This book invites you to a simple practice of prayer and awareness that can turn each ordinary workday into a deepening spiritual journey.
No matter where you are or how busy you get, your five senses are always “on,” your mind and heart responsive to what you perceive. These channels of awareness can take you deeper into God's great mystery if you practice the discipline of submitting them to the One who is closer than you imagine.
The beauty of such a contemplative path is that you can follow it anywhere—alone or in company, in quiet meditation or amid the bustle of your craziest day.
Moment by moment, you invite God to open you up—eyes, ears, nostrils, hands and mouth, heart and mind. And moment by moment, as you open yourself, you’ll find yourself closer to God’s grace-filled and wide-open heart. Simply Open.
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A Guide To Experiencing God In The Everyday
By Greg Paul
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2015 Greg Paul
All rights reserved.
The Path to Openness
To open is to unveil, to unlock, to unclench, to invite. To create passage, to begin. Openness means generosity and truthfulness and clarity and spaciousness and fearless receptiveness and a willingness to be moved.
An open door invites me to enter, signals my release, tells me I am free to come and go. An open vista lets me see clearly into the distance, and it tantalizes me with possibility. Open water offers a sailor the liberty to choose a course unconstrained by land or shoal, an infinite choice of destination—and the sobering recognition of dependence upon wind, water, and current. A gift, upon being opened, reveals not only the nature of the item previously hidden but also the thoughtfulness of and the blessing conferred by the giver.
An open jar of olives is the beginning of a feast; an open bottle of wine, the start of celebration. The sight, the sound, the smell, the taste, the touch. The opening bars of a song or the opening paragraphs of a book are the commencement of a shared creative journey.
An open face is honest, humble—the expression of a person secure in oneself and desirous of finding the good in others. An open heart is warm and tender, ready for friendship. An open mind is generous, engaging, respectful of others, eager to grow and learn. Open arms offer welcome and comfort. An open spirit receives and perceives without condemnation.
An open society is one that values transparency over secrets. It chooses the vulnerability of welcoming the stranger over the security of exclusivity. It celebrates the richness of diversity over the comfort of homogeneity. It embraces new or different perspectives rather than defending tired dogmas. It does not rush to judgment.
Openness requires courage. By its nature it diminishes certainty and requires faith; it dismantles the mighty fortresses of ego and privilege, leaving one armed instead with the flimsy weapons of hope and love. Openness takes captive one's own private agenda, binding it to the needs and dreams of others.
The one who is truly open desires to be known, unveiled, right down to every blemish, each unrecognized strength.
The one who is truly open desires also to know, even if the knowing destroys cherished illusions. This is good, but it may also be terrifying.
"It is a fearful thing," said the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, "to fall into the hands of the living God" (10:31 KJV).
Fearful, yes. But where safer? And where in this universe could one find greater excitement, deeper fulfillment, more enduring peace, a richer joy? This is why God seeks to cleave me, pierce me "to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart" (Heb. 4:12 ESV). Not to harm, but to heal. To open a path.
God is the Great Openness. Surely Jesus is the evidence of this: the Omnipotent becomes powerless; the Omnipresent binds himself to a point in time, a geographical and cultural place, a specific person within the narrow confines of history; the Omniscient bends every aspect of that infinite genius to the purpose of being known. Every created thing is a revelation, and "no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account" (Heb. 4:13 ESV).
If, then, openness is a path inward to the very core of my own being, the path leads also outward from that core to the heart of God.
I want to be free, but not without direction. I want to be humble, but not insecure. I want to be vulnerable and fearless. I desire simplicity, but the kind that is profound rather than naïve. I want to know God, and myself, and others.
I want to be open. But such openness is not easy.
* * *
As much as I might want to, I cannot simply fling some internal door open and be instantly flooded with the insight, humility, serenity, and intimacy with God and others that I crave. Seeking such openness, I find, is more like a battle, one in which I have dug trenches and foxholes, built bunkers and fortresses, to protect myself.
Ironically, the strongholds I have built for protection have proven to be my dungeon.
Openness has many enemies: fear, weariness, insecurity, past traumas and disappointments, pride, selfishness. These and many others are the thick walls behind which we hide, behind which we are trapped. They may manifest themselves in our lives as variously as life-dominating drives to succeed, dependence on drugs or alcohol, arrogance or low self-esteem (or both), habitual self-sabotage, or self-aggrandizement.
Or busyness. We are, all of us, deeply hungry for spiritual life. We long to really work our spiritual muscles and grow strong. But we, too, are overwhelmed by successive waves: financial challenges, work or educational expectations, social imperatives, the never-ending swell of entertainment options, the needs of family and friends.
I'm a husband, father to four, and stepfather to three children; a sadly neglectful son to my very sweet mother; a brother twice over. I am a pastor, fund-raiser, teacher, author, mentor, networker, advocate, and outreach worker. I travel regularly and speak about God and justice. I have played in the same band for almost three decades. I provide some coaching and advice to people across the continent who are nurturing communities similar to Sanctuary. My life is full of people and activities.
Like you, I'm busy. Busy, busy. Look, I'm not bragging—most people I know are just as busy or busier, and they could easily produce lists much like mine.
Of all the enemies that bar the path to becoming increasingly more open, this one—busyness—may loom largest. Busyness is highly valued and deeply entrenched in our Western culture, whether it's a fruitful busyness or not. Busyness is the mark of importance: an executive who isn't run off her feet is probably on the way out; professionals and tradespeople of all sorts work long hours and add regular training to upgrade their status; any gathering of religious leaders features the proud comparison of crammed schedules; parents moan about the hectic rounds that must be made to get the kids to school, sports activities, music and dance lessons ...
Busyness, perhaps more than anything else, affirms our value. It tells us that we're important, needed, or desired. Unchallenged busyness might be slowly strangling our souls.
But busyness for an increasing number of ordinary people isn't all ego-driven. A 2004 study conducted in Toronto, my hometown, revealed that a single parent needed to work two full-time minimum-wage jobs—a seventy-two-hour week, not including transportation time—just to reach the poverty line. A great many executives and managers know that unless they routinely labor long past the day's official end, they'll lose their jobs to someone hungrier. The escalating cost of living and the demands of a marketplace whose sole focus is ever-increasing profits constantly require more and more from workers at all levels.
Busyness of this sort isn't going to go away. For many years, I've listened to friends express their frustration at trying to deepen their spiritual lives while keeping up with the demands of work, family, worshipping communities, and other responsibilities. Many people who are successful in their work lives, dedicated worshippers who may be wonderful parents, spouses, and friends, feel like spiritual failures because the majority of their time and creative energy must be submitted to the goals of a corporation or financial institution—goals they feel are essentially meaningless, or worse, with which they feel they are in conflict.
Some are fortunate enough to work in professions that are inherently meaningful and whose value is widely affirmed: health care professionals, teachers, pastors, child and elder care workers, social workers, artists. But even they find the urgency of the demands they face and the fast pace of contemporary life leave little space for spiritual contemplation.
The group with which I have the most natural affinity, because I am one of them, is made up of people who have become activists for justice—gospel justice, which seeks to set people free from spiritual, economic, racial, social, physical, or emotional oppression, in the name of Jesus. My colleagues and I have the great luxury of living each workday in pursuit of spiritual enterprise. We get to read Scripture, pray, even preach or share communion. You would think we'd all be full-blown contemplatives, deeply rooted in lives of intimate prayer and quiet scriptural reflection.
Not so. The rate of burnout in my corner of the vineyard is astonishingly high. Although we may think we're okay because, after all, we're doing God's work—aren't we?—we too often think so right up until something goes drastically wrong. We are so driven by the desperate need of the people among whom we work that it may even seem wrong, somehow, to take time to care for ourselves as well. If it comes down to an hour spent in listening for the voice of God, or that same hour devoted, for instance, to getting a homeless person into housing—especially in the dead of winter—it's usually no contest.
The sheer volume of need overwhelms us. Lives hang in the balance. The more those of us from privileged backgrounds come to love people whose lives have been wrecked from the start, the angrier and more frustrated we are likely to become about the successive waves of injustice that roll over them—waves that we can alter about as successfully as a handful of bodies standing in the surf can divert an ocean's breakers.
Anger is not a good center from which to live a spiritual life. Neither is frustration nor self-condemnation nor soul-numbing weariness. And the demands of even an ordinarily busy life war against our ability to address such wounds, to find a healthy center from which we can live joyful, fruitful lives.
* * *
These are not new problems. For thousands of years, some spiritual seekers of most faiths have withdrawn from secular life into monasteries, convents, or hermitages, or they have gone on pilgrimages or spirit quests for the purpose of seeking enlightenment, liberation, or a deeper connection with God. Sadhus, ascetic Hindu monks, sometimes spend years wandering homeless and naked, with only a bowl for begging. In most North American First Nations traditions, a spirit quest marks the passage from childhood to adulthood.
Occasionally, the desire for spiritual reality has led seekers to questionable extremes. Saint Simeon Stylites, a Christian monk of the fifth century, is famous for having lived about forty years on a small platform on top of a pillar—as well as torturing himself in a disconcerting number of other ways. Even the people of his time realized his approach might not be entirely sane. Long before he climbed atop the pillar, he had been asked to leave a monastery because of the extremity of his disciplines.
But there is no doubt that true contemplatives have given great gifts to our world. Thomas á Kempis, Julian of Norwich, John of the Cross, Teresa of Ávila, Brother Lawrence, and many others—the fruits of their years of cloistered reflection continue to be precious hundreds of years later. Benedict of Nursia and Ignatius of Loyola developed rules and exercises that still shape communities and individual lives around the world. Their mantle has been worn in our own era by people such as Jean Vanier, Henri Nouwen, Richard Rohr, Kathleen Norris, Thomas Merton, and others.
These are all Catholic followers of Jesus. There's a surprising paucity of contemplatives among Protestants by comparison, and many of those have been profoundly influenced by Catholic writers; but most other spiritual traditions have similar contemplative exemplars.
Most of these great contemplatives, however, have lived lives in which they were able to combine spiritual vocation with "employment." Few of us are able to afford that luxury, if such it can be called, and fewer still have any sense of calling to the rigors and restrictions of a life in orders. Secession from the world is not an option for the vast majority of us. For many, myself included, it would be an abandonment of God's calling on their lives as workers, spouses, parents, and as members of various kinds of community, as that calling is precisely about engagement with the world around us.
How then, when we find ourselves trapped inside the thick walls we have built, can we find a path that allows us to become increasingly open to the voice of God?
Jesus lamented our condition, quoting the words of Isaiah:
For this people's heart has become calloused;
they hardly hear with their ears,
and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.
But blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears because they hear. (Matt. 13:15–16)
It's encouraging to know that if we turn, God will heal us—open our ears and eyes and hearts. And, as the apostle Paul teaches us, we are not without resource to break out of the fortress-prisons we have constructed around ourselves: "The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds" (2 Cor. 10:4).
We are not helpless. We can choose to turn, to fight. We can take a new and life-giving path.
I want to offer such a path, a contemplative path toward the simple openness we've been thinking about, based on the intentional exercise of our five senses, our minds, and our hearts. Our senses, minds, and hearts are completely portable, with us all the time. We can't even leave them behind, as I do routinely with my keys and cell phone. The world around us is, well, around us—always accessible. Seems like a match made in heaven.
* * *
If our senses are the means by which our inner selves perceive the realities that surround us, they are also passages through which the Divine may enter our minds and hearts and take up residence. This Visitor, who longs to abide, is unfailingly gracious, and he will not trespass where he is uninvited. The wider we open the doors, the more deeply he abides.
This path is so simple that you can integrate it into the most complex schedule and pick it up again immediately if you forget about it for weeks at a time. It's also flexible enough to use as the basis for times of planned spiritual retreat, should you have that opportunity. However, retreat is a measured withdrawal from the world for a short while; the main intent of this contemplative path is to help us really pay attention to the busy world we must inhabit most of the time, and so experience the presence of the Spirit of God within it.
About the only thing this path requires is a desire to become spiritually open—open to God, to yourself, and to others.
By developing an intentional, increasing awareness of what we are already registering through our physical senses, our minds, and our hearts, we will allow God to open us up in four different ways:
The first thing that happens when we open up is that we release our hold on previous perceptions—judgments, opinions, attitudes. Those perceptions may stay or they may go, but we must relinquish our control of them.
By letting go, we free ourselves to receive new perceptions, understanding, wisdom. Sometimes we may receive previously held perceptions again, proving their worth, or we may receive them in a new way—see them from a new angle, or detect a flavor or aroma we hadn't noticed before.
New perceptions, understanding, and wisdom change us. When we are conscious that we have received this new awareness as a gift from God, it opens us up to become more truly who and what he has made us to be. Slowly, we "are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit" (2 Cor. 3:18).
Becoming inevitably bears fruit in doing. When we are truly open to being transformed, our motivations change, and we do—not out of societal expectation or peer pressure or guilt or selfishness, but as an authentic expression of who we are. If we do not actually do something new or different, or do the same thing with a different attitude, it indicates we have not become anything new or different from what we were.
Here's the truly wonderful thing: we don't have to worry about making any of this happen. We need only the desire to become more open and enough intention to express this desire in the simplest of prayers—Open my eyes!—throughout the course of any normal day. The rest we can entrust to God.
I should make it clear that the goal of openness is not so that we will release, receive, become, and do. They are sections of the path. The goal, and the path itself, is simply openness—that you and I might become as open as possible to our Creator, Lover, Redeemer, and Friend, to ourselves, and to other people.
Before going on to describe our contemplative path in detail, let me first tell you about another path—a very real, physical one upon which "my eyes were opened"—that represented my own first stumbling-but-deliberate steps toward openness.
Excerpted from Simply Open by Greg Paul. Copyright © 2015 Greg Paul. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Contents1 The Path to Openness, 1,
2 Open My Eyes, 25,
3 Open My Ears, 47,
4 Open My Nostrils, 71,
5 Open My Mouth, 97,
6 Open My Hands, 127,
7 Open My Mind, 155,
8 Open My Heart, 183,
9 Onward, 211,
About the Author, 223,