Friday, April 28, 2017

Is prayer as simple as presence?

Here? Vassilis Londos/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I once had a spiritual director who described how she regularly had "tea with God." She'd brew a fresh cup, retire to her armchair, and watch the sun set. No recitations, no rosaries, no lectio divina. Just tea, nature, and presence.

I've been digging the daily meditations from the Center for Action and Contemplation lately, and faculty member Cynthia Bourgeault wrote one week:

I believe the West’s key contribution to the understanding of nondual perception is that this highest-order (“third tier”) level of consciousness is not a mere extension of the mind. It implies and requires the shift to an entirely different operating system, which is anatomically located in the heart—or better yet, in the mind in entrainment or in tune with the heart. This may be what the ancient spiritual masters from the Christian East meant in the Philokalia by “putting the mind in the heart.”

No reason, no rationalizing, no formal discourse. Just oneness, consciousness, and presence.

And then I read this passage from "Compassion"(here's the previous time I cited this book) just the other day:

Discipleship does not mean to use God when we can no longer function ourselves. On the contrary, it means to recognize that we can do nothing at all, but that God can do everything through us. As disciples, we find not some but all of our strength, hope, courage, and confidence in God. Therefore, prayer must be our first concern.

No yammering, no posturing, no forging ahead. Just pausing, listening, and being present.

Sense the theme?

All these years I've berated myself for being "bad at prayer," when I think the truth is more that I simply lack a regular, concentrated presence. I am too goal-oriented, too driven by human words (who, me?!) in a space and practice that exists beyond benchmarks and language. To relinquish these parameters is to release my puny mind and forgive my even punier capabilities.

Again, as the Center for Action and Contemplation (this time Fr. Richard Rohr, emphasis his) puts it:

Our focus eventually moves from preoccupation with perfect actions of any type, to naked presence itself. The historical word for presence is simply “prayer.” Jesus often called it “vigilance,” “seeing,” or “being awake.” When you are fully present, you will know what you need to know in that moment.

Presence is prayer. Simple (though not easy) as that. I can go to God first. I can exist from my steady heart instead of my racing brain. I can move through my divine attention deficit disorder. I can brew a cup of tea. I too can pray.

Prayer #311: Tea with God

Shhhh.

Hello.

We are here.

We are enough.

Amen.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Don't forget to hope

Down, never out. Kai Schreiber/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

I'd started addressing the subject of hopefulness in talks to small groups. I'd grown fond of quoting Vaclav Havel, the great Czech leader who had said that "hope" was the one things that people struggling in Eastern Europe needed during the era of Soviet domination.

Havel had said that people struggling for independence wanted money and recognition from other countries; they wanted more criticism of the Soviet empire from the West and more diplomatic pressure. But Havel had said that these were things they wanted; the only thing they needed was hope. Not that pie in the sky stuff, not a preference for optimism over pessimism, but rather an "orientation of the spirit." The kind of hope that creates a willingness to position oneself in a hopeless place and be a witness, that allows one to believe in a better future, even in the face of abusive power. That kind of hope makes one strong.

-- Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy

How easy, when current events bear sinister echoes of the past, to forget that history can and will repeat itself -- if you let it.

How easy, when you finally awaken to the systemic violence and injustice our world is built on, to forget that everyone has a choice. Always.

How easy, when the aging winter buffets your body and soul with blustery phlegm, to forget that you have soil, you have seeds, and you have the power to plant them.

In the face of the world's overwhelming trauma, indignity, aggression, injustice, inequality -- to say nothing of fate's mere caprice -- it's hard to "orient my spirit" and choose to bear witness. Harder still to believe I might be able to dent age-old problems. Hardest yet to contemplate moments of resonant joy and not find them insufficient for --or insulting to -- to the gravity of the situations at hand.

But where am I truly if I forget belly laughter with friends over a bowl of popcorn? The perfection of building a pillow fort to ward against a rainy day. The humility of people turning their pockets inside out to help a loved one in need. The sight of fifty women gathered in clusters to solve crises of homeland and heart. The utter relief and gratitude when harmful legislation fails. How easy to overlook these glimpses into a possible future and never absorb them, never grasp what they portend, never believe what they promise.

Because if I do not try to grasp and believe them, if I do not lift my trembling, measly, feather-plucked hope back to the wind-blown limb from which it was tossed, then I miss out on hope's attendant strength: the steady conviction that if I hold, raise up, and let go at just the right moment, then hope will fly.

Prayer #310: Hope is a Weed

Hope is a stubborn weed I pull with all my strength and never kill. Roots yanked, stems crushed, ground poisoned, it rises to defy its fate. Not only rises, but twists, snakes, worms its way around the two-layer fence I erected against all shadowy threats. Not only breaches the fence, but reaches the complacent beds I was certain I'd protected. Not only reaches them, but digs in deep. Real deep. Center-of-the-earth deep. So deep, in fact, that it takes root again, creeps back through the soil to the sun, and all the while laughs -- laughs! -- at my misplaced effort in a wild, unruly world.

Give me more weeds, God of hope. Overgrow my heart to choke out fear.

Amen.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

If not now, when? And if not me, then who?

turkishdisco/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

"Who knows—perhaps it was for a time like this that you became queen?" -- Book of Esther 4:14

You know you have struck a nerve when the meeting you hoped would attract 15 people ends up drawing 50.

That was the delightful reality of the first-ever Sisterhood of Progressive Christians meeting, where the initial circle of chairs I and the founders had set up in the middle of the echoing church hall kept growing and growing and growing until it took up two-thirds of the room.

The women who'd arrived earliest patiently obliged our constant reshuffling, moving their purses and bags at least five times before we all settled, and became veritable professionals in chair hauling dynamics. The women who came in last found exactly the number of empty seats required, as if Elijah himself had instructed us on the mechanics of predictive chair filling. And every time we added a chair or a person, we caught one another's eyes with an incredulous look that communicated, "MORE PEOPLE ARE HERE OH EM GEE," followed by a collective pooping of the pants.

I have often encountered the nonprofit jargon "growing the circle" in my day job, but until this meeting I did not understand what it meant to witness a circle's literal growth -- to see new faces appear at your side, to feel your wildest hopes pushed at the seams, to experience your heart expanding in direct proportion to the number of squeaking, rickety chairs. Such was the gift of the first Sisterhood meeting: the discovery of a modern-day red tent in which everyone was welcome and all could fit.

But I should back up.

What is the Sisterhood of Progressive Christians, exactly? (Official mission statement here.) The Sisterhood is a response to the challenging times we live in. It is a call to women to organize -- as they always do, as they always must -- and become the change they wish to see. Above all, though, it is an opportunity to wrestle with the unanswerable questions, to dialogue with God about our individual and collective purpose, and to do it all within a loving, seeking, vulnerable-in-the-best-way community.

As we went around the fifty-woman-wide circle that first night, our calls, responses, and questions steadily thickened the space between us:

I'm a mother/grandmother/mother-to-be.
 I'm a church philanderer.
I'm a patriot.
I want to reconcile my faith with my politics.
 I want to find a middle way.
I want to engage with loved ones with differing views.
I want to affect the federal and state legislature.
I've never felt this embarrassed to be a Christian. 
I want to reclaim the label.
I can't be silent anymore.
There is danger in silence.
We've lost the art of conversation.
We're looking for a voice. 
God will use me as a bridge.
You can follow Jesus and work for social justice.
What kind of Mecca do I want to make for me?
The only thing that makes me feel better is acting.
Inaction is not an option.
Faith and facts are not mutually exclusive.
The tide is not necessarily against us.
We must end intolerance and bigotry.
We're all called to authenticity.
We must make it a movement, not just a moment.

And within it all hung one big hairy question: Are we willing to be Christ's hands and feet and build his Kingdom here on earth? I left that night on fire with my answer of YAAAASSSSSSS! The next day it was, Yes! The day after that -- yes. A week later ... I think?

To keep saying YES at full volume -- to become the hands that feed the hungry and the feet that walk with the outcast and the body that puts itself on the line for every.single.one of God's children, no matter their creed or ideology or fake news posting habits -- I need this community in my life. It can become the Mordecai to my Esther -- the constant, gentle reminder that God has made us of the world and for the world. It can become the lesson of a lifetime in what being a Christian truly, frightfully, wonderfully entails.

--
If you have said YAAASSSS QUEEN to any of my reflective ramblings, I encourage you to check out the Sisterhood of Progressive Christians on Facebook and Twitter as well as our Sisterhood Chronicles blog on Medium for a regular diet of thought-provoking discussions and opportunities for action. We and the world await you!
--

Prayer #309: Hands, Feet, Body, Blood

If not now, when? And if not me, then who?

True confession: I already know the answers, God. But if I give them voice I will consign myself to living them, and I'm not sure I will ever be ready enough for that.

Please nudge me from this place of not enough. Show me I am enough. Remind me you are more that enough. Help me say the answers out loud and live them even louder.

Amen.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Joy: the radical rebellion

Photo by Paucal/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

"Does God laugh?"

My friend's 4-year-old daughter recently posed this question to her, which -- as my friend puts it -- led to a "rather profound inquiry into what sort of things God would (and wouldn't) laugh at. One of the clear distinctions she made was that God laughs with people, not at people. Also, God likes it when we're being silly."

God laughs with people, not at people. And God likes it when we're being silly. No wonder my friend calls her daughter a little theologian. With a simple three-word question, the child hit on a deep truth about God that we as harried, stressed adults too often forget: that God created us with joy, from joy, for joy.

Not ready to accept wise words from a preschool theologian? Maybe you'll listen to C.S. Lewis instead: "Joy is the serious business of heaven." God did not create a world of pain and suffering and then say, "You know what? I'm going to stick some humans in here and watch them squirm." Rather, God created paradise -- an abundantly exuberant playground packed with infinite variety, texture, colors, and sensations, a world designed to delight. As such we have voices to sing, hands to clap, feet to dance, hearts to leap, and Thin Mints to devour. What's not to love??

What I have learned, however, is that joy is not necessarily a given in our lives. The more we slip into easy pessimism, the more joy becomes a choice. This distinction is captured crystal-clear in this translation of Romans 5:11 from the King James Version of the Bible: "And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement."

We joy in God. Joy as vivifying verb. Joy as animating action. Joy as intentional summons of a gift we've already received yet have forgotten. As Henri J.M. Nouwen writes, "Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day."

The choice becomes easier once you remember joy's effects. Just the mental image of God laughing fills me with a lightness and peace that too often gets squashed under accumulated fear, anger, and general grouchiness. Imagine then how a life lived constantly with joy and in joy would affect others around it. To be joyful is to rebel against the cynicism and meanness of vision that too often, too easily, dominates our worldview, and in such moments our choice of joy becomes radical.

May all our radical actions be born of belly laughter, slow-spreading smiles, and astonished gasps. May we come to know the profound comfort of laughing with the God whom we delight.


Prayer #308: Silly for Joy

God of heel clicks and high fives, keep me so silly for joy that I can't see straight.

Because when I am downtrodden, joy props me up.

When I am flattened, joy re-inflates me.

When I am beaten, joy wipes my brow and hands me water.

When I am proud, joy grounds me in wonder bigger than myself.

When I am uncertain, joy reminds me I am worthy.

And when all I am is joyful, joy cheers loudest of all.

Amen.