Friday, February 26, 2010

Pray For Your Enemies

Jesus commands us to pray for our enemies. I suppose many of us have done that, but it is not an easy thing to do with true and generous love in our hearts.  Our dilemma may not be whether or not we pray for them, but how we pray for them. If we are praying that they will change, than I think we have misunderstood what Jesus is asking of us. If you know someone who considers you an enemy, how would you feel about their prayer that you change? It is hard to pray for our enemies when even the thought of them makes our hearts agitated. But we are truly blessed with the task of holding others in prayer, even our enemies. Thomas Kelly, in his Testament of Devotion describes a way of holding others in prayer as an “interior act and attitude,” as “inward, wordless prayer.” We all provide this for others and we all need this special holding. I trust that there are those who hold me before God; how wonderful it is to know that I am held this way.

This is different than what we often experience as intercessory prayer. In intercessory prayer, we hold others in the light of God’s love with a particular need such as healing or empowerment. Many folks have lists of people for whom they pray, some of whom they may not even know personally. Our prayer chains diligently work to surround us in prayer, or cover us with prayer. We are even guarded or protected in prayer. I am very thankful for all those prayers and I have prayed for people many times with such ideas in mind. The power of this kind of prayer is well documented. But to be held wordlessly, without ceasing, with no agenda, in the presence of God by someone that knows me and loves me fills me with a sense of wonder and amazement. What do you think God will do? Here I am, held up to God’s attention, simply there for God to love. God knows what is needful better than even I myself know. I rest in God’s embrace not only because God embraces me, but also because someone else holds me there.

We do this for each other, even or perhaps especially our enemies. Just as someone does it for me, I do it for those whom God has given to me for this special purpose. That includes my enemies. I think it is much easier to pray for my enemies this way – the agenda is not up to me. I can still be angry or upset with my enemy and trust that God knows what is needful (which may have more to do with me than with my enemy!). We hold others before God just as we are held before God. What a stunning and beautiful reality.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

'Tis the Season

Mark Twain said, “When you get to heaven, leave your dog outside. Heaven works on favor, not merit. If heaven worked on merit, your dog would get in and you wouldn’t.” I always remember this quote when we get to Ash Wednesday. When we come to Ash Wednesday and begin this long Lenten journey, it is good to remember that God’s love for us and desire to be with us is not something we earn, but something that simply is, no matter what. With all of our brokenness, we are certainly creatures that can only approach God because of God’s loving favor towards us. We come to God with all of who we are: broken, weak, fearful, in need of life-giving forgiveness. Our journey to God is a journey of healing, wholeness, and holiness. Not only must we know where we fall short of God’s desire for us, but we must know what it means to be holy. We must know where we are headed if we ever wish to arrive.

God created us to be holy people. We are all in need of being restored to that person that God created us to be. Restoration means healing and to be healed means that we must know what is broken. Only then can we cooperate with God in the process of being made whole. So the journey of healing, wholeness, and holiness begins with self examination and self awareness. Our self examination can encompass body, mind, and spirit. We can even have an intention for examination of the unconscious, an ancient and powerful discipline. So we begin with a dose of self awareness. Ouch! We hold ourselves in the light of God’s love and have nothing to say for ourselves. We are who we are. We have made a mess of things. We have fallen away. We have made ashes out of God’s love. We have managed to cause death in the midst of the gift of life.

The honest work of self awareness and self examination is not easy. We rely on others to hold up a mirror so that we can look at ourselves. It requires some compassionate observation of ourselves. Let us simply see who we are. Let us see ourselves without judgment, without condemnation. Let us simply seek out the light of God’s love and stand in it. All is seen. All is known. It is a lonely place.

But then, perhaps we are not so alone as we thought. Every one of us stands alone before God. Every one of us stands in the presence of God as an individual. But what a great paradox – we all stand alone before God together: each of us a unique being and yet in the identical predicament, each of us a distinct creature and yet having much in common with the other. We all know what it is like to be broken. We all know the need to be healed.

So we need both life-giving forgiveness and to forgive. It is the nature of life as human beings. We experience the grace that comes when we find ourselves forgiven by God and others. We offer that experience to others. It is not an easy thing to forgive. It requires the best of us and calls us into places of wisdom and love. Life-giving forgiveness is a practice that grows over time. Hopefully we get better and better both at forgiving and being forgiven. These next few weeks, we will be intentional about seeing how life-giving forgiveness is a part of our life’s journey. May we find ourselves immersed in healing, wholeness, and holiness.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Life is a Rodeo Parade

There is a town close to where I live that has an annual rodeo parade. The rodeo parade includes a variety of quaint floats, antique cars, homemade costumes, and banners. Local businesses advertise their services and philanthropic organizations promote their causes. The fire truck, with sirens blasting, is always included. One year even the garbage truck proudly drove in the parade. But perhaps the predominant attraction is all the different kinds of livestock on display; various types of horses, alpacas, and llamas.  In this little town, the parade route goes down main street where spectators scramble for candy that is thrown into the “crowd” (there were more folks in the parade than in the crowd!). There’s plenty of whooping and hollering along the way. It is quite the excitement.

One year, as a member of one of the philanthropic organizations, I marched in the parade. Our permit number was ninety-two out of ninety-four, which meant that we were close to the end of the parade. The honor of bringing up the rear certainly added a dimension to my parade experience that was unexpected. All along the way, we were dodging piles of manure in different stages of being flattened by various tires. The pungent horse urine was bad enough but I think it was the llamas that smelled the worst in the summer heat. It was so bad that the organizers of the event took no time cleaning up the mess. The group that followed number ninety-four was the clean-up crew with a water truck and hoses and various kinds of shovels, brooms and scrubbers. I should have known when I saw them that my light weight sneakers would not be up to the task of this parade. Heavy boots were in order. I learned a valuable lesson that day: never march at the end of a rodeo parade!

But I suppose life is like a rodeo parade sometimes. If we end up at the back of the line, we need heavy boots to slog through all the crap. If we march close the beginning, we leave a mess for others to deal with. If we are somewhere in the middle, we get a mixed experience. We all find ourselves at different places in the parade at different times in our lives. But perhaps the real place of honor is at the rear of the procession. It is the clean-up crew that provides the most lowly and valuable service. Now that’s the place to be.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Nothing Matters; Everything Matters

This life presents us with many difficulties and obstacles. As spiritual persons, not only are we deeply aware of the presence and nature of God, self, and others, but we also see deeply the suffering around us. In his book A Testament of Devotion, Thomas Kelly presents us with the paradox, “Nothing matters; everything matters.” The spiritual masters often make such observations. I believe that it is in these paradoxes that we find the fullness of truth. God is present in the midst of the tension. But what are we to make of it: Nothing matters; everything matters? First of all, nothing matters because we dwell within God. We are time blinded and world blinded as well. To become wholly obedient to God, we keep our eyes on the presence of God and see nothing else. Nothing else is important because we are blinded to all in our attention to God. In the light of God, nothing else matters. But then, of course, everything matters. God counts every hair on our heads; even a sparrow is found in God’s attention. The full scope of creation is precious and worthy of redemption. Nothing matters; everything matters. We live in both places. In this paradox, we can say that suffering doesn’t matter and that it does matter. Will we even notice suffering when we are transfixed on the presence of God? But then, with God, we grieve the suffering and evil in the world and ultimately work for the triumph of good. Someday, suffering will be obliterated, but not in this earthly life.

We are neither to seek out suffering for ourselves nor work to remove it. We can only prepare ourselves for the suffering that will come. Some live under the illusion that they can find security through money or armies or the correct diet or isolation. Even though we all know this kind of security to be ultimately unreliable, we still tend to bank on it. We are called to trust only in God. And we know by example, that God will not remove suffering – God will walk through it with us and redeem it. If we build our spiritual house on the rock of the light within, when the suffering comes, and it will come, we will find that we pass through it accompanied by the great strength of God. We are called to acknowledge suffering and work to make it holy. If we approach suffering with our sanctuary state of mind, the holy making is inevitable. Holy making of suffering means that some measure of redemption comes from it. As Kelly states, through suffering, the heart is stretched and enlarged. At some level, suffering becomes a gift.

Another gift of obedience to God is the gift of simplicity. When Kelly talks about simplicity, he is talking about the kind of simplicity that comes after complexity: after one has struggled through difficulties and complications, only to find that simple is better. This simplicity is the simplicity of trust and singleness of heart. It rests in the assurance that one has experienced the sorrows and suffering and survived and only because God has made it possible. It comes after what Kelly calls the adolescent stage of “religious busyness.” I think religious busyness can be external or internal. Sometimes we get very busy volunteering for this and that, even when we yearn to say no more often than not. Or sometimes we have raging internal debates about the correct road to take. After this internal busyness, when a person is focused and determined to do the right thing, then the debate and struggle is already over. The question is resolved. It doesn’t have to get complicated. It reminds me of the last time I was on jury duty. In the matter of this particular case, it seemed clear what was right: parents should not neglect or beat their children – very obvious. But by the time the lawyers got done arguing the case, nothing seemed certain. The waters were greatly muddied. What had seemed clear and obvious was complicated by technicalities and suspect arguments. For a bit, I was confused, but it didn’t take me long to go back to what I knew in my heart was right and wrong. It really was not that complicated no matter what the lawyers said. This is the simplicity that is beyond complexity. Most of life really isn’t that complicated, and when we try to make it so, maybe we’re trying to explain away our sin. At least I think that is true for me. The spiritual journey is like this. We may go through stages where nothing seems certain and we are confused about which way to turn. When it gets like this, I always look for what I am afraid of, because, deep down, I think I really do know which way to turn to move closer to God.

Kelly says that this simplicity is such a deep trust in God that one “walks with a smile into the dark.” This comes out of that great center of the soul, the focus and singleness of heart that results from the roaring flame of the light within. Life becomes guided by love alone. The simplified life need only strive to love. There is really nothing complicated about it.