Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Body at Prayer

One of the interesting things about the word meditation is that is has the same Latin root as the word medical. Both of these words share the root med, which means “to look after” or “to think about.” It is not difficult to understand why these two words sprang from a single idea. The mind-body connection used to be commonly accepted, but over the centuries, it seems the connection has been blurred or even lost. Meditation is now generally considered an activity of the mind and heart. A simple definition of meditation is to center one’s thoughts on God. We see this meaning as the word is used in the Bible, such as in Psalm 63:6, which says, “When I think of you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the night watches.”
Meditation is a simple thing and there is nothing mysterious about it. Its purpose is to heighten our awareness of God. Distraction seems to be the most frequent obstacle when we try to establish a practice of meditation. It is a discipline and takes time and intention. Although it is a simple thing to do, it is not easy. It requires a commitment of will, time, practice, and persistence.

Those who practice meditation have experienced benefits for the body. Perhaps we see this mostly in the reduction of stress and the many positive effects this in itself has on the body. But even more, the practice of body prayer is an experience that benefits the soul. For me, the practice of Yoga has demonstrated the reciprocal benefit for body and soul in ways that are deeper and fuller than any of my previous experience of body prayer, and I have tried many. There are so many ways to practice body prayer and these are a few that I have enjoyed:

• Probably the most simple and basic form of body prayer is found in liturgical worship. In liturgical worship, we generally stand to praise, kneel in penitence, and sit to contemplate. In some situations, we prostrate our bodies when we want to symbolize rebirth, such as in ordination. We process, bow, and gesture in meaningful ways. The movement and posture of the body expresses what is going on in the spirit. The body and soul move in unity.

• If you have had the opportunity to walk a labyrinth, you know what it is like to have the body convey the soul to the center. I have always found walking the labyrinth to be a great way to open up new reflections and awarenesses of the spiritual journey and the twists and turns that bring us to God.

• Hiking is always a prayerful experience for me. Whenever I am out in the wilderness of God’s creation, usually with friends, I am continually amazed and awed at the exquisite beauty of my surroundings. My heart is always lifted in praise at the infinite variety and uniqueness of different places. The physical activity is refreshing to body and soul.

• The practice of stillness is a great discipline. My most fruitful times of this quiet meditation or centering prayer take place on my prayer bench. On the prayer bench, my body is positioned for deep breathing in a very comfortable way. The prayer bench is a great tool for this discipline. Prayer beads are helpful here, also.
• Laughter is a wonderful form of prayer that is great for the body. I must admit that when I go out for a glass of wine with my friends, we are often the loudest table in the whole restaurant. Every now and then we get looks. We don’t intend to disturb anyone, but sometimes I’m afraid we do. I treasure these times or laughter with friends, family, and colleagues. I am intentional about making time and space for laughter in my life.

• One way that I practice body prayer is at the piano. Playing the piano is such a physical experience and involves every muscle in the body. When the whole body is concentrated on making beauty through music, it is an experience of deep spiritual and creative activity. The mind, body, and soul are focused on one thing. This is some of the deepest spiritual work that I do in my prayer practice.

• Yoga is my newest practice of body prayer. I know that as this practice deepens, new discoveries and insights will come. This is one more powerful opportunity to deeply integrate body and soul with intention. I am excited to see the fruit that will come of it.

There are many different ways that we practice meditation and body prayer. Everyone can examine his or her own life and reflect on the various ways that they practice body prayer. There are always many different methods to explore and new things to try. Each new exploration is a discovery of the wealth and variety of God’s grace.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Forgiveness in the News

Last week, it was reported in the news that the Vatican forgave the Beatles.  More accurately, I understand that the Vatican forgave one of them for saying they were more popular than Jesus.  I had to roll my eyes.  Who knows what the facts really are, but somewhere in this news story, the reality of forgiveness is lost.  I suspect there is more to the story than we read in the papers, but as it stands, this one sure makes the Vatican look ridiculous.

Forgiveness is something that we do for ourselves; it is not necessarily for the sake of the offender.  If we forgive for the sake of the offender, we have a distorted view of what forgiveness truly is.  If we are practiced in the process of forgiveness, we know that forgiveness is something we do to free ourselves. It is unrealistic to expect that our act of forgiveness will have any affect at all on the offender. If we are forgiving someone with the expectation that they will change, we must admit that our forgiveness has become an attempt to manipulate the other person. That manipulation may be an effort to accuse someone whom we think needs to confess and repent, or it may be an attempt to shame someone into changing their behavior. Pronouncing our forgiveness when it has not sought is really our effort to change the other person. It is much more difficult and honest to gently approach the other about the offense while holding the possibility that we have misunderstood or that the offense was unknown or unintended. We all know how effective it is in relationships to try to change someone else! You would think we would learn…!

In some situations, life-giving forgiveness is something we may do for ourselves. We may not be able to reconcile a relationship if the other is not willing, but we can hold an offender accountable. We hold others accountable by not excusing bad behavior and by setting good boundaries. We don’t have to hang around someone who continually causes us pain. We can communicate honestly and openly and let the other person choose how to respond. We can examine our choices in the relationship and choose what is most healthy and wholesome for ourselves and for the other. It is not healthy and wholesome for either party to permit the other to continue abuse, neglect, dishonesty, or any other destructive behavior. If we love each other enough, we will hold each other accountable. It is the only hope for healing and wholeness in relationships.

There can be a fine line between holding someone accountable and trying to manipulate someone. I think we must examine our motives carefully. While pronouncing unsolicited forgiveness is manipulative, giving appropriate feedback in an appropriate way can be the beginning of reconciliation and wholeness. It can be difficult to discern our own motives when we feel the need to engage an offender. Two questions I think we can ask ourselves when we are faced with these sorts of situations are, “How can I best love the other?” and “What do I hope to accomplish?” Although motives are never pure things, our own self-awareness of our motives can inform how we approach another person. We may have a lot of our own work to do before we are able to truly reconcile a relationship.

I wonder if the folks at the Vatican thought about how best to love the Beatles or asked themselves about what they hoped to accomplish by forgiving them.  If they had given this a little more thought all along, perhaps things would have been different.  Seems to me like the Vatican has more important issues to be dealing with anyway.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Discipline of Hospitality

Hospitality is something we practice in our hearts and reflect in our homes. The spiritual discipline of hospitality is not one that is mentioned as often as others, but I think it is a critical one. We practice hospitality in our spirits and are transformed by the presence of our spiritual Guest. Out of that spiritual discipline, we practice hospitality to others and offer an opportunity for transformation for ourselves and for those we invite into our lives.

Hospitality is about welcoming. In Scripture, we encounter many metaphors that describe how God welcomes and invites us. God creates places for us to be in communion (the banquet table, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places…,” “by the side of your altars, O God,” the temple, etc.). Likewise, we human beings are commanded to create a place for God to dwell in our midst. God commands the Hebrews wandering in the wilderness to create a tent and the arc so that God can travel through the wilderness with the people. God commands Solomon to build the temple and then after the exile gives instructions for it to be restored. Every sanctuary built by human hands is a place where God is invited to dwell with us. We make places where we can meet and be with God.

We also create places within ourselves where we can welcome God. Welcoming God into our lives may be an obvious effort that we make when we enter into an intentional relationship with God, but it is not always that straightforward or simple. We might tell ourselves that we want God to be present, but when we actually experience that presence, we find ourselves convicted, frightened, overwhelmed, or confused. We may invite our Guest and then forget about the invitation or get distracted. Perhaps we don’t know how to create that space within us where God can be at rest. Creating that place is something that we must learn and practice. With practice and discipline, we get better at it. We begin to live together. As we get to know God better, we learn what kind of place will make God feel at home and welcome. Over time, we ourselves and God as well, become more familiar dwelling within each other. We learn such things as God’s desire that this dwelling place within us be furnished with love, truth, beauty, joy, faith, and hope. With practice, our efforts at furnishing this dwelling according to God’s wishes improve.

Hospitality to God, which is part of the interior spiritual journey, is paralleled in our outward expression. We can develop hospitable hearts towards others. Each of us has different relational practices that we feel are particularly important and welcoming. For me, having a heart of hospitality towards others means that I pay attention to developing certain relationships and put some time and effort into them. I like to make regular time to be with friends, so I gather with a group of friends over a glass of wine every Wednesday afternoon. I have another group of friends that I get together with for short trips a couple of times a year. I visit with my parents every Tuesday for a few hours. I reserve every Sunday just for my husband. We invite our children for dinner from time to time and speak with them regularly. I think that hospitable relationships require our attention: they don’t just happen. I also try my best to be generous and nonjudgmental in my relationships. After all, we are, every one of us, basically in the same boat. I’m not any better than anyone else and no one else is better than me – or worse for that matter. We’re all in this life situation together. I do my best to speak the truth in love (that’s hard to do!) and clear up any misunderstandings as quickly as possible. These are just a few things that I think are important to having healthy, hospitable relationships. I try to arrange my life and relationships with these things in mind.

Our physical dwelling places reflect our attitudes and disciplines around hospitality and relationships. Look around your home with guests in mind. (The following examples are all great metaphors for spiritual hospitality as well) Is there an area where they can be graciously welcomed when they visit? Is the house number easy to see from the road and well lit? Are pets well behaved? Is there enough seating and is it arranged for comfortable conversation? Are there any obstacles that might make your home difficult for visitors? Is your home tidy and orderly? There are many aspects of a home that either say “Welcome,” or “Stay away,” and it is helpful to aware of what they are. For example, my “front door” is on the side of our house, which some people find confusing, so we put out some subtle indicators to help first time visitors find the door. The house number is very visible on the front edge of the house that leads to the door. There is extra lighting on the door side of the house. The deck wraps around the house and leads to the door and the entrance to the deck points in that direction. The area of the deck on the front of the house in the direction opposite the door is marked off during the summer time with a canopy and sitting area. Even though we have sliding glass doors that are on the front of the house and immediately obvious, visitors seem to pick up on the cues and find our “front door” with no problem. I also like to provide a sense of hospitality by paying attention to details: for example, having cut flowers around the house, lighting candles, or providing a simple snack. These things are easy to do and make your guests feel at home.

One of my favorite offerings of hospitality is “Dinner on the Deck.” When a friend or family member receives an invitation for dinner on the deck at our home, I hope they feel like it is a special invitation. During the summer, when the Denver area is wilting in ninety degree temperatures, our mountain evenings are cool and beautiful. We have a large wrap around deck and it is very pleasant to relax in the quiet, surrounded by woods and wildlife. My husband and I prepare a special meal. We have appetizers and wine on the deck in the informal seating area. On the other wing of the deck, we have brought out a table and our upholstered dining room chairs. We have a white table cloth, crystal, china, and silver, cloth napkins, candles, and wild flowers from the yard for a centerpiece. We dine on the deck as the sun goes down. If it gets cool enough, we may have dessert sitting in front of the chiminea with a fire. What a pleasure it is to entertain and provide a pleasurable experience for everyone. It’s the details that make is special.

How we provide hospitality to those we love is a reflection of how we provide hospitality to God in our spirits, and how we provide hospitality to God within is the foundation for that outward hospitality. The conversation between these two actions, both inward and outward, can be informative and enlightening. You never know what you may discover about your interior living space by having a look at your exterior space.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Tombs for the Lliving

From the upper room of Maundy Thursday, we move to the Good Friday tomb. Here we are left. It is a place of silence and death. God does not speak. We must simply wait. There has been a promise and that is our hope. We wait.

When we don’t forgive, we are stuck in a similar kind of tomb. Our unforgiving relationship is dead and silent. It seems that God does not speak because all we can hear is our own anger and hurt. In this tomb we may not even know the hope of the promise that forgiveness offers. A relationship is dead or dying. We have withheld life as we withhold life-giving forgiveness. But in our stubbornness, it is our own life that is really being lost. Our lack of forgiveness only destroys our selves.

Our own life is lost in another way, too. We pray often that God will “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” As we forgive others, God forgives us. When we withhold that forgiveness, we withhold God’s forgiveness from ourselves. In our inability to forgive, we don’t see how the other deserves or has earned our forgiveness. If we think it is a matter of the offender deserving or earning our forgiveness, then we must be truthful with ourselves and admit that we can neither deserve nor earn God’s forgiveness and we must change our thinking about deserving and earning. If we withhold our forgiveness because the offender has not asked for forgiveness, we have deceived ourselves again for we just want to punish and humiliate the offender by making them ask us. God doesn’t wish to punish or humiliate us. If we say to ourselves that we refuse to forgive because the offender continues to offend, then we have to examine our enabling and get out of the situation. We make many excuses for withholding our forgiveness, but the fact is, there really is no excuse for not forgiving each other. If we think we have found a good reason, then we need to examine things more closely and see what we are really up to. Whatever it is, in some way, it probably keeps us from accepting God’s forgiveness as well as giving us a reason to hold on to our own lack of forgiveness. We have trapped ourselves in dead and dying relationships. We have put roadblocks between ourselves and God’s desire to forgive us. We leave ourselves in the tomb and keep God out.

The source of our Good Friday hope is to let God into the place of death. If we can manage to open our unforgiving hearts to God, then we can begin to see a path forward. We can begin to learn how to forgive. We can let go of death, even if it is the only thing we know. We may have been in the tomb of unforgiveness for so long that it has become comfortable and familiar. We have grown used to the cold and darkness. Today, we are invited to start letting in the life that hope and love bring. It is a threshold. It is a beginning.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Maundy

Today we are about dwelling in the upper room. We can recreate the upper room in our hearts. To we do this, we honor the mandate that Jesus gave us, the new commandment: that we “love one another as I have loved you.” There is nothing new about the love part of that commandment. It is the “as I have loved you” part that makes it a new commandment and so much more challenging. The examples that Jesus gives us today are beyond anything we could ask or imagine. Jesus washes our feet (even Judas’, who is about to betray him) and he dies for us. He gives everything for that love.

In the upper room, Jesus commands that we let him wash our feet, but we respond much like Peter. We could never let Jesus perform such a menial task for us! It is so personal and intimate. We are embarrassed. But Jesus insists. We must let him and others wash our feet. We become vulnerable, powerless, needy, and dependent. We feel both grateful and humble. Somehow, we are exposed.

In the upper room, we join in a meal. We are about breaking bread, community, and sharing. This is no ordinary meal. It points beyond to another meal, the extraordinary meal where bread and wine are blessed and broken in remembrance of Christ. It is a meal that creates community, it is a sharing in the depths of life. It is receiving the real presence of Christ.

The forgiveness journey moves us to dwell in the upper room. We find ourselves with dirty feet and we are powerless to wash them ourselves. We depend on others. We are vulnerable and embarrassed to have such dirty feet. Our dirt is exposed and in the washing we experience great intimacy. We are grateful and humble to be washed clean. Then we join with our brothers and sisters in the great meal. Through it we are made one with God and with each other. Our lives are entwined together in the common presence of Christ. Together, we are brought “out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.” The upper room is a place of holy making.

Holy making is our calling in life. We are called to go out into the world, in union with Christ, and wash the feet of others as well as have our own feet washed, to go out and make an ordinary meal an occasion for fellowship with God, to go out and reveal our hearts to God and reveal the heart of God to others, to go out and make the ordinary, extraordinary.