Pray, in Christ

In 1970, Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich expressed his support for artistic freedom and human rights in a letter to Pravda, the state-run newspaper of the Soviet Union. In response, the Soviets sharply curtailed his ability to travel. After Rostropovich and his wife decided not to return to the Soviet Union when travelling abroad in 1975, the Soviets stripped him and his wife of citizenship.

The political conflict in which the Rostropovich’s were embroiled reflected the larger geo-political strife of the Cold War from the last century.

When Rostropovich later played a Dvorak cello concerto in Chicago, the audience was treated to a brilliant performance. As the last note faded, the audience sat mesmerized. Rostropovich then did an extraordinary thing: he stood up and kissed his cello. The audience erupted. Then he hugged and kissed the surprised conductor. Then he hugged and kissed the entire cello section before moving on to the violins. He hugged and kissed most of the orchestra.[1]

With deeply felt gratitude, especially when circumstances are not ideal. When a home country—betrays, rejects. When suffering the consequences of some internal battle. When divided, separated from our home on earth and true home within. And still feeling grateful and expressing a profound thanksgiving. Does this not describe the experience of prayer?

I must admit upon reading the scripture from 1 Timothy I did not at first catch that this text is fundamentally about prayer. This text from Paul’s letter to Timothy announces the theme of prayer in the first verse: “First of all, then,” writes Paul, “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings be made for everyone …”[2]

What follows in seven verses reads like a creedal statement of belief. This is what initially distracted me. But without the basic context of prayer undergirding that confession we can easily miss the deeper meaning by getting derailed by arguments about universalism and atonement theories.[3]

Starting with prayer gives us a practical, experiential basis for engaging questions of faith. Because it is in our personal communion with God that sets those questions in better, more productive, perspective.

Basically, religion is about realigning, reconnecting with God—that’s the meaning of the word, religion. Prayer is the means, the way, by which we connect with God. Our journeys of faith begin in the practice of prayer. And that is what we do every week in worship on Sunday. Everything that happens in the liturgy—in the order of worship—is prayer and flows from prayer.

At the Regina convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) this past summer, national bishop, Susan Johnson articulated a four-year vision for “Living our Faith”. She writes that “God is calling us into a deeper relationship …” and invites the church to focus, each of those four years, on one aspect of our spiritual journey. The first is prayer.[4]

Everything else (scripture, worship, love) flows from the beginning point of prayer. Why? Living our faith starts with communion in God, relationship with Jesus, personal connection with the living Lord.

While in worship we find many forms of prayer—different ways to pray (confession, petition, song, silence, sacrament, community, etc.)—there is only one prayer. And it is the prayer of Jesus. At its core, prayer for Christians is, as Paul often describes it, ‘in Christ Jesus.’ Paul uses the phrase, ‘in Christ’ dozens of times in his letters to the early Church. In Ephesians alone Paul uses ‘in Christ’ some twenty-seven times.

Christians believe in the living Lord. Jesus is not dead. Yes, he died on the cross over two thousand years ago. But since then, Christ is alive. And still is! We assert this every Easter season: Christ is risen! And Jesus’ communion with his ‘Abba’ (Father) through the Holy Spirit continues to this day, to this very moment.

When we pray we join in Christ’s ongoing prayer, in our hearts, like deciding to step into a river that continually flows towards the ocean. That river flows through our hearts. That is where the consciousness of Jesus resides through the Holy Spirit. In prayer, we incorporate with, enfold in, the prayer of Jesus with the Creator.

In our verbal prayers we will often conclude our words with, ‘in Jesus’ name.’ We pray ‘in the name of Jesus’. We pray, ‘in Christ’. This is the fundamental understanding of Christ as intercessor, as ‘mediator’ for us and for all people – as Paul writes here to Timothy. “Prayer is not an act resulting from our own autonomous will,”[5]but an act resulting from the good will of Jesus—a prayer that is ongoing regardless of what we do.

That is also why, prayer is not about us. Prayer doesn’t turn us back onto ourselves. Christian prayer may start by consciously locating our attention within our minds, our words and hearts and bodies. But ultimately, prayer leads us beyond ourselves. To others.

When Paul writes to Timothy that prayers “should be made for everyone” because God “desires everyone to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth”, the emphasis is so made because of the real conflicts in the lives of those early Christians. The Christian community of Timothy’s time was persecuted for proclaiming Christ; they were not an accepted part of the social fabric in Gentile or Jewish community.[6]

I opened with a real story of conflict in the context of the Cold War. We can only understand our lives of faith in the context of our real lives which daily encounter some conflict—whether within ourselves, with our spouse, our children, our grandchildren, our neighbours, our hockey coaches, our teachers, our community leaders, our politicians, and whomever we label ‘our enemies’.

It is in the context of conflict and yes even strife where the instruction to pray bears down upon people of faith. “Love your enemies,” Jesus instructed more than once I am sure.[7] “Pray for those who persecute you,” he said.

We follow a God who is not immune from controversy and confrontation. Remember his earthly destination was death by a state-sponsored, capital punishment on the cross. This God we follow stretches us beyond our comfort zones and calls us to love in surprising situations. This God calls conservative evangelicals to pray for their liberal sisters and brothers, and vice versa. Trudeau Liberals are called to pray for Scheer Conservatives, and vice versa!

Maintaining healthy boundaries are important. And, some hurts go so deep that so much work and time are required in the process of healing. Without minimizing nor denying the harsh consequences of divisions …

“When you’re able to open your heart to your ‘enemy,’ allow God’s love to flow through you to them. Picture their face and send them warmth and tenderness. If this is a struggle, begin by focusing on someone that is easy for you to love, for whom you feel natural affection. Then broaden that circle of compassion to friends, acquaintances, and strangers.  [Because] no one is outside the embrace of God’s loving presence!”[8]

 

 

[1]William P. “Matt” Matthews in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C Volume 4(Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010) p.89; www.britannica.com

[2]1 Timothy 2:1

[3]For example, God ‘desires everyone to be saved’ (verse 4); and, ‘Christ Jesus … gave himself a ransom’ (verse 6).

[4]www.elcic.ca

[5]Stephane Mar Smith in Feasting on the Word, ibid., p.88.

[6]Jane Anne Ferguson in Feasting on the Word, ibid., p.86.

[7]Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:27

[8]Richard Rohr, “Following Jesus” in Daily Meditations (www.cac.org, January 26, 2019).

One light in the dark world


The bible doesn’t always help alleviate a low grade angst growing at this time of year. Abduction-type images are splashed on the canvas of our imaginations: “one will be taken, one will be left” (Matthew 24:40-41). The notion of the Second Coming of Jesus can often arouse anxious feelings of impending doom and destruction. Certain Christian groups devise popular theologies that articulate with great detail and certainty how it’s all going to come crashing down on us some day.

And what is more, some will say the Bible contains implicit warnings (as in the Gospel for today, Matthew 24:36-44) that we can prevent it all from happening by our good works, by being ready, if only we can break the secret code, figure out the hidden message and solve the riddle — a la Dan Brown.

The way of Christ is never that easy. And the Gospel text will throw a wrench into any neat and tidy philosophy. In this image-rich text Jesus confronts our pretence. “You don’t know and you cannot know.” Neither did Noah when the flood came “unexpectedly.” “But about that day and hour no one knows … and they knew nothing …”

What is this ‘knowing’? If we cannot predict how it’s all going to shake down in the end – whether we are talking about world politics, climate change or our challenging personal relationships – what can we know? 

We do know certain things are best not known: How we are going to die. How the meat we are eating at the dinner table was actually produced. Many probably are better not to watch a YouTube video of the surgery they are preparing to undergo. In some facets of life, it’s simply best not to know.

And life will continue to remind us that it is futile to pretend we can: None of the pundits and polls — even early on election night in the U.S. a few weeks ago — could predict the actual result of the presidential race. 

And, in my generation it must have been the falling of the Berlin Wall which had divided Germany for over thirty years. Who could have predicted it, given the enduring and seemingly entrenched geo-political tensions of the Cold War, let alone begin in evening candlelight vigils held in German churches? A small, warm light started to melt the cold, dark and divided world.

The season of Advent fits like a glove; it gives warmth in the cold atmosphere of our lives. “Keep awake for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming … be ready, keep awake.” So we hear instruction from Jesus. Being ready and keeping awake are fundamentally about being aware. Awareness in the present moment.

What DO we know? Saint Paul, in an accompanying text for today writes: “you know now is the moment for you to wake from sleep; for salvation is nearer to us now that when we became believers … Put on the armour of light.” (Romans 13:11-14)

Putting on the armour of light is not a call to violent, combative behaviour, action which narrows the vision and snuffs out awareness. Putting on the armour of light does not constrict the soul into locked patterns of thought, but expands the scope to embrace the truth and vision of God right now.

You may have heard of the story: All along the Western Front in 1914, a few short months into a war that would eventually claim 17 million lives, a kind of miracle happened on Christmas Day – a rare moment of peace:

Trooper Graham Williams of the Fifth London Rifle Brigade, recalls that special night: “First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words Adeste Fideles. And I thought, well, this is really a most extraordinary thing ­– two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.”
The next morning, in some places, German soldiers emerged from their trenches, calling out “Merry Christmas” in English. Allied soldiers came out warily to greet them. In others, Germans held up signs reading “You no shoot, we no shoot.” Over the course of the day, troops exchanged gifts of cigarettes, food, buttons and hats. The Christmas truce also allowed both sides to finally bury their dead comrades, whose bodies had lain for weeks on ‘no man’s land’.

It is estimated that over 100,000 troops from both sides honoured the Christmas Truce of 1914 that lasted some days.

Hearing the text today from the prophet Isaiah, you may have noticed some very familiar words and phrases. Because a few weeks ago, on All Saint’s Sunday, the words of Micah we heard: “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (4:3). Sound familiar?

Isaiah 2:1-5 and Micah share precisely the same words. And, in Psalm 46 — the great “Lutheran” Psalm we heard on Reformation Sunday last month, and also on Christ the King Sunday last week — the Psalmist echoes the sentiments of the major and minor prophets: “God makes wars cease to the end of the earth, he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire” (v.9).

A major message throughout the Hebrew scriptures and reinforced by Jesus’ teaching in the New Testament envision wars to cease and violent divisions among people to end. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus preaches. (Mathew 5:9; Luke 6:27-31)

Knowing is not knowledge of facts and manipulation of data to suit one’s ideology. Knowing is not formulating intellectual and persuasive strategies that demonstrate airtight logic and rational impunity. Knowing is not about getting more information. This kind of knowing keeps one distracted, in the past or fretting about the future.

Knowing is more about living relationships of love, grace and peace in the present moment; this is the biblical understanding of ‘knowing’ – more a function of the heart than of thought.

Advent heralds the start of a new church year. This season calls us to watch, to wait and wake up to the reality of Christ in our lives, and Christ coming again. Like All Saints’ Sunday, in Advent the future and the past converge on the present moment. Now.

We can enter this season full of hope. Today, contrary to what the headlines imply, the earth is less violent than it was in the past. We are not living in dangerous times any more than what always has been. In fact, according to statistical trending over the past few decades, the world over is safer and more peaceful. (see Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack’s article “The World Is Not Falling Apart” (Slate: 2014), http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/foreigners/2014/12 )

“Now”, Paul writes, “we are closer to salvation than before.” And, now, we are called to love others, to strive for peace and an end to all divisions — in the world, and in our lives. Even when it might appear hopeless. We are called, like the Germans and English during the Christmas Truce of 1914, to cross the dividing lines of our lives and sing together of a holy night, a silent night, a night still and always shall be bathed in the light of Christ.

Pray for peace. Commit to one small, act of kindness and generosity, especially to one with whom, for whatever reason, you have been estranged. Without any strings attached, no expectations of any kind about how the other ‘should’ respond, commit to an act of unconditional love. Because God is bringing all of history into the vision of peace and harmony reflected in the prophets’ writings. This is our hope. This is the present reality.

Becoming the new

I spend a lot of time in the car. With over 30 years of driving experience, I pride myself in being a good driver who is well-prepared and always thinking ahead. 
Especially when it comes to fuelling the car. In fact, I have rarely ever let the gas gauge go much less than half full. Whenever I’ve noticed others pushing their car to the gas pump, I would secretly harbour disdain for them: “Stupid! Why would you even let yourself run out of fuel when you know you are running out of gas?!!! Plan ahead, idiot!” 
Others have loved to road trip with me because I am the one always thinking ahead, anticipating and watching out for where we could stop for cheap gas along the journey — I am the responsible car operator! 
Until this past week.
There are at least two ways to tell how much fuel you have: First, there is the traditional gauge with the little red needle that fluctuates between F for full and E for empty. In the new cars you can also toggle a button on your dash displaying how many kilometres you can still travel on the amount of gas you have. And it was this latter feature — this guidance system — that I chose to depend on in planning my road trip to Waterloo.
I filled up at Costco Monday morning and flipped the switch to show that I could travel 570 kilometres before I needed to refuel. According to Google Maps, the distance between Ottawa and where I was going in Kitchener was 528 kilometres. So, I concluded, I could make that trip on one tank of gas, especially since the gas station I was aiming for in Kitchener had the cheapest gas in the region. Sounds like a good plan, right? I wouldn’t have to stop. I could make better time. I wouldn’t have to pay the exorbitant gas prices along the 401.
As I travelled throughout the day I noticed the red needle make its slow but steady plunge towards the E. By the time I arrived in Cambridge (between Toronto and Kitchener) the trip counter showed I could still go 30 kilometres before I would run out of gas. Okay. But I was embroiled in one of those famous car parks along the 401. Happy to say, it didn’t take too long, even though by now the red needle was sitting on E. As I was flying along Highway 8 in Kitchener a handful of kilometres from the cheap gas station, the indicator still had me for 19 kilometres. My other eye kept looking at the red needle, which hadn’t moved at all still resting on empty.
I stopped at a red light very close to that gas station. I was still good for 19 kilometres. I looked around me and the other cars in the intersection waiting for the light to turn, feeling smug that everything was going smoothly according to my plan. Then, I looked down at the trip-counter, and to my horror it read: “0” kilometres left. How did it go suddenly from 19 to 0? I figured, I still had a few hundred metres to go. I would be running on fumes. And I just made it, without having to push my car to the pump. It was close!

It is vital to know which way of thinking, which guidance system, is informing our behaviour and the decisions we make. My decision to trust the trip counter instead of the fuel gauge made a difference in the way I experienced my journey.
What beliefs, what values, which guidance systems are informing the decisions you are making now in your life — especially in the midst of stress, loss, and increased anxiety? It’s important to step back and uncover this stuff.
What we do is based on beliefs that go deep. Often, like an iceberg, those beliefs are hidden, unacknowledged, under-the-surface — even though they constitute the main part, the main reason, for what we do. For the most part, we deal with what’s above the water line. This is where we operate most of the time. Without going underneath the surface, we end up leading shallow lives, simply reacting to what happens and going in circles.
I’ve quoted Albert Einstein before: “you can’t solve a problem with the same way of thinking that caused the problem in the first place.” 
Admittedly, this is how we normally have done things: we react, we knee-jerk, into similar, surface kinds of responses based on assumptions closer to the surface. We respond to a stupid remark by giving an equally stupid remark. When there is a disagreement, we jump into a relational food-fight to see who can yell louder — as if this is supposed somehow solve the problem. 
When I took history in public school, it was still during the Cold War; my teachers described the problem that the super-powers were caught in by calling it: “Mutually-Assured-Destruction” — the slippery slope to an unsustainable reality. How would it stop, when both sides stockpiled more and more nuclear weapons to show their enemy who was stronger? The anacronym for mutually-assured-destruction is true: It is MAD! It doesn’t lead us anywhere constructive. In fact, it is the path towards the demise of all that is.
Are we aware of the ordinary patterns of our thinking? If so, to begin with, we can give thanks. To a degree, those ways of thinking may have served us well throughout our lives, to a point. Without ditching them altogether, are we at the same time aware of deeper currents and other ways of approaching life’s challenges? I would hope so, because when life happens and we run low on gas, we have decisions to make. The question is: According to which way of thinking?
Paul concludes in the passage we read from his second letter to the Corinthian church: “We regard no one from a human [read, ‘ordinary’] point of view … So, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:16-17)
How do we get to the ‘new’? I don’t believe we have to wait until we die, to get to the new. Someone wise once said, “The truth will set you free. But first it will make you miserable.” Whatever good, whatever new life we receive is necessarily preceded by some pain and what some have called: “necessary suffering.”
We resist this, quite naturally, in our personal lives and in the life of the church. And yet, the truth stares us in the face: No pain, no gain. You cannot circumnavigate grief, for example. You cannot trick life by avoiding conflict, another example. You cannot grow and mature without first letting go of something that is holding you back. All this causes some pain, yes. And on the other side of that suffering is the new creation.
This takes courage, resolve and determination to behave according to a different mind-set. “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind,” Paul writes to the Roman church (12:2). Renewing the mind involves taking some risk, responding differently from your usual pattern, stepping out of our comfort zones into places of discomfort. It may even feel like a momentary affliction. I had to experience the unexpected anxiety of trying another way of planning my road trips in order to learn something new, so that I am better equipped to plan for fuel stops along the way, next time I drive to Waterloo.
Talking about the new thing, wanting it will not make it happen. We first need to face the harder truth. Neale Donald Walsch writes: “Yearning for a new way will not produce it. Only ending the old way can do that. You cannot hold onto the old while declaring that you want something new. The old will defy the new; the old will deny the new; the old will decry the new. There is only one way to bring in the new. You must make room for it.” (nealedonaldwalsch.com) 
Making room will not guarantee anything. Making room will not make it happen. An yet, making room creates the space in our lives for grace. I think in the parable today (Mark 4:26-34), we can place ourselves in the role of the ‘someone’ who scatters the seed — the seed being the work we do and the hopes and dreams of our lives. You can call it, our work to surrender ourselves. 
We scatter the seed — our prayer for letting go for the good to come. We have to give it away. The results, the sprouting and growing, are beyond our doing. And then, the miracle happens. Then, the smallest seeds of our hearts become, with God’s work, something wonderful and great where even “the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

That’s what we can look forward to.