Tag Archives: mercy

Anxious and tired: Prayer that turns us toward hope

The notion that God is absent is the
fundamental illusion of the human condition.
Thomas Keating

If Cynthia Bourgeault is right (and my own experience says she is), then the way beyond egoic thinking is the way of meditation. She says, “Meditation, more than any other spiritual practice, nurtures the latent capacities within us that can perceive and respond to divine hope. In the classic language of our tradition, these capacities are known as the ‘spiritual senses.'”

That little paragraph might have seemed so weird it drove you right back into you egoic thinking! So hang on. All “egoic thinking” means is we humans have the capacity to stand outside ourselves and look at ourselves. As far as we know, we are the only species who can do this. Tigers don’t think, “I have a quick temper.” And whales don’t say, “I am really glad to be going north; I’m a cold-water kind of whale.” And tigers and whales don’t write children’s books where tigers  and whales seem cute when they reflect. Humans can imagine these different realities, looking back and forward, dreaming and visioning. It is a great thing about us.

we are drawn to meditation

Egoic thinking is great…until it’s not

The downside of this reflexive capacity, Bourgeault says, “is the tendency to experience one’s personal identity as separate — composed of distinct qualities, defined by what holds one apart from the whole.” So we all have an anxiety streak running through us because we really need and want to be together, not separate. The ego can’t get enough: praise, security, accomplishment, etc. to overcome that dreadful sense of being left out or thrown out and failing at being a full self. You can see how quickly we have all been driven into sin by this innate anxiety. And you can see why Jesus calls us to see our true selves, look at ravens and lilies, stop worrying and “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness” as the means of becoming free of what is depriving us of joy.

Art often captures the turning of meditation
Field of Lilies – Tiffany Studios, c. 1910.

Meditative prayer is a way of discovering and nurturing the latent capacities within us that can perceive and respond to “the Mercy” I talked about last week. It is a primary way to experience the “mystical hope”I talked about the week before, the hope which is near and not the outcome of all our striving.  The centering prayer that Bourgeault teaches is “a basic, no-nonsense method of self-emptying — simply letting go of thoughts as they arise — to help practitioners break out of their compulsive attachment to thinking and entrust themselves to the deeper stillness of God.” [Here is Martin Laird’s take on it.] The essence of this kind of meditation is not keeping a perfectly clear mind. The essence is recognizing the moment when one is distracted and willingly turning back into the stillness of the Mercy, toward hope; turning toward the meeting place we have inside as an act of faith and honor; letting go of our own stuff and holding a space open for all God gives and all God is.

We need to get beyond self-awareness and its evil twin: self-centeredness

We have a “self” awareness that is beyond the egoic capacity that makes us human — we also have spiritual awareness. Meditation leads us out of ego-centered consciousness and into a space where we meet God. And so many of us know almost every feeling better than the feeling of communion with God! Someone has said we can also get to this meeting place by having a near-death experience or by falling deeply in love. I do not wish you the first short cut and do wish for you the latter. Meditation is the everyday path. It is the discipline that helps us “die daily” as Paul says he does, and helps us be one in love as he hopes we will be. The prayer of meditation puts a stick in the spokes of our outer awareness and leads us into the warmth and abundance of our inner awareness and into hope in the Mercy.

It is a hard world right now. Maybe you are pretty numb like a newscaster was saying she was after she was confronted with Donald Trump’s and General Kelly’s icky relationship with the family of La David Johnson. Or maybe you are feeling like the pastor who wrote to Christianity Today to voice how tired he is of trying to get into the white man’s church and how determined to separate into a black world until someone approaches him for once. If it were not a hard world, we’d probably make it one. So it is time to pray.

Have you listened to Jesus saying this to you lately?

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,
and I will give you rest. 
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me;
for I am gentle and humble in heart,
and you will find rest for your souls.”

Basic to that easy yoke is the prayer of meditation. We keep turning to it in our anxiety and fatigue and it keeps turning us toward hope.

More on Mystical Hope
Previous: Mystical hope in a deteriorating world
Swimming in the Mercy: The experience of hope
Next: There is hope: But you’ll need to die to enjoy it
Hope: The quality of aliveness right under our noses

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Swimming in the Mercy: The experience of hope

Lynn Bauman’s paraphrase of Psalm 103:11 warms my heart:

As the heavens reach beyond earth and time,
we swim in mercy as in an endless sea.

I need to hang on to that deeply hopeful picture. May that deep, biblical truth ascend as old Christian memes lose their strength. I am longing for the descent of sayings like:

“Only God can turn a mess into a message, a test into a testimony, a trial into a triumph, a victim into a victory.”

And

“I know God has a plan. I pray for direction to follow it, patience to wait on it, and knowledge to know when it comes.”

I don’t think these proverbs are evil and I could say that they have generally proven true in my life, unlike for many other people I know. What I object to is that they reduce hope to something that must be proven. They beg skepticism: “What if the mess does not become a message?” and “We got divorced and it still hurts.” and “I lost my leg in Iraq and I am impoverished as a result.” What’s more, I personally object to the idea that God has a minute “plan” as if she were making sure we get to his preferred outcome: the right job, the safe neighborhood, the healthy family that all “prove” our blessed state. Even more, I dread the denial I am called to perfect in response to terrible outcomes that must be “part of  God’s plan” for me while Kim Kardashian gets rich.

My commitment to wait on the Lord is not the source of my hope. My passionate acts of goodness and faith do not necessarily result in hope. I can’t really manufacture hope. The Lord is my hope.

For God alone my soul waits in silence,
    for my hope is from him. —
Psalm 62:5

I am not the source of my hope, and that’s why I dare not apply my meager sense of what outcome I need in order to have it.  Yet, at the same time, the source of hope is deep within me and flows to me with unrestrained abundance; it is so abundant it would be more accurate to say I am deeply within it. I am like the proverbial little fish who just heard a rumor and swam up to his mother and asked, “Mama, what is water? I have to have it!” We are immersed in the water of hope. We don’t miss it because it is something to which we hope we will arrive someday, we miss it because it is so close, more intimate than our own being.

As the heavens reach beyond earth and time,
we swim in mercy as in an endless sea.

Cynthia Bourgeault in her book Mystical Hope, describes the “embodying fullness” as “the Mercy.” Mercy is the water in which we swim. Mercy is what we know of God and the light by which we know it.

I adopted “mercy” as my main prayer when I got used to the Jesus prayer: “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” As I was riding my bike through town, avoiding car doors, potholes and pedestrians, I realized one day that the curses rising up in me, adding to my frustration and sense of alienation, could be replaced with a one-word prayer that turned me toward my center, toward a realization that I was in the water, still swimming. Now I am likely to face a distressing or even hope-draining moment with “Mercy.”

Bourgeault explains “the Mercy” so beautifully. “When we think of mercy, we should be thinking first and foremost of a bond, an infallible link of love that holds the created and uncreated realms together. The mercy of God does not come and go, granted to some and refused to others. Why? Because it is unconditional – always there, underlying everything. It is literally the force that holds everything in existence, the gravitational field in which we live and move and have our being.” Just like that young fish looking for water, we “’swim in mercy as in an endless sea.’ Mercy is God’s innermost being turned outward to sustain the visible and created world in unbreakable love.” We see that so clearly as Jesus turns himself out on the cross and God turns creation inside out to return him to life.

The interpreters of the work of Christ keep looking for words to describe what they experience. Paul says:

Hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. — Romans 5:5

The basic work of the Christian ends up being a quest for the “water.” Instead of living in a world run by scientific principles waiting to be proven again, or worse, a nobody-in-charge universe run by whoever manages to get into power, we become aware that we are “inside a warm-hearted and purposive intelligence, a coherence” of which we are part of the expression. It is the world of the Mercy. Instead of God as a distant “other” we are restored to God as our “source and substance, the ground of our own arising, the foundation of our hope.” I want to talk more about how we might experience this reality, since, for me, once experienced, it is undeniable. But for now, I will leave you in hope, realizing that the energy you exercise striving for some outcome you hope for could be well used for turning in to hope and swimming for joy in the Mercy.

Other posts on Mystical Hope:
Previous: Mystical hope in a deteriorating world
Next: Anxious and tired: Prayer that turns us toward hope
There is hope: But you’ll need to die to enjoy it
Hope: The quality of aliveness right under our noses

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Love and mercy, that’s what you need: So love and mercy to you and your friends

Do you need to read this blog post because I am going to offer you some bit of info that makes your life better? Maybe. You’ll be better off if you read it for love.

I want to read your blog post for love. I’d rather you read mine because you love me — or at least you would like to. I would rather read your post because I want to know you, or at least know of you: your gifts, your wisdom, your part in the community we share, whether face to face or just as members of humanity. I don’t think you are an info machine regurgitating data you have effectively evaluated and reconstituted and I am surely not that.

Two things happened last week that made me think many of my friends are overly influenced by two mutually detrimental experiences: their social science teachers and their evangelical preachers. It makes them treat people as if they are data and data sources. Before I tell you about that, I can probably sum up my reaction to my experiences with the Brian Wilson song that came to my mind as I pondered my discomfort. What we need is love and mercy, not another teaching that tells us we’ve got it all wrong or another preaching that tells us we can never get it right.

I loved seeing Brian Wilson sing this at the Tower Theater!

Do we really have it all wrong?

We took a survey of the people who came to our church planting summit last week. They had a LOT of wise things to say off the top of their heads that I will be pondering (and helping us to incorporate) for a long time.

But there was an interesting streak that a few responders added to the mix. It bothered me. They apparently looked around the room and quickly sized us up according to the ideal church/social group they thought we ought to be. They asked things like, “Why are we so much this and not enough that?” and “Where is the data that proves what you are saying?” Even though we have a proverb that enjoins people to resist “bean counting” they applied a mentality that is very common these days. Aren’t most things reduced to, “What does it cost?” or “What don’t we have enough of?” Apply that mentality to a social group, like the church, and it is “Who is underrepresented” or “What is missing?” I often say the mentality leads us to eating the holes in the Swiss cheese.

I’m not saying facing facts is irrelevant. I think Jesus-followers should be the people most able to face the harsh truth about themselves and their group. So bring on any truth that statistics and spreadsheets can tell! But let’s also admit that figures lie and liars figure. And even when they tell the truth, their truth is never deep enough. The great truth we know as Jesus followers is that the facts which prove how worthy we are of condemnation are not the facts we live by. Jesus looks at us like a mother getting the first glimpse of her newborn, or a father looking down the road and seeing a figure who looks like his son coming home. We could not possibly have it all wrong, being so loved. Even if nothing is working out, love and mercy are working out.

Are we really never going to get it right?

The next night I sat under the teaching of the spectacularly-talented Gungor family. I appreciated the depth and variety of their music. I was also very interested in their fan base, who seemed happy to get a chance to ask them personal questions.

From what I can tell, they are refugees from Evangelicalism, but they haven’t completely lost touch with their homeland. As a person who never quite got into the Evangelical fold, it is usually hard for me to describe what I think about it until I run into it again, like I did with Gungor. Their music was all about light and connecting with God, but at the same time it was deeply intellectual and bent on making a point. When they started talking, it became even clearer that their view of us was as unrealized projects who need to conform to ways we have yet to perfect. We haven’t got it right yet and we never will.

Like Michael and Lisa, God’s leadership motivates me to grow and change. We are travelling onward. So bring on your expanded vistas and the hope of eternity! I think they were trying to bring that. But there was also this other streak. Like when Lisa said her new revelation of late was “If we’re not all free, none of us are free.” That is a great word to the powers that be as they insist that Americans are free because of the society’s goodness and power, when they are not. But the impossible dream of waiting for Christians to take over the world and make democracy and capitalism (or anything) work is the kind of thing Evangelicals hope for that make everyone in the meeting get the idea that there is endless toil to complete.

In a similar vein, when a young man asked about how to make an album, Michael told him, among other things, to “Follow what is in you.” Given more time, he might have told him to “Follow Jesus, who is in you.” But, as it is, the young man got the word to assess what is in himself and follow it to success, or to not care about success and be content with whatever is in him – be yourself. That’s a good word to a young man who sees Gungor and can’t feel good until he is Gungor, but it is also and invitation to “Be that perfect you and you’ll be happy.”

When the New Testament writers tell us our hearts are deceitful and assure us God is greater than our hearts, I don’t think they are merely calling me to change everyone’s heart or follow my heart, in the sense that life is an endless project I need to get right. The “burnt out evangelicals” I promise to never disparage again (since most of the people at the summit said they could wear that description!) have been pushing such a rock up the hill long enough. The work makes them feel like crap and the only solution they are given is work harder and like it! Our good works do not make us good people. We can get it right because Jesus got it right for us. It is not going to get any better than that because we somehow out-save Jesus. It is already done. Love and mercy is where we live.

We’re already more than the moral to the story

I don’t know every bean-counter and evangelical on the planet, so whatever stereotype I concoct is just that: a concoction. I’d rather love people than relate to them as a concoction I should assess or exhort. So I am pondering how to end this post. These days little stories, like I have just told, are commodities people consume and store in data bases, if they “like” them.  If they are Evangelicals their story is a new way to preach and every story has a moral. In both cases, bean counter or evangelical, the story is rarely about us as we are, it is always about who we should be or who we aren’t yet.

I can face who I should be and who I am not — I live in love and mercy, after all! But I surely need to be careful or I will become an aspiration, never to be realized, rather than a person in Christ who has aspirations. I am not sure it is even safe to look into eternity if you are not securely by the Lord’s side while you are doing it!

So see if this works for you. When Jesus says “Before Abraham was born, I am!” in John 8, I don’t think he was assessing himself honestly or making a point, or even telling a story. I think he was being vulnerable, being himself. In a similar way, I think we can say, “We are who we are” and rest in that, even though we know there is more to do and a long road ahead. Even the most ambitious man in the Bible, the Apostle Paul, says, “I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself” – basically, “I am who I am.“

We live in the love and mercy of God. That’s who we are and that’s the essence of what we bring to the meeting or the concert. We are not the facts, or the work, or the moral to the story. Facts, work and morals are all great. But who can live under the weight of them? Who wants to be judged by them? Even now, when you are at the end of what I have said, can I live under your assessment or can you live under whatever judgment you have strained out of what I have written? Probably not. So listen to Brian again and end up in love and mercy, instead.  Be in the church too and let it be: we are who we are, and whatever we become will be a gift of love and mercy.

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