Contemplative Christian Spirituality.

This regularly updated site from Josh Pinkston centers around Christian Spirituality, contemplative awareness and practice, and some social consciousness.

I'm a Dad! And we had a teacher.

A month ago now, Shawna and I welcomed Ellis (aka El Minimanny) into our home, lives, and hearts. Parenthood is no joke. The challenges we’ve experienced while being faced with sleep deprivation makes me look at all parents with awe! Especially single parents. You all have my profound respect!

For the past few months, I’ve been reciting Psalm 23 in my practice of silent prayer. In all honesty, I’ve never liked this Psalm, but for one reason or another, I felt a bit drawn to finding some of its depth. In this short amount of time, it has now become one of my favorite passages of Scripture.

A line I’ve often found myself returning to through many days is, “He leads me beside still waters.”

How rarely does that feel true. In the chaos or confusion of the moment, the last thing I find easily accessible are refreshing still waters. But as I’ve meditated with this passage and learned to give my Shepherd my attention, rather than give it to my circumstances and confusion, I’ve found that, in being still, He has led me beside still waters the entire time. I've also found that there is a thirst in me.

I am thirsty. It is a need, desire, and compulsion within me that is beyond my comprehension, but drives the current of all my actions and way of thinking.

Only 4 weeks ago, we welcomed Ellis into our arms and home. I can’t help but keep thinking that with his birth, we were reborn. (Lord knows we’re all sleep like newborns right now). Everything is new to him and at least something about everything is new to us now too. Things I would have thoughtlessly or selfishly done before he was here are now lit with a new hue. He’s on my mind.

The most challenging part of parenting for me so far has been learning the differences between his cries:

  • hungry
  • dirty diaper
  • tired
  • gassy
  • other

He can’t communicate with words and wouldn’t know what to say even if he could. Ellis doesn’t realize he is actually tired or that he has soiled his diaper, he just feels discomfort and reacts impulsively to it. We’ve all been there. And although we all grow up, learn to talk, and find ways to live life, I don’t think we really learn to sit with and observe what it is we’re really thirsting for. 

The experience reminds me of a Henri Nouwen quote:

Your body needs to be held and to hold, to be touched and to touch. None of these needs is to be despised, denied, or repressed. But you have to keep searching for your body's deeper need, the need for genuine love. Every time you are able to go beyond the body's superficial desires for love, you are bringing your body home and moving toward integration and unity.

Ellis has really been teaching me about my thirst and hunger for love. The need to be cared for as well as to care for. Just because I've learned to walk, talk, interact, and operate in our culture does not mean that I've made any progress in understanding who I am or who others are. And although I may have ideas of things that I want, I'm often still clueless as to what it is I really need.

Who can map out the various forces at play in one soul? I am a great depth, O Lord. The hairs of my head are easier by far to count than my feelings, the movements of my heart.
– Saint Augustine

Thank you Ellis. I am thirsty and learning to find still waters beside me. The Shepherd has my attention.

Shut up and listen for Christ's sake.

In my last article, I poked fun at parents who presumptuously assume the role of advice givers to us expecting folks. It is a humorous phenomenon, but it brings up another point.

(Side update note: Yes, we're STILL waiting for our lil guy to drop the Occupy Movement.)

When people ask how it's going and how we're feeling, but then immediately have an answer for my response, I can't help but feel like they were never really listening in the first place. Have you ever felt like people may hear you, but no one is really listening? I think it is a common feeling. And a painful one. There really is a difference between being heard and being listened to, isn’t there?

When someone is only hearing you, it seems like they only listen until they think they “get it” (which they never really do). Then they’re just waiting for the moment when they can start talking and have tuned you out. With some folks, they’re convinced that they “get it” before you even say anything (having grown up around pastors and in church environments, this seemed like a pandemic)!

When someone is listening to you, they’re not as interested in what’s being communicated as they are the one who is communicating. It’s about relationship! And it’s the threshold of intimacy.

I believe it is with this understanding that Jesus said:

Therefore consider carefully how you listen. – Luke 8.18

Imagine how all those historical giants listened to Scripture being read aloud in the temple and church gatherings, in the days before it was readily available at every turn; on our cell phones, in our desk drawers, on our bookshelves, etc. They simply listened with such intentionality and focus that it transformed their lives and ultimately our world. God has truly designed us with the capability of listening with extraordinary depth and power, yet it seems that we hardly access this potential.

How we listen to one another can inform us of how we are listening to God. How am I listening to Shawna? How am I listening to those around me? Or am I just waiting for my chance to speak? There is a direct correlation between those answers and how I am listening to God.

When I really listen, I don’t only hear what is being said, but who is saying it and how and why it is being said. It brings me closer to that person and strengthens the bond I have with them; whether that be with God, Shawna, our neighbors, or our "enemies." It is impossible truly love without truly listening.

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.
– James 1.26

So, it is with absolute reverence and sincerity that I plead: Shut up and listen, for Christ's sake.

In Love = In Sensitivity

We’re still waiting for our son to be born (due last Friday). Between Shawna’s remarkable discomfort and our live’s perpetual state of limbo, I find myself getting easily irritable and restless. This manifests in different ways. I’m so grateful that our elderly neighbor who lights up every morning at 6am outside our bedroom window isn’t able to hear my thoughts. He'd have called the cops a long time ago and I'd be waiting for our son's birth from a jail cell. Waking up that way is a bad sign for how I’m doing internally.

It really isn’t him who’s driving me insane. It’s my self-centeredness. I’m so eager to meet our son and to see Shawna be a mom (with a body she feels comfortable in again) that I begin focusing more on my eagerness than I do the things I’m eager for. The emotion becomes the focus rather than the focus that produced the emotion. It’s backwards and quickly turns my being eager into my being anxious and irritable.

(Side note: Speaking of being irritable, to all parents reading this, please refrain from the impulse of thinking you have the perfect advice for me or need to educate me on the difficulty of sleepless parenthood. I don’t know what it is about having a pregnant wife that turns everyone around you a doctor, psychologist, and sociological genius, but be we must find a cure for this epidemic! Thanks. And I love you.)

Culturally, the word “sensuality” is usually understood to be addressing mere sexuality, but it is so much more than that! Sensuality is more like a mental condition. It’s the over-identification with our senses (sens-uality). A “sensual person” is one who measures the value of people, places, and things according to how they relate to their senses and how they make him/her feel. It is the shallowest and most self-centered level of thinking (believe me, this is something I'm really good at).

Ephesians 4.19 gives an incredible diagnosis for the root cause of sensuality:

Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality…

Sensuality is the absence of sensitivity. For instance, when I’m grumpy toward my smokey neighbor, it’s because I am overwhelmed with how I believe he is “making" me feel. He is then reduced to being a cause, and I am reduced to being affected. I am completely insensitive to who he is beyond what I am feeling right now. I’ve lost all sensitivity and been given over to sensuality. This robs me of being able to hear others and God, because listening and hearing require sensitivity.

Jesus said, “I have come that you may have life, and life more abundantly,” but we often behave as if we’re afraid that an intimate relationship with Him will rob us of living full lives. That is the condition of sensuality having its way with our faith.

Sensitivity enables us to love our spouse, children, neighbors, and even enemies because we’re capable of being sensitive to them, beyond how they relate to us. Christ wants to teach us how to live with transcendent and infinite sensitivity to a loving “God of all who is over all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4.6)

So, when I find I'm being grumpy or agitated, I try to remember to ask myself, “What am I being insensitive to?

As I ask that now, I realize that I am being insensitive to an immense joy residing in our house and lives. I think, I often confuse excitement as anxiety. It’s not worth continuing to do that any longer.

(Continued side note: Thanks again, parents!)

The Eye of the Beholder

The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing.
– Ecclesiastes 1.8

Years ago, my Dad was recovering from Lymphoma and months of chemo with radiation. His health and strength were returning and I found my role as caretaker fading. This was strangely bittersweet. On one hand, seeing my Dad win a battle that seemed impossible gave us all a measure of relief that goes beyond description or expression of gratitude. While, on the other hand, the purpose, meaning, and significance of my own life had never felt so clear, and that was going away. Being there for he and my Mom in their time of absolute need had been the most spiritually satisfying experience of my life. I knew from that point on what I will spend the rest of my life trying to attain again.

One morning, I was walking and realized that the experience of love and selflessness I stumbled upon was exactly what I had been searching for my entire life, subconsciously. It was the most whole and complete I had ever felt! When I looked back on my life, I saw how badly I’ve used and manipulated friends, family, religion, and strangers to try to meet this internal craving. It broke my heart. I never want to return to that way of living. Ever.

I saw that I had been trying to find an external solution to an internal problem. That was where change needed to take place in order to ensure my never returning to my selfish behaviors. I needed to rewire my mode of operation, if you will. Or redirect my rushing stream of consciousness.

Love is an internal condition. As is peace. And joy. And gratitude. And gentleness. And kindness. Not to mention, the kingdom of God. These are all things that find their manifestation within. But we go about our entire lifetimes trying to construct them externally.

The most wonderful secret about this is, once love has taken up residence internally, you see it everywhere externally. Once the kingdom of God is maintained and nurtured internally, you see it everywhere externally. You know that saying, Beauty is in the eye of the beholder? I believe it. And I believe it applies to Christ. When Christ is in the eye of the beholder, the beholder sees Christ everywhere she/he looks.

When our internal needs and demands are met or transformed, we experience an amazing liberation from subconsciously demanding everyone else to satisfy them for us. We see our friends, family, neighbors, strangers, and enemies differently, more purely. It creates the ability to truly love.

As in water face reflects face, so the heart of man reflects man.
– Proverbs 27.19

If you or I are chaotic, restless, or agitated, it is only a reflection of our heart, our internal condition. Let’s start there rather than blame those around us for our behavior or emotions. When we decide to do this we finally encounter the kingdom of God within.

People can't observe the coming of the kingdom of God. They can't say, 'Here it is!' or 'There it is!' You see, the kingdom of God is within you.
– Jesus, Luke 17.21/22

Tearing ish up...

Jesus shouted again with a loud voice and gave up His spirit. Suddenly, the curtain of the sanctuary was split in two from top to bottom.
– Matthew 27.50/51

This has always been one of the most intriguing details of Christ’s crucifixion to me. Seemingly miraculously (it is important to note that, although it says “suddenly", it does not say miraculously, so to interject that notion is admittedly an assumption), something the Pharisees would believe to separate an unworthy humanity from the very presence of God is torn apart. The symbolism of this message is passionately meaningful. The curtain tearing was not a way of saying the “Holy of Holies” isn’t the dwelling place of God, but that everywhere is. What stands out to me the most about this is how it wonderful summarizes Jesus’ life.

IMG_4298.jpg

Constantly, Jesus tore apart the things we believed to be so sacred that not everyone could take part in it. He did this when the Pharisees asked him to tell them when God’s kingdom will come. He said, "The kingdom of God is not coming with something observable; no one will say, ‘Look here!’ or ‘There!’ For you see, the kingdom of God is within you.” In this instance, here and there are the veils which the Pharisees hung up between us and the kingdom of God. It is not here, neither is it there. Those veils need to be torn apart. They are false and delusional.  Anything and any thought that we believe separates between us from God is false and delusional. The residence of God is within you.

So, now we can see and understand that you and I are the "curtains of the sanctuary”. We try to make our lives and beliefs about what’s on the other side appear beautiful, but the best thing we could do is draw back. Allow our identification with emotions, things, and people groups to be pulled away, even for just a little bit, so that the kingdom of God within might be revealed. This “drawing back” is what Jesus is describing when he says, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves.”

We all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
– 2 Corinthians 3.18

We do ourselves and our relationships a huge service by taking time to remove the veils and curtains in our lives. Whenever and wherever we see our religion putting up more of them, be strong and courageous and just walk right through them.

At the Pace of Trees

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed…
– Jesus, Matthew 13.31

Today, Brook Fonceca and I took to the hills and ended up at an amazing retreat center on Mt. Herman called “Fasting Prayer Mountain of the World”. That’s an intense name, but the environment is hardly that. It exists mostly in harmony with the forest and is meticulously landscaped. Little hidden treasures are tucked away in massive hollowed out trunks where Redwood giants once stood. Life is growing, crawling, and sneaking around everywhere. Sometimes it even walks up and tries to help me be more present!

As I was walking around in nature of it all (the original cathedral), I was reminded of a phrase that has been with me since my early days of taking up a daily practice of Silent Prayer: At the Pace of Trees. Have you ever sat and watched a tree grow? Even just for a few minutes? It is maddeningly slow. Yet, its roots can destroy concrete and its limbs can break apart houses and cars. Just because we can’t watch its growth doesn’t mean that nothing is happening. Something is definitely happening.

Jesus consistently tries to draw our attention to nature in order to see how it reveals God’s nature as well as our own. “Consider the lilies of the field,” he says. Adding, “Consider the birds of the air.” But how often do we as Christians actually do this? Maybe instead of trying to answer that question we should just use that energy to start doing it now!

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed,” is a revelation of our own nature (spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical). It. Is. Such. A. Slow. Process.

Our lives operate at busy pace: wake, shower, maybe eat, out the door, drive, work, lunch, work, drive, dinner, home, tv, sleep, and repeat. Retreating to nature helps so much to reveal what’s really going on beneath all the busyness: Life. At the pace of trees.

As I look around and see the diverse condition of nature, I wonder, what’s the condition of my life? How is it being tended to and maintained? What am I doing to honor what and who I really am? Is the “mustard seed” within me being cared for? Or is it having to fend for itself because there isn’t someone tending to it?

Taking a personal retreat and acquiring a daily practice of Silent Prayer are two of the greatest things I have done for myself and my growing family. The healthy trees create a radius of health around them. People are exactly the same way. Nature is best when it’s being nurtured. I wish the practice of taking personal retreats and Silent Prayer were more a part of Christian culture and believe they slowly will be out of necessity.

At the pace of trees.

My "Shepherd"

The Lord is my Shepherd.
– Psalm 23

The 23rd Psalm leads off with a statement of profoundly humble intimacy. If I’m not careful, overfamiliarity to the imagery of God as a Shepherd and myself as one of his sheep can rob me of any sensitivity to the Divine Reality that is being revealed. It’s only been by silently sitting with this passage and slowly reciting it within my heart that it has unfolded with meaning. Or perhaps it would be truer for me to say that my heart is what unfolded, enabling me to discover meaning.

This passage has never meant much to me, after 30 years of exposure to it (and being obligated to memorize it in Christian school). But that says more about my insensitivity than it does about the famed 23rd Psalm.

As I’ve heard this passage be addressed in many different churches, it seems like pastors tend to fixate on the dependent-or-doomed relationship between wise Shepherds and dumb sheep. It’s true, sheep are not known for their intelligence, but this perspective does little to encourage my spirit and enlighten my perspective. Yeah, I get it: I am a hopelessly stupid human being and God lovingly puts up with me like we lovingly put up with dumb animals. But whenever I read a description about us (the human race), it must always be put in the Scriptural context that we are made in God’s own image. Looking at this through that foundational lens, the tone is changed.

The Lord is my Shepherd,” is a statement of trust, trustworthiness, and intimacy.

Trust: By calling the Lord “my Shepherd,” I am saying there is no truer Guide or Source of life, joy, wholeness, satisfaction, or happiness than God. My every move is made fuller and steadier as I consciously move and breathe and have my being in union with Him. Not only do I “know” this, but I live accordingly. My life is comprised of this single experience of devotion; in all and through all. My ears always attuned to his voice. My eyes ever ardent for His presence. I trust; no desire which can arise in my heart is not able to find its satisfaction and full realization in my Shepherd.

Trustworthiness: God will never fail in being this Guide and Source in all its fullness. Never. My vision or sensitivity to it may fail, but He is not capable of failing. Just as I am made for relationship with Him, He has made Himself for relationship with me. He has made us for relationship with Him because He is made for Relationship; Connection. God is Love. Love is fully realized in Relationship.

I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
– Jesus, John 10.10

When I say "The Lord is my Shepherd" with the understanding that we are made in God's image, it means that God is both my motivation and trajectory. This relationship reveals the fullness of my identity and helps me to realize it with each moment. This is the nature of Contemplative Christian Spirituality: no moment is not sacred or spiritual.

That God would be my Shepherd means that there is following. Following goes beyond simply knowing; it also goes far beyond worshiping. Jesus never instructed us to worship him, but he did invite us to follow him. Worshiping can be done from a distance, but the opportunity to “follow” that he presents brings us so close that we become intrinsically connected.

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
– Jesus, Matthew 11.29-30

The yoking he is addressing is that of two individuals locked together. It is an intimate relationship where condition, direction, and effort are all shared.

Original Sin vs. Original Blessing

When people say they don’t like Christianity, I get it. For most of my life, neither have I. There were many seasons when, if I’m honest with myself, I stuck to it out of fear of what would happen if I didn’t. I admit that now and see how incredibly unhealthy and severely unchristian it is. I also notice signs of this behavior run rampant throughout the Church in general. I can identify it because of my ability to identify with it. Fear has no place in our faith. If at any point our interpretation of Jesus’ words or the Scriptures produces fear, we’re missing the point.

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. … There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
– 1 John 4.16/18

My faith was not sustainable with fear; and neither was I. It was turning me into someone constantly desperate for affection and affirmation. My friends and family were being reduced to mere means of my attempting to satiate this subconscious and endless need. Obviously, this damaged many of my relationships. There needed to be a turning point; either a complete about-face away from our religion or at least a pivotal change in direction.

Needless to say, there was a pivotal change. And there continue to be pivotal changes on a regular basis, but I wanted to share one that came up in conversation with a friend battling with depression the other day.

So often, I hear people defining themselves with their mental conditionings. We say things like “I am angry” or “I’m just ADD” or “I’m just in a bad mood” or “I'm just naturally anxious” and so on. We speak as if we have no say in our identity and allow whatever we feel about ourselves to also be what we believe about ourselves. Our feelings objectify us instead of learning to objectify our feelings.

It is commonplace in churches to see people over-identified with their faults. We over-identify ourselves and others with what we believe are faults. This is missing the point. For far too long, my faith made me look crappily at others and look crappily at myself. This resulted in feeling rather crappily, as well. Not to mention, it also bred a pretty crappily view of God. Everything and everyone was looking at an uphill battle to become “good”.

I’ve found this to be profoundly unchristian behavior. Jesus didn’t look at anyone this way, yet it’s exactly how we’ve used him to look at ourselves and others. This is deeply rooted within our history too. At some point, we began identifying the human race more with “original sin” than with our “original goodness”. Because of this, we find a religion that doesn’t bring us any closer to God, but keeps him at a distance. 

Before anything we’ve done, God’s already doing. You are made in God's image, so your knowledge of God's identity is the revelation of your identity! You are Love. You are Kind. You are Gentle. You are Forgiving. And so on! These are your truest attributes, personality traits, and characteristics. Behaving otherwise is actually unnatural for us and why we are so exhausted and short all the time. You are also made to live in the wholeness of an abiding conscious relationship with this Great Reality of Presence (the Residence of God within you).

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness … So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
– Genesis 1.26/27

Mama Shawna

For God wanted them to know ... this is the secret: Christ lives in you.
– Colossians 1.27

It’s a countdown to parenthood here in the Pinkston household. Our due date is just a couple weeks away which means he could be arriving at any time now. The thoughts and emotions are almost so much that I’m unable to get any of them out onto digital paper; something I like to call the "Stooges Effect”. That’s when there is so much trying to come out at once that nothing is able to make it through, not unlike when the Three Stooges all try walking through a doorway at the same time and end up getting stuck.

One thing that has stayed with me over the past nine months has been Shawna talking about how often she has had to remind herself that she is pregnant. When our baby isn’t trying to Jackie Chan his way out of her stomach, she would often find herself going about life as she normally would (an increasingly rare occurrence as the due date nears). Then, walking by a window or mirror and seeing a reflection she would remember with a sense of shock, “OMG, I’m PREGNANT!

Especially early on, it was easy for her to behave or feel as if there wasn’t a new and fragile life inside of her. She would want to do something as natural as lie on her stomach and then suddenly remember how that might not be the right thing to do because she is pregnant. She had to keep reminding herself about this new life within her and shared with me about the striking similarities between this new experience and knowing the kingdom/residence of God within. This has been one of the most amazing parts of our being pregnant, for me.

We are all housing a Life beyond our own. Even right now. It might even be said, especially right now; because the present moment is the most significant time to be conscious of such a reality.

Some folks live in the past, others just worry and pray for the future, but there is no more important moment than the one we are being given now…whenever that is.

Our immature consciousness has weak eyelids. Like a new born baby, it is difficult to keep our eyes open for too long. After a few seconds of looking around, our eyes close and we forget where or who we are. A daily practice of Silent Prayer helps create an endurance with this awareness. Without some kind of consistent discipline or exercise, the skill and mental muscle can’t progress and complaining about our weak consciousness without doing something about it is like an overweight guy complaining about his clogged arteries while eating bacon maple donuts. We all need to learn to be intentional about being awake!

So remember, you’re pregnant. Don’t forget it. There is a life within you that is beyond you while also giving you an opportunity for a fuller and more abundant life. Do what you can to give it the sustenance and conditions it needs to thrive.

For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.
– Romans 8.22

Listening.

 

Reporter: When you pray, what do you say to God?
Mother Theresa: Nothing. I just listen.
Reporter: What does God say to you?
Mother Theresa: Nothing. God just listens, too. And if you don't understand that, I can't explain it to you.
—Mother Teresa of Calcutta 

When you pray, do not keep on babbling.
– Jesus, Matthew 6.6-8

I’m running into more and more Christians who like the idea of silence, which I find so encouraging. It is deeply comforting to know the practice of Silent Prayer is no longer foreign in Christian circles. Unfortunately though, I’m also finding so many people who speak highly of silence, but then stop there. They’re comfortable talking about Silent Prayer and maybe utilizing it in times of crisis or sacredness, but then don’t go any further than that. What I’ve noticed about this phenomenon is its similarity to Jesus’ description of the seed scattered on the road in Matthew 13.5/6:

It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root.

Isn’t that a wonderful analogy for when we encounter something or someone new, get all excited, and then only moments or days later, feel completely bored? What is so sad about this to me is how often we experience this type of temporary encounter with life and then decipher that this was all that "the seed" ever had to offer us. We never return to discover the greater, endless reality hidden within by allowing the roots to reach into our depths. … Where are your roots?

What concerns me when people treat Silent Prayer this way is how they become no less anxious, no less afraid, and no less distracted in life; neither do they become any more humble, any more peaceful, or any more intimate with God or other people. At best, they become more educated about methods of prayer. This familiarity with Silent Prayer without digging any roots into it breeds numbness.

People will say things like, “I just get so distracted,” or, “I just get so bored,” as excuses for avoiding a practice of Silent Prayer when those are exactly the reasons for a practice of Silent Prayer! If we are unable to focus on God’s humble and often silent presence within us for any real duration of time when our eyes are closed and our mouths are silent, what makes us think we’re focused on him while it’s busy and chaotic? If we can’t worship, love, and listen to God when it’s silent, are we really worshiping, loving, or listening to him when it’s loud? Any internal hurdles we have to be simply present to God in the kingdom of God within are a revelation of how our external lives are shaped and formed to avoid this intimacy with God, ourselves, and others. 

When we create a regular practice of Silent Prayer, we discover a baseline of awareness, consciousness, and intimacy with God. Once we stand firmly on that baseline by returning to it regularly, the ups and downs of life no longer dominate our emotions or way of thinking. We come to know and being known by a peace beyond understanding.

Silent Prayer is an invitation to depth and intimacy with God, ourselves, and each other. I can’t imagine anything more worthy of just 20-30min of our time and efforts.

2014 Copyright.