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Art of Contemplation 1

Art of Contemplation

Art of Contemplation 2050 1920 Nicole

2nd Sunday of Lent

Art of Contemplation Sermon Video

Last week a couple of beautiful humans sat with me in my office and we chatted about a number of things. One of which, I have no idea what precipitated this, we talked about our experiences giving birth. We shared the various episodes with anecdotes of pain meds or no, vaginal or c-section, our partners’ involvement – or lack of it…. Y’all will be glad to know that Howie was above average in his attentiveness to me… mostly.

But in preparation for, and during labor we decided to follow the Bradley Method, also known as Partner-Coaching birthing. It trains birth partners in deep relaxation, meditation, and acute attentiveness to the rhythms of labor and the birthing process – as well as, to the mother’s experience of said labor. It requires consistent practice throughout the pregnancy and the labor-delivery event. It’s intense. It is also very bonding for partners, and allows the not actually attempting to push a baby out of her body, to participate in it in a practical and meaningful way.

Lent is a little bit like the pregnancy-birth process. It is a time of waiting, growing something important inside. Many engage this season by giving something up. This can be useful, but the relatively benign discomfort of going without a thing adds nothing to the work already done by Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

Because, when we speak of sin, this is what God means, what God seems to indicate when sin is named: broken relationship. When I’ve turned to other things to satisfy my need for God, I never feel at home with myself. And silence then becomes a deafening scream for that reconciliation, to stop looking for anything, everything else that might make everything ok.

            The gospel of John is very intentional about describing that relationship.

John conveys the narrative of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection in a starkly different manner than the three other gospel writers. In fact, he seems to disregard any sense of linear movement in the life and ministry of Jesus. I find this refreshing since I’m no linear thinker, myself!

But this meandering way of telling the gospel story also invites us to notice what else John might be telling us merely by the placement of narratives in light of Jewish tradition and practice at that time. Which is why I chose to wander through Lent with the gospel of John, and why I have chosen to use two readings from the same book.

Today’s readings describe the spiritual journey of two, on the surface, very different individuals.

Nicodemus, a trained theologian, a Pharisee, a leader, even, of the Jews. He recognizes what Jesus is doing as “signs” in the way he was taught to understand the expected behavior of such a teacher.

The woman at the well, knows the same religious facts, but with no formal education and far from following all the rules.

            I’d like us to consider these narratives in this way:

Art of Contemplation 2

At the Ash Wednesday service I invited those present to consider Lenten practice from a new perspective: rather than responding to the shame of God’s assumed judgement, understand judgement to indicate a discernment process. That is, versus trying to cut something out or do something that might appease God (when Jesus already covered everything!) instead, make space and time to discern God’s movement in us, around us. Last week we focused on making silence integral to the process. This week we make contemplation an art form. (which is what we are attempting during our 6pm Wednesday gatherings these 5 weeks).

In silence and contemplation, we find the space to recreate perspective, so Judgement is no longer something we need fear, but an invitation to discernment, “a continual process of discovery regarding what truly is, can be, and should be – seen in light of/heard in conjunction with our growing awareness of how God engages us.” It’s all about our relationships.

Last week we read the narrative of the Wedding at Cana and Mary’s frantic plea to Jesus to do something about the wine problem. Jesus answers her, “Woman…” gunē, and I love this – because it is so intimate, so direct, that it catches my attention. It is found only 7 times in this way (4 of them in John, 1 in Matt, 1 Luke, and 1 in 1 Cor 7) – it is Jesus speaking directly to the woman in the vocative voice. Major no-no at that time. It is intentional, familiar.  

Jesus is saying, “Woman, individual, human of great worth, you matter to me – listen.” And Mary does pause. She seems to take a breath and center on Jesus’ words, Jesus’ presence in that time-space. And this moment of being silent in Jesus’ presence brings Mary to herself, to the reality that all will be well. Timeless. Suspended senses.

So, again, in today’s reading, Jesus encounters another woman. This time a stranger, and a Samaritan, and pulling water from the well at mid-day (avoiding the usual times a woman should), whom he ought never approach, let alone accept a drink. And he says, “woman….”

In the case of his mother, they knew each other. Taking a moment of silence, a bit of time to come to her senses, Jesus’ respectful, intimate call for her attention was more than enough.

For the woman at the well, more time was needed. She had an impressive amount of information about the differences in place and practice between those who worship in Jerusalem and those who do in Samaria. Like Nicodemus – though certainly not as elaborate – she was taught well the promise of a Messiah to come. She was open to belief, but needed more time contemplating this possibility. Time with Jesus. Talking with others. Testing her faith: “Could he be?”

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Now, for the practice of Lectio Divina, or, Spiritual Reading, there are 4 steps, or movements. A scripture passage is read 4 times. The first time is for listening. Just listen to the passage, the words that are used. And listen for which words (s) or phrases (s) that might be drawing your attention. Perhaps, it is emphasized or by listening (instead of reading it), in the hearing of the words a new connection is made. Whatever the case, you just listen.

When the passage is read out a second time, the invitation is to Meditatio, to meditate on the passage, reflect on the word and/or phrase and how it affects your spirit, illumines your psyche, energizes the soul.

When Howie coached us through labor and delivery, he did so after having spent months paying attention to my breathing, my movements; we talked through signs of distress and how far to spur me on through nearly unbearable pain before he might say, ‘ok, bring on that drip.’ He learned how to coach me through images of riding the wave of each contraction, and he felt the distress each time I believed I would be crushed, drown under the force of it.

And while he might have had some moments of sheer panic, all the practice we did together, talking through what I will need, contemplating all that is me – the one growing our child within – we grew to know each other more deeply, intimately, and trust each other in/for the process.

The woman at the well is unnamed and unknown to Jesus on meeting. When Jesus says, “Woman…” gunē, in the vocative, direct, as if already in relationship, she pauses (as Mary did at the wedding) and then she opens her soul to Jesus. The respect and dignity he offers this woman by addressing her with this word elicits a trust, a hint of the kind of relationship she tried so hard to find – and failed – in her 5 previous marriages and current partner.

She opens her soul to Jesus and is delighted, giddy with the revelation of what relationship is meant to be like – to be known and to be loved. To be loved in the knowing.

Nicodemus asks for a sign but has been too preoccupied by doing religion, studying the law in such painstaking detail that he misses the point entirely. “The Spirit blows where it chooses” but he has never noticed it before. He wants to know everything about God, but he cannot if he doesn’t believe, if he doesn’t trust the relationship – the relationship that Jesus is there to restore, redeem.

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He must first discern, judge the disconnect from knowing God and discern the Spirit of God in Jesus. And in this discernment, contemplate what that means. He, too, must open his soul to Jesus. Be known and loved; love and know in return. And ride the waves of such exposure that threaten to crush, drown under the force of it. the force of Jesus’ gaze.

The Greek word, gennaō, is translated “born,” here – you must be born again – and “to be father of,” or “beget,” elsewhere. It is interesting that in the Greek, the word resembles the word for woman, “gunai,” yet gennaō can also be translated as “to be father of.” But there is no other way to describe the concept of begetting – conceiving, gestating and birthing – without the relationship. It takes 2, right? In truth, it takes well more than two. Still, the entire process is intimate, vulnerable (never more so, physically).

Julian of Norwich has the best description of this spiritual process of rebirth:

And Jesus is our true Mother . . . in whom we are all enclosed and in Christ, born. And Jesus is our true Mother in whom we are endlessly born and out of whom we will never come.

Julian of Norwich

But to believe this, to understand and experience a reality of relating with God through Christ in the Spirit, we absolutely must first come to our sense. Be still. Be silent. And contemplate. Accept this profound love by being known; know in the loving.  

Notice how it affects your spirit – Jesus is our true Mother; illumines your psyche – in whom we are endlessly born (suggesting a continual event, v. one-off event); energizes the soul – and out of whom we will never come (known and loved, no matter what).

So I invite you to hear the mediation for the first day of this 2nd week of Lent, from this book I’m using to guide us through this season, The Art of Lent, Sister Wendy Beckett. Contemplate the image, notice the words, ask, How does this bring light to my soul?

Art of Contemplation 5

Young Woman with a Water Jug, c.1662, Jan Vermeer

Into the Light

The gate that silence opens up within us leads to light. Light exposes with an almost merciless radiance and, in the exposure, reveals the beauty of the real. Vermeer always painted this holy light. He may seem, on first looking to be depicting a young woman standing at a half-opened window, wrapped peacefully in her own thoughts, but she and her surroundings are merely the pretext. Vermeer’s intensity ins focused on the light itself, only visible to us as it falls on the material world. It shimmers on the woman’s white headdress, glimmers on the copper of the jug and ewer, glimmers with ineffable softness on the walls. Every element in the painting celebrates the presence of light, revealing and transforming. No painter has ever believed more totally in light than Vermeer – and hence the profoundly contemplative nature of his art.

Sister Wendy Beckett, The Art of Lent

May you contemplate your relationship with Jesus this week. Open your soul to Jesus. Be known and loved; love and know in return. And ride the waves of such exposure that may threaten to crush, drown under the force of it.

And since it is Women’s History Month and today is International Women’s History Day, let us begin this spiritual practice with a litany, an invocation, and contemplate what it means to be born from above, of water and spirit:

Litany for International Women’s History Day

Leader: In the beginning, God created Eve and called her “the mother of all.”

People: We remember Eve. We remember the finger of blame pointed at her, the pain it caused, and the abuse she has carried for generations. We also remember God’s promise that through her, salvation would come to the earth.

Leader: The story of the matriarchs includes the tale of Leah. Her father mistreated her; her husband hated her, and the strife between her and her sister was never settled.

People: We remember Leah. We remember how she was left a legacy of women having babes, trying to win the hearts of men. We also remember that God saw her plight and deemed her the mother of the tribe of Judah, whose praise we uplift.

Leader: The history of the church includes Hannah, a woman abused by church and society because of her inability to bear a child.

People: We remember Hannah. The first biblical prayer comes from Hannah as she petitioned God for a son. Hannah promised to give her child back to God. Samuel, her son, was the first prophet and priest. We also remember the pain of all women who long for children.

Leader: Rizbah is a name seldom called. She is the foremother of Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Rosa Parks. Rizbah stands as a legendary figure for all women.

People: We remember Rizbah. We remember how she stood alone for five months, not only guarding her two sons, but five sons of others. She stood until God sent rain to refresh the land. The reign of justice in our world is due, in great measure, to women like her, who are bold enough to challenge injustice and stand alone.

Leader: We praise military leaders and applaud their mighty exploits. When we do, the name of Deborah must be uplifted!

People: We remember Deborah. We remember her hesitation in leaving her traditional and accepted roles of wife and mother to lead Israel into a winning battle. Onto the battlefield she went, her example encouraging all women to follow God into uncharted waters.

Leader: We remember the abused, neglected, and unnamed women, whose stories are important, though not often told.

People: We remember women. We remember those filled with fears and anxieties. We remember the hurt, the rejected, and the depressed. We remember those with broken dreams, crushed spirts, and aching hearts. Today, we pause to remember all women.

Leader: We remember the extraordinary women in our lives.

People: We remember our nurturers. We remember mothers, sisters, grandmothers, sister-mothers, community-mothers, church mothers, teacher-mothers and friend-mothers. We remember their sacrifices of love, hugs, food, care, and role modeling. We remember that they had painful experiences, unrealistic expectations, wounds of their own. They had high hopes, dreams, and visions of a day when their hearts could soar. Today, for we remember, with love and thanksgiving, all of who they are, all of who they are, Remember! Thanks be to God for Women!

Hollies, Linda H. Trumpet in Zion: Black Church Worship Resources, Year A. Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 2001), 70-71; transcribed by Cynthia A Wilson.

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About the author


Nicole Oliver Snyder’s expertise lies in the areas of leadership, gender issues, and mindfulness practice as it affects both. Leadership, particularly in an urban setting, requires community-relations skills, and an ability to clearly convey justice issues as they relate to felt, spiritual ones. Dr. Snyder is author of Leading Together: Mindfulness and the Gender Neutral Zone, and specializes in teaching mindfulness leadership development, formative spirituality, counseling, and Old Testament theology (emphasis on justice issues). She has a diverse background in international community-relations work combined with volunteer work in multi-ethnic communities, and with local institutions. She is an ordained Clergy; holds a BS in Human Development and Family Studies, w/Education Certificate, an MA-Counseling, MDiv Equiv., holds a Doctor of Ministry and Advanced Certification in Formative Spiritual Direction, and is a Licensed Professional Counselor (CO, MI).

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