Skip to site content

Contemplating

This sermon was delivered by Rick Bennett, director of congregational formation for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, at McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta, Ga., on March 24, 2009.

 

Psalm 62

 

For God alone my soul waits in silence;

from God comes my salvation.

God alone is my rock and my salvation,

my fortress; I shall never be shaken.

How long will you assail a person,

will you batter your victim, all of you,

as you would a leaning wall, a tottering fence?

Their only plan is to bring down a person of prominence.

They take pleasure in falsehood;

they bless with their mouths,

but inwardly they curse.

For God alone my soul waits in silence,

for my hope is from God,

who alone is my rock and my salvation,

my fortress; I shall not be shaken.

On God rests my deliverance and my honor;

my mighty rock, my refuge is in God.

Trust in God at all times, O people;

pour out your heart before God,

who is a refuge for us.

Those of low estate are but a breath,

those of high estate are a delusion;

in the balances they go up;

they are together lighter than a breath.

Put no confidence in extortion,

and set no vain hopes on robbery;

if riches increase, do not set your heart on them.

Once God has spoken;

twice have I heard this:

that power belongs to God,

and steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord.

For you repay to all according to their work.

Psalm 62, NRSV

 

I cannot help but feel today like I am once again in seminary.  Theology students surround me, but more importantly, I have been assigned a text, a title (and subtitle), and asked to submit a manuscript!  Further, this room being full of people who, as one of my CBF colleagues says, are “encumbered by a theological education,” each of you will be assigning a grade to me.  Therefore, either I have returned to seminary or I am back in the local church with a really anxious minister of music!

 

I have fond memories of my seminary years.  Saturday afternoons just lying around with my wife Rebecca, studying Hitpael verb forms; ah, those were the days.  I recall one such winter’s day at our first home in Petersburg, Virginia.  In the course of demonstrating my growing proficiency of Hebrew at lunch, Rebecca dodged my guttural spittle and revisited an intermittent newlywed conversation; namely, her hope that we would one day get a dog.  For various reasons, I was opposed to the idea; regardless, toward what I thought was the conclusion to a well-crafted argument, Rebecca announced that she was going to Pet Smart “just to take a look.” 

 

There are times in life when, regardless of your not wanting to be party to something, you’d better go along for your own good.  I determined that, if she were to come home with a dog, it would not be some yapper-dog with no bark or bite; rather, it would be a real dog.  By real, I mean one who would swim in a pond while I fished, ride in the back of my truck, actually be visible above the deck of a kayak, and willing to thwart a home invasion.

 

Snow was threatening as we walked into the Pet Smart.  Rebecca led the way to the weekend adoption area as I attempted to muster a hardened heart, determined to preserve our freedom to come and go as we pleased.  No sooner did I turn the corner than my eyes met those of a beautiful caged Lab-Greyhound mutt.  Large at just six months old, he shivered in a cage entirely too small for his body.  I felt my heart move.  Just as quickly, I ran the other way to feign an interest in the latest squeak toys.  When I did return, I avoided eye contact with the dog, only to make a bigger mistake; I suggested to the attendant that the dog’s cage was inappropriately small.  “Want to walk him?” she asked.  “He’s really overdue for a walk, and I’m short on help today.” 

 

His given name is Bo, but he responds to Bo Lover, Crazy Lover, Bo Dog (to differentiate him from my friend, Bo Prosser, of course), as well as simply the word Crazy. 

 

Bo’s list of names is not the only unusual thing about him.  It seems that from the moment Bo’s wet paws first marked the back seat of that dinky little Mazda Protégé, he has focused his gaze on me.  Wherever I am, there he is, staring.  At times, his stare communicates the need to go outside, at other times, his desire to play.  Occasionally, in staring, he offers an apology, but mostly his contemplative gaze conveys, “Wherever you lead I’ll go.”  His gaze is one of implicit trust; trust that I will provide his daily kibble, trust that I will assert personal bodily power to protect him, and trust that I will always show him loving-kindness.  From time to time Rebecca summarizes Bo’s contemplating by offering, “You are that dog’s world.”

 

Can you imagine trusting God like that?  Can you imagine making God your world?

 

Today’s psalm, ascribed to David, encourages such imagination.  In testimony of his own experience of God, David declares God trust-worthy and admonishes others to “trust in God at all times.”  God is a rock, a fortress, a refuge – David’s salvation!  In his experience of life, no one, and no thing, fits this description, a truth that David drives home by a six-fold repetition of the word “alone” within twelve verses.  David twice asserts his confidence in God, “I will never be shaken!”

 

It seems that this kind of trust and confidence in God is in short supply today.  Ours is a culture of mistrust by default it seems, and perhaps rightly so given recent event in the financial sector.  I have a theory that our distrust of one another stems fundamentally from our lack of trust in God to provide our daily bread, salvation, and mercy.  Where did the Psalmist learn to trust in God?  How did David gain such confidence?  Where is David’s trust accessible to us?  A reading of the first verse suggests that David received trust as a grace in a lesser-known way of devotion called contemplation.   

 

Defined by the Upper Room Dictionary of Spiritual Formation as “the focused attention of the soul toward the Divine,” we practice contemplation when we “suspend activity, withdraw into solitude, and allow the intensity of Christ’s love to work on the soul (Merton).”  An experience of contemplation, however, is dependent upon God’s grace; you cannot force it.  Like David, the contemplative soul “waits in silence.”  In common contemplative practice, this waiting for grace takes place during the fourth movement of lectio divina, in the labyrinth’s center, or during a time of centering prayer, among others.

 

I will confess to you that my own religious tradition did not equip me well for the practice or experience of contemplation.  It did a fine job of teaching me about meditation, the focus of the soul on an object.  How else can I explain the amount of scripture in my head and heart?  Contemplation though is not about the focused attention of the soul on an object; rather, the focused attention of the soul on a subject, the Ultimate Subject – God. 

 

My first exposure to the practice of contemplation came as a seminary student at BTSR.  Dr. Glen Hinson did his best to help expose us to the practice of contemplation.  He encouraged his students to imagine themselves as flowers opening to the “God’s love energies.”  As a naïve young man firmly formed by his southern denominational sub-culture, I thought this man had lost his mind.  What did this have to do with ministry?  I first awakened to contemplation here in Atlanta while on a personal retreat.  At the retreat center I first read Henri Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved (and three other Nouwen texts in the course of 2 days) and there began to trust that God did indeed love me beyond what I could think or imagine; in fact, God’s love for me transcended my thoughts or imagination.  There I found rest in God’s love and trust in God’s provision.

 

Jesus knew this kind of trust in God.  In fact, I imagine that Jesus knew this psalm well, carried it with him into the desert following his baptism.  In today’s NT reading, we see Jesus and the disciples going away to a quiet place.  I imagine him sharing the psalm with them there, as well as the practice of contemplation.  Jesus’ own practice of contemplation produced within him a residual of trust that empowered him to walk toward the cross, to enter that cage, to close the door, and lock it – trusting that God would redeem the circumstances. 

 

Can you imagine trusting God like that? 

 

Trust is essential to the practice of contemplation.  Who waits silently on those they do not trust?  On the contrary, to sit in silence, to wait in silence, is one of the greatest acts of trust. Who does not implicitly trust those with whom they voluntarily sit in silence – a spouse, a monastic community?  When we come to the practice of contemplation, we bring with us some small grace of trust provided by God.  Perhaps this grace of trust in God results from a personal experience of cage-liberation or perhaps it is the normative grace acquainted with a healthy childhood.  Whatever trust is ours is a provision of God’s grace.  Likewise, in the act of contemplation, in being still enough, quiet enough, long enough, God provides abundantly more trust than we can ask or imagine.  We must trust to experience contemplation and from the experience of contemplation, we gain trust.

 

Of course, contemplation as an act of devotion is important to all people of faith, but it is essential to those called to equip the faithful for “works of service.”  If you and I are to help turn the tide of mistrust in our world, and in our churches, we must help our people to trust in God.  We do this in part by teaching folks to meditate, but we need also to acquaint them with the ancient Christian practice of contemplation.  We must help them learn what it means to sit still enough, long enough, quiet enough to receive the affirmation that Jesus received at his baptism.  We must issue what Glenn Hinson refers to as “a serious call to a contemplative lifestyle.”  Moreover, we must begin with ourselves.  We must discover where our own trust in God both exists and is lacking, and we must learn to wait in silence and solitude on the Lord.

 

No one says this better than John Westerhoff does.  In his little book Spiritual Life: The Foundation for Preaching and Teaching, he shares an experience of lay-theologian Evelyn Underhill.  In a 1927 address to ministers, Underhill shares how her attendance at a sheep dog trial event helped her understand more clearly the nature of pastoral ministry:

 

“They [the sheepdogs] were helping the shepherd deal with a lot of very active sheep and lambs, persuading them to go into the right pastures, keeping them from running down the wrong paths.  They did it, interestingly, not by barking, fuss, ostentatious authority, or any kind of busy behavior.  The best dog she saw never barked once; but he spent an astonishing amount of time sitting perfectly still, looking at the shepherd.  The communion of spirit between them was perfect.  They worked as a unit.  Neither of them seemed anxious or in a hurry.  Neither was committed to a rigid plan; they were always content to wait patiently.  The dog was the docile and faithful agent of another mind with whom the dog was in communion.  The dog used his whole intelligence and intuition, but always in obedience to the master’s directive will, and was ever prompt at self-effacement.  The little mountain sheep the dog had to deal with were amazingly tiresome, experts in doubling, twisting, and going in the wrong way.  The dog went steadily on with the work, his tail never ceasing to wag.  This mean that the dog’s relation to the shepherd was the center of the dog’s life, and because of that, the dog enjoyed doing this job with the sheep.  The dog did not bother about the trouble or get discouraged with the apparent results.  The dog had transcended mere dogginess.  The dog’s actions were dictated by a power beyond self.  The dog was the agent of the shepherd, working for a scheme that was the shepherds and the whole of which the dog could not grasp; and it was just that which was the source of the delightedness, the eagerness, and also the discipline with which the dog worked.  The dog, Underhill reminds us, would not have kept that peculiar and intimate relationship unless the dog had sat down and looked at the shepherd first, for a long time.  So it will be for every one of us who accepts the call to preach and teach the gospel of Jesus Christ, the true shepherd.”

 

Well, with that illustration, I believe we can conclude that this sermon has gone to the dogs.

 

Can you imagine trusting God like that?

 

Selah.