Contemplatives In Action

Those of you who live in the DC area may be able to figure out where I took this picture. If you go to National Harbor in Maryland, you’ll find a long walking/jogging/biking trail that curves around the waterfront before ultimately extending up and over the Wilson Bridge on the Beltway. When you get to the top of that path, you see this unique juxtaposition of a beautiful river, a bustling commercial center, a gorgeous park, and a massive freeway. It’s honestly one of my favorite places in DC. So, one day last fall when Laura and I were there, I snapped this picture because I was totally captivated by the contrast between the trees in their full fall colors and the rush of the beltway.

As I’ve sat with this picture for a couple of months, I’ve realized how much it embodies the way I want to live my life. During my four years as an undergrad at Georgetown, I picked up a few phrases from the Jesuits (the order of Catholic priests who founded Georgetown) that have become deeply significant in my life. The one that resonates the most with me is the Jesuit ideal of being a contemplative in action.

Being a ‘contemplative in action’ means that your active life feeds your contemplative life and your contemplative life feeds your active life.

Andy Otto

In other words, I need the hustle and bustle of the beltway and the quiet of a park with beautiful trees and a majestic river. It takes both to follow God well and following God well will result in both being present in our lives.

The Contemplative Life

Modern day contemplatives are essentially seeking to bring the ancient riches of Christian mysticism and monasticism into the frenzy of our nonstop, over scheduled, and technology driven 21st century American lives. These modern mystics talk about practices like Sabbath, fixed hour prayer, meditation, rest, simplicity, silence, and solitude. They delight in slowing down to be with God, to be present in the moment, and to hear the still small voice of the Spirit.

It’s a beautiful way to live life.

But ten years ago, I would have told you that a contemplative life is at best an anachronistic thrown back and at worst a bunch of feel-good, new age nonsense for the emotionally needy. Marriage, parenting, planting a church, reading more broadly, and following Jesus more closely has shown me just how wrong I was.

I now realize that the contemplative life is essential to our spiritual formation. Don’t ever let anybody tell you that Christianity is simply an external moral code to be followed in an attempt to please God. It’s not. It’s an invitation to be transformed from the inside out by the grace of a God who did everything necessary for our salvation on the wood of a cross. It’s an invitation to come fully alive, to cultivate intimacy with the Creator of the world, and to enjoy life as a child of God. But here’s the thing: that inner transformation doesn’t happen on the fly. It requires us to open the deepest parts of our soul to God’s healing and restorative work.

To put it as simply as I can: If you want to grow and change, you’ve got to slow down.

The Active Life

As we grow and change, we not only realize the depth of God’s love and concern for the world but also start to embody that love. You can’t have a deep relationship with Jesus and be indifferent to the pain and suffering of the world around you. Christ doesn’t call us to withdraw permanently from the world. Rather, He invites us to join Him in His work of reconciling sinners to God (that’s all of us, by the way) and renewing creation. He invites us to take up a cross, roll up our sleeves, and get to work.

In many ways, this is what comes most naturally to those of us who have spent significant time in the action oriented world of evangelicalism. There’s always an event to attend, a place to serve, a mission trip to take, a need to meet. And none of that is bad. The world desperately needs the hope that we carry in our souls. We are constantly surrounded by brokenness, hostility, incivility, and fear. As followers of Jesus, we are called to go into that world as ambassadors of the Kingdom of God.

The deeper you go with God, the more engaged you will be with what He is doing in the world.

Being A Contemplative In Action

Now you know why that picture means so much to me. We can’t pick either the contemplative life or the active life. Following Jesus requires a hearty yes to both. Action without contemplation leads to burnout, moral failure, legalism, and bitterness. Contemplation without action leads to complacency, self-absorption, and lingering questions of how much you’ve actually encountered the real Jesus. But when we join them together, when we become contemplatives in action, it unleashes something powerful in us and in our world.

That’s my prayer for you today. Don’t allow yourself to settle for a monochromatic relationship with God. Find a quiet parks and dive into the hustle of the city.

One Thing

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”

Luke 10:38-42

I have come back to this passage over and over again as we press deeper into this period of social distancing. I keep coming back because I keep seeing so much of Martha in myself. Her issue isn’t that she’s working. That’s not what this passage is about at all. Martha’s problem is that she’s distracted, anxious, and troubled. That’s what Jesus points out. That’s what Jesus wants to lead her out of and it’s what He wants to lead us out of as well. I keep coming back because I need the daily reminder that the one thing we truly need is the one thing that can never be taken from us. I keep coming back to hear the voice of God, the voice that melts anxiety, fear, and distraction.

And I’m not the only one who needs to keep coming back to this truth. We all do. I read an article yesterday that told us that 43% of American adults say their emotional health has gotten worse over the past week. For what it’s worth, I also think that means 57% of survey respondent are either (a) way more spiritually mature than I am or (b) lying. You decide! But I don’t know anyone who isn’t feeling a little distracted these days. It’s where our hearts and minds naturally go during times of uncertainty and upheaval. And, now, we have 24/7 internet access to relentlessly fuel it all.

All of which means we need to cultivate rhythms that enable us to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to His voice, even in the midst of a pandemic. He’s speaking through the miracle of His Word and the presence of His Spirit. He’s inviting us to believe that He’s real, to believe that He’s still good, and to believe that He’s still for us and not against us. He’s inviting us to make King David’s prayer our prayer during this time:

Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name. I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart, and I will glorify your name forever. For great is your steadfast love toward me; you have delivered my soul.

Psalm 86:11-13

Those rhythms are going to look a little different for each of us but here are a few that I’ve found helpful:

  • Getting up at the same time I always do to spend time with God in the quiet of the morning.
  • Only allowing myself to check the news and social media twice a day. For what it’s worth, this is the hardest one for me!
  • Pausing 2-3 times during the day to be still, to pray, and to read a short passage of Scripture.
  • Participating in our RCC Prayer Nights every Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday at 8PM.
  • Continuing to practice a weekly Sabbath.
  • Intentionally engaging with the sermon and other Sunday morning content we make available rather than having it play in the background while I multi-task.
  • Continuing to meet with my Community Group, just online.
  • Going to bed at the same time I always do so I can get up and do it all again tomorrow.

Lord Jesus, teach us to listen. Teach us to hear your voice. Teach us to enjoy Your presence. Help us step away from the chaos and to just be still.

Mid-Day Prayer

mid day prayerA few months ago, our staff team added a new rhythm to our daily schedules – stopping to pray at 11.30.  These prayer times are really simple, nothing complicated at all.  We spend a few minutes in silent, personal prayer and then come together to read God’s Word and pray.  When we first started moving in this direction, I knew it would be good for our team and for my soul.

What I didn’t know is how hard it would be to carve out this time.  And I don’t mean that in some sort of “poor, overworked pastor” kind of way.  In fact, my job should make it so much easier – I’m paid to pray and it’s still a challenge!  The problem isn’t my schedule – it’s my heart.  By that point in the day, I’ve gotten a decent amount of work done (hopefully) but there’s also been enough time for a decent amount of work to pile up – emails, questions from our team, texts, phone calls, you name it.  And whatever has piled up always feels so urgent right at 11.30.  How can I stop to pray when I haven’t gotten back to so and so yet?  How can I stop and pray when I have unanswered emails?  What about that meeting this afternoon? And on and on and on…

But that’s really the point.  There’s always going to be another email to answer, a text to return and a phone call to make. Always.  Whether I pray or not.  So, my only real options are (a) some undone work plus time with the Lord or (b) some undone work and no time with the Lord.  Trust me, I feel the pull towards option b but I know my soul needs option a.

In fact, I’ve learned that the harder it is to stop, the more I need it.  I need to be reminded that the future of this church doesn’t rest on my shoulders.  Jesus is the head of the Church, not me. (Col. 1:18)  Yes, I want to lead with diligence (Rm. 12:8) but that diligence absent the power of God won’t accomplish anything. (Jn. 15:5).  Yes, I want to do my work as unto the Lord (Col. 3:23) but productivity can never take the place of sitting at the feet of Jesus. (Lk. 10:42)

I’m sharing all of this because I want to invite you to join us in this rhythm.  If you can do that in person, great.  I’m serious – we would love to have you come join us in our Crystal City offices any time you can make it.  Just email Alex (alex@rcc.church) and she’ll get you everything you need.  But if you can’t be with us at 11.30, set an alarm on your phone.  When it goes off, pause and pray.  If you can only carve out 60 seconds, that’s better than nothing!  But my guess is you could carve out 5-10 minutes if you got creative.  And, just to state the obvious, there’s nothing special about 11.30 – if that doesn’t work for you, pick another time.  Just be consistent because it’s that consistency that ingrains it in your daily rhythms.

Adopting this rhythm might be one of the more significant changes you make in your relationship with Jesus this year.  It’s a beautiful reminder that our hope in in Christ, He provides the grace our lives run on and He’s with you in the midst of the trials and temptations of your day.  Don’t just spend time with Jesus in the morning to check a box.  Lingering at His feet for a few minutes in the midst of the chaos of our days reminds us that His grace really is sufficient for the challenges of our real, complicated, broken lives.