Tuesday, June 29, 2010

How to Pray - Part 6 : Anthropology of Prayer

Theology is what you think about God. Anthropology is what you think about man - human beings that is, both man and woman. What you think about man affects your prayers as much as what you think about God.

I am indebted to the Chinese theologian Watchman Nee for teaching me Biblical anthropology. Nee says that scripture teaches that man is tripartite - composed of three parts: body, soul and spirit. He gets this idea from such passages as I Thessalonians 5:23 "Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ."

This is different from the classic Catholic and Protestant teaching, which says that man is a duality of body and soul. They borrowed that idea from Greek philosophy.

Maybe it doesn't really matter that much. But it helps me to picture these three parts as I pray. I imagine my body as a temple, patterned after the Biblical temple and tabernacle, as the apostle taught: "Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?"

The Biblical tabernacle was composed of three parts - the outer court, the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies. The outer court was where the bodies of the animal sacrifices were offered to God. The two inner recesses brought one increasingly closer to the presence of God.

I could go into the symbolism of the two inner sanctums (I love details like the table of showbread, the menorah, the altar of incense and the ark of the covenant), but that is probably too much information for most folks. What is important is that you take your own inner journey into the body, through the soul and into the recesses of the spirit.

You are familiar with your body with its five senses. The soul is what we call our personalities, composed of intellect, emotion and will. It is what we normally mean by the word "I." It is our ego. (The Greek word for I is ego.)

The spirit is the innermost part of us. Our spirit is the holy of holies of our earthly bodies. The spirit is the inner I. All three parts are I. We are a unity of body, soul, and spirit. But we often recognize only the body and soul and miss the most important part of us - the spirit.

The spirit has its faculties also: intuition, conscience and communion. It is spirit like the Holy Spirit is spirit, except ours is a human spirit on loan from God. It is the breath of God that gives us life - breathed into us at creation. At death "the spirit returns to God who gave it" as Solomon said. At conversion the Holy Spirit takes up residence in our spirit. In our spirit we have communion with God's Spirit.

To commune with God's Holy Spirit, we must enter into the chamber of our human spirit. Flesh cannot partake of the Kingdom of God. Only spirit can know Spirit. "The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God." Prayer is the inward journey into our heart of hearts to commune with the Heart of God.

It takes some practice, but you can find the way. As you pray, go deeper than the body. Go deeper than soul. Leave your ego behind, and "pray in the Spirit." There you will enjoy all the "fruits of the Spirit." There you will learn of God "not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words." There you will meet God.

Monday, June 28, 2010

How to Pray - Part 5 - Spoken Prayer

Francis of Assisi is credited with saying, "Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary use words." I would say the same thing about prayer: Pray at all times; when necessary use words. Sometimes it is necessary to use words in prayer. Words feel clumsy and inadequate when I am before my God, but sometimes they are the best we've got.

The standard acronym to classify the types of verbal prayer is ACTS: Adoration - Confession - Thanksgiving - Supplication. Just like a balanced diet has the five different food groups, the balanced life of prayer includes these four different prayer groups.  If your prayer life does not regularly include all four types, you should probably examine why.

Adoration is praising God for who God is. Confession is repentance for sins committed and good deeds left undone. Thanksgiving is gratitude to God for what God has done for us. Supplication includes both petition - asking God to do certain things for us -- and intercession - asking God to do things for others.

Some people believe that all four elements should be present every time we pray. To me that feels like sitting down to four course dinner every time I want to eat. Sometimes I just want a bowl of cereal or a sandwich. It is important to exercise all four types of prayer regularly, but not necessarily all at the same time.

These are not the "four commandments of prayer." Prayer is more natural than that. It is as natural as breathing or eating. That is why I do not use prayer lists. When I talk to a friend I do not refer to notes; why should I use them with God? I understand why people use prayer lists, but they get in the way of my relationship with God.

I figure that Jesus was right when he said that God knows what we need before we ask. I don't need a script to make sure all the bases are covered. I pray for certain people every day - those closest to my heart. I pray for others occasionally, "as the Spirit moves me" - literally. 

Most of all I do not worry about the people I pray for. Worried prayer is a contradiction in terms. If you are worrying, you aren't praying  - and vice versa. Worry and doubt counteract the whole purpose of prayer. If you can't pray in faith, then why pray? "Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours."

Prayer is entrusting our concerns into the hands of God. Authentic prayer is natural, spontaneous, and heartfelt. Ultimately it is surrendering our will to the Father's will. As Jesus prayed, "Not my will, but Thine be done." That is why so-called "unanswered prayer" is not an issue for me. I am always praying for God's will to be done; how could that prayer not be answered?

In the end even verbal prayer breaks down into groans for me. My memory and my words fail me and my heart pours out the unutterable desires of my heart. "Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words." The Spirit intercedes for me according to the will of God. And I know the Spirit's prayers will be answered.
Art is "Jesus Praying" Sandy Brunson

Saturday, June 26, 2010

How To Pray - Part 4 : Silent Prayer

There are two types of prayer. One is with words and the other is without words. Of the two I prefer the wordless.  I have found that the best way to pray is to say nothing. I seem to communicate better that way. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that God is able to communicate with me better when I keep the chatter down. I use words when necessary. I always end my time of prayer with a few minutes of words, but I prefer not employ that limited form of communication.

When instructing his disciples about prayer Jesus said, "And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words. Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him." Prayer is not informing God of what he doesn't know or may have forgotten. It is not stroking the divine ego or reminding the Lord of his earthly responsibilities. Prayer is getting out of our own way and making room for God.

When I pray, I spend the majority of my time simply being present to God. When I am not praying, I am wrapped up in my own thoughts and concerns. When I am going about my daily activities, it is like I am in a trance. I am caught in the busyness of the personality program that I call me. As George Harrison sang: "All thru' the day I me mine, I me mine, I me mine. All thru' the night I me mine, I me mine, I me mine." During prayer I wake up from the trance.

Prayer is the time to turn off the "I Me Mine" solo and listen to God's tune. God's song is not difficult to hear. It is playing all the time in the background. All of life is God's song. Nature sings it. Humans move to it. It is the harmony of everything. Our problem is that we don't pay attention to it.

Most people have not paid attention to it for so long that they do not even notice it playing. It is like people are tone deaf. They have tuned out God's voice. Prayer is bringing God's background music to the foreground and allowing our miserable melodies to fade into the background.

I like to describe it as Presence. It is like when you are busy doing something and you become aware that someone has entered the room, but you haven't turned to greet them yet. Prayer is turning around to greet God, who has been here all the time. God is present everywhere always. We are just not conscious of his presence. Prayer is paying attention to the God whom we normally ignore.

When you pray, stop paying attention to your own thoughts and pay attention to God. God speaks in a still small voice, so you have to listen carefully. That means you have to stop listening to yourself. You can't stop your mind from thinking. I have tried that; it doesn't work. Your mind will keep spewing thoughts no matter how much you tell it to stop. It is best to let your mind babble, but just ignore the babblings. Move your attention from the inner dialogue and to God's silent presence.

It is that simple ... and that difficult. In the presence of God I am sane. My normal state of consciousness feels like a form of insanity in comparison. In silent prayer I wake up. I am conscious in a way that makes my normal waking state feel like sleep. I am mentally aware in a way that makes normal awareness feel like unconsciousness. This awareness of the all-consuming presence of God is the most profound form of prayer. 
Art is "Silent Prayer" by Lisa Gao, Oil on canvas

Friday, June 25, 2010

How To Pray - Part 3 - The Basis of Prayer

Prayer begins before we ever kneel or sit to pray. It begins with our theology. Everyone has a theology. You might not be able to articulate it, but you have one. You can feel it working when you begin to pray. Your theology either facilitates your openness to God or hinders it.

Theology is what you think about God. If you think God is far away, your prayers will never reach God. If you think you need special words or holy thoughts to be heard by God, then your words and thoughts will keep you from God. If you believe that God judges you for your sins, then your guilt will separate you from God. If you think God is obligated to answer your prayers, then your self-righteousness will keep you from God.

Different religions have different bases for prayer. I will not debate them here. As a Christian the basis on which I approach God is Christ. I pray in Christ through Christ for the sake of Christ. That is what it means to prayer in the name of Jesus. It does not mean to add "in Jesus' name" as an addendum. Christ is the "all in all" of prayer.

As Patrick of Ireland prayed: "Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me. Christ beneath me, Christ above me...." Christ alone is my theology of prayer.

Christ prays in me through me for me. When I am in prayer "it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me." I have access to God through Christ. I have "boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh."

When I shut the door of my room to pray, another door opens. I close the door to the distractions of the world, and Christ opens the door to heaven. While "in the Spirit" on the island of Patmos, the apostle John says, "I saw a door standing open in heaven." Jesus says, "I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it."

The blood of Christ has completely taken away the sins that separated me from God. There is no barrier between earth and heaven. The Kingdom of God is here now. I experience this spiritual reality as clearly as I see physical objects. The death of Christ has removed every barrier to intimacy with God. Every doubt and fear that can hinder my approach God has been dealt with - once for all - in the death of Christ.

With Christ as the basis of prayer, I open my heart to God confident that no power in heaven or earth can separate me from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus. By the sacrifice of Christ, my soul is an open door into the throne room of God. There is no fear, no doubt, no barriers. Just communion with the Lord who loves me so much that he gave his life for me. "If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?"

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

How to Pray - Part 2 : The Place of Prayer

Once you have decided to begin a discipline of prayer, you need a place to pray. It is true that you can pray anywhere anytime. In fact the apostle Paul urges us to "pray without ceasing." But it is also important to spend some "quality time" alone with God each day. It is best to reserve a regular time and place each day for prayer.

Jesus instructs us, "But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly."

Privacy seems to be an issue with Jesus. It fosters honesty with God and ourselves. That does not mean you can't pray with people at other times, but one's primary practice of prayer needs to be solo. Prayer is a private audience with God.

I set aside a time - normally in the early evening or late afternoon - to pray. I also do spiritual practice in the mornings after breakfast. But that early session is spent more in reading, thinking, and writing than praying. Bible and devotional reading are helpful, but they can easily crowd out prayer. There needs to be a time reserved exclusively for direct communion with God.

I go into our spare bedroom, which also doubles as a study. I notify my wife that I will be incommunicado for the next half-hour or more, and I shut the door. Then I do nothing but pray to my Father in secret.

I do not answer the phone. I do not read scripture. I do not take notes on anything I discover during prayer... no matter how earth-shattering my insights might seem to be. I figure if my ideas are really that important I will remember them later. This prevents me from turning my prayer time into a brainstorming session.

I prefer to kneel during prayer. The posture of prayer is a cultural thing. The Bible describes people standing to pray; that is the Jewish custom. Eastern cultures sit during prayer and meditation. I recently saw a photo of the Dalai Lama lying prostrate before a statue of the Buddha in the traditional Tibetan posture of prayer. Personally, kneeling inclines my mind and heart to an attitude of worship, submission and receptivity.

I use a kneeling bench that I built ten years ago out of 2x10 pine boards when I was receiving training in spiritual direction at the Shalem Institute. With this simple stool I can sit in a kneeling position without having the whole weight of my body on my knees and legs. This way I can kneel for an extended period of time without discomfort. It also naturally straightens my back and neck, so I am both comfortable and alert.

I also use a timer. I have an app on my old Palm Pilot called a Doan Meditation Timer. There are such programs for iPods, iPhones and iPads. After 30 minutes a chime gently sounds, reminding me how long I have been praying. You may not want to use a timer. Personally I easily lose track of time during prayer. I find myself wondering if I have been praying for an hour or only ten minutes. This device helps me forget about the clock and not be tempted to glance at my watch. For me 30 minutes is a minimum; I often continue well beyond the chime. You may want to begin with fifteen or twenty minutes.

In a future blog I will explain what to do during this time of prayer. But for now, just go into your secret place, shut the door and open your heart to God. The Spirit will do the rest.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

How to Pray - Part 1 : To Pray or Not to Pray

Prayer has become the centerpiece of my life. Yet there have been times when I neglected this spiritual discipline. I know from my years in ministry that many otherwise "spiritual" people do not pray - at least not very much. Because I believe that prayer is so vital to a healthy spiritual life, today  I am beginning a series of blogs entitled "How to Pray."

The first rule of prayer is simple: Pray. It is of secondary importance how you pray. What matters is that you pray. Just do it. Decide now that you will pray every day no matter what. Make prayer a priority - as important as other things that you deem necessary to do on a daily basis. As important as eating or drinking, working or sleeping, watching television, exercising, reading the news, or checking Facebook.

To say that you do not have the time to pray is a cop out. We all have time to pray. You have the time because you can pray anytime, anywhere, while doing anything. You can pray while driving your car or eating your breakfast. If you can multi-task doing other things, you can multi-task at prayer.

It is certainly more beneficial if you devote a period of time exclusively to prayer. (We will talk about that later.) But for now it is more important that you begin to pray. If you haven't a clue how to pray, just be as quiet as you can for a little while instead. Don't worry about words.

Pray now. Stop reading this blog, look at the time in the lower right corner of your computer, and for the next two minutes pray....

Good. See, you have already started... some of you, that is. Most of you could not stop reading this blog for two minutes to pray. So once again, look at the time and pray for just one minute. Humor me. Do it this time....

Good, at least some of you did it this time. Now decide that you will pray at least that much every day. Decide that prayer is important enough that you will find time to pray every day - more than just a minute or two.

What is it that keeps us from praying? People give lots of reasons, but I think the fundamental reason is that they are afraid. We are afraid of what we will discover. We are afraid of where prayer will take us. We know intuitively that we will have to face ourselves. That is one thing that most people avoid at all costs.

I will be honest with you; the fear is justified. At first you will not like what you see. You will see what you really are, and you will be shocked. I guarantee it. But if you persevere a little bit, the fear will turn to wonder. You will absolutely love what you find in prayer.

But you have to accept the bad news before you can hear the good news. Most people are not willing to do that. We get a glimpse of our real face in the mirror of our souls, and decide it is better to take the blue pill and stay in the matrix.

Most people are more comfortable living an illusory life of self-deception and ignorance than one of truth and freedom. That is why most people do not pray. But if you want to know the truth and be set free, then take the red pill and pray. You will not be sorry.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Temple Guardians

They are called dvarapala. They are the temple guardians that are found - often in pairs - outside temples in the Far East. We see them in the Middle East as griffins or sphinxes in friezes on ancient temple entrances. Even the Jewish temple of Solomon had cherubim that stood on either side of the ark of the covenant. The guardians were also stylized as the two brass pillars that flanked the entrance of the Jerusalem temple. The pillars were given the names Jachin and Boaz, as if they were divine personalities.

In Europe and Great Britain the temple guardians appear in the form of gargoyles and grotesques on cathedrals and other buildings. But nowadays they are more often comic than scary. The guardians are secularized as stone lions or other animals flanking the steps of libraries and museums.

Traditionally temple guardians are ferocious looking creatures. Their origin and purpose are unknown, but theories abound. I have my own theory. I think they represent the fear that humans experience when they approach the divine. Theologian Rudolf Otto called it mysterium tremendum - the mystery that causes us to tremble. The Scriptures call it "the fear of the Lord."

Fear of God is not socially acceptable in the West any longer. Western religion has become a domesticated, rational, and sentimental thing. There is nothing to be afraid of in churches. Even Western forms of Eastern religions like Buddhism and Hinduism have lost the fearsome dvarapala. It has been replaced with political correctness. People are afraid of offending some social group in American society, but no longer afraid of offending God.

"Fear and trembling" is an essential part of the religious experience. Without it, we are playing spiritual games rather than actually encountering the divine.  In my personal experience, there is something in me that fears approaching God. As I approach the holy of holies of my own soul where God resides as Holy Spirit, I instinctively shrink back.

I find excuses not to pray. If I pray, then I shield myself with words and thoughts - anything to silence the Silence that calls me to draw closer. To approach the innermost recesses of God within me is scary. It is like peering over the edge of a cliff into infinity. I tremble.

But when I face my fears and enter the holiest place in the confidence of the blood of Christ, the fear evaporates. Perfect love casts out all fear. The unconscious anxiety that drives so much of my life falls away. The temple guardians become messengers of God ushering me into the presence of the Lord.

In the holy place are love, peace and joy. They are always there in the deepest part of my soul. Only my fears keep me from them. Why are we so reluctant to enter this inner spiritual sanctuary? Because to enter, we must leave our earthly selves behind. That is why the cherubim keep guard. Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God. Only spirit can commune with Spirit. Only through dying to self do we enter the Kingdom of God.
Image is Temple guardians at the Holy Glory Temple in Tainan County, Taiwan.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Captain of My Soul

People have a hard time with predestination. They don't like the idea that they are not in control of their lives - that they are not free to decide their own fate. I saw the film Invictus recently about Nelson Mandela. He sustained his hope for decades in Robben Island prison by reciting Henley's famous poem by that name. It ends: "It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul."

I remember memorizing that poem in grade school. It was a strange text to teach preteens. It is an angry fist shaken at the heavens. Certainly not patriotic or godly fare. It is a statement of vehement self-determinism. There is a strain of this in all of us. That is why we rebel against predestination - especially double predestination - that some people are predestined to salvation and others are predestined to damnation. It feels so ... well ... wrong.

There are variations of predestination that theologians have developed over the centuries - ideas like lapsarianism, infralapsarianism and supralapsarianism. I won't even try to get into those. Basically it all boils down to how determined you think we are. It is not just Christians who play this game. The Eastern idea of karma, which is at the heart of Hinduism, Buddhism and other Eastern religions, is the same thing by another name.

The religious are not the only ones who believe in determinism. I had a friend in college who was an atheist and a Skinnerian (radical behaviorism). He believed that we were animals completely determined by our genetic makeup and our environment. I remember long discussions lasting well into the night where I argued the contrary position.

I watch the animals scurrying around my house - chipmunks, rabbits, groundhogs, birds and such - and I think he was more correct then I realized at the time. These creatures seem to make decisions, but it is all hard-wired. They are completely controlled by their instincts and bodily appetites. Nothing else is going on in those tiny brains. The same is true of the tiny human brains I have observed during thirty years of ministry.

People are animals who only use their "superior intelligence" to rationalize their irrational behavior. I include myself in my assessment. I am a human animal controlled greatly by my instincts and conditioning. I like to think there is a great rational and spiritual decision-making process at work. But usually I know what I want to do; I just need time to justify it to myself. I have seen the same thing in people I have counseled. They already know what they are going to do; they just come to me for assurance.

Where does spirituality come into this? Call it soul, spirit, the image of God, or any other term you want. But there is a transcendent dimension in human beings that is conscious of the other forces at work. I am aware of the deterministic dimension in my body and mind. Does that awareness make me free? I don't know. My guess is that it does not, even though I would like to believe the contrary.

My personal experience and observations indicate that we are not in control. If I were an atheist I would say it is the blind and aimless determinism of nature that controls us. As a Christian I say that the Creator of nature is in control. Complete control. No conditional predestination or temporal predestination - no open theism - only the complete unconditional sovereignty of God over all things. The only freedom I have is within the will of God. He is the Master of my fate; he is the Captain of my soul.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Trapped in a Cult

We are all cultists - not the saffron-robed brainwashed variety, just the garden variety American type. We are cultists in the sense that we are products of our culture. From the moment we were born, we have been Americanized in every way. It determines everything from the foods we eat to the wars we fight. What is not determined by our culture is determined by our biology.

Researches say they have found a "God gene" that determines whether we are religious or not. But the type of religion is still determined by our culture. Notwithstanding the human right to convert from one religion to another, if we are born in a culture we are almost certainly to adopt the religion of that culture.

Because I was born in these United States to a Christian family, it was nearly certain that I would adopt some form of Christianity. In my family culture that meant some form of Protestantism. My other alternative would be secularism - choosing not to be religious - since this is a secular nation in principle.

That doesn't mean I didn't try out non-Christian faiths. To honor the myth of religious freedom, I went through the requisite spiritual search. I explored various philosophies and religions, but in the end I came back to Christianity.

I believe it was the grace of God that led me to faith in Christ. After all I am a Christian, and that is what Christians believe. But I am enough of a scholar of religion to also see my journey objectively. I know that if I had been born in India I would be a Hindu, and if in Burma I would be Buddhist, and if in Saudi Arabia then I would be Muslim. I also believe in the power of God to convert people. I just believe that the Spirit uses cultural forces to do that.

We are prisoners of our culture. This is not only true of religion but of all values. Americans share common humanistic values. We value individualism, freedom and material prosperity. We believe in "certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Especially liberty.

We firmly believe in free will. We have no choice; it is a core cultural value. We believe we make our own choices - especially when it comes to important matters like eternal salvation - whereas evidence points to the fact that our religion has chosen us. We are all chosen people, not just the Jews.

I believe that God has elected me for salvation, that I was "chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world." Why me? It is the sovereign choice of God. Why doesn't God choose everyone? I have no answer to that theological dilemma except to say that it is what God chose.

Those who believe that everyone is saved, that all religions are paths up Salvation Mountain, are just as cultic as anyone else. They have been conditioned to believe this by our culture; they have no choice. It is the logical result of the American values of equality, religious freedom and tolerance.

We are trapped in a cult. No one is exempt. "None are righteous; no, not one" as my Scriptures say. It is a Wachowskian matrix. Only the grace of God can free us. Only when we become aware of our bondage can things change. "Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free."

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Peace of God

There is an old hymn running through my mind today. "There is a place of quiet rest near to the heart of God. A place where sin cannot molest near to the heart of God." It is a place I visit daily.

It is amazing to me how I never noticed this place before. Intent on my prayers I would miss the place of quiet rest. Examining my heart I did not see the heart of God. Worried about my sins I avoided the place that sin cannot molest. Now I see that peace is always present. It is the ground beneath our feet.

Jesus said, "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world gives, give I unto you." The peace of Christ is unlike any peace the world knows. The peace of the world is a peace that is the absence of trouble. Christ's peace is peace in the midst of trouble. The peace we want is freedom from something; Christ's peace is freedom in something.

We look  for peace in the world. "If only this would change in my life, then I would have peace. If only I had that, then I would have peace. If only this wasn't the case, then there would be peace."

But Christ's peace is not dependent on the world. It is right here and now, in the world but not of the world. Nothing needs to change. Christ's peace is as full now as ever. The only thing that needs to change is our attention. When we pay attention to the peace of God that is always present, then there is peace. When we insist on paying attention to everything else, then there is no peace.

Jesus told Martha, "You are so distracted with so many things. That is why you are so upset all the time. There is only one thing needed. Mary has found it. That is why she is sitting quietly at my feet while you scurry here and there, upset about everything. Choose this one thing."

Thich Nhat Hahn says, "Peace is every step you take." There are no steps to peace; the steps are peace. There is no place you need to go, nothing you need to do, and nothing you have to have. Peace is here now, because God is here now. Where God is, there is peace.

The apostle Paul says, (quoting the older Torah scroll of Deuteronomy) "Do not say in your heart, 'Who will ascend into heaven?'"(that is, to bring Christ down from above) or, "'Who will descend into the abyss?'"(that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? "The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart."

Peace is here now in your heart. All we need to do is abide in it. It is peace that surpasses understanding. It is the perfect peace of God. "O Jesus, blest Redeemer, sent from the heart of God, hold us who wait before Thee near to the heart of God."
Image is Rose Window, Chartres Cathedral

Monday, June 14, 2010

Everybody Lies

I am a big fan of Dr. Gregory House, the insufferable physician who is the star of the television drama "House."  He is the most tactless, arrogant, brilliant, obnoxious character I have ever seen on TV. I love it. I have watched nearly every episode. 

I think I like the show because I can vicariously live through him. He does what I, as a pastor, I could never do - tell it like it is no matter what the consequences. Professional Christians aren't allowed to do that. We have to be nice, even when people are not nice. By being nice we perpetuate the fictitious façades that churches present to the world.

But House routinely blurts out the harsh truth. He relishes his political incorrectness, and he gets away with it because he is an indispensable diagnostician in a premier teaching hospital.  Pastors, on the other hand, are expendable.

One of the themes of the show is "Everybody lies," to use House's words. Very often the essential clue to the correct diagnosis of a critically ill patient lays in a crucial fact that the patient or the patient's family has purposely not revealed. People lie and people die.

The rerun I watched last night from 2005 ended with a dying 22 year-old man pleading with his father to tell him the truth about whether he would recover. In typical fashion the father lies to his son's face, "You are going to be fine. That's the truth."  All their lives they had lied to each other; no reason to change at the end.

Dr. House is also an atheist, and he continually challenges the unexamined faith of his patients. That is another reason why I like him. I am a Christian, but I love atheists. Maybe that is because I used to be one. I love talking philosophy and theology with them. I love their honesty and courage. In my line of work I see too many theistic cowards and hypocrites - people who profess faith but live like atheists. It is good to occasionally talk to a person who preaches what he practices.

Everybody lies. That is House's philosophy, and my experience confirms it. Christians lie. Churches lie. Denominations lie. Not just little white lies but big scarlet lies. Why? Because the truth is too difficult to live with. Lies smoothes out the ride, like shock absorbers on cars.

I lie to myself most of all. To be completely truthful is to see ourselves as we really are before God. That would mean repentance and change. That is painful; it is easier to hide and lie - like Adam and Eve in the garden. To be truthful (literally "full of truth") is to see God as God really is, ourselves as we really are, and the world as it really is. That is scary. 

There is a reason why the Bible says that no one has ever seen God and lived. We know that our personae, the fictional stories that we tell ourselves and others, would crumble before the awful truthfulness of God. So we lie. It protects us from God.

Everybody lies, even Gregory House. But he lies less than most. Maybe that is why he is addicted to painkillers. It is his way of dealing with the pain of truth.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

This Too Shall Pass

I went to the Three Rivers Arts Festival in Pittsburgh yesterday and enjoyed a marvelous afternoon viewing the works of contemporary artists from all around the country. I also enjoyed a delicious lobster burger for lunch. My only regret was that I was too full to eat a falafel later. I haven't had a good falafel since I was last in Jerusalem.

While walking through the festival at "the Point," I spotted a tattoo inscribed on the nape of a young woman's neck. It read in script "This Too Shall Pass." It appeared not to be a temporary tattoo, but one that would not pass away until she did.

I wish I had stopped the girl and had a philosophical discussion. But how do you broach the subject? "Excuse me, miss. You don't know me, but I wonder if I might have a closer look at your neck?" It sounds like a  line from Twilight. Anyway, I waited too long, and then she was lost in the crowd.

I probably would have been disappointed by her reasons for branding herself with these words. She may have simply been mimicking her favorite celebrity rather than making a philosophical statement. Now at least I can pretend that she had these words inked on her skin for profoundly spiritual reasons.

The words are ancient, likely first penned by a Sufi poet in Persian. Jewish tradition says they are much older, having been spoken by Solomon. Abraham Lincoln made the saying famous in a speech that he gave before the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  This is how he told the story:

"It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: 'And this, too, shall pass away.' How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction!"

For me the saying communicates the transitory nature of life. I like to think that the young woman wearing these words was wise beyond her years, knowing that her earthly frame that bore those words would one day pass away like all things do.

I take comfort in this truth. It leads me to cherish the present moment yet not try hold onto it. It provides me with hope, not despair. Even though I know that I will eventually lose all things, I also know that they are not really mine now. How can you lose what was never yours?

This brings freedom and joy. Rather than trying to capture the moment by freezing the flow of time, I jump in and enjoy the swim! This too shall pass. How wonderful! The passing sweeps over you like a waterfall on a hot summer's day.

It also means that even impermanence will pass away. Scripture says that heaven and earth will pass away. It will roll up like a scroll to reveal a new heavens and new earth where eternity reigns. As the Lord said: "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will by no means pass away."

Friday, June 11, 2010

Save a Life, Save the World

Gandhi used to say that you could judge a nation's moral progress by how it treats its animals. If that is true then the soul of our nation in on display in the Gulf of Mexico. It is both the best of times and the worst of times for Americans.

Every evening the news networks broadcast pictures of pelicans, turtles and other marine animals struggling to survive this man-made disaster. Yet there is barely a word spoken about this from BP or Washington.

Most of the talk is about money and blame. (The eleven men who died on that rig have been practically forgotten by Day 53.) People talk about damage to the seafood industry and the loss of livelihood by fishermen, shrimpers and oystermen. There is talk about spoiled beaches and damage to the tourist industry. There is much talk about damage to the environment in general, but there is precious little action to save the wildlife.

Those taking the lead in rescuing animals are groups such as the Louisiana State Animal Response Team, International Bird Rescue Research Center, the Audubon Nature Institute and the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. I applaud their work.

The treatment of these animals reveals a spiritual dimension of this crisis. It shows the compassion (or lack of it) that people feel toward the other sentient creatures. I am not an animal rights activist. I eat my share of meat, and I am not reluctant to kill animals for food, health or safety reasons. Neither am I elevating the status of animals to that of humans under the law. But the needless suffering of animals inflicted by human negligence makes me cringe.

When I was a young teenager I read the autobiography of Albert Schweitzer, entitled "Out of My Life and Thought." (Do kids read books like this these days?) I have never forgotten it. He held an ethic of nonviolence to all living creatures that he called "reverence for life." It was drawn from the ancient Indian philosophy called ahimsa, practiced by such religious groups as the Jains, and to a lesser extent by some Buddhists.

This ancient wisdom is worth reviewing in the light of this ecological disaster. It is based on the premise that all life is related. You can't hurt one without hurting all. It is much like the apostle Paul's teaching on the Body of Christ: "If one part suffers, all suffer with it." Only in this case the Body is composed of all creatures and not just humans.

It doesn't take a lot of imagination to experience this interconnectedness of Creation directly. You just have to take the time to really look at a bird, mammal or even a reptile, and you will see a fellow creature. We have shared this planet for millions of years. DNA research tells us that we are all cousins. To hurt them is to hurt ourselves.

There have been editorials recently about the animal rescue effort, saying that it is "a wasteful exercise in feel-good futility" and that the money and man-hours could be better spent elsewhere. But the Talmud says, "To save one life is as if you have saved the world." 

It is not about the number you save; it is about the heart that seeks to save. The Hebrew Scriptures say, "For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart." In that case the Lord is seeing a lot or very hard hearts ... and a few tender ones.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Song of Creation

Christian theology declares that God created the world from nothing, creatio ex nihilo. But the singing philosopher, Maria von Trapp, taught us, "Nothing comes from nothing. Nothing ever could." God did not create the universe from preexistent matter, but he did create it from his words. God spoke the universe into existence.

In the beginning there was nothing, and God said, 'Let there be..., and there was...." The world is the Word of God. Before there was the written word, there was the word of Creation. Rocks and trees, skies and seas, are divine verbs and nouns, adjectives and adverbs. We are surrounded by divine speech, immersed in the Word of God. It is just a matter of translation.

It is not hard to hear what the universe is saying. The psalmist says, "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world."

The apostle Paul says, "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse."

Do you hear it? Of course you do! It is the substance of your being. It is what we are made of. It is a word of peace beneath the wars of the human heart. It is a wholeness that orchestrates the cacophony of our lives into harmony. It is unity that underlies all manmade divisions. It is the word that still resonates deep in the human soul. It is the song of God.

I like to think that there was a lilt in God's voice as he created the world. Surely it was not in a dull monotone that God spoke songbirds into existence! Job says that when God laid the foundations of the earth that "the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy!" They were joining in God's song. Emerson said that music is the language of heaven. Surely the Lord would have used his native tongue to create the world!

Creation is a song. We are a song ... sung by the Creator to the Creator. When we gather for worship it is natural to join in this song of praise. What else could the creation do in the presence of the Creator?

But human tunes are poor imitations of the celestial symphony. That is why we need long periods of silence as well - the silence of prayer and meditation. In the silence we hear the original chords of heaven, the ground of our existence, the song of silence.

Art is untitled work by Australian aboriginal artist Bessy Nakamarra Sims

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Waking Life

I wake up every day. It does not happen in the morning when my eyes open and my head lifts from my pillow. At that time my mind and body physically arouse from a night's sleep, and I start my day. But I don't wake up until later.

Generally I have two times of spiritual practice each day. One is in the morning. It is a simple practice after breakfast - a little scripture, a little prayer, and a lot of writing. Instead of reading devotions, I write them in the form of this blog. I find I am more attentive that way.

Then at the end of the day after supper, I have another time of spiritual practice. That is normally when I wake up. Spiritual awakening always surprises me; it is always unexpected, new and fresh. I kneel down to pray as my old tired self, and after a few minutes I wake up as more than my self.

Until that moment I had been living semi-consciously. It would be more accurate to call it unconscious. That is how different it feels. The mind is active during the day, but the soul is in the background. Then in evening prayer the background becomes the foreground, and the foreground becomes the background.

In prayer I wake up to who I am. It is like coming out of a trace or arousing from a long daydream. It is like waking up to find I had been sleepwalking. I am not just self-conscious; I am conscious that I am more than self and not self. I am aware of God and aware of the world as it is, unfiltered through self-consciousness.

I am more than my personality. I am soul - the bigger self - within which the personal self is just a small part. The persona is like an app; it is software that is very useful for getting things done but nothing more. The personality is a function of consciousness; I am consciousness.

This spiritual self is aware that it is always me, always has been me and always will be me - regardless of what happens to this body and mind. This waking self is not the local consciousness attached to this fleshly bag of bones. This spiritual self is the soul "seated in the heavenlies with Christ." It is the one "chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world." It is the one that is "risen with Christ." It has eternal life that survives earthly death.

This is who I am. I am not the old natural man of the flesh. He died and is buried with Christ. In Christ I am resurrected as a new self. Every day I wake up to that reality. That makes every day a resurrection day for me, a foretaste of that future Day when all who sleep in Christ will arise never to sleep again. I can't wait! Hallelujah!
Art is Primordial Awakening by Daphne Stammer

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Stephen Hawking's Universe

Last night I watched renowned physicist Stephen Hawking being interviewed by ABC News' Diane Sawyer. I stand in awe of the mind of this great physicist. His intellect is said to equal Einstein's and Newton's. I read his book "A Brief History of Time" and scratched my head at an intelligence that can come up with ideas like warp space, warp time, and alternate dimensions.

But when it comes to God, Stephen Hawking doesn't know squat. Listen to his take on theology: "[One] could define God as the embodiment of the laws of nature. However, this is not what most people would think of as God. They make a human-like being with whom one can have a personal relationship. When you look at the vast size of the universe and how insignificant an accidental human life is in it, that seems most impossible."

When Sawyer asked if there was a way to reconcile religion and science, Hawking said, "There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, and science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works."

Hawking knows science, but he doesn't understand religion. From his wheelchair he may be able to peer into the origin of the universe, but he doesn't know the Originator of the universe. He is an expert in the questions "What?" and "How?" but he is clueless when it comes to the question "Why?"

Sawyer asked him if he could ask the universe one question and have it be answered, what would it be? He replied, "I want to know why the universe exists, why there is something rather than nothing." Hawking has no answer. Hawking believes in aliens, but not in God. Why?

God is too obvious. Hawking has a superior mind, but it is not mind that apprehends God. It is soul. Hawking has a great mind, but the mind is a very limited instrument. It is very good at deciphering the complex and difficult. It is stymied at the blatant and obvious. The presence of God is so obvious that it is easily missed. But when one becomes aware of God, this awareness is the most obvious fact of the universe.

Hawking exists in God; that is why he can't see God. In God we live and move and have our being. God is too close for any electron microscope to see. That is why Hawking can't see him. He is the Knower; that is why Hawking can't know him. He is Subject and cannot be perceived as an object.

Hawking expects God to be observable by science. But science is too limited in its scope. He is expecting a God who can be understood; but such a god would not be God. He is looking for a being, but God is Being.

For my understanding of the physical dimensions of the universe I will still look to Stephen Hawking. But when it comes to theology, Hawking's universe is too small.

Monday, June 7, 2010

College Reunion

Last weekend my wife and I attended our college reunion at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. It was the first class reunion we have attended since we graduated in the early seventies. We were never able to attend previous such events because they were always held on weekends, which is a pastor's prime time. Now that I am pulpitless we took advantage of the opportunity to visit our alma mater.

It was not the stereotypical weekend of clichés. I did not wonder why these alumni looked so old. I knew they would look like me ... people pushing sixty. I noticed how different the conversations were among my peers as compared to those of younger classes. No talk of careers or childrearing. There was no competition, no comparing of social status, and no name-dropping of important contacts. These people had learned what was important in life.

It was talk of family, friendships, and simple joys - the things that last. These people had not returned to campus to recapture their lost youth or hold onto the past. These were people comfortable with themselves and the flow of time. These were mature people ... good people.

What is the lure of college reunions? I think it is biological, or at least deeply psychological - the desire to return home. The words "alma mater" mean "nourishing mother." It is a Latin phrase that originally referred to the mother goddess of ancient Rome and later to the medieval Virgin Mary.

There is a deep instinct in man to return to our alma mater, and it is not an Oedipal complex or Freudian neurosis. It is part of our spiritual journey, an expression of our religious instinct. Man is by nature a spiritual animal - homo religious. College reunions prove it.

College is one of those times and places that shape us more than we realize at the time. For most of us it was our first "home away from home." To come back to campus is to return to the matrix (another maternal term) in which we were formed.

It is part of a more profound return. We are earth and to earth we shall return. Likewise we are spirit and to spirit we shall return. As Ecclesiastes says, "The dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it."

Life is a round trip. As soon as we leave the womb we begin our journey homeward. At first we cannot wait to get away from home. Then we try our best to make a home. Finally we begin the long journey home. Reunions are part of that homecoming.

I did not return to hobnob with old friends or see old professors, although I did both. But most of our friends did not attend, and almost all my professors are gone. I came to warm myself at the ancestral hearth, to walk the labyrinthine campus paths that wind back to my center.  For me it was not about the past or who I used to be. I came to reconnect to who I am and who I will be.

Friday, June 4, 2010

A Room With a View

When I kneel in prayer and meditation each day, I face a window that opens onto my backyard. Years ago I chose this setting so that I could look upon God's creation as I prayed. But recently it has served a purpose I never imagined. It has become a metaphor for my life.

As I look through the window I am aware that I am a window that opens onto the world. My consciousness is an opening in an unconscious world. The world is not completely unconscious of course. The rabbits and birds in my backyard are sentient also, but they not conscious that they are conscious. As a human being I am a self-conscious portal of consciousness through which the creation is aware of itself.

As a human being I am a creature, a part of creation. My body is made 100% from the elements of the ground. I am dust and to dust I shall return. As a member of the species homo sapiens, I share 96% of my genes with my simian cousin the chimpanzee. I am an animal among animals. I feel the kinship. I am a creature too.

But I am a human creature. As a self-conscious creature, I look out the window into creation. I am aware that I am a window of consciousness through which creation is aware of itself. I am creature conscious of creation. Through me creation looks in the mirror and sees itself. Through this window creation is aware of Creator. Through this window creation prays to Creator, and Creator answers creation.

Scripture repeatedly tells us that God is Spirit. God has no physical eyes or ears or body. So we serve that purpose. The Scriptures says that his people are the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit. God uses our eyes to see, our ears to hear, our body to smell and touch and taste.

The consciousness of God meets the conscious creation through the consciousness of man. I am a window. I am a being aware of Being. Being looking at itself. What a view!
Art is The Open Window by Juan Gris, 1921 (150 Kb); Oil on canvas.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Being Human

I am a human being.
I am a human being having a spiritual experience.
I am a spiritual being having a human experience.
I am being experiencing Being.
Being experiencing.
I am a human being.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Resist Not Evil

These three simple words, "Resist not evil," are the most difficult of all the Master's teachings. I have never met anyone who has fully accepted them. Even the modern saints of nonviolence - Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. - rejected the teaching. They practiced nonviolent resistance to evil as a political strategy, not nonresistance to evil as a spiritual discipline.

I am not judging these two great men; I made the same choice. I first heard these words when I was 19 years old and struggling with the morality of the Vietnam War. Uncle Sam was calling me to fight, and I was forced to examine my beliefs about the morality of the war. I read Gandhi and King.

It was through Gandhi that I first heard these words of Jesus. "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also." I had never heard them in church, but this Hindu introduced me to them.

Like everyone else I found a way to reject the ancient wisdom. I explained them away in order to ensure my self-survival. The literal meaning was too radical to consider seriously. Only recently, thirty-five years after that war ended, am I starting to comprehend the profundity of these words.

They mean to accept things as they are. That is why they are so offensive. It feels like surrender to evil. It sounds like fatalism. There is a lot of evil in the world. If I do not resist it, then evil will win. Then where would we be?

But Jesus is not advocating moral surrender. He is not telling us to cooperate with evil, condone evil, or submit to evil. He is asking us to think outside the box. There is very little of that happening these days - or any days. We always think within the box of opposites: right and wrong, true and false, liberal and conservative, Republican and Democrat, freedom and oppression, good and evil. We pick a side, hoping to choose the right side.

Jesus is pointing us to another way. Let things be as they are. Do not resist the evil. Without good to resist, evil cannot exist. Only that which you resist persists. Evil only exists in opposition to good. They are two sides of the same coin. If you pick up the good side of the coin, you will get the evil side also. You can't have one without the other.

Nonresistance to evil means to refuse to fall into the trap of Adam and Eve. Refuse the temptation to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Instead choose faith. Choose God. Walk by faith and not by sight.  Be active, not reactive - and certainly not passive!

To "resist not evil" is to trust that God is working all things out for Good. Not the little good that resists evil, but the Good that is so big that it incorporates evil into the divine plan.  As the Desiderata says, "Whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God...."
Art is "Resistance Non-Resistance" by Aldo Saurini, acrylic on canvas, 2009

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Right War

I never fought in war. Every generation of Davis men did, from the American Revolution to WWII, but I broke the family tradition. I had an opportunity to fight in Vietnam, but I respectfully refused. I believed then ... and now... that the Vietnam War was a mistake. It was the wrong war in the wrong place for the wrong reasons. I feel the same way about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But I have great respect for veterans of war, including friends who fought in Vietnam. I salute them. They may have made a different choice than I, but their courage humbles me. They are willing to risk life and limb for country and kin. How can anyone not honor such heroism?

Jesus himself said, "No greater love has a man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." That happens on a regular basis in theaters of war, and that sacrificial love must be honored.

Such sacrifice I respect. It is killing I hate. So does every soldier I have ever met. I am not a pacifist. If necessary I would kill to defend those I love. I would not be able to live with myself if I didn't. But I am just not convinced that self-defense is the reason for our current wars.

I am not so naïve as to think that Al Qaeda and militant Islam are not threats. They certainly are. But I do not believe that the present American war strategy is addressing those threats. Once again we are fighting the wrong wars in the wrong places for the wrong reasons.

There is a deeper spiritual issue. War is a reflection of the war within man's soul. American Cold War diplomat Francis Meehan said, "Men are at war with each other because each man is at war with himself." Until the inner war is stopped, wars will never cease.

The apostle James wrote: "Where do wars and fights come from among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you?" It is the inner battle that causes the outer battles. The war in the human heart is the real threat to mankind's existence. This war is not being addressed by religion. On the contrary, wars are often fought in the name of religions. Crusades and jihads. Gott mit uns.

I am religious, and I have war in my heart. That is what is causing the wars overseas. It is not Bush nor Obama nor the military industrial complex. It is the human heart. We act out our inner wars on outer battlefields. We are fighting the wrong wars in the wrong places for the wrong reasons.

The First World War was optimistically called "The war to end all wars." That was the right reason but the wrong battlefield. The right battlefield is the human heart. The right war is to end war.