Wednesday, May 18, 2016

God, me, and a rope

Image from tes.com
Take a rope and hold one end in your hands. Imagine that God holds the other end. What does your relationship and communication with God look like? Are you the one constantly pulling on the rope, trying to get God's attention, hoping that he will give you what you need, trying to drag him closer to you and your situation? Or does it feel like the Almighty One is doing most of the pulling, making demands on you, insisting that you move, yanking you out of your comfort zone all the time? Or maybe somewhere in the craziness of life you feel like you have accidentally dropped your end of the rope and now you can't find it. The connection seems lost.

Henri Nouwen believes that loving (or rightly relating to) God involves moving from illusion to prayer. And what is the illusion? Or more accurately, what are our illusions (plural)? We might think that we are in control, that it is our story we are telling, our drama we are living. Or that it is up to us to make things happen. Or that God is a hard task master, easy to displease. Or perhaps that God is like us and has our attitudes, prejudices, temperament, biases, limitations, etc. Or that our life and the lives of others must be defended as property instead of received as gifts. Regarding this last point, Nouwen says, "By acting on the illusion that the world belongs to us as private property which nobody ever can take away from us, we become a threat to each other and make intimacy impossible." Perhaps you can add a few other illusions to that short list, illusions which keep us from developing intimacy with God. Unmasking illusions is hard, ongoing work. Just this past Sunday, during our communal gathering, I spent most of the worship time battling the illusion that our humble faith community is falling apart because we are incapable of getting things right. This illusion relies on the assumption that we are the ones responsible for building the Church when in fact, Jesus indicates that he is the one who does this important work.

Some of us do not suffer much from nagging doubts or thoughts of incompetency and failure. Instead, we are prone to illusions of grandeur; we believe we are doing something great for God. Both extremes are distortions of the truth, a remaking of God based on our own perceptions. Nouwen states that, "The idols of our dreams ... are humbling reminders that we still have a long way to go before we are ready to meet our God, not the God created by our own hands or mind, but the uncreated God out of whose loving hands we are born." As followers of Jesus, we want to come out of the landscape of illusion and enter into meaningful, intimate communion with God. In other words, we want to learn how to pray.

So what is prayer? Once again I turn to Nouwen to offer some clarity: "The God with whom we enter into a new relationship is greater than we are and defies all our calculations and predictions. The movement from illusion to prayer is hard to make since it leads us from false certainties to true uncertainties, from an easy support system to a risky surrender, and from the many 'safe' gods to the God whose love has no limits." The paradox of prayer is that while it is a gift, a communion which only God can initiate, it is also a skill which we must practice and as such, it can be challenging, demanding work. Nevertheless, communing with God is meant to be natural, as much a part of us as breathing. Nouwen states: "We are like asthmatic people who are cured of their anxiety. The Spirit has taken away our narrowness (the Latin word for anxiety is angustus - narrowness) and made everything new for us. We receive a new breath, a new freedom, a new life. This new life is the divine life of God himself. Prayer, therefore, is God's breathing in us, by which we become part of the intimacy of God's inner life, and by which we are born anew."

Moving from illusion to prayer is not only an internal posture; there are certain practices, readily observable in the lives of those who regularly pray and commune with God, which can guide us. Nouwen lists three:

1. A contemplative reading of Scripture (receiving the words as a seed). Nouwen explains: "Instead of taking the words apart, we should bring them together in our innermost being; instead of wondering if we agree or disagree, we should wonder which words are directly spoken to us and connect directly with our most personal story. Instead of thinking about the words as potential subjects for an interesting dialogue or paper, we should be willing to let them penetrate into the most hidden corners of our heart, even to those places where no other word has yet found entrance. Then and only then can the word bear fruit as seed sown in rich soil."

2. A silent listening to the voice of God (learning to be still). "Being useless and silent in the presence of our God belongs to the core of all prayer. In the beginning we often hear our own unruly inner voices more loudly than God's voice. This is at times very hard to tolerate. But slowly, very slowly, we discover that the silent time makes us quiet and deepens our awareness of ourselves and God." Nouwen notes that reading the Scriptures makes silence more fruitful and keeps it from being stale. Similarly, being still makes room for the God-breathed words of Scripture to do their re-creative work.

3. A trusting obedience to a spiritual guide (embracing submission within the community of God). Those of us within the Evangelical tradition might not be too familiar with the idea of having a spiritual director, but some type of ongoing, loving feedback is important if we want to make sure we are not deluding ourselves. On our own, we are tempted to equate our speculations and desires with the will of God. We need someone to guide and encourage us, as well as someone to discourage us when we are tempted to make rash and unwise moves. Spiritual guides can assist us in discarding our illusions and can also keep us from developing new ones. Spiritual guides come in many forms: trained spiritual directors, wise friends, trusted leaders, historical figures, traditions, even examples of prayer and the writings of the saints. It is up to us to look for them and to heed them. Spiritual guides are all around us if we but open our eyes and trust the Spirit of Jesus to lead us. In an age where individualism is over-emphasized, we must remind ourselves that we do not walk this path alone. We are part of a holy community and as such, we must learn to trust the Spirit of Jesus in the community to aid us, correct us, and teach us.

In Psalm 46 we read: "Our God says, 'Calm down [be still, be quiet, cease striving], and learn that I am God!" (Psalm 46:10, my additions). The Hebrew word which is often translated "be still" is raphad, and it comes from a word which means "to slacken." We can apply this idea of slackening to the image mentioned at the beginning, that of a rope being held by two people, one at each end. If we stop pulling on the rope and instead, take a step toward the person on the other end, the rope goes slack. The connection is still there, but the tension is gone, the pulling is gone, and the two parties are closer together than they were before. The illusion is that the connection between God and us requires a constant pushing and pulling, that it is a never-ending struggle (and at times it definitely can be). But prayer is not a tug of war, it is not a power struggle. When we are still, when we cease striving, when we let the rope slacken, we find that he is closer to us than we imagined.

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This is part three of a series called The Three Interconnected Loves. You can read part one (Loving Yourself) here and the second part on Loving your Neighbour here. Many of the ideas are drawn from Henri Nouwen's excellent book, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (New York: Doubleday, 1975).

Monday, May 09, 2016

loving my neighbour

Image from veteranstoday.com
I have been teaching a mini-series in our faith community dealing with the three interconnected loves found in the answer to the question, "Which is the most important commandment?" Jesus' reply is this: "You should love the Eternal, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second great commandment is this: Love others in the same way as you love yourself. There are no commandments more important than these" (Mark 12:30-31, The Voice).

You can find a summary of my first talk on loving yourself here. Now I turn my attention to what it means to rightly relate to our neighbour, or to the other. It is imperative to remember that we cannot neatly dissect these three relationships; how we relate to ourselves is directly related to how we perceive God relates to us and likewise, how we relate to others is directly related to how we believe God views the other. If any one of these relationships (to ourselves, to others, to God) are out of whack, the others are affected. I have been reading a book by Kathleen Norris on the vocabulary of faith. It is her attempt to review and reclaim some of the terms which have been hurtful and unhelpful in their use within religious settings. One of the chapters is titled, "Hell," and she makes a rather shocking statement which directly ties together our relationship with God to our relationship with the other. She writes: "How human beings treat each other has everything to do with our concept of hell." [1] Really?

What she is saying is that if we view God as a cold, harsh judge who declares certain people in (you deserve to enter heaven) and certain people out (you deserve to be cast into hell), we will treat others in this same, cold manner. We will either accept people into our circle or reject them based on our assessment of their goodness. Is this what Jesus calls us to do? Let's look at Matthew 25 where Jesus is telling some parables about what the kingdom of heaven is like. He first talks about the wise and foolish virgins waiting for the bridegroom and then about the master who left his servants with talents to invest during his absence. After these stories we find another metaphor in which the Son of Man, the King of glory, is compared to a shepherd who separates the sheep from the goats. The emphasis has often been placed on the statements of judgment: "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" versus "You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels." However, I believe that the point of the story is not to show us a glimpse of the final judgment, but to describe the actions of sheep who know their shepherd's voice; in other words, it is another description of what it looks like to live in the kingdom of God. It is about how to love (rightly relate) to the other.

Jesus says: "For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me." The language here is that of hospitality: treating others with kindness, having a welcoming attitude, and offering the basic necessities to the marginalized and outcasts of society. We also see the language of proximity: those who are welcoming and generous are seen as coming closer to the King of glory (come). Those who do not extend hospitality are depicted as becoming more distant from the King (depart from me). Finally, there is the language of recognition: Jesus indicates that the Son of Man, the King of glory, can be seen in the other, especially the outcast, the poor and the needy. We are invited to recognise Jesus in these unlikely (and perhaps unlikable) forms, and to love God through loving others. Kathleen Norris writes: "Christ will recognize us at the judgment if he already knows us, if he has seen our faces as we served the outcasts of this world; the hungry, the poor, the sick, the imprisoned. The promise is that we will recognize him as well, as we have already met him in these others." [2]

As Christians in the Western world, we can assume a position of superiority all too quickly. Jesus is quick to condemn this attitude. In Matthew 5, he says, "If you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell [gehenna] of fire." Norris comments on this: "I shudder to think of all the times that I have dismissed other people in this way, at least in my thoughts, which count. It may be permissible to identify another's behavior as foolish, particularly if it also forces me to reflect on my own foolishness. But to say, "you fool," is to negate God's presence in a creature God has made. It is to invite God's absence, which is my definition of hell." [3] Strong words. We would do well to heed them.

Henri Nouwen indicates that as followers of Jesus, our relationships to others should move from hostility toward hospitality. Our vocation is to convert the enemy (hostis) into a guest (hospes), a loved one. When we see Jesus present in others, we seek to reveal the promise they carry within them as image-bearers of God. In rightly relating to others, we are called to create space where change can take place, both in ourselves and in them. We are to do what Christ has done for us, and that is to love without the assurance that we will be loved back. "But God demonstrates his own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). Nouwen also notes that in order to truly appreciate hospitality, we must become strangers ourselves and be willing to give up the position of host. This means that we are willing to relinquish home turf and situate ourselves outside of places of comfort and plenty; we are willing to embrace discomfort and need.

In contrast to the assumption that we need to have much in order to be hospitable or generous, Nouwen suggests that poverty makes a good host. He outlines three areas where we can practice poverty and thereby, become more hospitable to others [4]
1. Poverty of posture: "We can only perceive the stranger as an enemy as long as we have something to defend. But when we say, 'Please enter - my house is your house, my joy is your joy, my sadness is your sadness and my life is your life,' we have nothing to defend, since we have nothing to lose but all to give."
2. Poverty of mind: "Someone who is filled with ideas, concepts, opinions and convictions cannot be a good host. There is no inner space to listen, no openness to discover the gift of the other."
3. Poverty of heart: "When our heart is filled with prejudices, worries, jealousies, there is little room for the stranger."

I started off my talk by tossing out a few names and asking people to say the first word that came to mind. I mentioned Justin Bieber, an inebriated street person outside the library where our church meets, our current Prime Minister, and the person sitting next to us. It was no surprise that there were kind words spoken about some and rather strong and distasteful ones spoken about others, but according to Jesus, all of these people are our neighbours. The lonely, needy, and hurting among us may indeed by the outcasts of society, but they may also be the rich and famous. The very briefest look at the lives of famous people from the past few decades, those whom we tend to idolize, will reveal that they too are broken and hurting, in need of healing and wholeness and friendship, just like the rest of us.

How do we relate rightly to (love) the other? By recognizing Jesus in them and making space for them at our table, in our minds, and in our hearts. Why? Because this is what Jesus does for us every day.

[1] Kathleen Norris. Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), 312.
[2] Norris, 314-15.
[3] Norris, 315.
[4] Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (Garden City: Doubleday & Co., 1975), 73-75.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

a hospitality conference: eating, drinking, and changing my thinking



Image from anthonycoppedge.com

I was privileged to be a part of Society of Vineyard Scholars conference last week. The theme of the conference was Hospitality, Holiness, and the Kingdom of God. It was hosted by the lovely folks at the Raleigh Vineyard Church in South Carolina, and we all got a taste of Southern hospitality in the form of local favourites such as sweet tea, biscuits, pulled pork, and shrimp and grits. Yes, focusing on hospitality meant that we were offered kindness, meals, housing, and rides to and from the venue, but it also meant that we were invited to do a bit of hard work: the hard work of embracing the unfamiliar and the strange(r). Here are a few snippets from my conference notes.

Hospitality is more than inviting a few people over for a meal in the comfort of my own home. This is a limited form of hospitality because in this scenario I remain on my home turf and, for the most part, still make the rules. True hospitality challenges me to "play the game" on the field of the stranger, to not only welcome them but to rely on them for my well-being and growth. Hospitality or xenophilia (love of the stranger) requires that I give up those things commonly associated with the hospitality industry (privacy, comfort, and security) and instead, relinquish power and preferential treatment in order to take on the posture of a guest, to be a displaced person, so to speak.

Jesus practiced a form of hospitality which placed him in both roles simultaneously: he was a guest who relied on the kindness of strangers (today I am coming to your house, Zaccheus) as well as a host who generously offering himself through friendship, food, healing, and transformation to all who would accept his offerings. To continue the sports analogy, he was seldom on home turf and had no home field advantage to speak of. This was intentional. The gracious, generous nature of the incarnation indicates, in part, that God took on human form not in order to assimilate us, but to protect and enjoy the particularity of humanity.

Some of the talks at the conference included harsh reality-checks, such as realising how inhospitable we can be to different traditions of music, how limited we are in styles of preaching and leadership, and how we are slow to adapt to increasing multi-ethnicity. Instead, we expect the world to adapt to the way we are used to doing things, and make little effort to truly welcome others by becoming informed about their traditions and history and seeking to learn from them. Being hospitable in this way means we have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, with embracing different ways of doing things within our faith communities even when everything inside us wants to recoil and react because certain practices seem so foreign to us. Please note that I am not talking about changing core values of the kingdom of God, but ways and means. In short, hospitality is difficult stuff.

Christine Pohl reminded us that hospitality is not an instrument to an end, not a way to catch donors or members, not about return on investment, not a strategy for church growth and evangelism. Hospitality is related to holiness, and it is a place of vulnerability where we give people a home, a place in a community, a space to add their unique contribution. Hospitality means that we can no longer view our time and resources as our own, because most opportunities for hospitality arrive as interruptions.

Luke Bretherton said that if we are to be a hospitable people (for we have a very hospitable God), we must not only host others, but be in relationship with others, and foster a common life together. As followers of God, we strive to listen to God, but we must also listen to the cries of those among us. We are not only a community of faith (joined by our devotion to God) but a community of fate (part of the lives of those around us). For this reason, we must be attentive to the dynamics in our neighbourhoods, our work contexts, and our informal gathering sites. We must be careful not to define the world through our own eyes and history and experience, but to realise that we are meant to figure things out together. We need to learn to work and play together with those who do not look and sound like us.

These are just a few of the notes from the conference which ended up being a place of great joy and connection and challenge for me. I will close with a personal story. The venue where we had the conference was not really within walking distance of anything (that felt a bit strange to a city girl who walks everywhere, but hey, that's how things are down there). This meant that after I got a ride to the conference in the morning, I was pretty much stuck there for the day. There was plenty of food and drinks to be had, but I was missing access to some of my favourites like chai latte and Diet Dr. Pepper. I was wandering around the building on Friday morning, just checking things out, when a friend asked if I needed anything. I said, not really, I was just looking around. And then I jokingly added that what I really needed was a Diet Dr. Pepper, but there was no way to get to a store.

A short while later, while I was sitting in a session, someone plopped a bag down on the seat beside me. Inside the bag were two Diet Dr. Peppers. I glanced around and saw my friend slipping out of the room. I was stunned and didn't know quite how to feel. I was thrilled to receive the precious drinks. I felt guilty because I had whined about not being able to walk to a corner store. I wanted to save the gift because it was sacred and at the same time, I wanted to guzzle down the drinks because I was thirsty. I wanted to give back and I wanted to humbly receive and let that be enough. I just sat there for a bit, teary-eyed that someone had been so attentive, so willing, so selfless, and so hospitable to me. Being on the receiving end of loving hospitality can be very disorienting to someone who is in giving mode a lot of the time. Finally, I blinked my tears back and opened one of the drinks. The liquid was like an elixir to my soul which, after a very eventful and taxing term at both school and church, was somewhat depleted. Each sip was a reminder that all of us are guests of the Most High and of each other. Undeserving as we may be, we are constantly being offered good gifts in the most unexpected and often unfamiliar ways. May we be moved to gratefully partake.

Monday, April 18, 2016

reading 1 Corinthians 12 again

The Holy Spirit and the seven-fold gifts. Image from curtisgraphics.com
A lot has happened since my last entry here: After a few intense weeks of studying, I successfully defended my doctoral dissertation on April 1 (see my post here if you want to know what that entailed). We (Dean and a bunch of academics) all went for a celebratory lunch and then I spent the next few days writing a paper for a conference which is happening this week. After that, it was back to my dissertation to make the changes requested by my examiners (the title and a note about one of my sources) and fix any typos and improper citations. On Tuesday, I submitted the final version and allowed myself to sign off as Dr. Matte on an email. Just for fun.

This morning I drove Dean to the airport, waved goodbye to the house-guests we had for a few days, and sat down to read 1 Corinthians 12. It is about the gifts the Spirit of God gives to the people of God. As I am currently considering the next steps in my vocation, this sentence seemed especially significant: "Each person is given something to do that shows who God is" (1 Cor 12, The Message). As I pondered this, I read the rest of the chapter and realised that the spiritual gifts all show some aspect of God's character. Perhaps this has always been obvious to everyone else, but it was a bit of a paradigm shift for me. So often I think about spiritual gifts as those activities which build up and encourage the church, and God knows we need building up and encouraging on a regular basis. However, to see the gifts as directly linked to God, communicating something of God to us, puts a slightly different emphasis on things.

So we are given wise counsel because it is an expression of God's wisdom. We receive clear understanding or knowledge because God is the God who knows all of creation intimately. We have the gift of faith or simple trust because God is faithful and trustworthy. We are given gifts of healing because God is a Healer. We receive the ability to do miraculous acts because God is far beyond human and natural law. We are given gifts of prophecy and proclamation because God is a self-revealing God; he loves to communicate. We receive discernment because God himself discerns our innermost motives and thoughts. We have gifts of tongues because God not only desires to speak to everyone in their own language, but he also desires that we learn his language. We receive the ability to interpret tongues because God brings order out of confusion or chaos (see Genesis 1).

In the same way, God gives the church apostles (sent ones) because he sent himself into the world. God gives the church prophets because he is always proclaiming his love in words and in actions. God sends the church evangelists because Jesus is the gospel, the Good News, incarnate. God gives the church teachers because he is the divine teacher, instructing all of creation how to reflect the glory of God. God gives the church pastors because he is the Good Shepherd. God sends the church helpers because he is our helper and comforter and advocate. Every gift from God is rooted in divine character. All the gifts are for the building up of the church because God is committed to building his church.

Being part of a charismatic tradition means that we place a certain emphasis on the gifts of the Spirit. May we never forget that a gift is given in order to make the giver more present to the recipient. A genuine gift is a reflection of the giver's desire to give the ultimate gift: themselves. God gives himself to the world; this is what is at the core of the generous display of gifts at work in the church, gifts from the Spirit of God.

Postscript: It is interesting to note that the Catholic tradition references Isaiah 11 to list seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, knowledge (right judgment), courage (fortitude), counsel, piety (reverence), and wonder and awe in the presence of the Lord.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

using

PicassoGuernica.jpg
Guernica by Picasso
I am studying for my doctoral oral defence these days so have little time to write thoughtful blogs or give much attention to other topics. However, I came across a quote from C. S. Lewis a few days ago which speaks not only to my doctoral research but resonates with my ongoing mission to rescue Christianity from the language of "being used by God." Really, we ought not to speak this way. The idea of God as a "user" is deeply disturbing, and adopting this view makes us, as followers of Jesus, prone to imitate this ends justifies the means type of thinking. In essence, we become utilitarian propagandizers instead of people who pursue genuine and loving encounter.

So here is Lewis on the distinction between using artwork and appreciating it as art. It applies to so much more than art, going to the heart of how we view all of creation (everything from other people to the holy scriptures to the flowers that grow in the field), whether as mere tools or as beautiful, living subjects who deserve our respect and have something to teach us.

“This attitude, which was once my own, might also be defined as “using” pictures. While you retain this attitude you treat the pictures – or rather a hasty and unconscious selection of elements in the picture – as a self-starter for certain imaginative and emotional activities of your own. In other words, you “do things with it.” You don’t lay yourself open to what it, by being in its totality precisely the thing it is, can do to you…. Real appreciation demands the opposite process. … We must begin by laying aside as completely as we can all our own preconceptions, interests, and associations. …We must use our eyes. We must look, and go on looking till we have certainly seen exactly what is there. We sit down before the picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it. The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive.” - C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (1992), 16-19.

We, as theologians, can be especially susceptible to this, using knowledge, sacred texts, and convincing ideas to press our viewpoint on others. Let us remember that theology's primary goal is not to persuade people of universal truth, but to awaken us to the presence of the loving Eternal One. Let us be forerunners in looking well, listening well, and receiving well.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

having a conversation with God

Image from speakoutinc.com
Prayer. It seems so easy and so difficult at the same time. Hans Urs von Balthasar writes these words about prayer:

"Most Christians are convinced that prayer is more than the outward performance of an obligation, in which we tell God things he already knows. It is more than a kind of daily waiting attendance on the exalted Sovereign who receives his subjects' homage morning and evening. And although many Christians experience in pain and regret that their prayer gets no further than this lowly stage, they are sure, nonetheless, that there should be more to it. In this field there lies a hidden treasure, if only I could find it and dig it up. This seed has the power to become a mighty tree bearing blossoms and fruit, if only I would plant and tend it. This hard and distasteful duty would yield the freest and most blessed kind of life, if only I could open and surrender myself to it." [1]

I often have the sense that there is so much more to conversing with the Creator of the Universe than I am experiencing, and yet, I don't quite know how to move from my present habits and words and groans to a more profound and fruitful communication with the Lover of my soul. If we think of prayer as dialogue or conversation with God, perhaps the rules of good conversation might provide some insight into the area of prayer. I recently came across an article which expounds on the 10 Rules of a Great Conversationalist [2] and when I read it within the context of conversing with God, I found that a lot of the principles apply.

1. Be genuinely interested in the person. Who are they? What is on their mind? What motivates them? In the context of prayer, are we interested in who God is? Do we spend time asking about him? Do we talk about topics that are not centred around us but around him?
2. Focus on the positives. Rather than talk about past grievances, opt for a discussion of future goals. Are our prayers filled mostly with complaints or problems or do we talk about projects we would like to do together with God?
3. Converse, do not debate or argue. This is not a platform to air your opinions, not a battleground to win. Be ready to chat, discuss, and hash things out, but amiably. Allow for things to be left open-ended. In other words, are we open to hear things from God that we don't agree with? And are we willing to leave room for more discussion next time instead of having everything spelled out today?
4. Respect: Don't impose, criticize, judge, or demand. Respect the other's space, point of view, and choices. If we listen to our prayers, we just might find that we lapse into imposing our ideas and choices onto God instead of respecting his ways, timing, and process.
5. Put the person in her/her best light. Give credit where credit is due. Don't assume you know why they did something unless they explicitly tell you. Look for ways to make them look good. Are our prayers filled with graciousness in how we interpret God's actions or non-actions? Do we reaffirm God's lovingkindness toward all of creation, even when we might be having a bad day?
6. Embrace differences while building on commonalities. Appreciate their uniqueness. Build on common links. Use both difference and commonality to reveal more about both of you. When talking about a divine/human relationship, we can tend to focus too much on God's distance from us, both in goodness and in ability or power. Or perhaps we think of Jesus as our buddy and are overly familiar in our prayers. Let us make room for recognising common ground (Jesus) as well as appreciating God's holy uniqueness in our prayers.
7. Be true to yourself. Don't cover up who you are. Be real. Don't just mime what the other person is saying or do what you think is expected. God already knows us better than we know ourselves, so there is no advantage to putting on an act. Let our conversations with God be filled with integrity and humility.
8. 50-50 sharing. Both parties should have equal opportunities to contribute to the conversation. Don't do all the talking. Pose questions and listen. Yes, one hundred times yes.
9. Ask purposeful questions. To have a meaningful conversation, ask meaningful questions. Get to know a person better by asking good questions. I know that sometimes my questions in prayer are pitiful, rhetorical, or vague and not at all thoughtful. We can all learn to ask better questions, even of God.
10. Give and take. Give someone the benefit of the doubt. Put things in a larger context to get perspective. I believe this also means that we should be good at both giving and receiving. Prayer can be a lively exchange, a respectful silence, a pouring out of our concern or grief, a search for guidance, or an intimate exchange between friends. Sometimes we will be on the giving end more than the receiving end; other times we will be happy to listen and sit quietly. Let us cultivate both skills.

"Prayer is dialogue, not man's monologue before God." [3]

[1] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Prayer (San Francisco: Ignatius Press), 13.
[2] Celestine Chua, "Art of Conversing: Do You Meet These 10 Rules of a Great Conversationalist?" http://personalexcellence.co/blog/conversation/.
[3] Balthasar, 14.

Monday, March 07, 2016

two wills become one

Image from goodfridayblues.wordpress.com
I have been doing quite a bit of reading and thinking about freedom in the past year or two. Some of it has to do with my doctoral dissertation and some of it has to do with my ongoing spiritual formation and a personal desire to be truly free. When we think of freedom in our Western culture, we often think about the ability to make our own choices, to say I don't want to eat pizza today, I want to eat sushi. Or I want to do what I want to do, not what you want me to do. We often see freedom primarily as self-determination, autonomy, and the ability to say No. However, freedom can also be thought of as consent, having the ability to align ourselves with another, the power to say Yes to someone. I want to say more about this second sense of freedom, but first, a bit of an overview of the scriptural idea of freedom.

The Greek words we translate as freedom in the New Testament are:
1. eleutheria: freedom, liberty, especially from slavery; the liberty to do as one pleases, freedom from the dominion of corrupt desires so that we do, by the free impulse of the soul, what the will of God requires.
2. aphesis: pardon, complete forgiveness, a sending away, letting go, deliverance.

We see these words when Jesus quotes a messianic passage from Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release (aphesis) to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free (aphesis), to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor." (Luke 4:18-19, NRSV) and when Jesus answers some Jewish opponents: "I tell you the truth: everyone who commits sin surrenders his freedom to sin. He is a slave to sin’s power. Even a household slave does not live in the home like a member of the family, but a son belongs there forever. So think of it this way: if the Son comes to make you free (eleutheria), you will really be free (eleutheria)." (John 8:34, The Voice)

Other well-known passages concerning freedom are: "Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom (eleutheria)." (2 Corinthians 3:17, NRSV) and "For you were called to freedom (eleutheria), brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another." (Galatians 5:13, NRSV). I won't comment much on these passages other than to say that freedom is closely identified with Jesus, the Son of God. Where Jesus is, we find freedom on display.

When we are talking about freedom in a theological context, it is important to differentiate between finite freedom (what we have as finite beings) and infinite freedom (what an infinite being has). Because we are not infinite, we can never have infinite freedom, meaning that the choices we have before us will always be limited. The good news is that our freedom, granted to us by God, finds its ultimate expression in tying itself to God. Freedom that is focused on autonomy is, in essence, turned in on itself and soon becomes a prison instead of bringing a person to greater freedom. The only thing that opens humans up to greater freedom is being in contact with infinite freedom, divine freedom.

This dynamic intersection of finite freedom with infinite freedom is evident in the story of Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane. Jesus, knowing that suffering and death await him, prays: "Father, if You are willing, take this cup [of suffering] away from Me. Yet not My will, but Your will, be done." (Luke 22:42, The Voice) Here we witness the intimacy between Jesus and his heavenly Father; however, we see not only their oneness but their distinction as two wills are clearly identified. In an appeal to his Father, Jesus voices his desire to be free from suffering and death. This could be seen as a form of self-determination. Jesus follows this appeal with a prayer of consent, choosing to align his will with that of his beloved Father and thereby, uniting his finite freedom with infinite freedom and accomplishing what no mere human could.

Jesus shows us that freedom is not related to a demonstration of power and autonomy, but the ability to say Yes even when we are tempted to say No, and the courage to say No even when others would have us say Yes (think about the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness). Life or death, fame or obscurity, success or failure, love or hate, it matters not. Jesus freely aligns himself with the will of the Father because his freedom is found in the Father, not in his circumstances. 

So what does this mean for those of us seeking to live in freedom? Ignatian spirituality identifies spiritual freedom as indifference. This does not mean that we don't care (Jesus experienced great sorrow in Gethsemane), but that we are not ruled by external forces or internal brokenness. Spiritual freedom means that we are free from personal bias and can submit our wants and desires to God, just like Jesus did. Spiritual freedom means that we are free from disordered attachments (attachments that are out of order) and we can let go of anything which hinders us from loving God and loving others. Spiritual freedom means that we are free from our personal baggage, those past experiences which can hamper our ability to say Yes to God. Spiritual freedom means that we live with open hands, not clenched fists, and that we are able to give and receive freely. Spiritual freedom means that we live fully and freely as the persons God created us to be. 

May we say the prayer of Jesus, "Not my will but yours be done," not as a prayer of weakness and limp submission, but as a prayer which is our greatest expression of freedom and leads us into even greater freedom.