooperate with God's creative process. Perhaps if more of us thought of ourselves as carrying that holy spark, we might have the courage to act upon it.

Every one of us is in that great multitude in heaven. That multitude that no one can count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in our hands, crying in a loud voice, saying “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

Friday, December 4, 2009

New Glasses

In his book, A Testament of Devotion, Thomas Kelly uses the term “hyperaesthesia.” This word is not one we see often and is not particular to the spiritual experience. It means extreme awareness of the senses. A hyperaesthesiac person would be very sensitive to tastes, touches, smells, sights, and sounds. I remember a hyperaesthesiac experience when I got my first pair of glasses. I was about eight years old and it is still so clear in my memory. What a miracle it was to see! I remember my mother going on an errand to the fabric store immediately after we had picked up those glasses. The colors and patterns on all those bolts of fabric were so vivid! I could see every detail like I had never seen before. The whole world was a celebration of color and texture and detail. Imagine your soul with a new pair of glasses, celebrating a new way of seeing, seeing every detail and color and texture of your own being, of the condition of humanity, of the presence of God. Kelly uses this word to describe the state of the soul when it is attentive to the presence of God within. In the hyperaesthesiac state, the soul sees to the depths of the human condition, both for good and for bad, for shadows and for glories. From this place of deep sensing, we see deep within ourselves as well – deep into the shadows and soaring into the glories. We see our own sinfulness and grieve deeply for it. When we see that sinfulness, we recognize the grace of God and the gift of love that has come into our lives. We are so completely other than God and yet we are wanted and loved so deeply by God. Suddenly everything is new and different. All of creation is so much more than we had seen before. Now we can truly see the glory of God.

And now that we can truly see the glory of God and the deep reality of our own sinfulness, our choices take on a new dimension. We can clearly see the results of our choices and they are not bland or insignificant, they are vivid and colorful. The detail comes into focus for good and for ill. Our choices become more significant than we had imagined. The consequence of our response to God, whether it be acceptance and joy or apathy, is revealed in its fullness.

Again and again, we choose for God or against God. We choose to nurture the flame or to let it flicker feebly. As Kelly would say, our choice seems subtle at first, perhaps just an orientation. This orientation is the beginning, but it quickly becomes a “firm cleaving” to God, or a deadly earnest dedication. It becomes an “unceasing orientation of the deeps of our being.” The flame of love for God becomes a roaring fire as we become more and more drawn into the light. In this state, we are “owned men” says Kelly: owned by God and part of the process of the “divine creativity.” God works through us, we become God’s co-creators. God accomplishes change in the world through those who are of deadly earnest dedication, who have that unceasing orientation. Kelly calls this “prayed through.” God “works and prays and seeks His own through us.” Then, Kelly says, we become “time blinded men.” As time blinded people, we become untainted by the effects of time. What happens over time is that our sense of the immediacy of God fades. The fervor dies. The energy is used up. We begin to forget what it is like to be in the presence of God.

We have all had those mountain top experiences, like transfigurations. We see the glory of God for a fleeting moment, and like Peter, we want to build dwellings and stay there. But Jesus states the reality, we must go back down the mountain. And then the fervor begins to fade. Haven’t we all felt this and tried to hold it off. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to dwell on top of the mountain all the time, to feel that joy and wonder in every moment, to keep the fires roaring through our souls. But this is an unrealistic expectation. I think many of us have known people who have denied this fact and put on the outward appearance of constant uplifted joy. This is not reality, it is unsustainable. We are not created to live in ecstasy. We would be of no earthly good, as they say. Kelly writes of another state then, that is sustainable: the state of serenity. We must pass from ecstasy to serenity, a place where we can and must build dwellings, a place where we can live and sustain our earnest dedication. A place where we become unaffected by the passing of time: time blinded men.

This is how our practice and dedication endures. We become unshakable in our orientation toward God. What happens around us, whatever the storm of life, we are owned by God. We live and move and have our being in the presence of the Holy One, and from that place we are useful to God. We become detached from the world, in it but not of it. We are willing; willing to go where ever it is that God would lead us. The light within, that roaring flame, becomes our guide.