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The Challenge of Contemplative Prayer: Escape From Conflict

There is an ancient Zen Koan that reads:

The ultimate path is not difficult.

Simply do not choose.

Our challenge, should we accept it, is simply do not choose.

Thomas Merton wrote: “Let no one hope to find in contemplation an escape from conflict, from anguish or from doubt.” In this post we begin with a simple question. How can we be people of faith in our 21st century world?

Back in 2015 John Shelby Spong, Bishop emeritus of the Episcopal Church, spoke about the courage to “wrestle with the issues of how we can take the Christian faith seriously and still be citizens of the 21st century.”

“We are living is a world where either you give up your religion in order to live in the secular society, or you give up the secular society in order to maintain your religious life.”

“Most of us are aware of this tension. Sometimes it is not conscious but we act out of it in a consistent way. Some people express this tension in their life by refusing to engage the 21st century at all. Ignoring the explosion of knowledge that has gripped western civilization for the last 500 years. They are people hiding from the tensions of today in a hiding place they call religion.”

“We have some other people in our world who are also aware, not always consciously, of this tension between living in the 21st century and being a believing Christian, or a religious person, and they act in a very different way. They act by dismissing the Christianity they think is real as something that is irrelevant to their lives.”

  • John Shelby Spong – July 19, 2015 at Community Christian Church of Springfield, MO

The challenge: Simply do not choose.

John Shelby Spong is a blessing to us all. He speaks in a plain and simple language that every person can easily understand. He also speaks with a frankness that cuts through the clutter of our daily existence.“How can you be a person of faith live in such a world? We hope there is another alternative. We hope there is a way to hold these two things together. It will not be without pain. It will not be without controversy or tension, but I think it can be done.”

Do we have an answer to the question of living faith in our 21st century world? If we say; “yes we have an answer”, then we have chosen. The ultimate path is not difficult we just need to refrain from choosing. Because the ultimate path is not difficult some would believe that means the path is easy. Our human brains desire dual thinking and that path is easy.

As we contemplate on the dual nature thinking of our world, as outlined by Bishop Spong, we pray that this post will open up many questions in the depths of our heart.

May I see in you the presence of Christ.


Contemplative Prayer Handbook Creed

The Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC) published a creed for rebuilding a foundation for contemplation. I included the text of the creed below.

The CAC recommends that we read this creed in the discipline of lectio divina.

“With the first reading, listen with your heart’s ear for a phrase or word that stands out for you.”

“During the second reading, reflect on what touches you, perhaps speaking that response aloud or writing in a journal.”

“After reading the passage a third time, respond with a prayer or expression of what you have experienced and what it calls you to.”

“Finally, rest in silence after a fourth reading.”

We believe in one Triune God. “There is one Body, one Spirit, one and the same hope . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God who is Father of all, over all, through all, and within all” (Ephesians 4:4-6).

We believe that we are, first of all, a people, God’s movement in history.

We believe that our individual lives and our personal growth are for the sake of the generations to come after and built on the faith and the bones of those who have gone ahead of us.

We believe that we must build on the positive, on what we love. Creative and life energies come from belief and from commitment. Critics must first be believers who have learned how to say an ultimate yes.

We agree to bear the burden and the grace of our past. We agree to honor what is, including even the broken things of life: ourselves, church, state, and all institutions. Their dark side is a necessary teacher.

We are committed to building a world of meaning and hope. We recognize the clear need for prophetic deconstruction of all idolatries that make the worship of God impossible. True rebuilding must follow this temporary but necessary un-building.

We believe in a personal universe where the divine image shines through all created things. It is therefore an “enchanted universe” where we can always live in reverence and even adoration before the good, the true, and the beautiful.

Along with St. Paul in Colossians (1:15-20), as Christians, we believe that Jesus Christ is the clearest image of the unseen God. In him all things cohere, all opposites are overcome. He is the head of the living body, the One in whom all things are reconciled and overcome.

Dear reader, when I followed the lectio divina discipline and contemplated this creed I could not help feeling that perhaps some dual thinking has crept in. Allow me to explain;

“Critics must first be believers who have learned how to say the ultimate yes.”

“Critics” and “Believers” are labels used to separate groups within the living body. This seems rather like dual thinking to me and through my contemplation and prayer I have come to the conclusion that this sentence should be removed. The creed is wonderful and useful for contemplative prayer with this modification.

God bless,

Contemplative Prayer Handbook Ten Bridesmaids

The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids


25 ‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” 12 But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.


This parable is a contemplative prayer primer. If you have ever wondered about the purpose and benefits of contemplative prayer this parable opens the door.

I am guessing that we just read this parable of the ten bridesmaids. It was printed here to allow us to read it together. Did it leave us with the impression that we have a lot more work to do to grow in our spiritual relationship with God? “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.”

Read the parable once again. Sense the urgency of being ready and to know God.  What does it mean to be ready? What does it mean, to know God? Readiness and knowing God are different for every person. We must ask ourselves, honestly, did we see ourselves as one of the five foolish bridesmaids?

Contemplative prayer is an introspective discipline that we can each learn to guide our preparation and to move each of us closer to knowing God. Allow me to guide us through the parable, and offer insights.


I would like to explain just a little about reading parables. Years ago, maybe 1986, I saw novelist and storyteller Megan McKenna speak about parables. Megan made it very clear that if we read a parable and are feeling good afterward we did not understand the meaning intended by the Gospel writers.

There are many ways to see ourselves in a parable, which is what makes those stories rich in learning.

To help us better understand the concepts that run through the parable, let us establish a definition of heaven, of knowing, and light.

Some folks desire to have an authoritative voice to reference in matters of faith, such as heaven. Included is a quote and link from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness.”

“Heaven is the blessed community of all who are perfectly incorporated into Christ.”

In Hebrew and Greek the word for knowing includes understanding from experience, an intimate kind of knowledge involving the whole person, not just the mind. Parents warn their children that fire burns, but until a person experiences being burned by fire the knowledge is incomplete. Knowing = experiencing.

In Hebrew and Greek the word for light can be a reference to both natural light and spiritual light. This is very similar to English. It is understood that spiritual light expresses a wisdom or knowledge of God.


Matthew begins the parable with the statement; “the kingdom of heaven will be like this.” Some would say that this was intended by the evangelist as an eschatological theme for judgment day. Regardless, this is a wedding banquet that we do not want to miss.

In Matthew’s retelling of this parable there is no actual banquet with actual bridesmaids referenced here. These events and characters are all allegorical. We are clearly intended to identify as a bridesmaid in this parable. God is the bridegroom.

All ten bridesmaids took lamps to dispel the darkness (light from the lamp represents wisdom / knowledge of God).

All ten bridesmaids fell asleep. This can be interpreted many ways. Lulled to sleep is an idiom that is a pertinent in this situation. We are filled with a false sense of security and we feel secure in our situation when we should not.

When the time came for the bridegroom to arrive all ten bridesmaids awoke and trimmed their lamps. Only five of the bridesmaids, however, were truly known by the bridegroom. Only those five had the intimate experience and knowledge of God. Only those five were allowed into the banquet.

The remaining five bridesmaids were told “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” These five bridesmaids desired to attend the banquet. All five asked to be allowed into the wedding banquet, but lacked the intimate kind of knowledge expected from the bridegroom.

We might say to ourselves, why did the five bridesmaids with the flasks of oil not spare some for the others? Each person must experience God for themselves. Intimate knowledge cannot be purchased and it cannot be given, it must be experienced by the person.

If we seek to enjoy the beautiful wedding banquet, that is heaven, we need to truly know God. We need to experience God, in the same way we experience the burn from fire. We need to know God so deeply that if we fall asleep we will have that flask of oil to keep our lamp lit when needed.

Can we say that we know God to that deep level? This is where contemplative prayer can help.


Contemplative prayer traces its roots back to early Christian monasticism and the Desert Fathers. The writings of mystics such as St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross pushed contemplative prayer along.

It is true that contemplative prayer was perceived as an extraordinary grace reserved to only a few for many years, but St. Gregory the Great explained that “contemplation expands and enlightens the soul with a love that is itself knowledge, for as man draws closer to God in loving union, he grows in the knowledge to reform his life.”

Each individual can learn the discipline of contemplation. This method of prayer seeks to cultivate the capacity to listen to God at ever deeper levels of inward attention. This brings us to a state of resting in the presence of God.

Contemplative prayer, remaining silently and openly in God’s presence, “rewires” our brains to think non-dually with compassion, kindness, and a lack of attachment to the ego’s preferences.

In contemplative prayer we move beyond language to experience God as Mystery. We let go of our need to judge, defend, or evaluate, plugging into the mind of Christ which welcomes paradox and knows its true identity in God.

During contemplation we come to know that there is no separation between sacred and secular. All is one with Divine Reality.

We must be willing to let go and die to our small selves, our false selves, in order to enter this new sacred space. This is our first step toward gaining that experiential knowledge of God.


Lectio Divina


Homily: The Resurrection of the Lord [B]

you say: okay, so what? I’ve head that type of story before. What does it matter to me? Why should I care? And that’s when Paul would answer: yes, Jesus has been raised from the dead and God is concerned with bodies. God is concerned with justice. God is concerned with cleaning-up the mess of the world. Here is what we are doing, do you want to join us?
John Dominic Crossan

The readings for the The Resurrection of the Lord cycle B (John 20:1-9) can be found here.

The scripture scholar will tell you that John’s Gospel developed many characters. Some of these characters were introduced at the beginning, like Nicodemus. The last character John introduced was the disciple whom Jesus loved, or the beloved disciple. This disciple plays a prominent role in Sunday’s Gospel reading. The beloved disciple was the first to believe in the resurrection.

Since the beloved disciple represents the ideal model for a follower of Jesus we are expected to emulate the beloved disciple and carry out the work of Jesus. In order to emulate this model of a follower of Jesus we are expected to believe in the resurrection.

On Easter we can expect to hear from the pulpit a message of the resurrection. Val Webb, in her sermon Examining Doubts at Easter, tells us that “we are finding we need to tell the Easter story and the transformation of Jesus’ followers in different language and ways.” She says that “many people have trouble today with the resurrection as a condition for belief.”

What I needed was someone to assure me that my doubts were valid — for a clergy person one Easter to address my questions from the pulpit, not simply repeat the biblical soup story as if there was nothing to question, or avoid the discussion altogether to avert the anger of some literalists in the pews.
Val Webb

If we are concerned with the physical resuscitation of the body of Jesus we have missed the point John was making. If the resurrection, in order to be real, requires us to see the physical body of Jesus in order to believe we are not emulating the ideal model of a follower of Jesus.

The beloved disciple is truly our model for being a follower of Jesus. When we read the Gospel carefully we will notice that the only thing the beloved disciple saw was an empty tomb. If there were no other resurrection stories recounting visitations of Jesus it would not matter to the beloved disciple. The empty tomb was enough. What does belief in the resurrection really mean?

Val Webb tells us that “what we can be sure of is that some transforming experience happened to the disciples and Paul after the death of Jesus that forced them into a new way of living, a call to new life.” This experience after Jesus died that transformed the disciples is the real resurrection.

We experience the resurrection when we follow the teachings of Jesus. When we love our enemies and turn the other cheek we are experiencing the resurrected Jesus in our lives and that resurrection is then reflected back to others. As long as we continue loving our neighbors as we love ourselves the resurrection of Jesus is real.

If you take one thing away from this homily it should be that the resurrection of Jesus, while not physical, is real. Don’t become distracted by arguments for or against the physical resuscitation of the body of Jesus. Allow the message of Jesus to transform your old life and call you into a new life with the resurrected Jesus.

Death did not stop Jesus from transforming our lives, and through us our world. The kingdom of Heaven on Earth is within our grasp and within our control. This is the reality of the resurrection.

God bless,

Homily: Second Sunday of Lent [B]

…not just as another preacher, but rather as the next step in the history of the Jewish people—truly, the successor, or even fulfillment of the law, represented by Moses, and of the prophets, represented by Elijah.
Rev. Samuel J. Smith

The readings for the Second Sunday of Lent cycle B (Mark 9:2-10) can be found here.

The Transfiguration story brings to mind different things for different people. For scripture scholars the Transfiguration ends Jesus’ Galilean ministry and begins His journey to Jerusalem. The scripture scholars also note that form criticism identifies that the Transfiguration story was written to be used in the liturgy of the synagogue, specifically for the Jewish Festival of Lights. Jesus is the new Temple and the light is a reminder of the cleansing and return of the light that dispelled the darkness of the Temple in Jerusalem. The disciples of Jesus came to this understanding and Mark built it into the story of the Transfiguration.

I like to think about the “aha” moment when the realization, recognition, and comprehension of Jesus reached a new understanding among His most devoted followers.

This Sunday we are asked to focus on our growth in faith. We are asked to remember the “aha” moments in our faith life.

Think about that time we had our first realization and understanding of Jesus. Think about those feelings and how the disciples of Jesus felt when they reached the moment of the Transfiguration.

To help us reflect on our faith the Rev. Dawn Hutchings has provided a setting. She explains that the “transfiguration of Jesus includes all the elements of a perfect love story. Jesus and his best buddies travel up to the top of a mountain, just like ever other hero of the day, travelled up to the top of a mountain, and when he got there, they had such a great time, it was amazing… Jesus was the one they’d been waiting for all their lives, Jesus was the one who could lead them, and just like the leaders of old, just like Moses and Elijah before him, Jesus had what it takes to move them out of the hell they found themselves in… Let’s pitch a tent and just stay here.”

However, our faith must continue to grow. We can’t be expected to remain in one place forever. The deeper we delve into our faith the richer our experience. The Rev. Dawn Hutchings puts it best when she says that “even though it sounds appealing to stay up there on the mountaintop with Jesus, frozen in time, just the way he was when we first met, there is so much more to the Christ experience…”

This is a time in our Lenten journey to deepen our understanding of Jesus’ message. We need to ask ourselves where is Jesus leading us? As our faith grows we become better at understanding the words of Jesus and better at translating those words to the community around us.

If you take one thing away from this homily it should be that as we remember Jesus and His teachings it is helpful to recall how it all began for the disciples and for us. Those feelings bring back strong emotions and during Lent we can rededicate our faith to living the words of Jesus.

I pray that our shared faith experience will lead to building the kingdom of heaven on Earth.

God bless,

Homily: First Sunday of Lent [B]

The kingdom of God is for the earth. The Lord’s Prayer speaks of God’s kingdom coming on earth, even as it already exists in heaven. It is about the transformation of this world
Marcus Borg

The readings for the First Sunday of Lent cycle B (Mark 1:12-15) can be found here.

The scripture scholar will tell you that Mark was the first Gospel written. As such, many stories are short and to the point. Matthew and Luke had Mark in front of them and were able to build on and elaborate those stories. For example, in the Gospel for this Sunday there is only a brief mention of the temptation in the wilderness, which does not include any details.

The Marcan community would not have needed many details because they would have been familiar with many Hebrew scripture stories of prophets and their 40 days and nights of trials and tribulations. The mere mention would have brought to mind stories of Moses and Elijah.

And the Lord said to Moses, “Write these words; in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” And he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.
Exodus 34:27-28

And the angel of the Lord came again a second time, and touched him, and said, “Arise and eat, else the journey will be too great for you.” And [Eli′jah] arose, and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.
1 Kings 19:7-8

John Shelby Spong explains that “increasingly the early Christians saw in the Hebrew scriptures the anticipation of the messiah’s life and when they became convinced that Jesus was the expected messiah, they began to interpret these scriptures as anticipatory of their day and of Jesus’ messiahship.”

In this Sunday reading Jesus says the kingdom of God has drawn near. This message is vital for our salvation. Many sermons will likely be centered upon these words of Jesus. The focus will be on the end times, but completely miss what the nearness of kingdom of God means.

Depending on the traditionalist leanings of our parish we are likely to hear sermons about death, judgement, heaven and hell. More time will be spent explaining how to prepare ourselves in this life for the next life. That preparation in this life is meant to help us purify our souls and to break us free from our connection and affection to this world. Does this sound familiar?

The Gospel message of Jesus, this Sunday, is to prepare ourselves in this life to transform our world here and now.

Here are a few phrases I pray we all heard in our Lenten worship this Sunday:

“To fulfill the Father’s will, Christ ushered in the Kingdom of heaven on earth.” CCC 763

“To welcome Jesus’ word is to welcome ‘the Kingdom itself.'” CCC 764

“The Lord Jesus endowed his community with a structure that will remain until the Kingdom is fully achieved.” CCC 765

Christopher Morse, of Union Theological Seminary in New York, tells us that “what the church, or what the majority conventional view of heaven is, is very different from what we find in these biblical testimonies. The end times are not the end of the world — they are the beginning of the real world — in biblical understanding.”

And so it’s not a Platonic, timeless eternity, which is what we were all taught. It is very definitely that there will come a time when God will utterly transform this world — that will be the age to come.
N.T. Wright

We are God’s representatives, and if God will transform this world it will be through us. If you take one thing away from this homily it should be that we are asked to create heaven on Earth. Jesus showed us the way and if we welcome His words we welcome the kingdom.

During this time of Lent we should prepare ourselves by reading the words of Jesus. We should dedicate ourselves to living the teachings of Jesus. At Easter will take a step closer to transforming our world.

The kingdom is at hand.

God bless,

Homily: Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]

… join the leper at Jesus’ feet and pray, “If you will, you can make me clean.”
Lamar Williamson (Mark) p. 62

The readings for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time cycle B (mark 1:40-45) can be found here.

The Biblical historian will explain that leprosy is a sign of the wrath of God. If you were stricken with the skin disorder it was clearly a sign that God was punishing you.

One story that clearly illustrates this comes from 2 Chronicles 26:16-21 where we meet king Uzzi′ah. He was prideful, false before God and his anger led to his inevitable destruction. The king contracted leprosy and “they thrust him out quickly, and he himself hastened to go out, because the Lord had smitten him.” Uzzi′ah died an outcast due to his leprosy. Cursed by God, lepers were the lowest people in the Jewish society.

In our Gospel this Sunday Jesus heals a leper by touching him.

The scripture scholar will tell you that Leviticus outlined the rituals and sacrifice needed for a leper to enter back into society. Until these requirements have been met a leper was not allowed to be seen in the midst of the people, let alone touched.

The 1st century Jewish attitude toward leprosy is something all scholars agree on, but the emotional response of Mark’s Jesus continues to spark lively debates. I would be remiss if we did not speak to this scholarly debate in the homily.

The actual words (in Greek) used to describe the emotions of Jesus vary depending on the manuscript. Most manuscripts use the word pity to describe the emotional response of Jesus. A few manuscripts, however, use the word anger to describe Jesus’ response.

The USCCB online text of our Gospel reading represent the general understanding that Jesus is moved by “pity” and cures the leper. The alternative “anger” is likely the authentic word used by Mark, so it deserves to be explored.

The best explanation I have found comes from F. Scott Spencer in his book Horizons in Biblical Theology, Volume 36, Issue 2, pages 107 – 128

A close analysis of Mark 1:40-45, in conjunction with key Markan co-texts (6:14-29; 10:35-52; 14:32-36; 15:6-15) and ancient and modern theories of emotion, demonstrates that the leper chiefly provokes Jesus’ ire by belittling his deep desire or will to heal (ἐὰν θέλῃς).

Once Jesus heals the leper He summarily dismisses the man by showing him the door. Alan Goertemiller puts it this way: “There! Show them that healing comes from a loving touch, and not punishment and demanding ritual!”

What are we to think of an angry and dismissive Jesus? Rabbi Dr. Earl A. Grollman explains that he “was taught as a child, angry thoughts make bad people. Wrong. Angry thoughts make very human people.”

Jesus was human, after all, and we should learn a lesson of compassion from these Gospel verses. Jesus touched and healed a leper. He may have responded in anger, but He also responded with compassion.

It may have been bad form for the leper to question Jesus’ will to heal, but that didn’t stop Jesus from touching the man and healing him.

God heals, but we may often be the essential intermediaries through whom God’s will is accomplished, whether that means a curing of the body or a healing of the spirit, whether we are medical practitioners, chaplains, or loved ones. This means that each of us has a responsibility as well as a response-ability.
Christina M. Puchalski (A Time for Listening and Caring) p. 209

In the Jewish community healing has two components; physical healing and spiritual healing. Jesus cured the leprosy and the physical health was restored, but Jesus also knew to send the man to the temple to perform the sacrificial examination and rites to enter back into the Jewish society so that the spiritual health could be restored.

As Church we have an obligation to be a conduit of compassion for Jesus to our society. If you take one thing away from this homily it should be to remember that there will be times when we get angry but we cannot forget to be compassionate. In our compassion we must also remember to heal the person both physically and spiritually.

Who pushes your buttons? Who gets on your last nerve? Who should we touch and heal?

If it were easy anybody could do it, but it is hard so we will leave it to those who folow Jesus.

God bless,