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.