Tag Archives: prayer

If you lost Jesus, start by looking in your desires

It is a familiar post-pandemic story. “When I was locked away from people, bombed by loss, steeled against what seemed like an inevitable disease, my faith dribbled away like I had a leak in my soul. “

Some people had the exact opposite experience, of course. The solitude of the season was like fallow ground for them. When they got out from behind their masks they felt renewed and refocused on what is important. They bloomed.

It is not uncommon, however, to hear people tell a different story. When they got back to church, it was gone. People were divided over whether it was safe to meet. About a third of the people had disappeared. The pastors were often exhausted — they went through a pandemic, too! But now they were supposed to present what used to be with less people and less money. What’s more, so many churches chose the pandemic to take a scathing look at their racism, homophobia and patriarchal tendencies. The post George Floyd movement had just gotten to the church when the virus hit and could not be postponed. So when people came back to their community bearing their griefs, with new anxieties to face and thirsty for love, they were surprised by the coldness and suspicion with which they were met. It is like the whole country got strangled, wrung out and did not have a lot to give.

So a lot of people are not in church anymore. And of those people who are wandering, a lot feel they have lost Jesus. They are in the dark. At worst, I think they are holing up and hoping nothing worse happens. At best, I think they are looking for lost desires to be met. If the latter description fits you, hold on to those desires, they will probably see you through.

Befriending our desires

In his book Befriending Our Desires, Philip Sheldrake encourages us to attend to the desires that either drive us to despair or drive us to overcome the unnecessary limitations of our present circumstances.

Desire haunts us. You could say that desire is God-given and, as such, is the key to all human spirituality. Desire is what powers our spiritualities but, at the same time, spirituality is about how we focus our desire. At the heart of Christian spirituality is the sense that humanity is both cursed and blessed with restlessness and a longing that can only be satisfied in God. It is as though our desire is infinite in extent and that it cannot settle for anything less. It pushes us beyond the limitations of the present moment and of our present places towards a future that is beyond our ability to conceive. This is why the greatest teachers of Christian spirituality were so concerned with this God-filled desire and with how we understand it and channel it

In a time when so many of us feel like we did not get what we want and are not getting what we want, what do we do? Do we turn off our desires? distract ourselves even more? turn to law instead of grace to circumvent desires?

First of all, those questions are probably answered by considering how you see God. Is God full of desire? Some theologians have presented God as a sexless, “ground of being” or an abstraction like the “unmoved mover.” I say those are very weak views, when the love of God is poured out so wantonly in Jesus. God wants us, desires relationship with us. His delight in us reveals infinite enjoyment. Is your God full of desire?

On the human side of viewing God, many say the goal of all human desire is God. So does this mean that all other desires are a distraction? That has often been taught. Does it mean I should be celibate so sexual desire does not get in my way? Many monks have thought so. Or is God met at the heart of all desire? That might seem suspicious to you if you have been suppressing your desires for Jesus. But I think a thoroughly Christian, incarnational answer is Jesus is the heart of desire. C.S. Lewis is famous for saying:

It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. ― C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, and Other Addresses

Proven ways to find Jesus again

New prayer

Ignatius Loyola taught that prayer, our basic connection with God, was all about focusing our desire. Many of my clients bump up against that thought like a wall. They don’t know what they desire. Or they know what they spend their life chasing would not satisfy them if they finally got it. They think they must either ramp up the chase or quit. The pandemic stripped away a lot of what we could get, it took away years of time and took the lives of loved ones. Many of us are still at the bottom of all that and feel we can’t even find Jesus. That’s a good time to pray, if you are with Ignatius in his cave, when you aren’t asking for a new job or just asking to stop doing self-destructive things. When we are wrestling with desire we may come to know how our desires connect with God’s.

Waiting

Some people say as they age, old ways and images wear out and they feel alone in a new kind of darkness. Where is the Jesus I knew? I know after my church reneged on agreements and exiled me, I felt adrift without my church. I was not prepared for that! I am not alone. The surprising new post-Covid statistic is older people are leaving the church in great numbers. They were the mainstays! But one does not need to feel old to feel a bit lost these days.

Many spiritual writers see this kind of wandering in the dark as a ripe, meaningful, realistic place to be. A dryness of experience means you feel what showers of blessings would be like if it rained, not that you don’t care. The loss of previous images and experiences of God, leads into a darkness or an “unknowing” in which desire alone becomes the force that drives us onwards. For Julian of Norwich, “longing” and “yearning” are key experiences in our developing relationship to God. Likewise, the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing says, “Now you have to stand in desire all your life long” (Chapter 2). Now is the time to stand open-handed and open-hearted, not assuming that we know best or that we know anything very much. Now is the time to wait in trust, to be like Mary asking the angel, “How can this be?” Waiting is one of the hardest lessons for the serious seeker after God. When we stand in desire we are ready to struggle. We are anticipating a change in  perspective and waiting in trust for God to act in us.

Discernment

Our desire reveals how incomplete we are. The pandemic stripped a lot of us down to our basic desires, like people often talk about when they have narrowly escaped death and now know what is most important (and it is not the 401K). Our desires highlight what we are not, or what we do not have. So desire cracks us open to possibility. It forces us into the future. You might see it in terms of sex, to which desire is often restricted. An orgasm is a wonderful, physical, mutual, experience of now – desire satisfied! But it also feels transcendent. Desires ground us in the present moment and at the same time point to the fact this moment does not contain all the answers or everything we need or want. Discernment is a journey through desires – a process whereby we move from a multitude of desires, or from surface desires, to our deepest desire which contains all that is true and vital about us. If you are missing Jesus, I’d start the search there.

Change

I’ve said quite a few times that living in the U.S. and following Jesus is very hard. Americans take perfection to an extreme and we have the money to make it happen. If desire is all about openness, possibility and a metaphor for change, what does that do to our ideals of perfection and to a God who “changeth not?’ Get the job done. Make it work. Just do it.

For many of us, life is supposed to be organzied and predictable. For most people, I think heaven is pretty static like that. It is where things get finished and we get all that matters to us. The afterlife is all “eternal rest” and no more tears. People see it as freedom from desire because there is no need for “more” and because the sexual connotations of desire are overridden by union with God.

But no one can perfectly know what “eternal life” ultimately means. I don’t see the age to come as an endless, static existence with the unmoved mover. I think it will be more like life with the Creator we encounter day by day. Eternal life will surely have a dynamic quality to it, a life in which we shall remain beings of desire.

Thomas Traherne (d. 1674) is often considered as the last of England’s “metaphysical poets,” which includes John Donne and George Herbert. Most of his poetry remained unknown until 1896, when two of his manuscripts were discovered by chance in a London bookstall. This first stanza of Traherne’s poem “Desire” begins with praise to God for the desire that promises Paradise and burns with the presence of it in the here and now.

For giving me desire,
An eager thirst, a burning ardent fire,
A virgin infant flame,
A love with which into the world I came,
An inward hidden heavenly love,
Which in my soul did work and move,
And ever, ever me inflame,
With restless longing, heavenly avarice
That never could be satisfied,
That did incessantly a Paradise
Unknown suggest, and something undescribed
Discern, and bear me to it; be
Thy name for ever prais’d by me.

To find the Jesus you may have recently lost, step away from politics, processes and problems long enough to let your desires rise and then befriend them. Take them seriously like they matter, like you matter. Don’t follow the first blush of reality they hint at, but listen to them and let them lead you deeper into what is at the heart of life and the heart of you.

The hidden work of healing in psychotherapy

When I wrote my dissertation, I had the joy of flying here and there to meet with Christian therapists who formed counseling centers associated with churches. One woman in Chicago was having an awkward time talking about how church life integrated with her professional life. She hadn’t shared very much about how her faith informed her psychotherapy and she hadn’t heard much about what her colleagues thought about it. She sheepishly admitted, “I pray for my clients every day. Do you think that is OK?”

What do you think? Is it OK?

As a client, you may need to talk this over with your therapist, if you want your faith taken seriously. Maybe they don’t pray for you. You may also need to talk to them if that’s an area you did not expect to be a part of therapy, or you don’t want it to be, or you can’t trust them with it. The integration of Christianity/spirituality and psychotherapy is not clear for many people, some therapists included.

This has only happened once, but it did happen when a couple came in for marriage counseling. It was apparent the husband was not feeling it. Arms crossed. Short answers to begin with. But we seemed to be getting somewhere. We made another appointment. But the wife called me the next day and said, “He looked at your website and it looks like you are Christians. He can’t handle that. Thanks anyway.” I still think about that. Circle Counseling is a means for many churches to do the work of healing. But some will not be able to handle the thought that I might be praying for them!

Honestly, given the reputation of Christians these days, I might feel like that man who never came back — I mean, the Russian Orthodox Church is sponsoring a war right now! The MCC Rep for Korea gave an amazing report the other night about our peacemaking efforts there; but he had to note how the South Korean churches are dominated more by capitalism, nationalism and anticommunism than they are patiently and deliberately fermenting the hearts and minds of people into new wine. Christian psychotherapists don’t always know what they are doing either. Even though the guild guidelines include competency in spirituality these days, the teachers seem to sideline it more and more. I think many therapists leave their faith outside the door to their office.

We are healers

Various conversations about prayer and counseling made me want to clarify what I think I am doing. I realized I have an assumption that has kind of been hidden, since I am concerned about people who might walk out of my office at the least hint of Jesus. (That happened once in ten years, and I have not forgotten!). I may not advertise the “contemptible” name Christian, too much but I definitely am a healer in the name of Jesus.

Some people do not think psychotherapy “qualifies” as a healing profession. That’s for actual doctors. I admit I was concerned I might be asked what kind of healing profession I was in when I dashed over to the convention center with all the other health workers to get the vaccine when it first came out. I was afraid I might get a “You are not what we meant” look. But as the mental health crisis deepens in the U.S. I believe, more than ever, we need Jesus to heal us, heart, soul, mind and body.

Back in the 80’s our community took a field trip to the first Vineyard church, led by John Wimber. His congregation separated from Calvary Chapel when they took the call to follow Jesus literally and reluctantly decided that call meant healing people like Jesus did. This conviction was not new at all in the history of the church, but it seemed new to them.  After a lot of failure, a woman was healed, much to Wimber’s surprise. He was in the act of explaining to her husband why not all people are healed but the husband was looking over his shoulder at his wife getting out of bed!  An outbreak of healings and other experiences with the Spirit followed.  The population of the church boomed. Wimber called their new ministry “power evangelism” – people came to faith because they encountered the living God.

The first disciples described in Acts demonstrate the same conviction. I think all Jesus followers have a part to play in healing individuals, societies and the creation. “Power evangelism” is an improvement over “God is not answering the phone anymore;” but it also strikes me as the kind of thing an American would invent and package. Americans tend to think power is their birthright or their birthright has been stolen, one or the other. And don’t get me wrong, I think encountering the Spirit among the people of God in Yorba Linda is great. But Jesus did a lot more work in a hidden way than as a rally leader. He was fermenting new wine more than just crushing grapes.

Hidden spiritual work

Another therapist I interviewed in California during my research had a Bible on her office table and told me she usually prayed with her clients.  I was surprised! I was so circumspect, myself, a person would have to go to the website to find out I was a Christian before they asked me. And many people never find out. I don’t think they need to deal with whatever the Bible symbolizes to them or whatever a white, Christian, male might symbolize to them before we get there.

But I do pray for them. As a Jesus follower, it might be malpractice for me not to pray for my clients! I don’t remember ever praying with one. But I can’t help praying for them. I come with the One who comes with “healing in his wings.”

My work, like the ministry most Jesus followers do, is more along the lines of Matthew 6:6: But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” There is a “hiddenness” to the work of the Spirit. Like it is often said, the work of the Spirit is like salt in your dinner, or yeast in your bread dough, or a breeze coming on you when you sit on your stoop in August, entering in and invisibly changing things.

Healing is more patiently, deliberately fermenting; it is much more about love than power. The church and the counseling center are crucial vehicles for the transformation of the individuals and the whole world but Jesus does the healing. We never see just exactly how he does it.

Ripe in their time

When I am with clients, my prayer is less like an event and more like a presence. I am a living prayer. I am the presence of God’s love. Another interviewee in my research project was not sure what would happen to her if she revealed to her colleagues how she loved her clients. “How could I not?” she asked. I can’t help it, either. And why, in Jesus’s name, would I? As they enter and as they leave (or after I click them in and out of Zoom!), I intercede for them. Sometimes I wake up in the night and feel like praying some more. God is healing all the time. The unceasing prayer I embody is part of the Sprit’s work.

I’ve never had anyone ask me to pray for them. I hope that is because they get the idea what we do is not about me. It’s not about my special prayer. Not about my power. They have access to whatever power they need. The Spirit of God is with them and for them just as I am with God and I am with them and for them. If they did ask me to pray before they left (after they visited the website, I guess), I think I would say, “I’m not sure about that. We can explore it some more next time.”

Write your own psalm: Another integrative way to pray

Matthew Birch on Dribble

An effective way to develop, if you are able to write, is to write. Writing is another integrative activity that helps us deepen psychologically and spiritually. It takes strength and mind to pick up a writing utensil or sit down at the keyboard and express ourselves. If turned the right direction, writing expresses heart and soul in a way that makes our feelings and our spiritual experiences more tangible and more connective. If you are interested in loving the Lord, your God, with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, then it makes sense to take out the headphones or put down the remote and write.

I know that last line sounds accusatory, so please forgive me if you must. But we have to acknowledge that what used to be simple is getting harder for lack of use. It feels hard, even weird, to write. Writers write and we consume their product. But we don’t write back. Someone told me last week that their family member wouldn’t even text back to a family group text! — writing is too something for them. Our capacity is being reduced by the technologies we use and the slave masters behind them. So writing has become an exercise in nonconformity or rebellion — if we aren’t too dulled or afraid to do it.

I suppose I am innately rebellious, but I mostly use writing to keep open to God. For me, writing is about opening things up, exploring things, revealing things, and receiving things of the Spirit. Receiving things is what I mainly want to talk about today. I was reading Teresa Blythe’s very practical book 50 Ways to Pray and she started by suggesting we use writing to pray. Other Jesus followers have written wonderful things, the New Testament being primary, and you could exercise the same Spirit and intention those writers exercised by writing yourself! Let’s try that.

Create your own psalm

One of the ways Blythe suggested praying was to write your own psalm. She offered an exercise to help us create one. This appealed to me because I have been writing pslams, with my dear wife, for many years. Most Sundays we get up and write a psalm. Then we share it with each other and pray together. If I am not with her for some reason, I do it anyway. It is a good way for me to pray. There is so much heart, soul, mind and strength involved in that loving, open receptive act! I would have a terrible time parting with the discipline.

This past week I was reflecting on songs that had moved me and sustained me in my grieving. I wrote this final stanza to my psalm:

I thank you that Spring
will be right on time again,
and though my sprouts
will never be the same,
they will, in time, sprout again.
Parents, grandparents,
and so many have died,
my past is gone
and soon go will I.
Maybe they are waiting,
I will then know, in the place
where the lost things go.

When I feel a bit lost,
lose things, lose thoughts,
I delight in your touch.
A whiff of music scents my soul
And pulls my attention
like Spring in the air.
I turn into it expectantly
and meet you there.

My psalm is not high art, even after I have fixed it up a little from my original.  I never meant to show it to you, anyway. Most psalms are not written for public use; they are a way to connect with God, a way to open up, to use some strength on behalf of what’s happening inside, to get it out, to get it heard. Writing a psalm is much more like your baby or your dog, for that matter, making sure you know it is time for dinner than it is about doing good art. It’s following an urge. Besides, God’s great art is you. When we function spirit to Spirit with him, she sees a piece of art in action. A beautiful rendition of your best is frosting, but everything you do with heart, soul, mind, and strength is cake.

My wife can write a nice psalm that reflects the basic structure of the Bible psalms, which tend to repeat thoughts rather than sounds to make a lyric. Lots of people have written about how they work. Here’s a little article.  Robert Alter wrote his great work on the Psalms; I have poured over it to good end. Walter Brueggemann wrote one of my favorite books about how the Bible psalms work. But Teresa Blythe is not suggesting a prayer pursuit that feels like what scholars do. She just wants us to practice getting our heart and soul through the blockade of our minds and expressed with our strength. Writing a psalm is good practice for a life full of that love. She says “It doesn’t matter whether you think of yourself as a writer or not. This is heartfelt communication, not an exercise in pretty writing.”

The Bible’s collection of Psalms reflects the thoughts of the collectors at the time. There were undoubtedly more psalms and there is demonstrably more poetry in the Bible that might qualify as a psalm. All of it can serve as inspiration for your psalm, if you need some. Blythe made a list of psalms you can go to if you feel a certain way and want to express it,  or need to be seen as feeling  a certain way and are looking for a response. Of course, no psalm was written topically, like “I am going to write a psalm about joy.” They are all pretty organic, not abstract. But many are well known for the parts of them that always resonate. I edited Blythe’s list a bit for you:

I feel or want this positive experience. “I’m happy.”

  • Joy – 11, 18, 23, 27, 33, 84, 87, 103, 112, 122, 150
  • Peace, — 23, 63, 103
  • Love – 33, 62, 99, 103, 104, 139, 145
  • Gratitude – 30, 32 65, 75, 77, 103, 118, 136

I feel or want relief from this negative experience. “I’m needy.”

  • Fear – 86, 130, 131
  • Anger – 55, 58, 94
  • Threatened – 17, 26, 35, 69, 141
  • Distressed – 29, 42, 44, 71, 88, 109, 113
  • Sick – 22, 37, 72
  • Uncertain – 25, 37, 72
  • Oppressed – 26, 52, 114
  • Guilty – 39, 51

You could take one of these Psalms and use it as a form for yours. It may have been based on something else, itself! You could re-write it in your own words and tilt it towards your own purpose. I’ve done this many times and it is always a good exercise – as long as it doesn’t turn into to a poem critique like in English class! Using a well-known psalm as a base is a good way for me not to worry about form and content and let a person guide me to my own expression.

You could sit back and let your greatest desire, feeling or conundrum (as of today) rise up and come into focus and then write a psalm that expresses it.

  • I want to feel_____.
  • I want help with ________.
  • I think of myself as (ungrateful, over-certain, flawed, etc.).
  • I appreciate this about my relationship with God
  • I am puzzled or distressed about this in my relationship with God.

Those are just suggestions. Let it flow and see where you end up. God is with you as you use your strength to be with God.

David Composing the Psalms, Paris Psalter, 10th century

When you are done you could put your psalm in your drawer or notebook for future reference. You might pass this way again! You may not want your stuff laying around, so you might not keep it at all. Maybe you want to share your psalm – but that is hardly required. Think of all the people who wrote psalms, just like King David (St. Patrick, too), sitting out on a rock with the sheep, and never got one of them into the Bible or a blog post! They were just doing it.

The main challenge with any kind of development, is to overcome our resistance and do something. When we get out of ourselves and enter the space between us and God, the Lord meets us in many ways. As simple an act as writing a psalm — getting the feeling and thought out of our hearts and minds and onto the paper, is one of many ways to move into the space between. It is a good way to pray. Give it a try!

Seeing the curse coming — redux

This is among the first posts I ever blogged. I am on vacation (again) this week, but I thought I would repeat this, since it still makes sense.

Death of Jezebel — Gustav Dore

The other day when we were reading Psalm 109 during noon prayer, we understood it completely wrong. We heard verses 6-19 like they were the psalmist pronouncing a long curse on someone. It was hard to take thirteen verses of curse! Sometimes the Psalms get a little rough for us, since we’ve all been taught to keep our emotions subject to our theories and politics. We’ve had to get used to all that angry talk and wild reactions in the Psalms jarring our sensibilities a little – this one, however, just seemed over the top:

“May his children become orphans

            and his wife a widow.” (v.9)

 

Who would say such a thing?! We were uncomfortable reading it.

The prayer starts off in a way we could relate to more easily:

 “In return for my love they accuse me,

            though my prayer is for them.

And they offer me evil in return for good

            and hatred in return for my love: (Psalm 109:4-5)

 

That we could pray. We’ve all been abused and misunderstood. I’m not very good at seeing it — but I am sometimes hated. I’m usually shocked when I find out about what someone feels about me or says about me, but sometimes I do find out I have an opponent who doesn’t mind taking me out behind my back. In return for my love, they hate me.

No, the curse is coming at me!

We thought what came next was the Psalmist pronouncing a long curse on the people who returned hate for love:

“Appoint a wicked man over him,

            let an accuser stand at his right…

Let his days be few,

            may another man take his post….

May his offspring be cut off,

            in the next generation his name wiped out”

 

It was going on and on. One of us finally said, “Whew!” Because we usually think – “If it is in the Bible, then it is an example for us.” If the Psalms are a prayer book, this is a wild prayer! We were a little hesitant to say the prayer.

We didn’t understand that vv. 6-19 is a quote of what someone else is saying about the psalmist, not what he is saying about them. The prayer is about being taken out, being hated, being attacked by an evil person. He ends up crying out for mercy:

“And You, O Lord, Master,

            act on my behalf for the sake of Your name,

                        for Your kindness is good. O save me!

For poor and needy am I,

            and my heart is pierced within me.”

 

Out of touch with the forces against you?

My realization from a few days of using this Psalm and studying it is I get surprisingly out of touch with the forces that are coming against me! Evil and its allies want me destroyed. You may have the opposite problem and think I am kind of nutty, since you’re effectively paranoid all day — so have some mercy. I had such a resistance to pronouncing a curse that I didn’t see the curse coming at me — even in the safety of my own prayer book!

In Celtic Daily Prayer today, it says “Our society teaches us to be suspicious of what is good, and to listen passively to whatever is evil.” We may not even be aware that evil is coming at us! When it does, we may invite it in for a drink because we are committed to being nice, or at least committed to appearing nice. I want to love and trust first, but I don’t want to be nice to evil. Even worse, I don’t want to impassively stew in what’s wrong until it cooks me.

So I recommend some appropriate drama today. Let’s pray it together: “I am surrounded! I am needy! Save me!” Let’s be appropriately concerned that we might be mean to someone. But for those of you like me, let’s be appropriately aware that we have opponents. We’re doing good things and they will be opposed. We are made good in Jesus and we, because of that good at work within us, are dangerous, as far as the Lord’s opponents are concerned. They will try to take us out.

A new song: “Immaterial” by Sophie as food for prayer

This week I have contributed the posts for Circle of Hope Daily Prayer :: Water. I thought I would entice your to share the joy I found in them by putting the first entry here.

Today’s Bible reading

Let this be your basis for this time of prayer:

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 

For there is one God;
    there is also one mediator between God and humankind,
Christ Jesus, himself human,
    who gave himself a ransom for all

— this was attested at the right time. For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth. – 2 Timothy 2:1-7

More thoughts for meditation

I honor of the 2021 Grammys the New York Times published a compendium of the “19 Songs that Matter Now” celebrating the artists who “got us through a pandemic year.” These artists may not have done anything for you and you might not even know who they are. Most, if not all of them, were not trying to use their talents to reveal Jesus or worship God. So what are they doing in Daily Prayer

Today’s reading gives a good reason to listen to them. We should pray for everyone. There is one God and one mediator who wishes everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. The seven of the nineteen artists the Times noted this week represent humanity in a pandemic. They are influencers who have a message in a time of great change. For the first time, people who are religiously affiliated in the U.S. dipped below 50% this year — that makes for 52% of the population who could use our prayers.

What’s more, these artists inform our prayers. Music is usually quite visceral, so they may cause your “fight or flight” instinct to kick in. Christians are well known in the U.S., after all, for fueling a culture “war” — they fight. And they are also known for being avoidant,  ignorant, and unrelatable — since they took flight. So you may feel like exercising either response when you hear these songs. But let’s try praying the truth in love in response to them, instead. This week of daily praying together could hone our love into a confident response to a world that is newly challenging.

Sophie and her song

Suggestions for action

Sophie died in Athens in January after climbing up on a rock to watch the full moon and accidentally fell.  After that, her influential dance/electronic album, “Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides” again began to climb the popularity charts.

In the song “Immaterial” Sophie declares gender as a material form to be a dead concept, one defined in one’s mind, rather than by any biological construct. She says once we get away from the dysphoria, the years of feeling “wrong,” the thoughts of never being happy, we are entirely our own mold to design, regardless of any concept handed down by Western European standards of living.  Some people embrace her song as the anthem of a whole new world.

Meditate with Francis’ basic prayer: “Who am I, Lord? And who are you?” 

Pray for people who believe everyone is entirely their own mold to design. Being free of Eurocentric domination is good for Jesus followers, too. But we don’t need to throw out the baby Jesus with the bathwater of worn out philosophy, do we?

Pray for love that creates an atmosphere in which everyone can work their difficult way through life with Jesus in the center of the journey, not just themselves.

See the whole week at Circle of Hope Daily Prayer :: Water.

Adult prayer: Two invitations that might be hard to see  

I have had a great time lately, learning about how people pray – or don’t pray.

It seems like a lot of people have experienced their childhood faith wearing out, but they have not succeeded in growing into something new. Maybe they replaced developing their relationship with God in prayer with mindfulness, which is an anxiety-reducing knock-off. Maybe they replaced following Jesus, whose example of true humanity is suffused with prayer, by following the wisdom and moral principles of Jesus without the presence of the Holy Spirit, since they were not feeling the presence.

Image result for now I lay me down to sleep plate
I talked about my own childhood prayer journey a bit last night at Frankford Ave — and people talked about theirs and more.

There are many books written about these questions and troubles [Pastors’ Goodreads], but many discouraged people did not find the time or have the motivation to develop their understanding and practice of prayer, so they just stopped. Now, in Jude’s colorful term, they are “clouds without rainwater.” Jude is upset that such people keep the desert landscape dry, even though they should have water. They upset me, too, but I prefer to see them as clouds who have the potential to rain, if they are ever filled with living water as Jesus-following clouds are designed to be.

Unkept promises?

In the troubling era of our lives when faith needs to grow beyond its childhood and adolescence, I think people often miss a couple of basic steps of development.

If you’re troubled, your struggle might be with Bible passages like this one:

“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:9-13)

(Like I said, great books are written about these things. Maybe you should make the whole year about reading a book about prayer every month.)

When some people read this particular part of the New Testament, it causes them to test out prayer quite materially, since the Lord appears to promise a material answer, especially with the line “everyone who asks receives.” This can be proved false quite quickly when someone does not recover from cancer or one does not get into the college they want or someone can’t find a suitable mate. The fact that it has been miraculously proven true for centuries, now, is not satisfying if one feels their test did not “work.” When one’s scientific experiment proves the theory of prayer unrepeatable, it makes a lot of people think they might be doing something that is just not valid — “It’s not working for me.”

Many people seem to miss the point of the teaching: the Father will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him. Prayer is an entry into a much deeper territory than manipulating the material world with a satisfying sense of power.

I sometimes think Harry Potter’s magic, however well-intended, makes people without wands distressed. Prayer is not like magic, it is relating to the living God at the invitation of Jesus Christ. Getting beyond the distressing loss of the magic of childhood (obviously some people hang on as long as possible) is a key problem with faith we need to solve. Prayer is the solution. We will always need to approach God as child-to-parent, but Jesus is calling us to get into our adulthood and learn to deal with the deeper things of God and ourselves.

Sometimes even Disney asks the right questions;

Given my recent exploration with people, I feel like offering two important steps that might help you get a new start with prayer if you’ve basically given up on it.

Come to prayer loved

The Lord’s teaching above implies what John says in his letter.

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. (1 John 4:18)

One of the big childhood issues that prayer brings up is fear of not being loved — “Am I really alone?” The answer of God in Jesus is, “No you are not alone, you are loved enough to find and rescue. I would die for you.”  If God needs to prove her love for you every day to satisfy your nagging fear, you are more like a child of your parents or a child of this age than a child of God.

Don’t come to prayer covetous

The comparisons the Lord makes in the teaching above are mirrored in what James says in his letter:

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?  You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. (James 4:1-3)

We think of our desires as expressions of our needs. But, most of the time, they are about wanting what we see or perceive others having that we don’t. It would be great if competition were a pure quest for the best, but it is usually an attempt to be better than someone else, or better than the self I am.

Such covetousness reinforces the shame we feel about being ourselves. So prayer can end up a terrifying process of asking the questions: “Am I wanted? Do I matter?” I often feel sorry for Jesus, God trying so hard to undo our shame: “Of course I want you just as you are as I show up in this moment. I made you to matter and you matter to me.” We have trouble hearing that from anyone, maybe more from God.  We are so well defended against the dreaded answers we expect to our questions, we may learn to avoid prayer too. If you come to prayer out of covetousness instead of trust, the experience could end up a self-fulfilling prophecy about how ineffectual prayer is.

Jesus demonstrated how a human prays and connects with God. Thank you, Jesus! And he taught his first disciples, and all the rest of the disciples like us, about how to pray. People did receive that Holy Spirit as the great gift of connection Jesus unleashed and such people have been teaching us more about prayer ever since. Prayer is such a great reinforcement of our togetherness with God, such a great way to become open to our value as we pray in all the forms we are given; it is the basic way we relate to God. And it is amazing how often I receive the “fish” I crave, too.

This small post hardly solves your problems, if you feel disappointed with prayer. It brings up more questions than it answers, I’m sure. But I hope it gives you an idea for exploring  two basic steps you might just be discovering and opens up new avenues of learning you might have missed so far. You are not alone and you do matter. And you are part of a circle of hope, or could be, who would love to struggle with you as you grow into your adult faith.

How to pray: The joys of walking

A long time ago now, I was on an overnight retreat and, to my surprise, I found myself left alone for the night, the only guest in the retreat house. Initially, this was a bit scary.

Richard Gere as King David (1985) dancing before the ark (2 Sam 6)

Praying with my body

I was reading  a book by Tilden Edwards who suggested my prayer might be better focused if I emulated King David and danced before the Lord. Even now I can remember the horror this thought aroused in me. The house was empty and I was still afraid some great “other” would see me, if I followed Edwards’ advice, and mock me, just like David’s wife had. I later learned just how deeply that mocker was installed in me and how little assistance he needed to lock me up.

But I finally could not let it go; the suggestion was not going away. My logic was something like, “You’ve already gone on retreat, which seems absurd enough to most people. What prevents you from following Edwards’ direction?” So I opened up the creaky door to my room and got out into the hall in my underwear, half expecting a nun to burst in as I tentatively took my first few steps into a body-aware prayer. I still remember how it felt to consciously let my body move up and down the hall and into the presence of Jesus along with my mind and heart. I could feel my strength being applied to expressing my praise. I slowly lost my self-consciousness and became conscious of the Holy Spirit.

But even more, I simply did something with my body. I did not just think about doing it or imagine doing it and count that as doing it. When the Ark was returned to Jerusalem, David whipped off his kingly robes and humbly expressed his praise for everyone to see. He, and the rest of us, never forgot it. The Bible writers were honest enough to include the reaction we most fear in the middle of the story. Disdain, from the outside or in, is often a hurdle we need to overcome to pray at all. David’s own wife looked down on him because he was so “out there.”

The joy of walking

I like dancing. But I rarely feel moved to make it part of my prayer. I do a lot of singing. I like to lift my arms and do other things with my hands when I worship and pray. Sometimes I dance. But I’m more of a walker. This past month I experienced some deep joy as I walked.

Sometimes a Christian client and I are doing psychotherapy together and it is difficult to imagine how they are going to break the patterns of their anxiety or depression. They think they need to think better and it just is not working. Their life and their prayer have a set pattern; nothing new can happen, but things are just not working anymore. Sometimes I suggest they take a walk and spend some time with God, maybe even talk, certainly listen, but mostly just let their body be in the Lord’s presence and see what happens. Sometimes they try it. During their stressful day, they just get up and walk around the block. Instead of dashing home, they go over to the Schuylkill and let the river help them.

When we were following Paul around Greece last year, it dawned on me again that he walked from Philippi to Thessaloniki. Most of the people in the Bible are using their own two feet to get anywhere they go. They don’t jump into the car at the last possible moment to make it to the Sunday meeting, fruitlessly dodge potholes, get undone by unexpected traffic, miss the last convenient parking spot and fastwalk into the meeting, panting for the first few minutes. They have lots of time to be slow. If I walked to my Sunday meeting it would take about an hour and a half. If I walked the route like a pilgrimage to a holy site, it might end up being a supercharged experience I never forgot. But even if I was just taking my time and using my body, I would be more likely to meet God.

Strada Mattonatta, the ancient pilgrim road

My walking experience in Assisi

This year, I was privileged to take the retreat of a lifetime in Assisi. I decided to devote my days to walking. I was a pilgrim visiting sites that were holy to me. But, more important (and in the spirit of Francis of Assisi), I was getting my feet on the ground, going slow enough to listen for birds, look for flowers and experience my whole self in God’s presence: heart, soul, mind and strength. It was wonderful. Every day I had a destination in mind. I put on my sandals and launched out on a route I’d never taken to places I had never fully explored. I do not have a “favorite” day. But I keep telling the story of walking to Porziuncola. So let me see if that inspires you to learn the joys of prayer walking.

I could see that going from my room at the top of the hill town of Assisi way down into the valley below was going to be a challenge. The dome of Santa Maria degli Angeli looms large in the valley landscape and it looks like it is far away. Later Franciscans created a huge, baroque pilgrim-processing center that dwarfs the little chapel which Francis was given as his first official rebuilding project. It is where he lived and died, and it is still the center of the Franciscan world. I was excited to get going; a prayer walk is like a small retreat, a vacation trip from normality to greater awareness.

I enjoyed the brick road I discovered had been built for just such a walk. Along the way I found a little chapel. I stopped in, as most chapel owners in Italy hope people will do — they leave the doors open. I found myself alone. As I knelt and prayed, an old song popped into my head: “See this bread, take and eat and live in me.” I sang it out loud and enjoyed the sound of it echoing in the room. When I arrived at Porziuncola, I was surprised to see a mass underway in the little chapel. As soon as I got to the door, the priest held up the wafer and said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” A jolt like electricity pulsed through me and I made my way to the altar to receive the wafer. More so, I saw Jesus in the bread, in the place and in me. Being in the presence of the Lord is wonderful.

Knowing I am in God’s presence all the time is great. Putting my feet on the ground and feeling it with all my being is even better. Some people have wondered why I would be so bold as to “break the rules” and take communion as a non-Catholic. I tell them that I was acting in the spirit of Francis, who never met a rule he could not subvert and redeem. As it turns out, I also acted under the guidance of Pope Francis, who made a bold statement on his way back from Romania on June 2: “During the press conference Francis went further. As he explained on the plane, ‘there is already Christian unity,’ according to the National Catholic Reporter. ‘Let’s not wait for the theologians to come to agreement on the Eucharist.’” Mostly, I was moving where my pilgrimage had taken me.

So why don’t you take a walk with Jesus? Maybe the thought embarrasses you. I can relate to that. Maybe it will take too much time. I can understand that, too. Maybe you just don’t think of yourself as a prayer-walker kind of person and you fear what people would say and how it would feel if you became one. But what will happen if Jesus invites you to walk with him and you don’t go? In fact, life is a pilgrimage. We don’t really know where we are going. We need Jesus beside us to get anywhere at all. Acting like that is true when I pray has truly deepened my prayer.

God causes the growth (2)

God causes the growth

I am moved to hang on to some basic teaching today.

What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. (1 Corinthians 3:5-7)

This morning, as I listened to God and prayed for the church, I took heart in in Paul’s teaching. He laments the deep problems in the church in Corinth, where he had spent so much time laboring and loving. His disciples shocked people with their immorality. They divided up the church in factions. They had a strong contingent who thought they were spectacular, and better than Paul, their father in the faith. Some of them re-thought the gospel to reflect themselves rather than Jesus.

Some days, I look out over our beloved community of Circle of Hope and am tempted to lament. I just see the holes in the Swiss cheese. It is not a nourishing practice. Today God saved me from that by reminding me of what he has done, which is what he is likely to do again. Circle of Hope is so astoundingly rich in faith, hope and love that I begin to get nervous when there is a little dip in our storehouse of all the good things God has given us. My standards are very high. I forget that God created it all from nothing not too long ago.

It is, again, like Paul told the Corinthians:

“Think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. (1 Cor. 1:26-30)

I totally relied on this wisdom from Paul when I came to Philadelphia. I am convicted today to keep walking in it. God is bigger than our capabilities and our critics. God is greater than our wonderful history and our sinfulness. God is hopeful because of our good track record and in spite of our mediocritizing.

If we live or die, as the church, Jesus is Lord. But I am sure we will live and God will cause the growth.  inside and out. Here are several reasons to believe that such a life is likely which come from just the people I talked to yesterday:

  • A man walked into our door last week looking to be restored to God after medicating his mental illness with drugs and alcohol. He is finding rest.
  • A man is overcoming his sin and the wreckage it has caused in his family and circle of friends.
  • A man is experiencing the fruit of his act of courage in taking risks to follow his truest calling and it has opened up the door to welcome God into the deep parts of his being.
  • A woman is celebrating how our church came through for her when her husband was jailed and is thankful that her own new faith sustained her.

God is causing the growth. Like Jesus says, the kingdom of God is like a seed that grows day and night and one can only be in awe of it, and never presume to cause it. We plant and water, but nothing will happen without God creating the environment in which it can flourish. And that is just what God does.

BTW — Today is Brigid of Kildare Day! I’m a fan.

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Anxious and tired: Prayer that turns us toward hope

The notion that God is absent is the
fundamental illusion of the human condition.
Thomas Keating

If Cynthia Bourgeault is right (and my own experience says she is), then the way beyond egoic thinking is the way of meditation. She says, “Meditation, more than any other spiritual practice, nurtures the latent capacities within us that can perceive and respond to divine hope. In the classic language of our tradition, these capacities are known as the ‘spiritual senses.'”

That little paragraph might have seemed so weird it drove you right back into you egoic thinking! So hang on. All “egoic thinking” means is we humans have the capacity to stand outside ourselves and look at ourselves. As far as we know, we are the only species who can do this. Tigers don’t think, “I have a quick temper.” And whales don’t say, “I am really glad to be going north; I’m a cold-water kind of whale.” And tigers and whales don’t write children’s books where tigers  and whales seem cute when they reflect. Humans can imagine these different realities, looking back and forward, dreaming and visioning. It is a great thing about us.

we are drawn to meditation

Egoic thinking is great…until it’s not

The downside of this reflexive capacity, Bourgeault says, “is the tendency to experience one’s personal identity as separate — composed of distinct qualities, defined by what holds one apart from the whole.” So we all have an anxiety streak running through us because we really need and want to be together, not separate. The ego can’t get enough: praise, security, accomplishment, etc. to overcome that dreadful sense of being left out or thrown out and failing at being a full self. You can see how quickly we have all been driven into sin by this innate anxiety. And you can see why Jesus calls us to see our true selves, look at ravens and lilies, stop worrying and “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness” as the means of becoming free of what is depriving us of joy.

Art often captures the turning of meditation
Field of Lilies – Tiffany Studios, c. 1910.

Meditative prayer is a way of discovering and nurturing the latent capacities within us that can perceive and respond to “the Mercy” I talked about last week. It is a primary way to experience the “mystical hope”I talked about the week before, the hope which is near and not the outcome of all our striving.  The centering prayer that Bourgeault teaches is “a basic, no-nonsense method of self-emptying — simply letting go of thoughts as they arise — to help practitioners break out of their compulsive attachment to thinking and entrust themselves to the deeper stillness of God.” [Here is Martin Laird’s take on it.] The essence of this kind of meditation is not keeping a perfectly clear mind. The essence is recognizing the moment when one is distracted and willingly turning back into the stillness of the Mercy, toward hope; turning toward the meeting place we have inside as an act of faith and honor; letting go of our own stuff and holding a space open for all God gives and all God is.

We need to get beyond self-awareness and its evil twin: self-centeredness

We have a “self” awareness that is beyond the egoic capacity that makes us human — we also have spiritual awareness. Meditation leads us out of ego-centered consciousness and into a space where we meet God. And so many of us know almost every feeling better than the feeling of communion with God! Someone has said we can also get to this meeting place by having a near-death experience or by falling deeply in love. I do not wish you the first short cut and do wish for you the latter. Meditation is the everyday path. It is the discipline that helps us “die daily” as Paul says he does, and helps us be one in love as he hopes we will be. The prayer of meditation puts a stick in the spokes of our outer awareness and leads us into the warmth and abundance of our inner awareness and into hope in the Mercy.

It is a hard world right now. Maybe you are pretty numb like a newscaster was saying she was after she was confronted with Donald Trump’s and General Kelly’s icky relationship with the family of La David Johnson. Or maybe you are feeling like the pastor who wrote to Christianity Today to voice how tired he is of trying to get into the white man’s church and how determined to separate into a black world until someone approaches him for once. If it were not a hard world, we’d probably make it one. So it is time to pray.

Have you listened to Jesus saying this to you lately?

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,
and I will give you rest. 
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me;
for I am gentle and humble in heart,
and you will find rest for your souls.”

Basic to that easy yoke is the prayer of meditation. We keep turning to it in our anxiety and fatigue and it keeps turning us toward hope.

More on Mystical Hope
Previous: Mystical hope in a deteriorating world
Swimming in the Mercy: The experience of hope
Next: There is hope: But you’ll need to die to enjoy it
Hope: The quality of aliveness right under our noses

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Lent: We gave up doing basically nothing for the season

All the guides to Lent (including most of mine) have to do with applying some good thinking from the ancient and medieval church. It is so great. I am doing it.

The idea is so old, so someone else’s, so demanding, the vast majority of Christ followers, radical or nominal, are ignoring it — for all practical purposes, at least. Their loss.

That being said, I think we may have stumbled on to another discipline that we don’t need a lot of prayers, plans, meetings, guidebooks or history books to do: we just do stuff. We gave up not making a difference a long time ago. But this Lent, in particular, We seem to have given up giving up doing nothing all over again. We are kind of over freaking out about Trump, and are back to being the alternative we have always been to neoliberalism, now neolberalism turning toward totalitarianism. We don’t sit around.

Alternativity: finding a way beyond the walls

1. We build the church

Jerome began a cell last week with a set of mostly-new people. They all went against the grain and sat down to community. Our congregation in the Northwest is seven-months old and already show signs of taking its first toddler steps! This keeps happening.

The main thing the world needs is an alternative. Democracy is great and needs to be expanded, but it obviously is not saving the world. People have elected the worst government in my memory — for the most part they let their reps buy their position so 1% capitalism would be preserved. What people really need, as they always have, is not more info, power, and government largesse, they need to be a responsible part of their own people, culturing a common life with Jesus at the head. We are making that community, whether we are 20 or 60, new believer or old salt. We do it very simply by forming cells where we deliver our spiritual gifts face to face and by holding weekly, public gatherings where we worship, teach and incorporate people looking for Jesus. Those simple acts of building an alternative community in Christ spawn all sorts of other amazements! We map  our direction our ourselves, not just apply someone else’s thinking. We fund it all ourselves, not living off our business profits or grants from the fat cats. We keep inventing it ourselves, it does not belong to our leaders or our founders, it is us.

2. We pray

A lot of us never pray, it must be admitted. They are missing out. But most of us do, and we don’t think it is doing nothing, because we actually believe God responds to our prayers. We don’t run the universe with our intercession, but we participate in what the Holy Spirit can do. Plus, of course, praying people become more accustomed to their supernatural capabilities and become answers to their own prayers, so that is a bonus.

Art started organizing prayer walks around our new site in South Philly. People are out on the street praying, discerning, letting love flow. When we move through the stations of the cross in our neighborhoods on Good Friday, it will be about as obvious as we can make it that we believe Jesus is dying and rising right here, right now, among us and in our neighborhoods.

3. We form teams that express our passion

The Community Workshop Team decided that lightly or illegally employed people could learn woodworking. The Watershed Discipleship Team saw the threat to the world and to the Delaware River Watershed and decided they could not let the planet die without doing something. The Solidarity Beyond Borders team was revived when Trump stirred up anti-immigrant sentiments and challenged Philadelphia’s right to be a sanctuary, so they got an alliance going with local Mexicans, in particular, and started strategizing.

At this point, we kind of take making these teams for granted. When Jonny was telling someone about them last week, the person was flabbergasted to learn that there are still Christians in the world who do something. Most of them seem to be settled into resenting the obligation to go to church on Sundays (as if anyone could GO to church when they ARE the church!).

4. We make good business

This is kind of new. Yes, it is old, too, because we have had our successful Circle Thrift stores and we partner with Circle Counseling. Both these businesses began as compassion teams. But now we are moving into the next flowering of this idea, it appears.

We bought the new South Broad building thinking we would put Circle Thrift down there. But as it turns out the congregation doesn’t really need all that income to support the building and the space for the store is probably too small. We thought a NEW business there would be better: a childcare business (we’re talking that over tonight). The whole neighborhood is on a waiting list for childcare; we have the talent (if people want to use it), and we think we have a good space.

This development in our thinking about 2212 S. Broad made us think we should KEEP 1125 South Broad, which we had just decided to desert! We are thinking we should keep the store in place and create our long-held dream of a space rental/events business. These ideas presented themselves and we decided to go for it, in terms of planning, at least. Approval is not settled yet.

Alternativity: Holy Week

Lent is a great time to sit around and do “nothing” as we meditate on what Jesus has done and learn the basic spiritual disciplines that sustain our life in Christ. Please figure out how to fast! Learn what is on the other side of silence! Study and pray!

That being said, I don’t want to undercut what our actual spiritual strength might already be. We don’t sit around and do nothing while the world goes to hell in a handbasket (as my mother used to say, for some reason). We build the alternative. We are alternativity, itself! That is a good way to spend every day, especially as we look so carefully at Jesus, the alternative to sin and death, being it and living it during Lent!