Month: August 2020

A prophetic critique

I began this blog to engage our family’s next generation around some timely issues. It’s important for young and old to listen to each other. Our son Rob sent a text message that quoted the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

“Administration officials at the University of Alabama reportedly have ordered the school’s professors to keep quiet about the coronavirus amid an outbreak that infected more than (1000) students during the first week of classes.

“Faculty in multiple departments said they received emails this week telling them not to discuss the situation in classrooms and to keep students in the dark if they became aware of anyone contracting the virus, according to an exclusive report by The Daily Beast.”

A prophet speaks hard truth about the direction of society, often exposing unintended consequences. Rob added a brief interpretive comment:

“Your alma mater is now a bio weapon. Roll Tide. Makes me wonder if other schools are doing the same.”

The university said its concern was to protect the health privacy rights of individual students. Nevertheless, Rob’s prophetic critique invites a larger conversation about issues of institutional responsibility.

Another 481 COVID-19 cases found at University of Alabama,” by Kim Chandler, Associated Press

Prophetic voices

Much of the Bible is about ordinary people. Mary and Joseph were extraordinarily important common folk. Mary sang about her social lowliness. Many biblical heroes were plain people, like Esther, Ruth, Amos, Peter and Mary Magdalene.

Some of the stories revolve around kings (or emperors), queens and prophets. The monarchs operated from centers of power, where they would impose their will on their subjects who sometimes were in far-flung places. For example, we’re told Joseph and Mary made their way to Bethlehem due to a census/tax degree imposed by Emperor Augustus.

The prophets operated from centers of Power (often in remote locations), where they would proclaim God’s verdict about the faithfulness of a leader or a nation. What might a biblical prophet say to today’s leaders and/or to our nation as a whole?

Biblical prophets were concerned about what we today call “equal justice under the law.” They spoke for the voiceless and the oppressed. Biblical prophets were counterweights to unbridled power (what we today call “autocratic rule”). Elijah challenged King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. John the Baptist challenged King Herod.

This week we’ll consider some of today’s surprising prophetic voices.

A real insane-a-thon

Like last week, my energy has been devoted to facilitating my aunt’s move to assisted living. So, I’m limiting my reflections about this week’s “virtual” convention to Peggy Noonan‘s Wall Street Journal column, which will be available on a delayed basis at peggynoonan.com. Her first paragraph:

It was a real insane-a-thon. It was genuinely moving. It didn’t avoid big issues. It led with a lie. It was a success in that it will have pleased the base and done some degree of outreach to others.

She explained the lie a few paragraphs later:

The president’s leadership in the coronavirus epidemic was lauded as timely and visionary. This is the big lie mentioned above. He denied the threat, lied with an almost pleasing abandon, especially about testing, and when forced to focus held bumbling daily briefings that only made things worse.

It was a mistake to insist it was a success. That ship has sunk.

She said the convention was lifted by “the normal people who spoke, who were moving.” One example:

A convicted bank robber, Jon Ponder, became a religious man, changed his life, and started a prisoner re-entry program. He was issued a pardon by Mr. Trump, live, the FBI agent who’d befriended Mr. Ponder standing with him. If you weren’t moved by it you don’t do moved.

Noonan said South Carolina’s Tim Scott explained his rise from poverty to the U.S. Senate with a beautiful phrase: “Because of the evolution of the Southern heart.”

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Hypnagogia

After all these years I still kringe when I hear the term “spelling bee.” Those occasions are among my few paynful memories of skool. A word like “hypnagogia” would have put me in my seat faster than you could say, “Jesus wepped.”

I’ve had the privilege of helping two relatives go through short-term memory loss. With both, I’ve seen the phenomenon of hypnagogia, a twilight zone moment (literally) that tends to occur in late afternoon or early evening, particularly following a nap. Here’s a definition:

Hypnagogia is the experience of the transitional state between wakefulness and sleep in humans: the hypnagogic state of consciousness, during the onset of sleep. Mental phenomena that occur during this “threshold consciousness” phase include lucid thought, lucid dreaming, hallucinations, and sleep paralysis.

Both times I was a house guest. Both times, my relative woke up after drifting off to sleep for the evening, knocked on my door and asked if I had seen a deceased sibling. We had insightful conversations about the “thin veil” between earth and heaven. In each case, my relative went back to bed, convinced it was a dream, a very lucid dream.

I’m convinced we live more of our lives than we realize in a state of semi-consciousness–“going through the motions.” Now that I’ve seen it in others, I’m more aware of it in myself. I’m trying to enjoy, and learn from those twilight moments of great clarity. And, I’m trying to be more fully awake during my waking hours–paying attention, practicing consciousness.

The Trippy State Between Wakefulness and Sleep,” by Vaughan Bell, April 20, 2016

Operational prayer

The starting point for prophetic prayer is leaning into God’s preferred future for the Universe, putting our weight behind God’s will (as we best understand it, given our limitations). An operational prayer seeks help in the midst of our life situations, such as “Lord, help me get through this.”

I’ve always wondered how prayer works operationally. How does our prayer impact the Universe? In antiquity, a shaman or witch doctor would invoke the name of the right god for results, such as asking the rain god for rain, or the warrior god for military victory.

So, when Moses heard God’s call to liberate the Israelites, he asked a normal question, “What’s your name?” The mysterious answer is a foundation of monotheism, something like: “I am the nameless one.” “I am beyond names.” “I am not an object.” “I am known by my action in your history.”

Ideally, prophetic prayer and operational prayer become one. God’s preferred future becomes the future we seek. Our deepest yearning (our true prayer) is expressed in the motives, attitudes and actions underneath our routine, seemingly mundane (but inherently profound) daily lives.

Work, Play, Pray: An Interview with Cathy George,” by Corein Brown, Bearings;
see also “There Is No Secular World,” by Cathy George, Reflections, Yale Divinity School 2019

Solitude and hospitality

Along with “from illusion to prayer,” Nouwen explores “from loneliness to solitude” and “from hostility to hospitality.” A personal inward journey joins a corporate, outward journey. The vehicle for solitude and hospitality is prophetic prayer. These movements are of a piece, always interwoven.

In the Bible, “prophetic” doesn’t refer to seers or soothsayers predicting the future. Those things are frowned upon and considered anti-faith, anti-prophetic. Prophetic prayer seeks God’s desire, God’s preferred future, which involves the healing of persons and the planet.

We go to great lengths to avoid the pain of loneliness. Carson McCullers (1917-1967) chose for her 1940 novel title a line from the Scottish poet William Sharp (1855-1905): “Deep in the heart of Summer, sweet is life to me still, But my heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on a lonely hill.”

I believe acts of hospitality far outnumber acts of hostility, but the mischief of hostility creates searing pain and grief with destructive (and sometimes massive) ripples. Prophetic prayer challenges hostility, injustice and all things inhospitable. Prophetic prayer builds community through hospitality.

Prayer isn’t about asking God to buy us a Mercedes Benz, a color TV or a night on the town. Prayer is about discovering God’s desire for planet earth and thereby aligning our desires and actions. In that process, we experience the inner peace of solitude and the outward joy of hospitality.

From illusion to prayer

In 1975 Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) wrote Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. One movement is from illusion to prayer. I expected a movement from illusion to truth, but over time I’ve come to see Nouwen’s wisdom in charting our movement from illusion to prayer.

Prayer disabuses us of our illusions. Prayer is disillusionment. Thomas Merton (1915-1968) called us to live into our true self rather than our false self–trying to be someone or something we aren’t. Sometimes reluctantly, sometimes wholeheartedly, prayer plunges us into Reality.

We can be quite comfortable with, and attached to, our illusions, so movement away from illusion can seem radical, unsettling and subversive. The most prayerful people often seem irreligious because they ignore “lesser gods” that may be very popular. Jesus was subversive in this way, and he was accused of blasphemy, which is like being called an atheist.

Prayer is being conscious or attentive. Prayer breaks through the world’s illusions that distort Reality. Prayer exposes dualisms that falsely try to divide us into good vs. evil, religious vs. secular, or sacred vs. profane, etc.

Prayer isn’t about being sufficiently religious (which often is a matter of style or vocabulary). Prayer is about being graciously useful on planet earth. Prayer is reporting for duty. It’s the most important work we can do, but it may not always seem religious (to others) or feel religious (to you).

Keep me simple

My experience with the breath prayer was one of several stories Ron DelBene included in later editions of his first book, The Breath of Life. I’m “Alex” in a paragraph from page 103:

While showering one morning at a weekend retreat . . . I prayed, “Father, radiate your love through me.” The new prayer had a dual focus: to receive God’s love … and to be a vessel for radiating God’s love outwardly. I prayed this prayer from October 1981 until May 1991. … I was at a camp for a five-day session on spiritual formation. After a lecture we were asked to spend an hour reflecting on John 15. I sat in the chapel looking at a picture of Jesus. The word “abide” … converged with the large, inviting hand of Jesus in the picture to prompt another breath prayer: “Jesus, abide in me.” For five months, this was my prayer. … I began to note … a shift in the prayer. Now, I pray, “Jesus, keep me simple.”

I wrote those words almost 30 years ago, and “Jesus, keep me simple” is still my prayer. Sometimes, a situation may prompt one of the earlier prayers. A few weeks ago, I was helping a relative through a difficult time and I found myself praying, “Father, radiate your love through me.”

I’ll conclude this excursion tomorrow with what may seem to be a non-religious understanding of prayer and its importance for the planet.

My first breath prayer

One of the New Testament letters encourages people to “pray without ceasing.” My late friend John Rutland (1913-2002) came pretty close. He said he prayed all the time, sitting, walking, shaving, driving the car. At that point, his wife Mary interrupted him and said, “Honey, when you’re driving, everyone prays.”

About 40 years ago, an Episcopal priest named Ron DelBene moved to the Birmingham area and became a good friend. He introduced me to a simple a way of praying called a “breath prayer.”  

Ron asked, “How would you respond if Jesus walked into the room and said, ‘Ted, what do you want?’ I said, “Joy.” Then Ron asked, “How do you address the Deity?” I said, “When I’m hurried, I pray ‘Lord,’ but when I’m rested, I pray ‘Father.’ Then Ron said, “Put that in a short prayer of around 4 to 7 syllables. You could pray, ‘Father, give me joy,’ or ‘Father, let me know your joy?’” I said, “I’m long on knowing and short on feeling, so I would pray, ‘Father, let me feel your joy.”

This was my first breath prayer. I taped it inside my desk drawer. I wrote it in my calendar. I found ways to remind myself to pray this prayer many times each day. I prayed this prayer for eight months. Tomorrow, I’ll share how my breath prayer has changed through the years.

Howard Thurman (1899-1981), from Spirituality & Practice

 

A prayer memory

Almost 40 years ago, when I was a campus minister a student came by the office to talk. In the course of the conversation, I mentioned the “breath prayer” tradition, which I had recently learned about. She said she’d like to try it, so I asked, “What name for God is most comfortable for you?” She said, “Definitely not Father.” I said, “Ok, what works for you?” She thought a moment and said, “Coach.” I tried not to look surprised, and said, “Ok.”

She identified peace as her deepest need and she formulated this brief prayer: “Coach, give me peace.” I suggested some simple things she could do to remind herself to pray it, and I said, “Pray it as often as you can this week. I’ll pray it with you. Come back in a week and we’ll talk.”

A week later, she returned and I asked, “How did it go with the prayer?” She said, “Well, after the first day I realized how silly it was to call God “Coach.” Then she told me that her dad had been killed in an industrial accident when she was 8 years old. She had been angry with God and with him ever since. The prayer helped her identify the hurt that prevented her from experiencing peace. Then she talked about how she had found peace by letting go of anger.

I’ll say more tomorrow about how I was introduced to the breath prayer tradition.