An Extended Conversation…


The following is a paper I submitted in a class I recently took on Prayer:

 

“The teachers of the Egyptian desert understood in a particular way that prayer, our everyday lives, and Christian reflection are all of one piece.”[1]

 

Prayer is a conversation with God whose language is everything we are, do, and experience. A common expression regarding deeply spiritual people is that they live “a life of prayer.” I would suggest that life IS prayer. Everything we do is in the presence of God, whether we intend God’s presence, or realize it; God is here…

And God speaks…

And God acts…

We must learn how to hear, see, and interpret God’s communicative activity in the world. In fact, that is one side of prayer: Knowing God.

“One day a friend of mine was walking through a shopping mall with his two-year-old son. The child was in a particularly cantankerous mood, fussing and fuming. The frustrated father tried everything to quiet his son, but nothing seemed to help. The child simply would not obey. Then, under some special inspiration, the father scooped up his son and, holding him close to his chest, began singing an impromptu love song. None of the words rhymed. He sang off key. And yet, as best he could, this father began sharing his heart. ‘I love you,’ he sang. ‘I’m so glad you’re my boy. You make me happy. I like the way you laugh.’ On they went from one store to the next. Quietly the father continued singing off key and making up words that did not rhyme. The child relaxed and became still, listening to this strange and wonderful song. Finally, they finished shopping and went to the car. As the father opened the door and prepared to buckle his son into the car seat, the child lifted his head and said simply, ‘Sing it to me again, Daddy! Sing it to me again!’”[2]

 

Just like the song above, the bible is also a tool:

Words which sometimes rhyme and sometimes don’t…

The tune is sometimes harmonic and sometimes off key and dissonant…

But the words come from God’s heart and tell of God’s love for us. We learn of God’s values and priorities there, as well, but underlying it all is the voice of God. We learn to recognize the tone and timbre of God’s voice. We hear the beating of God’s heart as we are pulled close to God’s breast. What we learn of God in the bible helps us distinguish the voice of God in the midst of all the other voices in our hearts and lives.

We learn to hear…

We learn to see…

The other side of prayer is what we learn about ourselves. We learn to know and become honest about ourselves and our intentions. We also learn, as the little boy did that, sometimes because of and sometimes in spite of what we intend, God loves us. And the love of God changes us.

“A Buddhist monk once came to visit me and told me the following story:

 

–The Zen Master—

Many years ago, there was a young man who searched for truth, happiness, joy, and the right way of living. After many years of traveling, many diverse experiences, and many hardships, he realized that he had not found any answers for his questions and that he needed a teacher. One day he heard about a famous Zen Master. Immediately he went to him, threw himself at his feet, and said: ‘Please, Master, be my teacher.’

 

The Master listened to him, accepted his request, and made him his personal secretary. Wherever the Master went, his new secretary went with him. But although the Master spoke to many people who came to him for advice and counsel, he never spoke to his secretary. After three years, the young man was so disappointed and frustrated that he no longer could restrain himself. One day he burst out in anger, saying to his Master: ‘I have sacrificed everything, given away all I had, and followed you. Why haven’t you taught me?’ The Master looked at him with great compassion and said: ‘Don’t you understand that I have been teaching you during every moment you have been with me? When you bring me a cup of tea, don’t I drink it? When you bow down to me, don’t I bow down to you? When you clean my desk, don’t I say: ‘Thank you very much’?’

 

The young man could not grasp what his Master was saying and became very confused. Then suddenly the Master shouted at the top of his voice: ‘When you see, you see it direct.’ At that moment the young man received enlightenment.”[3]

 

As with the Zen student, we are invited to follow our Master: Jesus, as he travels through scripture and then to recognize the activity of Christ in the world around us. By so doing, we are changed into brothers and sisters of Christ, whose talents and specific actions may differ, but whose family resemblance is readily apparent.

Language:

 

The language of prayer is as follows:

Words/silence…

Community/solitude…

Nature/urban…

Sex/celibacy…

Work/leisure…

Feasting/fasting…

Simple/complex…

Intellect/emotions…

Giving/receiving…

Music/images…

Profanity….

Yes… there is profanity in prayer. Profanity is harsh language used to express intense emotion in a succinct manner. We experience pain as the profanity of God. However, the intense emotion pain is intended to express is love. Pain often deepens us and tends to draw us closer to God. And yet it is our response to pain which shows whether we are listening for God or not. If we respond to God’s profanity with profanity of our own, it is a counterintuitive statement that we, in fact, were listening. Pain is especially troubling because of the emotional dissonance it brings. Asking “why” at least infers that the conversation continues. Choosing to use blame as a response, ends the discussion, because it denies the power of personal responsibility, or “response-ability.”

 In our life prayer, we endeavor to learn the language of God. God understands the variety of languages we each individually communicate, be it emotionally, intellectually, physically, creatively, culturally, intuitively, and so forth. God knows our language innately as well as through the life and experience of Christ, from our human perspective. God even knows the language which emanates from the depths of each of us. Things even we don’t know. God knows our intentions, and the actions of which we are and are not capable. All of this language, God understands.

But the language of God… It takes a lifetime for us to begin to speak and understand the language of God. Pain is an introductory course in the language, character, and values of God. Grace leads God to speak our language most of the time. Pain, and God’s silence in the midst of it, invites us to trust in spite of our experience.

“Sometimes we feel so much fear and anxiety, and identify so closely with our suffering, that our pain masks the questions. Once pain or confusion is framed or articulated by a question, it must be lived rather than answered. The first task of seeking guidance then is to touch your own struggles, doubts, and insecurities—in short, to affirm your life as a quest. Your life, my life, is given graciously by God. Our lives are not problems to be solved but journeys to be taken with Jesus as our friend and finest guide.”[4]

 

“It is hard for us to grasp the idea of redemptive suffering because our whole culture mitigates against any form of discomfort or inconvenience… But the entire life of Jesus shows us the compatibility of grace and suffering.”[5]

 

Obviously, pain isn’t the only manner in which God speaks. He certainly speaks through beauty, joy, and a multitude of other ways, but it is easy for us to stop looking for God in our pleasures, because at some level, we believe we deserve them. Pain… not so much.

Place:

 

The place for prayer is anywhere, because God is there. Our challenge regarding place, is to also be fully there. God can be all places at once, we cannot. Being fully present in a place… this place… of prayer is an adventure of creative observation in which we open our senses to the intricate beauty of God’s workmanship within a physical location. Our intention is also to recognize that we are part of this particular place in this particular time.

This semester, I took a personal, urban spiritual retreat in the urban core of Kansas City. Since I have an intense love for coffee shops, I spent time in three separate, independent coffee shops. They are my favorites in the urban core. I endeavored to speak only when spoken to, respond to the requests of others, while also reading and concentrate on being aware of how I was part of the environment. I took my camera, and tried to perceive and “capture” images of beauty in the urban environment. Urban life resonates with my soul. Vistas can be both harmonic and dissonant at the same time. There is both comedy and tragedy within feet of each other. Holy places and profane places, as well. A real place existing in tension. It is a reminder to me of the universe into which I was born.

Effects:

 

It has been said that prayer doesn’t change God; it changes us. But scripture teaches that prayer also changes God, even while it changes us. Not God’s essence, to be sure, but God’s mind and intentions. Roberta Bondi suggests that God changes due to our requests as a result of friendship. One mark of friendship which she surprisingly applies both to people and God is accountability:

“…judgment is an act of God’s friendship toward us as God daily holds us accountable to the friendship… Somehow, however, although we expect God to hold us accountable in our relationship with God, we believe that it is blasphemous or at least wrong to ask for accountability from God in return. But the real saints of the bible, the very ones whom the monastics took as their models for friendship with God, show us otherwise. When the Israelites made the golden calf while Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments, God responded by deciding to wipe out the whole tribe of Israel. Moses, however, argued with God, saying,

 

‘Why should your anger blaze at your people, whom you have brought out of Egypt by your great power and mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say ‘[God] brought them out with evil intention, to slaughter them in the mountains and wipe them off the face of the earth?’ Give up your burning wrath; relent over this disaster intended for your people. Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to whom you swore by your very self and made this promise: ‘I shall make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven.’’[6]

[7]

 

In the above story of the Exodus, God relented and the Israelites were spared due to Moses’ prayerful intervention. God changed.

Richard Foster further suggests that God responds to our requests due to our relationship, but for another reason: we have changed.

“When we have immersed ourselves long enough in the way of Christ, we can smell Gospel. So we ask and do as we know we would ask and do. How do we know what Jesus would ask and do, you may ask? Well, how does a couple who has been married many loving years know what each other thinks and wants and feels? We know even as we are known. This is how we pray in Jesus’ name.”[8]

 

We, then ask for things God also wants, and then ask persistently. Life prayer establishes a relationship with God which is characterized by mutual giving and receiving. We become brothers/sisters of Christ through prayer where each is influenced by the other. However, before we are brothers/sisters of Christ, we must first become children of God.

Several nights ago, I was outside thinking about the spiritual concept of becoming the brother of Christ. I decided I would imagine the 33-year-old Jesus standing outside with me. Immediately, my imagination was co-opted by the image of young children where I work when I try to interact with them. Most of them are shy, and they go quickly to their mother and grab hold of her leg. They protect themselves by placing their mother between themselves and the big scary man. I readily understood the point. It was as if Jesus were saying to me,

“Larry, you are a shy child whom I must coax to myself. Once you come to me, you can place me between yourself and the scary world. Hide behind my robes. You must come to me as a child of my father before you are my brother.”

Having an “adult” relationship with God is preceded with a “child’s” relationship with God. Life prayer facilitates that growth.

Conclusion:

 

This semester has been a journey in itself. My experience of prayer has been stretched and broadened to include many activities that I would not have imagined before. I have also been warmed by the fires of distant Christian brothers and sisters, as the heat of their passion for Christ stretches through the centuries. Their thoughts have warmed my soul through Roberta Bondi’s book. Prayer, by Richard Foster, is now on my list as a classic. I will invariably use it for future small groups, as a resource for spiritual formation conversations, and to use in a book study with friends.

I must confess that although I have been a Christian for 34 years, I am just coming to know God, personally. God constantly surprises me by how he works. I look forward to drawing closer to him, and to learn how to live in a synergistic fashion. His love and care have been very near in the past several years, but have not smothered me. God has allowed me space to learn. I am learning that this is a habit of his. There is a back and forth to our relationship that has helped me learn and choose to trust him. I am finding prayer to be both a deep and shallow work. It encompasses all of my life in all its forms. This class has become a corner stone for who I will become. Thank you, MaryKate, Roberta, and Richard… and Cohort 10.

 


[1] Roberta C. Bondi, To Pray and to Love: Conversations on Prayer with the Early Church; (Minneapolis, MN; Augsburg Fortress, 1991) Pg.10

[2] Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (New York, NY; Harper Collins, 1991) Pg. 3-4

[3] Henri J. M. Nouwen, with Michael J. Christensen and Rebecca J. Laird, Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith (New York, NY; Harper Collins, 2006) Pg. 3-4.

[4] Henri J. M. Nouwen, with Michael J. Christensen and Rebecca J. Laird, Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith (New York, NY; Harper Collins, 2006) Pg. 6.

[5] Foster, pg. 218.

[6] See Exodus 32:11-14.

[7] Bondi, Pg. 126.

[8] Foster, Pg. 195-196.

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