Our Father

There was a period of time when I did not like the Lord’s Prayer (or the Our Father).  I thought it was sexist and presented a theology I didn’t appreciate or believe.  Especially after I learned from Judy Brutz to write in my own words what each part of the prayer meant for me, I was able to open to it more.  And as time has gone on and I have prayed the prayer, new things have come to me.

One thing I have liked about the prayer is its having been prayed for centuries and by people all over the world.  Currently most of the hours of the day it must be being prayed somewhere.  That feels like such a uniting force.  I value the “Our” in the prayer.  This God to whom we pray belongs to all of us—not to only one of us or to only one group of us.  We all belong to God.  And in God we all are in relationship with each other.

Only recently have I appreciated the naming of God as “Father” in this prayer.  To have been fathered is to have been given birth, to bear some of the genetic makeup of that father.  How wonderful to think that as a child of the Father, we bear characteristics of the Father.  As Friends say, “there is that of God in each of us.”  There is a kinship and a commonality that we share with all people.  There is in us that which reflects God’s being if we will let it.  We don’t have to create that nature; it is already present in us.  What joy to grow into that inheritance.

Queries:

How does the Our Father/Lord’s Prayer function in your life?

What helps you feel one with God and all of creation?  How are you called to make real that oneness?

Prayer:

Pray the Lord’s Prayer (the Our Father).  The value of this prayer does not depend on your beliefs or feelings.  To simply repeat it makes a difference, whether you notice that difference or not.  If it helps, put the prayer into words that are meaningful to you at this time.

For further reflection:

“To [his saints] God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).

“The Father . . . will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.  This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.  You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you” (See John 14: 15-17).

[Of the Lord’s Prayer] “what you do not understand, treat with reverence and be patient, and what you do understand, cherish and keep” (St. Augustine: Sermons for Christmas and Epiphany, trans. by Thomas Comerford Lawler, Newman Press, 1952, p. 70).

Image of God

I’ve been invited to give the morning Bible study at the summer sessions of our gathered religious body, which Quakers call Yearly Meeting.  There aren’t too many of us and they are all friends, so I shouldn’t worry about the opportunity.  I also believe that we have divine guidance available to us in a way that is discernible, and on good days I believe I have been led.  Yet I find myself all too often focused not on God’s love and care but on fears of my inadequacy.

What we believe (or don’t believe) about God and how we function in relation to God can be different.  A friend believed in God as loving, forgiving, and bringing us into peace.  But when invited to draw an image of God in relation to some concerns he was experiencing, he drew a person with a monkey on his shoulder dangling a key just out of reach.  This was a “God” who held the secret to peace but wasn’t willing to share it.  Instead “God” used the key to taunt him and make him frustrated.

What we believe (or don’t believe) certainly impacts us.  Another friend believes she is responsible to bring justice wherever she can.  She doesn’t believe in a God who acts in the world.  If there were such a God, she argues, there wouldn’t be so much pain and suffering.  So she works very diligently at doing good.

These limiting images of the Limitless—of which we are aware or not—leave us less able to see and less able to know the joy and love of God.  Being able to recognize these often-hidden images from which we function is a step toward the healing of our blindness.

Queries:

With what image of God did you grow up?  How has that changed (or not)?  What might blind you to a more life-giving image?

What would it take for your heart and mind to be prepared for an encounter with the limitless God?

Prayer:

“Keep me safe, O God, for in you I take refuge” (Psalm 16:1)

For further reflection:

“Again the Lord called, ‘Samuel!’  And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, ‘Here I am; you called me.’  ‘My son,’ Eli said, ‘I did not call; go back and lie down.’  Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord:  The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.”  (See I Samuel 3: 1-10.)

“God gazed down from heaven upon all humanity/ to see whether there existed a person of understanding, / one who was searching for truth” (See Psalm 14).  [For this translation, see Pamela Greenberg, The Complete Psalms: The Book of Prayer Songs in a New Translation.]

Who Do You Say Jesus Is?

On the front of a church in Manley Beach, Australia, we saw a banner titled “Jesus Is ___.” Below the title were blocks containing many different responses to this question. Some answers were obviously from people who know and cherish Jesus; others were from people who don’t know much about him or who find him irrelevant.

Who Jesus is has been a question for a long time. John, the Jew who baptized persons for repentance before Jesus began his ministry, was in prison and heard about Jesus. The gospels of Matthew and Luke report that he sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

It seems to me all four of the gospels are trying to help us grasp who Jesus is. Early church councils wrestled with who Jesus was and/or is. Today there are scholars engaged in the “quest for the historical Jesus.”

When Jesus returned to his hometown of Nazareth to teach and to heal, the people were astounded by his teaching. Yet they didn’t ask who he was because they assumed they already knew. He fit in a certain box—a carpenter, son of Mary, brother of James and others, a local boy. Instead they questioned the wisdom and power they heard and saw with him; they were offended and could not receive what he gave others.

A Russian man I met, who read the gospels when reading the Bible was illegal, found new life and a Christianity he chose even in the face of life-threatening risk. I know others who have found in Jesus meaning and purpose in life and hope in the face of death, when previously life had seemed like nothing more than a thin candle melting into nothingness, just waiting to be blown out.

What seems important is to ask the question—without a shallow formula or boxed-up assumptions.

Queries:

Who do you say Jesus is?

What assumptions might you have (or have had) about who he is that block his power in your life?

Prayer:

By continual repetition of the Jesus Prayer at the edge of your awareness over a prolonged period, who Jesus is may settle in you in a nonverbal way—“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of David, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The shorter version is “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”

For further reflection:

[Jesus asked his disciples,] “who do you say that I am?” (See Mark 8: 27-33).

“He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him” (See John 1: 1-18).

White Library

People sometimes think they want a religion—or, rather, a spirituality—with no given content. For some Quakers it can seem more important to avoid offending those who don’t believe in this or that than it is to hold onto the content of the Life and Power about which early Friends spoke and through the virtue of which they lived and challenged the injustices of their day.

At the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart, Australia, I saw an exhibit by a Cuban artist called The White Library. Visiting it, one goes into a rather large room with books on shelves and ready for reading on a table. But the books have no words, no color, no images. Each book is only stark white emptiness.

The open books look as if they have pages, but they may not. It is clear that nothing in the room has visible content. While everything is white and clean, the room is eerily disconcerting and unwelcoming.

It feels as if something important had been removed, repressed, or wiped out. It makes me wonder what the content is that is missing. I wonder in what ways we might be allowing or creating white libraries–losing touch with our roots, whitewashing our story, or choosing blandness over richness that might be challenging.

 

Queries:

What would it be like if we didn’t have and use Quaker writings (John Woolman, Thomas Kelly, Caroline Stephenson, Pendle Hill pamphlets), the Bible, other Christian writings?

What about your faith have you dismissed or written off?

Prayer:

Settle into silence and listen.  Where are you barren and empty?  What have you whitewashed or ignored?  What needs to happen?

For further reflection:

“You are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside . . .” (See Matthew 23:27-28).

“Recite [these words] to your children and talk about them . . .” (See the shema, Deuteronomy 6: 4-9.)

Heaven

As someone of a certain age, I find that pondering about what happens when we die is natural. For some the answer is about going to heaven. A widespread belief is that heaven is the place you go after you die if you believe in Jesus as your Lord and Savior. Some would add the assumption that it is where you go if you have been good enough. For some, this picture gives life and hope. For others, this understanding seems too pat, simply unbelievable, or meaningless.

I think there are other faithful ways to think about heaven. Jesus teaches his disciples to pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6: 9-13). The yearning is for the two realms to be one—one where God’s ways are fully and completely present, where God’s “commandments” are in our hearts so that we choose to live them and live in harmony with all—the beloved community. God reigns–not human rulers, who are caught up in the ways of power and dominance.

Early Friends were among other religious people who were trying to find a way to bring the kingdom of heaven to earth. George Fox realized that the peaceable kingdom couldn’t come through violence and war. He came to know experientially that our hearts need to be changed, and that Christ is present and available to teach us– to love, to live in harmony, to follow God’s ways. Heaven is not confined to what happens to us when we die, or where we go after this life. As we come to know that life and power that tenders our hearts and changes our ways (this is different from intellectual assent to a set of beliefs), heaven—eternal and everlasting life—begins now.

When we are “in heaven,” all that is good in us rises up. All that hurts and destroys is ended. There is oneness and unity, creation is sustained. God dwells with us and in us. Because we know it now in moments, and as a promise, we hope that in time we will know it in full. That hope, held deeper and deeper, changes our lives now and forever. Death, then, I think, is a continued moving into love.

Queries:

What do you think about heaven and how does that impact how you live now?

When have you experienced that sense of oneness with all, of being loved completely, of God dwelling within, of being transformed?

Prayer:

In your imagination allow a vision of heaven to rise up. Take that into your heart and dwell there.

For further reflection:

“I will put my law within them and I will write it on their hearts . . .” (See Jeremiah 31: 31-34).

“Now I was come up in spirit through the flaming sword into the paradise of God. All things were new, and all the creation gave another smell unto me than before, beyond what words can utter.” –George Fox, Journal, 1647

What Is Your Image of God?

The New Testament book of James, while it calls itself a letter, is more like the Wisdom literature of the Hebrew scriptures. It gives insights and wisdom about nature and reality and the divine. James 1: 5-8 begins by telling us that if we lack wisdom, all we need to do is to ask God, who gives it generously. All is well. But then he says we have to ask for it in faith without doubt, ending with if we doubt we “must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.” That stings. Who doesn’t doubt?!

Some people read this passage as saying that when we ask God for anything, if we have faith, we will get it; and if we doubt, we won’t. If we are good, God rewards us; if we don’t obey, God punishes us. If we believe with no doubt that God will cure our loved one with breast cancer, it will happen. But if we doubt, God won’t make her well. Ouch! Such a reading sets us up to be able to manipulate God—and then who is God?

I believe, instead, that this passage is simply telling about how life is. Time and again I can fall into the doubting mode, even doubting the very existence of God. What happens then is that my sense of purpose and meaning disappear. I am anxious, uncertain, and irritable—like an ocean wave blown by the wind. Nothing goes well. I don’t think God is punishing me. I think I am getting the consequences of my choices. And when I turn to God and ask for help, I am met. The turning isn’t an intellectual change. It is simply letting go of the doubt and opening to Mystery. I have merely dropped into God’s flowing stream, where life and gifts lie generously available. There is no reprimand for having doubted—only wisdom.

Queries:

What image of God are you carrying?

What experience have you had of the wind and waves of anxieties and doubts? And of their being calmed?

Prayer:

Ask for what you need, and be open to the presence and action of God in your life.

For further reflection:

“But when Peter noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’” (See Matthew 14: 22-33).

“For the Lord gives wisdom. . .” (See Proverbs 2: 1-6).

Jesus Christ—What’s in a Name?

Who is Jesus and why does that matter? I both know and don’t know. The name Jesus Christ stirs all kinds of feelings and responses. Sometimes I hear people saying Jesus Christ, as if Christ were Jesus’ last name. Sometimes I hear people drawn to the name Jesus–the historical human being, the teacher. Sometimes, like early Friends, people express more openness to Christ, the cosmic and universal divine being. What can the name Jesus Christ tell us?

At a certain point Jesus asks his disciples who people say he is (Mark 8: 27; Matthew 16: 13). It seems as if it was common in those days for a person to be understood in relation to another person or quality. The people say Jesus is Elijah or John the Baptist, not because they are confusing him with them but because they are fitting Jesus into a story and understanding him in that context. Knowing him as the Messiah (or the Christ, the Greek word for the same concept)—the anointed one, the one who makes all things new—is catching the big picture.   The disciples begin to see what others who didn’t see that picture couldn’t see. To know Jesus as the Christ can do that for us too.

Jesus Christ also conveys the truth that the only Jesus we have is the one remembered, talked about, and understood after the fact of his death and the experience of his resurrection. When we look back and tell stories from the past they are always colored by the eyes we have in the present. It is a gift that we can see the connections and meaning in ways we couldn’t at the time. (For example, the Martin Luther King I know now is way more significant than the man I read about in the 1950’s.)

The name Jesus Christ affirms the paradox that this one is both human and divine, that God dwells with us on earth in human flesh, that the divine and human are forever one. It reminds us that we also are human and divine, even if the divine seems well hidden. It can encourage us to listen inwardly.

I am glad that we have this two-part name. It gives us room to make some kind of connection regardless of how we feel or what we know at any given time. And it also carries an invitation or challenge to know more.

Queries:

What do you know and how do you feel about Jesus Christ?

How do you become open to seeing things in new ways?

Prayer:

Imagine yourself with Jesus and hear him ask you, “Who do you say I am?” Allow yourself to be present, to listen and respond.

For further reflection:

“Wonderful Counselor . . . Prince of Peace . . .” (See Isaiah 9:6).

“You are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. . .” (See Matthew 1:18-25). Note: The Hebrew and Aramaic forms of Jesus and he will save are similar.

Welcoming the Stranger

Waiting for whoever might come for our new Bible study at the Friends’ meetinghouse, I was surprised when a homeless white woman opened the door and asked if we were having a Bible study or prayer meeting. I said we were and, not knowing what else to say, invited her to join us.

She went to the bathroom. A man I was expecting arrived. She came back out and joined us. She pulled out her toothbrush and toothpaste and brushed a little, then sprayed toward her underarms with something that smelled good. No one else came, but we decided to go ahead with our study. She said she preferred the King James Bible, but we didn’t have one.

We launched into a conversation about Genesis 1. It soon was obvious that she didn’t need a copy of the Bible because she knew vast portions of it by heart. She entered right into our conversation with helpful comments. Her clear blue eyes were twinkling, she was smiling, and her face glowed with light. I listened intently, trying to take in the good she was offering us, yet also warily, not knowing what to make of this homeless stranger. The Benedictines teach that we should greet everyone as Christ. “Who is she,” I wondered, “and what I am to learn?” It was, for me, an extraordinary experience.

Before telling a group of friends about this, I asked them to tell stories about encountering a stranger or visiting with a friend. All the stories were about unexpected gifts that had come from taking the time to be present with another person. So often, maybe wisely, we set up barriers to keep us in control or to avoid being vulnerable. But what might we be missing?

Queries:

What story about encountering a stranger or visiting with a friend can you tell?

When is it valuable to be vulnerable and when is it inappropriate? Do you need more safety or more willingness to be vulnerable?

Prayer:

God of steadfast love and mercy, bless us with understanding hearts and peaceful spirits.

For further reflection:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself. . . . And who is my neighbor?” (See Luke 10:25-37).

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13: 2)

Praying for Someone

My grandson Jack knocked out his one permanent upper-front tooth. His parents took him to the dentist, who attempted to re-set it. The expectation was that it would either reattach or be rejected. My heart was heavy with concern for him. I couldn’t help but hold him in prayer. I also asked friends to pray for him.

What was I doing? I prayed passionately, with lots of caring energy. And I specifically prayed for his tooth to reattach. As far as I know that is the best thing that could happen for him. The accident would be overcome and he would have less trauma to go through. Sometimes when people pray like this they are in effect trying to work magic—to manipulate God by saying the right words, praying hard enough, getting enough people to pray, or whatever it might take to get God to bring the healing they want.

As a chaplain in oncology I once had a patient who had been struggling with breast cancer for many years but whose body had had enough. Her family had prayed for her through the years, with many remissions. They couldn’t bear to have her die. They asked me to pray for her, hoping that my prayers would get God to let her live even if theirs weren’t getting that result. When she did die, they were in such despair that they gave up on God and left their church.

In order to avoid this pain, some people pray only for God’s will in the particular situation, believing that that is the right way to pray—to be suitably humble. Others simply don’t believe in an interventionist God, a God who cares and who impacts specific situations in human life.

I pray what is in my heart. God knows my heart; there is no point in trying to cover it up. I also know that there is a much larger picture that I cannot see or comprehend. I trust that God loves and wants good. And I let go the prayer. Such praying brings community, strengthens my ability for love and compassion, and keeps me honest and humble, attuned to mystery and paradox.

Queries:

What do you think about intercessory prayer? What is your experience?

If there is that of God in every person, how might that of God in you relate to praying for others?

Prayer:

Pray as you can, not as you can’t. Sometimes action is the prayer to choose.

For further reflection:

“I pray that . . . he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit . . .” (See Ephesians 3: 14-19).

“Praise the Lord . . . who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases . . .” (See Psalm 103: 1-6).

Believe?

There is much in Christianity that causes people to think that what they believe is important—the liturgical recitation of a creed, the interpretation of verses such as John 3:16 (whoever believes in Jesus will have eternal life), and the current individualistic expression of the faith. Some stumble when it comes to believing in God; others, believing in doctrines such as the virgin birth and the resurrection; and others, believing in the value of the Bible. Many people interested in Quakerism pull away because they can’t fully believe in pacifism.

To focus on whether one believes this or that is to miss what the faith is about. It is about a relationship with God—Mystery, Guide, Inward Teacher, Love, Source of Life. This relationship is bigger than oneself and, by definition, cannot be fully comprehended.   Believing as we understand the word is a misleading approach because it is intellectual, heady, not of the heart.

Bible stories are about people who have encounters with the divine in relationship. They are not about people who believe certain things, which then connect them to God. I love the story in Luke 8 when Jesus is in the boat with the disciples and an intense storm comes up so that the boat is sinking. When Jesus calms the storm, the awed response of his disciples is “who is this who calms the wind and the waves?” Beliefs are not what the disciples are looking for. The truth of this story—and the stories of the virgin birth and the resurrection—comes through being revealed, not through a belief system and the scientific mind’s intellectual assent to the stories.

Faith is about seeing things, experiencing relationship, asking questions. To have faith is to make a choice to jump into a particular stream, to take on a story as one’s own, to ready oneself to learn from the Inward Teacher—and not other options. I have found that even if only 51% of me can make that leap, that will do. Consent to the journey, and then see what you will be taught.

Queries:

How have your beliefs changed over your lifetime?

In whom are you putting your heart and trust? What story can you recall about a time when you were taught by One not controlled by your own ideas?

Prayer:

Listen to music that touches your soul. Or take a walk in nature, gradually quieting inside, being fully present to what is around you.

For further reflection:

“Who is this . . .?” (See Luke 8: 22-25).

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight” (See Proverbs 3: 5-8).