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Archive for May, 2019

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Praying Together

 Pray then in this way… Matthew 6:9a

Earlier this year I spent several days with a group of Benedictine monks south of Boston. I was allowed to join them during parts of their daily schedule, including the five daily worship services. One part of most worship services was what they consider praying together, which in this case was chanting the Psalms. They sat in two groups facing each other and chanted passages from the Psalms, sometimes one side at a time, other times in unison.

For the most part, I was taught that prayer was a solitary activity – me and God. Certainly, there were prayers before meals and bedtime where one person would pray on behalf of those present at the table or bedside. In church, the pastor would pray on behalf of the entire congregation. Those were community prayers, but it was still one person doing the praying while the others sat in silence. The exception was The Lord’s Prayer, which was recited in unison as a community. With those exceptions, I considered prayer a solitary activity.

It is interesting that the prayer Jesus instructed his disciples to pray was a community prayer. The language is distinctly communal:

Our Father;

Give us this day our daily bread;

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us;

            Lead us not into temptation;

Deliver us from evil.

I have tried praying this prayer in an individual way, i.e., My Father; give me this day, etc., but it feels wrong and selfish. Perhaps that is because I learned it as a communal prayer; or perhaps the prayer loses its power when removed from its communal context. It is also interesting that three verses before giving his disciples The Lord’s Prayer, Jesus says, “But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (Matthew 6:6). The latter prayer process is a distinctly solitary activity.

I suspect Jesus’ message is that both individual and community prayers are important. Nor should this surprise anyone.The community aspect of prayer, however, is the one I find most challenging. Actually, it is my ego that finds community prayer most challenging. My ego self desires a special relationship with God – one that sets me apart from others as a unique creation in God’s eyes. And there is biblical evidence for that very uniqueness (see Psalm 139). What trips me up is that everyone is a unique creation of God, loved and known for their individual traits by our doting, divine Parent. Wouldn’t that make any individual, i.e., me, less special? Although my ego is bruised at the thought, I believe we are all precious beyond belief in God’s eyes.

In his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before his crucifixion (John 17), Jesus prays that we, as in all of us, might be one with him just as he is one with God. There is an unmistakeable communal inclusiveness to his words. In Paul’s letters, he describes us as the body of Christ (see Romans 12), identifying individuals as various parts of the one body. Again, this is not welcome news to the ego self who is more than willing to forego the salvation of many others in order to assure salvation for itself and those it deems worthy.

As I age and the more I read, the more convinced I become that salvation is communal. In other words, we become one with God together – as one body – or we do not become one with God at all, except perhaps in brief awakenings. This is why healing the sick and easing suffering and feeding the hungry and including the outcast – the hallmarks of Jesus’ ministry – are so vitally important for us to continue today. As we awaken to our oneness, we understand that we cannot be well until others are well. And so praying together should be an important part of our prayer practice. It is an affirmation of our unity.

Personally, I recite the Lord’s Prayer as a regular part of my daily devotions. When I do, however, I try to assume the posture of being one part of a large body praying for and with the entire community of my brothers and sisters. No doubt, there are countless others across the globe and through the ages praying it with me.

Jesus gave us a new commandment, to love one another. Praying together is one way for us to fulfil that commandment.

This is the 21st in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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Silent Prayer

 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. Romans 8:26

Most of us learned to pray with words, by which I mean we spoke our prayers. Because language is how we were taught to communicate with each other, why would we not also communicate with God in the same way? It makes sense, and nothing I say after this point is intended to belittle or discourage the saying of spoken prayers. There are other types of prayer, however, that one may find comforting and effective, depending on the need. Silent prayer is one such type of prayer for me.

I have heard various estimates of how much of our communication with each other is actually transmitted by the words we use. A common estimate is about 10%, meaning approximately 90% of the communication received is non-verbal – body language, tone of voice, facial expression, attentiveness, etc. If I tell you that I love you while I am looking at my cell phone, what message do you receive? Certainly not one of love or devotion. The words lose their literal meaning because my non-verbal behavior is inconsistent with what comes out of my mouth. Could the same be true with God – that the words we use in prayer falter when our attitude and body language are not consistent with our words?

I receive regular reminders that I should speak less and listen more (for good reason, no doubt). When I interrupt or say something flippant in an attempt to lighten the mood or redirect a conversation, I send the message that I am not engaged with what is being said. Regardless of whether that is my conscious intent, regardless of what words I use, regardless of my body language, that is the message that will be received. The point is that what we communicate and the words we use are often very different, whether we are talking to a friend, a significant other, or God.

While God, no doubt, is interested in what we have to say, I believe God already knows. The Bible tells us that God knows what is in and on our hearts, probably better than we know. Certainly, one of the benefits of spoken prayer is simply the exercise of putting what is on our minds into words – not for God’s sake, but for ours. Sometimes the very act of putting feelings into words helps define what is troubling us and may even suggest a course of action. On the other hand, perhaps God has a message for us — one we cannot receive until we stop talking and listen. Thus, the importance, at least for some of us, of incorporating silent prayer into our prayer practice.

In my experience, listening for a message from God is different than hearing a message from a friend. I, personally, have never heard God speak in words or with a human-like voice. Opening our ears to God is more like assuming a responsive stance that opens us to God’s guidance. Again, in my experience, an occasional short period of waiting to hear from God is not likely to produce anything useful, nor do messages from God necessarily come at the time we seek them. It is not that God is not willing to communicate with us. The problem is that our distractedness prevents us from being able to receive God’s communications. I find God’s messages arriving as inspirations while I am going about my daily activities. Sometimes God speaks through an inspired thought that enters my head, sometimes it’s an inspired meaning from a scripture passage, sometimes it’s in something I read or hear from a friend. I believe a regular assumption of a silent, receptive posture for extended periods – 20 minutes at a time, once or twice a day – helps orient something within us toward receiving an occasional divine message.

Sitting in the presence of God in silence is more of a communion than a conversation. Saying a prayer with words is doing prayer; silent prayer is being prayer. Both are useful and important. To use only one method is like praying with one eye open. The technique of silent prayer native to Christianity, dating back many centuries, is called Centering Prayer. You can download a free copy of my Intro to Centering Prayer at this link: https://lifeworshipnotes.files.wordpress.com/2019/05/intro-to-centering-prayer.docx

Because God is non-verbal for most of us, finding non-verbal ways to commune with God are essential in establishing a two-way relationship where we seek to listen and not simply to be heard.

This is the 20th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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Difficult Decisions

 I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. Revelation 3:15-16

I learned the most useful life lessons from a professor in graduate school who was effective because of how he taught, not because of what he taught. His teaching method was the same, regardless of the topic. His classes met once a week, and he assigned a number of journal articles about a specific issue every week. Two hours prior to each class, students had to submit a paper describing the issue of the week, taking a position on the issue, and defending their position. The first hour of class was spent with the professor standing in front of the students, one at a time, announcing that student’s position and initiating a class debate over that decision. While this professor was my most effective instructor, he was also the most uncomfortable and challenging. His classes were difficult because we knew that regardless of the position we chose, there would be strong arguments on the other side of the issue. This professor did not care what position we took as much as that our position was reflective of the assigned readings and that our position was definitive and defensible. If a student had not taken the time to carefully consider the options and reason through his or her decision, the professor would quickly expose the lack of preparation to the class.

The difficult decisions we make in life are hard because there are good arguments for more than one option. If there were only one good option, the decision would not be difficult. We have to choose based on the information we have at the time, accepting that our decision may prove less than optimal from a retrospective view in the future. Difficult decisions are a part of every life for several reasons. First, we cannot make a difference in life by riding the fence on important issues. Life gains richness by exploring diverse options and new paths, so we miss much by attempting to live in a small, safe, non-confrontational world. Second, we cannot fully enter a decision by also keeping other options open. Like praying with one eye open, we cannot fully give ourselves to God or anyone or anything else by being tepid when it’s time to make a choice. Finally, we learn to trust in God’s goodness by making bad choices and failing, much more than we learn from good decisions and successes. The latter simply reaffirm our belief in our self-sufficiency. We learn that God works with us regardless of the choices we make, co-creating something good from the mess we often make of our lives.

Those of us in the United Methodist Church (UMC) face a difficult decision. The governing body recently affirmed and strengthened its position on the less-than-full inclusion of the LGBTQ community. It will almost certainly split the denomination, its churches, and family and friends within those churches. Individual congregations, and more importantly, individual members, have a difficult decision to make – remain a part of the UMC as it is currently constituted, or leave and go elsewhere. There are biblical arguments for the position adopted by the UMC, and there are biblical arguments against it. There are good, faithful people who support the position, and there are good, faithful people who do not support it. I believe UMC members, myself included, find themselves at an uncomfortable crossroads and must choose a path, recognizing that at some point, even doing nothing is a choice.

The question is not what the UMC did or will do. It is not even what my particular church family will decide. The key question is this: What will I decide and why? Can I defend my position in a well-reasoned, informed manner? This is a spiritual test, and we will be measured not so much for the choices we make, but for the methods by which we make our decisions. Did we defer to others? How did we prioritize the issues? Who benefits from this decision? Who does it exclude? Difficult decisions call for courage, regardless of the issue. This is not a time to rush to judgment, nor is it a time to be paralyzed into inaction.

My understanding of the message in Revelation to the church at Laodicea, quoted above, is to take a stand, hot or cold, right or wrong. It is time to weigh the options, make a choice, and trust God for what follows.

This is the 19th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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Finding Spirit in Our Surroundings

 Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. Psalm 139:7-8

A primary reason, I believe, we live in such a lonely, isolated, and narcissistic society is our conviction that God is a distant God. We have done our best to contain God in a box that some take out on Sunday mornings, or during times of crisis, or for baptisms, weddings and funerals. There is good reason to fear inviting God into our everyday lives. The most common contemporary portrayals of God are as a vengeful tyrant, watching over us from a high throne of judgment, meticulously assessing our every word, thought, and action, seeking any reason to rain thunderbolts down on our heads or to condemn us for all eternity into a Dante-like (and non-biblical) Hell. As a result, we attempt to wall that God away from our lives, and understandably so. The God many of us came to believe in, however, is more a God of mythology than the God of the Bible and other sacred texts. The latter God always makes everything, no matter how desperate, work together for good, lovingly weaving the disparate pieces of our lives into an unfathomably stunning tapestry. In the words of Richard Rohr, “Everything will be all right in the end. If it’s not all right, it is not yet the end.”[1] While we cannot change what happened in the past, with God’s help we can always change the ending.

In a recent Daily Meditation, Rohr states, “…the greatest dis-ease facing humanity right now is our profound and painful sense of disconnection. We feel disconnected from God, certainly, but also from ourselves, from each other, and from our world.”[2] While it may be our fear of a God we misunderstand that causes us to pull away, the antidote to our lack of meaning and purpose is not separation but reconnection, reconciliation, and ultimately, redemption. The solution is not in becoming less of who we truly are, but more. Fortunately for us, God is always ready to meet us where we are. Again from Rohr, “God comes disguised as our life.”[3]

For some of us, the path to God is not in becoming more religious, at least not in our current practice of religion, but in becoming more human. Human beings, as is true for all of creation, are a product of the physical elements of the earth held together by an ethereal energy we call spirit. Spirit is present in all created things, and it is in connecting with the spirit in others that we experience God’s shared presence in ourselves. Actually, it is not connecting with the spirit because the spirit is already inseparably present. It is in recognizing, or perhaps remembering the connection we already have. When God’s spirit in us consciously reconnects with God’s spirit in another, we awaken to the truth that we are never alone. We willingly give ourselves to others in love, knowing there is complete safety in love infused with spirit. Rohr says, “One completely loved thing is all it takes.”[4]

Fr. Richard suggests starting simple, like with a stone. When we can find God’s presence in a stone we will be able to recognize God’s presence in others, and our experience of the world will transform. We forget that spirit is in every thing. The challenge is to recognize it. We will know when we find spirit in another because we will recognize the unbreakable connection with the spirit in us. In order to find the spirit in something or someone outside of ourselves, it is helpful ask questions. For example: What is uniquely beautiful about this person or thing? What will be lost to my world should this person or thing disappear from it? In what ways does this person or thing mirror something within me? God loves this person or thing – why? What would be required of me to love this person or thing unconditionally? What internal resistance hinders my willingness to love him, her, or it? What message from God does this person or thing hold for me?

In order to awaken spiritually, we must find God in all of the mundane details around us. God permeates every aspect of our life experience, especially the plain, the ordinary, and whatever we consider ugly, boring, or worthless. When we find God there, we will find God everywhere.

This is the 18th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

 Prefer to listen? Subscribe to Life Notes Podcasts at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/life-notes-podcast/id1403068000

[1] Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ, Convergent Books, 2019.

[2] Richard Rohr, Daily Meditations, www.cac.org, May 7, 2019.

[3] Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality. Franciscan Media, 2007, pp. 15-17.

[4] Richard Rohr, Daily Meditations. www.cac.org, April 30, 2019.

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