Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Poem from Psalm 23


(I wrote this untitled poem two years ago while reflecting on a sermon series we did on Psalm 23.)





Who can lay down at a time like this?
Who can cup calm water with his hands in fists?
The shepherd may be wise, but I want the hook stick,
I’m determined to take the lead and get my life all fixed.
I'm all for the shepherd, just not confident in or with
“Following” lost appeal when we all ceased to be kids.
I'm not calling it all myth, just unnecessary risk. 
No more playing sheep if the wool no longer fits.
My enemy seldom misses and so I've taken some hits.
I tried it the shepherd's way, but I don't want what that gets.
If he's my protector, why these scratches and nicks?
If he's restoring my soul, then why're my guts in a twist?
I wish these lips could speak righteous quips and share
holiness tips while these feet walk the path sans slip.
But the valley unlit, made me lose my grip,
And a temporary trip threatens to become life in a pit. 
I told myself I won't lay down or even sit, be damned if I quit.
I will personally defeat that which contradicts or inflicts.
And my total lack of success only demands I persist.
At both death and life I shake this tired fist.

If this is life, then the point of it's been missed.
Perhaps I'll cease and desist to cautiously admit:
Maybe I'm not convinced that me as my shepherd has any lasting benefit. 
Can't honestly tell the difference these days between the good fight and a fit. 
How did my own fists leave me beat up like this?


A voice interrupts, though only whispered to me,
It's familiar to me, and it isn't me- can't be! It's anxiety free:

"Come back, lay down, fear not, breathe...
Fear makes you blind but I always see, 
20/20,
 night vision,
x-ray, 
3D.
What you call a valley I can see is space between.
Follow me, 
don't humor me, 
tell your fear and pain to let me lead.
Tell them I saw much worse between thieves back in AD 33.
Be relieved, though it’s hard for you to conceive,
the sheep impeach the shepherd but the shepherd keeps the sheep.
Now let me serve you dinner in front of your enemies.
I overfill cups,
give life and
 love for free."


My fists release, a glimpse of life in full peace, 
I'm a lost sheep invited to eat and drink deep
By the voice of lost sleep, who left behind the 99 for 1 thick-headed sheep,
He watched me split when troubles heaped, but He didn't blink.
He reversed the roles of follower and lead, chased me. 
Humility!
His love is more stubborn than my refusing my king.
Though I make and walk in darkness, the light helps me see, that
Light’s what I want
Light’s what I need,
But Light shines behind him and it’s too dark for me to lead.
Only in following can there be any peace.
The shepherd,
The savior,
He frees me indeed,
I want to live in this house and,
stubbornly, 
never leave.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Don't ask. Don't receive. Good boy.

This quote by Tim Piering reminded me of something I was chewing on a few months back. Many of the "manners" we teach children are simply deceptions that feign a civility, but are, in reality, deception. And as a deception, they're not good for us- such as the case below. I may expound on this general hunch about manners at the expense of true human interaction later... but seems imprudent now. Ahem.


"I was conditioned away from asking by my parents. I remember my grandmother used to give me money. When she gave me money, I was supposed to somehow resist it. It was part of this game. My parents would say, 'Don't take money from your grandparents,' and my grandparents would say, 'No, no, take it.' Outside you say 'no, no,' and inside you want it really bad. The grandparents would put it In your sleeve or down your back, and finally you would say, 'oh, okay.' That was the game. 
I remember one day, I went to my grandmothers house, and because she had always given it to me, I said, 'Grandma, can I have some money?'
She looked at me and said, 'Tim, don't ever ask for money!'
I was shocked. I was a little kid and it made sense that if they wanted to give me money and I wanted it that I could ask. But there was this ethic, this unspoken morality...". 
-Tim Piering

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

"Ignorance is the Best Knowledge" Part 1


I want to talk about some big things. But first, I want to talk about some really small things.

You and everything around you is a pulsing frenzy of atoms. Electrons whirling around a nucleus of protons and neutrons. If you're like me, as soon as you hear the word atom, you immediately call to mind an image like this:



It may surprise you to find out that the above isn't what atoms look like. The orbits electrons take around the nucleus aren't what planets do around a star. The electrons, when depicted graphically, merely represent where the electrons might be in a given, random moment in time. It's their potential location if this random moment and state could be isolated and measured by a conscious observer. But in reality, the electrons are in every place around the nucleus at once. They are in what's referred to as superposition, the almost nonsense state of subatomic things that us macroscopic things can't really comprehend. Not at all because it's moving "really fast", an electron surrounds the nucleus in every state simultaneously, forming more of a cloud/shell than a Jimmy Neutron logo.

Add to this that we haven't and likely never will see a real atom, because they are smaller (about 10,000x smaller) than a wavelength of light. So, that leaves us measuring their affect on their surroundings like one makes predictions about you by your B.O. and your footprints. It also leaves us using complicated math to speak of function and interaction, while using metaphoric representations (such as the cartoon above) to allow us to have any sort of meaningful discussion about them.

This means that the reality you are experiencing and have learned to intuitively understand is, at a fundamental level, unseeable and largely incomprehensible. And yet here we all are, sitting on and wearing and eating and blogging on atoms.

God is a man. (Exodus 15:3)     
God is not a man. (Numbers 23:19)

God has arms and hands and a face to look into. (Psalm 89:13, Isaiah 62:8,  Gen 32:30)     
No one has seen God, and God has no form. (John 3:5-8, 4:24, 1 John  4:12)        

Faithful people spend much time describing God and trying to make intelligible, transferable statements about God. Especially when it comes to reinforcing ideas about God that shape how we interact with the world, or to encourage and remind people about what it means to have God in their lives, or even to sound doctrine about God, we speak of what God is. This is called the cataphatic way. Cataphatic theology talks about what God is. We affirm that God is light. God is holy. God is good and powerful. God is big and strong. And so on.

But after a while, in a theology that's predominately, or exclusively cataphatic, a problem can sneak in long before we ever recognize it as a problem. 

And that problem is simply this: We've defined God.

Perhaps you've not yet recognized this as a problem. (This, I might argue, is a second problem...)

Defining God is a problem because defined gods are contained, tamed gods. As atoms aren't truly as the cartoons depict, God is not actually contained in our explanations. The drawing is meant to help us grasp nearly incomprehensible. But it's representative, not definitive. To understand the drawing of an atom has very little if anything to do with pinning down real atoms. This has nothing to do with atoms existing or not based on our level of comprehension or agreement. It goes to our ability to actually know what it is we're describing with our little brains. 
In the same way, descriptions of an indescribable God are meant to give us some sort of handle to grab onto. But actual depictions aren't possible. This doesn't mean there isn't a God; it simply means we're left with metaphors and footprints. If we forget this necessary fact of mystery and faith, our metaphors and descriptions cement the representations as hard reality. We're then led to assume infinite mystery has been solved by finite minds. Worse, when the metaphor ceases to add up or whet our appetites to seek and engage the Eternal Mystery behind the representation, we think that what's behind the representation is also as limited or empty. Or even as made up as the drawing. God is then confused with the illustration, and idolatry once again proves not to be so much an offense to God but to the very faith we so long to have.

This has driven many in the faith, for millennia, to approach God and discussions about God in ways that shock our culture's desire for concrete afFIRMation and certainty.

“That which is infinite is known only to itself. This it is which gives some notion of God, while yet beyond all our conceptions—our very incapacity of fully grasping Him affords us the idea of what He really is. He is presented to our minds in His transcendent greatness, as at once known and unknown.” (Tertullian Apologeticus, § 17)

"For we explain not what God is but candidly confess that we have not exact knowledge concerning Him. For in what concerns God, to confess our ignorance is the best knowledge." (Cyril, Archbishop of Jerusalem, "Catechetical Homilies, VI §2")

"[Comprehending God's knowledge, location and ability are...] too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain." (David, Psalm 139:5-6)

Our teaching style at Crosspointe largely reflects an acknowledgement of these ancient, ideas. For many faith communities in Western Society, much effort is put into the cataphatic tradition. To tell people what God is like and to give definition and substance to our faith. In my estimate, most of the scripture, and Christian faith, interacts and converses about God this way. (That's my impression, not something I've actually surveyed.) 

For a growing number of churches like Crosspointe, while a place for cataphatic theology is reserved, the apophatic way- the mystic's way- has come to the fore. This is a way of learning and speaking of God by negating and respectfully dismantling the metaphors insofar as they've been confused with God. Not because there comes a moment where a church has to check a box and choose, but because over time it begins to become clear that the metaphors and analogies can inadvertently become the point. Like a road sign that suddenly becomes the destination. Like pictures of atoms becoming confused with the unfathomably small atoms that comprise the simplistic picture. It's uncomfortable admitting we don't really know things. The discomfort that comes with divine mystery seems to be soothed by making doctrine out of the descriptors. But, God becomes a solved puzzle rather than ultimate, eternal enigma. 

It's important to note that apophatic approaches to God aren't meant to be antagonistic or contrarian. Saying "nuh-uh" and to all statements about God isn't the thrust of the mystic's way. It's when a cataphatic, affirming statement about God begins to become definitive and exclusive (like I recently heard the often said "God is good and cannot be in the presence of sin!") that the apophatic way tries to offer a humble negation to in order to keep God out of our doctrinal "control"; (I offered a, "Let's remember that God being 'good' is based on our limited, relativized understanding of good and bad. And God may be in the presence of whatever God wishes because what disgusts and offends us doesn't likely do so to the almighty.") This is key- the apophatic way in many respects offers humble ignorance as a counterbalance to zealous certainty within faith.

Much of the baggage so many have with faith is rooted in specific, concrete statements about God becoming the litmus test for their faith. I was once scolded by a sincere Christian brother for having the audacity to say I doubted Jesus literally sits at the right hand of the father, as each word in this beautiful illustration breaks down if affirmed as literal. I survived his indignation just fine, but can imagine a different outcome if he'd been my pastor and I the new and eager convert. Then I'd have experienced what people experience every day at the hands of those who confuse the drawing for the atom: A concrete verdict of allowable thoughts about a God that, outside of these cataphatic affirmations, is too dangerously and uncomfortably "other" for our minds to comprehend.

Though bolstered in our post-modern desire to question everything and unstitch the cloth our pre-enlightment brothers and sisters insisted was a seamless garment, apophatic negating is nothing new. Not for Christian faith generally and probably not for you and I. In other words, if you're a thinker, you've already dabbled in the apophatic way of the mystics:

Perhaps you've been asked by a child how big God is, or how old God is. Maybe you've asked questions pertaining to God's beard length and gender. We're often faced with a decision on how far we're willing to take the cataphatic way in thinking of God, which is largely comprised of analogy to the human experience. (I'll take this opportunity to reference one of my favorite $25 words, anthropomorphism.) We find ourselves in these moments responding something like, "Well, God doesn't really have size, because that communicates a boundary. And age assumes a beginning. And frankly, God doesn't have a beard although Michelangelo bestowed upon him a dandy. And I just referenced God as 'him', but God isn't male, because gender is determined by sex organs and..." 

At this point, some of us recognize an unsettling sense of unanchored mystery; "WELL THEN, WHAT IS HE..SHE...IT?"

Breathe deep and don't panic. 
Welcome to the other side of encountering the divine...by remaining sober about what is and is not.

Perhaps now we can begin to appreciate a voice emanating from a burning shrub telling Moses it was God, and this God's name is the confusingly simple, "I am what I am". Or the voice that that came as a whisper to Elijah in the cave after taking time to negate where and what God wasn't. Or Jesus, who came to teach us what God is like, having exclusive ability to do so, telling Nicodemus that God was like unpredictable wind. Perhaps God is easier to worship the more we disallow our drawings to play comfy stand-ins for the eternally mind-blowing. Perhaps loosing our firm footing is good for our souls.


Yes, this all raises numerous other questions about what it means to "know God", or for Jesus to show us what the Father is like, and whether we can relate to something if we're also wondering if that something can truly be known. And a host of other questions I'm sure. I'll think out loud about those things, and the benefits and drawbacks of both affirming and negating as a practice in future posts. For now, enjoy the mystery. Embrace a sacred ignorance and allow yourself the freedom to live in what the mystics referred to as The Cloud of Unknowing. I believe the space acknowledged by unknowing is the space the God of reality dwells. When we fill those spaces in with our resolved affirmations, there's no place for anyone but ourselves.



“Can you find out the deep things of God?
    Can you find out the limit of the Almighty?
It is higher than heaven—what can you do?
    Deeper than Sheol—what can you know?"


-Job 11:7-8 



Thursday, November 8, 2012

Prayer Part 3

I sent the same prayer questions I shot at Jonathan Bow to my friend Jan Kempe. What follows is some really helpful stuff that you should file under "must read" and then read. And then, maybe even do.


What is your daily experience of prayer like? 
At this point in my life, I feel a bit like Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof.  God has been gracious enough to inhabit my space and conversation with him is natural and no longer something that begins like a letter and ends with amen. He's my atmosphere, and my conscious actions seem to be modified (not perfected by any means) by knowing that I am not living this life on my own. Repentance (and thankfully forgiveness) happens frequently as I watch myself be a fool, speak out of anger, drive too fast ... yeah, all that.  That is the atmosphere of Presence that God has taught me to expect and to need. In such times of awareness I also find much for which to praise God: little things in my garden, strange animals, music, delicious food, a companion who loves God more than he loves me.  These prompt personal praise that often leads to dinner getting cold because we just can't stop noticing evidence of Him.  If we are created in God's image, it seems logical that just noticing and wanting to converse is praise.  I know how I feel when my children just come and occupy space near me, even if for no particular reason.

Now, where intercession is concerned (the WORK of prayer) I am a person who needs accountability.  I will go out of my way to keep my word to someone else, but I just don't always honor my word to myself. It's not that I'm not faithful ... I'm just forgetful. About 16 years ago I was working with a bunch of young basketball players, and I heard myself ask them for permission to pray for them every Monday.  They agreed.  Knowing I had just set myself up to fail, I gave them my word and promised an email every Monday that they never had to answer, but always could. All they had to do was think about God on Mondays.  It began with 5 girls on Monday. Throughout the years, on the course of my journey, more precious people have claimed their spots on particular days, and as I wake in the morning, they are on my mind. The guy from the Apple store, Young Life leaders, soldiers, pastors, a skeptic, an attorney, a doctor, a widow, my own kids ... and with their names God brings their faces and incredible love. I can't explain it.  I have no doubt it is his love for them and I get to soak in that. This particular discipline is most useful and precious to me.  If God stirs me with a curiosity or an unrest as I read over the names, I contact the person.  SO often I hear back, "how did you know?" Then I get to say, "I didn't.  Apparently God put you on my mind. How do we deal with that?" 


We all have prayer, or a lack of it, modeled for us. Where did you learn to pray the way you do? 
I am the one in a million who had parents who both remind me of Jesus. Humble, under-spoken and constant they heard needs, articulated those needs to God and others and then watched expectantly.  I grew up hearing stories of God showing up. They would tell me, "It doesn't hurt to ask" and I saw them ask. They paid attention. They let themselves be used to deliver answers. They surrounded themselves with the physically disabled, the economically disadvantaged, the seekers and the outcasts and they tried to incorporate them seamlessly into the Body of Christ.  They prayed as they breathed, deep and regularly.  

When my dad died, this quiet man had 4 pastors each wanting to preach his service. Others wanted to do special music. Many had something to say. Lots of stories. The church packed out with the most varied group you could imagine!  I'll never forget the Ethiopian refugee throwing himself on the casket crying, "Father, oh father."  The church people were stunned. They didn't know.

The last time I saw my mom, she did not recognize me or my daughter.  She was introducing me to people who weren't there.  She was pretty much gone.  Or so we thought.  Every day she had prayed for our entire family, each by name, and she knew what each was going through. One evening after she had been unresponsive for days, my brother asked her if she'd like to pray. She squeezed his hand and spoke.  There were 29 of us at that time and she didn't miss one. She knew from someplace other than her mind how to pray. The day she went to heaven the nurse gave my brother a note they found next to her bed.  It was the business card of a pastor.  Written on the back was, "Hazel, how I love to pray with you!  How blessed I am by the way you pray for me."  I believe that the soul has its own language, its own memory, and its own safe connection with the One to whom it is rightly-related. These remarkable people have taught me to constantly want more, and God is never too busy to oblige. 


How do you ask God for things, and how do interpret whether it's God responding or your own brain, coincidence, botulism-induced delirium via bad fish, etc? 
First, I just don't eat bad fish ...  :)
Very few times in my life God has spoken to me in precious, frightening, mysterious ways, but never because I have asked for things. I find that as I am understanding what ultimate and intimate intelligence is like, I am less prone to bring suggestions and lists to him in prayer. It is more effective for my own humility (always a challenge) and my understanding of God to ask for his Presence to be obvious to me or a person in decision-making mode, in personal victory, in distress or in sorrow.  Then I try to stay attuned both to the people involved and to that Presence so I can help bring attention to Him and hopefully enable a connection.  (I read that over and it sounds sort of weird, but I'll stand by it.)  God knows our situations and his Presence will bring what is needed, not necessarily what is easy or even desired. True prayer is to trust that even the junk in our lives is redeemable simply because of who he is and what he thinks of his kids. I believe the Teacher shows us not how to avoid the difficult, but how to walk through it well to the glory of Him.

Those "unusual" times when he speaks specifics that are unquestionably not coming from my own brain, are always marked by an interpreter for me.  I've never experienced tongues, but I've had thoughts that are totally thought out like a script. I've been on both sides of healing. I've discerned a direction to follow,  had dreams and even visions twice. I don't seek this kind of thing, but I no longer doubt it.  I don't ask for this ... but the times it has happened have been formative and validated by others much wiser than me.  The fact that the phone rang after such an encounter and one of the smartest people I know was on the other end: "Can you tell me why I'm calling you?"  God knows I needed that.

When the disciples asked Jesus for some help with praying, He responded with what we call the Lord's prayer. But the first word in it is "our". How does this inform your experience. 
As I mentioned in the previous paragraph,  God informs us through the Body of Christ.  Other believers who have some experience in knowing God's character are HIS idea for our encouragement, our rebuke, our assurance and interpretation of what we hear when we listen in prayer.  "Our" is the word that calls us to include others in the conversation because they are welcome, may listen better than we, may help us worship. Genesis 1:26 (humankind created in the image of God) tells me that it takes all of humanity to begin to bear that image well.  Those who have chosen to be rightly-related to God each uniquely represent some part of the Divine personality. How amazing for Jesus to invite us all and each to claim God as Abba. OUR Father.  Breathtaking coming from Jesus.

What do people get hung up where praying is concerned, in your experience? 
In my office I have a photo of my granddaughter looking with total delight into the eyes of her Father, who is looking back with equal delight.  The caption I have  above the photo is Matthew 6:9, "This, then, is how you should pray: Abba ..."  The "Our" of the preceding paragraph is essential to understanding God's corporate delight for his creation and our connectedness, but people also need to understand Abba (Daddy). Approaching God in prayer with an attitude of "Really?  You're my Father?" and the reciprocal understanding of "Yes ... and you're my beloved" accomplishes the entire Lord's Prayer.  Prayer is in its most complex and in its simplest form inviting God into the conversation. Abba. Many have been taught to seek a God who is distant, angry and really doesn't like us much. The normal way to approach such a being is with prayer that is distant and filled with performance.  God is worthy of my praise and awe and worship and fear (as in WOW), but the character of God as I have come to know him does not want distance or performance. Micah 6 is a pretty good picture of people wondering how to worship from a distance and perform well enough to placate, and God's response is "stop it! What do I want from you?  Act justly, love mercy and WALK humbly with me." Don't do enough first.  You can't!  Just walk with me!  When Scripture talks about Moses talking to God as a man speaks to his friend, I see that as something that makes Moses able, makes God willing, and creates the kind of relationship God desires.  I meet each Thursday morning @ 7:30 with a wonderful woman who is a mentor to me.  We have found that prayer begins often right out of conversation, eyes open, and ends without any formal signing out. I find that when others join us they are sometimes a little confused, sometimes uncomfortable, but they soon feel invited into a conversation that doesn't demand naming God with every new sentence.  My heart wishes more people would set their traditions and habits aside long enough to just let God be in the room.                                 

One difficulty I see a lot is people having with prayer is that they are afraid to ask God for intervention in their affairs because if he doesn't act as they'd like, maybe it's because they aren't good enough.  Others are afraid to ask God to intervene in front of others because if he doesn't, their God might look bad.  How have we taught this?  How do we unteach it?  I thank my Abba for my Dad who kept telling me, "it doesn't hurt to ask."  Any good parent will listen and love, and then do what is best, not always what is requested.


So, what does this mean practically? 
I've learned that I don't call the shots in my life, but I get to watch and interact with the One who does.
The habit of prayer is becoming a bit like the habit of breathing.  I am NOT saying that I have this down, but I will say that at this point God invites and initiates prayer and I am stunned to realize that we are talking.  This is a mystery, and the more I try to understand, the deeper the mystery.  I'd have it no other way.  I need to worship One who is WAY beyond what I can understand.  Practically, that sense of Presence often leads to a book, a song, a portion of Scripture or just a thought that will connect with someone or some need.  I follow those promptings with an email, a call ... sometimes am stunned to have the person walk into the office unannounced. Practically, I make a safe place and make the coffee.  I hug and I connect the dots between those with resources and others with needs.  I can do that.  I am accepted by the One who matters. (great boss!)

Monday, October 29, 2012

God is a Terrible Person (A Halloween Meditation)



Because I am a deeply spiritual man I have been praying for guidance as to what I should dress up as this Halloween. No clear answers yet. 

As I try and decide between a ghost, a man in a toga or a sheet salesman, I have another thought in my mind about how I live the rest of my life. Here’s a few brief thoughts that will hopefully serve as a kind of a meditation.
In the Hebrew Old Testament, generally speaking, people are referred to as what could be translated “life-forms”. The word in Hebrew is nephesh (נֶפֶשׁ). It’s applied to people and animals and seems to be a way of delineating life from non-life. Rocks; not nephesh. Geologists and their pets; nephesh (unless they’re pet rocks).

When a person is referred to in the Old Testament, that person is called a life. And it’s largely the same in the New Testament. The Greek word Psuche (ψυχή) loosely means “soul” or “life”  and is often translated as such. When you look at a person, you are looking at life, who does in some way resemble the very Essence and Maker of life. Not to romanticize it too much, but there is a sense Biblically that human beings are thought of matter-of-factly as having depth and substance. 

It seems as though in our modern times, and in the English language, we’ve lost much of this sense. Unfortunately, we now refer to each other as “person”. When it’s a plurality of persons the term is “people”, which comes from populace or population.

But the singular, “person”, literally means mask. 

Rather than refer to ourselves by our depths, we casually call each other pretenders, actors, facades. Not, I believe, because we have judgmental intentions. But perhaps because we’ve grown comfortable thinking of ourselves by our outward presentation, rather than what makes us truly us. In fact, one could argue, we spend the majority of our energy being a good person outwardly without much emphasis on what we really are in our depths. Our focus and much of our life is dedicated to making our mask effective at hiding our inner reality while simultaneously impressing others at all life’s costume parties.

The Biblical story of humanity is one that begins with open, vulnerable, honest nakedness and descends quickly into fig leaves, hides and hiding. What was about mutual, unobstructed access to each other became the nervous mastering of others’ perception through coverings and pretense. Anxiety and an overall terror about being known for what we are (or maybe aren’t) follows through to today. 

We were made to look like God, but Humanity put on a mask and became a scared little person.

How much of the jockeying for position and rank we see in the New Testament or this last month for you and I is really men and women trying to put on the best show in order to win the most social currency? How many of our cares are really the culturally sanctioned fretting over whether we’re producing the results that give us the best shot at admiration, love and respect?


All this has brought me to think about Trick-or-Treat night this Halloween (you know, that one time of year we put on a mask to get something from others) and a brief meditative opportunity to be found where there was only candy and sweaty plastic masks before. 
Hopefully these questions can serve as one more step in us really seeing each other; really knowing and being known by each other. And in this, a little closer to the kind of human existence we know down in our ψυχή that we were meant to live.


If you go Trick-or-Treating with (or as) kids, ask yourself:

How much of your day-to-day life is like this night?

What are your costumes? “Costumes” comes from the word “custom” and has to do with customary dress for the place we find ourselves. So this question is asking what are the customary presentations of your persona that you recognize in all areas of your life? (Some of us pride ourselves on being a social chameleon, able to appear like whoever we’re around....is this a plus?)

Do you present God a mask and costume, in your words or deeds, because you believe that’s what God requires if we’re to be found acceptable? In other words, do you give God only the person or do you also give God all the nebulous, scary, unanchored liability that lies beneath?

What would happen if you really dropped all pretending, whether gradually or all at once? Would you choose the avoidance of this outcome at the expense of remaining an actor? Or would you be willing to embrace the terror of nakedness?

Is it okay to hate whoever it is that passes out those unchewably hard taffies in black paper? Good grief. Spend an extra buck and distribute something resembling a treat.

Monday, October 22, 2012

"The Prisoners". A parable.


The prisoner gathered his courage and offered the guard his own daily ration of bread through the cell bars. 

The guard looked at the bread in the prisoner’s dirty hand and scowled. He opened the door and beat the prisoner with his baton, calling him a worthless dog, kicking him as he fell to the ground. 

That night, the prisoner nursed his wounds, rehearsing his teacher’s emphasis to not ever be overcome by the evil of others, but to trust in the power of serving and loving them instead. The prisoner went to sleep hurting, skeptical, but resolved to brave love again.

That same evening the officer remembered his brutality toward the prisoner and was ashamed. He felt he had wielded his power in a way he wouldn’t later be proud of.

The next afternoon the bruised prisoner approached the door with that day’s ration of bread, as well as his bowl of pale broth. When the guard noticed him, he opened the door and swatted the food out of the prisoners hand and shoved him to the ground. “Keep your rations to yourself!” he shouted.

The prisoner spent the rest of his day angry and doubtful about his teacher’s words and all the years he’d spent learning them. He decided the teaching was unrealistic and was only making matters worse.

The guard spent the rest of his day angry and doubtful about his behavior. Would his own children be able to tell which was the righteous man, and which was unrighteous? The guard decided to break policy and would treat the prisoner with dignity, should he dare to share his food again.

On the third day the prisoner came to the window offering his daily ration of bread, a bowl of pale broth, as well as his once-a-week ration of cold coffee. When the guard saw him with the gifts at the door, he opened it, and stepped through. The prisoner braced for another beating. But the guard extended his hand and received the prisoner's gifts. He ate them eagerly. As he finished the broth and swallowed the coffee, he choked as his throat began to close. The soup and the coffee had been poisoned. 

As the guard lay gasping and shaking on the floor, other guards came in to take their revenge on the prisoner, as well as all the other prisoners on the block. Both the guard and the prisoner, in their final moments before dying, knew their change of heart had been an error.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Profaning the Temple

This past Sunday, Jonathan gave us an overview of the mobile Hebrew tent, the tabernacle.
It's a nutty word. Tabernacle. Similar to Kalamazoo; It gets your whole mouth involved when you say it and has the added value of sounding like a magic spell. (Wave a wand while saying "tabernacle kalamazoo" ominously and then let me know if anything worthy of Hogwarts occurs.)

Tabernacle literally means "observation tavern", which I'd argue makes a great name for a church. Attendance would probably be significant at the Observation Tavern, as long as service wasn't too early. As Jonathan covered sunday, the tabernacle's design and structure was meticulous as well as metaphoric inside and out. Though this mobile tent finally gave way to a permanent structure known as the temple (despite God never asking for that architectural graduation), the original concept of a mobile tent of God, with animal skin on the outside and the Spirit of God at its heart carry all the through the New Testament to today.

It's an astounding concept.

"We are the temple of the living God; just as God said, 'I will dwell in them and walk among them; And I will be their God, and they shall be My people'."  2 Corinthians 6:16

"Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? " 1 Corinthians 6:19 


"Do you not know that you are a temple of God, and the Spirit of God dwells in you?" 1 Corinthians 3:16 


To the extent that I embrace this reality, it makes me say wow. And then, whoa. And then...after some reflection... ugh.

I'm God's dwelling place. You and I tote the almighty. And since you and I are nothing approaching perfect, this means God takes up residence in our love and purity as well as our selfishness and animalistic settling. As the idea of YHWH living in me, and more meaningfully, with in us, takes hold I find myself feeling like a kid thats been doing yard jobs in his dad's car only to find out dad's been in the passenger seat the whole time. Hey dad, how long have you been there? All along? Soooo.... you don't just 'know what I did', but because of my lack of awareness, I've made you part of it. I wish I could magically disappear....KALAMAZOO!...ahem....still here huh?

But there's something about all this far more profound to me as I embrace what it means to take part in being the temple of the Divine. To be skin on the outside and God's Spirit at my center. Once again, as I mature, the whole discussion sprints far past "good and bad", or a tension between behaving and misbehaving. It's something more about the actual transformation of human beings. The faith of my childhood, and of my childishness, is behavior control and being guilted (even intimidated) into a non-naughty conformity. But I'm discovering once again it's more about accepting Christ's invitation into full, whole life.

Today, I've been thinking about the word profane in relation to all of this. We use the form "profanity" more often. When we use these words, most of us think of something bad that's gotten on something good. A profanity is a bad word that's come out of what was supposed to be a good mouth (or a bad word from a bad mouth into a good ear. Either way, something pure has been soiled). A profane image could be a sacrilegious painting or sculpture or even act that flies in the face of accepted morality.

The word is an interesting one. It breaks down as pro fanus, meaning "out in front of the temple". It's not inside the sacred space, but has been cast out. Though this does have the simplistic connotation of not being "good enough" to inhabit the sacred space, it becomes more dynamic as we think about us brothers and sisters actually being the sacred space. More so when what makes us that sacred space, that mobile tent of God's Spirit, isn't our goodness but God's.

Many of us have grown up thinking of sacred buildings as things we made. But sacred buildings are things God makes. Us. Profaning the temple is that which doesn't honor what God is up to in us and through us, and is out of accord with the Christ who makes us sacred. So running in church doesn't profane the temple. Yelling at the running kids our of unbridled irritability, or calling the one who did the yelling a grumpy jerk- these are the profaning of the temple of God.

We profane the temple when we act selfishly, a direct contrast to the others-centered Spirit of the Christ. We profane the temple when we treat our bodies, or those of others', as mere centers for appetite and appetite satisfaction.
We profane the the temple when we withhold forgiveness until people pay us for their sins.
We profane the temple when we cease to live in the honesty of faith and mystery, instead demanding answers and shunning natural human doubt and thus demanding pretense.
We profane the temple when we choose self-preserving, self-assured fear over courageous acts of service to others that can't or won't reciprocate.
We profane the temple every time we give into the belief that we are better than others. As though we possess the Spirit by grace while others have to prove themselves to us for that same honor.

In short, we profane the temple of a cosmic behavior police by failing to act and speak in accordance with its purity code. But, for those that tote the Spirit of Jesus Christ, the Ultimate giver and lover of others, we profane his temple when we do anything that contrasts his grace and love.

To my fellow sacred architecture: May we be better than good, or merely not bad. May we live in a way that reflects He that lives at our core.




Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Prayer Part 2


I asked my best mate Jonathan a few questions about prayer for your blog-reading pleasure. He and I have had numerous talks about prayer over the years and have different experiences as praying people. I've learned a lot from him, and now you get to:

What is your daily experience of prayer like? I would say it's short. I tend to keep my prayers pretty short and simple. I used to feel guilty about that, but then I realized Jesus taught that was okay--even preferred at times. I often find myself thinking through my upcoming day and the interactions I anticipate, and asking for what I think I may need in those moments. Often when I sit down to talk to someone, I'll quickly ask God to help me listen well, to discern what's being said and what's not being said, and for wisdom in how I respond. Additionally, I'll ask very specific questions of God as part of prayer and try to quiet myself to discern how God may choose to answer. This isn't a daily discipline. But, it's an important part of my prayer experience.

We all have prayer, or a lack of it, modeled for us. Where did you learn to pray the way you do? Like many others, I'm sure I have several influences when it comes to prayer. I'm sure there are phrasal patterns I picked up along the way that I don't even remember where I first heard them. I'm sure my parents played a role in that, as well as influential pastors, mentors and friends. When I was 17 years old I found myself in my bedroom yelling at God. Up to that point, I had always repeated very traditional prayers before meals and bedtime. Yet, in those moments of yelling and letting God have it, a thought came to mind that seemed to suddenly interrupt my current stream of thought. It was, Finally, you're actually talking to me. That was a critical point for me that radically changed my paradigm. One, this was no longer a one-sided conversation. God speaks back. And two, perhaps God wasn't interested in all the great ways I could perform by saying the 'right things' at the 'right time.' Perhaps, God really just wanted to hear the raw version of me. That moment was a catalyst in several ways. A few years later I read a book by author and philosopher Dallas Willard called Hearing God that gave me some handles on how to grow in navigating and discerning an interactive conversation with God. 

How do you ask God for things, and how do interpret whether it's God responding or your own brain, coincidence, botulism-induced delirium via bad fish, etc? Again, I would say my asks are very short but specific. Asking God to just 'speak' has rarely proved helpful in my experience. So, I try to ask specific questions. In terms of interpreting whether it's God responding, or my own thoughts, or delirium from bad fish--I try to approach the whole process with great humility. The reality is I can misunderstand something my wife says when she's sitting next to me on the couch. Therefore, I try to always remember that I can certainly misunderstand the whispers and nudges from an invisible, spirit God. As for discerning between specific thoughts, I tend to pay attention to a few key filters that were greatly influenced by Dallas Willard. 
  • One, does the voice carry a weight of authority? Throughout the Scripture, God doesn't ever seem to try to convince. Or bargain. Or plead. Or argue. He just speaks. It's like the healthiest version of any kind of leader in your life. 
  • Two, is the tone of what I'm hearing consistent with the voice and spirit of Christ we find in the Scriptures? For example, often the thoughts that flood to mind are hurried. There's an anxiousness to them--imploring me to do something right away--typically out of some kind of fear. But Jesus' voice was never marked by hurry or anxiety in the Scriptures. So, I tend to dismiss those thoughts as I'm sifting and discerning through. Additionally, Jesus didn't use guilt, manipulation, or condemnation. So those thoughts of, "Who do you think you are--thinking you can do this? Remember what you did? Remember when you failed?" Or, "If you really love me, then you'll _____." I've learned and am still learning to let myself be free to dismiss those thoughts as not the voice of Christ in my life. 
  • Three, I try to ask myself if what I'm hearing contradicts a principle clearly taught in Scripture. If my thoughts are prompting me toward revenge or are giving me reasons to hold onto bitterness--then I try to remind myself that isn't the voice of Christ. If someone tells me he feels like God is telling him to pursue another woman other than his spouse, I feel like I can say with a fair amount of confidence that God isn't saying that. I've never heard God speak audibly out loud. However, I use those filters to sift through the thoughts that come to mind when I ask specific questions in trying to discern what God may be saying.

When the disciples asked Jesus for some help with praying, He responded with what we call the Lord's prayer. But the first word in it is "our". How does this inform your experience. Especially when it comes to big decisions, I bounce what I think I'm hearing off a very close, trusted circle of Christ-centered friends and mentors. Again, I'm very aware I can misunderstand God and misunderstand myself. So, I invite communal discernment and feedback, trusting that God speaks through the community He has surrounded me with as well. 

What do people get hung up where praying is concerned, in your experience? Especially when it comes to the listening and interactive side of prayer, I think people get hung up on wanting immediate results. Recognizing one's specific voice in any relationship takes time. There are a handful of people on the planet that if all they said to me on the phone was 'hey' that I could immediately discern who it is. And all of those are relationships that I've interacted with for over a decade. I still have trouble distinguishing my two young boys from one another on the phone. I think that same principle holds true in our relationship with God. But, it's very tempting to bail quickly on learning to discern the voice of God because we feel like it should be obvious to us and if it's not--then it's easy to conclude either something is wrong with me or something is wrong with God or prayer itself. Instead, it may very well be that's just the reality of how relationships work and develop over time, and we're impatient. 
Further, I think we can often get hung up on asking specific questions. We can carry this sense of not wanting to bother God with the questions we're wrestling with personally or professionally. Sure, we can ask him to intervene and heal and fix. But, the idea of asking a specific question and trying to listen causes us to hesitate. One of my biggest hurdles in that regard was simply fear of what would happen to my faith if I asked something and didn't hear anything. I was scared of what that may say about me and I didn't want to have to confront that. I was also scared of what that potential silence may say about this Christ I've put my faith in and I didn't want to risk or confront it. So, it felt 'safer' to keep the conversation one-sided. I imagine I'm not the only one who gets hung up on that. 
Another thing about prayer that's easy to get hung up on is disconnecting it from actual life. It's easy for it to become this separate spiritual thing we do only in a carved-out, specific period of time. To counter that temptation, often I pray with my eyes open. That used to feel taboo to me based on what I had witnessed growing up. Sometimes closing my eyes helps me focus. But sometimes opening them reminds me this interaction with God is very much a part of my actual day to day world--not disconnected in any way. Also, I used to feel guilty when I would get distracted by to-do lists in my head as I was trying to listen. But now, rather than trying to keep listening while simultaneously trying not to forget this 'to do' that suddenly popped in my head--I just write it down on a pad of paper or type a note in my phone and go back to sifting through my thoughts afterward. 
One more thing. It's easy for prayer to get disconnected from your actual life if you don't act on what you hear. Again, prayer isn't a disconnected spiritual experience. If you try to perfectly discern when it's actually God speaking versus coincidence or bad fish--the goal becomes recognizing God's voice over living a life surrendered to the leadership of Christ.  
So, what does this mean practically? When God brings someone to mind out of nowhere, call them. Stop by and visit. When you ask God for specific guidance--and a thought interrupts that you think may be God, after passing it through the filters I mentioned earlier, take a risk and act on it. As you see the leadership of Christ play out more and more in your life, it gives you increased confidence in future moments of discernment. When I've gone through seasons of finding it more difficult to discern God's voice for whatever reason, I've found it helpful to be brought back to surrendering to the leadership of what Jesus has already said in the Scriptures. I recognize in some situations I don't need a new word from God. I just need to surrender to the leadership that's already been given through the life and words of Jesus. As I do that, not surprisingly, I find it easier to 'tune back in' to a more interactive, conversational relationship with God. Not because God was previously holding out on me, but more so because my heart was postured to listen just for listening, rather than for the sake of living.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Heaven was the other way.


I waited five minutes before I finally decided I should abandon the left turn.
My motorcycle doesn't weigh enough to trip the sensor to make the light change at many intersections. And with no one driving up behind me in a heavier car, I'd been stuck glug-glug-glugging for long enough.
So, I turned right instead, figuring I'd u-turn after a couple hundred yards and be on my way home.

I didn't get all the way up to the speed limit due to my about-face I had planned. But the opportunity to u-turn didn't present itself as quickly as I'd hoped. At first I couldn't turn around because it was unsafe. After another hundred yards, it was illegal. After another fifty, it was impossible because of the big cement dividing hump that appeared like a stone whale out of an asphalt sea.

But I could see ahead another fifty or sixty yards where a u-turn would be more reasonable. So I continued on in the left lane, driving at probably 10 miles an hour under the speed limit, scouting out the precise spot for a pirouette. Seemingly at random, I looked in my mirror.
A truck was bearing down on me, his front bumper dropping as the driver was apparently standing on the brakes. I accelerated to stay well in front of him. I've played enough pinball to know as a matter of instinct what the big plunger does to the little shiny ball. As I sped up, the truck swung around to my right side, slowing to just a fraction faster than my speed. This allowed the driver to give me a full opportunity to see his raging, snarled face and his muted obscenities mouthed through his driver-side window.

And as he passed, the strangest reflex employed itself in my right hand.

I cranked the throttle to match his speed.

On impulse, something in me had decided that this man getting away with his misplaced anger and condescension toward me wasn't happening. The man was in his fifties or sixties, and should know better. I wasn't going to allow him to think it was ok to just drive by judging me.

Mess with the bull, you get the horns.
Want a piece of me? How 'bout the whole cake?
You just bit off more than you can chew.
Gary has a rash and he's out of aloe.

Ok that last one I just made up and I don't know what it means.
Suffice it to say that an outdated bravado was immediately there to take over. Something I thought was almost entirely gone came back in full, and suddenly Dr. Banner was wondering why his helmet was getting so tight and his pants were splitting. Now Hulk bike heavy enough for sensor.
And with the full-fledged rage, a self-righteous internal victim joined in:

The guy doesn't know the reason I was going marginally slower. He didn't even ask. He went straight to selfish, inconvenienced lividity.
What if I was running out of gas?
What if I was having seizures?
What if I had a flat?
He doesn't even know if I need help.
He's nearly twice my age, and he still get irritable over losing 4 seconds from his agenda?

At this point I could see that my acceleration was interpreted by him as aggression. His face scrunched more, and he yelled through the window in a way that, though I couldn't hear any of it, clearly communicated Gary indeed had a very bad rash and there was no aloe for miles.

Hm. Somehow that makes more sense there.

I passed the spot that I had previously determined a safe u-turn could be made. I was now otherwise engaged, abandoning turnaround for an irrational belief that I had other, more important things to attend to than going home.
Traffic was stopped ahead at a light, and we would be coming to a stop as well. My heart was pounding, even though this entire exchange was literally about ten seconds old. I'm still amazed at how quickly I went from casual driving to ready for battle. And this next intersection would be the battlefield it seemed. I could feel anger in my hands. An old, familiar tingling that, a hundred yards back, I would have believed were from an earlier time of immaturity.

My face shield and sun visor were still down, hiding my face, so the guy probably thought he was barking at some teenaged whippersnapper. The thought occurred to me to yank off my helmet and give him crazy face. Psy-Ops, you know. Because the face of a middle-age crisis might have surprised him into a terrified stupor, causing him to drive away through the grass median while apologizing in a high-pitched whimper. I'm not saying any of this was rational. Hulk just confess.

The driver had escalated to pointing as he yelled. This was perhaps to help me be sure, in case I wasn't, that I was the object of his loathing. (I wonder now if the reflection of himself doing this in his window told a truer story.) The light went green but we had both slowed to a crawl. This slower speed allowed more time for exchanging evil countenances. Neither of us knew why we were mad, and couldn't remember the beginning of this madness. We had always been enemies as far as we were concerned in that moment. Although we would both be able to give all kinds of reasons for our anger. Never underestimate the intellectual brain's ability to almost immediately justify the emotional brain's recklessness.
As the intersection neared and the traffic ahead of us began to pull well ahead, a tiny mote of a voice sounded from somewhere deep inside me. And if it were actual words, it went something like this,

"This is nothing you'll be proud of. This is nothing you're working toward and living for. Do you really intend to continue down this path?"

At this, I checked my mirrors, and seeing no one behind me, I let the bike slow. I put up both of my hands to say "what's your problem anyway?", while also fully aware that from his perspective, it also communicated, "What are you going to do, chicken? Bok bok bok." He extended one arm out his window, palm up, to communicate the latter right back to me.

He drove on.
I stopped, completed my u-turn, and entered into a dark, disappointed fog for the next couple of hours.

As is so often the case in my life, I should have just been patient and gone the other way.

I prayed on my way home. I asked God to forgive me for believing so fundamentally that I could successfully answer immaturity with immaturity. For justifying my wrath to myself. For embracing adrenaline and aggression and not humility and self-control. I told Kristi about all this later after she asked me if I was ok. She could tell I was a little sideways when I got home. I was humiliated to admit that within less than a third of a minute, I had gotten a most unfortunate, real life review of my spiritual maturity. As always, she was very compassionate and understanding. She knows that I've had an unwanted relationship with an ugly dog in me and that I have tried over and over to leave it in a bag in the river. She knows that this dog, if even in intervals of years, always seems to find his way back to me. She loves me anyway. She loves me even though this dog snapped at her more than once. I felt better walking through the details of the story with her. Dr. Banner was back and was ready to put on new pants.

The next day I talked to my very good friend, TJ. By then, all the emotion was gone and it was just a bewildering report of the facts. When I was done, I said, "once again, I let the base of me overpower everything else. I wonder if I'll ever mature." He had a remarkable response:

"Isn't that heaven?"

I didn't get it so I asked him what he meant.

"The conquering of all that base, physical stuff. Isn't that heaven on earth? When you no longer get angry or adrenalized and subvert your own spirit with all those ugly impulses?"

I felt a smile stretch across my crazy face. I immediately heard Jesus teaching his students to pray; "Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven." (In other words, "Your way be in effect here, the way you want things, here in our physical, tangible lives as they are in the unseen realm.") These words were important to include in a short prayer because there's something within us all that works against it. And when it resurfaces, it surprises us with intensity and its desire to re-inaugurate the animal kingdom in place of God's.
I thought of Jesus referring to the Kingdom as both being in our midst, and yet still not fully here. It whispers u-turns, typically long before we ever consent to do one.
I thought of Paul's words about the flesh and the spirit being antagonistic to each other, even within himself. Even while he was inspired to write what we call scripture.
I was reminded that faith in Christ is largely a war within the self, between two selves. Not with others. On my motorcycle I simply reverted back to the childish belief that I was at war with other people. At the store. In my family. With others of different beliefs and philosophies. But none of those are inspired wars. Those are just childish squabbles over the preferred speed of traffic and an entitled sense of being treated well. I forgot that the one true war is the long, drawn out, bravely aware and non-anxious process of replacing the impulse for hell in us (which results in hell between us all) for the way of heaven. With peace and love and all those other fruity words Paul suggests.

TJ reminded me that heaven isn't just a place, but is what happens when the things that make us unlike Christ, unlike even our own truest nature, finally replaces every counterfeit, base thing in us. And this isn't something you should expect to have resolved in your thirties. The only One who ever did have it together in His thirties was executed by people who maybe never did.

Later that day I prayed for a man I don't know. I prayed that whatever it is in his life that allows him to get angry so fast will be dealt with redemptively. I prayed for forgiveness for being an instigator of anger in his life to the extent I could control that. I prayed that I would have a better set of instincts next time, dialed to love and humility rather than, frankly, a dangerous escalation to win a cockfight that neither of us could legitimately justify. I prayed that I would, with my new found awareness of the work I have left to do in this particular department (and I have numerous departments), that I would have greater courage to turn around earlier and earlier. And it does take courage to risk looking weak rather than prove you are by fighting about nothing but ego.
So I will continue to pray for this courage and awareness to change directions earlier. Because heaven, I'm finding, is typically arrived at by way of well timed u-turns.



Thursday, September 20, 2012

Prayer, Part 1: "Yes, No, Later."



Through the years I have seen and heard spiritual leaders talk about how God answers our prayers.
God's answer is either;
"Yes."
or
"No."
or
"Later"

If you're human, prayer is confusing and difficult. Theology like yes-no-later often makes it even harder for me.

My issue isn't intent. I used to say this same thing when people asked about God's response to our prayers and believed I was understanding things accurately and was being helpful. So understand, I'm not saying people who offer the yes-no-later solution are trying to do any harm. I am simply saying I don't think they are thinking about it very deeply. I also think this is yet another way we try and make God do our will.

My hang up with this trifecta is that it uses the same rationale as the Magic 8 Ball. The answers are vague enough to demand interpretation and, in my estimate, depend almost entirely on the one shaking the ball or saying the prayer. You can apply this to anyone or anything.

Pray to your wrist watch and ask it for a much-needed raise at work. Should you get a raise, you can posit your watch has given you a yes. Praise Timex. If it doesn't happen, you can say the watch has answered no. But you could also surmise that it had said "not yet" and hold out hope for the next day. All no's can be not yets. Which means everything is a yes, no matter the request, given time and enough positive disposition. A year later, you get the raise, and the not yet has become a yes. Or the first day you didn't get the raise, but instead are fired. You could say that was a no in its concreteness. But the next job gives a penny more an hour. AHA! You can now retrospectively call what was a no a yes or a not yet. Clever watch.

Whether we're talking about owning something, our health, a relationship...the yes-no-later theology is quite often really a matter of imagination, and certainly isn't the exclusive rights of faithful Christ-followers.

I've come to see this as a misunderstanding.

Prayer is certainly inclusive of asking for things. Jesus says multiple times that asking for things is part of our relationship with him. As such, I ask for things all the time. I don't know why I get or don't get what I ask for, and the formulas don't hold up. So, as I ask, I've begun asking why I think I want what I'm requesting. So every ask is two requests for me now, I guess.
Over all, I am struck with the fact that in passages found in John 14, 15 and 16, Jesus says "whatever you ask in my name will be given you." Asking in Jesus' name means requesting in accordance with his reputation. "God, I want and ask like Jesus wants and asks..." is how I think of it as I pray. I try and keep in mind while asking for things the Name in which I am praying has a reputation for having no known address, for having no possessions listed anywhere, for having friends that were hard to trust when it most mattered, for having family that thought he was nuts, for being unattractive, for serving people while they plotted to ruin him, and for being judged guilty for things he wasn't involved with. Frankly, I'd rather pray in Brad Pitt's name most days. My default, uninspired prayer is that my family and I would remain in a bubble of unthreatened, undemanding luxury. That's not evil. It just isn't asking for things in accordance with Messiah.

The misunderstanding goes deeper than this. Requesting, or petitioning, is not just a part, but a minority part of prayer as I've come to think of it. And it's shrinking with time. This, I concede, probably has in part to do with living in material abundance and not feeling a survivor's desperation. But then again my friends and mentors in developing countries also seem to let petitioning drop off as they mature. Prayer has become mostly a setting of my mind on the things of God, rather than the things of my anxious list.

Paul writes to his brothers in sisters in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 to "pray ceaselessly". On one hand this may have been a colorful exaggeration to drive home prayer's importance. But understanding our faith through a mystical, meditative tradition that lauds seeing over blindness, Paul was probably talking about staying in a constant state of awareness to reality. In this, Paul is saying "stay tuned-in beyond your normal way of bumbling through life on mere instinct." Praying ceaselessly doesn't make much sense in a faith that teaches peace and contentment if it's mainly asking for things. Every ask is a complaint about current circumstances. This same Paul said he'd learned to be content in all circumstances, so telling others to be in a constant state of requesting different circumstances is not just paradoxical for me. It's schizophrenic.

This is why I think that prayer and meditation and awareness and renewed thinking are all different ways of saying the same thing. It's also why I seldom think of prayer as a list of things I am trying to get from God, where I must be careful to use proper wording, technique and demeanor so God will feel more apt to give a solid "yes". Oh, and I have to tag on the "In Jesus' Name" so as to compel God to do say yes even if he didn't want to. This is a huge shift for many people, I know. It was and is huge for me. What is prayer if we're not clicking off things we think we'd better off having than not having.
Interestingly, when Paul said pray ceaselessly, he said it this way:

"Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you." 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (ESV)

Be constantly aware, thanking God for things as they are. 
Feel free to express your wants and what you believe to be your needs. 
But God's will is that regardless of what does or doesn't happen, become a man or woman that isn't subject to things going any certain way. 
This is God's will, presented to you though the template of Christ's life!

I find myself asking God to help me become even one molecule more like Christ, regardless of the state of things and people around me. This is me asking God to keep me awake, and, frankly, less requesting. Less needy. More grateful for things as they are, and mindful of the role I play in bringing about that which I only passively prayed for in the past.
I ask that my kids would have their needs met, and that my wife and I would become ever clearer about what that means in this culture.
I ask that things outside my control would be covered divinely, and that God would remind me to be brave enough to handle everything else.
I ask to be reminded in real time that if I got everything I thought I wanted, I'd become far worse a wretch than I already am.

Consider praying the Lord's prayer  as a template today. As you do, note it doesn't open with our agenda, but our place in His. Then embrace that children do ask of their Parents. But to do so in accordance with the family Name means asking for ways to become more like the Parent and less like the kid. No matter the circumstances. It's a hard prayer. But finding out we're in control when we shake the 8 Ball and wind our watch is far harder.


"Unfortunately, in the West prayer became something functional; something you did to achieve a desired effect—which puts you back in charge. As soon as you make prayer a way to get something, you’re not moving into a new state of consciousness. It's the same old consciousness. “How can I get God to do what I want God to do?” It's the egocentric self still deciding what it needs, but now often trying to manipulate God too.... It pulls God inside of my agenda instead of letting God pull me inside of his. This is still the small old self at work." 
-Richard Rohr