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Praying With One Eye Open

 You shall not make for yourself an idol,.. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God… Exodus 20:4a,5a,b

The book of Exodus records Moses’ visits with God on Mount Sinai. On one of those visits, God gives Moses the Ten Commandments. One of those commandments warns against making idols for ourselves because God is a jealous God. I always found this particular commandment troubling because of the description of God as jealous. Jealousy seems too petty for an all-powerful, all-loving God. I remember jealousy as the product of teenage hormones running wild, combined with insecurity and immaturity. Jealousy was ugly, hurtful, and certainly not befitting of God. Besides, what could possibly make God jealous of us?

Based on my nebulous experiences of God over the years, I think using the contemporary understanding of jealousy is misleading. God’s jealousy, in part, has to do with our free will. No one wants love forced upon them, nor does anyone want to be loved because another feels sorry for or obligated to love him or her. That is charity, not love. Deep love is always offered but never imposed. We can accept God’s love or not. God’s love for us does not diminish because we refuse to acknowledge or reciprocate it. Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-31) illustrates the point well. The younger son turns away from his father, but the father’s love for his wayward son never wanes. God does not turn from us like a jealous, spurned lover; rather, we miss God’s reaching out to us because we are focused elsewhere.

God is described as jealous because our experience of God is fickle. We are so wrapped up in our earthly existence that encounters with God are difficult to recognize. Such experiences are usually subtle and easily missed when we are not paying attention. God seldom comes to us as a thunderbolt, but as the wind whispering gently through the trees or a hummingbird visiting the honeysuckle. Paying attention to God and seeking God’s presence is difficult with our endless opportunities for distraction. Our modern-day idols are not carved images of animals or pagan gods, but are our addictions, smart phones, social media, and television – things that keep us out of a deep experience with the present moment. Our seductive idols draw our attention away from rich encounters with loved ones, including our experiences of God’s love. God is not jealous because we spend so much time with the objects of our obsessions. Rather, God hurts because our obsessions keep us from noticing God’s nearness, which hurts us. God hurts for us, not because of us. It is not so much God’s heart that breaks, but ours that would break if we knew what we were giving up for the temporary high of an idolatrous encounter. There is no permanence or security in our distractions, only a diversion from what matters most.

Lest this sound like a holier-than-thou, guilt-imposing diatribe, I confess my own on-going tendency toward diversion from the present moment. I know I cannot experience God anywhere or anytime other than right here and right now, but I struggle mightily with sincerely seeking God on a more than infrequent basis. That is part of our human nature and not cause for guilt or self-deprecation. Rather, it is an opportunity for spiritual growth. God waits patiently for us, as did the prodigal’s father, and in the context of eternity, there is no particular rush. Our very human obligations prevent us from focusing on God in every waking moment, anyway. It is comforting to know, however, that God is accessible should we need a divine encounter.

Praying with one eye open is a metaphor for not giving oneself fully to God. When we close both eyes to pray, even for a short time, we make ourselves uncomfortably vulnerable – danger could approach that we would not see. We could miss something we want to see – like praying in front of a televised sporting event. Someone might notice and think less of us. Our addiction to earthly affairs causes us to keep an eye open, even though we know we cannot fully give ourselves over to God without loosening the grip our material interests hold over us. God speaks most often in silence and darkness. God’s still small voice cannot be heard over the commotion of our lives, nor will God’s presence draw our attention away from Facebook. God knows we need to turn away from our idols on occasion, close both eyes, and rest in the loving presence of the Divine.

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Pray Then in This Way, Part 2

 Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.

Matthew 6:9-13

Three verses prior to providing the foundation for what became the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus said, “But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (Matthew 6:6a). Obviously, there is nothing wrong with reciting the Lord’s Prayer verbally, and millions do it every week. If God’s language is silence, however, might we be talking over God’s communication with us if we only pray with words? When Jesus tells us to go into our room and shut the door, he may be hinting at another method of prayer. I picture going into my room and shutting the door to mean entering my interior heart-space, where I can truly be alone with God in a safe and silent place.

One technique of praying the Lord’s Prayer without words requires that we enter into the spirit of the prayer. When we understand Jesus’ instructions to “Pray then in this way” as an instruction to live then in this way, we orient ourselves to become the prayer, whether or not we recite it verbally. Here is an imperfect illustration:

    Our Father in heaven. This line sets the context. As Father, or as our divine Parent, we acknowledge our direct, familial relationship to and with God. We are created as children in God’s image and likeness. We can relax because we are family. We belong with God, we are loved by God, and so we enter the prayer in a spirit of familiarity.

    Hallowed be your name. One who is hallowed is holy or sacred. By acknowledging God’s name as holy, we affirm the awe and wonder of being in the presence of pure holiness. We enter the prayer in a spirit of reverence.

    Your kingdom come. We believe God’s work is done in the world through us, bringing forth the kingdom of God in time and space. We enter the prayer in a spirit of cooperation. We may not always know what the kingdom of God is, but we trust it is worthy of our efforts.

    Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. We enter this prayer in a spirit of submission. God’s will will be done. We can resist it, fight it, complain about it, or cooperate with it. Life goes smoother for us when we submit.

    Give us this day our daily bread. We enter the prayer in a spirit of trust, knowing that God always has and always will provide what is required to meet the needs of the day. Our future needs are not a concern for this moment.

    And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. We enter the prayer in a spirit of forgiveness. We seek forgiveness from those we have treated poorly, just as we forgive those who have wronged us. Obviously, to enter the prayer in an unblemished spirit of forgiveness requires significant work beforehand for many of us, doing the hard and humbling work of forgiving others and ourselves.

    And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one. Finally, we enter our time of prayer in a spirit of humility. We recognize our personal weaknesses and tendencies toward specific types of unhealthy temptations. We acknowledge and depend upon God’s power over our areas of weakness.

Praying in the spirit of the Lord’s prayer is to find a quiet place where we can enter our heart-space in a wordless spirit of familiarity, reverence, cooperation, submission, trust, forgiveness, and humility. These are not qualities we can force upon ourselves, nor can we fake them in a sustained way. They are gifts – signs, if you will – developed naturally as we mature in our relationship to and with God. As this happens, we become the Lord’s Prayer instead of merely praying it. Jesus said, “Pray then in this way.” I think he invites us to live in this way. The Lord’s Prayer, then, becomes more than words; it becomes a template for the Christian life. As we learn to live it and not just say it, we pray less to God and more with God. And that is a prayer worth praying!

This is the 37th in the series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

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Pray Then in This Way, Part 1

 Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.

Matthew 6:9-13

Prayer is a consistent challenge for many of us. How do we do it? What do we say? Does God actually listen – or answer? Must we be on our knees? I understand each of these questions because I have asked them many times myself. In his letter to the Romans (8:26), Paul writes, “…we do not know how to pray as we ought.” Jesus says, “Pray then in this way,” and gives the prayer that forms the basis for what we call The Lord’s Prayer. Did he mean for us to pray these words, or did he mean for us to pray in this spirit? I think the answer is both. Sometimes, we need to use words because that is the way we learned to communicate. As we age, at least in my case, prayer becomes deeper and richer in the silence before and beyond words.

What confuses many of us is our need to capture what we experience with words. We forget that words are metaphors. Words represent something, but they are not the thing, experience, or person. For example, I say the word tree and you picture a tall plant with leaves, branches, and a woody truck. But a description of a tree, even of a specific tree, is not the tree itself. The words tell us nothing about the life history of the tree, how it experiences dormancy in the winter, or how it experiences me as I sit beneath it. The word tree is a metaphor pointing to a living reality. In the same way, you cannot know my essential nature by knowing my name, age, height, weight, profession, gender or any other descriptive term about me. When we think we know or understand someone based on a verbal description, even a description based on our interactions with that person, we remove ourselves from the essence of that person. The description of our interaction with another is not the same as the actual interaction. Words, though helpful, are deceptive when we confuse them with what they represent.

Rumi, a 13th Century poet and mystic, wrote, “Silence is the language of God, all else is a poor translation.1” God does not communicate with words. God communicates heart-to-heart or spirit-to-spirit. I can imperfectly illustrate this by describing how I write. I receive an idea or inspiration that I attempt to capture in a song or on paper. The initial inspiration is like an image or an internal “voice,” but it is wordless until my mind latches onto it and begins describing or translating the inspiration, effectively reducing it to words. It happens so quickly that it is easy to believe the inspiration was given in words. Where the initial inspiration and the resulting song or essay part company is in my inability to find adequate words to capture the inspiration. In fact, it is impossible to perfectly capture an image or interaction in words. Everything I write suffers from my inability to translate the purity and beauty of the inspiration into words. The best I can do is to describe a place beyond words, with words that point you to a similar place. The words, alone, cannot carry you there.

We know the words to the Lord’s Prayer, but what would praying silently in the spirit of the Lord’s Prayer be like? I believe it begins with setting our mind and heart with the intention of being with God, as opposed to talking to God. Numerous passages in scripture tell us God knows what we are going to say before we say it. Our words are never necessary, except perhaps for our own comfort. In fact, I believe our words get in the way of entering into God’s presence because we focus on the words instead of the reality pointed to by the words. Reading a review of a nice restaurant will not give us the experience of fine dining.

Jesus’ words, “Pray then in this way,” are an invitation. The Lord’s Prayer provides a nice template for how to set our intention to be with God, wordlessly, which I will explore further next week.

This is the 36th in the series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

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

1          https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/27617-silence-is-the-language-of-god-all-else-is-poor, accessed September 3, 2018.

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Follow Me

 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” Mark 1:16-17

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. Mark 1:35

The childhood game of Follow the Leader consists of one person – the leader – acting in certain ways while the other players do as the leader does. If the leader takes 3 steps forward, twirls around, takes 2 steps back, and then does a somersault, it is up to the followers to copy the leader’s actions. In a way, Jesus invites us into a game of Follow the Leader. He says, “Follow me,” and we are to do as Jesus does. One foundational habit of Jesus, found throughout each Gospel, is going to a quiet place to pray. Some of us pray before meals, at bedtime, and in church with a congregation, but how well do we follow the way Jesus modeled prayer? First, Mark says Jesus got up while it was still dark. We receive so much visual stimulation from our surroundings that darkness is foreign and frightening. Yet, how can we expect to focus on God’s presence when the seductive lure of visual distractions constantly bombards us? We may be better able to commune with God in the dark. Second, Jesus went to “a deserted place” to be alone with God. When was the last time we sat alone, longing only for God’s company? Jesus found solace and rejuvenation in his prayer life. Do we?  Perhaps we are not comfortable with prayer because we have not fully entered into it the way Jesus did. Following Jesus, I believe, begins with grounding ourselves in prayer.

In the context of Jesus saying, “Follow me,” it is important to remember he did not say, “Worship me.” Jesus worships God the Father, the one so far beyond our earthly comprehension that all we can do is fall on our knees in reverent submission. God is unknown and unknowable to the human mind. On the other hand, we can know and love Jesus as we would any other person. God came to earth in the person of Jesus, as one of us, so we could know God through him and follow. There is an important distinction between worshiping and following. We can only worship and/or fear that which we cannot comprehend. One appropriate response as we consider the vastness of God is astonishment and awe – like standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon or tracing the path of the Milky Way on a clear, dark night. God in Jesus, however, was comprehensible. Sometimes we act as if he were not in order to ignore the personal obligation to follow him, which can be uncomfortable and inconvenient. We are to worship God, but we are to follow Jesus. Following is an act of presence, dictated by the circumstances of the moment. The Gospels help us understand what Jesus did in his day and, through that understanding, to project how Jesus would likely act today.

Some Christian churches, my own included, spend a lot of time and energy on issues that Jesus apparently never addressed. To our knowledge, Jesus did not mention homosexuality, gay marriage, women in the priesthood, or practicing LGBTQ persons serving as clergy or being welcomed into Christian fellowship. Regardless, these issues define and divide many churches today, both between denominations and within congregations. I suspect these divisions in the church named for him make Jesus weep. Remember, there were no “Christian” churches in the time of Jesus, who was a Jew. The followers of Jesus formed the Christian church because they desired a new forum within which to more faithfully follow him. How far have we strayed from following our leader?

Most of what we know of Jesus’ actions on earth fall into the categories of loving, teaching, healing, or including. He brought acceptance and grace where there was judgement and condemnation. He gave knowledge where there was ignorance, and healing where there was illness. He reached out to those condemned to the outskirts of society and brought them in. What does it mean to follow Jesus? One thing it means is for us to provide love, knowledge, healing, and inclusion wherever we find hatred, ignorance, illness, and exclusion. To do so requires a centered presence with and attentiveness to the life around us. A regular practice of quiet time alone with God, as Jesus modeled, is a good place to begin.

This is the 35th in the series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

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

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