Trials and Temptations

This is the last in my series of meditations on Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer or the Our Father. Since prayer can be one of the ways we connect with God, it seemed to good idea to look at the prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray. It is one of those pathways into God’s presence.

The last phrase according to Luke’s version reads, “and do not bring us to the time of trial.” (NRSV) A footnote indicates that it could be translated as “do not bring us into temptation.” The connection between the two translations is clear. Trials may tempt us to abandon our trust in God. Trials may tempt us to fall out of love with God our Father (or Mother, if you prefer).

The disciples were going to face a lot of trials and temptations in the years to come. In this prayer, Jesus encourages them to ask God to protect them from those trials or temptations that might destroy their faith or dry up their love.

One question that needs asking is, does God intentionally lead us or bring us into temptations or prayers? I say, “No.” In fact when I pray the prayer (as in Matthew’s version), I follow the French Catholic practice recently adopted by the Pope. So I pray, “Do not let us fall to temptation.”

I can pray this with confidence because I know the love of God revealed in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ.

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.

Praying to Love

We are looking at Luke’s version of what we traditionally call the Lord’s Prayer. The form we are most used to is found in Matthew, but Luke’s gospel may contain the earliest form. Its simplicity may make it more ideal for examining how this prayer can help us experience God’s presence. In the first blog of this series, we saw how an Aramaic word abba was behind the word translated “Father”. It was a word that pointed toward intimacy, trust, and love. This is highlighted further in the next two phrases of the prayer: “Hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.”

Unless one is at home in the Christian tradition, these phrases may sound strange–even off-putting. I believe that both of these phrases carried the same meaning. And that meaning is “May your purpose in creation be achieved.” It is a prayer that what God began in creation would be completed.

As the wonderful abba word focuses on the nature of God, it also helps us to understand God’s purpose. In creation, God’s desire was that God’s character would be fully revealed in all of the created order. And that character is love. God created us in love and wants us to manifest that same faithful love; to be open to the intimacy of love which can flow through all things.

Now, I am not naive about our world. Love is not yet seen in all things. Intimacy is not possible where patience, gentleness, and kindness have not yet blossomed. Nevertheless, God’s purpose still remains. If we want to join with God in fashioning the world of God’s dreams, let us pray.

The prayer might be something like this: Gracious God help us and all of creation to have spirits overflowing with your kind of love–a love that is patient and kind, unselfish and giving.

It may be that every time we pray such a prayer with sincere hearts, the world turns a little more toward love–God’s beautiful purpose.

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.

Holy Reading

I am looking at practices that have helped me and countless others throughout history to make the divine spark within us glow more bright or, if you prefer, the divine image within us appear more clear. I am examining ways that have helped me to grow spiritually. We have considered the importance of silence and journaling as two such practices.

Today we look at the practice of Holy Reading. As you might expect, in the history of church it has a Latin name: lectio divina. Traditionally, it was a way to read scripture, but its steps can be applied to many different types of literature. It is reading for formation rather than information. The latter type of reading is important in many contexts, but it is not the focus of Holy Reading. In Holy Reading we are wanting to be formed more and more into the divine image.

Holy Reading has four steps.

The first step is to read. Traditionally the chosen passage is read twice–slowly. You are not reading the passage just to get to a check-off place, but to imbibe its spirit. Read it first, slowly. In the second reading, you may notice a word or phrase that attracts you. You can stop the reading there or continue to the end of the passage.

The second step is to meditate on that word or phrase. You don’t try to analyze it–that is the old desire for information creeping in. You chew on it. You turn it over in your mind. Perhaps you make a kind of mantra for it, reciting it silently or softly. As you do so, sometimes the phrase or word will change. That’s ok. Just go with it.

The third step is to pray. Begin to talk to God about whatever that word or phrase is leading you to. The prayer usually flows naturally from your meditation. You might say that the phrase has moved from your mind to your heart.

The final step is to contemplate. In this case, it simply means to rest in God’s presence after the prayer is finished. Some practitioners say that this is the goal–if we must have a goal–of Holy Reading.

Two other points. First, spiritual growth cannot be simply programmed. These four steps may not all happen each time or in the order I listed them. Sometimes, some of the steps will hardly be needed before one rests in God. I often use a truncated version of Holy Reading as I journal, i.e. I look for a word or phrase that attracts me, then I write about why it seems significant to me. Many times I will then write a short prayer.

Second, I believe that God is at work transforming us, so if a particular practice seems to fall flat on certain days or even over a longer period of time, don’t despair or give up. Let us be faithful to do our part and trust God to do the greater part.

My Most Valuable Practice

In writing about practices that have helped me grow spiritually, I began in the last post talking about the importance of silence. I would add one or two comments. Unless you live isolated from modern life, it is almost impossible to escape the roar of traffic or the sounds of neighbors. I have found a free app called Insight Timer that helps me block out most of that noise with quiet sounds like flowing rivers or tinkling bells. It also allows me to set the timer for 10 minutes (or more or less depending on my desire). If you think it might help you, give it a try.

Now on to practice #2. It is journaling. WAIT, don’t quit reading! I know that journaling may not help everyone, but it is the single most important practice that I do because it helps me with most of my other practices.

The value of a daily journal is at least three-fold. It helps us to know ourselves as we write about events in our lives, our thoughts, and our feelings. It can also help us to relate to God. I often find myself talking to God as I write. It also helps us to concentrate. More about that in a moment.

So, what do I write in my journal? I usually begin by writing some comments on my morning scripture reading. Knowing that I am going to write something, helps me to concentrate on the reading. I’m not just reading to check off a daily accomplishment. I am reading to find something meaningful for me in that moment. Journaling helps me to do that.

I also write about my life. Since most of my journaling is in the morning, I usually detail some of what happened the day before and what I plan for the coming day.

And I usually write some short one or two sentence prayers. Perhaps I will thank God for something that happened the day before or an insight I discover in scripture. Perhaps I will ask God to help me in general or specific ways as I reflect on scripture and my life. It’s sort of like sending a text message to God. (Sometimes, not often, I will write out a long prayer, usually of thanksgiving.)

I do a few other things from time to time, but these seem most important to me. I do not spend a lot of money on fancy journals. I often just buy a spiral bound note book.

I began journaling on December 16, 1977. I have written over 2000 pages, maybe closer to 3000. The goal is to write every day, but I don’t. In the past, I might miss several days in a row. Being retired, it is easier to write almost daily. The important thing to remember is that if you miss a week, don’t give up. Simply start up again on the day when you can.

If you are not already keeping a journal, I encourage you to give it a try in 2018.

(As always feel free share any of this with others you think might benefit. Thanks for reading!)

 

This Morning’s Meditation

This morning I read Luke 1:39-56 which is called The Magnificat or Mary’s Song. One spiritual exercise that I practice occasionally is writing a haiku related to what I have read. I do this to focus my attention on the text and to find some specific meaning for me at this particular point in my life. This is what I wrote:

Mary’s mighty God

Forgets not His promises

To raise the lowly

Afterwards I found myself praying for our President-elect. The prayer went something like this:

That he might care for the poor suffering people of our world and of our nation, I pray that You would soften his heart. Create within him a heart of compassion and give him the wisdom and courage to oppose those who seek only to increase their power and wealth at the expense of the lowly. May Mary’s God be Donald’s God.

Finally, this morning I turned to a meditation by Richard Rohr in Preparing for Christmas: Daily Meditations for Advent. He also looked at the Magnificat. He pointed out that Mary’s Song and the teaching of Jesus both emphasize that attachments to power, prestige, and possessions will numb our hearts and dull our spiritual perception. I believe he is right.

May the God of Mary and of Jesus be our God in 2017