Friday, July 23, 2010

Praying With Eyes Open

It seems like the world is getting thinner. I don't mean that people are getting lighter. Every report I hear tells me that Americans are getter heavier. And I am not getting any lighter either!

What I mean is that the veneer of the world is wearing thin, like my favorite shirt. I had an old red flannel shirt that had seen so many washings that you could see my skin through it. Eventually it was time to retire it and buy a new one. In the same way the world is getting so thin you can see through it. It won't be long before God has to roll it up and discard it, and start anew with a new heavens and new earth.

When I look at the world these days, it seems more transparent than it used to be. Maybe it is all the prayer and meditation I have been doing this past year. I tend to pray with my eyes open now. I figure God is just as much in the visible world as he is in the dark, so what is the point of praying with eyes closed?

As I pray with eyes open, the world looks different. The difference carries over into regular times when I am not praying. I see the world through eyes of prayer. The world is brighter, sharper, and at the same time more transparent. The world shines with the presence of the One I behold in prayer. Like the old hymn says:

This is my Father's world:
He shines in all that's fair;
In the rustling grass I hear him pass;
He speaks to me everywhere.

In the beginning of the Book of Revelation, the apostle John is sitting on a mountainside looking out over the Aegean Sea, when he sees a door open in heaven. Through that door he sees a whole new dimension of existence. I haven't entered any revelatory doors, but I see spirit shining through the fabric of the world. Like light filtered through distant storm clouds, spirit filters through the material world.

It looks like the glory of God. Jews call it Shekhinah. This is a Hebrew word that means "dwelling" or "settling." It is used to describe the divine presence that was said to dwell in the temple, especially in the Holy of Holies. When Jesus died the veil of the Holy of Holies in the temple was torn apart, and the glory of God spread into all the earth.

The Shekhinah released by the Cross is still shining, like the light that creeps over the horizon when the sun is setting ... or when it is rising. Either way, it is shining still "in all that's fair" and even what's not so fair. Anyone can see it. You just need to keep your eyes open and pray.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Dinosaur Watching

We have become birdwatchers at our house recently. At least my wife has. I sit on the porch and read or write, while she patiently watches and photographs the birds that visit our yard. I presented her with a book of recorded birdcalls last Christmas, and it has been fun to identify birds by voice as well as sight. There is one, I swear, that sings the opening notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. If you know which bird that is, please let me know. It is not listed in the book under Beethoven.

As I was sitting on our front porch yesterday watching Jude watch the birds, it struck me that we were viewing creatures from ancient history. Birds are descended from dinosaurs. It is more accurate to say that birds are dinosaurs that have survived the massive extinctions of their larger ancestors.

Just ask any paleontologist who is familiar with the phylogeny of vertebrates, and they will tell you that avians are dinosaurs. Using proper terminology, birds are avian dinosaurs. In other words, I have a Jurassic Park in my front yard!

It got me wondering what other extinct creatures might be roaming about unnoticed. And I am not talking about yetis or Nessies. The prehistoric Coelacanth, known only from fossils, was thought to be extinct until a living specimen was discovered in the 1930's. The gar - also known as the dino fish - is known from fossils dating from the Cretaceous period, and is now living in the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately it is now threatened by extinction caused by the BP oil spill in the Gulf.

The Bible describes creatures living in ancient times that bear no resemblance to any living today. The Leviathan and Behemoth of Job 40 and 41 sound a lot like dinos. They are traditionally interpreted as crocodiles, hippos or elephants, but they are not like any animal I have ever seen at the zoo.

"Look at the behemoth, which I made along with you and which feeds on grass like an ox. What strength he has in his loins, what power in the muscles of his belly! His tail sways like a cedar; the sinews of his thighs are close-knit. His bones are tubes of bronze, his limbs like rods of iron. He ranks first among the works of God." I have never seen a elephant or a hippo with a tail like a cedar.

Wooly Mammoths and Saber Tooth tigers are known to have coexisted with man. What other extinct creatures did ancient man know? There are legends from many cultures about dragons. Where did the idea for dragons come from? It makes you wonder how long man's ancestral memory really is.

I am sure this is just my interest in science fiction coming through here. I have been reading a lot of fantasy books these days. But that is all right. I am allowed to have a geek streak; it keeps me sane. In any case it makes birdwatching more interesting.
Photo is the birdlike foot of a Tyrannosaurus rex

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

True Faith

Faith is misunderstood. Faith is not convincing yourself that something is true in spite of evidence to the contrary - or the lack of evidence altogether. That is the way most people think about faith. They think it means believing the unbelievable, checking your intellect at the door when entering a house of worship. That is not faith; that is self-deception.

Faith is spiritual sight - seeing the unseen. It is "conviction of things unseen," as Hebrews puts it. The same book describes Moses' faith as "seeing Him who is invisible." Believing is seeing. Faith's slogan is "I'll believe it when I see it." When Job said, "Now my eyes see you," he was not talking about physical sight. All he saw with his eyes was a whirlwind, but with his spirit he saw God.

Sure, the Bible says that "No one has ever seen God." But the same verse continues on to say, "but Christ has made him known." Faith is first hand knowledge of God that transcends second hand knowledge about God. Job said to God, "I had heard of you with the hearing of the ear, but now my eyes see you." Faith is a faculty of the spirit that the mind cannot comprehend.

To have a little bit of faith is to have it all. All you need is to have the door to heaven open a tiny crack, and you can see a lot through that crack. That is why Jesus said that a mustard seed portion is sufficient to move mountains and do the impossible. Without faith demons laugh in your face, and the winds and waves ignore you. With faith the earth trembles. The supernatural and natural worlds bow in submission to the sons and daughters of God.

Most religion does not know such faith. It doesn't matter what name the religion goes by. It doesn't matter if it is organized religion or private spirituality, institutional religion or individualized belief. Religion by any name is a usually a faithless affair.

Faith walks on water while religion rides the boat. Faith stands on the substratum of the universe. It rests on Being while beings worry about drowning.  Faith is remembering what you already know to be true.

Have you ever noticed what happens when you hear something that "rings true"? Something is said, and people shake their heads in agreement. They know it is true because the Spirit bears witness in their spirits that it is true. There is an inner witness.

Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart said that he could not define pornography, but he knew it when he saw it. The same is true of truth; you know it when you hear it. People may not be able to put it into words, but they know it.

This is how we know scripture is inspired and true, even when we do not fully understand it. The Spirit inspired the words in the first place and witnesses to its truthfulness to our spirit.  Faith is knowing that you know. It is more than just shaking your head in assent when someone describes truth; faith is being consumed by truth. One doesn't know truth; Truth knows you.

When the unseen is seen, the unheard is heard, the incomprehensible is understood, and the impossible is possible, then mountains lose their footing. Eyes open. Faith awakes. You know the truth and the truth sets you free.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Button, Button, Who's Got the Truth?

The truth is so subtle that it goes unnoticed. If it is stated bluntly, it is misunderstood. If it is stated subtly, it is ignored. That is why Jesus warned his disciples not to tell people that he was the Christ. People would not understand. When Jesus healed people, he instructed them not to talk about it. People would only see the healing.

That is why gospel preaching is so difficult. If you tell people about Jesus, they immediately think you are talking about religion. The message is scorned and ridiculed. They only hear a religious sales pitch.

The Jesus I know cannot be sold. He is freely present. In fact, he is so obviously present that one has to be deaf and blind not to notice him. Sometimes I feel like the boy in the film "The Sixth Sense" who sees ghosts all around where others see nothing. Except I don't see spirits, I see Spirit. God is all around, but people do not seem to be aware of his presence.

How does one describe the invisible? How does one communicate that which cannot be put into words? Jesus tried to communicate truth by saying, "The kingdom of God is at hand!" John the Baptist said the same thing. If I preached as they did, I would be written off as a religious kook. So I am reduced to pointing obliquely, and prodding people when they come near to the kingdom. "You're hot ... hotter."

As a child my family played the rainy day game "Button, Button, Who's got the Button?" (It is from a simpler time when kids interacted directly with each other without electronic mediators.) A person tries to find an object (a button or coin) hidden in the room. When he is getting close, you say, "warm," or "hot," or "hotter." When she is moving away, you say, "cool," "cold," "colder," etc. The spiritual search is the same game. The best one can do is nudge people toward truth.

Truth is one and imageless. How can words contain it? Can a word contain God? The word "God" immediately conjures up images, pictures and ideas in people's minds; God is not these. Jesus is truth, but the name "Jesus" elicits memories of tacky paintings of a haloed saint. Jesus is not that. Even the word "Spirit" has been hijacked to refer to New Age energy fields and fuzzy feelings. God is not this.

So I have a message that cannot be preached, a God who cannot be understood, and a Lord who is rejected as soon as his name is mentioned! What is a preacher to do? There is nothing I can do. God does it all. I simply move with his nudging. The Spirit says "hot" and I move a little more in that direction. He says, "cold" and I back off.

All a preacher can do is play the game, and refrain from shouting, "It is not a game! It is the most serious, important matter in the world!" But then people would only chuckle and wag their heads at the crazy man who thinks he sees things that aren't really there.
Image is a 10th century Byzantine gold coin depicting Christ.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Morning on the Lake

The only ripples on the surface of this New Hampshire lake are from a pair of loons swimming toward each other, meeting in the center of the bay, and swimming off together. We heard them singing last night as we slept on the front porch. It was too hot to sleep inside the cabin this summer's night. Our son lent us an air-conditioner to protect us from the heat wave that is blanketing the region, but we chose to sleep outdoors instead.

This little acre of rustic paradise is alive with wildlife on this clear and calm morning. Chipmunks perform acrobatics as they climb blueberry bushes at the water's edge, enjoying freshly picked native berries for breakfast, as I did. Somehow the chipmunks never seem to fall into the lake.

Dragonflies flit across the glassy surface of the water, occasionally grazing the surface to pluck an insect for breakfast. Fish are watching them from under the surface, dreaming of a dragonfly breakfast. I watch one barely miss catching a dragonfly. He must settle for eating less mobile insects.

A motorboat slowly enters this bay through a narrow channel that adjoins this cove to the next. It speeds up as it hits deeper water, in a hurry to get to somewhere more important. I hear the boatmen's voices, shouting at each other in order to be heard over their engines.

At first I am offended at their intrusion into my peaceful setting. They seem out of harmony with this natural scene. Then I realize that these humans and their mechanical transportation are part of the environment also, as certainly as the loons that I hear calling in the distance.

We cannot escape our nature or Nature. Humans may try to dominate and subdue the earth in instinctive obedience to the Genesis command, but they cannot escape the grasp of earth. We are earth, formed of earth and will return to earth, however much we postpone the inevitable with hermetically sealed burial vaults.

We are clods of mud temporarily animated by God's breath, short-lived concoctions of earth and water, keeping our form only a little longer than the waves that slowly make their way across this bay to dissolve at the shoreline.

Calm returns to the cove. The humans, their boat and their yelling are gone. Water lilies grace the edge of the shoreline below our cabin on the lake. They rise from the silty bottom on long and slender stems. They open onto the surface in a pointed wheel of white and yellow to enjoy the sun.

We arise from the earth and water to bloom for a while, enjoying the sun and riding the waves. There are not many differences between water lilies and humans. Perhaps we are a little more conscious of our existence and our place in the world. But maybe not. Many people seem less aware of their roots and purpose than this water lily. At least the lily knows how to ride the waves and when to open to the sun.
(I wrote this blog about ten days ago while vacationing in NH, but could only publish it now. There was no internet access where we were staying - a small blessing that I was very thankful for! My wife Jude took the photo from the front of our cabin on one such morning.)

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Party Line

We are renting a cabin on a lake in New Hampshire for two weeks. It is an old style camp with wall-to-wall knotty pine interior. It is set high on a rocky outcrop with a beautiful view of the mountains to the east and north. There is no internet service at the house (thank you, Lord!), but there is a phone. But this is no ordinary landline. This is a party line.

Remember party lines? We used to have one when I was a kid, but I thought they had gone the way of rotary phones. Nope. They are alive and well on the dirt roads of rural New England.

For those of you who have forgotten (or have never experienced) this relic of the twentieth century, a party line is a phone line shared by two or three houses. It makes privacy very difficult. Each customer can listen in on the conversations of their neighbors, if they so choose. You just hope your neighbors are not the nosy sorts. It also cuts down the length of telephone conversations since only one house can use the phone at a time.

If the phone rings, we listen carefully to the type of ring to see if the call is for us. Each house is identified by a distinctive pattern of rings. If the phone rings two long rings, that means the call is for us. Today the phone rang one long ring, which meant it was for our neighbor.

Party lines are kind of like public prayers - the kind of prayers that religious professionals like me pray at worship services and civic events. Such prayers are not really meant for God. They are designed for public consumption.

Public prayers are spoken in complete sentences with proper syntax and noble sounding language - fit to impress humans listening in on the spiritual party line. But Jesus said, "And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward."

Party line prayers are much different than private prayers. My personal prayers are staccato utterances that no one but God could possibly understand. They are filled with groanings, yearnings and exclamations.... and lots of silence.

There is no silence in public prayers. People start wondering what is wrong. It is socially awkward. People feel uncomfortable without outer noise to mask their inner fears. Noisy words keep God at a comfortable distance; "Thee's" and "Thou's" keep him in heaven where he belongs. Silence is too dangerous; it brings God too close. He might see us. So we hide in plain sight through public prayers.

But in private prayer, there is no such thing as awkward silence. Silence is the vocabulary of inner prayer, not just the punctuation. My soul speaks the language of silence, and God responds with silence. In this spiritual dialog there is no such thing as unanswered prayer. Silence is the answer my heart desires, and I am never disappointed. A party line is all right for phones... at least for a two-week vacation. But for spiritual communication, only the immediacy of wordless communication will suffice.