“In Here” Rather Than “Out There”

deep-breathI think that most people, most of the time, tend to think of religion as a way of influencing events in the world around them.  We offer prayers to God in the hope that they will influence God to DO something:  change the weather, change our fortunes, change other people.  We assume that if we say the right prayers, or believe the right things, we will somehow hit that “sweet spot” that will cause God to swing into action.

And, yet, our experience seldom bears this out.  Most religious people (and more than a few non-religious people, I suspect!) have had that experience of fervently praying for something that we sense is truly good (like the healing of another, or rain upon a parched earth) and seeing nothing happen.  Our friend does not get better, the rain does not come when needed.  And when this disconnect between our prayer and the absence of its fulfillment arises, theology (sometimes quite bad theology) steps in to try and make sense of it all.  We are told, perhaps, that God is a mystery whose ways are inscrutable.  Or, we can’t properly appreciate how what we are praying for really fits into the grand scheme of things, as God can.  Or, our friend was not healed because it was “her time”.   The list of the ways in which theology attempts to resolve the disconnect is quite lengthy.   And almost every item on it leaves most people, I think, feeling somehow dissatisfied.  Though, some people may have trouble admitting to that dissatisfaction because they think it would make them appear as lacking in faith.

I think what we so often fail to appreciate about religion is that it is not primarily about the world “out there”.  Rather, the focus of religion is on us, and the world “inside”.  In the Abrahamic tradition (including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), each of the religions arising from that tradition experience an act of communication that moves from God toward the faith community (and the individual members thereof).  This movement seeks to induct people into a transformed way of living.  While Judaism, Christianity, and Islam each understand this transformation in a unique way, and using unique language and theological concepts, the essence of the transformation that each envisions is quite similar, and the bottom line is really the same:  God seeks to change us.

That change, however, is never for its own sake; it is not self-serving.  Our transformation is for the sake of the world:  we are transformed so that we may, in turn, transform the world around us.   We become the light so that we may be the light for others.  And so prayer is not so much about getting God to intervene in the world “out there”, but rather is what opens us up to the grace of personal transformation.  As we are changed, so are we able to change the world.   The changing of our inner world creates a corresponding change in the outer world we inhabit.

The most cherished prayer in the Christian tradition is the Lord’s Prayer (or Our Father, as it is called by some).  In that prayer, we pray “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”   While people often understand this prayer in terms of the heaven “up there” being the place where God’s will is always done, and thus we pray for earth to mirror that reality, this is not the only way that prayer may be understood.  After all, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is within you.”    We can understand “heaven” as a state of being which corresponds with God’s will, with God’s desire, and thus we can understand that to the degree we are able to have our inner world transformed into the shape of God’s desire, so does our inner world become the “heavenly space”.  And thus we may pray that this heavenly, interior space becomes manifested in the outer world, the world around us.  But this does not happen as a divine intervention “out there”; it happens through us, as the change in our inner world changes the way we interact with the world around us.

I realize that this may be quite a different way of thinking than many are accustomed to.  And, I realize that it may sound as if I am calling into question the many times that the Bible depicts God as acting — intervening — in the world “out there.”   I am not, however, intending to do that.  Rather, I think that we should see these biblical acts of divine intervention as exceptions that are not the result of human prayer but as signs meant to point us toward something.   They are part of the act of communication which is moving from God to humanity, signs meant to draw us into the relationship that transforms — not the substance of the relationship itself.   And to the degree that we perceive such “miracles” to be happening in our own time (such as inexplicable, spontaneous healings that are sometimes reported), we should not regard these as being the result of God’s decision to favor one person over another (or answer someone’s prayer while not another’s).  Instead, we should see them as signs meant to draw us into relationship, sacraments placed in our midst.   To be a bearer of such a sign or sacrament, either as a person or as a community, is surely an awesome thing.  But we should never confuse the sign with the One to whom it is intended to point us, nor should we expect such signs to be given to us whenever we would like them.  The sign should always pull us beyond itself into relationship with the One.

I also do not wish to suggest that we should stop praying for the people and the world “out there”.  And I do think that intercessory prayer can impact other people on a kind of energetic level.  But I also think that a big part of the reason why we need to pray for others is because the act of praying for another does change us.  By praying for others, we learn to enlarge the scope of our compassion, to enlarge our souls, and that can open us to transformation in powerful ways.

This all very heady stuff, I suppose, and I may have lost you by this point.  The bottom line, however, is that we need to stop expecting a God who will make stuff happen for us “out there”, while leaving us just as we are.  Rather, we must recognize what the mystical path in every religious tradition has seemed to understand:  that nothing lasting will ever happen “out there” until something lasting happens “in here.”  And it is that interior world within us all — the heart, the soul, the spirit — that is the primary place where the grace of God seeks to operate.

Anger Management

Businessman relaxingRecently, there was an incident at a movie theatre in Florida, in which a man was shot and killed during the previews that were being shown before the feature started.  The man, at the movies with his wife, was apparently texting his young daughter when another man in the theatre (a retired police officer) apparently asked him to put away his phone.  It seems that words were exchanged, and the retired police officer pulled a gun and shot the man.   In a theatre.  During movie previews.  Over text messaging.

When the issue of gun control is raised, I have often heard it argued by those opposed to gun regulation that “guns don’t kill people; people kill people.”   And that is surely true.  The problem is that when guns are readily available, and people allowed to carry them in public places, it is far more likely that incidents like this will occur.  And that is because so many of the people who carry these weapons (indeed, so many people in general, armed or not) are not well equipped to handle their own anger, and they react (as the retired police officer in the Florida theatre must have) based on that ill-controlled anger.  In this case, as in many others, a moment of anger has resulted in a lifetime of pain for family members of the victim and his shooter.  If the man carrying that gun had not been able to carry it, then perhaps that moment of anger would have led to a punch thrown — but everyone involved probably would have survived.

Of course, there’s also another possibility:  that the man carrying the gun might have learned to deal with his anger more constructively, and that might have allowed him to choose a path that did not involved pulling his gun.  One way of learning to deal with anger in more positive ways is to adopt a consistent spiritual practice involving some kind of contemplative prayer or meditation.  Such a practice, if engaged consistently over time, helps to create space between ourselves and our emotions.  And in that space is freedom:  the freedom to choose a response rather than to instantly react to what we are feeling.

Jesus, I think, understood this well.  In Matthew 5:22, Jesus say,

But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire.

On the surface of it, it seems odd that Jesus would speak so strongly about an emotion.  After all, we can’t necessarily  help feeling angry.  But I don’t think Jesus was really saying that experiencing the emotion is in itself a bad thing.  Rather, it is a question of what we do with that emotion.  And I think Jesus understood well that when anger arises, if we don’t deal with it in a constructive way, then we are easily led into actions that make us liable to judgment.  And, where the last part of this verse is concerned, I think that Jesus understood that when we allow anger to hold onto us,  we place ourselves in a kind of fiery hell.  We have probably all known someone who seemed as consumed by his or her own anger as a log is consumed in a fire.

So it is, then, that elsewhere, Jesus asks us to show kindness to our enemies — to the people who make us angry.  Not just for the sake of the one with whom we are angry, but for our own sakes, as a way of channeling our own angry energy into something that affirms life rather than denies it.  And in his own life, we see Jesus regularly placing distance between himself and others, going off alone to pray, a practice that allows that space between anger and response to be created.

We seem to live in a time when a lot of anger and anxiety is out there, sparked by economic challenges, environmental challenges, social challenges.   One of the gifts that the world’s spiritual traditions can give to people in an anxious, stressful time is the gift of practices that allow us to create interior spaces that can diffuse that emotional energy, and allow us to choose responses that affirm the life and personhood of ourselves and others, responses that allow us to be in “right relationship” with ourselves, others, and all of creation.  We need to arm people with these practices, rather than with guns.

Meeting God in the Pantry

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus offers some advice about praying.  He says,

‘When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.  Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.’  (Matthew 6:7-8)

On its face, Jesus’ instruction seems to defeat the whole notion of prayer to begin with.  For if God knows what we need before we ask, then why bother to pray?  It’s seems awfully inefficient to spend time telling someone what you want if that someone already knows what you want.Sydney-grief-counselling-how-to-deal-with-the-loss-of-a-partner

But the seeming strangeness of Jesus’ advice does not lie in his words, but rather in our perspective on them.  So many of us approach the whole idea of prayer with the understanding that it is primarily about asking for things.  But what if prayer is not about asking?  This, indeed, is exactly what Jesus is trying to say, I think.  He is trying to show us that prayer isn’t about asking, because God knows already what we need and, indeed, what we would be asking for.

I think Jesus is deliberately attempting to short-circuit our assumptions about prayer — and, therefore, our assumptions about God — by trying to help us understand that prayer is not primarily about submitting our requests in the hope that they might be fulfilled.  He is, I think, trying to show us that prayer is about spending time in relationship.

Earlier in this same chapter of Matthew, Jesus instructs his listeners to go into a place by themselves to pray, rather than to do so in public.  “Go into your room and shut the door”,  he says.  And, in the houses of Jesus’ time and place, there would have been only one room in which it was possible to be with the door shut and not be seen:  the pantry, a windowless room that was at the center of ancient houses in the Middle East.   Jesus wants his listeners to seek this place apart, where they will not be seen by others, so that they can practice being in the presence of God in a way that is open and authentic.  The theologian James Alison suggests that Jesus knows well that when we are praying in the presence of others, we are tempted to pray in the way others expect us to pray.  We are tempted to pray according to their definition of what constitutes acceptable prayer.  Or, we are tempted to pray in a way that will impress others or cause them to think well of us.   In other words, our prayer can become all about the others around us and our relationships with them.

But if we go off by ourselves, where we are not seen or heard, then we are less tempted to pray in the way that others might expect of us.  In that private space, we can be honest with God about who we are:  the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly.   And we can begin to build a relationship with God that is truly ours, a relationship in which we are truly able to be ourselves.  And, over time, that relationship can change us.  It can transform our sense of ourselves, and our sense of what we want out of life.  To use Alisons’s terms, our pattern of desire can begin to be changed into God’s pattern of desire.

So Jesus tells us not to enter into prayer with our laundry list of requests — with the heaping up of empty phrases, to use Matthew’s language.  Rather, he wants us to enter into an open and honest relationship in which we can be changed through our experience of the love of God.  Of course, this honesty includes all the desires we carry with us — including the desires that others would deem “inappropriate”.   But we share these desires with God not because we think God will fulfill them for us.  We share them because they are part of who we are, and until we can begin to fully come to terms with who we are, we cannot begin to change.

Of course, doing this requires that we trust the God in whose presence we place ourselves.  If we think that God is likely to judge us, or to punish us for our sins, then it will be almost impossible for us to be honest and open in the presence of someone whom, we suspect, might be out to get us.  We need to understand that God is for us, that God is not shocked by us, but rather delights in us.   Rather than condemning us for the parts of ourselves that we deem ugly or bad, God seeks to love us into integrating all of who we are into a new whole, a new person who is capable of having a “larger soul” than we normally think possible.

And this is what God is trying to get us to understand in Jesus:  that God is utterly for us, that God wants only what is good for us, and that through an open and honest relationship with God, we can begin to learn to desire what is good for us — not because God has decreed it, but because we have been loved into wanting what God wants.


The Illusion of Self-Sufficiency

teach-girls-end-world-povertyRecently, I heard a story on the radio about the way in which the government measures poverty, and about the network of programs that have been put in place over the years in an attempt to lift people out of poverty.   One person who was interviewed in the report criticized the programs designed to assist the poor, saying that it isn’t helpful to create an “artificial standard of living” by giving funds to those in need (in the form of “food stamps”, housing subsidies, and other programs).   What is needed, this person argued, is to focus on making the poor self-sufficient so that they don’t need assistance.

It always bothers me when people invoke “self-sufficiency” as an overriding value, and especially when it is invoked in discussions about people who are poor.  The implication can sometimes be that poor people are poor because they are lazy, unwilling to work hard enough to be “self-sufficient”.   Even when this is not implied, it seems to be assumed that the poor can be made to become self-sufficient — presumably, they just need a job.  Well, if it were that easy to move people out of poverty, we might already have done it.  But behind all of this lies this notion of self-sufficiency.  And that, it seems to me, is an illusion.  Because the reality is that none of us is self-sufficient.

To truly be self-sufficient, one would not rely on anyone for anything.  From building your own house to making your own clothes to growing your own food, self-sufficiency means that you don’t depend on anyone to provide you with anything.  And no one lives that way.  All of us are part of a larger community that provides the things that we need, usually in return for money.  But to appreciate what should be a rather obvious truth is to appreciate an even more important truth:  that because we are each and all part of a larger community, we bear some responsibility for the other members of our community.

And I think it is this larger truth that the woman interviewed on the radio show doesn’t want to admit to:  that we live in a dynamic of mutuality that gives us responsibility for one another, and especially for the more vulnerable members of our community.  I’m sure that when she uses the term “self-sufficient”, she doesn’t have in mind what true self-sufficiency would really be, as I mentioned above.  I think that what she does probably have in mind is to somehow release society from an obligation to take care of its more vulnerable members.  I don’t think she has any idea how to do that.  Presumably, it involves getting everybody a job that allows them to earn enough money to not need government support.  But the dream of full employment has never been achieved in our history.  And it is unlikely it ever will be.  Then, of course, there is the matter of that segment of the poor who simply cannot work, for a variety of reasons.   People who are elderly, disabled, mentally ill, and the like — folks who simply can’t manage a job even if one were provided for them.

No matter how much we would like to, we cannot escape the reality of our interdependence.   The communities in which we live include people who are incredibly privileged as well as people who are incredibly disadvantaged.  Somehow, as we live out our lives within these communities, we will have to bear responsibility for one another, and for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged among us, that will include providing them with what they need to survive.  For those of us who are Christian, the ethical teaching of Jesus is clear:  we are obligated to be concerned with the welfare of our neighbors, and Jesus defines our neighbors not as those living on either side of us, but as those who are most in need.

None of us is self-sufficient.  We all depend on others to get along in life.   Most of us have the advantage of being able to pretend that we don’t.  Those among us who are not able to pretend, whose needs are greatest, deserve not a talking to about how they need to be self-sufficient, but our deep and abiding compassion and help.