"Look deep into nature, and then you
will understand everything better."
This may very well be one of the reasons Jesus prayed outside so much!
Whether on a mountain or on the side of one, in the wilderness, desert, or garden, Jesus found quiet places in creation to be alone with God the Father. He also encouraged people to observe nature to discover the deeper messages and invitations of God, instructing them to "notice how the lilies grow" or "look at the birds in the sky." (Matthew 6:25-34)
All of nature is speaking! Whether individual parts or the rhythms and cycles of creation, if we observe using all of our senses and spend some time reflecting, we can discover what nature knows.
With notebook or journal in hand, you might try the following prayer exercise and see what the Spirit of God has to say to you about your particular worries, stresses and concerns. What wisdom for your life is to be discovered in a single acorn or the falling leaves? Find out!
How would you describe your November and December?
Now shift your attention from your own experience of November and December to nature's experience.
Give thanks for God's gift of (and the wisdom found in) nature! If there's a way to bless and care for creation, do it!
Imagine walking into a doctor's exam room, telling the doctor your symptoms, showing the doctor what you're concerned about and then... turning around and leaving without letting the doctor respond!
It may sound far-fetched to you but we do it all the time in prayer.
Soren Kierkegaard the 19th century Danish philosopher, theologian and poet once said,
"If I were a physician, and if I were allowed to prescribe just one remedy for all the ills of the modern world, I would prescribe silence. For even if the Word of God were proclaimed in the modern world, how could one hear it with so much noise? Therefore, create silence."
How often do we turn to the Great Physician with our concerns, yet offer no opportunity for a response? With no response, how are we to know what we really are to say or do, especially in the face of tragedy and difficult circumstances?
Oh, we may think we know what to say or do.
Our ego self or what the Apostle Paul called "the flesh" always has an answer! This part of us likes to self-diagnose (and diagnose others!). It's usually quite sure of itself, quick to demonize those who do not agree, and usually lacks creativity, like choosing apathy. Apathy is quite different than active waiting, for the latter keeps vigilance while the former has "fallen asleep," sure to miss God's invitation to action when it does come!
If we read I Corinthians 3:4-5 and simply turn each phrase of what love is to what it isn't, we get a quick and easy way to recognize when the ego is trying to take charge!
The ego often...
is not patient.
is not kind.
is easily angry.
keeps a record of wrongs.
It's hard to stop talking, look inside, and give up all of these ego-driven things in order to create space to listen to the One who truly knows the next word or action needed.
Don't think it's difficult?
Words often arise from those very places when it comes to the difficult person or situation. BUT, if you can allow that part of the ego (the part that is impatient, for instance) to step aside or tone down, this creates space for silence where there's room for the Physician to speak.
In the doctor's office, the doctor gives you instructions on what to do (or not to do) and the kind of medicine to take. Do you let the words go in one ear and out the other or go home and leave the prescription on your kitchen counter? No! Not if you trust the doctor. There is action involved beyond rehearsing your symptoms and having a prescription in hand.
In prayer, not only is the word spoken to you by the Physician powerful, but the word given to you to speak (or do) carries that same healing power forward.
Says, Henri Nouwen in The Way of the Heart,
"A word with power is a word that comes out of silence. A word that bears fruit is a word that emerges from the silence and returns to it...A word that is not rooted in silence is a weak, powerless word that sounds like a "clashing cymbal or a booming gong." (I Corinthians 13:1)
Our world is in desperate need of wisdom and healing. So many of us say, "I'm praying." What if we said, "I'm listening in prayer." Then, let's actually stop talking, go to a quiet place (like Jesus did), and find out what the Physician has to say.
Do you really think
more thinking is
needed right now?
Especially when what
we're dealing with is a
sickness of the mind!
With sad eyes
the soul whispers
“Stop” (as it always has)
Did Saint Paul not say
the same to the good folks
With a humble heart
(admitting the -ism
existing in yourself)
sit in Silence
Without mistaking such
Silence for absence
or worse, indifference!
The soul knows
how to wait
for salvation from
And do you remember
Jesus speaking to his disciples--
What does it take for some
demonic powers to leave?
Prayer and fasting.
then close your lips and listen.
Until clenched fists open
until anxiety and anger
slip through your fingers
Until you receive
in your now-ready head,
heart, and hands
that which you are to give
for the healing of this,
Remember those moments of synchronicity I spoke about last week?
Well I had another string of "meaningful coincidences" I want to pay attention to and share. At the end of the class on the heart of Jewish spirituality at Congregation Ohabai Sholom, Rabbi Rami Shapiro was asked what practice he would suggest for all of us.
His answer was to enter more deeply into the "Sh-ma Yisrael," also known as the Shema, the prayerful recitation of Deuteronomy 6:4-9. Remember, another Rabbi's answer was the same...Jesus told others to live into the Shema, calling it the greatest and most important commandment of all. Here is the Complete Jewish Bible's translation:
4 “Sh’ma, Yisra’el! Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad [Hear, Isra’el! Adonai our God, Adonai is one]; 5 and you are to love Adonai your God with all your heart, all your being and all your resources. 6 These words, which I am ordering you today, are to be on your heart; 7 and you are to teach them carefully to your children. You are to talk about them when you sit at home, when you are traveling on the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them on your hand as a sign, put them at the front of a headband around your forehead, 9 and write them on the door-frames of your house and on your gates.
Two ways of entering more deeply into the Shema that Rabbi Rami mentioned were the mezuzah and breath prayer.
While I plan on getting a mezuzah, I began that night to breathe in and out each word of the Shema. The next day my family ate at a local restaurant and two Jewish women came up to our table out of the blue to offer encouragement to me. Why? I have no idea. Curious. I joked with Russ that they could sense I had been praying the Shema!
Afterwards I went home, read a message from a friend who had asked me to recommend a Frederick Beuchner book. After recommending a few, I walked upstairs to my bookcase and spotted the first Beuchner book I had ever read, A Room Called Remember. The last time I read it had been well over a decade. Randomly I opened it up and what did I see? Staring back at me was Deuteronomy 6:4-7...the Shema! Under the Scripture, Buechner writes,
"'Hear, O Israel!' says the great text in Deuteronomy where Moses calls out to his people in the wilderness. Hear, O Israel! Hear! Listen! And not just O Israel, hear, but O World, O Everybody, O Thou, O every last man and woman of us because we are all of us called to become Israel by hearing..."
As I mentioned last week, synchronicity beckons us to pay attention! The word "Shema" means "Hear!" and this isn't just the gathering of sounds which can go in one ear and out the other. Watch the short animation below for a fantastic word study on "Shema" by The Bible Project. Given the meaning of the word and how it keeps coming up, clearly I'm to hear something! Perhaps there's something here for you, too.
You may have read Adonai translated as LORD, but it can also be translated as The NAME, or Ineffable. Why? Watch the second short animation for a great explanation of the word's background. In addition, not only was the Divine Name so sacred that it was not to be pronounced, but some Jewish scholars taught that YHWH was ineffable because it was not a pronounceable word at all...it was the sound of breathing! This would go along with the name's etymology, God's Name does not indicate a being but Being itself. And this is beyond words! You might muse over God's Name, breathing and existence for a little while...
Now for the breath prayer. If you've never heard the words of the Shema spoken in Hebrew, you can listen to them being read and sung here. Practice silently saying the words with a slow, relaxed inhale and exhale.
In breath- Shema (pronounced Sheh-MA)
Out breath- Yisrael (Yis-rah-EL)
In breath- Adonai (Ah-do-NAI)
Out breath- Eloheinu (Eh-lo-HEY-noo)
In breath- Adonai
Out breath- Echad (Eh-KHAD)
As we regularly breathe the prayer, the hope as Rabbi Rami points out is to help one's consciousness to shift so one sees God in, with, and as all reality and one's interactions with others are marked with compassion. May it be so.
Or the imagination? How about touch?
Well the obvious answer is no one.
But many Christians act as though they are forbidden territory. If it's anything other than the Bible and words (and even those are under regulation) it's to be feared. When I mention Centering Prayer or Reiki there are those who say "Oh isn't that New Age or Eastern? I can't do that, it's dangerous, I could be opening myself up to the Devil."
I once heard a well-meaning pastor urge his congregation to trust God rather than the imagination thus setting the imagination in opposition to its Creator. It's not the imagination itself that is the problem, it's where we let it go. Saint Ignatius was transformed by God through his imagination in the 14th century and so developed spiritual practices to engage Scripture and prayer in this way.
Elijah did not hear the voice of God in the earthquake, wind or fire but in the sound of sheer silence. Jesus made seeking out a quiet place (to listen to the Father who spoke within him) a regular spiritual practice.
Jesus also touched people and they were healed (and the way he went about healing was different depending on the situation and person). He breathed on his disciples before telling them to receive the Holy Spirit (the name for Spirit in both the Hebrew and Greek can also mean "breath"). Much of his ministry looked more "Eastern" than "Western."
There are some religions and traditions that have done a better job incorporating things like silence and the body into their spiritual practices. Rather than allowing fear from keeping us from receiving a gift, we can learn from them. With discernment (sifting wheat from chaff), we can integrate, or more likely recapture, what's been missing in our own tradition. Questions arising from the Biblical narrative can help us with the sifting.
If we're to love God with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength, I think we need to humbly leave space for "holy envy." Theologian and scholar, Krister Stendahl coined this phrase, referring to the practice of recognizing and admiring elements in another religious tradition, even allowing those elements to enrich one's own faith tradition (or wishing it could).
As a United Methodist, I've experienced holy envy in denominations like Episcopalian, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Southern Baptist, and others. As a Protestant, I've experienced holy envy with Catholic, Orthodox, Celtic Christian and Saint Thomas Christian practices and beliefs. As a Christian, I've experienced holy envy in Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufism (mystical Islam) and others. And without exception, the places of holy envy have invited me to a deeper awareness and experience of the love of God, neighbor and self.
No one owns breathing, imagination, silence, the body, or even truth (this is not to say that all religious truth claims are equal, but that truths are found in all religions). Rabbi Rami Shapiro closes his emails with "Alles iz Gott." He wants to remind me or whoever else emails him looking for wisdom that, "All is God" because God embraces, transcends and is the source of everything! And our Creator is amazingly generous (as Matthew 5:45 reminds us that the rain falls and sun shines on everyone).
So with your heart, mind, soul and strength listen and learn. Allow yourself to remain open to holy envy. Discern. Let go, discover anew, or integrate. And find yourself further on the path of Shalom, this already-not yet living into the Kingdom of God where individuals, communities and all of creation experience wholeness, peace and completeness...and a holy sigh of relief!
During my first semester of college I was taught the "4 Spiritual Laws" at a nearby church and campus ministry. I couldn't believe how much sense it made! Why hadn't I seen this before?! It was so logical.
Being a Jesus-follower AND rule-follower, here were 4 spiritual rules about salvation that someone had culled from the Bible that I could not only believe in but easily explain to others. And I did for years, until...
My internal dissonance grew louder. This was experienced as confusion, anger, and not wanting to go to church or sing which led to guilt for feeling that way at all. Of course being a rule-follower and "good girl," I forced myself to go (although I no longer sang or shared this "Good News" with anyone). At the time I had no answer as to "why," but I started noticing something else.
My body kept trying to tell my mind something. Gone was the excitement my rational mind had that first year of college and the following eight years. Whenever singing, explaining or hearing this theology, I felt a growing tension in my chest, pit in my stomach, and increase in headaches. Unbeknownst to me, the "Good News" wasn't being recognized as good by other parts of me (this is important since we're to love God with not only mind, but heart and body as well).
It took me a long time to discern what was going on for there were several issues related to church and Christianity that God was intent on bringing to the surface to heal. Parts of me are still in this healing process.
Knowing my kids will be presented with this same theology at some point, a couple of weeks ago, I decided to get my young daughter's response to the 4 Spiritual Laws and the bridge drawing that goes along with it (seen above). I also tend to ask my kids their point-of-view when it comes to difficult theological concepts because they don't have the theological/church baggage I do and they know they have permission to offer an honest opinion.
After school one day I said to her, "Hey, I want to show you something that I was taught and get your opinion on it." After looking and listening to me talk about sinful humanity, a perfect God, sin separating us from this perfect God, and the cross as the bridge, here's what she said:
"That's a clever drawing! BUT, here's the problem (she pointed to the sides), the starting place is all wrong."
I asked her to say more.
"Well, that's only the starting place through a human's eyes, it's not the starting place through God's. It's like when I'm all anxious, I think no one understands me and I'm completely alone, but the reality is, I'm not. Same with God."
Wow. And there you have it folks.
That's why Jesus said to become like a child if you want to enter (or even recognize) the Kingdom! Leave it to a child to cut through all the theological, rational laws and offer a simple but profound apologetic. God is with us...period. And as my 10-year-old daughter went onto tell me, "Not seeing this is the beginning of 'missing the mark.'"
It's taken me years to get back to this starting point! Her intuitive theology resonates with that of King David in Psalm 139 (who needed no bridge for he knew God to be everywhere he was and went, inescapable within and without!). Whether we see it or not, God, the Ever-Present Love, is with us. Jesus the Christ and "the old rugged cross" is this message in vivid color!
May God give us the eyes of a child.
The following poem was spontaneously written in 2012. God knew I was exhausted by two young children and years of wrestling with atonement theology (unable to put into words my growing inner dissonance with the popular view of the cross). Not being a poet, I was shocked when out-of-the-blue, poetry began flowing. I literally had a pen in one hand barely able to keep up with the free-flow of words and a spoon in the other stirring the kids' macaroni & cheese! A couple of notes about this poem: Philosopher Girard refers to Rene Girard who said the scapegoat mechanism is the origin of sacrifice in all cultures and the Bible both reveals and denounces it. The last word of the poem brings together both John 14:6 and Psalm 119:105.
They speak of You
paying the price for
our sins, of this Ultimate
As if Your
were not enough
Our Creator, the Creator of all,
coming to this land a crying
baby boy and leaving
a bleeding and broken man
What more sacrifice
do we want?
What is left to be
In pain we look for
a purpose, the greater
the reason the more our
You say You delight
not in burnt offerings,
and You neither require
nor drink the blood of goats
But how can we trust
such words to be true?
Sacrifice and religion,
dare we separate the two,
even if it be a marriage of
and not of love?
We give such reasons
so scared for them to fail,
but what if we sacrifice reason
and find our scapegoating revealed?
I tell you philosopher Girard
was never so happy
as when he put to Western words
such ancient discovery!
To step outside sacrifice,
to see her for who she is,
tis like naming a covenant new
You indeed paid a price
Man of Sorrows, and told us
to follow You
Find life and eternal joy
by being well-acquainted
You died because of
in the manner of
It was not Your blood
that was needed in order
to make us right,
but it was Your blood
that showed You to be
and the Light.
Good Friday is coming in a few weeks and with it, some theology I simply cannot stand anymore.
It's found in many worship songs like Jesus Paid it All, In Christ Alone, One Thing Remains (Your Love Never Fails) and more. It's called substitutionary atonement or penal substitution in theological language. And it's heard so often, you might even think it's the only show in town when it comes to explanations and understandings of the cross.
Richard Rohr, writes in Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi, “For the sake of simplicity and brevity here, let me say that the common Christian reading of the Bible is that Jesus 'died for our sins'— either to pay a debt to the devil (common in the first millennium) or to pay a debt to God the Father (proposed by Anselm of Canterbury [1033–1109] and has often been called 'the most unfortunately successful piece of theology ever written')..."
I could not agree more. No matter how sweet sounding the music, the image of God portrayed by such lyrics is a petty, powerless and/or blood-thirsty tyrant requiring some kind of payment or transaction before those He's created can be forgiven, loved, and rescued from eternal damnation. There are lots of problems with this theory. One major problem is that if we read the Hebrew Scriptures, like the Psalms and Prophets, we discover a long-suffering God who was forgiving and willing to forgive long before the cross occurred. Rather than a belief that Jesus' death on the cross was necessary to change God's mind about us, we can see how Jesus' life and death invited us to change our minds about God. Jesus was simply following in his Father's footsteps of relentless, sacrificial love. I have a problem with lyrics and theology that proclaim the opposite.
Given this theology is taught through song and sermon in many churches (I taught it years ago as a youth pastor!), we're not apt to actually stop and think through it ourselves. It took me a while to admit that something seemed "off." There would be songs that seemed fine up until the "wrath" or "debt paid" lyrics showed up affecting the whole song. As I questioned this dominant cultural voice in American Christianity, I realized there were others experiencing the same internal dissonance. I also discovered there were other views about the crucifixion (always have been) besides substitutionary atonement. And that one no longer represents my viewpoint...
The movie, Gran Torino, on the other hand does. Spoiler alert, if you haven't seen it and want to, you may want to stop reading, go watch it and come back later. And be aware, there's violence (although let's be honest, there has to be if drawing any kind of connection between it and Good Friday). Back to the movie, I did not see it coming, the ending of Gran Torino. In fact, I imagine I got a taste of being stunned the way the disciples might have been stunned on that Good Friday long ago...they simply never saw it coming. Yet the Gospels tell us Jesus did (and so did Clint Eastwood).
If you saw the movie but cannot remember the ending, go check out a Youtube clip of the end. The final scene is so rich in symbolism, I'm not even going to get into all of it (plus it would take away from your own disturbances and observations). All I know is that Gran Torino gave a pretty good glimpse of my view of Jesus' death on the cross in less than 5 minutes.
A quick overview of the movie...gruff Walt Kowalski (played by Clint Eastwood) is a recently widowed Korean vet. He's fairly estranged from his own family when he gets drawn into the drama of his Hmong neighbors. Young Thao tries to steal Kowalski's Gran Torino after being pressured by his cousin to join the neighborhood gang. You know that Eastwood is not going to let that happen! This event leads to Kowalski developing a relationship with the family and getting an inside look at the cycle of violence and poverty experienced by the Asian community in his neighborhood. He sees how his well-intentioned advice to Thao to get a decent job and stay away from the gangs simply doesn't work, no matter how hard Thao tries, he and his sister cannot escape the brutality and injustice. It requires something more to liberate Thao and his sister. And that's where we start seeing Kowalski's single-minded intensity and there's no mistaking he is planning something. What he's planning, we have no idea.
Although we know something is about to take place when one night he shows up at the house where the gang members hang out and begins to yell in order to provoke them. One by one they come out with guns drawn. We're expecting "an eye for an eye" moment thinking Eastwood will whip out a gun and give them the justice they deserve by picking them off all in a row. What we're not expecting from the foul-mouthed Kowalski is "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:13) And yet he does. And on purpose. His stunning and creative act of solidarity and sacrifice releases Thao and his sister from the cycle of violence. They were "saved" by his blood.
In a perfect world, the prison system would reform the perpetrators and they'd be "saved by his blood," too. It's not a perfect world and Walt doesn't rise again in three days, so there's only so far the comparisons can go but I think it's worth noting the image of Christ found in Walt's sacrifice.
First, let's admit that Walt himself could be a stumbling block for some. In which case, I ask us to ponder what one who "walks in the way that leads to Life" really looks like. Is it being a nice, moral citizen who tries to avoid or point out sin (but can have a habit of ignoring the cycles of violence and systemic injustice in his own "neighborhood")? Or might one resemble Walt, a crass, politically incorrect "sinner" who not only notices the violence and injustice, but steps into a Christ-like path which will set his neighborhood free? Setting his face like flint, he walks right onto that sidewalk for an act of love which will rescue his neighbors from being held captive by a cycle of violence they are powerless against. Sound familiar?
Jesus knew his message would provoke the authorities. He knew that such ire would inevitably turn him into a scapegoat (a person or people group on whom we unfairly pour out our wrath, making them "pay"). He knew it is human nature to look for a scapegoat. So much so, it becomes a religious necessity for nearly every culture (some even beating literal goats to death as the name suggests)! One can see how Jesus' bold message about what to do with friends and enemies does not fit, but in fact destroys both the necessity for and violent cycle of sinful and superstitious scapegoating.
Bigger isn't better in Jesus' view (even when it comes to God). Being the stronger bully or in the bully's gang never leads to the kind of life Jesus invites, it only adds fuel to the cycle of vengeance. However, many Christians have no problem with this because the image of God passionately sung about is a fickle, vengeful one (and remember, we become like the God we worship). Plus if we agree that Jesus paid it all, we're safely on the winning side. However, in the cycle of violence, there is no winning side. In a stunning reversal of what we would expect from a winning "savior," Jesus chooses solidarity with the suffering of the scapegoat and dies.
Jesus knew the pull of scapegoating loomed large. After his resurrection, knowing some of his disciples had a propensity for zealous anger (once they knew they were safely on the "winning team"), he headed off any plans to go after the ones who had killed him. The Gospel of John tells us Jesus meets his disciples in the room they were hiding in, breathes on them, tells them to receive the Holy Spirit then talks to them about forgiveness (20:21), a topic he talked to them about at the Last Supper and even voiced from the cross.
It seems the disciples had a choice (and so do we). Be chained to the cycle of violence or have hearts and minds freed up to carry out the mission Jesus began.
What is that mission?--a completely different way of being in the world (which includes the religious one!). It's the subversive, dangerous and life-giving way of loving God and our neighbors (whether they be Hmong, Muslim, Mexican, Irish, disabled, poor, or LGBT+) as we love ourselves (which includes parts of ourselves we like and parts we'd like to treat as scapegoats). It's that kind of love that frees. It's that kind of love that Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., the young Palestinian girl Malala Yousafzai, and Walt Kowolski knew would cost them something, perhaps even their lives.
If someone wants to write a song about that, I'll gladly sing it.
Kasey is a scarf, ball and club juggling spiritual director just outside of Nashville, TN. Play helps her Type-A, Enneagram 1 personality relax, creating space for poetry and other words to emerge. She also likes playing with theological ideas like perichoresis, and all the ways we're invited into this Triune dance.