Tag Archives: prayer

How to pray: The joys of walking

A long time ago now, I was on an overnight retreat and, to my surprise, I found myself left alone for the night, the only guest in the retreat house. Initially, this was a bit scary.

Richard Gere as King David (1985) dancing before the ark (2 Sam 6)

Praying with my body

I was reading  a book by Tilden Edwards who suggested my prayer might be better focused if I emulated King David and danced before the Lord. Even now I can remember the horror this thought aroused in me. The house was empty and I was still afraid some great “other” would see me, if I followed Edwards’ advice, and mock me, just like David’s wife had. I later learned just how deeply that mocker was installed in me and how little assistance he needed to lock me up.

But I finally could not let it go; the suggestion was not going away. My logic was something like, “You’ve already gone on retreat, which seems absurd enough to most people. What prevents you from following Edwards’ direction?” So I opened up the creaky door to my room and got out into the hall in my underwear, half expecting a nun to burst in as I tentatively took my first few steps into a body-aware prayer. I still remember how it felt to consciously let my body move up and down the hall and into the presence of Jesus along with my mind and heart. I could feel my strength being applied to expressing my praise. I slowly lost my self-consciousness and became conscious of the Holy Spirit.

But even more, I simply did something with my body. I did not just think about doing it or imagine doing it and count that as doing it. When the Ark was returned to Jerusalem, David whipped off his kingly robes and humbly expressed his praise for everyone to see. He, and the rest of us, never forgot it. The Bible writers were honest enough to include the reaction we most fear in the middle of the story. Disdain, from the outside or in, is often a hurdle we need to overcome to pray at all. David’s own wife looked down on him because he was so “out there.”

The joy of walking

I like dancing. But I rarely feel moved to make it part of my prayer. I do a lot of singing. I like to lift my arms and do other things with my hands when I worship and pray. Sometimes I dance. But I’m more of a walker. This past month I experienced some deep joy as I walked.

Sometimes a Christian client and I are doing psychotherapy together and it is difficult to imagine how they are going to break the patterns of their anxiety or depression. They think they need to think better and it just is not working. Their life and their prayer have a set pattern; nothing new can happen, but things are just not working anymore. Sometimes I suggest they take a walk and spend some time with God, maybe even talk, certainly listen, but mostly just let their body be in the Lord’s presence and see what happens. Sometimes they try it. During their stressful day, they just get up and walk around the block. Instead of dashing home, they go over to the Schuylkill and let the river help them.

When we were following Paul around Greece last year, it dawned on me again that he walked from Philippi to Thessaloniki. Most of the people in the Bible are using their own two feet to get anywhere they go. They don’t jump into the car at the last possible moment to make it to the Sunday meeting, fruitlessly dodge potholes, get undone by unexpected traffic, miss the last convenient parking spot and fastwalk into the meeting, panting for the first few minutes. They have lots of time to be slow. If I walked to my Sunday meeting it would take about an hour and a half. If I walked the route like a pilgrimage to a holy site, it might end up being a supercharged experience I never forgot. But even if I was just taking my time and using my body, I would be more likely to meet God.

walking the brick road assisi to santa maria degli angeli
Strada Mattonatta, the ancient pilgrim road

My walking experience in Assisi

This year, I was privileged to take the retreat of a lifetime in Assisi. I decided to devote my days to walking. I was a pilgrim visiting sites that were holy to me. But, more important (and in the spirit of Francis of Assisi), I was getting my feet on the ground, going slow enough to listen for birds, look for flowers and experience my whole self in God’s presence: heart, soul, mind and strength. It was wonderful. Every day I had a destination in mind. I put on my sandals and launched out on a route I’d never taken to places I had never fully explored. I do not have a “favorite” day. But I keep telling the story of walking to Porziuncola. So let me see if that inspires you to learn the joys of prayer walking.

I could see that going from my room at the top of the hill town of Assisi way down into the valley below was going to be a challenge. The dome of Santa Maria degli Angeli looms large in the valley landscape and it looks like it is far away. Later Franciscans created a huge, baroque pilgrim-processing center that dwarfs the little chapel which Francis was given as his first official rebuilding project. It is where he lived and died, and it is still the center of the Franciscan world. I was excited to get going; a prayer walk is like a small retreat, a vacation trip from normality to greater awareness.

I enjoyed the brick road I discovered had been built for just such a walk. Along the way I found a little chapel. I stopped in, as most chapel owners in Italy hope people will do — they leave the doors open. I found myself alone. As I knelt and prayed, an old song popped into my head: “See this bread, take and eat and live in me.” I sang it out loud and enjoyed the sound of it echoing in the room. When I arrived at Porziuncola, I was surprised to see a mass underway in the little chapel. As soon as I got to the door, the priest held up the wafer and said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” A jolt like electricity pulsed through me and I made my way to the altar to receive the wafer. More so, I saw Jesus in the bread, in the place and in me. Being in the presence of the Lord is wonderful.

Knowing that I am in God’s presence all the time is great. Putting my feet on the ground and feeling it with all my being is even better. Some people have wondered why I would be so bold as to “break the rules” and take communion as a non-Catholic. I tell them that I was acting in the spirit of Francis, who never met a rule he could not subvert and redeem. As it turns out, I also acted under the guidance of Pope Francis, who made a bold statement on his way back from Romania on June 2: “During the press conference Francis went further. As he explained on the plane, ‘there is already Christian unity,’ according to the National Catholic Reporter. ‘Let’s not wait for the theologians to come to agreement on the Eucharist.’” Mostly, I was moving where my pilgrimage had taken me.

So why don’t you take a walk with Jesus? Maybe the thought embarrasses you. I can relate to that. Maybe it will take too much time. I can understand that, too. Maybe you just don’t think of yourself as a prayer-walker kind of person and you fear what people would say and how it would feel if you became one. But what will happen if Jesus invites you to walk with him and you don’t go? In fact, life is a pilgrimage. We don’t really know where we are going. We need Jesus beside us to get anywhere at all. Acting like that is true when I pray has truly deepened my prayer.

God causes the growth (2)

God causes the growth

I am moved to hang on to some basic teaching today.

What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. (1 Corinthians 3:5-7)

This morning, as I listened to God and prayed for the church, I took heart in in Paul’s teaching. He laments the deep problems in the church in Corinth, where he had spent so much time laboring and loving. His disciples shocked people with their immorality. They divided up the church in factions. They had a strong contingent who thought they were spectacular, and better than Paul, their father in the faith. Some of them re-thought the gospel to reflect themselves rather than Jesus.

Some days, I look out over our beloved community of Circle of Hope and am tempted to lament. I just see the holes in the Swiss cheese. It is not a nourishing practice. Today God saved me from that by reminding me of what he has done, which is what he is likely to do again. Circle of Hope is so astoundingly rich in faith, hope and love that I begin to get nervous when there is a little dip in our storehouse of all the good things God has given us. My standards are very high. I forget that God created it all from nothing not too long ago.

It is, again, like Paul told the Corinthians:

“Think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. (1 Cor. 1:26-30)

I totally relied on this wisdom from Paul when I came to Philadelphia. I am convicted today to keep walking in it. God is bigger than our capabilities and our critics. God is greater than our wonderful history and our sinfulness. God is hopeful because of our good track record and in spite of our mediocritizing.

If we live or die, as the church, Jesus is Lord. But I am sure we will live and God will cause the growth.  inside and out. Here are several reasons to believe that such a life is likely which come from just the people I talked to yesterday:

  • A man walked into our door last week looking to be restored to God after medicating his mental illness with drugs and alcohol. He is finding rest.
  • A man is overcoming his sin and the wreckage it has caused in his family and circle of friends.
  • A man is experiencing the fruit of his act of courage in taking risks to follow his truest calling and it has opened up the door to welcome God into the deep parts of his being.
  • A woman is celebrating how our church came through for her when her husband was jailed and is thankful that her own new faith sustained her.

God is causing the growth. Like Jesus says, the kingdom of God is like a seed that grows day and night and one can only be in awe of it, and never presume to cause it. We plant and water, but nothing will happen without God creating the environment in which it can flourish. And that is just what God does.

BTW — Today is Brigid of Kildare Day! I’m a fan.

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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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Lent: We gave up doing basically nothing for the season

All the guides to Lent (including most of mine) have to do with applying some good thinking from the ancient and medieval church. It is so great. I am doing it.

The idea is so old, so someone else’s, so demanding, the vast majority of Christ followers, radical or nominal, are ignoring it — for all practical purposes, at least. Their loss.

That being said, I think we may have stumbled on to another discipline that we don’t need a lot of prayers, plans, meetings, guidebooks or history books to do: we just do stuff. We gave up not making a difference a long time ago. But this Lent, in particular, We seem to have given up giving up doing nothing all over again. We are kind of over freaking out about Trump, and are back to being the alternative we have always been to neoliberalism, now neolberalism turning toward totalitarianism. We don’t sit around.

Alternativity: finding a way beyond the walls

1. We build the church

Jerome began a cell last week with a set of mostly-new people. They all went against the grain and sat down to community. Our congregation in the Northwest is seven-months old and already show signs of taking its first toddler steps! This keeps happening.

The main thing the world needs is an alternative. Democracy is great and needs to be expanded, but it obviously is not saving the world. People have elected the worst government in my memory — for the most part they let their reps buy their position so 1% capitalism would be preserved. What people really need, as they always have, is not more info, power, and government largesse, they need to be a responsible part of their own people, culturing a common life with Jesus at the head. We are making that community, whether we are 20 or 60, new believer or old salt. We do it very simply by forming cells where we deliver our spiritual gifts face to face and by holding weekly, public gatherings where we worship, teach and incorporate people looking for Jesus. Those simple acts of building an alternative community in Christ spawn all sorts of other amazements! We map  our direction our ourselves, not just apply someone else’s thinking. We fund it all ourselves, not living off our business profits or grants from the fat cats. We keep inventing it ourselves, it does not belong to our leaders or our founders, it is us.

2. We pray

A lot of us never pray, it must be admitted. They are missing out. But most of us do, and we don’t think it is doing nothing, because we actually believe God responds to our prayers. We don’t run the universe with our intercession, but we participate in what the Holy Spirit can do. Plus, of course, praying people become more accustomed to their supernatural capabilities and become answers to their own prayers, so that is a bonus.

Art started organizing prayer walks around our new site in South Philly. People are out on the street praying, discerning, letting love flow. When we move through the stations of the cross in our neighborhoods on Good Friday, it will be about as obvious as we can make it that we believe Jesus is dying and rising right here, right now, among us and in our neighborhoods.

3. We form teams that express our passion

The Community Workshop Team decided that lightly or illegally employed people could learn woodworking. The Watershed Discipleship Team saw the threat to the world and to the Delaware River Watershed and decided they could not let the planet die without doing something. The Solidarity Beyond Borders team was revived when Trump stirred up anti-immigrant sentiments and challenged Philadelphia’s right to be a sanctuary, so they got an alliance going with local Mexicans, in particular, and started strategizing.

At this point, we kind of take making these teams for granted. When Jonny was telling someone about them last week, the person was flabbergasted to learn that there are still Christians in the world who do something. Most of them seem to be settled into resenting the obligation to go to church on Sundays (as if anyone could GO to church when they ARE the church!).

4. We make good business

This is kind of new. Yes, it is old, too, because we have had our successful Circle Thrift stores and we partner with Circle Counseling. Both these businesses began as compassion teams. But now we are moving into the next flowering of this idea, it appears.

We bought the new South Broad building thinking we would put Circle Thrift down there. But as it turns out the congregation doesn’t really need all that income to support the building and the space for the store is probably too small. We thought a NEW business there would be better: a childcare business (we’re talking that over tonight). The whole neighborhood is on a waiting list for childcare; we have the talent (if people want to use it), and we think we have a good space.

This development in our thinking about 2212 S. Broad made us think we should KEEP 1125 South Broad, which we had just decided to desert! We are thinking we should keep the store in place and create our long-held dream of a space rental/events business. These ideas presented themselves and we decided to go for it, in terms of planning, at least. Approval is not settled yet.

Alternativity: Holy Week

Lent is a great time to sit around and do “nothing” as we meditate on what Jesus has done and learn the basic spiritual disciplines that sustain our life in Christ. Please figure out how to fast! Learn what is on the other side of silence! Study and pray!

That being said, I don’t want to undercut what our actual spiritual strength might already be. We don’t sit around and do nothing while the world goes to hell in a handbasket (as my mother used to say, for some reason). We build the alternative. We are alternativity, itself! That is a good way to spend every day, especially as we look so carefully at Jesus, the alternative to sin and death, being it and living it during Lent!

 

 

Quacks in the White House and egg hunts: Why I am reduced to prayer

Some days it becomes obvious that I don’t get out much – at least out in “church world.” You’d think I would remember that I’ve been part of a boutique denomination connected to a minority movement within Christianity who helped me plant a radical expression of the church in a blue-state city. You’d think I’d remember, but I don’t. I regularly, maybe daily, forget where Jesus has led me. I somehow think most people, much more most Christians, are basically like me. They are and they aren’t, but mostly aren’t, at least when it comes to faith.

Millionaires and egg hunts

For instance, we were mutually amazed last night when we were talking in a small group of our Leadership Team and one of us mentioned how she had just had a conversation with some of the “girls back home” about the megachurch she used to attend. She noted that all the elders were millionaire men. She noted to us that if we had “elders” she would be one of them and she is a broke, brown woman. I honestly did not think we were that odd. I guess we are.

Then one of our pastors was considering whether to have an Easter egg hunt in order to meet some of the neighbors and stir up some fun. This would be unusual for us. We are much more likely to advertise the discussion on the antiracist book we’ve been passing around, than think of having an egg hunt. Come to find out, another church in town has had egg hunts that attract 1000’s of people. I never even heard about it and 1000’s of people were involved — an egg hunt! I remembered Gwen standing in front of our youth group with our meat tenderizer, setting a chocolate bunny up on the table and smashing pagan fertility symbols as a visual aid. I guess not everyone does that. I forget.

These could go together, not sure.

Success would be nice

Some days it also becomes obvious that I don’t want to get out much. One day last week I recalled for my journal that I felt very unsuccessful. My initiatives were resisted; my appointments were cancelled; I felt tired. So I asked the Lord what was going on. Most of my feelings seemed to focus on the challenges. I did not really want to face any. What I really wanted (and expected) was everything to work out, at least not have everything go wrong. I felt like I should be honored, my value appreciated, my work received with thanks, my love understood and received (without any need to prove it), my enthusiasm and hope matched, my personality twinned, my time unwasted; it went on. I realized how demanding I am. But don’t you want all that? I did not fully realize how much I wanted it all until I did not succeed at getting it and was reduced to prayer.

Now this week I find out that millionaire elders put their resources into egg hunts and it works. Churches are full of egg hunters. No wonder  I am not nearly as successful as I’d like. (I know, I am more successful than I deserve). But it would be really great to succeed. I suppose I will have to face some challenges: all those unnecessary, unwarranted, unwelcome challenges, again (and again).

Image result for trump cabinet march 2017
Cabinet meeting

Lack of success reduces me to prayer

Today I was drawn back to my old favorite, Luke 8:1-8.  Jesus reminded me again to pray and not lose heart, not faint. At the end of the day, Jesus is not looking for my success, he is looking for faith that trusts him for life no matter what the circumstances seem to be saying. Hopefully, I will not just be looking for success while He is looking for me! His justice will arrive like an unexpected storm, “and yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

In 1904 Alexander McClaren wrote about these verses as the era of the “robber barons” was coming to a close (so this may sound familiar):

“An epoch of materialism in philosophic thought has always been followed by violent reaction, in which quacks and fanatics have reaped rich harvests. If the dark is not peopled with one loved Face, our busy imagination will fill it with a crowd of horrible ones.

Just as a sailor, looking out into the night over a solitary, islandless sea, sees shapes; intolerant of the islandless expanse, makes land out of fogbanks; and, sick of silence, hears ‘airy tongues’ in the moanings of the wind and the slow roll of the waves, so [people] shudderingly look into the dark unknown, and if they see not their Father there, will either shut their eyes or strain them in gazing it into shape.”

I did not need to spend much time peering into my fog this morning before I saw the loved Face. But we are still sailing through an islandless sea in an era full of quacks and fanatics. Easter egg hunts work. “Black lives matter” seems like a radical statement rather than a moot point. I lament my relative lack of success.  Maybe we should have an egg hunt. Maybe we should keep saying black lives matter. Maybe I should get over myself.

And maybe we should remember Jesus lamenting his relative lack of success. He taught his followers to keep “bothering” God with their demands for a response to their just requests, like: save me from quacks, Trumps, heartless millionaires, mega-whatever and my own impatience and self-criticism! But Jesus had to wonder whether when he returned,  he would still find anyone faithful, still praying, still hanging in there to receive just what they longed for, or not.

For Lent: Be still. Become aware.

When things were not working out for you, did a well-meaning person ever counsel you to “Walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7)? That’s a popular snippet of the Bible which people use as an encouraging piece of self-talk: “Settle down. God is not done with you yet.” If you take their counsel, you might develop a new conviction: “I am moving ahead, hoping for the best. I am walking by faith, not by sight.” That is good.

Contemplation: faith, not sight.I think there is something even more immediate that scripture is teaching. I have learned it through the prayer of contemplation. “Walk by faith, not by sight” is also about becoming aware of the unseen things God is doing in the present moment. It is not just looking ahead, it should also be looking in. “I am walking by the Light of the World, not just by the light of day, by faith, not sight.”

Prayer amounts to faithing. Just call walking by faith “faithing.” Faith is an action not an idea; it is relating, not just thinking about principles. And prayer is the basic place we faith. Prayer is how we develop the sense of being guided by the Holy Spirit of God and learn to see and react with more than just our physical senses. God is with us, right now; prayer helps us be with God right now.

When I say “contemplative prayer” you might think of mindfulness techniques that people are teaching to jr. highers to help them settle down. That’s a beginning, but that’s not the prayer of contemplation. The prayer of contemplation includes the techniques for reducing anxiety, but it is more. Contemplative prayer, and any spiritual discipline, disposes us to allow something to take place. The main thing that happens is love. If you find something else in the silence, you might be in the wrong place. Contemplation makes us available for relating to God. We don’t always pray in order to get God to do something for us; contemplative prayer is not about making something happen, necessarily. We are making ourselves available for communion with God. We are becoming open to experience Love, heart to Heart.

It is like this: A gardener does not actually grow plants. She practices skills that facilitate growth that is beyond her control. Prayer is like that. A sailor does not produce the necessary wind to move the boat. He appropriates the gift of wind by exercising skills that can get him home. Prayer is like that.

The basic skill of contemplative prayer that facilitates growth and appropriates gifts is inner silence. There are two practices that are very important to exercising this skill: stillness and awareness.

Stillness

When we attempt to be silent, we need to consider how to face the inner noise with which we struggle. Sometimes we do noisy things when we pray, too, of course; we are embodied spirits, after all. But at the center of us is the silent place where God is simply giving himself to us and we are communing spirit to Spirit. We long to carry this silence with us in the midst of the noisy world and be content that we are in Christ and Christ is in us. We want to feel at home. One of the early teachers of the church said, that in this center, we are constantly being called home, away from the noise that is around us to the joys that are silent. He said, “Why do we rush about looking for God who is here at home with us, if all we want is to be with him?”

Martin Laird, a teacher from Villanova who wrote a book called Into the Silent Lands, tells a story about a prisoner who was accustomed to cutting himself or burning himself so that his inner pain would be in a different place: on the outside of him. This suffering man had come upon some people whose mission was to teach prisoners to pray and turn their prison cells into monastic cells. The prisoner learned from them, and after several weeks of meditating twice a day he said, “I just want you to know that after only four weeks of meditating half an hour in the morning and night, the pain is not so bad, and for the first time in my life, I can see a tiny spark of something within myself I can like.” That is the home we are talking about.

Stillness in Rittenhouse Square park

Awareness

Our sense of separation from God is often a matter of our broken perception. We can’t feel God. We have an idea of what we should feel and we don’t feel it. Contemplative prayer is the place we let go of our perceptions and become aware of God with us, as the scripture guides us:

  •  My soul, wait in silence for God only, for my hope is from Him (Psalm 62:5).
  • I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you (Jesus in John 14:20).
  • I have been crucified with Christ and yet I am alive; yet it is no longer I, but Christ living in me (Galatians 3:20).

From the perspective of our everyday life on planet earth, we are separate from God. But from the perspective of our inner awareness, we see Christ with us. When we pray, we are not merely becoming aware of our thoughts and feelings (although that is good!), we are learning to be aware of God and to be with God who is with us.

It is like this: A man was taking his dog to a field where the animal could run and he ran into another man walking four dogs. They got to the open field and let their dogs go so they could enjoy running around in a big free space. But one the dogs was off to the side running is relatively tight circles and did not join in with the other dogs. The man asked his new friend, “What’s with your dog?” The man answered. “Before I got this dog, he had spent years living in a cage. He was used to getting all his exercise, just as you see. He has the field, but he is trained for the cage.” I did not see this dog do this personally, so I can’t prove to you that dogs do this, but I do know myself and many of you. We have the wide open field of grace and freedom to romp in but we run in the contours of our former cage. The prayer of contemplation is retraining our hearts to roam the wide open spaces of eternity freely.

  • My heart is like a bird that has escaped from the snare of the fowler (Psalm 123:7).

Our minds tend to run in the obsessive tight circles of our mental cage. We believe we are separate from God, and we were. So now we need to become aware of something else. I heard something shocking from a friend not long ago. When he was a child his father sang a little ditty that he thought was funny: “Charlie Wilkins is no good. Let’s chop him up like so much wood.” I know this little boy as an old man and you can still see that putrid song playing in his head. Just like that, we may believe we are condemned by God. So now we need to learn freedom. Prayer is the training ground.

When we think about things, we have a cage of thoughts that guide us. Contemplative prayer helps us go beyond that cage and enter into the wide-open fields of silence where we don’t merely think about things, we commune with God. We concentrate attention in our heart to the place of knowing, the place of awareness that is not full of the cacophony of our mind and surroundings but is full of the Spirit of God. It seems like we are just sitting there doing nothing when we pray this way, and that is exactly right and exactly good. In that nothing of ourselves and our surroundings we enter the silent land of our true being with God.

This post tells you more about how to practice contemplative prayer. But we don’t need perfect techniques to pray as much as we need to access the skills that are built into our beings by our loving Father. Be silent and turn your heart to God whether you think you know what you are doing or not. Take a step of walking by faith, not by sight. You’ll have a good time with God.

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Resist and restore: The prayer of imagination

What if you want to use Lent to get out of your head and into your heart? What if you want to explore the depths of your life: mind, heart, soul, strength and have a meaningful life that resists the forces that try to consume it? Last Saturday during our retreat, one of the answers was: learn to pray — and learn to use your imagination. Life in Christ is bigger than such an “answer” of course. But developing a spiritual life is the key to meaning, key to surviving. Morton Kelsey offered a checklist for venturing inward. It is a good one, since it does not skip to “what I can do on my own,” but attends to our context and community, which are so crucial: 1) attend to the regular disciplines of your community (cell, Sunday meeting, team), 2) keep a spiritual journal, 3) talk about your inner life, 4) receive spiritual direction (could be formal or friendship), 5) learn to become quiet, 6) unleash your imagination.

peering into the inner life

Prayer takes many forms. In every form it is communing with God, relating Spirit to spirit. We intercede and move God. We worship and praise God. We confess and reconcile with God. We have conversations that are full of complaining and questioning. But until we learn to be quiet and find out what is on the other side of silence, our prayer is a bit superficial and missing the deep experiences of connection we crave. The core prayer we need to learn might be summed up with the word contemplation: the basic yearning of our hearts turned to seeking, our innate spiritual capacity stepping toward connection.

There are two intertwining roads in contemplative prayer; one is often emphasized more by one group than another. First, there is the via negativa, the apophatic way, (the word means “other than speaking,” denial). This way stresses how God is best known by negation, elimination, forgetting, unknowing, without images and symbols, and in darkness. God is other than humanity. God is “not this, not that.” All images, thoughts, symbols, etc. must be eliminated, because, as St. John of the Cross points out, “all the being of creatures compared with the infinite being of God is nothing. Nothing which could possibly be imagined or comprehended in this life can be a proximate means of union with God.” We enter this nothingness to meet God. Learning to be quiet needs to travel on this way, since we need to turn away from our self-controlled, world-controlled existence to meet God. In prayer, we need to deal with the distractions that inhibit our solitude.

The other road is the via affirmativa, the kataphatic way, (the word means “much speaking,” affirmation). This way underscores how we can find God in all people, in all experiences, in all things. It emphasizes a definite similarity between God and creatures. We are made in God’s image, male and female. The world is an expression of God’s character. As Paul taught the Athenians:  “In God we live and move and have our being.” God can be reached by creatures, images, and symbols, because the Lord is manifested in creation and salvation history. The incarnation of God in Christ forces us take our own experiences as relevant, symbolic and part of an ongoing story of salvation. We are God’s workmanship and Jesus not only symbolizes this blessing, He remains with us to bring about its fullness.

All humans are made to seek. We are lonely for God. So very few are spirituality-free. In most Hindu and Buddhist practices, people are taught that the universe is, ultimately, impersonal mind (as in “may the force be with you”). Jesus-followers see the universe as lover. God is so interested in the created world that s/he became incarnate, so interested in humans that Jesus died for us. God enables us to be companions and fellow workers by meeting us Spirit to spirit. The context of our meeting is love; the ultimate goal of meditation is love, even when it is apophatic.

Our communion with God in prayer is, in itself, resistance to the forces that attempt to usurp God’s proper place in the world and on our lives. If you are alone in solitude with God, that relationship has an impact, even if you don’t take much action as a result. But our contemplation regularly gives us our direction and stokes our courage to act. Contemplation allows us to fight evil that arises in us and outside us. We each do this in our own way, but in similar fashion. One’s experience of the world of the Spirit depends on their psychology, which can be understood and developed, and on their world view, which can change. So contemplation is unique to each one who practices, but is unified in the One who meets each of us where we are beginning today.

On Saturday, we offered two suggestions for praying in a more “kataphatic” way, making full use of symbols, dreams and the art of imagination.  One way to experience inner meaning is meditating on your inner experiences: coming to silence, going back into the images of your dreams and fantasies, first consciously, then allowing them to go as they will. We noted that most of our spiritual guidance comes from our conscious experience, which is the tip of the iceberg of us. We were trying to learn more about how to receive direction from our inner experience of what is normally unconscious. Many people avoid this territory because it seems vast and dark. But we are not to be absorbed into it, we are to encounter love in it. We have a basic direction for our contemplation – Jesus describes God as the loving father of a returning prodigal. It is clear who is the object of our prayer and who we are.

God's character

So our conscious minds can lead us and our unconscious, our dreams can lead us. When people describe the unconscious experience it is as varied as they are. But it starts with two simple things: 1) one must be convinced that thinking and feeling in images is important, 2) one must spend enough time to break away from the concerns of the waking realm. We explored this path in two ways last Saturday. I thought you might like some of the teaching to encourage your journey through Lent.

Ignatius and the Bible. 

Try Ignatius of Loyola‘s approach to praying the Bible through imagination and entering into a deeper connection with God as a result.

Matthew 19:13-15 – Jesus and the children

Allow twenty to thirty minutes for the exercise.

  1. As the passage is read for the first time, try to hear it as if it is fresh and new—as if you are hearing it for the first time. Read Mt. 19:13-15 slowly
  2. As the passage is read for the second time, enter in to the event Place yourself as a child in the scene as it is read. Read passage again in a slow, meditative manner
  3. Answer the following questions: How do you feel as you walked through the crowd? Are you warm? Do you feel a breeze? Can you feel the hand of your parent or adult as you walk toward Jesus? What do you hear? Birds? Animal sounds? The voice of Jesus? The disciples trying to send you away? What do you smell? Is it a dusty day? Can you smell the animals? The body odor of the crowd? What do you see? Can you see the legs of the people in front of you? Can you see Jesus? The other children?
  4. Go to Jesus and hear him tell the disciples that he wants to be with you
  5. Climb up in the lap of Jesus or sit beside him and let him embrace you
  6. Experience the deep love that is offered to you a. Let it wash over you and rest in the places that you are experiencing some type of emotional pain Let it be a balm to the rejection or abandonment that you have experienced Let it be to you the love that you desire, yet have never experienced to this extreme. Rest in that love for a while
  7. If you want to talk with Jesus, you may
  8. Otherwise, just sit and let Jesus embrace you.

Morton Kelsey and Dreams

Try Morton’s Kelsey’s explanation of imaging prayer.

In The Other Side of Silence (and elsewhere), Morton Kelsey pointed out that when we are still, images will appear naturally, as they do in our dreams. There is a vast, mostly unexplored territory in our unconscious, that impacts us deeply and where God is much needed and very available. We can follow the revelations in our literal dreams or our waking dreams, listen to them, and find meaning in what they reveal about our deep places where God is relating to us Spirit to spirit. On the way to being quiet, we will need to dismiss many distractions. But we can recognize deeper images that arise from a place where we are communing with God.

Prayer breaks the habit of always making the best deal.

A mother’s two-year-old wakes up at five when she was painting until midnight. How does she get out of bed and go love the little bundle of trouble instead of saying, “Why can’t he just wait until I’m rested?” Maybe, “I painted his room, why won’t he stay asleep?” Irrational, but almost automatic — I never get the deal I want, but I want it.

How do we learn to love when we’d rather make a deal?

I mean, how do we end up like Jesus — even like Jesus dying for us on the cross? Paul says Jesus was not only looking out for his own interests, but the interests of others — that was his attitude, his mindset, his way. How do I go His way instead of using my “superpowers” to get what I deserve?

What were the Lord’s “interests?” I know I will get up and care for the toddler, but what about my interests? Are they just not important until he is eighteen? In the Lord’s case, it was joy to complete his work and be his true self—that interested him. There was joy set before him as he returned to the dimension where he was free from sin and death—that’s something I can look forward to. But I am not Jesus. I don’t think we have the same interests as Jesus, specifically. But it is good to know that self-giving love does not ignore my interests. Jesus had interests, he was just “not only” looking out for them. He was not giving and always waiting for the other half of the deal to be realized — I give you give, I love you, you love me, I paint your bedroom, you are grateful and stay asleep, I do the right thing, and my life works out reciprocally.

Perhaps we are not THAT self-interested all the time. I think you realize the child is going to grow up. Don’t we all think a parent’s love is innately valuable, even if it is not valued this very moment? Even if I am not rewarded, I think it is rewarding to love my kids when they are displeasing. I can go with that.

But I really want to make a deal, not be good. I want to say, “Stay in bed until at least 7” and have that stick. I want to say, “Can’t you see I am painting your bedroom?” and have that be recognized. Can’t I ever love and be effectively loved in return?

I have experienced the kids, but I also have my own present troubles.

Lately I experienced the Brethren in Christ General Conference in Florida. I put my whole adult life into being a committed part of this denomination and worked to reflect its character and history in Circle of Hope. When I first joined up, many leaders called it a “brotherhood” and would not use the term “denomination” — even though their preferred term was sexist, it was still great. Now that it is being reformed into a new denomination without that character and free of its history, I have to decide how to love. The temptation is to dwell on: “Can’t I get what I wanted? Don’t we have an implicit deal? I put a lot into this and THIS is what I get?” You probably relate to that feeling.

The whole country is in turmoil right now because so-called black lives don’t matter as much as so-called white lives. I am sick of the bad deal enforced by the militarized police on a whole segment of society! A police officer killed Philando Castile during a traffic stop outside St. Paul not long ago. The deceased apparently had the “right to carry” that is so well-protected by the government. He apparently told the office that he had a gun. The officer apparently wanted ID. When he reached for his wallet for ID he was told to stop. He apparently did not stop fast enough and was shot. It is all on a Facebook livestream. Shouldn’t people expect the police to love them? They are all in uniform; can’t I expect them to uniformly serve and protect? Shouldn’t the police have a self-giving love that can do better than give orders, then enforce their bargain with a weapon? Wouldn’t a policeman rather die than kill someone? About 15% reportedly would. I’m in the street demanding a better deal — “I pay taxes, I vote, I follow the laws, now stop harassing and killing people!”

As I thought of all these things I realized I needed to pray.

For one thing, I need to pray so I can clear my mind and remember the attitude Jesus has when it comes to me. After all, I, in my own way, have often gotten up too early and screamed irrationally out of my need and I was also hard to comfort; but we got there. I was offered change and I wanted the “justice” of never needing to lose what I had “earned.” I pulled my gun and he did not kill me.

I need to pray every day so I can remember that I don’t really have the deal I want and my incessant grasping for it is not really getting me anywhere. I am legitimately needy. What I want is not wrong. I need comfort, reassurance, safety, etc. etc. It is no surprise I try to take matters into my own hands out of desperation: get angry, sulk, withdraw, shoot, disobey. People have often not wanted to make a deal with me because I don’t give what they want because I am too busy desperately getting what I want. If I don’t pray, things will just keep going as badly as they are going.

The one who breaks the deadly cycle is Jesus. He did it on the cross. He does it when I pray. When I pray I don’t just get a better idea about how to act, I receive the inspiration (the in-Spirit-ation) and power to love like He does; the Lord’s own Spirit becomes one with mine and we are back doing what Jesus does best, even when my mother or the memory of her is absent and I feel fundamentally in need of a better deal, even when my intimates don’t come through, even when my hard work does not pay off, even when the country is against me.

So for the joy set before me and the joy of being my true self in a living relationship with God, I also endure my crosses. The bonus is, I manage to attach a lot better too when I am loving those needy people around me. I actually am less desperate. When that baby in the picture above realizes he is in mother’s arms, he’ll probably snuggle in, rest, connect, and take that big breath one does after they have cried their lungs out. My prayer is often like that; I have learned to look forward to the trusting moment when I give up, connect with God and realize I already have the best deal I could ever get.

Solstice thoughts and prayers

My favorite days of the year! Living in the light!

Here are a few thoughts and prayers to enjoy as the sun sets:

Moments of great calm
Kneeling before an altar
Of wood in a stone church
In summer, waiting for the God
To speak; the air a staircase
For silence; the sun’s light
Ringing me, as though I acted
A great role. And the audiences
Still; all that close throng
Of spirits waiting, as I,
For the message.
Prompt me God;
But not yet. When I speak,
Though it be you who speak
Through me, something is lost.
The meaning is in the waiting.

R.S. Thomas

Think of it, all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody…what a thing it is to sit absolutely alone, in the forest, at night, cherished by this wonderful, intelligible, perfectly innocent speech, the most comforting speech in the world, the talk that rain makes by itself all over the ridges…Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it. It will talk as long as it wants, this rain. As long as it talks I am going to listen.

Thomas Merton

Daesh, Davos and the vulnerability of prayer

Satellite images provided by DigitalGlobe, taken on 31 March 2011 and 28 September 2014 showing the site of St Elijah's Monastery, or Deir Mar Elia, on the outskirts of Mosul, Iraq

I have been around the world visiting the thin places where faith has been practiced over the centuries.  So I was especially moved last week when I learned that  Daesh (also known as ISIL/ISIS) blew up the oldest monastery in Iraq last year — aerial photographs finally discovered the fact.

Continue reading Daesh, Davos and the vulnerability of prayer

Praying with Jesus in the weeds

The parable of the weeds among the wheat could be a parable about prayer. Jesus is wheat among all us weedy humans. At the end of his days, he is lifted up on the cross and prays his final prayers among the weediest of the tares who are crucifying him. Those people, sown by the enemy, are doing their best to choke out the wheat and take over God’s field for themselves. The Lord’s prayers from the cross are the basic prayers we have to pray to endure, to end up giving off the beautiful aroma of Christ and not the ugly scent of mere morality or ambivalence.

weeds and tares
wheat and tares look a lot alike until they get to the end of the season

Try them.

Continue reading Praying with Jesus in the weeds

2014 #5 — How to follow Jesus at work

For the next few weeks, Thursday is TOP TEN of 2014 day. This is the #5 most read post of 2014. Last September I tried to sort out what we think about work and what we should do about what we think — at “work.”

Sometimes going to our daily, money-making job can be tough for a Jesus-follower. Do we just shut off our hearts and souls and get the money, or do we dare to ask the questions that keep bubbling up? “Can I do what I am assigned to do and still honor Jesus?” Even harder, “Can I think as I am supposed to think as defined by my employer and still be a Christian?” We have to answer the question, “Can I dare to serve Jesus without reservation and still have a normal job?”

You’ve got to know who you are in Christ before you can know what to do. We are good trees that bear good fruit. So think about how Jesus-followers approach the idea of work.

Continue reading 2014 #5 — How to follow Jesus at work

2014 #7.5 — Prayer: Walk by faith, not by sight

At the beginning of the year I am reposting “top ten” posts. Here is #7.5 of the top ten most-read posts of 2014.

In April I tried to help people figure out contemplative prayer. It was proving to be a faith-saver for several people in dire circumstances. I wanted everyone to know about it.

“Walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7). We often think of this as waiting for God to do something in the future that we would not normally expect — “I am moving ahead, hoping for the best. I am walking by faith, not by sight.” That is good.

SONY DSCBut when we practice the prayer of contemplation, “Walk by faith, not by sight” is something more immediate. It is about becoming aware of the unknown things God is doing in the present moment. It is not looking ahead but looking in.

Prayer amounts to faithing. Having faith as a verb not an idea, as an experience of relationship not just a thought about principles. Prayer is where we develop the sense of being guided by the Holy Spirit of God and learn to see and react with more than just our physical senses. God is with us, right now; prayer helps us be with God right now.

Continue reading 2014 #7.5 — Prayer: Walk by faith, not by sight

2014 #7 — Three doorways of contemplative prayer

For the next few weeks, Thursday is TOP TEN of 2014 day. This is the #7 most read post of 2014. In April I tried to offer a little bit about the layers of contemplative prayer. 

We often talk about “contemplative prayer.” How is that done? Let me try to teach in five minutes what you can learn in five years.

To begin, we often start by becoming still and aware with what we call “breath prayer.” Seekers practice breath prayer as a basic skill for being quiet enough to pray. If you consciously keep filling your lungs with air and deliberately release it slowly, you will become calm. If you imagine that you are breathing in something worth receiving and breathing out something that needs releasing, that adds to the prayer. Breath prayer is a basis for what Martin Laird calls the three doorways of contemplative prayer in his book Into the Silent Lands.

You can focus your practice of contemplative prayer on an old idea for centering it: a prayer word or phrase. Many people use what is called the “Jesus prayer” as their phrase. One variation of this prayer is: Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me. I use this prayer almost every day in my practice. It doesn’t matter what word you choose. You could use, “I wait on you in silence,” or, “I no longer live but Christ lives in me.” The content of the prayer is nice, but the goal is to use the good phrase you choose as a touchstone for becoming still and aware in the silence. The goal is to let go of all other concerns and recollect yourself. When you become aware that your attention has been stolen, gently return your attention to the prayer word or phrase so you can stay in the moment with God.

Practice that for a moment using a phrase that is great for Holy Week: “I no longer live but Christ lives in me.”

lone tree

 

Continue reading 2014 #7 — Three doorways of contemplative prayer

Stand against the hand: share and pray

When capitalism organizes your money, it undermines community. Worse, when capitalism channels your desire it warps prayer. The main things our church may be lacking the most right now are money and prayer. There is a good, macro reason for that lack which we might not even notice: we are in the grip of the invisible hand.

Let me say right off the top, in case you don’t read too much further:

1) We cannot sustain community without sharing money. Practically, we have made commitments as a group that require money, of course. But more profoundly, if you opt out of contributing to the whole you diminish it, even mock it, name it unworthy. You put a hole in our mutuality. Give ten dollars or a tithe, but stay in the game with us. We could lose the game.

2) We cannot keep praying if we let the Jesus-free economy deform our desire. Practically, if the consumption-driven economy drives you, you have another god. If you have stopped praying because, in reality,  your “needs” are met by your place in the economy and your desires are driven by the market, you look like a foreigner in the Kingdom of God. Pray one minute or make praying your vocation, but connect with the Spirit. You could die. And the church could die with you.

What is capitalism again?

socialists trying to thwart the invisible handCapitalism was identified in the 1700’s by the likes of Adam Smith and others as an economic reality in which the “market” is not something that is extra to your life, it is in the center of your life. For centuries, markets were places where you could go trade for something you could not produce yourself. Now markets are the only means you can obtain anything. We always hear about the “free” market, which means the market, as an abstraction, aspires to be free from external constraints and obstacles. By this time, not only is the market central to everything, but everything is also subject to the rules of the market. The market is free, but we cannot be free from the market.

There are many schools of economics. The one that has been steering us since Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, followed up by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, advocates the complete marketization of life. It is all for overcoming obstacles and inefficiencies brought on by the so-called “welfare state” and increasing the integration of the globe into one market. This school is, in a sense, “anti-government” since governments interfere with the invisible hand. But its proponents are usually for small, lean governments that have strong militaries to face threats to the market.

Did you miss this debate? While you were growing up, the invisible hand of capitalism firmly took over your territory. It is global and it has armies. For instance, during the recent downturn, the 1% we talk about took advantage of their opening to gain world domination; now a huge percentage of global wealth is in their hands. The triumph of the invisible hand — a reality most of us don’t even recognize — might be why we don’t share like we could and why we might even be discouraged in our prayer. Yet the church needs sharing and praying more than ever if it is not going to be ground down even more by this powerful force.

We cannot sustain community without sharing money.

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).

In God’s economy, sharing is motivated by the desire to create community because that is elemental to God’s desire. The work of the cross joins us to Christ as his body. Former motivations from the world system that drove us are healed. We are freed from self-absorption, obsession with our own interests, and fear of scarcity — our desire is turned outward in humble vulnerability and generous service to and with others. Jesus demonstrated that love as God shared life with us, even to the point of death. That’s the basis of the new economy in Christ — unless it is not.

invisible hand dialogue between pawns and kingsA good half of us have a terrible time sharing because we are still consuming church like a product and are still too afraid of our own present or prospective poverty to share. Lack of sharing kills the church. It is not so much that the church needs a lot of money to survive. We can survive as the church at all sorts of levels. What is important is this: when we don’t share, we do not subvert the anti-sharing of capitalism and we worship the invisible hand by default. We become individual marketers in competition for scarce resources, we become individualized products selling ourselves daily. We become mere pawns in the 1%’s market pretending that our freedom to buy a new gadget or buy the monetized thoughts of the internet is actual choice.

We cannot keep praying if we let the Jesus-free economy deform our desire.

You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God (James 4:2).

All economies are based on desire. Capitalism has mastered the art of making everything about desire, what we want and don’t have. Long ago, James rightly prophesied that such misplaced desire would cause nothing but conflict. The recent, ongoing U.S. wars have proven James right in a large way. They are all about our desire for revenge, desire to be protected and our desire for oil and our “way of life,” aren’t they? Did anyone ask God about that? “Asking God” does not mean getting God to give us what we can’t get in the economy. It means being part of a new economy based on God’s generosity, being in full communion with the one true God and putting the invisible hand in its place.

danceMany of us have a secret. We stopped praying long ago because we believe the bible of capitalism when it says that education and hard work will get us what we desire. We don’t have time to pray because we are at work or at school. Our schedule barely leaves time for our families, much less some alternative economy. We are content to have a privatized faith, a leisure time faith that we visit a couple of times a month at the Sunday meeting. Our desire is deformed. It is so conformed to the way the world is post-Reagan that we believe it when people say it has always been this way, only now it is better.

I get a sinking feeling some days that we are going to lose the battle. As alternative as Circle of Hope is, as radical as some of us are, as amazing as our thinking and acting really are, the forces sometimes seem stronger. The post-9/11 generation is so scared. The institutions are so much bigger than they were before the attack and before years of warfare, homeland security and recession. Are we still a circle of hope? — or is that just a brand name, now? If we don’t share and we don’t pray, if we don’t do what the church really needs right now, what are we?

God rescues me when I am sinking in such thinking, just like he pulled Peter from the sea that time. Paul also said in Romans 5: Hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. And James also said in James 4: God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Whether we share and pray or not, God’s grace is greater. That grace has made us and will keep drawing us toward home.