Forgiveness

We have been meditating on the Lord’s Prayer or the Our Father as it is found in the Gospel of Luke. Prayer is one of the ways we experience the presence of God. In today’s passage we will be reminded of the importance of forgiveness, which action, I believe, is another significant way to know God.

This month we have come to “And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” This does not have the words “transgressions” and “transgress” that many of us have used over the years. Neither does it have the words “debts” and “indebted” that others are used to. The word “sins” and “transgressions” are close enough to be used as synonyms. And in Luke’s version the prior word “sins” must be used to interpret the phrase “indebted to us.” So, to make it clear, in praying Luke’s version we are asking God to forgive us our sins because we are forgiving those who have sinned against us.

So, two ideas are at work. On the one hand, we have a need to be forgiven because of our own sins–doing wrong against God and others. And we have a need to forgive others who had done us wrong. I would simply point out that in this prayer, we are basically asking God to treat us like we treat others!!?!

While that sounds frightening, it need not be, as long as we understand what forgiveness entails. Forgiveness is seem most clearly on the cross. There, God in Christ was forgiving the world for its sin. This involved two types of acceptance. First, God in Christ accepted the pain of our sin without retaliation. The pain stopped on the cross. Second, God in Christ accepted the responsibility to help those who had caused the pain. (Remember Christ praying, Father forgive them.)

In forgiving others we accept two things. First, we accept the pain without trying to get revenge. We absorb the hurt as it were. Second, we accept the responsibility to help the other person. This can be most easily done by praying for that person’s own well being.

Forgiveness in it’s most basic elements does not involve forgetting (which we can’t will anyway!) nor the emotions of liking or loving.

Paul understood the connection between our forgiveness and our forgiving: “forgive one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” (Ephesians 5:7).

May we know the presence of God as we pray even for our enemies that God’s mercy would prevail in their lives.

Bread for the Day

We continue to think about Luke’s version of the Our Father or the Lord’s Prayer. Today we will look at the phrase, “Give us each day our daily bread.”

In the ancient world of Jesus’ day, food security was not a given. Lack of nutrition and gnawing hunger would have been near at hand for many of the common people of that time–even as it is in parts of the world today. So, Jesus was encouraging his disciples to pray for daily needs. God cares about the total person, not just disembodied souls.

However, I imagine that all who read this blog will have access to the food you need, so, we can pray this portion of the prayer with a sense of thanksgiving for the physical blessing we have. In praying thus we recognize our dependence on known and unknown factors that impact our well being. We ask God to bless us–bodies included.

On an earlier occasion Jesus affirmed that we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. That word is another kind of bread or nourishment–not for our physical being but for our spiritual being. So, we look for words from God to feed us. These words may be found in the Bible and other written material, in our inner life, and in conversations with others. At my church we respond to the reading of Scripture in this way: “For the word of God in Scripture, for the word of God within us, and for the word of God among us, thanks be to God.”

Finally, I must mention one other use of bread in the Gospels. It became a synonym for the presence of Jesus Christ with his followers. The bread of Communion is called the body of Christ. Whatever your theology of the Lord’s Supper, all of us can affirm that in some way, Jesus is with us as we participate.

When I pray the Lord’s Prayer, I am not literally taking the bread and the cup of Communion. But every time I pray “give us each day our daily bread,” I am asking Jesus Christ to be with me and near me in that day. It adds a wonderful dimension to the prayer and one that has come to mean a lot to me. I hope it may help you too to experience that Presence.

Imagining God

One pathway to God is through prayer, but not all prayers bring us into God’s presence. One day the disciples of Jesus asked him to teach them how to pray. The story and subsequent teaching is found in Luke 11:1-4. Here we find the earliest version of what is traditionally called the Lord’s Prayer. It is not the version most people know. The more liturgically full version is found in Matthew’s gospel. However, for the next several blogs I am going to look at what is surely the original version in order to think about how, in adapting and using this prayer, we can find ourselves in the presence of God.

It begins with one word–Father. (There is no “our”, nor “who is in heaven”). This prayer does have a corporate side as later blogs will show, but it begins one on one–the one praying and and the One listening. And the One listening is not far away, but is as near as a the air we breathe.

For those who balk at the use of the word “Father” as patriarchal, I would quickly add that in English I sometimes use Mother, for as Julian of Norwich correctly affirmed, “As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother.”

But let’s stick with what Jesus said and try to imagine what he meant. In Jesus’ native language, Aramaic, there are two words for the male parent; abhi and abba. The first word is the ‘higher’ word. It is a word of respect and honor. The second word is one of the first words an Aramaic baby would learn to say (along with imma). It is the child’s word. It is also the word adult children would use for the male parent when there was a close feeling of love and trust between child and parent. It was the word of intimacy. Perhaps our English words daddy and papa correspond best to the meaning. This Aramaic word is found three times in the Greek New Testament, indicative that it was the normal word Jesus used in his prayer language and the word he taught his disciples to use. (A side note: as far as we know Jesus was the first person to use this familiar language for God.)

Jesus taught his disciples to imagine that God is exactly like what Jesus had experienced God to be. God is entirely trustworthy. God is infinitely loving. God is eternally open to an intimate relationship with seekers.

So, when you pray, no matter how you might address God, imagine God to be like that. Perhaps it will help you to find a path into God’s presence.

A Trans-Religion Spiritual Practice

Last month I wrote about my experience with the Jesus Prayer. Here is another affirmation of the Jesus Prayer from perhaps my favorite modern poet, Scott Cairns.

Prayer in general, and the Jesus Prayer in particular, has become the sustaining focus of my waking days, and it has become a surprising accompaniment to my nights. I sleep less, waking every few hours–sometimes more often–to find the prayer on my lips. I spend a good bit of each night walking through the dark house, standing before the wavering vigil light of our family altar and icon wall, remembering friends and family–the living and the dead–in prayer. The more I do this, the more I want to do this. (p.257)*

It is important to note, as Scott does, that the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”–my preferred short form) can be used as we imagine the faces or names of our friends and family. God or Jesus will be merciful on “me” by blessing them.

My focus today is on two practices found in the Christian tradition that can be used with the Jesus Prayer or with other short prayer patterns. They are the Anglican Prayer Beads and the Orthodox Prayer Rope

Anglican prayer beads

And one hundred knot prayer ropes:

Ancient ways to pray

The use of something like prayer beads or ropes can be found in Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Sikhism, and Bahai. In those religions as in Christianity it is a way to focus one’s attention on prayer or meditation.

The Orthodox prayer rope is an ancient practice of the Orthodox church. The one I own is composed of 100 individual cloth knots separated into groups of 25 by 4 plastic beads. I use it in the evenings with a specific prayer for courage and peace and a heart full of love for God and compassion like that of Jesus. This is the prayer on the first three plastic beads. I follow this with 25, “Jesus my Lord, have mercy on me”, 25 “Jesus, my friend, have mercy on me”, and 25 “Jesus, my love, have mercy on me”. The last 25, I pray “Jesus, our savior, have mercy on us.” As I pray that last 25, I picture different people and needs in our world that I want God to bless or meet. On the last bead I give thanks for a God who always listens.

Anglican prayer beads have only been around since the late 1980s. I discovered them in the 90s. They are a blending of the Roman Catholic Rosary and the Orthodox Prayer Rope. The are composed of 33 beads–the number of years of Jesus’ life on earth. When I bought the prayer beads it included a wonderful leaflet that gave a variety of ways to use the beads including “rosaries” for the seasons of the Church year and patterns based on the Jesus Prayer, a prayer of Julian of Norwich, a Celtic Prayer, and several others. I have used these prayer beads off and on for over twenty years. (My first set eventually ‘wore out’ when the string holding the beads together broke!)

The use of either of these ways is not a magical cure-all or a sure-fire method of spiritual growth. They are simply a time-tested method that has helped me to focus more clearly and more often on my life of prayer.

*Scott Cairns, Short Trip to the Edge: Where Earth Meets Heaven–a Pilgrimage. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007. I also encourage you to check out his poetry.

The Jesus Prayer

Earlier we began to look at various practices that can help people to experience the presence of God. The practice I mention today is peculiar to Christianity, though other religions have their own mantras that might help their devotees to experience the divine Presence.

The Jesus prayer is not found in Scripture, but was developed in an Eastern wing of Christianity called Orthodox. The full form of the prayer is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” Shortened forms are also used. The repetition of this prayer was an attempt to follow Paul’s injunction to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).

The prayer can be prayed in two ways: vocally or as a breath prayer. So, as a person goes about his or her daily routine they can repeat softly the Jesus Prayer. Or, they can repeat it silently in sync with their breathing in and out.

It was the latter form that attracted me when I was around 30 years old. The form I used was shortened. I would breath in thinking “Lord Jesus Christ” and breath out “have mercy on me”. I would do this as I walked around the seminary campus. I would do it as I drove. I would do it in quiet times. I would do it before going to sleep. I don’t remember how long I had been praying in this way, but eventually a strange thing began to happen. Sometimes, without thinking at all, I would simply take a deep breath for whatever reason and the words “Lord Jesus Christ” would, uncalled for by me, appear in my mind; and of course, I would breath out and consciously think, “have mercy on me”.

For the past 40 years or so, I have used the Jesus Prayer, off and on, as a way to center my thoughts on the presence of Jesus. It has been a source of strength and peace.

Later I began to use the prayer vocally, but I will wait until next time when I will write about the use of prayer beads and a prayer rope.

praying for presence

repetition stills the mind

peace can enter in

Gospel Reading

In my last blog I talked about there being many spiritual practices or exercises that can help us experience the presence of God or the Divine. Most of the religions in the world seek to find and follow a path or paths to God. I have found spiritual treasures in careful readings of the Tao Te Ching, the Upanishads, the Dhammapada, Zen writings, the Songs of Kabir, a host of poets, and, of course, the Bible. In the Hebrew scriptures, I have been especially drawn to the Psalms, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs.

However, most significant to me has been reading the four gospels in the Christian scriptures. Some 25 years ago, a spiritual adviser encouraged me to focus my scripture reading solely on the four gospels–at least for a time. Of course, as a Christian since childhood, I had read in the gospels off and on for many years, along with all the other books in the Bible.

However, as I began to focus primarily on the life and teachings of Jesus, I was changed. Jesus became more than just the one who died on a cross and rose from the dead for the sake of our ‘salvation’. Jesus became the paradigm for how I was to interpret everything else. Jesus became the model or example for how I was to live and think. In this eye-opening understanding of Christ, my own connection with God deepened.

Of course, I read many things these days, but my pattern always includes a portion of a gospel reading. I read and then reflect and/or pray in my journals. (Unless I am determined to write a few lines in a journal, my reading can become shallow and meaningless.)

In the next few blogs I will write about other practices that connect me to God through Jesus Christ. However, if you want to try this practice, I suggest that you begin with a journal to write in and begin reading the Gospel of Luke, and next on through Mark, Matthew, and John. Then repeat and repeat and repeat. For 25 years it has not gotten old!

Pathway(s)

Pathways to God is not strictly speaking about how one can be ‘saved’ in the traditional Christian sense. It is about how we can experience the presence of God. In one Hindu pattern there are three ways–the way of knowledge, the way of selfless work or action, and the way of love and devotion. In Neo-Platonism, the divine can be approached through beauty, truth, and goodness.

As in other religions and philosophical traditions there exist a variety of routes to the presence of God, so in the Christian spiritual tradition there are many practices or disciplines that have been used successfully. One important thing to remember is that not every Christian practice will be effective for every person, nor will one Christian practice always and foreverĀ be effective. That is, your particular needs in the spiritual life may change from time to time, so that what was helpful before is so no longer. Other practices need to develop.

For example the practice called Centering Prayer is very popular today among many Christians. It is a way into silence by quieting or emptying your mind. As I noted, many Christians have found this practice helpful. Me–not so much. But I would never denigrate the practice. It has helped a lot of folks. It is one way into silence.

A pattern that has been a better one for me also includes silence, but it is not the same kind. I no longer try to empty my mind, but I want to fill it. I have taken the advice of the Apostle Paul, “From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise.” (Philippians 4:8)

There is one who embodies all of these. That one, for me, is Jesus Christ. So, I try to fill my mind with him. In the next few blogs I will share some of the ways that I do this. I hope you will join me.

As always, anything you find helpful that I have written, feel free to share it with others.

The Mystic Path: Union with God

We have noted the experience of awakening that often is the first step along the path. This can be followed by purification or purgation in which we acknowledge our sins and attempt, with God’s grace, to overcome the dark traits of our personalities. Next can come illumination in which we experience the presence of God such that we begin to understand more and more about who God is and what God desires for us. The final stop along the mystic path is called union.

On sweet occasions

Goal of Christian devotion

Union with our God

As might be expected, this stage can only be described by metaphor and symbol. Some mystics compare it to a transformation, e.g. wood becoming flame in fire, or a drop of water becoming wine when immersed in a great sea of wine. And, St. Paul wrote about being conformed to the image of Christ–becoming like Christ. Deification is a word the Eastern Orthodox Church has used for centuries. We do not become equal with God, but they affirm that we acquire the divine nature. In 2nd Peter, we discover that we can “become participants of the divine nature” (1:4).

Another favorite image among the mystics is spiritual marriage. It is a union characterized by love. The Song of Solomon is a favorite book for these mystics. Human love becomes a metaphor for the loving union of a person and God.

However it was characterized, the mystics all have had a burning desire to experience the fullness of God. They desire this more than life itself. So, they seek after God, and by God’s grace, they can have moments of true union. Only in the life to come, can the union become more permanent.

Union with God in this life and the life to come is characterized by 5 qualities.

1) It is marked by a union of minds. The mystic begins to share God’s values, ideas, and wisdom. Because of this union, they often understand intuitively what God would have them do different situations.

2) It is marked by a union of hearts. The mystic begins to love what God loves. The true mystic, united with God, has compassion for all that God has made.

3) The third mark should go without saying, but it is often not clearly understood. If we share God’s values and love what God loves, we will desire union with one another. To be united with God, one must in one way or another, be immersed in the life of the people of God.

4) The fourth mark is joy. One of my favorite mystics, Richard Rolle compared the person united with God to a music pipe always playing joyful songs of love to Christ.

5) The fifth mark is peace. One of my favorite hymns expresses this well. It is “Like a River Glorious” by Frances Havergal:

Life a river glorious, is God’s perfect peace,

Over all victorious in its bright increase;

Perfect, yet it floweth fuller every day;

Perfect, yet it groweth deeper all the way.

Hidden in the hollow of God’s blessed hand,

Never foe can follow, never traitor stand.

Not a surge of worry, not a shade of care,

Nor a blast of hurry touch the spirit there.

Stayed upon Jehovah, hearts are fully blest;

Finding as God promised, perfect peace and rest.

This is not the last thing I want to say about this beautiful mystic path, but perhaps that is enough for today. As always, if you find what I have written helpful, feel free to share it with others.

The Mystic Path: Purification

Last time we considered the occurrence of awakening in the mystic path–that happening in our lives when we become awake to the divine or God’s presence all around us. Today’s topic is not as exciting, but I hope not to lose any readers!

According to the mystics once we are awakened to the glory of God, we can become aware of our own imperfections. The path to ultimate union with God leads through a period (or probably periods) of purification.

Some of our imperfections are caused by our environment. Another way to say that is that we are impacted by sin. On the other hand, some of our imperfections are the result of our own bad choices. Or, we commit sin, e.g. we nurture wrong desires or do wrong things.

Our imperfections may appear in a variety of forms. Not being able to distinguish right from wrong is an imperfection in our intellect. When we can’t seem to make a decision or stick to those resolutions we do make, this is an imperfection in our will. Regularly struggling with unhealthy feelings points to an imperfection in our emotional center.

I have largely avoided talking about ‘sin’ because the word has been wildly misused over the years. When I was a young person growing up in rural Alabama in the 50s and 60s, dancing was considered a sin in some circles! And going to the movies on a Sunday was a definite taboo.

Nevertheless, the word sin still has value when we consider the imperfections in our moral center. Jesus taught us to love one another, which means seeking the other person’s welbeing. When we fail to do that, we are imperfect or we are sinners.

Mystics have suggested a threefold way of purification that can help us along the path to union with God. First is contrition–a sense of sorrow for our imperfections or sins. Second is a full confession–acknowledging, at least to ourselves, that we are not perfect. Third is the resolve to change. Of course, for Christian mystics, all of this is done in the presence of God who is ready to forgive and to help us grow into the divine nature.

The Mystic Way: Awakening

The name of this blog site is Pathways to God. Today I want us to begin thinking about the Mystic Way. In the Christian context, three movements are usually affirmed: purification, illumination and union. However, two additional steps are sometimes mentioned. One may occur between illumination and union. It is traditionally called the Dark Night of the Soul. The other is prior to purification. It is awakening. And it is awakening that I want to think about today.

The experience of awakening can happen in at least two different ways. One is to experience the glory of God externally. Nicholas Hermann (popularly known as Brother Lawrence) saw a dead tree in winter and thinking about how it would come back to life, he was awakened to the greatness of God. It was life-changing. Men as different as St. Paul and Rulman Merswin saw a great light and they were never the same. Even Jesus heard a divine voice at his baptism and a ‘normal’ life was no longer a possibility.

The other way is inward. Richard Rolle felt a heat or warming in his heart. (I don’t think it was heat that Tums could ‘fix’!) Catherine of Genoa was struggling in a loveless marriage and perhaps with depression. She went to a priest for her normal Lenten confession, but wasn’t able to say anything. As she knelt, her heart seemed pierced by the love of God. In one moment she saw her own miserable state, but more importantly God’s boundless love. Both Rolle and Catherine became great affirmers in word and deed of a divine love that fills and overflows our hearts.

Awakening comes in different ways, but when it comes the person is never the same. The Divine becomes the ever present reality of their lives. They live for God and God’s will. They affirm the beauty and the love of God.

So, what can we do to be awakened? Perhaps nothing. It comes to irreligious and religious persons alike. We can’t make it happen. All I can suggest is to pay attention to life within and without. All life comes from God andĀ perhaps if we pay attention, we are more likely to experience a moment of awakening that will last a lifetime.