Learning to Pray

What is prayer?  Does it come easily or naturally to you?  For me it seems enormously difficult and conflicted.

How do we commune with God?  Or suppose you’re an atheist – is prayer then meaningless for you?

I think prayer is an expression of our longing to be connected with God, with Nature, and the Cosmos.  The connection is feeling a part of, a participant in our experience of reality.  We want to feel like our lives matter, that those we care about matter.

My first recollections of prayer were a kind of litany against fear: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.  And if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”  Or, “All night, all day, angels are watching over me my Lord.  All night, all day, angels are watching over me.”

Then as I got older they became a list of requests, generally in terms of wanting something for myself or another, whether health, prosperity, wisdom, etc.

But imagine talking to a friend this way, everyday presenting them with a list of petitions.  Such a relationship probably wouldn’t last long, and generally neither do such prayers, at least not for me.

But still I have this longing to be in relationship with God, with nature, with my friends and family, and acquaintance.  The older I get the more I realize that I am always in God’s presence.  I am part of nature and in nature.

I can hold my friends and family before God in my mind’s eye, and appreciate them, bless them from my heart, and imagine them finding their place and purpose in the world, imagine them blessing the world in their own special way.  I can imagine us connected and full of God’s presence, full of God’s grace, and blessing others and one another, blessing God in our own way.

Spirit: the Third Circle

I’ve written about building a practice group, beginning with the first circle of talk dancing and the conversational space, and answering the second circle question of why you have come to the group.

I start with the premise that everyone lives in the “domains” of spirit, mind, body, emotion, community, household, vocation, and finance.  And while we may not have the same amount of focus or interest in any one of them, none of us can avoid living in any of them.

I believe the domain of spirit seeks to answer three questions:

  1. Who am I?
  2. How am I connected with other human beings, with life, and the cosmos itself?
  3. How can I create a meaningful life for myself, and bless those I care about?

I think it’s important to answer these questions as best you can before moving on to the other domains, because it is easy to get lost in those other domains only to “wake up” one day and realize you don’t know who you are, or how you are connected with the cosmos, or whether your life has any meaning.  Having no answer to these questions is almost the very definition of an existential crisis.

Notice that while I’ve said nothing about a person’s “faith,” it is faith that attempts to answer these questions.  Our faith consists of the assumptions our life is predicated of; of our self-awareness; of our experience of connectedness or isolation, whether with God, or nature, or with other human beings; of whether our lives have any meaning.

The practice group can help us draw out answers to these questions from ourselves and from one another.  We don’t need to be of the same faith, but we do need to respect one another’s faith.  We don’t need to have the same answers but we need to try to understand each other’s answers, and challenge each other to formulate the best answers we can.

Gracious God

I believe in God we live, and move, and have our being.  I believe in God’s grace, in the abundant life of his presence, and the redemptive power of his love.  I believe I continually stand in the sunshine of his presence.  That his light shines on my soul from moment to moment.

What does this mean?

Oh Lord thou hast searched me and known me.  Thou knowest my downsitting and uprising, thou knowest my thought afar off.  Thou compassest my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways.  For there is not a word in my tongue, but, lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether.  Thou has beset me behind and before, and laid thine hand upon me.  Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it.  Whither shall I go from thy spirit?  Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?  If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold thou art there.  If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there thy hand shall lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.  If I say surely the darkness shall cover me; even the night shall be light about me.  Yea the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day: the darkness and the light are both alike to thee.  For thou hast possessed my reins: thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb.  I will praise thee, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvelous are thy works, and that my soul knoweth right well.  My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.  Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there were none of them.  How precious also are thy thoughts unto me O God!  How great is the sum of them.  If I should count them, they are more than the number of the sand: when I awake, I am still with thee. (Ps 139, KJV)

I believe that grace is made possible through the death and resurrection of his son Jesus Christ.

That without the sacrifice of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, the justice and holiness of God would make it impossible for us to come into his presence.  In fact the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood is no forgiveness (He 9.22 NIV).

Before his crucifixion, only God’s High Priest could come into God’s presence in the Holy of Holies, and then only on the Day of Atonement, and only after he had been cleansed with blood.

Korah, who led a rebellion against Moses in the desert and was then swallowed up by it, said this to Moses and Aaron: “You take too much upon yourselves, for the entire congregation are all holy, and the Lord is in their midst. So why do raise yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?” (Nu 16.3)

Are we not like Korah when we presume we can come into God’s presence without the blood of the lamb, without putting on the righteous of Christ, thinking ourselves worthy because God ought to meet our own expectations of him?  But if God encompasses space and time, then he is unimaginably old, unimaginably big, and unimaginably deep.  How can we pretend to comprehend the mind of God?

But Christ, through his own blood entered once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us (He 9.12).  But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed (Is 53.5).

God had to satisfy his own justice in order to redeem us to himself.  He could only do that by laying down his own life for our sins.  Without this self sacrifice, I do not see how grace can obtain.

And that is why I believe in the virgin birth, Christ’s death and resurrection, and the trinity.

Paradox and mystery are at the heart of the godhead, of math, of science, and life itself.  Math and science are to me, not a contradiction of my faith, but an amplification of it.

I stand in awe, and give God praise.

How to Read Scripture

I think the most important thing to remember about reading scripture is to read it.  You can’t read scripture if you don’t read it.

With that in mind, and knowing how busy everyone is these days, choose to read something you are interested in, or enjoy reading.  Don’t start with Leviticus or Summa Theologica (the latter is great for insomnia), especially if you struggle to find time to read in the first place.

When you find a section of text that speaks to you, highlight it, and perhaps even make a note to yourself why you underlined it.

If you read something that just rocks your world, then write it down.  Memorize it.  Write about it.  Discuss it with those you trust and can be vulnerable with.

Set a reasonable goal for yourself: not so little that its accomplishment is trivial, and not so much that it becomes a burden.  Be gentle with yourself, but at the same time remember what you’re reading and why: these are the ideas you build your life with.

Maybe you’re beyond all this and are rolling your eyes at the lack of scholarship I’m advocating.  After all, there are folks out there who do word studies, syntopical research, comparative research, etc.

All those things are great.  I think generally speaking the deeper and more engaged you are in any activity, the greater will be the rewards you reap.

Just remember why you started your research.  Don’t let all that analysis make you deaf to the voice that spoke to your heart in the first place.

If you spend all your days dissecting corpses, it can be hard to remember they were once human beings.

What Is Scripture?

What is scripture?  Is it the Word of God?  Written text divinely inspired by God?  Or is it the written compilation of religious traditions of peoples from around the world?

What is scripture to you?  Do you read scripture?

Shortly after graduating from college, I read Mortimer Adler’s book, How to Read a Book.  That book inspired me, not only to read the Great Books of the Western World, but of the eastern world as well and the various religious texts in particular.  I figured if they were profound enough to inspire the religions themselves and millions of people as well, then they probably have something to say to me too.

They did, and still do.

I believe scripture is that body of written work on which you build your life.  It is the “first principles” of your life, the axioms and assumptions which underlie your thoughts, words, and deeds.

Scripture may be a religious text like the Bible or the Bhagavad Gita.  It may be some work of philosophy like Plato or Aristotle.  Maybe even a work of fiction like The Lord of the Rings.  For a time I read that book, or parts of it, nearly every year.

Perhaps you disagree with me.  In fact you may feel offended by the generic nature of my definition.  But I think even an atheist will want and need a written embodiment of what she believes to be true: the fundamental axioms or principles on which she bases her actions; or a vision for what life can or should be.

And let’s face it, there are certain texts that have acquired a sacred patina even though they are secular in nature: the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States of America to name only a few.

People and scripture are the bricks and mortar we build our life’s meaning with.  Without one or the other, it’s hard to build a lasting foundation.  That being the case, what are you reading?  What are you mixing your mortar with?  How do those words become the cathedral of your mind?  How do you turn that scripture into meaningful action?

Projects – Turning Goals into Reality

For most of my adult life I have worked hard, but never seemed to get anything done.  Why?

As a kid I was easily distracted, had no real goals, and struggled with organization.  Just cleaning my room seemed like an overwhelming challenge.

Somehow I managed to graduate from college, but only after changing majors and schools half a dozen times, and even then had no clear idea of what I wanted to do or why.

So I went backpacking for six months, found God, and then began working as unskilled labor.

In my late twenties I read about the importance of setting goals to people who managed to accomplish something with their lives.  But I found it difficult to write down meaningful goals and even more difficult to accomplish them.

Still, I did begin to set goals for myself and achieved some of them.  I set a goal of becoming an actuary, began studying for the exams, passed some and was hired.  Even with my exemplary record.

This is part of the secret to knowing what you’ve accomplished.  When you set a goal, write it down, and accomplish it, you have a written record of what you’ve done.  You know you’ve accomplished something.

The people who did really well on those actuarial exams knew how many pages they had to read, how many problems they had to work, when they would begin taking practice exams, etc.  They had all these milestones on some kind of timeline with due dates.  That’s a project: a goal with a roadmap and timetable for its realization.  That’s the second part of knowing what you’ve accomplished: that written document of milestones, due dates, and done dates.

David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done really helped me with just this one idea: what’s the next action.  That was specific enough, clear enough, and short enough to get me from writing down the goal to accomplishing it.  Writing those next actions down is the backbone of a project.  Doing them turns a goal into reality.

Practicing Faith

How do you practice your faith?  Or perhaps you don’t think you have faith.

We all believe in something.  We couldn’t even get out of bed in the morning if we didn’t believe something was true, meaningful, or valuable.  Whatever those things are, that’s your faith.

I think faith has at least three parts:

  1. Understanding our faith.
  2. Connecting with like minded individuals in a community of faith.
  3. Practicing our faith.

By understanding our faith I mean drilling down into those writings, traditions, and ideas that are the underpinnings of our faith.  If our faith has scriptures, then those scriptures are the foundation that faith is built upon.  So it is important to know them, understand them, and to reflect on your life in the context of those scriptures.

If your faith has no scripture, then ask yourself what are the writings or the sources of the ideas upon which your faith is built.  Again, dig into them, know them, understanding them.  And reflect upon your own life in the context of those writings.

What can you do to embody those ideas on which your faith is built?

It is important to connect with others who share your faith.  We are social animals.  We need other people.  We want our faith validated by others who value the same things we do.  We can encourage each other in our faith, and pick each other up when we fall down.

Finally we need to practice our faith.  We want our actions to embody those ideas we value.  And it is easier to practice in groups than it is alone.  If you believe in public service, then find a group that is doing work you value.

Act on your faith and passion with those who share your faith and passion, and you will make a lasting difference in the world.

But ask yourself whether you and your group are a blessing or curse upon the world.  And if it is that later, perhaps it is time to reexamine your faith.

The Vision Thing

George H. W. Bush never got the vision thing, and neither did I.  All the self-improvement gurus like Covey stress the importance of “Begin with the end in mind.”  I just couldn’t seem to get a glimpse of what, if anything, my mind had in mind.

Moreover, glomming together a bunch of superlatives left me cold and unbelieving.

But at some point I tried.  And tried again.  And again.

Slowly a picture began to unfold.  Instead of asking myself what I wanted my whole life to look like, I began to ask myself what I would like just a small piece of it to look like:

  • What makes my life meaningful?
  • What do I want my family to be like?
  • What do I want my relationships with my friends and family to be like?
  • What kind of work and play do I enjoy?
  • How will I practice the ideals I value?
  • What do I want our home to look and feel like?
  • What kind of financial shape to I want to be in?

As I began to look at these smaller domains of my life, it became easier for me to describe an ideal of how I would like them to be.

But probably the most important thing I have learned about writing a vision is that it is an ongoing and never-ending process.  We change.  We grow and mature.  And as we do so will our visions.

So I review my vision nearly every day to remind myself of who I want to be and what I want my life to look like.  And if it dawns on me that the vision I’m reviewing no longer paints a picture of the life I want to live, then I revise it to paint one that does.

Your comments and questions are greatly appreciated!