Love, Sweet Love

Everyone agrees that’s what we really need. But this Valentine’s Day reveals we aren’t so sure as a culture about what love really is. This weekend saw the release of the painfully romantic, critically panned date movie, “50 Shades Darker.”  Protest signs at myriad political demonstrations graphically commend: “Love, not Hate.”  Images of cuddly puppies, kittens and even cows punctuate personal posts on Facebook. And churches continue to remind us to love God first, and our neighbors as ourselves, and even to love our enemies. How do we sort out all this celebration of love? What does this word of the day even mean? Is it ultimately one thing, or several things sharing a limited English vocabulary? Is love rooted in desire, or proximity, attachment or aspiration? And what of the energies ad campaigns harness as motivators for promoting products of all kinds? “I just love that fast, red car.”

Since “love” in all its splendor is basic to the life of the Christian community and beyond it, I decided to take some classes on “Doctrines of Love.” Of course for Christians love centers not just in the familiar commandments, but in the person of Jesus- his teaching, his behavior, his personal influence. For us the compassionate Jesus embodies God. And he is, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s phrase, “the man for others.”

Having searched the traditions, it seems to me we need  as much clarity as possible about what this love involves.  Ultimately I was looking for a way to define what Christians mean by “love” -accurately and in the fewest possible words. After ruminating through much history, philosophy, psychology and theology, I eventually chiseled out ten words.
(If anyone should have comments, corrections or suggestions about this definition and its uses, I would really like to hear from you.)
I think for Christians:

LOVE IS ACTING IN THE BEST INTERESTS OF THE OTHER

Here is a bit of expansion on the key words:
Acting. Even from the deepest streams of emotion, love is an action that always seems to come first. Feelings follow behavior. That is, one does something, hopefully the right thing, and new feelings blossom. Often changes, transformations may take place. (Reflection should demonstrate this.)
The Best Interests. To discern what is best often requires sifting through good and better options, as well as the poor ones. To listen and reflect on situations draws one out of self interest and focuses on the otherness of persons and even things.
The Other. Christian love is not just projecting my desires, wishes or needs -though this projection may bring me out of self and into closer contact or encounter with another. Even self-love, when it is healthy, asks one to reach out to an “otherness” within.
For me this is a crucial issue. Again, your response is welcomed.

May the blessings of loving always be yours,  Carroll+

PRAYING IN 3D: Awake in the Spirit

vulturesLast year on Pentecost morning a group of jet black vultures had settled under a spreading oak tree in our front yard. Never had I seen turkey buzzards, as they are known around here, except at their grisly work in nature’s final cleanup operation. Here they were at rest. I wondered what to call them, since there are long lists of fanciful group names for birds -such as, the parliament of owls, a gaggle of geese, and my favorite, an exaltation of larks. Of course vultures could be called your basic flock; but it occurred to me they might better be a wake of vultures- so silent, but alert and ready, and dressed funereally for the occasion. I guessed they were waiting for a scout bird to call them to their next grim mission. Looking this up on an internet bird list, I found they have several suggestive names, including a congregation of vultures, and yes, a wake of vultures, especially descriptive of this group. So it seemed to me, these birds were awake for their mission.

Still looking, and wondering, I counted -eleven, plus the one on that low tree branch. It’s the twelve Apostles of the Lord. My eyes widened. They’re waiting for the Holy Spirit as instructed. The one in the tree must be St. Peter ready to hold forth. This is getting weird. It’s almost 9 AM! Then the scout bird arrived and they flew into the reality of their instinctive task somewhere down the road. And I went off to church -awake, to congregate, dressed clerically in black, and feeling Pentecostal.

The buzzards just know, because they are birds, what their task is, what is the purpose of their very existence. And they know instinctively which bird is the leader, and how to follow. Not so, for Christians, since we are human and must act spiritually with freedom and choice. The only thing that makes our spirituality Christian is the Holy Spirit. So at the start of every consideration of the techniques of prayer we must remind ourselves to ask,and to keep asking: Come, Holy Spirit (“Send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior has gone before…Grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgment in all things, and evermore to rejoice in his comfort.” -Book of Common Prayer, pp.226-227) This is why Christians should always follow the old saying, Pray as you can, not as you can’t; because, no amount of technique, discipline or good intentions will help us to grow and develop. Christian spirituality is the operation of God, a gift to us that should inspire every practice. This does not mean no effort is needed on our part; but that effort should always be cooperation in response to God’s prior gift. We humans always seem to want to do things on our own; waiting seems a lazy waste of time. Beware. Waiting should always come first. Keep awake.

Before plunging into the consideration of some powerful prayer techniques, here are scriptural reminders for the self-directed, the impatient or the overly zealous- which pretty much includes all of us:

  1. The Holy Spirit is sent to empower us. A lamp may be plugged into the power source (Baptism), but it still must be turned on to give illumination. Here are some Bible verses to “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest:” Begin with Acts 1:8
  2. The Holy Spirit will be present, on our side and at our side, the Paraclete. John 14:16-17 and John 16:7-11.
  3. We never know how to pray on our own, nor do we need to. Real prayer will be a process we don’t initiate. We join and participate in energies already present; go with the flow. Romans 8:26-27. (This is especially important for intercessors.)
  4. We need to ask, and keep asking, for the Spirit. “Ask, search, knock” Luke 11:9-13. Sometimes, its the Giver we should seek, sometimes the gifts. Matthew 7:7-11.

Fresh Oil

Today it is still Ascensiontide on the liturgical calendar, the day before Pentecost. Christians are remembering that period of waiting for the spiritual power Jesus promised would come upon about 120 persons, including the twelve disciples. During these few days, Judas was replaced with Matthias to complete the symbolic number for a new Israel, a community gathered to continue Jesus’ mission on Earth. It is a time of waiting, like the longer season of Advent.This waiting is not passive or private, like waiting in line to board a train. or buy groceries. It involves a clear focus, attentive prayer and community.

Yesterday I had an edifying experience preparing to conduct an Ascensiontide healing service. My mind was overflowing with sermon themes and illustrations. I felt like a guest at a banquet of rich ideas. I made three outlines; and each seemed suitable for the occasion. I thought, ” The Lord must be inspiring me with pre-Pentecostal fire!”  Yet, which was the right topic? I prayed the Lord would show me the right choice knowing the leftovers could be part of the overflow just for the preacher. The calling to represent Christ in any capacity often also blesses those who serve.

Then I noticed the oil stock to be used for anointing the sick. It surely needed refreshing. The brass was tarnished and dirty. The oil soaked cotton inside was hardened and green. Gross! Why hadn’t I noticed? It embarrasses me that I can’t remember when I last cleaned it. Of course the oil is a sacramental object the Lord would use to bring healing grace, however rancid the blessed contents, or negligent the vintage priest. I polished the brass to a velvety shine, and sniffed the myrrh laced olive oil soaking into fresh cotton. Careful preparation seemed to me a good part of spiritual waiting,  just as baking fresh bread and setting the table is a hidden but normal part of a fine feast.

Later, at the scheduled worship service, it came time for scripture readings -all about waiting in prayerful community for the promise of God, framed with Psalms of praise and expectation. Then came the time for the sermon. The discourse turned out to be entirely other than the three topics I had prepared. It was an impromptu  response to the concerns of a fellow worshipper at the service. The other ideas from just  hours before were no longer relevant. “New occasions teach new duties,” as the hymn puts it.

And then, as I consecrated the fresh healing unction with prayer, a thought came bubbling into my consciousness. It seemed like a burst of light. There were no sounds, still unmistakably, a communication from the Lord. I can try putting the message into words: “It isn’t the sacramental oil that needs most to be refreshed, or the familiar teachings rephrased. You need to be filled with fresh oil, a new anointing of the Spirit. Empty yourself of old habits, memories and expectations. Be filled with the Holy Spirit. This anointing will be for a new day and more effective work.” The words FRESH OIL flashed like neon on a dark street, urgent and inviting.

I share this personal experience from yesterday, because there may be some faithful person who will also sense God is speaking. If so, empty the old stuff, find some fresh oil, wait on the Lord, and ask that you may receive the Lord’s promise afresh. Then receive a new anointing of the Holy Spirit who is the Lord and giver of life. There is always more!

+++    +++    +++

Starting on Pentecost, May 15, I will begin a new series of posts entitled “PRAYING IN 3D” Deepening and maturing in Christian prayer is always the work of God the Spirit.

   “Come Holy Spirit by whose breath
life rises vibrant out of death.

Come to create, renew. inspire;
            come kindle in our hearts your fire”

The Light of the World: a Script for Meditation

Lately I’ve been working with Revelation 3:20 as interpreted by Holman Hunt in his painting “The Light of The World.” “Behold I stand at the door and knock,” Jesus says, “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him or her, and he or she with me.” This inviting text is not obviously about light, but the painter’s night vision of Jesus standing before the closed door with a lantern in his left hand is possibly the most familiar way of looking at this text. The following meditation uses memory and the imagination; then we will turn away from imagery completely.

Hunt_Light_of_the_World

This painting may be the most familiar British religious image. The interpretive title, in large letters by the artist on the frame, evokes chapter 8 of St. John’s gospel: “Jesus said, I am the light of the world. Anyone who follows me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” Hunt was a Victorian era Anglican painter of the Pre-Raphaelite school. He used an eerie realistic style full of symbolism. This is what he said many years later about his original conception:

[At this point, if working with a group, the leader turns on quiet music for meditation. Suggested: “Ave Verum”, Tchaikovsky/Mozart. Each person should have a print, or the painting may be projected]

“Nothing is said about the night (in Revelation 3), but I wish to accentuate the point of its meaning by making it the time of darkness, and that brings us to the need of the lantern in Christ’s hand. He being the bearer of the light to the sinner within, if he will awaken. I shall have a door chocked up with weeds, to show that it has not been opened for a long time, and in the background there will be an orchard.” Hunt said the symbols were “his own private fantasies.” The door, for example represents “the obstinately shut mind.” John Ruskin, the renowned 19th Century art critic and social reformer, defended Hunt against many who thought his painting weird and unseemly and gave it a negative first reception. Ruskin interpreted it this way: “On the left side of the picture is seen the door of the human soul; it is knitted and bound to its stanchions by a creeping tendril of ivy, showing that it has never been opened. A bat hovers about it; its threshold is overgrown with brambles, nettles and fruitless corn…Christ approaches it in the night-time –Christ in his everlasting office of prophet, priest and king. He wears the jeweled robe and breastplate, representing the sacerdotal investiture; the rayed crown of gold, in woven with the crown of thorns, but now bearing soft leaves, for the healing of the nations.” …Perhaps you see other things in this richly symbolic work. An enormous copy of it made late in life by the artist was sent on a world tour, and now hangs on the right side of the nave in the vastness of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral …It would be an impressive sight indeed to stumble upon the painting unawares. One might feel awed and overwhelmed by it –and yet warmed and drawn by the gentle and compelling majesty of the luminous face of the Lord…

And now I invite you to close your eyes, and remember the painting’s impression on your mind, perhaps vaguely, maybe in some detail; it won’t matter: …the twilight background.. the lantern in Christ’s left hand. . the door without latch or knob..the right hand, knuckles to the door; the Lord is knocking. Hear the gentle, yet firm knocking; feel the vibrations on the air….NOW, you are inside. Open the door, so the Lord can come in as he promised…There is an oval table and two chairs. He places the lantern in the center. He sits. You sit…Look at the face of Christ –now, through the lamplight, obscure maybe, yet clearly the Jesus you know.

[Turn off Music.]

NOW, still remaining in the scene, close your eyes. Focus on the light alone…When distracted notice your breathing, and quietly take the name of Jesus on the breath…Rest in that light.

NOW, eyes still closed, notice the light spreading all around your body…Now, take this warm, precious energy into your body. Breathe in the light. ..Then let it spread to your head, your chest, the center of gravity in your belly…spreading now down into your legs and feet…all over within and without…The Light.

When you are ready, come back to the group…Gently open your eyes.

 

 

 

O Send Out Thy Light (Psalm 43:3)

Film directors and painters never tire of exploring the nuances of light and atmosphere. Some time ago, after having cataracts removed from my aging eyes, I resolved never again to take for granted the clarity, color and gradations of light. There is splendor in the whole of life; with the dimming of years I had gradually forgotten to notice.

In prayer  one may expect a different, interior illumination. Light mysticism is universal and well worth exploring, though it can be a struggle. A friend related his experience with light meditation in a Yoga class. The leader expected participants to perceive and work with visionary light as instructed. Over time my friend continued to look with closed eyes and saw nothing in particular. This did not present problems as he had mostly signed up for the physical benefits of Yoga practice. But then one day it happened. Suddenly a cool, white intensity pulsed before his eyelids. Time came to open his eyes, and he suddenly deflated like a popped balloon; someone had flicked on the florescent lights in the usually dim room. “This ended,” he said, “my pursuit of enlightenment.”

Still, I think there is a rich and energizing range of inner experience open to almost everyone, which trumps our capacity for deception or credulity. There is a vast luminous world of fantasy, visual memory, imagination and dream-scape, and yes, for some, interior revelation. Working with the experience of interior light is positive and nourishing, even for people like me, who are naturally more auditory than visually perceptive. And so, for several months I have been exploring visual meditations grounded in scripture and moving toward bathing in peaceful, healing light. It all began with reflections on the star of Bethlehem, cool and distant, but drawing toward some unknown possibility. This sometimes started with Christmas card scenes in memory, with me joining the Magi on their journey; the period ended with resting in the radiance of the Eastern star. Then I began to work with the Transfiguration stories of Matthew, Mark and Luke. Since each is a bit different, I would note the difference intellectually, and then visualize that uniqueness before entering the scene with Peter, James and John to “behold the glory,” of Jesus on the mountaintop. The shining became so bright I could see only transfiguring light and rest there for a time. (As some may recall, Gregory Palamas centuries ago famously concluded it is possible for human beings to directly experience –not metaphorically, or “by faith”- the divine glory, a touch of heaven in this earthly life. He made an important distinction: though we can not experience God’s essence, the divine energies radiate all the way to those who seek with pure hearts. This doctrine was affirmed by several Eastern Church councils and is a basis for the Orthodox tradition of stillness meditation known as hesychasm.)

All the major world religions have traditional ways of practicing light meditation. The best practical advice I have been able to find is by an Australian from the school of Tibetan Buddhism, Dr. Ian Gawler. His book, “Meditation: An In-depth Guide” (Ian Gawler & Paul Bedson; Jeremy P. Tausher/Penguin, 2011, pp. 315-321.), offers a wonderful meditative scenario which I will summarize. Of course, the original version is somewhat fuller and assumes many elements of meditative technique as these authors expertly present them. He invites us to use it as we can; and so I did.

White Light Healing

1. Take time to relax physically in a quiet place, and in a meditative posture. Breathe deeply from the diaphragm and release tension.

2. Visualize the highest source of power you know…Use your imagination to come into the presence of this being. Converse or pray. Listen.

3. Imagine light coming from the very center of this figure: ”a beam of white light, like a searchlight…but this light also has liquid properties…a bit like a shower or waterfall…warm, liquid, white light…And as this warm light flows down toward you and reaches your head, it quite gently, slowly, softly flows not only over and around your body, but actually through it…a bit like water filtering down through dry sand, quite slowly…warm, liquid, white light, washing away anything that is old, worn or unwanted…and bringing with it a new sense of energy…healing…vitality.”

4. Take time to let the warm, liquid light flow through each part of your body…Notice the light becoming stronger. “It’s almost like turning up a dimmer switch…stronger, clearer, all through your body…radiant light… Let the light flow from your body into your mind…You can almost merge into that light uniting with it…” Just rest in the presence of that light for as long as you are comfortable.

5. “Remember you can come back to this experience at any time you like…and each time you do it will feel easier and more complete…You will be able to go with it more thoroughly and rest in the presence even more completely…Also remember you can have this energy, this presence with you all day…Even while you sleep…This is an infinite energy you are drawing upon…always there…limitless.”

 

 

Dream-work Expanded for Groups

Dream-work is the caffeine of the soul. An effective practice will help keep us spiritually awake. Why is this? By intentionally reflecting on our nightly dreams, the process of “noticing and befriending” gives one direct access to unconscious material of all kinds. The dreamscapes of the nightly REM cycles reveal metaphors of feelings and mood, otherwise unacknowledged parts of the personality, seeds of creativity, even messages from God; but this inner development takes place best when we train ourselves to remember and reflect. Those who keep a dream journal, and expand the material into conscious awareness, those who sometimes share content and insights with family members and spiritual directors are following  an ancient practice; it was widely commended, then forgotten, and is now returning in post-modernity.

Until recently, I thought prudence encouraged limited sharing of dream material, apart from intimate relationships and those trained in dream-work. There may be dangers in manipulative interpretation, broken confidences and group pressure.  Attending the annual summer Haden Institute Dream Conference has broadened my perspective on this issue. The small group technique developed by Bob Haden is clearly safe, effective and stimulating for participants. Of course the best way to experience his method would be to attend a conference, but the simple process is well explained in Haden’s 2010 book “Unopened Letters from God: Using Biblical Dreams to Unlock Your Nightly Dreams,” available from: www.hadeninstitute.com.

When a person I have been mentoring has some experience with journaling and has had a session or two around Chapter 9, “Dreams” from “Discovering the Treasure Within,” I try to involve them with 4-6 others in a dream group to meet as long and as often as participants find it helpful.

The Group Process Outlined (A fuller version is in Haden’s book, page 183-184.):

  1. Leader begins with a simple ritual to center the group and invoke God’s Spirit.
  2. Take a few minutes to check in with each other. Share an experience, relevant information, or feelings.
  3. Leader may give a short presentation on the wisdom of the dream, a reading from Jungian psychology, scripture, mythology –“something to call forth the Self.”
  4. Everyone shares a dream scenario, or perhaps just a title.
  5. Leader asks for a volunteer to work with a dream. (This is the main course; there may be time for two dreams.)
    1. The person shares the dream story without interpretation or reflection.
    2. The group asks questions to clarify for all –no interpretations.
    3. The leader asks the person to “give the dream to the group.”  The dreamer turns chair around so as to listen without responding.
    4. The group “projects” on the dream from each person’s perspective. This time is not for analysis or interpretation. Each one shares, always beginning with: “If it were my dream…” or “In my dream…”  (“This is a way to minimize, own and acknowledge projection.” Haden)
    5. Leader invites the dreamer back into the group to share further insights, connections to conscious life, and amplifications that may come to mind.
    6. Leader reminds dreamer and others the dream(s) will continue to develop, no need to work through every detail or concern.
    7. Conclude with a closing prayer circle.

The leader should be a person experienced in facilitating small groups and with some knowledge of dream work; otherwise, leadership may rotate. Haden notes this procedure is not meant to be psychotherapy or a substitute for it, though growth and healing may often be experienced.

 

 

 

 

 

Some Aspects of Physical Meditation: Walking in the Presence

The first thoughts about meditative postures are all still, static: kneeling, the full or half Lotus, seated with feet flat and straight back, or, the oldest one, standing with hands raised facing East. There is much to commend each of these; but what about movement? Years ago in seminary I prayed dutifully in my assigned stall in the chapel on my knees, eyes focused lightly on a mosaic medallion on the floor.  No one ever taught me anything about this; it just seemed right.  Mostly this was a discipline. Nothing much seemed to be going on between me and the Lord.

One afternoon, tired of sitting with my nose in a book, I did a familiar series of exercises just to break the monotony. After turning this into a routine, I began to notice a sense of well-being (oxygen and a surge of endorphins, no doubt), then came an expanding sense of peace, eventually a sense of presence. The same three-part prayer process also happened on brisk walks, as long as I didn’t get too involved with the scenery. This took place just beyond the point of boredom, when my mind would normally split off to think about things other than just walking. So I cultivated that process. To my surprise, repetitive exercise, just past boredom, turning from unnecessary thinking became, for me, a way into personal prayer.

Over the years, I’ve found this works with swimming laps, jogging, briskly walking, and several cardio machines. Since these activities are all safe, widely available and healthy, I’ve often wondered if many others find physical activity meditative. My hunch is that walking the labyrinth works this way for some (not me!). Certainly Yoga practice is meant to be physical meditation (I can’t stretch that far). My Tai Chi instructor refers to her ancient practice as “meditation in motion,” though our group seems to be involved mostly to develop balance and increase flexibility.

Long walks and hikes can be reflective, if not always technically “meditation.” The solitude, deep breathing and closeness to nature are spiritually enhancing. Not long ago I took a strenuous trek with friends on the Corridor Trails across the Grand Canyon from North to South Rim. My plan was just to walk carefully and enjoy the scenery. Since each step was different, not a sidewalk anywhere, I had to pay constant attention to secure footing. I was disappointed at first; the spectacular vistas were solely for rest periods. The unexpected effect of noticing each step for miles and days was to become more intensely present than I have ever been. This was eventually expansive and energizing, almost as great as the view.

But I digress. Perhaps brisk walking can become an effective meditative practice for many people who are concerned to counter the effects of our sedentary culture. Try this:

1. Choose a safe route where you can walk by habit –even around a track; boredom is OK, if you go past it. Take twenty minutes plus.

2. Offer a short prayer at the outset. Hold some scripture in your attention for a bit. Pray verbally again at the end –the Lord’s Prayer perhaps, slowly.

3. Then, either choose some issue, incident, or problem of the sort one might consider in a “sitting” meditation; let it unfold on its own.

4. Let thoughts go and simply be in God’s presence. “I   will walk in the presence of the Lord in the land of the living.”