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 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!)