About a month ago, I posted in Soulscaping about how re-sodding my lawn became a parable for my inner spiritual life.  In order to restore health to my lawn, it needed to be stripped bare in preparation for new growth.  But because the grass was not delivered on time, I was left with a yard of dirt.

As an update (because I know everyone is waiting for news about my lawn!), the sod was not delivered for about three weeks.  And even when it was delivered and installed, the company shorted us about a hundred square feet of sod.  A week later, more sod was delivered and in order to save some money, my wife and I decided to just lay the additional sod ourselves.  So the weekend was spent digging up weeds, prepping the ground, and laying new sod.New lawn

But again, this is not about my lawn.

A funny thing happened as we spent the day out in our front yard, covered with dirt: we had a lot of conversations with our neighbors.  From the just-curious to the just-out-walking-the-dog, the day was filled with getting to know some neighbors a little better and meeting others for the first time.  As tired as I was at the end of the day, it was great to escape the anonymity of the house and engage in meaningful conversation with others in the neighborhood.

It reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend of mine a couple weeks back.  Instead of driving past our neighbors to attend another church event, what if we considered it part of our spiritual calling to engage those around us?  What if the meaningful activity was to take place in my front yard?  I experienced a bit of that very thing a couple weeks ago while sodding my lawn.

There are times when we can be be more open to serving God on distant shores than making the short journey next door or down the street.  And sometimes we overlook the obvious answer to the question, “And who is my neighbor?”

As part of my practice to review the previous year, I look back over the books I completed, I read through my journal entries, and I do a spiritual review using the Fruit of the Spirit.  I also take a look back at some of the topics and events that prompted me to write over the previous twelve months.  You may have already read some of these, but if not, the links will take you to each story.

 © Copyright Adrian Phillips and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

© Copyright Adrian Phillips and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License

I began last year in the Psalms, considering whether the imagery in some of the psalms are more pedestrian than we take them to be.  In Praise of Emails and Errands examines one of these psalms and asks whether or not we can find spiritual significance in the mundane, seemingly trivial chores of life.  This turned out to be somewhat of a theme for me this past year: Finding God in the everyday rhythms of life.

The Psalms, as a whole, turned out to be another theme as well.  In The Courts of God, I look at the imagery of being in the presence of God.  It should be no surprise that the same idea was being conveyed.  A person need not go to the Temple or other buildings to find God.  Wherever we find ourselves throughout the day, that space can become sacred space.

RoccoLast March we got a new dog, a one-year-old German Shepherd.  In Dog Training, I am reminded how much dogs can reflect our own emotions and energy levels.  Having a dog is like have a living, breathing barometer in the room giving me constant feedback on my own state of mind.  I will often find myself uttering something to the dog in frustration, only to hear the echo of God’s voice saying a similar message to me.

In May, I did a bit of housecleaning on my blog.  I combined the contents of another blog onto this site.  As a result, there is much new content related to my book, Ten Essential Words, on this site.  For a full index of that content, check out the Top Posts page.

I have already discussed the books I read, along with some of the posts that relate to my reading.  In December, I took time to reflect on all the transition that last year brought and reaffirmed my desire to be more present in each moment.  In Gift of the Present, I explore yet another reoccurring topic from last year: that of the past, present, and future.

As the holidays turn into a busy beginning to a new year, I hope you take some time to reflect on the past, live in the present, and trust God for your future.  Thanks for allowing me to share my own musings with you.  Please click the ‘Sign Me Up’ button on the home page to follow along this next year.  Not all content is posted to Facebook.

Peace and Blessings!

We recently used some Christmas money to re-sod our lawn and fix some drainage issues in our yard.  While my wife and I have almost finished all the work inside our house since moving in last July, the yard was a mess.  The grass was patchy and drainage was poor.  I spent several weekends last fall weeding the yard, only to find that the weeds comprised most of the green ground cover.  I tried grass seed, but with our irrigation system non-functional and a lack of rain, the seeds sprouted, but never took.  When it did rain, two or three areas in our yard would turn into small ponds.

So last week a crew showed up, tore out all the existing grass, fixed the irrigation system, and brought in a dump truck load of dirt to level out areas of erosion.  It was a flurry of activity for one morning and the crew did a great job.  There was just one problem.  The new grass won’t be delivered until sometime this next week.

As I had my coffee the next morning, I was looking out over our revamped lawn and all I saw was dirt.  In that moment, I actually started thinking the old yard wasn’t that bad.  Better than just dirt.  I had to remind myself that what I was looking at was not the finished product.  It was a necessary step to restoring the health of our lawn.

Landscaping

But this post is not about our lawn.

Being the beginning of a new year, I am working my way through my annual look back at my spiritual life, using the Fruit of the Spirit as a guide.  I couldn’t help but think that this was all a parable for the state of my soul.  I want spiritual growth in my life.  I can identify the areas that need some work.  I want to open myself up to the transforming work of God’s Spirit.

But – truth be told – I prefer God pluck a few weeds, scatter some seed, and hope for the best.  It is much less painful, but it will never create an environment where my soul flourishes.  Meanwhile, I wonder if God is ready to plow up all that is unhealthy, alter the landscape of my soul, and lay bare everything in preparation for something new.  But the laying bare part is the part that is painful, and it isn’t pretty.  It is, however, a necessary step in the formation of an environment that will promote flourishing.

So which will I choose?  The tinkering around on the weekends with some plucking and primping of the current state of my spiritual life?  Or the laying bare of all that isn’t compatable with the kingdom of God, so that new growth can take place?  Which will you choose?

Dirt isn’t pretty, but it is the foundation of healthy, new growth.

The New Year presents an opportunity to look back and reflect on all that has happened and what has been accomplished.  Goodreads offers an easy way to display the books you completed during the previous year.  My list is below.  Last year, while I didn’t read many books I did read a lot of pages!  Two books in particular consumed much of my reading time.  The City of God is a classic book by Augustine of Hippo and takes a while to read through.  I also spend most of the year working through N.T. Wright’s two volume work, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, but because I just completed it in the last week, it won’t show up until next year.

Books 2014

Some books spark additional thoughts or just simply a book review, which I share from time to time on this site.  Last year, I shared some further thoughts on these books:

What books highlighted 2014 for you?

One reoccurring theme for me over the past year has been the categories of past, present, and future. (No, I haven’t been visited by any Christmas ghosts!) Maybe it is because this year has been a year of transition for me: among other things, we bought a house, moved to St. Petersburg, and I transitioned to working from home. I have thought a lot about what has gotten me to this point, where the heck am I, and what does the future hold?

Image courtesy of Danilo Rizzuti at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

In another sense, these three categories have also come to represent three primary areas where I am trying to learn the contemplative practice of detachment. For many, the past can represent either moments of regret or a propensity to live in the past – an unhealthy attachment to a phase of life that has come and gone.  The present can be full of many distractions and demands: bills, errands, projects, and chores – all of which can rob us of the deeper reality and relationships before us.  We should not let our life be defined as the sum total of all these day-to-day minutiae, though many do.  While the future may hold the potential fulfillment of our hopes and dreams, it can also create unrealistic expectations, which cause stress.  It is one thing to have goals and dreams for the future; it is another to live in the future with the pressure that these goals must be fulfilled or else life will be a disappointment.  I love to travel to exotic places.  But I have also realized that I can get so caught up in planning, hoping, and dreaming about the next trip that my daily reality becomes somewhat of a bore – this isn’t healthy!

While the present can certainly be filled with any number of distractions, part of the contemplative life is to live fully in the present.  Living in the present moment is being able to give yourself fully to those around you or to the task at hand, all the while being attuned to how God is at work in the present moment, because that is where we meet God.

Father Arico of Contemplative Outreach puts it like this:

If you are thinking about an event in the past you give yourself the wonderful gift of guilt, anger or joy.  Guilt at what you may have done to somebody, anger at what somebody may have done to you or joy, thinking about the good times.  If you are thinking about an event in the future, you give yourself a gift of fear, anxiety or expectation.

It is an odd way of stating this: giving yourself the gift of guilt or fear.  But I think what is being conveyed is that when we spend time living in the past or the future, we are choosing to give ourself something, be it guilt, joy, or anxiety.  There are moments where those gifts may be appropriate.  But when we dwell on the past or future – or focus on the wrong things in the present – we miss the gifts before us in each moment of the present.

Personally, this hasn’t always been easy for me.  But as the calendar turns to a new year, I am trying to be more fully present in each moment the next year holds for me.

I really enjoy the writings of Thomas Merton and those he has influenced, sNew Seedsuch as Thomas Keating.  He has a way of writing that does not seem to revolve around any single profound idea, yet you find yourself profoundly influenced by a hundred little ideas that pepper you as you read his books.  Earlier, I wrote that his book, No Man Is An Island, was one of the books that has influence me the most.  So it was only natural to follow that up with New Seeds of Contemplation.

I’ll be honest, there is much in this book that is very personal and I am not ready to process in public space.  In Merton’s own words, contemplation “cannot be taught.  It cannot even be clearly explained.  It can only be hinted at, suggested, pointed to, symbolized.”  All this is very personal and unique to each individual.

Yet there is one very simple idea that I keep coming back to. It is not even a central idea, but its’ echoes are insightful.  It is an idea that speaks especially to our virtually connected world of social media.  It is this:

One of the first things to learn if you want to be a contemplative is how to mind your own business.  Nothing is more suspicious, in a man who seems holy, than an impatient desire to reform others.

I had to read it several times to get past the initial bluntness of this spiritual directive:  Mind your own business.  Yet what he is addressing is the gut response to a new, challenging idea to rush off and enlighten everyone else before fully internalizing it, letting it really sink in and begin to shape the way you live.

One of the areas this wisdom seems especially appropriate is in the area of social media.  It seem anymore like I cannot peruse my Facebook news feed without being told what I should think, eat, wear, support, or be in a panic over.  Social media is a great way to keep in touch, network, and even share ideas.  But it is not the best way to really influence and shape another person.  That is best left to discussion, personal interaction, and conversation.  Mind your own business.

It is also much more effective to let others observe the way a cause or idea has actually shaped your life, which is Merton’s point.  As others observe the change in your life, there will be opportunities to share soon enough.

And yes, I realize the irony of pointing all this out in a blog post!  But I do so with the same intent as Merton’s words of wisdom.  Thus, everything else in New Seeds of Contemplation I will continue to process through and keep to myself for now.

As you read through the Psalms, there is a reoccurring image that is fascinating to me when properly understood.  In several different Psalms, King David (or psalms ascribed to him) writes of longingly wanting to spend time in the house of God.  This is, of course, a reference to the tabernacle of God, and what would eventually become the Temple, built by his son, Solomon.

One thing I ask of Yahweh, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of Yahweh all the days of my life.

What is interesting about this image is the reasoning behind David’s desire to be near the house of God.  In the Old Testament, we are taught that the presence of God dwelt in the physical tabernacle of Israel.  Whether wandering through the wilderness or settling in Jerusalem, a constant sign of God’s nearness was the tabernacle.  The tabernacle would eventually be replaced by a permanent structure – the Temple in Jerusalem – and this was a sign that God literally lived among His people.

Blessed are those you choose and bring near to live in your courts!

So to be in the courts of the Temple was to be close to God, to be in the inner courts was to be very close, and to be just outside the holy of holies in the inner temple (only the high priest could go this far) was to be even nearer to the presence of God.  Even today, if you take the wall tunnels tour in Jerusalem, one of the most sacred spots is the part of the wall closest to where the holy of holies would have been –  sacredness being determined by proximity.

How lovely is your dwelling place, O Yahweh Almighty!  My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of Yahweh.

So King David can write that it is better to spend one day in the courtyard of the tabernacle than to spend a lifetime in his palace room, or any other place for that matter, because the courtyard represented being in close proximity to God’s presence.  To be away from the Temple was in many ways to be separated from God’s presence.

Better is one day in your courts than a thousand in my own room.

He can even write that he is jealous of birds who have made their nests in the walls of the Temple Mount or perhaps even the Temple structure itself, because of their nearness to the presence of God.

Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young—a place near your altar.

What strikes me about this imagery of being near to the Temple and in the courtyard of God is that with the giving of the Holy Spirit, proximity to God would no longer be an issue.  Through the Spirit and prayer we are able to drawn near to God without ever leaving our couch, home, office, or car.  King David would be very jealous!

Yet one way we can misapply this image today is to substitute the church for the Temple.  In these Psalms, when the Temple is simply swapped out for church, the implication is that we have to go to church – a physical building – in order to be near to God.  A worship service may lift our spirits and help connect us to God, but a building is no longer a barrier.

So as you go throughout your day, what are you doing to stay connected to the presence of God?  Where ever you find yourself throughout the day can become sacred space.  Where ever you are, you can enter into the courts of God!

Person praying at the spot closest to site of the Temple.

Person praying in the tunnel at the spot closest to site of the Temple.

 

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