What is Prayer?

In April I was invited to participate in a panel discussion on prayer and meditation at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts. As part of the preparation I wrote a brief description of my understanding of prayer:

Prayer is an intentional act of connecting with God in a way that both changes us – gradually decreases the hold of the ego and helps us see God in the world – and connects us more closely with God and other humans. 
 
Prayer is not, in my understanding, trying to convince a reluctant God to do something God isn’t already doing. God is always speaking to the better angels of our nature. God is always pouring God’s love and grace into our lives and calling us join God in loving the world into wholeness. We need to tune our antenna so we can receive this grace and love. We need to change the way we see the world so we understand how deeply we are connected to God and one another. Prayer is a vehicle for this. Prayer is not asking for little red wagons; God doesn’t give little red wagons. God is always giving us God’s spirit.  God gives life, and hope and peace and calls us to care and support one another.
 
That said, I also believe that prayer for healing is efficacious. Not because we are convincing God to do something (heal someone) that God isn’t already doing. Rather there is some mysterious way the energy of our prayer contributes to the energy of healing. And praying for other people is an act of solidarity, where we enter into the suffering of others. And in some way my engineer brain cannot fathom, that matters.
 
For me, meditation is a form of prayer in which we rest in the presence of God. It is a practice of turning from our distracted, monkey mind, to the quiet presence of God. While it may contain words, such as a mantra, the purpose of the words is to call the self back into a state of resting in God.  Meditation is a particular contemplative quiet form of prayer which has the goal of resting in the quiet presence of God beneath words or thoughts.

How Christ Reconciles us to God and Ourselves

We were created for a joy that comes from living in holy communion with God and one another.

We don't live in Joy because we are paralyzed by fear, judgement, insecurity, addictions and general bone-headedness.

Jesus came to fix that, to show us the way back to Joy, to reconcile us to God and one another.

But how? How does Christ reconcile us?  In Lent of 2017, the clergy of Trinity Cathedral explored the Episcopal Baptismal Covenant in a series of five sermons. The third sermon was on the question, "Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ." I used the opportunity to preach a sermon on the good news of the Crucifixion and then teach a class on a broader understanding of how God is in Christ reconciling us.  Here is the sermon and the class:

  

 

 

  


What I Believe

Shortly after falling in love with Jesus when I was 19, I was confronted with an understanding about Christianity that I had trouble accepting: namely the notion that God would condemn to eternal torture those who were not followers of Jesus. The idea that Jesus came to save his followers, and only his followers, from eternal torment seemed to be the only way, in my more evangelical upbringing, that I was to understand the "good news" of God in Christ.  My experience, on the other hand, was of God who loved me even while I was in the midst of rebelling against God.  Part of why I went to seminary was to figure out if I could be a Christian: did I have to believe that Christ died on the cross to satisfy God's wrath so those who accepted Jesus would be saved from the eternal torture at the hand of God?  Or was there a place in the church for a God who loved the world in the same way I had experienced God's love for me. I was ready to give my life to a spiritual path, and I needed to make sure Christianity was the right path for me.

In seminary I learned that this one model of understanding Christ - substitutionary  atonement - was only one of many; and was not a central or essential belief for Episcopalians.  That launched me on a quest of understanding what the good news of God in Christ was, for me. In what way does Jesus save us, or reconcile us to God? What is the central message of Jesus?  My articulation of this good news has evolved over my 36 year journey as a Christian. Here's what I think now:

  • God is love. God's only judgement is mercy.
  • All humans are beloved children of God, created for love, deserving of love, and capable of love.
  • All humans are created to live in holy communion with God, all other humans and all of creation: Jesus called this state of holy communion "the Kingdom of Heaven"
  • We are all paralyzed by fear, judgement, insecurities, addictions and a way of thinking that pits me against you, us against them. This paralysis is called sin. Sin leads to division. Division is the work of the devil (root word = divide.)
  • God's response to this paralysis is not wrath but heartbreak.
  • God was in Christ reconciling the world to God: Jesus came to reconcile us, to reconnect us to God and one another (aka heaven) by leading us out of this paralysis of fear, judgement and dualistic thinking (aka sin.)  Connection and reconciliation is the work of God.
  • We are called in some mystical way to become Jesus, to embody God's spirit and love, and join Jesus in sacrificially loving the world into wholeness.

 


Trinity Cathedral Rule of Life

Trinity Cathedral Rule of Life

 

How do you stay grounded in your faith? How do you keep your heart open and loving? How to you abide in hope? How do we, as a community of faith, join Christ in loving the world into wholeness? In times of personal struggle, or national strife, it can be difficult to draw from the well of spiritual strength found in our faith. For centuries Christians have adopted spiritual practices that promise, over time, to ground us in the love of God making us resilient and loving. This Rule of Life offers a set of four practices that grow out of the promises of the Baptismal Covenant. It is our belief that adopting these practices will, over time, transform our hearts and our lives. They are offered for a season, with the hope that they may become long-term habits.

The Commitments

  1. Connect Daily: Commit to daily spiritual practice 

In the beginning there was nothing. God created all the wonders of the universe: the multitude of stars and planets, the array of plants and animals, and the mass diversity of humankind. God created it all, and nothing is apart from this creativity and love. Everything is Holy and blessed. It is our practice of disconnect and individual numbing that causes us to act apart from this reality. In a chaotic world, daily spiritual practices call us to intentionally return to the source, to God’s love and God’s call.

The Practice:  Commit to daily spiritual practice whether it is for one minute, or sixty – practice daily.

  1. Stay Loving: Respect the dignity of every human being

Every person is a beloved child of God, deserving of and capable of love. Too often we deny this basic goodness in ourselves and others. In judgement, we distance, demonize and diminish the dignity of other people. We also turn this judgmental eye onto ourselves.  In contrast Jesus lived a life of forgiveness and reconciliation. He tells us to love others as we love ourselves, to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us.  

It is difficult to stay loving when confronted by cruelty, violence, arrogance, and selfishness. There is a strong temptation to respond in kind. Jesus calls us to a higher way: to not let the cruelty of others rob us of our ability to love. Jesus modeled this when he asked God to forgive the very people who were killing him. While we may not have the spiritual strength of Jesus, we can strive to keep our hearts loving as we strive for justice in the world.

The practice: Pay attention to your thoughts and when you start berating yourself, or denying the dignity of others, redirect your thinking. Perhaps say a short prayer or mantra, such as “every person is a beloved child of God,” or “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” Do not participate in conversations that demonize others. Pray for people you dislike or who threaten you.

  1. Practice Community: Worship and study together

Shortly after Jesus’ death, his followers found themselves called to live radically different lives than that of the dominant culture. Called to recognize all as beloved children of God, to cross human boundaries, befriend outcasts, and challenge oppressive powers in the way of Jesus, many fell short. They realized the need for specific practices that would give them stamina and ground them in faith and courage. Some found these practices in community, setting aside regular and specific times for eating, studying, worshipping, and praying together. Others sought silence and time apart. All found a need to return to the source of all life, and reconnect.

In two thousand years, this need has not changed. In a divisive and chaotic world, we too need practices which nurture the source of life within us. Practicing community, Jesus’ followers founded a faith which unexpectedly spread beyond boundaries in a hostile world. Their simple practices of community - sharing stories, listening deeply, eating together, sharing resources, and praying together – formed their lives, and strengthened their hearts. Whether it is to commit to weekly worship, and/or one weekly group learning activity, in this Lenten season, we invite you too to enter into the practice of community.

The practice: Commit to weekly worship and one weekly group learning opportunity.

  1. Do Justice: Strive for justice and peace in the world

We live in a beautiful and broken world. Believing as we do in the unity of God’s love, harm that affects any of our brothers and sisters is harm that affects us all. No matter who we are, or where we are in our spiritual journey, God calls us to be agents for justice, healing, and hope. The good news is that we have already begun. In our baptismal covenant, we promise to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being. In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven. And we have the words of the prophet Micah ringing in our ears: that what God requires of us is to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8).

When we turn our hearts to issues of injustice, suffering, and unrest, we engage in work that we cannot do alone. Thus, we open ourselves to being used and changed by God in ways that we can neither control nor predict. In this, lies hope for us and for the world.

The practice: Stay present and actively grapple with current events.  Commit to one justice area and regular action. Share your experience in conversations with members of the church.


Response to Donald Trump's Election to the Presidency

My 1st post the day after the election:

To my friends who are heartsick and terrified by the election results, friends afraid of being persecuted because of your religion or race, afraid of losing healthcare, or other issues of justice, please know that you are not alone. I will stand with you and fight harder than before for justice and peace for all. Trinity Cathedral is open today for prayer and we are looking at other special services. I will be preaching this Sunday.

To my friends who voted for Donald Trump, please know I respect your decision. I don't assume you made the choice out of malice toward any. I look forward to joining forces as we work together to bring God's kingdom closer for all.

A few hours later:

 Many are devastated by the results of the election, and gripped in a debilitating fear. I certainly understand. My imagination has been running out all kinds of scenarios that don’t look good for people on Obamacare, immigrants, refugees, people of color, Muslims, and others. While I have friends who are pleased with the election results, right now, my heart is with those who are reeling.

From a place of anxiety and fear, I remembered Jeremiah’s real estate purchase. Jerusalem was surrounded by the Babylonians. It was about to be overrun. And Jeremiah bought a house. It was an act of defiant hope in the future. Jeremiah was saying, “things look impossible now, but this is not the end of the story. God’s will be done.” It is similar to Desmond Tutu telling soldiers who were arresting him at the height of Apartheid, “It’s not too late to join the winning side.”

For many, this time looks impossibly dark. But dark times have come and dark times have gone. For me, it is a wake up call to be even more involved in fighting for justice. I know many people who believe in justice who have been quiet or silent. Not any more. I remember a similar feeling when Prop 8 passed in California and many of us stood on the steps of the Capital pledging to fight for marriage equality. This is a similar moment. Don’t lose heart. Love will win.

It is also a time to stop hating. That means stop hating the haters as well. Evil works by preying on our fear – pushing us to hate those we perceive as a threat. We need to respect the dignity of every human being. To quote Jesus, we need to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Don’t let the cruelty of others rob us of our ability to love.

So my prayer is that we can keep our hearts open and loving as we fight even harder for justice and peace for all.

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