Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Brother Lawrence

Brother Lawrence’s Practicing the Presence of God is an interesting and rewarding read. A collection of letters, observations, and reflections by a Parisian lay brother associated with the Carmelites that lived in the second half of the 1600’s, the book represents a departure from many “standard” works on spirituality and contemplation. In fact, having read many other books, this one seems to be a bit too simple. But therein lies its value. It calls us back to where we are to be headed.

You see, its easy, being human, to grasp hold of a new system of spirituality, learn its techniques in and out, and then proceed to structure our lives by it. We tend to major in living that system rather than using the system to get us where we want to be.

Brother Lawrence’s advice is simple and straight forward: Decide to love God and live in His presence, and all the rest falls into place. Not that we will have an easy life physically, or that we will always enjoy what we are assigned to do, but determining to live in the awareness of and in submission to God is greatly satisfying in that we return to the place we were made to be.

While Brother Lawrence kept the daily offices of prayer, his writing makes them appear to be interruptions rather than natural for him. In his life, one that starts the day with an “OK God, this one’s for you” sort of an attitude, praying before doing the slightest work, and then when idle, returning to the presence of God through prayer and contemplation, the formality of the daily office seems to be less than needed – although he does not recommend avoiding them.

There are other practices of Brother Lawrence’s that appear simple, but don’t allow for much argument. The first is at least a daily reflection on how he did that day. Did he work as well as he could have? Did he reflect his God in an honoring manner? This daily examen was not to cause himself more emotional pain, but was an honest attempt at continued growth and submission to God. Whether during this daily review or at some other point in the day, if Brother Lawrence detected that he had not been the person he wanted to be, he would immediately confess his shortcoming to God and ask for forgiveness. After that, he wouldn’t mention it again, trusting that God had heard him, and had forgiven him. That having been done, there was no reason to bring up the subject again.

No doubt you have noticed that there are no great systems of contemplation, no sacred places per se, no series of defined theological terms, no systematic superstructure at all. The entire enterprise consists of a serious and dedicated submission to God with a continual seeking to be in God’s presence through prayer and contemplation.

All other spiritual formation efforts and systems are designed to achieve at least this degree of living in the awareness of God. Perhaps a truly mystical experience of God would be beyond this type of life, but this type of life would surely provide the foundation for an experience of the Creator as direct as some writers have described.

Give Brother Lawrence a try. He might make your spiritual life a bit easier.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Why?

She was early forties, the wife of an up-and-coming preacher, mother of three sons, a great disciple, and a wonderful mentor and teacher. Her approach to life and commitment to God had garnered her respect and devotion from many women both younger and older than she, of the congregations she had attended. She had spoken at national conferences and University presidents attended her funeral.

So why did she have to die of various abdominal cancers at her age? In six months of being diagnosed? This question has been raised a number of times and my current responsibilities require that I address this question to members of my flock. It isn’t an easy question to answer, and I’m pretty sure that whatever answer I could devise would be sufficient for some and leave others wanting. Nevertheless, I need some sort of response.

It might be easier if she had died suddenly in a car accident. But she didn’t and so we’ve had our congregation and more than a few folks around the world praying for her recovery for six months. Many of those have prayed fervently and often. Their faith, and the wording of their prayers, have beseeched God for mercy and healing. Were those prayers worth the effort? Is our faith, is our God, real enough that prayer actually changes things or are all the miraculous healings we think we see really just coincidences?

Did God leave us alone? Is He out there? Does He care?

Her death has challenged the faith of more than a couple people. What is the answer?

Let’s start by admitting we don’t know why she died rather than being healed. What we do know is that it is in these times when we need to do a gut-check of our faith. Faith is usually easy when things are going well, when life doesn’t require a whole lot of us. But faith that lives only as long as the sun is shining is a somewhat weak faith. And those who are challenged by such events in life have to ask ourselves whether our faith is real or not – do we really believe this God stuff?

I do. And no, I would just as soon not have my faith tested in a manner like this. What I trust is that God is faithful to keep my soul from Hell; that I can trust what I have committed to Him until I see Him face to face. No matter what happens in this world. Detractors will say that my attitude is one that belies the “blind faith” of Christians, that we are somehow ignorant of life or we rely on superstition to get us through our sorry lives. Let them. What they do not know is the love, acceptance, and freedom we have when we live for God, if we live in God.

I rely on what we read in Scripture of people hanging on to God in the midst of hurt and loss. Not Pollyanna’s, but real people with real hurts who come back to God time after time because they have tasted His goodness in other times or because they trust that their faith is not in vain. I rely on the fact that good people die every day. Some young, some old, some well known, but all loved by somebody who has been praying for them not to die. And yet they die.

And when it’s someone else’s loved one, or someone to whom I am not as close, it’s easier for me to accept what has happened. Only when I feel slighted, when God hasn’t listened to my prayers, when I can’t make heads or tails out of what has happened, does my faith waver. While that is a normal response, it is also a highly arrogant one. I am a creature. I do not know nor understand God’s great scheme. I do not comprehend His way of working in the world. And so I am slow to question and ready to say “I don’t get it.” And I trust that what I have seen in this community of loving people is simply a foretaste of the love and sweetness of what being with God will be like. And I am convinced that my faith and my God are true because I see them in other people all the time.

Why did she die? I don’t know but I trust that God knows what He’s doing.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Ruth


The book of Ruth is set in the time of the Judges which means that the society was characterized by everybody doing whatever they thought appropriate. There was very little national political or cultic control. We also know that God would let the Israelites have some slack, and then when they got too far out of hand, He would either send a famine or have some other tribe or country attack somewhere, so that the Israelites would appeal to God, elect a judge over them, and return to God. When they had returned, God would set right whatever was lacking in His blessing of them.

It is in this atmosphere that we have the story of Ruth and we know that there is a famine in the land so that Naomi's family moves to another land for food. And it is there that Naomi's son finds a Moabitess for a wife. This is interesting since good Israelites weren't supposed to marry outside of Israel, but he does. In this place of shelter, Naomi loses her husband and her two sons, and she decides to return to Israel. Ruth as we know, decides to go with her and Naomi eventually agrees.

So they go home. Ruth dedicates herself to caring for Naomi and comes to the attention of Boaz, a somewhat distant relative of Naomi. Boaz eventually gets the family's permission to redeem Naomi's land and Naomi and Ruth come with the land. Boaz and Ruth get married and we find that Ruth becomes the grandmother of David.

So what do we discover about God in this story where He isn't even mentioned? There are a few items that we can discern based on our knowledge of God.

--While God may discipline His people, He is with them in that punishment, He provides for them in the midst of it, and they usually come out of it in better shape than they entered. Along these lines we can see the blessing of Abraham and Isaac in Egypt and Moab, Noah, Job, and David. Our God is a faithful God who doesn't leave His people. He is always with them.

--God has always accepted people who weren't "part of His people." Ruth is the heroine of this story. She's a Moabitess who's dedication to Naomi displayed personal character and steadfastness that is characteristic of our God. She had a heart like God's and as such, was used by God in a way she probably couldn't see or understand.

--God uses what appear to be calamity to work His purposes. Naomi's son, even though he dies early in the story and does not reappear, is used by God. It is he who marries Ruth, and it is his death that allows Ruth to eventually marry Boaz. I suspect that Naomi and Ruth didn't see that hidden blessing in his death, but God worked through it to bless the world.

--God often uses these non-God's-people to bless His people and the world. This is important. Often God's people seem to think they're special and are due blessing upon blessing because of their standing with God. From time to time, God's people remember that their purpose is not self-aggrandizement, but the blessing of others. If our standing with God nets us riches, gifts, and capabilities, it does so only so that we can in turn bestow blessing on other people. But this point is a bit different still. God blesses and uses those who are not recognized as His people to work His will. These "not of us" people are used by the Creator of the Universe to work His will. If they have Godlike character, He blesses them in so using them. Ruth is going to become a Mother of God. Through her will come not only David and Solomon - and every other royal descendant, but Jesus of Nazareth as well.

--God uses sinners to work His will. Boaz can represent another woman in the story as he is a descendant of Rahab, a woman who could not be described as a woman of God for much of her life. Having worked as a prostitute, she hides the Israelite spies and by her faith is saved from destruction. Here we find that through her, and this Moabitess will come the Savior of the world.

The story of Ruth is really only about a few regular, run of the mill folks, who live in community and try to get along without too much fuss. No one here is described as "great" although Boaz has some money and gets more apparently. But he's not going to show up many more times in Scripture. And yet, God works through these average people to literally save the world.

Toward the end of Hebrews 11, the writer finally says he's run out of time to rehearse all the other great people of faith. He's had time to mention Rahab - he gives her a couple lines, but he doesn't have time to describe David, Samuel, and a few other people that we recognize as "big guns." And he mentions some no-name people as well including women who received back their dead. There are at least two that we can identify: the Shunamite woman and the widow of Zarapheth. And then a few lines later the writer says "...the world was not worthy of them."

Amazing isn't it? That in this list of great people, the writer mentions unnamed women and says the world wasn't worthy to have them grace the planet. Old women who lived in backwater places, without names, who got to witness first hand the precense and power of our God. And in the story of Ruth we have three more women who would normally have gone unnoticed, two of which become ancestors of our God.

Often times we wonder if our lives and what we do really matter a whole lot in the big scheme of things. We want to know that we are special, we want to know that we are making an impact, we want to know that we are God's people because He blesses us. The fact is, God uses normal, everyday people like you and me to work His will in this world. We may not understand how it might work, we may not understand why we have to go through stuff, we may not understand how God could use us when it doesn't seem we amount to much, but use us He will if we seek Him and have His character.

The grace of our God extends to all people in all circumstances not only to save them, but to let them participate in His saving and blessing of the world.

Let Him use you as you live today.


Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Art of Prayer


At the recommendation of an acquaintance I am reading "The Art of Prayer, an Orthodox Anthology," compiled by Igumen Chariton of Valamo. The book is intended as a text on developing a deeper prayer life through recitation of the Jesus Prayer. The Jesus Prayer, for those that aren't familiar with it, goes like this: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me." The book says that some add "...a sinner." The idea is that the repetition of the prayer keeps the name of Jesus at the front of one's life, and accesses the power inherent in the name of Jesus. But this is not the entirety of the book. It also includes reflections and teaching on a developing prayer life that approaches contemplation, or the actual experience of the presence of God. In this aspect the book reads somewhat like Western works, most notably to me, Thomas Merton. Merton has written many books on the topic of contemplation as well as a few others. His most well-known work on prayer is likely "New Seeds of Contemplation." In that book, Merton provides 39 short chapters on various aspects of being, living, and communing with God. The present book is following the same concepts, but rather than distinct chapters by individual people, "The Art of Prayer" is constituted primarily of quotations from Orthodox spiritual writers of the 19th and 20th centuries. I'll let you know how it goes.

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