I saw a meme on Facebook the other day. It showed a map of the United States that tracked the outbreaks of Coronavirus in comparison to Sanctuary Cities. What was/is this meme trying to communicate? How does that message define one's understanding of God?
We speak about a God of love but often characterize God's actions by violence and judgment defined by our own bias. Due to our inner system of judgment, who is right and who is wrong, we categorize who to exclude. Those who we consider on the outside are rebuffed from God's care through our messaging.
I recently read a book, How God Changes Your Brain, which shared a Baylor study that found that 74% of Americans view God as authoritarian, distant, or critical. Only 23% saw God as benevolent.(1) In fact, 20% viewed God as aligned with a political party.(2) This analysis is a sad state of affairs and doesn't represent the God I have come to know through contemplative prayer.
Newberg continued to share through this study that research showed a person's view of God aligned with the way they understood and related to the world. For example, those who viewed God as authoritative (32%) also firmly believed that God punishes people. These same participants supported the death penalty.(3)
I believe this punitive understanding of God and the world correlates with our theology - the way we understand God, salvation, and why we are here. When we view God as violent and judgmental, casting those on the outside out, we can do so ourselves. When we look at the gospel accounts, the Jesus we read about doesn't cast out who the religious deem as outcasts. Jesus continually sees these outcasts and invites them back into community.
When we fight for black and white answers, we limit not only our own but others' experience of God as a God of love. We see this in the gospel accounts, and we see it today across our political and social landscape. But how do we move forward from here?
One of the gifts of Newberg's book is the description in his study on those who participated in spiritual contemplation. He tracked, through studying people with different doctrinal understandings, the changes in their brains as they followed their contemplative practices. They became more open to subtle experiences by strengthening the neural pathways that enhance social awareness and empathy. Also, he found that hard and destructive emotions were subdued.(4)
He continued to discover that those, Franciscan nuns, for example, who spent time contemplating God, became less self-focused and felt more of a union with God experience. This intimate experience opened them to greater compassion for themselves and others. They became more tolerant of those who were different from them, and this was validated as the researchers tracked the nuns' brain activity.
These findings are interesting and line up with what Paul tells us in 2nd Corinthians: to take our thoughts captive to the obedience of Christ. The problem with using this verse is defining what the "obedience of Christ" means. Often, Scriptural texts are understood within our own cultural bias and allow us to cast people out. We prove ourselves right in our preconceptions.
Some would say that this verse would be understood by what I rationally know, forcing myself to not think about harmful things and only thinking about "good" things. It comes down to behavior management. Others consider this text as an invitation to contemplative prayer, letting go of our thoughts, and being aware that we are in God's presence. Recognizing these two understandings show us the same thing - what we believe about God influences how we read Scripture. It can create an unbreakable cycle of condemnation.
Can we trust God to break into our judgmental understandings, this unbreakable cycle of condemnation? We can, and it usually comes through great suffering. It takes being in a place of disorientation to allow that process to begin. Currently, we are in that place globally. We are all experiencing it differently, but things are not how they once were.
Some people are blaming others and fighting for things to be normal again. We also see displays of kindness and collaboration taking root in our communities. Both are visible, sometimes in the same people, even ourselves. The breakdown happens when one side judges the other as being less godly or right. But what if the opposing sides worked together to form a solution instead of working against each other. Can we set down our entitlement or need to be right? Can we value and hear all sides?
According to Newberg's understanding, contemplation is a space that opens up that kind of space in us. So, how do we practice spiritual contemplation? One of my favorite ways is to walk in nature. I invite you to do so, given social distancing criteria, and spend time in Creation. I've written a previous blog on a practice, I have found helpful: http://www.boldlyloved.org/blog/among-the-trees
Then I will invite you along with myself to take notice, do my words and actions represent what I believe? Do my posts on social media speak about what I hold true? Or better yet, what do my postings, words, and actions say about what I hold true about God, myself, and others.
1 Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman, How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings From a Leading Neuroscientist, 1st ed, (New York: Ballantine Books, 2009) 109.
2 Ibid., 107.
4 Ibid., 3, 14.
In my mother’s kitchen pantry, there were always a few items we could go to when the refrigerator seemed a little vacant, or even if it was full when nothing there could really satisfy our particular hunger.
When you are feeling a spiritual or emotional hunger in a moment, what is your “go to” that is not merely distraction but truly lifts up your downcast soul? Is it music? physical exercise? a song? a passage of scripture? laughing with a friend? poetry? a novel? an old hymn? Go to your “pantry” and feast on the goodness you have stored away with God.
Spiritual practices can by grace lead to Holy Encounter. While complying with Stay-at-home orders, the following practices are offered to alleviate a sense of disconnection, ease the tension of uncertainty, and approach the Life that is lived from a Divine Center.[i]
Be attentive in this day to what you can do. While your usual ways of serving might be limited for now, let your acts of mercy be primarily in your home.
For one day, let humility guide you into courteous respect, solicitude, and tender love for others by fasting from the use of sarcasm, ridicule, teasing and having the last word.
Choose to practice loving Listening:
Everything is different now. Make a list of all the things you now miss that a month ago you took for granted, and offer your gratitude for them to God. Make a list of the people taken for granted, and offer your gratitude for them to God—then check in with them by email, phone or text. Or for those of us who remember how, send a thank you note by mail.
Early morning. Sit quietly and watch the light begin to brighten the sky. Notice it move through the trees. After a time, taking steady breaths, slowly rise and whether you’re inside or outside, walk directly into a patch of light. Inhale and feel the light on your face. Be still and know the unnamable One. Inhale and receive God’s peace. As you exhale whisper your gratitude to God.
Afternoon. Go for a walk. Feel yourself move in rhythm with your breathing. Allow your senses to focus on details—sunlight on a branch, the shimmering surface of a puddle, moss growing on a stone—and touch the things that have captured your attention. Allow yourself to feel wonder about them.
Evening. Sit quietly outside. Allow your breath and the air you are breathing to become one. Keep breathing slowly until you feel, with each breath, the spaciousness of God.
Think about the things that are used to define you.
While social-distancing is wisely the universal and global practice for the duration of this pandemic, I know I’m not alone. The invisible and always present Jesus, is still closer than my next breath.
For more information about spiritual practices and Jean - please visit:
[i] Kelly, Thomas. A Testament of Devotion. (San Francisco, Harper & Brothers, 1941), pg.3
[ii] Nepo, Mark. The Book of Awakening. Gift edition first published in 2011 by Conari Press,
an imprint of Red Wheel / Weiser, LLC, San Francisco, CA . Copyright © 2000 by Mark Nepo. Introduction to gift edition © 2011 by Mark Nepo
[iii] Willard, Dallas. The Divine Conspiracey, Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God. (Harpercollins, NY. March 24, 1988), pg. 211
The sun rose this morning in a pale-yellow sky behind the faithful stand of trees at the edge of our lower field. Its rays reach in through the windows of my living room—and the windows of my soul—and bids me to awaken all the more to what still is beautiful.
The earth continues to turn. The stars hold their places in space, and the planets’ orbits are steady in their positions and paths. On this tiny patch of ground on which I live, buds have burst open on the trees, grass rolls out new green at my feet, and squirrels scurry, chattering and chasing each other.
In this mandated Pause, while all movement in travel, entertainment, work, business, education, even whole cities halt, I wonder if this is a divine invitation to humility. Certainly, as social distancing is more and more stringent, we human beings are exiled from our lives as usual. Worldwide poverty moves into my neighborhood. We are ordered by our governor to withdraw further into ever more solitary lives.
St. Isaac of Syria records that an elder was asked “How can someone acquire humility?” The elder offered some guidance and closed his remarks saying, “In sum: exile, poverty, and a solitary life, all of these give birth to humility and cleanse the heart.”[i] Exile. Poverty. Solitary life. Humility.
It is humbling for us humans who are accustomed to ruling over the earth and others, to be halted by a microbe. In contrast to the squirrels’ hurry and scurry—which has been our normal pace—we are now made to lie low, to be still, to acknowledge our finitude. I wonder, as we collectively acknowledge that we are NOT gods, if we can “be still and know” the ineffable and unnamable One.
The Corrymeela Community’s morning prayer includes their intention, “We make room for the unexpected; May we find wisdom and life in the unexpected.”[ii] While the unexpected disease has aggressively moved in, we are learning how frighteningly slow we’ve been to make room for it. What wisdom may we find; what life?
I am grateful for the witness of Nature, that she continues faithfully morning by morning proclaiming God’s handiwork. And for the witness of the Psalms and prayers that have carried other generations through plagues and pestilence. They do call to mind the ancient memory that God IS, and is not far off; that the Lord is my Shepherd and therefore I have all that I need. Even now.
And that consoles me. Yes, I am confronted by the equally true reality that my body is mortal and finite. I do not know the hour of my death, but that was true even before the outbreak of a global pandemic. From the Reality of God’s shepherding sufficiency and grace I will once again choose to live. How shall I orient myself in this hour for Life, to live this moment and every moment? I will myself to be attentive in this day to what I can do, to work and prayer, to ponder even as I reach toward hopefulness: “I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.” Still, and again, amen.
Jean's next post will include spiritual practices to guide us in this time. For more information about spiritual practices and Jean - please visit:
[i] An excerpt from Daily Readings with St. Isaac of Syria, introduced and edited by A.M. Allchin ; translated by Sebastian Brock. (Springfield, Ill.:Templegate, 1989), pg. 70
[ii] Morning prayer from Daily Prayer with the Corrymeela Community by Padraig O’Tuama. (Canterbury Press, August 22, 2017), pg.
When I Am Among the Trees
When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”
by Mary Oliver
Poetry has a way of speaking beneath the surface of things. It opens us up to the possibility of more than we can rationally know. Mary Oliver speaks of her desire for quiet and simplicity. The trees offer her the invitation of both the possibility of her desire and the way forward.
A dear person copied this poem for me today, and it speaks deeply to the unquiet held in all the tasks I have to complete and the quiet offered when I walk in the forested path behind my house. I can easily lose all the busyness in my world when I enter the opening to this path among the trees. It is from a place of quiet that I sense my soul settle in. Have you ever encountered a contemplative walk of listening with all your senses to your surroundings?
May I invite you to try it out? First, start down the path with a pause as you embark with the intention to be aware that you are in God’s presence. Then pay attention to all your senses.
Close your eyes and listen to all the sounds around you: the birds, the insects, the rain falling, your foot moving the rocks beneath, people talking, and the wind blowing through the trees.
Then open your eyes and notice the variety and shades of colors in the shadows and the sunlight. Draw your attention to your sense of smell; what do you notice as you focus on the scents around you. Remember, your sense of smell is connected to your sense of taste.
Lastly, notice your body and how it moves along the path, your heart beating, and your lungs moving the air in and out. Draw your attention to the way the sun, wind, or rain feels against your skin. All of these different means of sense create a symphony of sounds, sights, scents, and sensations.
I have discovered that a regular practice of this kind of spiritual practice helps me settle in my inner journey and to move more grounded in my outer world. I would love to hear your thoughts as you encounter this kind of exercise.
As I leave you to enjoy a space of trees for yourself, I have one more poem to share by Wendell Berry..
Over the last several posts, I have shared about listening to our hearts and allowing whatever we find there, to teach us. This morning, during prayer, I discovered that I was feeling a little overwhelmed by all I needed to do. There is a lot on my plate as I am working toward forming this ministry. I enjoy it all, but there is a lot to do.
In noticing my feeling of being overwhelmed, I could just push through it and tackle everything that is on my plate. I could also decide to not do some of it. I could even decide to take a nap!
The thing is, being overwhelmed isn’t a bad thing and it doesn’t need to be fixed. In noticing it and listening, I realized I am overwhelmed because, well... there is a lot to do. This is true and I enjoy doing all these tasks. The invitation is to notice, not judge or resist this feeling, allow it to teach me, and then let it go.
What I sensed through this process was an invitation to allow myself to be present in God’s presence. I can trust the journey one step at a time while following God’s lead and not the next hurried task. Even in so many things to do, the chaos of busyness can subside, and I can move forward one step at a time.
In this transformational journey, we don’t become something different than we are. We become more fully who we have always been. The refinement or trueness of the journey is bringing us back to the likeness of God (Gen. 1:26-27) in which we were created. It seems amazing, yet true - how could it not be?
The barriers and walls we put up, hide who we really are. They distort our very essence, both to ourselves and to others. We form them in reaction to something. They become a diversion to the true life journey we are invited to pursue.
The dissonance in our lives, the despair, pain, loss - the unsettledness - what often feels like shifting sand beneath our feet are an invitation to embrace the uncomfortableness we feel. With God, we can discover the lies, fears, or doubts that are the root or support of any barrier. In this journey of continued self-discovery, we are becoming more and more our true selves, more fully in-tune with who God created us to be. Each of our strengths becomes ever so much deeper, fuller, and truer.
So what do we do? We listen, we listen with our whole selves to what our inner teacher is teaching us. We listen to the unsettledness we feel. We notice our reactive responses and the places we are uncomfortable. Instead of reasoning them away, we listen to them and open ourselves to God’s gaze in the midst of the pain, unsettledness, loss or whatever is going on in our hearts. We listen…
The practice I use as a regular rhythm in my life is The Examen Prayer. This prayer was first shared by Ignatius of Loyola during the 16th Century. It is an opportunity to look at what happens during a day with God. During the practice, you can either look at your day, one event at a time, or hold two contrasting questions. This is the handout I often use in the classes I teach.
A continual practice of the Examen Prayer can be part of the journey toward greater self-awareness and a deeper relationship with God. As we show up vulnerably with God, we can experience peace and reconciliation inside ourselves. As we experience greater peace and unity, this same peace and unity flow to our community.
In the process, we wait in the light. This journey of transformation is passive on our part. The invitation, for each of us, is to show up in it. As we wait in the light, we can begin to see our own belovedness in God’s gaze. We begin to surrender to that very place, our belovedness and God’s reminder that God is always for us!
Hello, I'm Kathi Gatlin. Thanks for stopping by!