Tag Archives: love

Personal reflections on Thomas Merton

I have been deeply influenced by Thomas Merton, thus my spirituality reflects, in large part, his spirituality. My spirituality begins with the assumption that God exists and desires to reveal Godself to all. Along with that assumption is the belief that God is revealing Godself in all places and at all times, the only major differences between people is our amount of awareness. Some people are more conscious of, or aware of God’s presence, goodness, love, and beauty, while most of us remain unaware the majority of the time. (And this has nothing to do with how religious a person is.)

Similar to Merton, I believe that an awareness of Gods presence and love is a gift given from God. We don’t do anything to earn it. God doesn’t withhold from some until they have put in a certain number of hours in prayer or contemplation. Yet (I suspect Merton would agree here), I think that contemplation allows us to be more receptive to this gift, or as Merton would say, to our true self. I want to be cautious here because while I do not think there is a direct link to the number of hours one spends in prayer or contemplation, I do believe that spending time in prayer or contemplation opens a person up in greater ways to more easily receive this gift. While I do believe that gift can also be received through numerous other ways, I have found contemplative practices to be the most beneficial for me on my spiritual journey. I find silence and stillness allows my true self to emerge. The noise, stress, and busyness of western life is one of greatest, if not the greatest major struggle for spirituality today. I also believe this is one of the reason why so many struggle with a lack of meaning, purpose, and contentment in life. We are all running around so busy and stressed, just skimming the surface of life, and living mostly unaware of the sacredness of every moment.

Contemplative practices allow one to find stillness in the midst of the chaos and allows a safe place for the true self to emerge.

It is clear that the goal of the Christian life is love. When Jesus was asked what was the greatest commandment, he said it was to love God, others, and self. Jesus also said that people would be able to tell who his followers were by the love they had for each other. Like Merton, I do not believe that our love increases just by sheer will power, though it does take work. Spirituality then, leads us toward a greater connection with God, others, and self and thus increases our compassion for all. A spiritually mature person is a person with a great amount of compassion for self and others.

I believe that the primary way we grow in love is through experiencing Love.

Contemplative prayer – wordless prayer accompanied by stillness where one beholds God/the sacred – is the best way I have found to open oneself up to this Love. Merton would say this allows our true self to emerge – our self in union with God’s loving presence. I agree, and though I may use different words I believe we are conveying the same thing. Merton’s spirituality is perhaps even more relevant today than ever before. We cultivate compassion not by trying harder, but by finding stillness and allowing our self to be transformed by God’s loving embrace. The more aware we become of this Love, the more compassion we have for ourselves and others. The spiritual journey is paradoxically both external and internal.

It is through the journey inward that we are better equipped to extend compassion outward.

The experience of love

This past Sunday One Church celebrated our four year anniversary. I am grateful for both the work of those who have gone before me and for the work of those who continue today.

As part of our service (which you can watch here), we listened to several people share a little about their spiritual journeys. Most people find One Church for one of two reasons (or both). Either they are looking for a church that is open and affirming to all LGBTQ persons, or they are looking for a church that is more open and allows space to question, disagree, doubt, or see things differently. As the pastor, I hope everyone feels the freedom to disagree with me at times. I am certain of very few things in life, but one of the things I am certain of is that I surely don’t see Reality, Truth, God, or anything else through a perfect lens.

A consistent theme as people shared at One Church was the idea of unconditional love and acceptance. One Scripture that was shared is the well known John 3:16:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

There is a lot here to explore, too much for one short Lenten devotional, but one thing to point out is that when many read this they assume that “eternal life” means “going to heaven when you die,” which is does not. The message translation more accurately describes this by stating, “anyone can have a whole and lasting life.”

Like I mentioned, there is a lot here to unpack, but let’s move to the following verse, which is often overlooked.

17 Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Or, as the Message translates this:

17 God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.

While Christians are well known for being judgmental and condemning, our Scriptures instruct us to do just the opposite. As this text was shared I couldn’t help but think how important this is for us to reflect upon during Lent. As we journey inward toward greater self awareness, perhaps we should be exploring the following questions:

  1. In what ways am I critical or judgmental of myself? (We tend to treat others the way we treat ourselves. If we are critical of ourselves, this will be reflected toward others.)
  2. Who do I tend to judge? (Let’s be honest, we all struggle with judging others. The question then isn’t do I judge others, but who are those “others” that I judge.)
  3. In what ways do I feel invited or called to partner with God to help put the world right again?

 

Additional thoughts to reflect upon:

I was reading some of Julian of Norwich’s writings this past week. Julian was a Christian mystics who lived in the fourteenth century and wrote the first book written in English by a woman. Thomas Merton called her one of the greatest English theologians!

In Julian’s writings, she refers frequently to God as Mother. While this might be a stretch for some, I find her writings to be refreshing because her focus is on God’s nurturing, motherly love. This is most clearly seen in chapter sixty and sixty-one of the Showings. Below is just a couple of quotes from these chapters:

The kind, loving mother who knows and sees the need of her child guards it very tenderly, as the nature and condition of motherhood will have. (Chapter sixty)

But often when our falling and our wretchedness are shown to us, we are so much afraid and so greatly ashamed of ourselves that we scarcely know where we can put ourselves. But then our courteous Mother does not wish us to flee away, for nothing would be less pleasing to him; but he then wants us to behave like a child. For when it is distressed and frightened, it runs quickly to its mother; and if it can do no more, it calls to the mother for help with all its might. (Julian exchanges the masculine pronouns he/him with Mother to refer to God.)

It seems to me that God is beyond gender, yet I think we should be aware how our words influence our views. I think many people have rejected the masculine, domineering, demanding, Zeus-like-deity, but are still open – and perhaps longing – to receive the kind of nurturing love that Julian experienced and wrote about.

  • Have you experienced this motherly love?

Perhaps this week is an invitation to open yourself up to see God in new ways and experience God’s nurturing love. I believe it is this very experience that forms us and allows us to become less judgmental.

As we experience love, it transforms us and we are better able to extend love toward others. 

A Christian response to Orlando

This morning I awoke to the news of what is now being called the deadliest shooting in American history.

There are 50 known people who have died and 53 injured as a result of the shootings in Orlando at a Gay nightclub.

As most people, I was horrified, shocked, and deeply angered. This shooting has been on our minds all day as we try to make sense of it.

I am part of a wonderful church community called One Church located outside of Phoenix in Chandler AZ. We are a church that includes all and tries our best to follow the life, teachings, and path of Jesus in ways that make sense to 21st century people. We are also a part of a larger movement called Open, which focuses on bringing about a more just and generous expression of faith. (We are not alone in this!)

Some have thought our church to be watering down the truth, the Bible, or the gospel. I  get this picture that they believe we have a sort of hakuna matata attitude that thinks all we need is love and we do very little work in the world. Usually this mindset is reflective of fundamentalist and conservative Christians who think that because we are open and affirming and focus on relational work in the world instead of a transactional salvation message where we escape this world, that we somehow don’t take the life and teachings of Jesus seriously.

I actually take the life and teachings of Jesus very seriously and I believe they are more difficult and challenging then I have ever before imagined!

When someone steals from me, my automatic response is to want to steal from them. When someone steps over me, my response is to want to step over them. When someone mocks me, my response is to want to mock them back. When someone belittles me, my response is to want to belittle them back. When someone hurts me, my automatic response is to want to hurt them back.

Violence begets more violence.

To think that violence will somehow put an end to violence is, as Walter Wink has said, the myth of redemptive violence. It is easy for me to paint with a broad brush and condemn a whole group of people because of one person’s actions. It is easy for me to judge others for something someone else did. I have done all of these and more plenty of times, but when I act out of violence, hatred, or bigotry I create more violence, hatred, and bigotry.

According to the gospel account of Matthew, Jesus states:

 Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.  – Matthew 7v14-15

The way of Jesus, the way of love, forgiveness, and compassion is a very narrow and difficult way. My automatic instinct is to take the wide, easy way and react out of hate or violence. In the same gospel Jesus says that we are to love our neighbor and our enemies. No one can tell me that this is an easy task!

One of the biggest ways we do this at my church is to learn from others. As someone told me today, it is easy to throw darts at people from the outside. In other words, it is easy to cast judgment and to view the other as wrong, violent, or “sinful” when you don’t actually know them and haven’t heard their story. Because of this human tendency (of which no one is exempt), our church has invited a Rabbi, an Imam, and many other religious leaders to speak and share not only wisdom and insight, but also their stories and experiences. Not only does this begin to break down walls that divide us, but we actually find they have so much to offer and so much to teach us!

In light of the shootings in Orlando, as a religious leader and as a Christian I must state the obvious – this is an unjust act of evil. Yet, I must also state the less obvious – hate and violence will only perpetuate more hate and violence. My hope is that this act of evil only exposes this truth.

Darkness-cannot-drive-out-darkness-only-light-can-do-that.-Hate-cannot-drive-out-hate-only-love-can-do-that.-9

When we take the words of Jesus to love our neighbors and our enemies seriously, this leaves no one to hate. We cannot hate Muslims, Gays, Atheists, or even people we disagree with inside our own tradition.

I believe the way forward can only be through love and compassion and that begins as we better understand others.

Instead of judgment, hate, violence, or bigotry – something we all struggle with at times – Jesus invites us to take the narrow path – the way of love, forgiveness and compassion. It is a narrow, more difficult way, but it does lead to life.