Gospel Reading

In my last blog I talked about there being many spiritual practices or exercises that can help us experience the presence of God or the Divine. Most of the religions in the world seek to find and follow a path or paths to God. I have found spiritual treasures in careful readings of the Tao Te Ching, the Upanishads, the Dhammapada, Zen writings, the Songs of Kabir, a host of poets, and, of course, the Bible. In the Hebrew scriptures, I have been especially drawn to the Psalms, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs.

However, most significant to me has been reading the four gospels in the Christian scriptures. Some 25 years ago, a spiritual adviser encouraged me to focus my scripture reading solely on the four gospels–at least for a time. Of course, as a Christian since childhood, I had read in the gospels off and on for many years, along with all the other books in the Bible.

However, as I began to focus primarily on the life and teachings of Jesus, I was changed. Jesus became more than just the one who died on a cross and rose from the dead for the sake of our ‘salvation’. Jesus became the paradigm for how I was to interpret everything else. Jesus became the model or example for how I was to live and think. In this eye-opening understanding of Christ, my own connection with God deepened.

Of course, I read many things these days, but my pattern always includes a portion of a gospel reading. I read and then reflect and/or pray in my journals. (Unless I am determined to write a few lines in a journal, my reading can become shallow and meaningless.)

In the next few blogs I will write about other practices that connect me to God through Jesus Christ. However, if you want to try this practice, I suggest that you begin with a journal to write in and begin reading the Gospel of Luke, and next on through Mark, Matthew, and John. Then repeat and repeat and repeat. For 25 years it has not gotten old!

Pathway(s)

Pathways to God is not strictly speaking about how one can be ‘saved’ in the traditional Christian sense. It is about how we can experience the presence of God. In one Hindu pattern there are three ways–the way of knowledge, the way of selfless work or action, and the way of love and devotion. In Neo-Platonism, the divine can be approached through beauty, truth, and goodness.

As in other religions and philosophical traditions there exist a variety of routes to the presence of God, so in the Christian spiritual tradition there are many practices or disciplines that have been used successfully. One important thing to remember is that not every Christian practice will be effective for every person, nor will one Christian practice always and forever be effective. That is, your particular needs in the spiritual life may change from time to time, so that what was helpful before is so no longer. Other practices need to develop.

For example the practice called Centering Prayer is very popular today among many Christians. It is a way into silence by quieting or emptying your mind. As I noted, many Christians have found this practice helpful. Me–not so much. But I would never denigrate the practice. It has helped a lot of folks. It is one way into silence.

A pattern that has been a better one for me also includes silence, but it is not the same kind. I no longer try to empty my mind, but I want to fill it. I have taken the advice of the Apostle Paul, “From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise.” (Philippians 4:8)

There is one who embodies all of these. That one, for me, is Jesus Christ. So, I try to fill my mind with him. In the next few blogs I will share some of the ways that I do this. I hope you will join me.

As always, anything you find helpful that I have written, feel free to share it with others.

Images from a Contemplative Retreat

It was still dark as I walked to the guest cafeteria. The Rosemary bush was waiting:

Early morning walk                                                                                                                              Caressing the Rosemary                                                                                                                        The day’s first blessing

Later walking to the chapel to chant with the monks and praise God another blessing from Nature:

The path to worship                                                                                                                              Covered in Honeysuckle                                                                                                                      Aroma of God

I have always been blessed to experience the beauty and glory of God in Nature. It was no different at Mepkin Abbey whose beautiful grounds boarding on Cooper River afforded ample opportunities for silent meditation.

In blessed silence                                                                                                                                    I heard the presence of God–                                                                                                              Music of Nature

I came to the retreat hoping to grow in love for God and acquiring more of the compassion of Jesus. One day I walked in a labyrinth marked off by wildflowers.

In the labyrinth                                                                                                                                      Unbidden a song arose:                                                                                                                        More love to Thee

In those seven grace-filled days, I also meditated on Scripture. With the psalmist, I learned to sing my own song, “All my life I will sing to you, my Jesus.” Over and over again as I read in the Gospels, I experienced the glad-hearted kindness of Jesus.

Blessed are the kind                                                                                                                              For they are children of God                                                                                                              Kindness is divine

I was loved by God on this retreat and I returned home with more love and compassion for others–at least for a time. The ordinary world often makes compassion difficult, doesn’t it? So, my growth in love and compassion is far from complete. But in that wonderful retreat perhaps I sprouted a new blossom or two.

Trust in God’s slow work                                                                                                                      Transformation takes ages                                                                                                                    For each one of us

Addendum:

  1. As always, as you are moved, you may share this with others.
  2. If you are interested in retreats you may check out this web site: http://www.theanchorage.org.

Born to Rock–Gently

My mother told me that when I was a baby, I would often get in a crawling position in the bed and rock myself to sleep. And I’ve been rocking ever since. My band director in high school poked good-natured fun at me as I rocked back and forth in my chair playing the trumpet. Whenever I go into a room where several chairs are available, I always gravitate toward any rocker I can find.

Rocking is a gentle movement. It’s a gentle activity. And it seems to me that gentleness is a quality our world needs more of.

Father John-Julian wrote a poem entitled “Psalm 23”. The first two lines are perfect: “The unhesitating gentleness / of pure divinity.”* Reading those lines, I realized anew how gentleness lies at the heart of that psalm in the Bible. It is also characteristic of Jesus as he gently touched the sick and patiently taught the multitudes.

One of the things he taught is usually translated as “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” I prefer to translate it as “Blessed are the gentle . . . ”

I think I have come to appreciate gentleness more and more over the years. I love to see gentle butterflies flitting from flower to flower. Yesterday I witnessed one bird gently feeding his mate. Sitting on my back deck (rocking in our swing, of course) I just enjoy watching the leaves on the trees move gently in the wind.

I am not naive. I know that there are violent images of God in the Bible and that Jesus too is pictured occasionally as responding in less than gentle ways. And violence is part of nature.

Nevertheless, I believe that if we are going to have an earth to inherit in the generations to come, we need now to begin practicing gentleness. And we can begin by simply noticing it all around us, affirming that it is announcing the presence of the divine. Such attention has the power change us; to make us more gentle.

Hopes truest measure:

The gentle kindness of God

Is more than enough

*Fr. John-Julian, “Psalm 23” in The Paraclete Poetry Anthology: Selected and New Poems, edited by Mark S. Burrows (Paraclete Press: Brewster, Massachusetts, 2016), 64.

As always, if this meandering blog moves you, please feel free to share it with others and encourage them to become followers too.

A More Peculiar Practice

I have recommended three practices that have helped me to grow spiritually. They are silence, journaling, and holy reading. These three can be found in many books on the spiritual life. Today’s practice is more peculiar to me.

Some 20 years or so ago I began to see a spiritual adviser. It was a time when I was considering a change of vocation and/or denominational affiliation. It was recommended that I begin seeing Rev. Steve Holzholb. One thing he advised changed my life. He suggested that I not read quite as much scripture in my morning devotions. At that time I was reading an Old Testament passage, a Psalm, a New Testament passage, and a Gospel passage. He said, “LaMon I want you to read only in the Gospels for awhile and nothing else.” 20 years later, I simply cannot omit reading in the Gospels everyday I do my devotions.

As a Protestant Christian, I had interpreted Scripture and life largely through the writings of Paul. This is the normal Protestant pattern. Paul’s writings become the grid by which we understand everything else.

Following my adviser’s suggestion, I began reading a passage from the Gospels daily. It took months, but eventually, my grid changed. No longer did I see everything through the eyes of Paul, but instead through the eyes of Jesus. I interpreted Paul by way of Jesus and not visa versa. If I am a better person now that I was 20 years ago, one of the reasons is that I immersed myself in the Gospel stories and teachings of Jesus.  I believe this Gospel reading has made me more compassionate, forgiving, and welcoming.

It can work for anyone. Simply determine that, except for some vocational necessity, e.g. teachers, preachers, etc., you will read only in the Gospels for awhile. Do not read whole chapters. Read shorter selections. Read slowly, listening for a word from God about which you might write and pray in your journal. As I said, I started doing it “for awhile” and continue to do it some 20 years later–though I do now add some other readings from time to time.

May Jesus himself be your teacher.

[As always, if you find what I have written helpful, you may share it with others. You might encourage them to ‘follow’ these blogs as well.]

Can the Center Hold?

I have been gone for a while, my attention being given to other pressing matters. But I am back. However, today’s short post is not normal because it touches on political matters. Nevertheless, I think it points to a spiritual path that we can follow.

In today’s political climate, those on the right and the left throw stones at one another. That is a problem for those of us in the center. We can get pelted from both sides. Suffering painful bruises, we may begin to echo the famous line of W. B. Yeats, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.” If we are indeed the center, Yeats is prophetic.

Colossians 1:15-20 is one of the deepest thoughts ever written by St. Paul. In this short passage, he affirms that we are not the center. No, Jesus Christ is the center–the center that holds all things together.

Because Christ is the center, rocks can be transformed into roses, hatred into hope, and loathing into love. May it be so in your life and in mine.

(Remember, if you like any of my posts, feel free to share them with others.)

 

Healthy Growth

How an organism responds to its environment determines, in large part, how it will grow. Human organisms are no different. C S Lewis affirmed in various places that we are shaped by the choices we make. So it becomes vitally important how we respond to incidents like the one that recently occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia.

When we are confronted by people who espouse racism or any type of racial superiority, how can we or should we respond? Violence begets violence. Hatred breeds hatred. I think I understand the angry responses of some who opposed the marchers supporting a philosophy of white-supremacy. It was easy for me to get swept up in that anger as well. In most of these cases however, anger simply increases anger. We may feel righteous after it is all over, but have we grown in a healthy way in those moments? Have those responses caused us to be more loving, kind, and generous? I suspect not.

I don’t always make Christian choices, but as a Christian, I live under sweet constraints that have been placed on me. Restraints that call on me to love my enemies, speak the truth in love, and pray for those who would persecute me.

There are other options than screaming words of hatred. Choirs could coalesce along the marchers’ parade route and sing “they will know we are Christians by our love” or “Jesus loves the little children”. Groups of men and women could join together and in unison pray aloud over the marchers, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” I am certain that there are better loving responses that can be given than the two I have just mentioned! But my point in all of this is to affirm that we can respond to bigotry and racism in ways that will promote love, compassion, peace, and understanding. In so doing, we grow in the image of Christ.

 

 

 

Be Extravagant

Recently I heard a fine sermon by Sarah Shelton, pastor of Baptist Church of the Covenant in Birmingham Alabama.  She referred to Jesus’ parable of the sower. In the parable, the sower strews seed over various kinds of soil, e.g. hard trodden down soil, rocky soil, weed-infested soil, and rich soil.

I confess that for years I struggled with those different types of soil. Assuming that ‘soil’ referred to human hearts, I kept asking the question of how do soils or hearts become characterized as in the parable. What makes them, hard or rocky or weedy or rich? Detesting the answers of either Calvinism or Gnosticism, I always ended up shaking my head in sad confusion.

However, the quagmire into which I had waded did not lead to the meaning of the parable. It was, as Sarah pointed out, all about the extravagance of the sower. He or she did not pick and choose just certain places to strew his seed. No, the seed was cast far and wide with no concern about any so-called worthiness of the soil.

What a wonderful reminder to us not to be stingy or discriminating with our acts of love, compassion, and care. Toss them out here, there, and everywhere! Trust that some will bear good fruit. And it may even be in ‘soil’ we might have thought unworthy or unproductive. Extravagance in love is never bad.

A Counter-Cultural Policeman

Baseball season has begun, so I tuned in to the first Braves’ game. They were playing the Mets in New York. Before the game the announcer asked for a moment of silence to honor some persons who had died in the past year. Among those named was former New York city cop, Steven McDonald. The announcer noted that he had been shot in the line of duty and paralyzed for the rest of his life.

Oh, but that is only the context for the story of Steven McDonald. In 1986 at the age of 22, McDonald had stopped three teenagers to question them about a stolen bike. One of them, Shavod Jones, pulled out a gun and shot him three times.

After he was rushed to the hospital, the surgeons told his wife that he would be paralyzed for the rest of his life. She was 23 and three months pregnant. Six months after the shooting, Patti Ann gave birth to their son, Conor. At his son’s baptism, McDonald publicly forgave the young man who had shot him. Later reflecting on what he had done, McDonald said,

I wanted to free myself of all the negative, destructive emotions that this act of violence awoke in me–the anger, the bitterness, the hatred. I needed to free myself of those so I could be free to love my wife and our child and those around us. I often tell people that the only thing worse than a bullet in my spine would have been to nurture revenge in my heart. Such an attitude would have extended my tragic injury into my soul, hurting my wife, son and others even more. It is bad enough that the physical effects are permanent, but at least I can choose to prevent spiritual injury. (Plough Quarterly, Spring 2017, p. 13)

McDonald spend the rest of his life–some 30 years–promoting the importance of forgiveness.

I call this counter-cultural. In America today, the majority of citizens (including many, many Christians) believe more in retributive justice than in mercy and forgiveness. In promoting the death penalty, they refuse to follow the example of Steven McDonald. And more importantly, the teaching of Jesus who clearly disavowed the ancient law of retribution–an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and a death for a death. (Leviticus 24:19-21 and Matthew 5:38-48)

If I ever face an experience as painful as that of Steven McDonald, my prayer is that I will follow his example and the teaching of Jesus Christ rather than our present American culture. Jesus calls us to forgiveness over vengeance.

 

Jesus Was Not a Strict Constructionist

Jesus had regular run-ins with people who affirmed the importance of the letter of the law. They were legalistic literalists. One of the more frequent disagreements revolved around the Law of the Sabbath. Jesus set this law aside time after time after time. The law was pretty clear: “Remember the sabbath day , and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all  your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any  work. . . ” (Exodus 20:8-10, emphasis mine)

One sabbath, Jesus allowed his disciples to pluck heads of grain to eat. They weren’t starving. They could have fasted. Also, Jesus occasionally worked healings on the sabbath day. Generally, these people were not in crisis. He could have waited a day.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke clearly as one who would not be a literalist. In Matthew 5 he rejected three laws: 1) the specific law concerning divorce that had been handed down in the Mosaic code; 2) the law giving permission to make vows; 3) the law of retribution, i.e. an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

Jesus was not a literalist. He was an essentialist. He was interested not in the letter of the law, but the essence of the law. He declared both in word and deed that the essence of the law was to love God and to love one’s ‘neighbor’. No law could be used to override or ignore the absolute law of love.