God’s First Language

Father Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk and mystic, has returned to God’s eternal embrace, at age 95.  Fr. Keating famously said: “God’s first language is silence.  Everything else, is a poor translation.”   Keating reintroduced us to the ancient wisdom that it is in silence, that we hear God’s voice.

In our plugged in, hyper busy world, full of distractions…it is silence that provides an antidote.  Silence offers us respite from the exhaustion and anxiety, that results from our constant hurrying and preoccupation with much and more.

When I was a boy, I knew this.  Near my house was a wetland, where we explored and played.  Walking through the woods as children, we immersed ourselves in the sounds and smells of the forest…rich loom, scented pine needles, bubble of the brook, call of the birds….all called us to become open and reflective.

Silence, in such a sacred place, allowed us to hear the voice of our Creator.  Martin Luther said:  ‘The sound of wind, the movement of water, call of a bird are logoi (little words), from our Creator.

As I grew older however, I often forgot to listen.

I became preoccupied by dreams and schemes.  My life became active and busy.  At times, more times than I care to acknowledge, I became disconnected from the beauty and richness, that only comes from first being quiet.

Fr. Thomas Keating at Snowmass Monastery, Colorado

Thomas Keating however, came into my life as a breath of fresh air.  A teacher who through his books and lectures and simple witness, offered a series of spiritual practices.  Reminding us of what we knew as children.

He called it, ‘Centering Prayer’.

Centering Prayer is a method of silent prayer that prepares us to receive the gift of contemplative prayer, prayer in which we experience God’s presence within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than consciousness itself. This method of prayer is both a relationship with God and a discipline to foster that relationship. http://www.centeringprayer.com

Centering Prayer is not meant to replace other kinds of prayer. Rather, it adds depth of meaning to all prayer and facilitates the movement from more active modes of prayer — verbal, mental or affective prayer — into a receptive prayer of resting in God. Centering Prayer emphasizes prayer as a personal relationship with God and as a movement beyond conversation.

For those of us who are Christian, it leads us into communion with Christ.

Several years ago, I attended a retreat in Maryland.  The culmination of the retreat was a practice called, ‘The Great Silence’.  For 72 hours we didn’t speak.  We began and ended each day with 30 minutes of ‘Centering Prayer’.

On the third day of silence, I awoke to find that the colors of the forest, fields and sky had become more vibrant than any I had ever seen before.  A woman, at the far end of a meadow, greeted the morning by singing a Gospel song.   I found myself entering into the very melody, that she sang.

Words can’t adequately capture what I felt and experienced that day.  I can’t prove, measure or quantify what came to me.

What I do know, is that silence, an intentional practice of being quiet, created the essential environment, within which I was able to see with new eyes and hear and receive with an open heart.

Isaiah, an ancient prophet and mystic said: ‘Listen and your soul will live’.

I knew this to be true as a child.   Thomas Keating gave me a practice, for returning to the Source of all that is good, lasting and true.   Thank you, Fr. Keating.

God’s First Language

Picture 016

Thomas Keating, the Catholic monk and mystic writes:

“Silence is God’s first language; everything else is a poor translation. In order to hear that language, we must learn to be still and to rest in God.”

When I was in high school, a teacher said to me: “I must have the radio or television on at home. I can’t stand to be by myself.” At the time I found that curious. But the older I became the more I understood what he was saying. To be alone is to face what is going on in one’s mind and heart and that can be a scary place to be.

Yet all religious traditions, including Christian, reminds us that in being quiet we not only sit with our thoughts of light or darkness, but we make room to be met by God. Keating reminds us that in order to hear God we must first be quiet. Rather than silence being a place of discomfort, faith reminds us that it can be a place of meeting where we are reminded by our Creator that we are known and cherished.

Sometimes we need to be quiet to gain perspective. In our busy lives how then do we listen? Keating suggests Contemplative Prayer: ‘Each day carve out 20 minutes to be silent…allow thoughts to pass like boats on a river without judgement….select a sacred word (hope, love, peace etc.) to help focus you when you become distracted’.

In time the ancient monks and mystics tell us, we will begin to hear the Creator’s voice in the midst of the silence. In doing so we find ourselves no longer fleeing silence but embracing it as a place where we are met by the Source of all that is good, lasting and true.

Contemplative Paddling

We live in a culture that celebrates our ability to spin many plates, both professional and personal. We also remain highly connected through multi-media, not the least being the ubiquitous ‘Smart Phone’.

I’m not writing to bemoan the state of our culture. There is a lot to be said for the ability to multi-task and staying connected to our immediate and wider community.

Yet there are times when our brain, heart and spirit ask that we let our plates drop (for a while) and tune out from technology (for a while). The reason is that physiologically, emotionally and spiritually we need time to rest, reflect and restore.

A wonderful way to do this is through contemplative paddling. Recently I paddled with a group from the church I serve. We met early in the morning on the banks of a local lake. Our instruction was to limit our talking and to paddle slowly. We were given a meditation mantra from the Vietnamese Buddhist, Thich Nhat Hahn: “Breathing in I calm my spirit….Breathing out I smile….(inhale) Living in the moment….(exhale) This is the only moment…”

Kayak lone paddler photo

As we paddled on the lake, we were invited to practice this mantra when we found our thoughts pulling us away from being present to where we were. Half the time we simply floated and allowed the wind to take us where it would.

As we slowly paddled or simply floated we found that our minds, hearts and imaginations slowly began to be filled with the simple and profound beauty that was under and around us. Those busy spinning plates or glued to their computer, were missing the beauty that we floated upon.

3000 years ago a Jewish prophet named Isaiah offered this: “Listen and your soul will live”. From the waters of the lake we listened deeply, to the call of a mallard duck, to the soft wind, to the hopes and dreams that slowly emerged as we paddled or floated.

There’s a reason Jesus often removed himself from the demands and busyness of life, to go to a quiet place to pray, to listen. In the late 19th century a mystic and theologian named Soren Kierkegaard said: “The Sacred is always present, simply waiting to be found.”

Sometimes all it takes is time on the water to rest, renew and restore one’s soul. Sometimes all we need to do is slow down to find that a blessing is simply waiting to be found.

Paddle well.

The Giver

The Gift and the Giver

 We ask for a piece of sand
and he gives us a beach.

We ask for a drop of water
and he gives us an ocean.

We ask for time
and he gives us life eternal.

And it is so easy for us
to fall in love with the gift
and forget the giver.

Edward Farrell in the poem/prayer above reminds me that life is a gift to be savored.   There is so much to be grateful for.  Earlier this week I walked with a friend on his property overlooking the beautiful McKenzie River.

Our day was kissed by the first 80 degree temperature of the Spring.  As a result everything was in bloom and the scent of rhododendrons filled the air.  One particular Rhody was fire-red and I felt like Moses approaching the burning bush.  Truly we were walking on holy ground.

And it is so easy for us
to fall in love with the gift
and forget the giver.

  Indeed life is a gift to be savored.  Yet the gift becomes sweeter as I remember the source of the gift.  As I give voice to the doxology first written by Thomas Ken in 1674 and sung in the church of my youth, ‘Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow’.        

May I not forget the giver.


I Don’t Like to Pray

I don’t like to pray.  I know that may sound odd coming from a pastor but it’s true.   As an extrovert praying doesn’t come naturally, at least in the traditional sense of folded hands, closed eyes and being quiet. 

I don’t like to pray.  I’d rather be busy doing something, anything, other than praying.  I get energy from being around people, from talking, discussing.  I like the stimulation of lots of people and lots of noise. 

I don’t like to pray.  Praying for me means giving up control….and  I like being in control.  I like being Lord of my own destiny, Captain of my own ship (fill in your own metaphor).  

But when I do pray, when I let go of trying to be in control, I often find that I am graced with a presence and a peace that is not of my own making.   I’m always surprised that I don’t get to the point of praying more quickly.   To pray seems so obvious, the benefits for me so real.

Maybe my resistance to prayer is part of the process for me.  Maybe I am so hard-headed that I need to experience the frustration that comes with trying to be a god unto myself.  Maybe I need to be worn down yet again, before I am ready to invite God to make a home in and with  me.

I’d like to think that the older I get, the more ready I am to pray.   Yet, I still like to be in control.  I still struggle to trust in God.  I still resist ‘letting go’ and ‘letting God’.

I don’t like to pray.  But I do, in spite of myself.  And when I remember to pray, I am met, I am known and I am reminded that I am not alone.

I am learning that prayer doesn’t require that I bow my head and close my eyes.  For me prayer is simply remembering to look and listen and wait upon that Great Mystery we call God.   

I don’t like to pray.  But I’m blessed when I do.

Easter People in a Good Friday World

Good Friday is a symbol for the darkness in our world.  On Good Friday we who strive to walk in the way of Jesus, reflect upon his death upon the cross.   The cross was a means of torture and death used by the Roman Empire to keep the occupied territories in check.  

Jesus was crucified because he was a threat to the fragile stability in occupied Israel.  The religious authorities were threatened by his popularity and heretical ideas.  The Romans simply wanted to keep order and to that end put Jesus to death.

Good Friday remains a symbol for the violence of our own time.   Like Jesus we live in a world which readily turns to violence to resolve differences.  Now in our eleventh year of a protracted war in Afghanistan and with the painful memory from a war of choice in Iraq, we may wonder if the violence will ever end.

Someone said, ‘we are called to be Easter people, living in a Good Friday world’.   Good Friday and Easter,  asks us to remember that God’s love is more powerful than the forces of darkness.  More powerful than the Empire, the narrowness of religious leaders, more powerful than the indifference of the crowd. 

To be an ‘Easter people’, is stance, a posture, a way of leaning into the world, believing ( sometimes against all odds ), that  love expressed through forgiveness, reconciliation and  non-violence….will  ultimately have the final word.

I recently returned from Nicaragua.  My first visit was in 1988 when that nation was at war with Contra rebels (financed by the CIA).   I saw a people traumatized by the indiscriminate violence that accompany every war.   I visited a twelve year old boy in a hospital named Samuel, who had been paralyzed by a snipers bullet.

Yet on this most recent visit, I saw a nation being restored to hope.  Still with great poverty and need, yet slowly rebuilding toward a better future.  I saw people of faith working to bring health care into the most remote villages.   I visited families in the village of La Pimienta, that now have clean water due to the children and adults of McMinnville First Baptist who collected their coins to purchase bio-sand water filters for each home.  There is great beauty in such humble expressions of solidarity.

Long after the violence of any given moment in history has ended, people of good will, people of Easter, continue to believe in the restorative power of love.  Two thousand years ago, hate and violence were overcome.   Two thousand years later, this Good News continues to be lived out all around the world.   Darkness is giving way to the Light.

* Thanks to Colin Stapp (cwstapp.wordpress.com) for providing the photo of a cross, which stands as a hopeful witness in Nicaragua.

Tourist or Pilgrim?


It has been said that being a pilgrim is different from being a tourist.  A tourist visits a place with a limited purpose for a limited amount of time.   We may go to rest, play or learn something new.  Being a tourist is wonderful but it has its limits.

Contrast this with being on pilgrimage.   A pilgrim travels with an openess to begin changed, to being stretched.  A pilgrim knows that there is always a price to pay.  The price of moving outside one’s comfort zone, of being surprised in ways both pleasant and challenging.  

The tourist goes to be comfortable.  The pilgrim expects to be uncomfortable for the sake of a greater good.

This past week I was on pilgrimage to Nicaragua with a group (pictured above*) from First Baptist and Chemeketa Community College www.chemeketa.edu .  We travelled to the village of La Pimienta, an isolated community in the region of Chinandega, near the Honduran border.   There our team worked with the local health committee to provide health screenings,  testing of water samples and repair of water filters.

Sure we helped some.  But in return we received so much.   We were inspired by the hospitality and loving embrace of the La Pimienta community.   We came as strangers and left as friends.

For some of us it was an opportunity to reflect upon the impact of faith on daily life.  Many of us were deeply moved by how foundational faith is to the meeting the challenges that confront the leaders and people of La Pimienta.  

 In the midst of staggering poverty and a harsh climate the people persevere, they continue to work for a better tomorrow for the sake of their children.  Their faith both sustains and inspires them to continue.  In partnership with AMOS a ministry of health www.amoshealthandhope.org the people of La Pimienta have hope.  

Such a witness inspires me.  I find myself looking at the context of my own life with fresh eyes.  If the people of La Pimienta can persevere when they have so little, then how can I not persevere when I/we have so much?  How can I not work for the cause of health and hope in my own community?

None of us who were on pilgrimage to Nicaragua returned the same.   We were challenged both physically, emotionally and spiritually.  From these moments of challenge will come lessons and blessings that otherwise would not have been ours.

This Holy Week each of us is invited to go on an interior pilgrimage where we open ourselves to the guiding of God’s Spirit.   A reading of Matthew 26 – 28 will remind us of Jesus’ final week.   With the openness of a pilgrim we may find God breaking open our heart, mind and imagination in some surprising ways.

I wish you well on the pilgrim way.  Wherever the path may lead.

*Thanks to Colin Stapp for providing the photo: cwstapp.wordpress.com