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After their dinner date, Sandy was mildly disturbed. What was it? Something was eating at her. She really liked Greg. Everything seemed to go well – good conversation, a few laughs, great food, even some electricity in the air.
Oh, it came to her: that remark he made about her sister always being late. It stung. Why? Just what did he mean? Maybe she was over reacting…but his remark sounded catty…
Greg sat with his morning coffee and smiled to himself about the date. It went really well. Sandy actually listened to him. She was funny and pretty and he felt relaxed. He wondered if he should call and tell her how much he enjoyed the evening.
Sandy and Greg have unfinished business – the business of relationship building, the business of deepening intimacy and trust. A business which is the foundation of love.
We naturally review and reflect on conversations and our encounters with others. We sort out the positive and negatives. We go over what we wish we had said differently or left out. We discover questions we want to ask, more information we need.
We may even make a follow up call. “Hey Greg. It’s Sandy. I just want to tell you what a good time I had last night and thank you.” She took a breath, “Greg, I need to let you know something too. I am real loyal about my family and sensitive when people put down my sister. She’s gone through a lot dealing with her disabilities. I felt hurt when you made the joke about her always being late.”
OK. The ball is in Greg’s court now. His response will reveal more about himself, his needs, and experience. Greg and Sandy may build and deepen their relationship with greater trust and honesty in this process, or determine not to do that.
Let’s apply this idea to our practice of prayer. Sometimes we treat God as a combination landfill and filling station, rather than as a growing relationship of intimacy and trust. Prayer becomes a place to dump our trash and get refilled with peace of mind. We drive up, open the trunk and haul out our anxieties, worries, sin, pain, sorrow, and confusion and toss them in the containers. We slurp up some high octane Living Water and drive off. “Well, that’s done,” we say. “Now, let’s get on to the important stuff I need to do today.” In such a scenario of prayer God exists solely to meet my needs.
I suspect that the landfill/gas station approach characterizes quite a bit of our prayer. Yet God is mercifully patient with us about this. God knows that most us we will not come to God unless our trash is overflowing, filling our homes, spilling out the doors and down the street and we feel totally overwhelmed with the demands of our lives. We will wait until our tank is on empty, or we have run out of gas and are stranded on some lonely road late at night.
However, at some point we may notice a shift in us during our visits to the landfill. We may find a desire to stay a little longer and linger at the filling station. We may feel a curiosity about the Landfill Owner and his generosity in taking in everyone’s trash and rotting garbage. Appreciation and questions may emerge. A conversation may begin with the Filling Station Fellow, an ebb and flow of mutual disclosure in coming to know each another. We may begin to notice changes in ourselves – an eagerness to get back to the Landfill, a greater sense of peace, a growing intimacy, and – Dare you say it? What will your friends think? – love for the Filling Station Guy.
Intimacy and love with one another and with God are built on a foundation of trust and honesty over time. As we are open with our individual truth, we are drawn into the larger more spacious truth of God. As we return to share more of ourselves, we learn more of God. We get to know and like and hope the other likes us too. The Filling Station Guy is, of course, already won over and hopelessly in love with you. I suspect Greg may be too.
The Landfill will be open this Friday for Midday Prayer, 12:15 – 1:00 at The Sanctuary office at 1600 SW Campbell. Stop by, if you can, for a splash of Living Water and get to know the Filling Station Guy. I think you will find he is a keeper.
More about prayer –
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields…
Mary Oliver (A Summer Day)
I have been at it for a lot of years now, and I still do not know exactly what a prayer is. It seems to have always been part of my life like the color of my eyes. As a preschooler I learned to fold my hands and bow my head. I prayed for my family, our dog, and my neighbor, Mrs.Wendel, who made good cookies. I had a set list I covered: Santa Claus, the Snowman, and Betty Crocker, whose picture was on the box which my mom’s iron came in.
We always prayed before meals, usually led by my father. Every night he kneeled beside his bed to pray. I came upon him at prayer like that many times. He died in 2000. When I go back to Iowa to visit my mother, I like to sit in a corner by a bookcase, where dad read the Bible every day. His magnifying glass, pens, and letter opener are still there.
My father’s prayer was quiet and hidden, yet woven into the fabric of his life like his breath. I saw the fruit in his kindness and caring acts for others, in the vitality of his mind and interest in the world around him, and in his outrage at injustice. As he grew older, he would often say, “I am just so thankful.”
What exactly is a prayer? I fumble for the words. Traditional words about prayer feel like pebbles in my mouth, tasteless, hard and difficult to swallow. As much as I gnaw at them I find no nourishment.
“What language may we borrow to thank thee, dearest friend, for this thy dying sorrow, thy pity without end?” wrote the anonymous author of the lyrics to the hymn, O Sacred Head Now Wounded. Whatever language we use, it will always be “borrowed.” It will be loaned from some, other, lesser reality in an awkward, ill-fitting attempt to clothe The Reality beyond all language and human thought. Mere words fail to express the experience of our hearts in response to God’s love, gifts, and challenges in our lives.
Now I will foolishly do something I have just told you is impossible: tell you what I think a prayer is. For me prayer is fundamentally an attempt to communicate. This desire to communicate is initiated in us by God and it is a way in which we participate in the likeness of God.
Take a look at that word, communicate. Its root carries the meaning of coming together, communing, communion. What is implied is that at least two separate parties are desirous of joining in some way, of reaching an understanding, of connecting with a commonly held perspective, need, desire, or purpose.
We could say prayer is the eternal conversation and exchange of love as experienced in the context of our lives in which all parties are affected and changed in some way. For me the life, what engages me, is not the abstract concepts of prayer, but in the lived experience of communication. By the way, this is why I believe God is on Facebook and is an old hand at Twitter.
Prayer rides on the wings of our hearts’ desires, anguish, hunger and joy – that bolt of white fire that connects heaven to earth and unites mortal with divine. I can’t say exactly what a prayer is. But I can sure tell when people have been doing it.
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Could it be that the cacophony of our communication pouring into the air space, cyperspace, and onto pages and pages of paper is nothing more, or less, than eccentric beings telling stories about God? One and all, we scrawl out as best we can our truth, our passion, our experience as creatures on this planet. We tell our stories through the choices we make, the friends we keep, and our mistakes and failures. We weave wondrous tales as we frame and express the meaning we give to our unique and precious lives.
We tweet and friend and facebook and link up and plaxo as we stake out our truth and territory like the birds in the woods calling back and forth.
“Are you there?”
“Yes, I am over here.”
“Well I am here. This is my territory. This is what I see. What do you see?”
“I don’t see what you see. I see this.”
I listen a lot to people’s stories about God or the apparent absence of God in their lives. Together we lift their experiences to the light, turn them to and fro, and notice something spiritual directors like to call “movements of the Spirit” (a piece of spiritual formation jargon that makes me want to giggle). This spiritual practice involves learning to pay attention to and recognize God’s way with you and what God might be saying to you in the context of your being and daily life experience. Sometimes we work like a GSI (God Scene Investigation) team. We pick up bits of evidence. We look carefully and reverently at what we find. We piece together scraps of your life story in God. We hold it all up to the wisdom and guidance of the Spirit. We weigh it against the texts of scripture, the tradition of faith communities, and your own common sense, reason, and intuition. Then we wait for confirmation and/or redirection from the Spirit, as it speaks through your community, relationships, scriptures, and own heart.
Of course, it is rarely this tidy. Like babies babbling and toddlers scribbling, our stories are stumbling incomplete attempts to capture the unnamable ineffable Reality in which we live and move and find our being. “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night reveals knowledge,” sings the psalmist uttering his own story. (Psalm 19) In ways both, crude and blasphemous, and sublime and exalted, we join our voices with all the people on earth and all the company of heaven in every time and place who forever to sing to the glory of God.
One of the eccentrics on this caravan is poet, Gerald Manley Hopkins. With a grace and beauty that stun me, he captures the notion of all the creatures in creation telling at once their stories of holiness.
As kingfishers catch fire,
Dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves – goes its self; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me; for that I came.
I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is –
Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
Gerald Manley Hopkins
So I say Tweet your hearts out: Scenes by the wayside, tales of the sea, stories of Jesus, tell them to me!
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BECAUSE OF THE BRIGHTNESS OF THAT LIGHT
I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me,
“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
. . . Since I could not see because of the brightness of that light,
those who were with me took my hand and led me to Damascus. Acts 22: 7,11
Struck by a sickening blow to the gut,
slamming against the pitiless rock
I went down to the ground.
My body lay in the dust
My body folded upon itself in the dust.
My heart smeared with the dust.
And I lay still in the dust,
closed upon the dust,
like the wing of some great, dead bird.
I fell down
split, spread down
across the ground
Like a serpent
I went down
crawling over the ground
on my belly.
I went down to the ground
where the salamanders and skinks
scurry over the cold stone walk.
I went down to the ground
where the sow bugs curl and the beetles hide.
I went down to the ground
and swam with turtle
out of the depths
up into the light
stretched my neck long
and turned my face
to the sun.
When I was lifted up from the ground,
day became night.
my sin was always before me.
You wonder if it happened,
if I really saw what I say I saw,
heard what I tell I heard.
You wonder if I am mad
the proof is in my groping blindness
my stunned, numbed, nauseous soul
stumbling in a foreign land.
There are ones who can testify
that I saw well enough before
that I did not wear this unveiled shocked look of the newly blind.
There are ones who can remember the zeal and pulse of desire in me.
shattered into brittle splinters,
save my existence.
In darkness I paced that long night.
Near dawn some
thing like scales, like slivers,
a tough membrane-like scum
shucked from my eyes.
And I saw for the first time
like a worn pouch turned inside out.
When sight returned
there remained as a translucent cataract
Betwixt me and creation exists that dear face
and upon it I gaze unceasingly
and therein find All.
“It hurts you to kick against the goads,” he said.
Harold, awestruck and elated, told me that he had seen God. He said that God showed him hidden mysteries. No, he was not psychotic. He was simply full of Holiness bigger than his britches. Divinity burst through his immature psyche in sparks and streaks. He scared most people, impressed others, and annoyed his pastor.
He was angry and frustrated with church authorities who did not ordain him on the spot. He fussed and wore his experience like a badge of martyrdom. He was impatient about getting on with his life as a spiritual teacher or guru, and frustrated that no one seemed to recognize his superiority in this field.
A word for this fellow’s condition might be illumination, sometimes mistaken for the apex of the spiritual journey, but, rather, a roller coaster period characterized by swings of ego inflation and deflation which may last a number of years. I recognized this because I have been through such a painful period a time or two myself. I don’t know how people stood me.
According to some models for understanding the process of transformation in Christ, illumination is the middle period of spiritual development, occurring between purgation and union. In my experience these passages of spiritual growth do not proceed in an orderly linear fashion, but rather circle, repeating, and weaving in and out as the Spirit’s expression in the specific life of an individual. A person’s transformation is related to God’s purposes and the particular aspects of a personality and life situations that need cleansing, healing, reordering, and setting free.
The church and the Bible describe this passage of spiritual development in many ways – the vision of God, an opening of the heart, being born again, accepting Jesus as one’s Lord, a spiritual awakening. Though there are many ways of describing it, most would agree it is not the culmination of the journey. An individual receives a sudden infusion of the Holy Spirit – not once or twice, but over and over. Sometimes people receive more than they can “metabolize” and become intoxicated with God. When it happened to the gathered disciples on Pentecost, people thought they were drunk.
They are speaking our languages, describing God’s mighty works!” Their heads were spinning; they couldn’t make head or tail of any of it. They talked back and forth, confused: “What’s going on here?” Others joked, “They’re drunk on cheap wine.” Acts 2:12-13, The Message
Such experiences, as Evelyn Underhill puts it, “fatigue the immature transcendental powers.” We get more of God than our personalities and bodies can handle. We lose our balance and appear a little wacky for a while. This happened to Paul on the road to Damascus when the voice of Christ knocked him off his horse and left him blind and blubbering. He had to lay low for a while as he integrated this experience. And even years afterwards, he was still a little hard to take. People have varying responses to large draughts of God. Not everyone becomes insufferable. In Harold’s case he felt that nobody really understood and knew God the way he did. To him all the other laborers in the vineyard, slogging away without a glimpse of the master, appeared as witless dullards. And I have to admit some of them probably were. Instead of focusing on what is wrong with those around them, some people respond to the Spirit infusion with a burst of creativity, an outpouring of service, the expression of their gifts, or art of some kind. Then there are the hidden souls who only want to withdraw to sit in silence and solitude, where they feel alternately forgotten and useless, and enraptured and blissfully happy.
However we respond to the bracing presence of the Holy Spirit blowing through our lives and being, there is likely more work to be done. This inglorious mundane work of dying to self and waiting irks us no end. We chaff and fuss as God slowly reshapes our motivations to conform to divine motivations. People do get drunk on the wine of God, but believe me the wine is not cheap.
Harold told me he had already died, done all that. I didn’t have the heart to disabuse him of his belief. First, because what did I know really? And second, what I would say would make no difference to him. I trusted God at work in him, more than anything I might prescribe. Some kind of growth and transformation was afoot which I didn’t want to mess up. I did have a sense there was some pruning ahead for him, and considerable surrender before sweet humility would blossom more fully in his being.
Even though Harold began to get on my nerves, I felt compassion for him as one ought for anyone in this condition. He was pretty miserable. Over time the man calmed down and found his way to service. He became able to hold his degree of glory in one hand and the reality of his sin and brokenness in the other without tipping over and wallowing in one or the other. Instead of bursting with pride or sinking into a pit of despair, anger, and suffering he grew into the largeness of the gift of God’s revelation to him. He attained the strength of soul and groundedness in the soil of humility to grasp this paradox of the human condition: our frailty and our glory. That sort of balance and strength in Reality is something to behold.
Watching the purposes of God unfold in someone’s life as a spiritual director is a front row seat to seeing God and hidden mysteries. The winsome way of God with an individual soul keeps me, entertained and delighted, on the edge of my seat. Now I must be honest. I made Harold up. Any resemblance to any person, living or dead, is not intended and purely coincidental. If, in an adaption of Carly Simon’s song, “you probably think this post is about you,” it is not. I really have no idea what God is up to in your soul, except to say without a doubt it is something wondrous, breathtakingly beautiful, and beyond your wildest dreams. For the record, I am still working on finding my balance.