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An Adapted Buddhist Lovingkindness Meditation for Christians

Years ago, I stumbled across a book by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn, and it changed me forever. To my astonishment, nothing in it contradicted my Christian faith and the author’s straightforward and thorough way of explaining spirituality struck me as something I needed, something wholly true, because my own experience could testify to it. . Most memorably, Thich Nhat Hahn was tackling Jesus’ command to “love thy enemy.” I had heard this command all my life, and had done the best I could to be loving towards all, but no matter how hard I tried, I was judgemental, patronizing, and even hateful towards those who held views different from me, those I considered enemies. How could Jesus give us such an impossible mandate without a user’s handbook on how to actually love those who make our lives difficult? And how could the Apostle Paul give us list upon list of spiritual attributes to live up to without telling us how to embody these states of being? For me, I found the answer when Thich Nhat Hahn wrote, “before loving your enemy, you must first understand him. Understanding comes before love.” A lightbulb went off.

I had in my mind hundreds of examples of what it looked like to love from the Christian scriptures: the Good Samaritan, the woman giving her last coin to the temple, Rahab protecting Joshua’s men in her home, Ruth and Naomi sticking together through thick and thin. These were all stories I loved dearly, but oftentimes, when I found myself acting lovingly and generously towards others, I didn’t have loving motivations, and ended up with resentments. How to love in word, deed and in my heart?

In Eastern languages where Buddhism originated, the word for “mind” is the same as “heart.” Much of Buddhist teaching is about thought processes and observing the mind, but in our English translation, we miss that it is also about the heart, about feelings. The Buddha taught that the fruits of spiritual practice would be lovingkindness, compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity. Therefore, if we sit and meditate all day and these attributes are not the natural result, it is not the Buddhist Way that we are practicing. Learning all this, I felt myself inching closer to Jesus’ command to love my neighbor, and even my enemy.

Years later, I discovered the formal practice of “lovingkindness meditation,” also called “Metta.” In this meditation, one practices cultivating a feeling of lovingkindness towards oneself, those one already loves, neutral people in one’s life, and to those with whom one is experiencing conflict. Typically four phrases are chosen and repeated over and over. The traditional phrases are below, but you can adapt them to your liking:

May you be happy

May you be safe and protected

May you be healthy and strong

May you be peaceful and free from suffering

Set aside about 15-25 minutes to do this meditation. Begin by settling into a comfortable position and taking a few deep breaths, relaxing your muscles, and releasing any tension. (As Christians, we can take some time to invite the Holy Spirit into this experience with us.) Then begin to recite the Metta phrases first to someone who is easy to love, someone with whom we have no conflict. Often, it is easiest to start with a young child or a pet because they have a magical way of opening our hearts. Imagine your Loved One in front of you, and you are saying the wishes/prayers directly to them. I like to imagine the Light of the Spirit enveloping them in a warm embrace. Take a few moments to just sit and notice how it feels to love another. Appreciate this feeling, this moment. We naturally return to what we noticeably appreciate. Take this feeling with you throughout this meditation.

Next, recite the phrases for yourself. Remember that Jesus wants you to love your neighbor as you love yourself.  This means that loving yourself is not selfish, but essential in the process of loving others. Let the Light of the Spirit embrace you as you pray with the Spirit. Really take some time to have compassion for your present circumstances. If it is particularly difficult at this time in life, you may want to stay with yourself for several minutes, repeating these well-wishes for yourself again and again:

May you be happy

May you be safe and protected

May you be healthy and strong

May you be peaceful and free from suffering

When you feel ready to move on, let a benefactor come to mind, someone who has helped you in your journey and toward whom you feel gratitude. Repeat the phrases several times for this person, allowing them to be true in your heart with no strings attached. If more benefactors come to mind, feel free to switch to a new person. Remember, the Spirit is guiding the process, so whoever comes to mind is likely just the right person!

Now allow a neutral person to come to mind, someone with whom you have no strong feelings towards. Perhaps this is a co-worker, a barista at a coffee shop, or a stranger you passed on the street today. Send the phrases of lovingkindness and the Light of the Spirit toward them. You will notice that when you practice this in silent prayer and meditation, it will become natural to think these thoughts when encountering strangers, and will result in more loving interactions.

Next, choose someone you are having a difficult time with, perhaps someone from the news, a politician, or someone who cut you off in traffic this morning. It is important to not choose the most difficult person in your life right now. When first practicing, we warm up to more difficult people by first focusing on those with whom we have small conflicts or irritations. It is likely that after repeating these phrases for them, when you see them the following day the conflict will have diminished because your attitude will have changed. When we wish our “enemies” to be happy, we are really wishing for a more peaceful world. We know that those who cause harm and those who feel hatred in their hearts would not do so if they themselves were happy and at peace.

Lastly, we send the Lovingkindness phrases to all people around the world, and then to all living beings, to those with four legs or six legs, those with fins or feathers, and to those with roots and leaves. All living beings deserve to be free from suffering, and in the interconnectedness of all life, we all do better when we are all thriving.

This Buddhist practice has been a great blessing to my life, and has enhanced my Christian understanding of the Gospel in a very close and personal way. When I know I am loved unconditionally by the Creator, love naturally flows out of me to all beings. Taking intentional time to receive lovingkindness and compassion for myself, to send it to others, and to view the entire Creation through this lens of love has transformed my resentful non-love to Metta. I pray that this practice would also be a blessing to you.

May you be happy

May you be safe and protected

May you be healthy and strong

May you be peaceful and free from suffering.

Amen.

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An Inconvenient God

A word that is being thrown around a lot in the media and conversation these days, in relation to Black Lives Matter, is “inconvenience.” It’s inconvenient when bus lines are diverted to go around marches demanding police transparency and accountability downtown. It’s inconvenient that people have to wait at stop lights for seven extra minutes while the throng of protesters file down the street, chanting “Black Lives Matter.” It’s inconvenient when highways get shut down by human chains demanding justice in exchange for peace. And most recently, it has been inconvenient for holiday travelers to have some flights delayed for 45 minutes at the MSP airport, and shops closed at the Mall of America for a couple of hours so that the protestors could disturb the status quo and remind people that Black Lives are inconvenienced every day. Every day a black person steps out of their house, they must live in fear of police violence. Black mothers fear that their sons won’t live past their 18th birthday without ending up dead or in jail. Schools, places of employment, housing, banks, food systems, and the “justice” system are all stacked against Black Americans. The daily stress of discrimination grates on Black Americans to the point of causing higher rates of depression and anxiety, heart disease, and high blood pressure. I’d say that is much more inconvenient that a single incident of tardiness for travelers.

Dr. King certainly had similar conversations with city officials, asking him to “move slower and more gently” but they shut down the bridge in Selma anyway. The bus boycott in Montgomery inspired by Rosa Parks was highly disruptive to the city. White Jim Crow shop owners who had their business disturbed by protestors at lunch counter “sit ins” were outraged at the disturbance of business as usual. (Sound familiar?) If things are to change, we must all of us be disturbed and inconvenienced. 400 years of oppression and discriminatory systems don’t just disappear on their own. They will not go away by people being nice.

While these actions are meant to disrupt and create discomfort, let us remind ourselves that they are being done with the greater purpose of equality, peace, and justice, through a motivation of love. Come to think of it, most love is inconvenient. I just got a puppy, and he has quickly become the love of my life, even though he takes up all my free time and has churned my daily schedule into chaos. Having children does the same. So does falling in love romantically. We make sacrifices for love, but never would we consider doing otherwise, because there is such great reward. And it just feels good.

This week being Christmas, with all of creation groaning in anticipation for the arrival of the baby who brings peace and justice to the world, let us stop and consider the inconvenience of his arrival. First, his poor parents had to travel to another city while pregnant, then flee to a neighboring country because the government was slaughtering Jewish babies because Jesus was threatening the throne. As he grew to be a man, his radical love disrupted many people’s lives. The disciples left behind families and jobs. Pharisees and Sadducees were put “on blast” for their discriminatory religion that barred women, children, the poor, and sick people from entering the temple. Through embarrassing confrontations with Jesus, some of those leaders changed their ways. The disciples were frustrated that Jesus was constantly slowing down and changing their schedules so they could play with children, talk with Samaritan women, and feed thousands of hungry people. The disciples were tired. They just wanted business as usual. They wanted to keep their reputations intact, but Jesus didn’t care about maintaining their egos or schedules of sleep. He constantly went out of his way to show mercy and love to those who showed up in his path, to those experiencing oppression, sickness, and isolation. He asks the same of us.

Black Americans (and other Americans of color) are currently experiencing oppression, sickness, and isolation. And they are showing up in our path. They are refusing to be cast aside, ignored, locked up, beaten, shot, used, and blasphemed. They are saying that their lives matter. This doesn’t mean that white lives (or any other lives) matter less. They are just pointing out that black lives currently do not matter, according to all the staggering evidence of history and current times, and they should matter.

When people get desperate, they reach out to touch the hem of Jesus’ cloak. They cry out “Son of Man, have mercy on us!” They lower family members down through rooftops. They demand loaves and fish. Black America is desperate. Jesus’ merciful hands were so far-reaching that they were threatening enough to be nailed to a tree. His disciples could have gone back to business as usual after his death, had the story ended there. But they saw him resurrected, and with that sight, there was no turning back. What is seen cannot be unseen. What is known cannot be unknown. As the inconvenient prophet Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, we have been to “the mountaintop” and have seen the other side, the Promised Land! With determination, we will have justice and peace! So go ahead, #blacklivesmatter, do your thing. Let’s get uncomfortable in the name of Love.

Chelsea Forbrook

Greetings from Minnesota, to my dear brother Paul, apostle to the Gentiles, the first of us to encounter the mysterious Spirit of Jesus in the middle of our Suffering Road.

 

I give thanks for your dedication to all men of your region. Your compassion, love, and commitment to diverse peoples amazes me. Poor Peter, have mercy on him, for he was so entrenched within the walls of his culture that he could not comprehend the Gospel touching the lives of those beyond the walls of Judaism. So thank you truly for your vision and courage to go where no man had ever gone before, a Light in the darkness, sharing Good News.

 

Dear brother, it’s time for me to get real. I’ve been talking about you behind your back in scorn. Please forgive me. It’s time I finally bring my concerns directly to you.

 

I cannot pretend to comprehend the thorn in your flesh that you have tried in vain to remove. We all have our defects. Go easy on yourself! Is it that you are attracted to men and feel you must keep it a secret to show your separation from Roman culture? Is this why you write so hatefully of men sleeping with other men, because you hate this part of yourself? Is it that you are a transgender person, fearing the female spirit inside you, and in your confusion the only way you can act out is to tell women to stay in their place and be submissive, because you are secretly trying to subdue the woman within? If it is either of these dear brother, fear no more, because the church (at least parts of it) will now accept you, as God accepts you!

 

But if it is not this, then we’ve got a bone to pick. I’m pissed. Radical honesty: you’ve been my nemesis for years. You’ve given men the world over a religious and theological excuse to abuse, manipulate, neglect, degrade, confine, and oppress women and LGBTQ folks. I know I can’t speak for all of us, but many, if not most of us, are sick of you! You’ve done your fair share in turning The Way of love, equality, and community (The Way that Jesus taught, that always included women) into the Christianity of hierarchy, exclusion, tyranny, and patriarchy! Thanks a lot!!! Your writing makes me so nauseous and angry that I’ve avoided it altogether for the last eight years! I can’t even bring myself to read the beautiful parts because I feel I’m paying tribute to your bigotry!!

 

…Ok. I had to slow down and breathe. There is something you wrote that I memorized as a child that I’m so grateful for, because it has comforted me many times.

 

“For I am convinced that neither death nor life,

Angels nor demons,

Neither present nor future,

Nor any powers,

Neither height nor depth,

Nor Anything else in all of creation

Will be able to separate us from the Love of God that is in Christ Jesus.”

Chelsea Forbrook

Fearing God and Ferrets

Sitting on the banks of the Minnehaha Creek with my feet in the water, escaping the city within the city, a flash of movement along the opposite bank caught my eye. A ferret was running along the bank, not five yards from me, and then dove into the water.

A ferret? Dow we have wild ferrets in Minnesota? Had my eyes deceived me? It must’ve been a muskrat, to have gone underwater like that. But I knew what I had seen. Its long skinny body and arching back were unmistakable. How far could ferrets swim underwater?

Suddenly, I felt a surge of fear. What if it resurfaced by my feet and bit me? Aren’t ferrets feisty and mean? Do they carry diseases? Perhaps it was someone’s escaped pet turned wild and would want to crawl on me. I waited in fearful excitement, holding my breath to see what it would do. And then there it was, springing out of the water with a mouthful of mud and weeds. Running off down the bank it dropped its treasure and began patting it with its little hands, building a nest or den. A feeling of awe overtook me. I realized I know nothing about ferrets and I was overwhelmed by its “otherness” and intrigued by its mysterious life.

Maybe this is what the Scriptures mean when they say to “Fear God.” I’ve never liked that phrase. Why should I fear someone who loves me, who created all this beauty, who has my best interest at heart?

Growing up in a shame-based family system and religion gave me my fair share of fear. I was afraid of my father, my pastor, and at some deep level that I never admitted until much later, I was also afraid of God. God, who was distant and detached, judgemental and punishing. As a youth, fearing God meant always being on my best behavior because “he’s gonna find out who’s naughty and nice.” The consequence for naughtiness was eternal damnation. Terrifying indeed! Over time, after healing this destructive image and understanding of God, I dropped the idea altogether because it triggered old wounds.

But sitting on the banks of the Minnehaha, watching this ferret run back and forth, I felt a Holy fear. It was excitement, awe, mystery, respect, love. So too, large animals evoke these feelings in us naturally. If you’ve ever stood next to a horse, you know what I mean. They put you in your humble place, your pulse may quicken, but it’s out of the ecstatic joy and privilege of touching the beautiful other. Elephants, whales, bears, hippos, moose; they all stir in us a wild excitement. We slow down and hold our breath when they are near. What will they do next? Much of our fear is that they will run away and leave us, giving only a fleeting glimpse into their world, leaving us alone with ourselves. And so it is with God.

Animals show us that fearing God is quite natural and healthy. It is a wonder, a joy, and an overwhelming gratitude to have witnessed such untamed beauty this close up, right here in our hearts.

************************************************

And in contrast to the idea of fear, a poem about pure Love, because as a Lutheran, I can’t help but embrace paradox:

Amidst the confusion

I search for You.

Amidst death and dying and fear

I cry out to you

Amidst surprising joys

I sing to you

Amidst desert places

I drink from you.

***

Amidst the confusion

You search for me

Amidst death and dying and fear

You cry out to me

Amidst surprising joys

You sing to me

Amidst desert places

You drink from me

How can my mind fathom Your love??

Instead, I’ll let my heart smile

Knowing it is Your heart

Instead I’ll let my soul dance

Knowing it already holds the answers

Instead, I’ll let my belly laugh

Knowing it is safe

To be me.

By Chelsea Forbrook, October 2015

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