II spoke a little about an invitation to contemplative prayer in another blog post; An Invitation to Quiet. There is still more information than can be handled well through a blog. I thought, since I introduced the subject, I could follow up with a means to practice it. Using the word practice is intentional. It really isn’t about getting this “right” at all, it is only practicing and in doing so remembering you are in God’s presence.
What does it mean to be in God’s presence? Jesus, in John 14, shares with his disciples a request he has for the Father since he is leaving them.
And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you (John 14:16-17, NIV).
Jesus requested the Father to send the Holy Spirit. Notice the bold words. When I was in seminary, one of my professors pointed out that the Greek words used for “with you” were actually two different Greek words. The first one communicates that the Holy Spirit is in our midst. As you navigate life, the Holy Spirit is in your midst. The word used for the second “with you” communicates a more intimate position. The Holy Spirit is beside you. The last word I would like to point out is even more intimate and is translated as “in you.”
The Holy Spirit is in our midst, beside us, and in us, all the time. This isn’t occasionally but always. This is being aware we are in God’s presence. We always are in God’s presence. Isn’t that amazing! There is nothing we need to do. There is no way to earn it or make it happen. It is always true. We are always in God’s presence. I find that utterly amazing!
Wait, there is more…
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to his world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God - what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:1-2, NRSV).
Here, Paul is writing to the churches in Rome. Notice in verse two, we are not to be conformed but are to be transformed. The Greek words used for both of these show a passive response – we can either be conformed, something done to us, or be transformed, again something done to us. They also imply a continual process without a starting or ending point. It is always happening. This transformation isn’t about achieving or getting it right but allowing ourselves to be in God’s presence.
St. Teresa of Avila, a Carmelite nun from the 16th century, shared a picture which provides another way of looking at our journey, it being a little like the wax used for a wax seal. The wax isn’t able to impress the seal into itself and it also isn’t able to make itself soft for the impression. The only thing the wax can do is just be there. So like us – we can only be present in this space with God and whatever does or doesn’t happen in this time and space with God is in God’s hands.(1)
So with this understanding, we are invited to remember contemplative prayer isn’t something to strive toward, quietness isn’t something to achieve, and there isn’t a path to do this “right.” Remembering this is a practice and not a goal is important. When you are letting go of the noise around you, becoming internally quiet, and you notice your mind has wandered, gently bring your attention back to being aware that you are in God’s presence and your intention is to quiet your mind.
As you think about embarking on this kind of prayer practice, I would recommend setting a timer for 5 minutes or a bit longer to try it out. Make sure that the alarm sound is a gentle sound intended to call you from prayer. This way you won’t constantly be checking the time and can let that piece go.
One way to begin a practice of quieting yourself in God’s presence is to imagine yourself at a stream. You will notice that all kinds of ideas will pop into your mind. Just place them on a log that comes by and allow each thought to float down God’s stream. When you become aware that your mind is thinking about something else instead of being quiet, gently place your thought on the next log and let it go. Your mind will wander and that is completely okay, just gently bring your attention back to your desire of being quiet in God’s presence.
The gift of this kind of practice doesn’t necessarily happen during your prayer time but during the rest of your day. Some spiritual writers state that this practice is a means to exercise your spiritual muscle of “letting go.” When we learn to let go of our own agendas and our desire to belong and be loved in prayer, we can let go of so many things outside of prayer. This is a practice that allows us to receive the freedom of “letting go” in so many areas of our life.
(1) Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, translated by E. Allison Peers, (New York, NY: Start, 2012), 74, Kindle.
It seems we tend to understand the words in Scripture based on our own cultural understanding. I have found that true in my own life as I have tried to make sense of sin and why Jesus died on the cross. I’ve learned through my seminary courses that there are many ways to view the reason behind the cross, the atonement. I’m not intending to go into great depth in that full area but just a bit about both the Jewish and Greek understanding of sin. What is it?
I have always understood sin as a behavioral issue, doing something wrong. The way it was described to me was that sin was an archery term. It meant missing the mark or bullseye of perfection which was required to please God. So for me, that meant trying to do right, failing, repenting, and trying again. The problem was even though I lived a “right” life, I wasn't able to understand a love from a God who based my acceptance on performance. As I look back now, I can see that I tried to believe my acceptance wasn’t based on performance, but it was based on my ability to believe right. Isn’t that performance? I really came to a place where I struggled with this idea but was actually afraid to admit it.
I came to understand that this view of sin was from a Greek cultural understanding. It actually fits our cultural understanding as well. We tend to define sin based on how we would define perfect, flawless. So given our own cultural understanding, the command “to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect (Matt. 5:48),” would mean to be flawless like a flawless God. Tying sin to that kind of understanding is a difficult one, given our inability to follow through. It also makes our relationship with God centered on the individual, me. It makes it about what I do and what I choose.
The Jewish understanding is different. It opens up a deeper understanding of grace, offering a different way to navigate these questions. Judaism understood a relationship with God through a covenant with Abraham. A covenant is different than a contract. A contract is an agreement which lists the obligation of each party based on the condition that each fulfills their responsibilities. A covenant is more like a marital relationship. It was a Jewish understanding that active obedience was an expression of a serious commitment to the covenantal relationship with God. Obeying God’s Law was motivated by love and not from a desire to be flawless.(1)
If we consider the view of a relationship with God as relational instead of transactional, it opens up our concept of faith and sin. In the past, I have often defined faith as accepting and believing a particular set of beliefs. A Jewish understanding would view faith as trusting in the covenantal relationship. They were God’s children based on being born into Abraham’s covenantal relationship with God. So their trust in their relationship was based on their genealogy and in God’s righteousness, defined in God being faithful to his promises. Later, Paul calls them out on this understanding to a fuller relationship through Christ. This shows God's intention to be inclusive instead of excluding those outside of Judaism.
Perfection, as we spoke about earlier is understood not as flawless, but whole, complete, mature.(2) These are relationship words. Sin, then, would be viewed as a break in relationship regardless of behavior. We see this ring true in the ten commandments, Jesus’ view of the greatest commandments, and in Paul's writings; all of the lists are relational actions. These relationships are between God, self, and others.
Does this matter? I believe it does. When I view sin as behavior, I tend to see God as demanding and angry. One I am unable to please and find hard to trust. From this place, my acceptance is uncertain, so I tend not to feel safe. It means I have to pretend to be enough and to seem worthy. It makes my faith focused on me and what I do and what I believe.
Yet, when I view sin as a break in relationship, I can see God as one who desires a relationship with me, regardless. For me, this is a God I can trust and open myself up to being vulnerable in relationship. I don't need to pretend to be something I am not. This relationship doesn't depend on my behavior or what I know. It allows my faith to be focused on God because what I do doesn’t impact how God views me.
This has been my own journey and I also hear it with others I work with in direction and in spiritual formation groups. It is a story often repeated and I believe it matters very much. What we believe about God matters as we live our lives with a loving God. Walking alongside others, in community, is a gift God has given us. It is in relationship with God and others that we can begin to understand that God is actually for us. We can begin to understand beloved may be a more accurate label than sinner.
(1) Walter Brueggemann, Reverberations of Faith : A Theological Handbook of Old Testament Themes, 1st ed. (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 78.
(2) F. Wilbur Gingrich, Frederick W. Danker, William F. Arndt, and Walter Bauer, Shorter Lexicon of the Greek New Testament, 2nd Ed. / Rev. by Frederick W. Danker. ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 198.
Hello, I'm Kathi Gatlin. Thanks for stopping by!