THOU shalt love thy God. There must be for me a deep sense of relatedness to God. This relatedness is the way by which there shall open for me more and more springs of energy and power, which will enable me to thread life’s mysteries with life’s clue. It is this, and this alone, that will make it possible for me to stand anything that life can or may do to me. I shall not waste any effort in trying to reduce God to my particular logic. Here in the quietness, I shall give myself in love to God. Thou shalt love thy neighbor. How I must seek ever the maintenance of the kind of relatedness to others that will feed the springs of kindness and sympathy in me! I shall study how I may be tender without being soft; gracious without being ingratiating; kind without being sentimental; and understanding without being judgmental. Here in the quietness, I shall give myself in love to my neighbors. Thou shalt love Thyself. I must learn to love myself with detachment. I must have no attitude toward myself that contributes to my own delinquency. I shall study how so to love myself that, in my attitude toward myself, I shall be pleasing to God and face with confidence what He requires of me. Here in the quietness, I give myself over to the kind of self-regard that would make me whole and clean in my own sight and in the sight of God. 
                 Thou shalt love 
                 Thy God
                 Thy neighbor
                                                                                                         - Howard Thurman

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”
                                                                                                         -  Matthew 22:36-40

Richard Legner/Getty Images
The greatest commandments Jesus gives is nicely pictured by the breath. There are two aspects of our breath, isn’t there? There is the breathing in and the breathing out. Inhalation. Exhalation.

Well, the commandment to love God amounts to breathing-in.

To understand what I mean we must first understand what Matthew 22:36 is really saying.

What is the greatest commandment? Jesus answered, the greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul.  

What kind of love is Jesus wanting us to have for God? Some kind of sentimental or touchy-feely kind of love? Some kind of God is my best buddy kind of love? No. The kind of love Jesus calls us to have for God is Agape love, the love of God, godlike love. Jesus in essence is saying in his greatest commandment this: love God with a godlike love. Love God with the love of God.

What’s more, we recall the two verses in I John that declare God is love. So with godlike love, with Agape love, love God who is love. Love God who is Love with the love of God.

Love is the common denominator, the common thread, the common unity.

Loving God with the love of God, what does that mean? Loving God means breathing-in the Love that God is. It means taking God into our hearts, our minds, our souls and residing with God there.

We breathe-in the love of God, we take God in. That is at the heart of loving God.

But what naturally happens after we breathe-in?

Well, there is that space in time when our breathing-in reaches its apex and it leads to our breathing-out. That moment in time, that moment between taking-in the love of God and giving back the love of God amounts to our loving ourselves.  When the love of God is in us, and we see it, and acknowledge it, we cannot help but to love ourselves.

What naturally comes after this? What do we have to do if we want to continue breathing? We breathe-out.

We breathe-out what we breathed-in. Now, what we breathe-out is not exactly like what we breathe-in. We breathe-in pure, unadulterated oxygen. We breathe-out Carbon Dioxide. The pure Oxygen that is God is mixed with the human side of us. It is mixed with our love for ourselves. So we breathe-out Oxgyen in part, but it is mixed with our own kind of Oxygen, and with Carbon.

God’s love, God’s love in us, and self-love result in our loving others.

What we breathe-out is love in action, our loving of others.

This is the process of compassion. Compassion begins inside as we take-in and are transformed by the love and compassion of God. But even at its inception, our taking in of compassion, it is moving from the inside out.

Loving God is the first step.  It is the first step because it protects against selfishness. See, God is not just inside me alone. To say God is inside my heart alone is blasphemy, after all. God is inside and outside and everywhere.

So we must move outward, out from ourself, to love all of God. We must see the love of God in others, in other beings, in the universe all around to love all of God.

Compassion means to feel pain with. The implication is that we feel the pain with another. The “with” there is important. We cannot feel someone’s pain if we are not with them in some sense. With-ness is crucial. But compassion in the religious sense goes beyond just feeling the pain of another. It is being present with another in both painful times and well-times and all the in between times. Being present with another is the basis of compassion.

So Jesus second greatest commandment, to love your neighbor as yourself makes complete sense. To show compassion, to feel the feeling of another means being next to them, means being their neighbor even if temporarily.

Certainly, Jesus modelled this. Some 14 times in the 4 gospels, Jesus when encountering his many neighbors, is said in one way or another to have been moved with compassion. Look it up. It is a common refrain. Moved with compassion, Jesus healed or fed or forgave. This is Jesus moved by an outward moving force . This is Jesus present with real, needful people, feeling those needs, and applying the medicine of love.

All of this, as Howard Thurman would remind us, requires a practice of stillness where we just-breathe.

Stillness is a precious commodity these days. People not only want a sense of stillness, they need it in our ever moving world.

To be honest, I think this is where many of our Christian communities have some lack. Because unlike other traditions like Buddhism or even Islam which mandates 5 times daily prayer there is no biblical mandate to practice stillness as a community, it is often left to practice solitarily as individuals at home. But stillness, mindfulness, silent prayer, call it what you will, is something we need.

Remember the wonderful verse from Psalm 46, “Be still and know I am God.” The stillness comes first. This makes perfect sense.

What’s more it is something that Jesus certainly practiced. Frequently in the gospels, Jesus is described as withdrawing to a deserted place or to a mountain to pray, sometimes all night long. In fact, the author of the Gospel of Luke says out right that “Jesus often withdrew to the wilderness for prayer.” Now, I don’t think Jesus for whole nights was doing as some often do, asking for things he wanted or requesting special things or loftily offering a lot of words. Lengthy sittings of prayer like this necessitate simply stilling the mind and listening to God and not just talking at God. But even if we are talking to God, speaking mindfully, with our minds stilled in the presence of God, that is the manner we should take on. So stillness is present regardless. And Jesus, who is described as stilling the stormy seas and the troubled minds of his disciples, certainly was adept at the practice of stillness.

As we come to a close, I wonder how this relates to the frequently discussed topic of salvation. Is it related?

Yes. We are saved by love. We are saved by the love of God which we take into our hearts. We are saved by our taking this love into our hearts. But not only that. We are saved by the love we give. Breathing-in love without breathing-out love into the world is not breathing, is not the life of the love of God. Because the love of God is moving in the world, is alive in the world, is all around us. We either are breathing that love in and out or we are not breathing at all. What is breathed-in, must be breathed-out or our breath stops.

So let us this week take out some time to be still, and mindfully breathe-in the love of God and mindfully breathe-out that love by loving others. This is the life we are called to. This is the life that saves us and keeps us going.

"A Lull in the Rhythm of Daily Doing"

THE place of prayer & meditation in the life of modern man is limited & hedged in by the multiplicity of details to which attention must be given as a normal part of daily experience. It is true that in some sense a man’s whole life may be regarded as his prayer. Ordinarily, what a man does is an expression of his intent, & his intent is the focusing of his desiring, & his desires are the prayers of his heart. But such explanations are far from satisfactory. There is no argument needed for the necessity of taking time out for being alone, for withdrawal, for being quiet without & still within. The sheer physical necessity is urgent because the body & the entire nervous system cry out for the healing waters of silence. One could not begin the cultivation of the prayer life at a more practical point than deliberately to seek each day, & several times a day, a lull in the rhythm of daily doing, a period when nothing happens that dem&s active participation. It is a wonderful way with which to begin the day & to bring one’s day to an end. At first the quiet times may be quite barren or merely a retreat from exhaustion. One has to get used to the stillness even after it has been achieved. The time may be used for taking stock, for examining one’s life direction, one’s plans, one’s relations, & the like. This in itself is most profitable. It is like cleaning out the closets, or the desk drawers, & getting things in order. The time may be used for focusing & re-focusing one’s purposes in the light of what at first may be only one’s idea of the best & the highest. Then quiet changes begin to take place. Somewhere along the way, one’s idea of the best & the highest takes on a transcendent character & one begins to commune, to communicate with one’s idea of the best & the highest— only a man does not talk to, or with, an idea. When the awareness of God comes in— how He entered, one does not know— one is certain that He has been there all the time. This assurance is categorical & becomes the very core of one’s faith; indeed, it becomes more & more one’s faith. Suppose you begin now, this day, with the use of the quiet time in some such fashion as suggested.

                                                    -        Howard Thurman

Howard Thurman wrote this in the 1960’s. The multiplicity of details demanding our attention has grown exponentially since then, hasn’t it? It has dangerously really.

One of the details demanding our attention is of our own making in some ways. I am thinking of social media. Facebook for me. In some ways, Facebook is very helpful. A big part of my job as a minister is using social media to garner interest and share info. It really is vital.

However, Facebook has its drawbacks. It can be addictive.  In this case, the more you use it, the more it demands your attention, and the more you can’t get away from it.

When you combine this with the normal demands of life – working to pay the bills, getting to work, raising children with the various and vital needs there, being involved in your family’s life – visiting parents and siblings, being part of a community of friends like a church. These are the demands life gives. And we have to tend to them.

These demands absolutely limit and hedge in the practice of prayer and meditation. Who has the time and energy to pray and meditate when in the spare time we have the only thing we really want to do is either take a nap or check out with mindless activities like watching TV or scrolling through Facebook posts?

So what are we to do?

Well, Thurman would have us remember that prayer and 
meditation are not confined to a set time in the morning where we sit and pray or meditate. Thurman reminds us that all of life “may be regarded as a person’s prayer. “

Thus when we are watching TV and scrolling our Facebook page we can be said to be acting in the presence of God and thus praying. So the question, an incredibly big question, is – are we watching TV or scrolling our Facebook page in the spirit of prayer. This is to say are we doing these things mindfully?

This question are we watching TV mindfully or are we engaging with Facebook mindfully begs the question – what does it mean to watch TV mindfully or engage with FB mindfully?

The kids song I grew up singing comes to mind. “Be careful little eyes what you see, be careful little eyes what you see, for God up above is looking down with love, o be careful little eyes what you see.”

There is surprisingly more to this song than you might think.

What does it mean to be careful? Well, for me, a great synonym for careful is “mindful.” When one mindful of what they are doing, when one is aware of the moment and of themselves in the moment engaging with various things in that moment, one is naturally careful, purposeful, intentional, not mindless.

When we are mindful of what we see, when we are mindfully seeing something, we are naturally careful, yes, but we are also living with the awareness of God’s loving presence.

There is a process, a maturing element to this. At first, especially when we are children, we are careful and mindful about what we see or say or hear because we sense loving God, like a parent, is watching and sees what we do. But when we grow and mature spiritually, we are careful and mindful about what we do because God’s love is such a part of us, so internally residing and real, that we are naturally moved by God’s love. And God’s love is the epitome of mindfulness.

But back to our central question what does it mean to do things like watch TV or use Facebook mindfully?

To mindfully watch TV or engage with FB means we are careful, we are mindful about what we watch on TV or how we engage with Facebook. Can we mindfully watch an ultra-violent TV show like “The Walking Dead” or “Game of Thrones”? Or a hypersexual movie? Or purposefully degrading talk shows? Or troll and make ugly and insulting comments on Twitter or Facebook?

I won’t answer these questions for you, but ask you to consider for yourself. But I will say if we watched TV or engaged with Facebook in the spirit of prayer and mindfulness, how different things would be. If presidential candidates - knowing that their intent is the focus of their desires, and their desires are the prayers of their hearts – lived with the idea that what they intend to do and what they want amounts to prayer, how different things would be.

What is clear, and what Thurman is strong in explaining, is that we cannot well live mindfully, prayerfully, healthily if we do not have a practice that undergirds all we do. He says that we need to take time out for being alone and quiet because “the sheer physical necessity is urgent… the body and the entire nervous system cry out for the healing waters of silence.”

The human body cannot withstand constant work, constant going, constant doing.  We need sleep, of course. But we also need what Thurman calls “a lull in the rhythm of daily doing. This lull is where we stop our minds thinking and working things out, which can happen even in our sleep.

As parents, we are trying to teach Corey the importance of being bored. You know how kids repeat those universal words – “I’m bored.” I said them. My siblings said them. My friend said them. Corey says them. “I’m bored.”

It is interesting how when we are kids we want constant entertaining, constant activity, constant things to do. When there isn’t anything to do, kids complain of being bored. Then, we become adults. And for many adults, the desire for constant activity doesn’t change. Many adults replace the constant need to play with the constant need to work.

We never learn the importance of being bored. We never learn the importance of doing nothing and being okay with it. No, we may not say, “I’m bored” like Corey does. But we think it, don’t we? 

And then we turn on the TV and scroll down our FB page. I am just as guilty as you are.

How can we learn the importance of being bored? By practicing being bored. In many ways, meditation and contemplative prayer is the intentional practice of being okay with being bored. It is the intentional practice of being okay with simply sitting with God and doing nothing at all.

It is amazing but true. In being okay with being bored. In finding contentment in simply sitting with God and doing nothing  at all, we do an incredible thing. We engage in what amounts to spring cleaning of the soul.

“We clean out the closets, or the desk drawers, and get things in order.” As Thurman notes, “quiet changes then begin to take place.”

As we sit with God, content with doing nothing at all but simply sitting with God, God becomes a part of us. Thurman says, “the awareness of God comes in [and] one is certain that God has been there all the time. This assurance is categorical and becomes the very core of one’s faith; indeed, it becomes more and more one’s faith.”

This is the faith of God’s presence all along. A faith that is born of us being present with God.

So I close as Thurman closes his meditation, “Suppose we begin now, this day, with the use of the quiet time in some such fashion as suggested.”

Oasis of Peace Within One's Soul

"A BEAUTIFUL and significant phrase, “Island of Peace within one’s own soul.” The individual lives his life in the midst of a wide variety of stresses and strains. There are many tasks in which he is engaged that are not meaningful to him even though they are important in secondary ways. There are many responsibilities that are his by virtue of training, or family, or position. Again and again, decisions must be made as to small and large matters; each one involves him in devious ways. No one is ever free from the peculiar pressures of his own life. Each one has to deal with the evil aspects of life, with injustices inflicted upon him and injustices which he wittingly or unwittingly inflicts upon others. We are all of us deeply involved in the throes of our own weaknesses and strengths, expressed often in the profoundest conflicts within our own souls. The only hope for surcease, the only possibility of stability for the person, is to establish an Island of Peace within one’s own soul. Here one brings for review the purposes and dreams to which one’s life is tied. This is the place where there is no pretense, no dishonesty, no adulteration. What passes over the threshold is simon-pure. What one really thinks and feels about one’s own life stands revealed; what one really thinks and feels about other people far and near is seen with every nuance honestly labeled: love is love, hate is hate, fear is fear. Well within the island is the Temple where God dwells— not the God of the creed, the church, the family, but the God of one’s heart. Into His Presence one comes with all of one’s problems and faces His scrutiny. What a man is, what his plans are, what his authentic point is, where his life goes— all is available to him in the Presence. How foolish it is, how terrible, if you have not found your Island of Peace within your own soul! It means that you are living without the discovery of your true home."
                                                                                                                - Howard Thurman

The idea to have us read a meditation from Howard Thurman and contemplate on the reading came to me the other day. I have been reading the book Meditations of the Heart by Howard Thurman, the renowned mystic and mentor to Martin Luther King. The book contains short meditations on the meaning of life and work and faith, short enough for us to read and ponder. And rich enough for me to offer a reflection upon for the Reflection time.

The first meditation is the one I shared. It speaks about us needing to find and return to an island of peace within our souls. Coincidentally, this week our choir sang a song about an island – no man is an island. One might say these two ideas are contradictory. But I say they are both necessary truths, necessary to apply and live-out in our lives.

I wanted to discuss why and how.

Let us first look at Thurman’s words. Thurman basically proposes a diagnosis of a problem and a prescription to deal with that problem. The problem is that, basically, we endure suffering in life. He says there are stresses and strains to life that cannot be avoided. Whether we are confronted with primary or secondary issues, we have to confront then. We must decide the roads to take each and every day.

There is also injustice and evil in the world. We can’t help seeing it. If we ignore it, then it only gets worse. It then gets so big that once we see it, it is too late. It swallows us. We must make sense of and deal with injustice and evil.

The reality of wrong and unfairness and injustice exists here and now. We are not outsiders living above it all. We are not immune from it all. No person is an island. In making facing the stresses and strains of life, in making decisions about the roads we must take, we do so in an interconnected world. How we handle stress and strain, the decisions we make, how we deal with injustice and hatred is crucial.

What Thurman also reminds is incredibly important. He reminds us that we ourselves are not perfect. Yes, we must deal with the injustices inflicted upon us or upon those we feel connected to. But we must also recognize that we are not perfect, that we too are subject to inflicting our own injustice on others. Rarely, we mean to do it. Not as rarely, we unwittingly inflict injustice upon others.

Political campaigns offer us numerous case studies all the time in this regard. Some love one candidate so much that they seem to exhibit hatred for another, even when that other has done a lot of good, good we agree with, and is far from thoroughly evil. This is an example of unwittingly inflicting injustice.

So the diagnosis is this according to Thurman: “We are all of us deeply involved in the throes of our own weaknesses and strengths. This gives way to the profoundest conflicts within our own souls.”   Our interconnectedness is undeniable. But this doesn’t mean it is always good or even benign. It is not always peaceful and easy. It is sometimes filled with friction and heat.

So that is the diagnosis. What is the cure, what is the prescription that can help us?
Thurman puts it succinctly – “The only hope for this to cease, the only possibility of stability for the person, is to establish an Island of Peace within one’s own soul.”
What is this island of peace within one’s soul? Thurman gives us a nice description to explain the metaphor – the island is the Temple where God dwells. The island is the God found in one’s heart.

Here, there is an insight into, a glimpse of what Buddhist calls enlightenment. There is a seeing things as they really are. We see the wrongs and the injustices as they are. There is a self-transparency where we sit and look at ourselves in the mirror.  We see the wrongs and the injustices which we wittingly or unwittingly inflict. We name things as they arise within us and name they honestly – this is love.; this is hate, this is fear.

In the silence of going back to ourselves, in the quiet of the true home of God, we see who we really are, what our deepest aspirations and hopes are, what we are meant to do in this life.

That said, we come back to our question – is there a conflict between establishing an island of peace within one’s soul and the fact that no man is an island, is there a conflict between going inward, finding the peace of God within ourselves and seeing we no person stands disconnected and isolated from anything else?

No. In fact, they need to go together. In stopping, sitting with ourselves and finding the island of peace within our souls, we build the capacity to live together in peace. In returning home to our spirits, we renew and refuel and reenergize our souls so that we leave our island homes and go to work, the work of cultivating peace, compassion, and justice on the continent where we all live.

So a better metaphor might be the Oasis of Peace within one’s own soul. In this interconnected world, where we share the same sky, the same sun, the same earth, we must find an oasis of peace within our souls. We must every now and again return to our oasis home where God dwells. There we are nourished and strengthened and renewed. There we drink the sweet water of compassion and wash in the waters of peace. Nourished, strengthened, renewed, our thirst quenched, we can live in the world and make a difference.

The spiritual life is basically this ebb and flow. In this world of beauty and ugliness, in this world of light and darkness, in this world of music and clamor, we do the work of cultivating compassion. Within this world, to keep us going, we ebb, we recede to the solace of the oasis, the oasis of peace within our souls. We rest within this oasis of peace for a little while, drinking in the presence of God. We do so not to remain there but to help us return, to flow back to do the work of cultivating compassion.

Cultivating compassion. We cultivate it in ourselves. We cultivate it toward ourselves. And we cultivate it to help others. That is why we are here.