Monday, August 13, 2018

Lectionary Ruminations 2.5 for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B)

Lectionary Ruminations 2.5 is a further revision and refinement of my Lectionary Ruminations and Lectionary Ruminations 2.0.  Focusing on The Revised Common Lectionary Readings for the upcoming Sunday from New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible, Lectionary Ruminations 2.5 draws on over thirty years of pastoral experience.  Believing that the questions we ask are often more important than any answers we find, without over reliance on commentaries, I intend with sometimes pointed and sometimes snarky comments and Socratic like questions, to encourage reflection and rumination for readers preparing to lead a Bible study, draft liturgy, preach, or hear the Word. Reader comments are invited and encouraged.

2:8 Regarding “beloved”, see James 1:19. Who leaps upon the mountains and bounds over the hills?
2:9 Is it ime for a stag party?  Whose wall? Is this stag a peeping Tom? To what would you compare your beloved?
2:10 Come away where?
2:11 What is so special about the springtime?
2:12 What are all these signs of? Whose land?
2:13 Look for “fragrance” in Psalm 45:8. I think we have a refrain at the end of this verse.
2:8-13 Can we classify this passage as spiritual erotica?

PSALM 45:1-2, 6-9
45:1 What is a goodly theme?  Why the king?   Sometimes it is easier to speak than write. See James 1:26 for more about tongues.
45:2 Who is speaking to the king?
45:6 The Psalmist was addressing the king but is now addressing God. What is the significance and symbolism of the royal scepter?
45:7 After addressing God, it seems the Psalmist is again addressing the king. What is the oil of gladness?
45:8 Do you recall the fragrance of Song of Solomon 2:13? If you wear a robe when you lead worship, is it fragrant?
45:9 What is a lady of honor? What is gold of Ophir?

JAMES 1:17-27
1:17 I am beginning to appreciate Luther wanting to omit James from the canon. I wonder where James got the “Father of lights” language.
1:18 Who gave us birth? What is the word of truth? How are we first fruits of God’s creatures?
1:19 Does the use of “beloved” in the NRSV justify pairing this reading with the First Reading? See Song of Solomon 2:8.
1:20 Do you recall any words about anger appearing in the lectionary the past few weeks? Does righteous indignation not produce righteousness?
1:21 How do you understand the reference to “the implanted word?”
1:22 While we can “hear” but never “do,” can we “do” without, in some sense, first, or at the same time, also “hearing”?
1:23 What are people who look at themselves in a mirror like? How might this relate to taking a selfie?
1:24 Is this true in your experience?
1:25 How does “the perfect law” function like a mirror? Does this verse point suggest a works righteousness?
1:26 Does this verse invite a comparison of religion to spirituality?
1:27 Is it possible to keep oneself unstained by the world without withdrawing from the world?

MARK 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
7:1 If they came from Jerusalem, where did they come to? What is the difference between a Pharisee and a scribe?
7:2 What does it mean for something to be defiled? Were some of the disciples washing their hands before they ate and others not?
7:3-4 In the NRSV, these two verses are in parenthesis.  Why?
7:5 Was this an open ended question or one designed to trip up Jesus?
7:6 Was Jesus over reacting? Does this tie into James 1:23-26
7:7 Is any worship ever in vain?  Are not all doctrines nothing more than human precepts?
7:8 Which commandment?
7:5-11 These verses could raise an interesting dialectic between our understandings of and reliance on scripture and tradition.  While Protestants might point to the Roman Catholic reliance on tradition as something alien to Protestantism, as a protestant I readily confess that Protestants often appeal to their tradition, but it is a tradition that is not canonized and often not written down.
7:14 What is the difference between listening and understanding?
7:15 A young child once asked me if it were a sin to poop?  I did not appeal to this text when I answered “no.”
7:21-22 What is the difference between intentions and actions?  Another interesting dialect might be a comparison between ontological and teleological ethics.  Is everything in the list comparable to murder?
7:23 Juxtapose this verse with 7:15. If this is the case, can anyone be undefiled?
I am a Minister Member of Upper Ohio Valley Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and am serving as the Interim Pastor of the Richmond United Presbyterian Church, Richmond, Ohio. Sunday Worship at Richmond begins at 11:00 AM. Some of my other blog posts have appeared on PRESBYTERIAN BLOGGERS and The Trek.

Lectionary Ruminations 2.5 for the 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year B)

Lectionary Ruminations 2.5 is a further revision and refinement of my Lectionary Ruminations and Lectionary Ruminations 2.0.  Focusing on The Revised Common Lectionary Readings for the upcoming Sunday from New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible, Lectionary Ruminations 2.5 draws on over thirty years of pastoral experience.  Believing that the questions we ask are often more important than any answers we find, without over reliance on commentaries, I intend with sometimes pointed and sometimes snarky comments and Socratic like questions, to encourage reflection and rumination for readers preparing to lead a Bible study, draft liturgy, preach, or hear the Word. Reader comments are invited and encouraged.

1 KINGS 8:(1, 6, 10-11) 22-30, 41-43
8:(1, 6, 10-11) There are several optional verses that may or may not include. How will you decide to include them or not? What is your criteria for deciding.
8:(1) I wish someone would soon discover or disclose the whereabouts of the ark. Is it in Axum, or not? 8:(6) Where had the ark being kept before it was brought to the inner sanctuary?
This verse makes it sound like the cherubim were separate from the ark, but I thought the cherubim  were part of its lid.
8:(10) Why are clouds often associated with God’s glory?”  Maybe we ought to install fog generators in our sanctuaries that we can turn on to generate fog at liturgically appropriate times.
8:(11) Does the glory of the LORD ever fill your sanctuary? How would you know? How could you tell? Where is the most holy place of your sanctuary and what is the most holy item in it or there?
8:22 Was Solomon praying in the orans position? What body posture do you assume to pray? Was Solomon acting as a priest as well as a king?
8:23 This sounds like a confession of faith.
8:24 Is this a little self-serving?
8:25 So this is a conditional covenant! This is sounding a little like the divine right of kingship.
8:26 Again, this prayer could be heard as a little self-serving.
8:27 Is this not a theological conundrum, immanence vs. transcendence?
8:28 Is Solomon praying just for himself or also for the people? Is he praying that is prayer will be heard?
8:29 God has eyes?
8:30 What does Solomon mean “pray toward this place”? Should Christians pray facing Jerusalem? Which way do you face when you pray?  East, toward the sunrise,  toward Jerusalem, or any old direction?  Does it matter?
8:41-43 Do you discern any hint of universalism in these verses?
8:41 I wonder how often foreigners/non-Jews came to Jerusalem for religious/spiritual reasons.
8:42 Was this prophecy or hindsight?
8:43 Yes, to this day we refer to this structure as Solomon’s Temple, not God’s Temple. Prayers are still prayed at the Wailing Wall. Temple serve as a sort of “phone booth” connected to God? Can some places amplify our prayers and others mute them?

84:1 Does this psalm praise God or God’s house?  Is there a difference?  Does it matter? Must sanctuaries be lovely even if not practical?
84:2 I will trade you a Christian Cloister Walk for a Jewish Court any day.  What do you make of “heart and flesh”?
84:3 I once heard of a church where a BB gun was used to shoot and kill a bird that had found its way into the sanctuary!
84:4 In our present context, what does it mean to “live” in God’s house?  When I hear people say that someone “lives at the church” it is usually meant in a disparaging way.
84:5 How can highways be in the heart?
84:6 What do you know about the valley of Baca? Where is it?
84:7 What does the psalmist mean by “strength?”
84:8 This could be used as a refrain or conclusion to almost any prayer.
84:9 What shield?
84:10 I would rather be a servant in heaven than a ruler in hell.
84:11 How does this verse illuminate verse 84:9?  How is God a sun?  How is God a shield? What does it mean to walk uprightly?
84:12 Are those who do not trust the LORD of hosts unhappy?

6:10 Why “finally?”  What has come before this?
6:11 How does this verse illuminate Psalm 84:9 and 11?  Could this imagery be too militaristic for some?  How do you deal with the assumption that we are engaged in a struggle with the devil? Note that armor is generally a protective suit. It is defensive. It is not offensive.
6:12 What is your take on Spiritual warfare?  You might find some guidance from the writings of Walter Wink, or even Carl Jung.
6:13 What is the whole armor of God?  Where can I buy it?  Does it come with a money back guarantee? What does it mean to “Stand firm?”
6:14-17 Of all the armor mentioned, the sword is the only offensive weapon, and it is really not armor.  All the rest is defensive. I wonder how was this passaged used or misused during The Crusades.
6:14 How is a belt armor?
6:15 in the midst of this militaristic imagery we find the mention of peace!
6:16 Is the evil one the devil?
6:17 Is the sword of the Spirit a two edged sword?
6:18 What other way is there to pray?
6:19 Do you pray for the preacher when you are in the pews?  Do the people in the pews pray for you when you preach?  What is the “mystery of the Gospel” and why is it a “mystery?”
6:20 Have you ever thought of yourself as an ambassador? Have you ever felt like you were in chains?

JOHN 6:56-69
6:56 Are you and the people you teach and/or preach for getting tired of all this eating flesh and drinking blood stuff, which we have been reading and hearing for several weeks, or do you and they find it fascinating?  Do not forget the etymological meaning of “ruminations?”
6:57 In our contemporary context, imagine Jesus standing before his followers and saying “Eat me!”
6:58 What other bread came down from heaven?
6:59 Does the original context/setting matter?  What if Jesus had said these things in the Athens Agora, or standing outside Le Pain Quotidian, Au Ban Pain, or Outback Steak House?
6:60 Many, but not all?  Is this still not another theological conundrum (Sorry, I like that word.  See my rumination on 1 Kings 8:27)? Do many Christians still find Jesus’ words about eating his flesh and drinking his blood difficult?
6:61 Struggling with new ideas and wrestling with tough concepts is not the same as complaining, or is that what it usually boils down to in most religious settings?  Maybe we ought and need to be offended more often by the raw, uncooked, unprocessed Gospel and intoxicating worship and preaching!
6:62 Prescient?  Reading something back into the text? Where was Jesus before?
6:63 Is Jesus backpedaling?  Is he flesh or spirit?  Is he the Word incarnate or the Word spiritualized? Why eat his flesh if flesh if flesh is useless and it is the spirit that gives life?
6:64 Okay, I know who betrayed Jesus.  But who were the ones (yes, it is plural) that did not believe? Did any of the twelve believe at this point or did they all have doubts. Did any of the twelve have doubts even after the resurrection and ascension?
6:65 So no one can come to Jesus on their own?
6:66 Can we assume that the ones who turned back are not mentioned?  No longer mentioned?  Not among “the twelve?” If they turned back, were they ever really disciples?
6:67 This is not quite a request for the strongest affirmation of faith, or affirmation of the strongest faith.
6:68 Note that Peter asks “to whom” not “where” we can go.  Are the words of eternal life the sole possession of Jesus? In other words, “Jesus, you are the best thing going.”
6:69 At least this is a better affirmation than “I do not wish to go away.”  What is the difference, if any, between belief and knowledge?  You might find Calvin’s definition of “faith” insightful as you wrestle with that last question. Does the original Greek suggest a process of coming to faith?
I am a Minister Member of Upper Ohio Valley Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and am serving as the Interim Pastor of the Richmond United Presbyterian Church, Richmond, Ohio. Sunday Worship at Richmond begins at 11:00 AM. Some of my other blog posts have appeared on PRESBYTERIAN BLOGGERS and The Trek.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Musings on Merton: Techniques Associated with Contemplation

            In chapter 29 of New Seeds of Contemplation, Merton discusses “Mental Prayer,” but I have struggled to understand what he means by that. He seems to talk about the same subject using apparent synonyms such as active forms of prayer, meditation, and systematic meditation, without ever defining his terms. By searching the internet I learned that “Mental prayer is a form of prayer recommended in the Catholic Church whereby one loves God through dialogue, meditating on God's words, and contemplation of Christ's face.”[1]
            Merton distinguishes active forms of prayer from “infused contemplation” which he says “begins when the direct intervention of God raises this whole process of development above the level of our nature ; … But before this begins, we ordinarily have to labor to prepare ourselves … by deepening our knowledge and love of God in meditation and active forms of prayer.”[2]
            While not offering a definition of infused meditation, Merton at least notes that “meditation is a twofold discipline that has a twofold function. First it is supposed to give you sufficient control over your mind and memory and will to enable you to recollect yourself and withdrawal from exterior things and business activities and thoughts and concerns of temporal existence.”[3] This sounds to me very much like my understanding and experience of mindfulness meditation.
            Secondly, “this is the real end of meditation – it teaches you how to become aware of the presence of God.” Based on my experience and understanding, this is exactly where Christian meditation or contemplative prayer departs and goes a step beyond mindfulness mediation. It moves beyond withdrawal from exterior things to find union with God in the inner being.
            “The real purpose of meditation is this:’ writes Merton, “to teach a man how to make himself free of created things and temporal concerns, in which he finds only confusion and sorrow, and enter into a conscious and loving contact with God in which he is disposed to receive from God the help he knows he needs so badly, and to pay to God the praise and honor and thanksgiving and love which it has now become his joy to give.”[4]
            Like many other Christian writers who have written about Christian meditation, contemplation, and centering prayer, Merton has more to say about its theological foundation and benefits than he has to say about the practical “how to” nuts and bolts of actually practicing it. I have found that many secular and Buddhist authors writing about meditation offer more practical advice than Merton and other Christian writers have offered.
            About the only practical advice I found in New Seeds of Contemplation was in chapter 33, where Merton writes about the “Journey through the Wilderness.” There is in that chapter an off handed remark referring to “your half-hour of meditation”[5] and what appears to me to be a paragraph about what I consider a form of Lectio Divina.[6]
            While Merton offers little practical guidance here, (and I wished he offered much more), he does provide in this chapter what I consider the clearest and most succinct definition of Contemplative prayer. It “is a deep and simplified activity in which the mind and will rest in a unified and simple concentration upon God, turned to Him, intent upon Him and absorbed in His own light, with a simple gaze which is perfect adoration because it silently tells God that we have left everything else and desire even to leave our own selves for His sake, and that He alone
is important to us, He alone is our desire and our life, and nothing else can give us any Joy.”[7] I say “Amen” to that.
            Even if you resonate with the above definition of contemplative prayer, as I do, you may still be seeking some practical “how to” advice from Merton. For that, I send you to Jim Forest’s fine Merton biography, Living With Wisdom: A Life of Thomas Merton. There you will find brief description of Merton’s daily rhythm of life in his hermitage, including a description of Merton’s “method of meditation” and reference to Merton’s writing about “the Jesus Prayer.” [8] I found in those few pages some of the most practical and down to earth descriptions of monastic life, prayer, meditation, and contemplation I have ever read, whether by Merton or anyone else.

              Here is the link to the introductory post in the series.

[2] New Seeds of Contemplation, 214.
[3] Ibid., 217.
[4] Ibid., 218.
[5] Ibid., 242.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid., 243.
[8] Jium Forest, Living With Wisdom: A Life of Thomas Merton (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991, 2008) , 190-192.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Musings on Merton: Faith and Wisdom

            One of my favorite passages from John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion is where he defines faith as a “a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.[1] While I resonate with Calvin’s definition, I think the Reformed Tradition has too often emphasized its aspect of the mind while more or less neglecting its characteristic of the heart.
From new seeds, a new garden grows and spreads.
            Merton, while asserting that “The beginning of contemplation is faith,”[2] qualifies his comment by stating that  “faith is not an emotion, not a feeling. [It] is first of all an intellectual assent. … It gives us certitude concerning God.”[3] I think Calvin and many Reformed Christians would agree with Merton in this regard.
            For Merton, however, knowledge or intellectual assent, was not the end all and be all of faith. Faith also “has to be something more than an assent of the mind.”[4] Faith is also “an opening of an inward eye, the eye of the heart, to be filled with the presence of Divine light.”
            I understand Merton to be arguing that while an intellectual assent may be the beginning of contemplation, contemplation leads to a deeper, more profound, more intimate, more mystical faith, perhaps more mystical than Calvin or his theological children, sometimes referred to as the “frozen chosen,” may have been and sometimes still are comfortable with.
            While Merton says that faith is both an intellectual assent and a heart filled with Divine light, he also asserts that God is “not a philosopher’s abstraction” and “lies infinitely beyond the reach of anything our eyes can see or our minds can understand.”[5] It is here that Merton embraces the via negativa or apophatic spiritual tradition that teaches any knowledge of God is obtained through negation, which I mentioned in my last post about the true self and false self. Thus “to find God we must pass beyond everything that can be seen and enter into darkness. Since nothing that can be heard is God, to find [God] we must enter into silence.”[6] This is what I understand to be the essence of contemplative faith.
            Merton writes “The function of faith is not to reduce mystery to rational clarity, but to integrate the unknown and the known together in a living whole, in which we are more and more able to transcend the limitations of our external self.”[7]  It is here that I think many theologically conservative Reformed Christians would cry heresy, for Merton next claims “Faith is what opens to us this higher realm of unity, of strength, of light, of sophianic love where there is no longer the limited and fragmentary light provided by rational principles, but where the Truth is One and Undivided and takes all to itself in the wholeness of Sapentia, or Sophia.”[8]
            Some Presbyterians will never forget the 1993 controversy generated by the “Re-Imagining God” women’s conference where “Sophia” was identified, lifted up, and celebrated as a feminine aspect or expression of God and as a corrective to the over-use of masculine images of God and masculine language about God.  I think Merton would have had no problem with that and would have, in fact, celebrated it.
            In a church that has long suffered from patriarchy, exclusively governed by Apollonian men from Mars while excluding leadership from Dionysian women from Venus, Merton’s emphasis of a contemplative spirituality that embraces and celebrates head and heart, Christ as well as Sophia, can serve as a healthy corrective. Merton calls for a healthy balance between the poles of a “purely emotional worship” and a “merely rational life,” neither of which are a spiritual life, but rather calls for a life of wisdom that through contemplation founded on the intellect leads one to an affectional experience of God. I could not agree more.

              Here is the link to the introductory post in the series.

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.2.7
[2] New Seeds of Contemplation, 126.
[3] Ibid., 126-127.
[4] Ibid., 128.
[5] Ibid., 131.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid., 136.
[8] Ibid., 141.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Musings on Merton: The True Self and False Self

            I have occasionally read and heard contemplatives writing and talking about the true self and the false self but until recently did not have a clue to what they were referring. That started to change after I participated in a Pittsburgh Theological Seminary Spiritual Formation Course about “Thomas Merton and the Journey to True Self.”
From new seeds, new life will find a way.
            I think the best book to read for insight into Merton’s understanding of the false self and true self is his The New Man. It can be dense and a real struggle to get through, however. It is also more theoretical, philosophical, theological, and offers even less practical advice about contemplation than New Seeds of Contemplation. Nevertheless, Merton does discuss the true self and the false self in this latter work and therefore offers some insight.
            Unfortunately there is no index to New Seeds of Contemplation, so I cannot go back to read everything Merton wrote about the true and the false self.  I recall him first mentioning the false self in the chapter entitled “Everything That is, Is Holy,” in comments he made as he discussed detachment. I first became aware of the concept of detachment through my study and practice of mindfulness meditation, but thanks to Merton, I have learned more about detachment as a Christian spiritual discipline that is both essential to and flows from contemplation and leads to detachment from the false self and the discovery of the true self.
            Merton writes “We do not detach ourselves from things in order to attach ourselves to God, but rather we become detached from ourselves in order to see and use all things in and for God. … There is no evil in anything created by God, nor can anything of His become an obstacle to our union with Him. The obstacle is in our ‘self,’ that is to say in the tenacious need to maintain our separate, external, egotistic will.”[1] According to Merton, “All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered.” [2] In other words, to “To say I was born in sin is to say I came into the world with a false self.”[3] “Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self.” [4] “My false self and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love — outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion.”[5]
            “Until we love God perfectly,” writes Merton, “everything in the world will be able to hurt us,” everything including our separate, external, egotistic will that manifests itself in our false self. “Instead of worshipping God through His creation we are always trying to worship ourselves by means of creatures. … But to worship our false selves is to worship nothing. And the worship of nothing is hell.”[6]
            The “ourselves” and “self” that contemplation seeks to help us detach from is what Merton calls the “false self,” the illusory person we normally and usually think we are. This “false self” can get in our way of experiencing union with the divine. “The only true joy on earth,” writes Merton, “is to escape from the prison of our own false self, and enter by love into union with the Life Who dwells and sings within the essence of every creature and in the core of our very own souls.”[7]
            By detaching ourselves from the falsity of illusion and instead choosing the truth of our identity as created in the image of God, we “share with God the work of creating the truth of our identity.” According to Merton, “to work out our own identity in God, which the Bible calls ‘working out our salvation,’ is a labor that requires sacrifice and anguish, risk and many tears.” [8]
            If I understand Merton at all, it seems that the false self is the fallen self, the self that is tarnished by original sin, not the self we were created to be. The true self is the self of original blessing, the self that was created in the image of God. In contemplation, we open ourselves to the power of God to help us detach ourselves from the illusion that our sinful self is who we were meant to be and through the grace, mercy, and love of God rediscover our true self as a child of God created in God’s image.

                Here is the link to the introductory post in the series.

[1] New Seeds of Contemplation, 21.
[2] Ibid., 34-35.
[3] Ibid., 33.
[4] Ibid., 34.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid., 26.
[7] Ibid., 25.
[8] Ibid., 32.