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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.

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[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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The Exodus Revisited

 Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” Exodus 3:7-8

This is the story of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. It is revisited in seemingly every telling of their history. Pharaoh made them slaves because he feared their growing numbers. Moses was sent to deliver them out of Egypt, but Pharaoh was uncooperative. God sent a series of plagues upon the people of Egypt until Pharaoh relented, agreeing to let the people go in return for ending the plagues. As they were making their way out of Egypt, however, Pharaoh changed his mind and sent his army after them. Trapped between the Red Sea and Pharaoh’s army, God parted the waters of the sea to allow the Israelites safe passage through. Pharaoh’s army followed and drowned when God released the waters back into the sea after the people arrived safely on the other shore. Once out of the grasp of Pharaoh, the people wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, waiting for their promised entry into the land known today as Israel.

We can read stories in the Bible literally – in this case as a historical reading – or we can seek for an allegorical understanding. I will follow the latter course for this reflection because I believe the story has much to tell us about ourselves, regardless of its historical accuracy. More specifically, I believe the story of the exodus is our story.

Those familiar with the story’s details will recall that the Israelites’ joy of being freed from their oppression in Egypt was short-lived. Life in the wilderness was hard. They expected to be released into the Promised Land quickly, but it took 40 years. In Biblical terminology, that is one generation, meaning the majority of those finally entering the Promised Land had little or no recollection of their years in slavery. More than once, the people felt that returning to bondage in Egypt would be better than wandering aimlessly in the wilderness, waiting on the timing of a God they feared had abandoned them.

There is a story written by St. John of the Cross, a 16th Century Spanish mystic, titled The Dark Night of the Soul. Its simplified premise is that those sincerely seeking union with God will come to a time when they can glimpse what an awakened life would be like, but they are not there, yet. In fact, they are trapped between their old life, to which they cannot return, and the new life they have yet to attain. They find themselves in a no-man’s land that John of the Cross called the Dark Night of the Soul. There is no way out of the dark night except by going through it, trusting in God’s timing and provision.

We all go through various dark nights in our lives, from getting through a difficult week of final exams to finishing an uncomfortable course of treatment for a medical condition. We can see the goal, but we are not there, yet. Dark nights may last for days, weeks, or years. For the Israelites, it lasted a generation.

Many of us, as we pass from the first to the second half of our lives, notice that much of what we worked so hard to attain in our earlier life loses its luster. The image of ourselves that we struggled to build now seems shallow, transitory, and insufficient. The stuff we so desired to accumulate becomes a burden. As we transition into our mature years, many of us long to be unbound from the binds we once so ardently sought. We can visualize a “Promised Land” out there, but we are not there, yet. Like the Israelites wandering through the wilderness, we grow restless and impatient with the current state of our lives, but we feel powerless to change it.

Who and what will we be when most of what we have treasured is left behind? As we age, we seek eternal treasures and shun the non-essentials of earth. Relationships grow in importance. The transition is difficult and can leave us adrift in a wilderness of our own creation. The story of the exodus assures us there is a Promised Land out there, and we will reach it one day – not on our timeline, however, but on God’s.

This is the 17th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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