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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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Staying Awake

 Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak. Mark 14:38

Mindfulness is a popular buzzword these days. Be present to the moment. Be here now. Seize the day. We have many contemporary ways of saying what Jesus told his disciples 2000 years ago – keep awake! In the scripture from Mark, quoted above, Jesus is in the garden of Gethsemane with a few of his disciples after the Last Supper. He goes off by himself to pray and tells his friends to stay awake. He returns a short while later to find them asleep. He wakes them and again requests that they remain awake. Once again he goes off to pray, coming back a third time to find them asleep. At this point, the temple police have arrived to arrest him and begin the events that led to his crucifixion the next morning. In the context of this story, we are the sleepy disciples.

I do not believe Jesus asked his disciples to stay awake because he was lonely. He did not make the request so they would protect or hide him from his imminent fate. Rather, he wanted them to witness what was happening in the moment, to be present to it and see it, to keep awake to the details of what was happening around them. It was a seminal moment for each of them, personally and collectively, and he wanted them to experience it in the fullness of their being. One of the lessons we learn from difficult times is that we must go through our challenges in order to grow beyond them. To go through something requires that we be unwaveringly present to it, whatever it is. When we seek to avoid an experience, we automatically set the wheels in motion for a repeat occurrence. Only when we have acknowledged and accepted what is before us can we move on to something new. In order to acknowledge and accept what is, we must be awake.

Obviously, Jesus is not suggesting we stop sleeping. Rather, Jesus reminds us to pay attention during our waking hours – to the beauty around us, yes, but also to those people and events we find unpleasant, undesirable, or painful. Jesus understands how difficult it is for us; after all, he was human, too. While the text suggests his frustration with the disciples’ inability to stay physically awake for his last moments of freedom on earth, he knows and verbalizes that the “flesh is weak.” In spite of its inherent willingness, the spirit cannot override the tired flesh, at least not for long. The needs of the flesh are too powerful.

We stay awake, we become present to the moment by paying close attention to the information coming through our senses – what our eyes see and our ears hear. Jesus often pointed something out for his followers to examine, saying “Let those with eyes see.” Many of his healing episodes involve blindness – physical blindness, yes, but these stories are also metaphorical pointers a more widespread type of blindness to whatever is before us. Opening ourselves to the full experience of what we see, hear, taste, touch, and smell unlocks the doorway into the present moment. Daydreaming about the future and regretting the past are fast-pass tickets out of the present, as is avoiding what we know requires our attention.

Taking ourselves out of the moment by any of the myriad of enticing ways to do so is like praying with one eye open. We tend not to trust the goodness or completeness of the moment any more than we trust God to protect and provide for us. As a result, we keep one eye open when we pray, and we avert our gaze from the present with an endless stream of diversions. Human nature, being what it is, makes it difficult not to do that! Jesus, however, calls us to transcend our ordinary human nature, not because there is anything wrong with being human, but because our human moments are beautiful, intense, intimate, and rich. Not only do we miss those powerful experiences when we stray from the moment, but God, experiencing through us, does as well. These experiences are only available in human bodies, so it is doubly important to embrace them as the opportunities arise. Jesus’ admonition to keep awake is an invitation to fully experience our humanity, savoring and living every beautiful and painful moment while we are able to do so.

This is the 4th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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Treasure in Heaven

 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Mark 10:21

In this story from Mark, a man asks Jesus what he must do to enter heaven. The man says he has kept all the commandments since his youth. Jesus says the man still lacks one thing – he must sell everything he owns and give the money to the poor. “When he heard this, (the man) was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” (Mark 10:22).

This story is interesting and discouraging. First, the man believed that following the commandments was what was required to enter heaven (as if we could earn our way into that state of grace). Turns out, he was wrong. I daresay, many of us today believe the same thing. Entering heaven is not about following rules, however, but about following the person of Christ, as modeled by Jesus of Nazareth. Following the commandments may be the result of our commitment to follow Christ, but they are not an end to themselves. In other words, the rules are not the goal; the behavior is the goal.

A second point, discouraging for many of us, is that we cannot have treasure on earth and treasure in heaven, at least not at the same time. To the extent that our possessions possess and encumber us, we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. Our attachment to earthly things binds us away from the freedom to follow Christ with our whole being. When we devote our time and resources to caring for and adding to our stuff, we cannot devote the time and resources available to us to serve others. Serving others in need was the sole focus of Jesus’ life on earth. We cannot devote ourselves to two different and mutually exclusive causes at the same time. We must make a choice – one or the other. In the story, the man is shocked and grieved because he had many possessions. So am I, because so do I.

A third interesting and perplexing aspect of this story is that Jesus is NOT talking about heaven as a destination after this life is over. Jesus speaks about the kingdom of heaven as a present reality. The concept of heaven as an after-death destination is a relatively recent theological interpretation. Jesus says things like, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand,” and “The kingdom of heaven is near.” In the current story, Jesus indicates that once the man sells his possessions and gives the money to the poor, at that time he will have “treasure in heaven.” The man is then to go to Jesus and follow him. It is all present life.

The more I carefully study Jesus, the more I realize he is hard-core about serving the less fortunate. I fear we soften his message in order to allow ourselves to feel holier. Most of us in the West make up the wealthiest of the world’s citizens at any time in history. We live well beyond what is required to sustain our lives comfortably. While there is nothing unholy about living a comfortable life, the countless brothers and sisters across the globe lacking the most basic necessities to sustain life should at least concern us. Jesus gave everything he had, including his life, so others could live. Does entering heaven require us to do the same? Of course, our physical death will force the release of our material attachments. Our decision is whether to wait for death before releasing at least some of them.

Make no mistake, I have no plans to sell everything I own and give it to the poor. It is proof that I pray with one eye open, not fully trusting in God’s provision for me. My challenge, and I believe yours, too, is to consciously consider my options with the resources I have at my disposal; if not all, then at least some. If I choose to buy another guitar, making me happy for a time, I simultaneously withhold resources that could relieve the suffering of another for a time. It is my choice. The story of the rich man in Mark is our story. One way to heaven is to keep both eyes closed in prayer – trusting in God – but both eyes open to the needs of those around us.

This is the 3rd in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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Trusting Divine Provision

 When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Matthew 10:19-20

In this passage from Matthew, Jesus talks to his disciples about how to handle persecution. He tells them they do not need to prepare what they will say – how they will defend themselves – ahead of time, for that guidance will be provided to them at the necessary time. The consequences of persecution in Jesus’ day were dire, compared to what most of us experience today, at least in the West. In Jesus’ day, persecution for unacceptable beliefs or behaviors could lead to a wretched death, as evidenced by Jesus’ crucifixion.

Jesus frequently warns against worrying about future events. For example, in Luke 12:22, he says, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear.” He emphasizes that life is much more than the things about which we worry. Worry is always future-oriented, but life only occurs in the present moment. It is not that food, clothing, shelter, and our responses to others are not important, but that it is God who assures the meeting of our needs as the needs arise. Jesus reminds us that God knows our needs. We become anxious when we suspect we might need something in the future and fret because we do not have it now. In the context of persecution, why waste time and energy formulating a response before we know a response will even be required? We only get caught up an a whirlpool of negative thoughts and emotions that have no substance.

Jesus seems to be saying that worrying about a possible future need is like praying with one eye open – it is evidence of our lack of faith and trust in God’s provision. What you are to say will be given to you at that time. Why? Because it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. God lives and works in and through us in all circumstances. We cannot keep one eye focused on God while the other gazes into the future. It is not that Jesus discourages us from planning for the future; rather, Jesus tells us not worry about the future. Worry helps nothing. We have everything we need in any given moment, which should reassure us that we will have whatever we need in our future moments. We absolutely should select a path to follow into the future, understanding that all paths are fraught with difficulty and uncertainty. The future, however, is never in doubt, even though it may not unfold as we envision.

It is a natural tendency for us to want to be in control and plan for future eventualities. Unfortunately (or fortunately), we are not in control. In fact, I think anytime we try to be overly controlling, the universe objects and arranges something to show us how little control we actually have over events. Obsessing over the future only removes us from the present moment, which is the only place we can actually find joy. There are few savings accounts large enough to pay for a serious health crisis; there are few homes strong enough to survive a direct hit from a tornado; no one is safe from a terrorist attack anywhere on earth. Far from a license to live recklessly or with no thought of the future, the reality is that life sometimes brings unexpected and unplanned-for disasters, and God can be trusted for the recovery from those disasters, large and small. In the Lord’s Prayer, we ask for our “daily bread.” We do not ask for tomorrow’s bread until tomorrow.

When we live our lives as if we are praying with one eye open, we live without faith in God’s provision for our needs at the time of the need. Jesus assures us that God can be trusted to provide – maybe not in the manner or time-frame we desire, but God will provide. We can close both eyes, relax, enter the moment, and trust the Divine provision. Admittedly, however, not to pray with one eye open – hedging our bets against God’s provision – is easier to say than to do.

This is the 2nd 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

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