Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Finding the Eternal in the Present

“All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls but the word of the Lord endures forever” (1 Peter 1:24-25a NRSV)

These challenging words from 1 Peter were put to music by Brahms in the second movement of his German Requiem. The verse compares humans to plants. We bloom gloriously for a season, but then wither and die. This temporary glory is beautifully portrayed by Brahms with a three-four rhythm mimicking a traditional German folk melody. The constant beat of the timpani, however, sounding like a death knell, reminds the listener that their glory will eventually wither and die. What endures is not our glory, but the word of the Lord. To express the hope in this eternal word, Brahms chose to end the movement with the verse from Isaiah 35:10: “And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” It triumphantly ends with the words “everlasting joy;” a joy, that has overcome sorrow and sighing; a joy that is eternal.

It is obvious that while we are in our glory, the flowering of our life, our focus too often is on the here and now. We preen and fuss in front of the mirror; we worry about the image our clothes and possessions will project. We put on all sorts of false faces to make others think we are perfect, hoping our pretense will be interpreted as glory. Now we have social media to further our image with our “vanity pictures” and “vanity lives.” We too seldom think about eternity.

Indeed, many parts of our lives are glorious. There are phenomenal vistas in nature to take our breath away. There are smiles exchanged between strangers passing each other in the hallway or on the street. There are the delightful giggles of babies and the joy that new life brings. There are daily acts of kindness that make life easier. The list could go on and on, if we would only take time to stop and reflect on them. However, these glorious things in our daily life have nothing to do with how we look or what we wear. Instead, they are glimpses of the eternal within our time and space. They are the “eternal word of the Lord” which breaks through time and space to touch us; to give us hope for life after life. They are the “thin places” where the transcendence and imminence of God touch each other and we sense the holy.

So why do we spend so much energy on the temporal that “moth and rust consume,” and so little time in discovering the “thin places” where God speaks to us? Which one gives more joy? Which one gives us more security? Which one makes us feel more alive?

The paradox of faith is that focusing on the eternal takes care of the temporal; puts it in its proper perspective. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

I Love Thy Presence Lord

George Beverly Shea died last Tuesday (April 16, 2013) at the ripe old age of 104. He is mostly remembered for his resonant baritone voice singing gospel songs for Billy Graham’s evangelistic campaigns.

Because he was so well known for his singing voice and his association with Billy Graham, few people realize that he composed a number of very well-known hymns as well; “I’d Rather Have Jesus,” and “The Wonder of It All,” to name a few. One of his lesser-known hymns; “I Love Thy Presence Lord,” is a favorite of mine.

When I was in college, our choir sang this hymn as a call to worship. I was immediately attracted to the music. If the music is done well, I am often more attracted to music than to words. I nearly forgot about the beauty of this hymn until I heard it on a CD produced by Hesston College. To celebrate their centennial, they recorded choir music that spanned the decades.

As I listened to this hymn repeatedly, I became attracted to the words. They describe an experience of prayer with God; a prayer that evokes a presence so close that one feels and sees Jesus beside them. It is a prayer that doesn’t happen by chance; it happens because there is a relationship that involves time and depth.

Verse 1:
I love thy presence Lord, The place of secret prayer.
My soul communes with thee, and gone is earthly care.
I love thy presence Lord, to me thou art made real
As when on Galilean hills, thy loving touch didst heal.

The first verse gives the sense of time alone with God in a special place. In such a time and place, like centering prayer, God draws near. The weight of the day dissipates, as we are touched by God’s presence.

Verse 2:
I see thy nail-scared hands, outstretched in love to me,
I know thou art working still, thy hidden plan I see,
I love thy presence Lord, this very present power
That makes me know my prayers are heard, in heaven this very hour.

The second verse brings to mind active imagination. As one’s “soul communes” with Jesus, one can imagine the physical presence of Jesus. With this presence and touch, one can speak with Jesus and discern his “hidden plan.” This physical presence also makes one know that one’s prayers are being heard.

Verse 3:
O burden bearer kind, with power all divine,
The fears that tear my heart, are gladly borne by thine,
And as I seek to live, a life of ceaseless prayer,
Let not this child of thine, forget to meet thee often there.

God’s presence, with divine power, takes away the cares of the day, the week, the year. This assurance should make one return time and again, ceaselessly, to this “place of secret prayer.” Unfortunately, the cares of our normal lives pull us away from this potential haven of rest, discernment and comfort.

The time of prayer described in these short verses parallels closely my own experience of silence and centering with God. Unfortunately, I too often forget to meet him there. Life-giving and life-changing potential awaits us, if only we take the time.

I love thy presence Lord. Help me to remember to take time to be with you. 

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Would you recognize Jesus?

The Road to Emmaus Luke 24: 13:35

Cleopas and another unidentified disciple of Jesus were walking on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus when Jesus appeared among them. The NRSV says that “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” I like what it says in the Spanish Bible: “They seemed to have their eyes blindfolded.” What kept their eyes from recognizing this extremely popular and well-known personality with whom they had spent a lot of time? What made it seem that they were blindfolded?

On the one hand, I think they were blinded by their grief. Grief does strange things to a person. The text says they were “looking sad,” even in spite of the fact that they had already received the joyous news from reliable witnesses that Jesus had risen from the dead. Perhaps they were also blinded by unbelief.

On the other hand, they were blinded by unfulfilled expectations. The text quotes them as saying, “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” Their expectations of what the Messiah was to be were dashed with the death of Jesus. Like many others, their expectation was for a Messiah to restore the earthly grandeur of the Israelites under king David. Jesus’ death meant the end of that expectation. They would have to wait for some other person and some other time to fulfill their expectations.

As a child, I could never understand how these two men could not recognize Jesus. I suspect that most of us wonder the same thing. Nevertheless, the scripture gives ample evidence that blindness is a common malady. It calls this blindness “eyes that see but do not perceive,” or that people have “shut their eyes” (blindfolded?) (Matt. 13:13,15). It seems that there is a contrast made in scripture between the eyes that can only see what is in front of one’s face and eyes that can see beyond that reality. Eyes that perceive.

As an adult, I wonder how many of us would recognize Jesus if he appeared among us on our walk through life. We are probably not blinded by grief, but we are more than likely blinded by our expectations of what we think Jesus is, or how we think he would act. Our expectations are influenced by more than 2,000 years of theological baggage and interpretations passed on to us. Our expectations are influenced by our particular cultural understandings and interpretations of what is right or wrong. Our expectations are influenced by our own ego wants and needs.

I am particularly speaking about the hard sayings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Most Christians, either as individuals or collectively through denominational interpretations, have found all sorts of ways to domesticate these sayings and render them harmless. (for a look at how cultures have treated the Beatitudes, part of the Sermon on the Mount, see my book Meditations on the Beatitudes). By not taking these sayings seriously, we would more than likely not recognize Jesus.

In spite of my assertion that most of us would not recognize Jesus if he appeared among us, there is hope. The hope comes by developing “eyes that perceive;” eyes that can see a reality beyond what is in front of one’s face. One develops these eyes through the spiritual disciplines; centering prayer, working with one’s dreams, lectio divina, active imagination, sacred breathing, just to mention a few.

Would you recognize Jesus if he walked beside you on your daily path? Don’t be so quick to answer “yes.” Like the two men on the road to Emmaus, we may have more blindfolds covering our eyes than we think. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Use your imagination

Genesis 1: 26a, 27 and 31: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness;’ So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.”

As a kid I remember living half of my life in a fantasy world. If I wasn’t on my back staring into the wild blue yonder seeing clouds morphing into unendingly fascinating scenes, I was announcing imaginary baseball games while mowing the lawn.

Somewhere along the line, I received the message, either directly or indirectly, that this was not the way to live or to survive in the “real” world. “Get real,” we tell each other, as if our imaginations are not real.

Unfortunately, our educational institutions are some of the biggest culprits in squeezing our imaginations out of us. I say this after spending 25 years teaching at the college level. During my studies, I learned how to critique everything that I saw in public, everything that I read in private, or everything that I ate with friends. I learned how to deconstruct, to tear apart, to analyze and to scrutinize. My overall attitude, like so many of my fellow students, was that nothing was ever good enough. And that uncovering and picking apart the vulnerable places in everything was the sign of a true intellectual. An intellectual who was above experiencing the emotions of joy and ecstasy or one’s imagination.

Why would anyone want to create anything and be exposed to such hostility? John O’Donohue in his book Eternal Echoes, wrote this: “When the embrace and depth of creativity are absent, analysis becomes destruction. It can break things apart, but there is nothing now to put them back together again” (p. 130).

The problem as I see it, is a lack of imagination. Imagination and creativity go hand in hand. Imagination helps us to “embrace . . . [the] depth of creativity.” Too often analysis and destruction go hand in hand, leaving one without imagination. God created us to imagine. He created us in his image. God imagined us and imaged us and we came into being. When we imagine we create. And it is very good. Using our imagination is at the very core of our being made in God’s image.

I am not against analysis and breaking things apart. What I am against, is not supplying anything “to put [the pieces] back together again,” which so often happens in the process of “education.” I earlier wrote about picking apart everything as part of being an intellectual. But this deconstruction shows up in more personal ways as well. When I went to Latin America, my naive worldview was ripped apart, and I was given nothing to put a new worldview back together. My education helped me to understand and analyse what had happened to me, but without helping me to put the pieces back together again left me hanging in the air and cynical. Another piece of my worldview that got obliterated was my Sunday school faith in God. My education helped me to understand and analyse what happened to my religious views, but without helping me to put the pieces back together again left me hanging in the air and cynical. I would think that my experience was unique if I hadn’t worked with many other young adults in my classes over the years who have experienced similar things.

It has taken me years to bring my imagination back into play again. Through my imagination, I have been able to reconnect with my God-likeness and image. I have been able to read scripture and nature through my imagination rather that through an analytical lens. I have been able to enjoy public performance of all the arts without having to tear it apart; to enjoy the God-likeness evident through the creation of others. I have been able to use my imagination to create my own “works of art,” if not on paper, in my head. This rediscovery of my boyhood imagination has enabled me to “put back together” the broken pieces that had formerly made me bitter and cynical. It has given me a healthier spirituality.

Use your imagination. Use your God image. Create rather than destroy.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Repetition a Spiritual Discipline

On a recent audiocast, Richard Rohr, noted speaker, author and director of the Center for Action and Contemplation, extolled the virtue of repeating the Rosary over and over again, as good Catholics used to do. He claimed that most every religion in the world has used prayer beads and repetition as a way to “rewire” the negative messages we have ingrained in our thoughts from our upbringing and socialization.

Most of us react negatively to repetition. An example of this is when we had an exchange student living with us for a year. Before each meal, we repeated the same table grace, but she never joined in. When we asked her about it, she said, “That prayer doesn’t come from the heart, God must be bored with your repeating it over and over again.” Somehow or other, we have been led to believe, especially in more charismatic circles, that prayers that are repeated or written down to be read are not as “spiritual” as ones that are spontaneous. Our student loved the worship services in which simple choruses were sung. Somehow I had the presence of mind to respond to her, “Well, God must be bored with your singing then, because you repeat the same things over and over again.” After that she half-heartedly repeated the prayer with us.

In defense of ritual, or repetition, Ronald Rolheiser, in his weekly article of July 11, 2010, wrote: “A recent study on marriage points out that couples who make it a habit to give each other a ritual embrace or kiss before leaving the house in the morning and another ritual embrace or kiss before retiring at night fare better than those who let this gesture be determined by simple spontaneity or mood.” This is boring repetition.

Rolheiser goes on to write, “It is a ritual, an act that is done regularly to precisely say what our hearts and heads cannot always say, namely, that the deepest part of us remains committed even during those times when we are too tired, too distracted, too angry, too bored, too anxious, too self-preoccupied, or too emotionally or intellectually unfaithful to be as attentive and present as we should be. It says that we still love the other and remain committed despite the inevitable changes and pressures that the seasons bring.” Repetition “rewires” and reaffirms our commitment.

Returning to Rohr’s point, he was not saying that we all need to pray the rosary, but that we need some sort of positive repetition to “replace something that is repetitive and negative or obsessive.” He calls this replacement therapy. “When the obsessive fear-based word assaults you and wants to grab you,” he says, “you find this [positive] word that’s deep within you. For many Christians it’s Jesus—a word that re-grounds you in the positive. It’s rewiring.”

Rohr claims that our minds are constantly thinking, and all serious religious prayer “sends you into some sort of non-thinking practice, meditation, contemplation, chant, mantra, rosary, something that stops this left-brain repeating of the old party line, over and over again.” The old party line for him are negative, obsessive thoughts that lead us to addictions.

The Jesus prayer has been passed down through the ages as one of these repetitive prayers. It has many different forms, but the most cited one is, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner.” It can be used with sacred breathing defined in my previous post, or I have often used it while I walk, repeating the phrase with the rhythm of my steps. Repeating it over and over again helps us to move to Paul’s admonition to “pray without ceasing.”

After hearing Rohr’s audiocast, I now have ammunition for defeating my obsessive snacking, probably rooted in some negative messages from my socialization. When I want to reach for that piece of chocolate, or handful of chips, I will repeat, “Jesus, you comfort me more than this ________ (fill in the blank).” And according to Rolheiser, if I do this repeatedly, my commitment to Jesus will be underscored, as his will to me.

How do you use repetition of prayers or other spiritual practice to quiet your over obsessive thoughts? To replace the negative with the positive?

The full audiocast and question and answers can be downloaded at: https://cac.org/free-emotional-sobriety-mp3