Primitive religion is not believed, it is danced!

Arthur Darby Nock

Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
And only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

Elizabeth Browning

Monday, May 30, 2011

Living the Questions

Rainer Maria Rilke has a very powerful verse that goes like this… “Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language.  Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them.  And the point is to live everything.  Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer”

“Have patience with everything unresolved. . . live the questions”.   It is advice with which I am struggling now more than ever; even as I see, more clearly than ever, how wise, how profound, this advice must be.  Live the questions,  because the answers you grasp for cannot be given, and if they could be, you would in the present moment not be able to live them. 

I remember when my father was diagnosed with cancer, having a lot of questions.  How could this good man, who lived a good life, a healthy life, have gotten cancer?  It didn’t make sense, it wasn’t fair.  When my mother, died, only four years later of a neurological syndrome almost no one had ever heard of, I had questions…..Why?  How could it happen?  How could this make sense?  That powerful little dynamo of person, how could she have had her ability to do, the one thing she prized, taken away from her?

Over the years there have been questions which have echoed, over and over again in my heart
How do bad people succeed?  Why do wonderful people die?  Why does life never seem to go the way I think it will?  Why is it that God so rarely does things the way I think God ought to do them?

I have asked these questions in deep need, when confronted by painful change.  My questions have been, I hope uttered honestly, faithfully,  and yet, often, with no hope of response: a prayer flung with desperation into a kind of cosmic silence.  I do not want to live the questions—I want answers!!  But really, there is nothing else to be done.

Over the past months, I have had more questions.
Questions about where God is in the midst of all I see happening around me…
In Lybia
In Japan
In Wisconsin and Indiana and Ohio
In Oregon

I have questions
Why the Tsunami?
Why do the wicked prosper?
Why do people the people we entrust with leadership betray our trust?
How can people make the choices they make?
Why are people so hateful?
Why do people with powerful ideologies get blinded, and end up doing more harm than good?
How can we as a nation choose to abandon the “little one” the vulnerable ones in our midst

I like Paul can talk in circles
Seeking to find satisfaction
And nice neat answers

And yet, recently, I have been trying my own hand at asking questions in a different way—questions that do not demand satisfaction, questions that do not already have an answer in mind, questions that are harder, but infinitely richer, than those I usually ask, or answer.

Parker Palmer, a great author who often talks about “living the questions” says, quite simply, that our questions should be both open and honest.  Now, I will confess that although I like to think my questions are open and honest, often I ask questions with the answer already in mind. 

But what do we do when we ask the tough questions, and can’t figure the answer out?
With the successful bad person
And the good person to whom bad things happen?

What happens when the answers really aren’t there?
Sometimes, in order to come to up with an “answers” we have to twist our minds into pretzels

Think about when a child dies.  About the horrid answers that come when people can’t live with the questions….“She was such a precious child God wanted to have her with Him”   Good grief, what kind of ogre God would take a child away from her parents like that?  Seriously!

Maybe sometimes we have to ask not so much for the answer, but for the wisdom to live within the uncertainty.  Sometimes we have to just let go of the question, essentially, and just move on – with a new question, a different question

To ask the question, who am I?  and who am I to be?  In this reality - in this world – which I don’t understand.  The question needs to be not, why has our culture lost its moral compass?  We have to live with that question.  The question has to be, “How can I be God’s person in the midst of a culture that is slowly throwing the poor underneath the bus?    The question to be answered is not “why are people greedy?”  We have to live with that question.  But rather “How can I be God’s person in a world where people want to entrench and hug their resources to themselves?”

How can we make that shift?  How can we live with those questions that eat at our souls, and move to questions that move us forward, into action, and keep us living, and doing and hoping?  We trust.  We trust that God will work his purposes out  -  that God will bring something out of even those things we cannot understand, or even emotionally accept.  To believe, “all things work together for good, for those who love God.”

So we are not called to have all the answers, we are called to trust…
That God is the great innovator and can use anything, even human failure to move his ministry of love forward.  If we trust than we will not be trapped by the negative, by what we cannot understand, by what seems, feels overwhelming, but can dare to move forward -
Doing what we can
In this time and this place
To help the Kingdom of God emerge

Monday, May 16, 2011

Thoughts on Prayer

One of the things I really struggled with for many years was how to pray.  Is there a perfect time for prayer?  Is there a position for prayer?  This was a topic that was once the focus of three preachers.  They sat in one minister’s church discussing this while a telephone repairman worked nearby. "Kneeling is definitely best," claimed one.  "No," another contended. "I get the best results standing with my hands outstretched to Heaven." “You're both wrong," the third insisted. "The most effective prayer position is lying prostrate, face down on the floor."  The repairman could contain himself no longer. "Hey, fellas, "he interrupted, "the best prayin' I ever did was hangin' upside down  from a telephone pole.

How do we pray??  Do we pray with urgency? Reflectively?  Formally?  Informally?  The startling thing about his passage is that it seems to indicate that there is NO RIGHT WAY.  Paul in Romans hints that we have no clue about how to pray, or what to pray for.  In Romans 8 he tells us that we are prayer challenged.  Listen to Paul’s words again.  “We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit intercedes for us ….according to God’s will.”

It looks to me that with prayer, as with everything else, it is all about God.  Prayer only works if we are constantly mentored by God.  If in fact we turn control of the whole process over to God.  To me this means that prayer is mostly a matter of listening. Or to put it another way, being aware of the promptings of God.  This concept goes back a long, long way….For example Psalm 37  says "Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for God."

We start with listening.  By seeking the “gentle whisper” of God.  We start by simply allowing ourselves to be “in the presence”.  By waiting for the Spirit of God to speak in the midst of the chaos that is our lives.  In short, we let God lead our praying.  How often do we go into prayer prepared mostly to talk?  We have our list.  The things we want to tell God.  The things we want God to do.  The outcomes we expect God to produce.  We have our agenda.  But Paul suggests that although we might know what we WANT to prayer for, we really don’t know what we OUGHT to pray for. 

Once I realized I wasn’t responsible for the content of my prayer time, it got a lot better - seriously. I could just find a space in my day, it needed only to be a moment, and I could turn to God and say essentially, “Well, here I am God!  Anything I need to hear?”  And I would wait for the Spirit in me to help me pray.  And my prayer was nothing more than a response to the promptings of God.”  I still try to pray primarily by letting the Spirit prompt me.  Usually I just wait for God to bring things into my mind.  A person, a situation.  As I sit, or walk, or drive, I just notice what surfaces.  That’s what I pray about.

But this raises another question.  When God brings things into our prayers, what do we do with them?

Gerald May in his book Will and Spirit suggests that we can be one of two ways.  We can be willful, people who keep control of their lives, even their religious lives, or we can be willing, people who let God direct their lives.  Prayer for the willful person of is a matter of directing God.  I know there are those who feel they need to give God lots of helpful hints.  But I struggle with this kind of praying.  “God do this.  God do that!”  I know some strongly believe this is how you pray.  And I am not saying there are not moments when we might just burst out a request.  But I struggle with what seems like willful praying.  This is us creating our future, establishing the direction for our lives

Mind you I do it. But I try not to.  I don’t mind having content to my prayer… but mostly I am simply trying to ask for God’s presence and action in my life, and in the lives of those around me.  I try to let God bring people or situations or issues in to my mind.  And then I really try to simply place that person, or situation, in God’s hands

So, someone comes to my mind.  I say “God, I put that person in your hands” That’s all I have to do.  I don’t have to tell God what to DO with person, because I don’t know what God wants to do in that person’s life.  I just ask god to be there for that person, with love, joy, peace.  God knows what to do.  A situation comes to mind.  I simply pray, “God, there is obviously something you want to do in that situation.  I give it to you.”  For me this works   In short, I am horrible at prayer, so I let the Spirit in me do the praying.  And I believe that God knows the right solutions.

Listen again to what Paul says:  “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.  For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.”   Sounds to me like our job it to follow God where God leads, because God knows what to do. God has it figured out.

So for me prayer is most powerful when I am willing.  When I am quiet, wait, listen, and let God move me forward, one choice at a time. Prayer is about one little thing at a time.  We like to think of prayer as a strategic session with God where big visions are revealed, where plans for the foreseeable future are developed.  But I really don’t think this is the case

I have found prayer more meaningful when I have started to see it as an ongoing consultation about all those small choices we make every day.  Wayne Muller reminds us that all of life is really a series of small choice points.  We make, he says,  hundreds, perhaps thousands of choices each day. 

Later he says, “The choice we make again and again is this:  Will we shape our moments days, years, inspired by our deepest heart’s wisdom and knowing where the thread of grace will lead us, or shall we be driven by external requirements, demands, fears and coercions?”  To return to the image given us by Paul.  Will we shape our moments led by the Spirit who intercedes with us with groans that words cannot express?   

Our job is to choose, as Muller puts it, “the next right thing” and I see prayer as the process by which we move to “the next right thing”.  I believe that as we go through our day, we are called to be in intimate fertile conversation with God (yep, that’s prayer), that we need to practice deep and sacred listening for the next right thing.  Then as we let God prompt us, we make that choice, act on it, and then we start looking for the next right choice.  In this way, through prayer, we can follow the direction of God, or as Muller puts it, “the breadcrumbs” of God.

So as we listen, as we engage in deep conversation with god through prayer, God keeps putting out those breadcrumbs, and as we respond to those promptings, we move forward with God and discover, and live, God’s intention for us.  We will live, as Paul puts it “according to God’s purpose”
Will we always see the breadcrumb – no!
Will we always make the right choice?  No!
Will we always choose what is best?  No!
Will we always listen?  Are you kidding?

But I believe god is the great innovator.  And that God can work with whatever choices we make.  Remember, “All things work together for God for those who love God”.  I think what Paul is saying is that we just pray.  We just listen, and respond, as best we can.  And if we do so as people who are willing, we can trust God to get us where we need to go. 

Then God will lead us choice by choice through the day, through life.  And suddenly we will realize that God has brought something forth:  We are in a new place, something powerful has happened, we have made it through the dark place

What we can’t do is take over.  Jesus said, “The wind blows where it will, and we hear the sound of it, but we do not know where it comes from or where it goes… so is the life of the spirit.”  We actually have no idea how to make things turn out the way they should.  We don’t know where we are supposed to go. So our job is to stay connected, by constant intimate conversation with God, and be surprised by the wonder and grace of how it all unfolds. 

We have to let go of our mistaken presumption that we are somehow responsible to supervise the work of God.  That we need to tell God what to do in prayer.  Instead we are called to willingly allow ourselves to be led by God.  One choice at a time.  William Stafford has a wonderful poem called “The Way It Is”

There’s a thread you follow, It goes among things that change
But it doesn’t change, People wonder about what you are pursuing
You have to explain about the thread, But it is hard for others to see
While you hold it you can’t get lost, Tragedies happen, people get hurt
Or die and you suffer and get old, Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding
You don’t even let go of the thread

Our job is to never let go of the thread.  From choice to choice to choice we follow the thread of God’s love, god’s best intention for us.  We may lose our way from time to time, but the great innovator will nudge us back where we belong.  We may feel lost from time to time, but the Spirit will remind us that God is with us. Things may hurt and feel hopeless at times, but we will learn that all things work together for good, for those who love god.

The bottom line?  When we listen to God, when we are willing, as we wish for God’s best.  As we are in constant deep communion with the sacred, as we pray! We will know the next right thing to do!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Thoughts on the death of a good man

When someone dies we grieve.  It doesn’t matter if the person is 9 or 80, whether the death is expected or unexpected, we grieve.  We experience all kinds of stuff.  Denial, anger, sorrow…it is all there.  And as we deal with these feelings it is important for us to remember that grief is a natural part of the human experience.  In fact it is not only natural, it is necessary.  And if it is to be productive, it is good if it is purposeful.

We may not often think of it this way, but grief should have a goal.  The goal is to come out of the process of grief with acceptance and hope..  As Paul writes in the Bible, “grieve not as those who have no hope.”  Our grieving, as god’s children, is to lead to hope.

But how can that happen?  How can we find hope in something as final and devastating as death?  How can we find growth in something so painful.  We can find hope because of Jesus Christ.  Christ is the one who helps us believe that growth and life can emerge out of hut.

Christ brings us hope and expectation because he is an illustration of the fact that we can trust God, even in the midst of death.

You see Christ shows us some very important things.  First, Christ shows us that God is a God of love.  Christ is, to put it another way, God’s statement of love.  Because of Christ we know that God is not an angry malevolent power on high, but a loving parent.  As Christ himself put it, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, what whoever believes in him might not perish but have everlasting life.  God loves us.  Christ shows that.  If God is love we can trust him.

He shows second that God is powerful. In the life of Christ we see that power in many ways.  We see it in the miracles, in the feeding of the 5,000, in the various healings, in the raising of Lazarus.  If God is powerful, he can help us.

Have you ever thought what a powerful combination that is, love and power.  If God is simply powerful, then he is a tyrant.. If he is merely loving, then he is useless, unable to truly help us.  But when he is both loving and powerful, then we have something.  We have a God who wants to give life – AND CAN DO IT.

We see the love and power of God most clearly in the cross of Good Friday and the empty tomb of Easter.  The cross illustrates the love.  The fact that God himself, in Christ, would suffer through the darkness and alienation of death… that is love.  We see the power in the grave.  Not in the grave, filled with the body of Christ, but in the grave, empty on Easter morning.  In that empty grave we see the power God has to bring life into the midst of death.

But there is one other word I want to highlight
We have talked about love
We have thought about power, and what happens when love and power come together

But I want to talk about the one thing that to me is really the key to the whole mystery of faith.  Presence.   In the upper room, as he is telling the disciples about his impending death, and about his departure, Jesus said these words:  (John 14:15-20)
"If you love me, you will obey what I command.  And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever— I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.

I am in you!  In the person of the Holy Spirit, our powerful loving god is “in us”.  God is not just out there!!  Somewhere!  He is in us.  And as we turn in, to find our true selves, we find God there, at the center of who we are.  And that makes all the difference.  That is the difference between Christianity and every other faith system.  “God in us”

There is a story of a man who lay dying.  When the minister visited him he noted an empty chair at the man’s bedside and asked him who had just been visiting.  The sick man replied, “I place Jesus on that chair and I talk to him.”  For years, he told the minister, he had found it extremely difficult to sense the reality of God, and to pray.  But then someone told him that prayer was just talking to Jesus, and suggested the man just imagine Jesus sitting in a chair where he could speak with Him and listen to what He said in reply.  “I have had no trouble praying ever since” he concluded.

Some days later the daughter of the man came to the church to inform the minister that her father had just died.  She said.  “Because he seemed so content I left him alone for a couple of hours.  When I got back to the room I found him dead.  I noted a strange thing though.  His head was resting not on the bed, but on an empty chair that was beside his bed.”

God is present.  He was present in this world in Christ.  He is present in us, in the risen Christ, in the Spirit.  We are never alone. 

So we have a loving, powerful, and present God
This is a god we can trust.  Trust with our hearts,  trust with our lives,
But above all, trust with our deaths

With such a God that moment we call death is transformed.
Because we can trust that in this scary moment of life, in the mysterious moment of transformation, we can trust that God will provide the grace for the next step on the journey. 

A number of years ago a woman died.  They found, by her bedside an envelope.  In that envelope was what was in essence, her last testimony.  This is how it read.

When this earthly body of mine is quiet and breathes no more, make a joyful noise unto the Lord, my friends.  Do not weep, unless you weep for yourselves.  Do not weep for me.  Instead dance and sing, and shout the Good News.  Another child has gone home to the Father, Abba.

Sing songs of joy late into the night, and if there are hardy ones among you, sing and praise and pay and laugh into the dawn.  Give praise to God, for He is mercy.  Sorry not dear friends on my going, but be glad.  Let not the celebration of my true birth into the Lord be a humdrum thing, but let the halls ring with gladness and mirth.  Praise our God, for He has called me home, and I go with love, expectation and praise on my lips and joy in my heart.  In my absolute knowledge that I am a beloved child of God, a dwelling place for the spirit of God.

When love and power and presence come together, we have that absolute knowledge that we are a beloved child of God.  And then we can honestly say with Paul

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Nothing can separate us from the Love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord
Nothing, not even death!
Thanks be to God.