Thoughts: Prayer and Presence

I don’t pray for God to “show up.” 

There’s never any PLACE nor any TIME in which He is not. 

(If he wasn’t, the whole operation of creation would cease to exist.) 

What I pray is for the eyes to SEE where and how He is moving.

I don’t pray for God to speak; He’s always speaking. 

What I pray is for my openness to HEAR, and then the strength and COURAGE to obey. 

I don’t pray for God to be with me; when He—in the form of Jesus the Christ—opted to take on human skin, He did that ONCE AND FOR ALL

His love is not conditional. 

What I pray is for me to live in the reality of that solidarity and love, to reject shame and any effort to try and EARN grace. 

If God only showed up in certain times and places, if He only spoke or revealed Himself to certain people in certain conditions, if He was only with SOME people at SOME times, than (to me, at least), it would mean that there were “special people” that get to experience God, while the rest of us get some kind of lesser experience or portion of Him. 

And that’s not grace. 

So I take God at His word—that grace is REALLY grace (“unmerited favor”)—and that “Good News” (“Gospel”) REALLY IS GOOD NEWS. 

I have all I need, SHOULD I CHOOSE TO LET HIM BE IN CHARGE. 

When all is said and done, it looks a little like this: 

“God show me how You are moving today. I surrender everything: my will, my plans, my thoughts. You are in charge. Guide me, and show me Your will, and give me the strength and courage to follow You today.

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” 

What I Learn in the Monastery 1: Psalms Are For Praying

Many of you know that I take an annual 4 day silence and solitude retreat at The Monastery of the Holy Spirit outside of Atlanta, GA. Over the next few weeks, I thought I’d share some of what I’ve learned in the years that I’ve been going. 

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1.  Psalms are for praying. 

The backbone of a monastic “worship service” is singing (or more accurately, chanting) the Psalms. With five gatherings of worship/prayer a day, they get through the entire catalog of 150 every two weeks. 

Mostly, I grew up in the faith assuming that “psalms” = “songs”. That’s true some of the time, but not all of the time. Many times, the Psalms are actually recorded prayers, and what’s great is that they pretty much reflect the entirety of human experience and emotions (including many emotions that I would personally be terrified to express during prayer).

Initially, it was actually a bit challenging, at least partly because I simply wasn’t used to praying other peoples’ prayers (even if they’re written by King David). I always said my own words. But the more I got used to the gentle rhythm and melodies of the Psalms, I could feel them sinking down into my soul, and what’s more I began to find that I could actually identify with a lot of the sentiments that I saw expressed: I may not have physical enemies like the Psalmists express, but I certainly have internal enemies that are certainly out to get me, and so I could use the feelings towards the physical enemies and point them towards the tapes and baggage of my own life.

In addition, I started to feel an actual security and confidence in these ancient, tested words and prayers. A professor in seminary used to say repeatedly, “The thing is to ask yourself, ‘Can I become the type of person that can pray this prayer with integrity and honesty?’” That phrase resonated with me, and now the Psalms have become a bedrock part of my prayer life.

I Sit

I sit.

It is cold.

I sit.

It is cold and dark.

I sit;

it is cold and dark and quiet.

I pick up two “devotional” books, little nuggets of thoughts to “prime the pump.” Reading the daily thoughts would take about 45 seconds (a bit more, if I’m really tired, for re-reading). Living out the thoughts there would take a lifetime.

But that’s what I’m here for.

I put the two books aside, and take a sip of the still-too-hot coffee.

I check my phone timer, and set it to 20 minutes.

A deep breath, a whispered prayer:

“God, I am here, speak to me.”

Then a slow descent into the silence.

My first thoughts are slowly nudged away, using the imagery of a slow lazy river. I know that if I allow them to drift away, they will leave me. More will follow them, but they, too, will leave if I just release, surrender them to the flow of the river.

My mind is active—I have still-officially-undiagnosed ADD—but I slowly and gently introduce the word that I use to signify my intention and willingness to both myself and to God.

“Grace.”

This gentle back and forth will continue for the next 18 minutes or so: my mind will drift, and I will gently nudge it back by a combination of my will and a surrender to God’s work and presence.

I continue to sit.

Thoughts come: some of them “To Do” items that will wait.

I release them.

Thoughts come: amazing ministry ideas, an angle on a conversation I need to have.

I release them too. I trust that they will either be there waiting for me when the time is over, or that they were not important enough for me to retain in the first place.

Either way, there will be time for them later.

“Grace”.

Redirect my mind back.

I sit.

I wonder how much time have I been sitting?

Out of weakness and a deeply ingrained humanity, I steal a peak at my timer.

I sit some more.

The darkness is spacious, inviting, and eternal.

(Much like God.)

I sink deeper and deeper into this place that requires nothing of me but to be still, to simply, well, be. 

I sit some  more.

Occasionally, I touch something, something that is way beyond my human experience, a wonder and a peace and a grace that is simply overwhelming; it’s amazing how uncomfortable it can be to truly confront the wonder.

I’m thankful that God makes allowances for my human limitations.

But even those transcendent experiences need to be released; I am after something different here. I am after the deep mystery and darkness of God, and so I trade the known for the unknown, the trumpet for the silence, the sight for the blindness.

In other words, I’m seeking pure faith. 

I sit.

The timer goes off on my phone.

(Blessedly).

Who knew 20 minutes could feel so long?

Regardless of my experience in prayer, I thank God. This is an important discipline for me, because one of the central truths of my humanity is that I cannot wholly trust my human experience to evaluate and determine the spiritual “success” of an activity. I simply have no way of knowing what God has truly done in my life; I only trust that He is working.

“Trust in the slow work of God,” indeed.

I rise.

Hurry Up… and Stop

Advent starts tomorrow.

Maybe your “Christmas season” started at 4:30am on Friday morning; maybe it started online on Thursday night.

Maybe you are already running at 150 miles and hour.

Maybe you are already stressed out due to family tensions and too-many-parties.

But maybe it doesn’t have to be that way.

Here’s a reminder: Advent is about waiting. 

If you don’t come from a liturgical background (I don’t, by the way), you may not realize that Christmas actually begins on December 25 and lasts for 12 days (hence the annoying song). The season that leads up to December 25 is called “Advent”, which literally means “the coming into being.”

If you follow the Christian calendar, Advent is a period of time reflect on the significance of the arrival of Jesus Christ into the world.

(Which is kind of a big deal…)

So maybe your holiday season has already begun with a frenetic—even pathological—tone. However, it does not need to remain that way.

After all, it doesn’t take a ton of effort to engage in some moments of reflection and thoughtful contemplation this season.

So here’s my question/challenge: What will you do over the next 25 days to slow down, to reflect, to rise above (or stay below, as the case may be) the Christmas (not Advent) madness? 

What if you set aside 10-20 minutes in the morning to reflect and stay silent (or maybe even begin a practice of centering prayer)?

What if you lit a candle each evening at dinner to remind yourself of this light that is “coming into the world”? (see John 1)?

What if you went through a book of Advent reflections?

What if you chose to read through a Gospel (or 2 even) during this season?

Christians are fond of saying, “Jesus is the reason for the season”, but most of us really don’t do anything to actually act like it. We tend to go about our business in much the same way as the rest of the world.

Could this December be different?

My Thoughts About IS and the Crisis in the Middle East

I thought I’d offer some ideas and thoughts regarding the unfolding human rights catastrophe in the Middle East. They are offered humbly: I am no expert on either the region or on Islam. I have, however, done a fair bit of reading over the years, and I have been “working out my salvation with fear and trembling” for even longer. So I’m writing as a pastor, as a history buff, as an American, and as a follower of Jesus Christ (though not necessarily in that order).

Let’s begin with the end:

  1. We are one body; when one part of the body suffers we are called to join with them in suffering and prayer.
  2. I believe that God is opposed to innocent suffering in any form. Violence done in the name of the religion is the worst form of injustice, whether it’s done in Germany in the 30s and 40s, Mississippi in the 50s and 60s, Belfast in the 70s and 80s, the former Yugoslavia in the 80s and 90s, or Syria and Iraq in the 2013-14. Crying out to God for an end to the violence and for justice to be done is appropriate and necessary for human beings.

Now for the messy part.

 Caution 1: Be Careful of Using the “Militant” Psalms as Examples of Prayer

The psalms are the model of prayer for God’s people. They run the full gamut of human emotion: from joy to despair from thanksgiving to lament. Surprisingly there are more than a few very militant, angry psalms that cry out for God’s vengeance, and for revenge. Psalm 10, for instance, asks God to “break the arms of those who are wicked and evil (v15 CEB); Psalm 54 asks, “Let death devastate my enemies; let them go the grave alive because evil lives with them—even inside them!”

There are other examples; you get the point.

The tension, however, is removing prayers like this from their context, namely that of a relatively small nation (Israel) which is often praying these prayers amidst defeat, oppression, and eventual exile at the hands of larger empires like Babylon and Assyria (later to be Rome). On the other hand, prayers for vengeance take on a markedly different tone when they are uttered from the lips of people of a superpower (In fact, it can be argued that the stronger Israel became, politically and militarily in the Old Testament, the more their troubles multiplied, culminating in exile). The question that has been going through my head lately is Where do predator drones come into these prayers?

I’m not saying we cannot pray them (well, I almost am), I’m simply saying that you cannot transfer the words of Psalm 137 (“Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks…”; btw, where does this fit into the idea that the Bible is “God’s love letter to you?”) into 21st century United States of America.

 

 Caution 2: Be Careful of Making This an Issue of “Christianity versus Islam”

Again, I’m no expert here, but I’ve read enough lately to understand that many (most?) mainstream Muslim clerics are condemning IS as heretical and “not Muslim.” Furthermore, at least a few clerics have outright condemned the “caliphate” that IS wants to establish similarly as heretical (in fact, the whole idea of a Muslim “caliphate” is more complicated than it might seem; it’s not a given that all Muslims want a physical caliphate, at least as its been portrayed by IS and in the press). In my opinion, groups like IS (or the Nazis, or the Taliban, or the conflict between the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda) are really more about politics, and have just constructed a religious extremist view to cloak very worldly (even evil?) goals. If leading Muslim clerics can condemn them as heretics, I’m willing to follow their lead.

So How Do We Pray?

  1. Start with repentance. Calling out to God should begin with an examination of our own heart, and, like it or not, the West (USA included) has a troubled track record in the Middle East of supporting religious extremists in order to bring out a desired political end. We did it with the Taliban against the Russians in the 1980s, and we see where that led us. As this article points out, Great Britain was (directly or indirectly) responsible for the formation of Saudi Arabia, which was in turn established on the same brand of Islam that gave rise to IS. In fact, IS is merely an effort to return the Middle East to the “pure” form of Wahhabi Islam that the the kingdom of Saudi Arabia was founded on. So it’s not inappropriate for us to acknowledge that we have had a had in seeking short term political and gain financial (hello oil!) for the sake of long-term perspective on religious extremism.
  2. Pray for Muslim spiritual leadership to unite people against the violence and heresy of groups like IS or the Taliban. Repression, violence, torture and murder are no more part of Islam than they are of Christianity (there are some nasty parts of the Bible that could be used in some crazy ways if someone wanted; trust me).
  3. Pray for the long-term development and sustenance of the region. The Middle East has a recent history of turmoil and upheaval. Before that (again, hello oil!) however, the region was a leader in tolerance, scientific and literary development. To put it bluntly, young men with no future except poverty and political disenfranchisement can be motivated to do any manner of things. A CNN report recently said that ISIS recruitment relies on “cars, guns, cell phones, and cash money.”
  4. Pray for justice. Now, in this case praying for justice is going to necessarily involve physical, violent confrontation. In all honesty pray for this, for God’s Kingdom to come, for His will to be done, and for those who are killing and torturing to be brought to justice. However, again, I must acknowledge the fact that I pray as a member of a super-power, a nation who can pilot an unmanned drone into a building from 7,000 miles away. We are not Israel. We are not an oppressed minority.
  5. Pray with an eye towards the cross. This throws a wrench into everything. We profess to follow a man who—as he was dying on the cross in the face of his torturers and murderers—said, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.” In their own minds, the Romans—just like ISIS and any number of people perpetrate violence and murder in the name of religion (Islam or Christianity)—knew exactly what they are doing, but Jesus knows better. As we pray, we need to pray, somehow and some way, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.” 
  6. Know that it’s not about praying “correctly”, it’s about praying. The Spirit, in fact, does intercede for us when we don’t know what to pray. There are just a few thoughts to get us started, and to maybe free us from some of the spiritual paralysis that is easy to fall into in situations like this.

This is simply not easy. We recoil at the images and the stories, but we also have to look inside our own hearts and consider the Story we live in: a world that is moving towards redemption at the hands of a King who suffered and died and said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

I’ll close with a prayer from theologian Walter Brueggemann; maybe his words can be yours (and mine) today:

The Threat upon Us

Summertime…when the living is easy.

You give us summer and winter,
cold and heat,
seedtime and harvest,
but summer is special—
grills and patios and pool
and baseball.

We take our ease,
even amid terrorism.
The threat is mostly remote,
and the war in Iraq (or Afghanistan or Sudan or . . . )
scarcely calls us in our privilege to attention.

And then, right in the middle of our easy living,
the bombs burst on the street corner,
on the bus,
on the train.
the smoke, the fire, the shrieking,
the dash of emergency vehicles,
all brought very near, all brought right up
against our easy summer living.

We experience a sinking sense
that the world is not safe,
that our life is not free of threat,
and we wonder where and when next
will come assault on our well-arranged lives.

We turn to you, partly out of need,
partly out of habit, partly out of trust.
We know you to be Creator, who maintains order,
Redeemer, who loves us more than we love ourselves.

But we are so self-sufficient,
we do not easily turn from our ways to yours
And so amid our trust in you
comes our fated self-confidence,
our urge to manage,
our wish for self-sufficiency.

So we, unsettled in deep ways,
want to believe more than we do.
But even now we believe enough to know that your
good way does not depend on our trust.
So be our God—yet again—
this time, and
we will be honest in our double-mindedness
as we turn to you in our fear.

 

peace

+e

 

 

 

Science Mike, The Liturgists, and the Silence that is Saving My Life

Otto Greiner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Otto Greiner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A good friend of mine sent me a link to something he’s been working on with the folks from the band Gungor. There’s a spoken word piece on the power of prayer, and in particular a practice called “Centering Prayer”. This is an ancient form of prayer practiced by many of the church fathers and desert monks. The spoken word piece talks about prayer from the point-of-view of science, and discusses some of the proven benefits of silence and meditation on our health.

This was so encouraging to encounter, because I had discovered centering prayer about a year ago, and it is a discipline that has taken root in a deep and powerful way in my life, and while I’m not a scientist, this approach to prayer has had profound and significant effects for me.

Mike can explain all of the silence behind praying; for me it has been all about me learning to recognize and quiet the pathology that is inside me. The prayer has helped me begin to recognize the lies that I so easily believe:

+ That I am the center of my world.
+ That I have more to say to God than He could ever possibly say to me.
+ That my words can somehow control or manipulate God.
+ That God—and grace—can be understood and controlled.

All of these ideas—in some circles they are known as “the false self”—and more start to crack and crumble in the face of 20 minutes of absolute silence and a quiet mind and heart. They evaporate in the presence of a God who dwell in “deep darkness” (1 Kings 8:12; 2 Chronicles 6:2; Psalm 97:2, ).

After a while, you can even begin to see that God is working in you to heal you, to grow and transform you in something resembling Jesus Christ.

(This is a good thing.)

If you wanted to get started with the practice of centering prayer, I’d suggest a few things:

  1. Check out The Liturgists: either live or recorded and rest in the peace of what they are doing.
  2. Read Richard Foster’s book Prayer, which has chapters on The Prayer of the Heart, Meditative Prayer, and Contemplative Prayer, which are somewhat related.
  3. Read Open Mind, Open Heart by Thomas Keating
  4. Have a conversation with someone who has experience with it. You can sometimes find these folks in monasteries, or in certain local faith communities (Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, etc.).

Two brief words in closing:

  1. Gungor/The Liturgists have taken this meditative approach to worship and prayer on the road, and I’ve seen some great responses to it. If they come someplace near you, you should definitely go, but at the same time, keep in mind that experiencing mystery, silence, and contemplation one time in a theatre or arena is not the same as incorporating it into your daily life. If you had to choose between a daily encounter and a one-time tour stop, choose the daily encounter.
  2. There is a certain nervousness in the west (North America) about disciplines like centering prayer and contemplation, and I suppose I can understand this. My response is first, this is not a new (nor a “new age”) practice, but one that has long standing connections to our faith tradition. Just because it is alien to us in our North American mindset does not mean that it is wrong, or something to be feared. Second, this is merely a way for us to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” Jesus’ work on the cross was complete and takes care of the brokenness that is inside me. That being said, Jesus (and Paul as well) was also passionate about change and growth and maturity. Prayer is probably the key mechanism for that growth and maturity.

I’ll stay silent, and wait on God.

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Eugene Peterson on Spiritual Direction

For a season now, I’ve been pursuing a spiritual direction, and trying to be a better “director” of people’s souls myself.

I was recently going through Peterson’s Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integritywhich has shaped me as a pastor as much as any other book I’ve ever read—with a friend, and re-read what he has to say about giving spiritual direction.

(Incidentally, I think that “spiritual direction”—or mentoring, or whatever you’d call personal, spiritual influence—is one of the most desperately needed activities in our culture. I think much of 21st century North American culture has no need for a bigger, better, faster worship gathering. We need a more sober, consistent spiritual direction and discipleship for God’s people).

So here’s what Peterson says:

  1. Cultivate an attitude of awe with and for every person you meet with. Every meeting is a privilege, and an opportunity to see God work.
  2. Cultivate an attitude of ignorance. We can make assumptions about peoples’ motives and feelings. Most of the time they are wrong. We do better to assume nothing and ask questions. (This is something I’m trying desperately to grow in.)
  3. Cultivate a predisposition to prayer. Prayer is the furnace, and oftentimes what people really want from us is to learn to run the furnace for themselves. They don’t want our advice; they want to learn how encounter God for themselves.