Fellowship with the Spirit (aka Prayer)

couple on bench watiching sunset

Throughout his letters we hear Paul praying. In Romans 8 he comes to his key thoughts about prayer. A few simple sentences that say so much. To me, that say it all.

Paul has prayers of thanksgiving in his letters. They all begin and end with thanksgiving and a blessing. He prays his converts will be able to meet the challenges to their new faith. He prays that the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with them. You might even say that his letters are at their heart and soul, letters about prayer. Prayer as our relationship with God. Prayer as accessing the God-life within us and without. Prayer as giving ourselves over to the Christ we have received. About living the Christ-life prayerfully. With attention to the Christ we have received.

In this modern world, prayer is a difficult subject to broach. Not because praying itself is difficult. But because, as we see in Paul’s letters, it is easy. And like everything else Paul writes, prayer is about having faith. Having faith that we are heard, that we don’t have to ‘do it right’ because there is no ‘right way’ to pray; and that the Spirit of the Christ life we share in faith, is also the Spirit that prays in us. The Spirit that invites us to pray. The Spirit that is always praying within us. Drawing us out and out and out.

Over the ages prayer has been preached, like the faith-life of Jesus Christ, with indomitable hurtles to achieve and cross so that one might feel ‘successful’ in prayer. Here in Paul we cut to the chase. We come to the heart of the matter.

Paul counsels his converts to pray always. For in this praying always they/we put on the mind of Christ. In prayer we tap into, if you will, the Christ whose Spirit continually prays in us.

The Spirit prays in us when we cannot choose words in order to pray properly.

Prayer, like Jesus Christ, saves us. Pray opens us to the ever-available Spirit. It is a great comfort to know that when I cannot pray, and there are times when life so overwhelms that I have no words, I know that I can sit in the silence of my soul and let the Spirit speak for me. Just like in the psalms which I reach for often, this spirit knows every human emotion, feeling, desire and even mean and horrid thought I think. It is a great assurance to know that it is this Spirit of Christ which has the power to resonate with my own. On Good Friday we will hear Jesus cry out from the cross, a lost and forsaken question to the Father he knew was his “Abba Father”.  By Jesus’ unselfconscious crying out to his Father, he became broken open to his Father’s saving grace and action in his life. We follow Jesus Christ in this as well. He shows us we too can say anything to God. We can even doubt God. If we feel abandoned by God, so did he.

When we pray “Abba Father” we are reassured that not only can and does the Spirit pray within us, but that God will not refuse anything he can give. In prayer God turns everything to our good because he cooperates with those who love him. Once again, it is love that is the essential thing. In our faith, in our comings and goings, in our activities, our stance toward one another and to God, and in praying. Have you told God that you love him today?  While I ask and while I knock, I try to make sure that I don’t treat God like a cash cow.

Paul’s words in Romans 8 speak for themselves. They don’t need a lot of words heaped upon them to take meaning. They are sentences that we can take to heart, to memory and carry with us like a prayer as we go through our day.

Our day, knowing that it is Christ who pleads for us at the right hand of the Father. The Father who hears us as he heard his son, who refuses us nothing and turns everything to good.

 

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The Waiting Remnant

IMG_0231      In some respects one might say we are still the waiting remnant of Israel. Waiting to take the fullness of our humanity as sacred and meant into the fullness of our faith-life. Waiting yet to bring to fullness the realization and embrace of our identity as Christians as it is rooted in the journey of Israel. Israel gave us Jesus. Jesus said he came to Israel. He came to gather together the twelve tribes. To restore Israel to its rightful place and in some respects get her back on track. The liberator will come from Zion.

Like Paul Jesus would address the tension between law and the spirit of the law. Law and love. For both love wins out. For both, Israel, Paul and Jesus faith was in a person, not in the law. You could say the law held us in the embrace of God until Jesus came to extend his arms in love to everyone on the cross. No one was every meant to be excluded. Exclusion’s purpose, setting oneself apart, as Israel needed to do at the outset, was to enable their novice faith to grow strong, to solidify as a people, in their forming faith. By 1st century Palestine, Jesus welcomed everyone to his table; his message to all who could hear and to those who would follow. Paul is the Jewish apostle to the Gentiles and the world. So that one can still say that faith came through Israel. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

In giving the promise the Lord God of Israel had a plan. Israel was the plan. God chose Israel first and loves them still Paul reminds us; they remain the people of the one god, first to work through an understanding of what monotheism meant and then to shape their identity from the fullness of that meaning and their relationship with the god who was shaping them and forming them as his own. As his own so he could proselytize the world to him.

They have not fallen out of the embrace of God’s design for them in the world. All that has occurred, even their tenure in Egypt under Pharaoh became part of God’s cause in the world for all humanity. You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good. In Egypt they were preserved from the famine, grew into a nation large in numbers and then made their trek across the wilderness of Sinai to the land of the promise. It is through Israel, in whom the seed would grow, that the other nations of the world would come to know I Am Who Am. The living God. The very presence of the Lord of Life in their midst. We know this God through his Son, Jesus Christ, who is now Lord of all. We know Jesus the Christ only to the extent we know the story of Israel.

We too need to honor Israel and rather than consider the story of her journey as an ‘old testament’, regard the Hebrew Scriptures as a paradigm for all those who would follow, even Jesus, especially Jesus. Israel gave us Jesus. Both Paul and Jesus were formed in the faith of Israel. Their message and mission came out of the wilderness and the lion heart of Judea.

Israel’s story is much like our own. I feel we have a long way to go in understanding and valuing the place of the Jewish people in the grand and greater schema of what we call salvation. I did not lose one of those you gave to me. Our saving is in the heart and soul of the footsteps of God’s sacred people, the people who are our spiritual ancestors and in whose footsteps Jesus and we follow to the fullness of life; realizing our humanity as both sacred and meant. We too are ever on a journey like the Hebrew people. As we follow Jesus we follow the story of Israel as it continues to teach us today about what it means to be human. What it means to be God’s.

The Writing Life, The Prayer Life

IMG_0231  As I read Paul talking about prayer I know I have often struggled with how to talk about the reality of the practice of prayer, more so, the experience of prayer. As a writer, and reading letters written by Paul, who reached his audience by writing, it occurred to me that prayer and writing are a lot alike.

The writer’s life is much like prayer life: one is always in the throes of doubt. Out of the depths I cry to you, God hear my prayer. One lunges ahead, in the dark, no voice answers, we can’t see the next word. Both require unstinting faith. In life itself, to be in-spired given over to the process, alive only in that moment to which all other life moves toward and away from. Both require a certain amount, no a fierce amount, of fearlessness and faith. Faith that if you show up, you will be able to write. Prayer, like life, becomes your life where it’s all about showing up. Mindful in the presence of mystery. If you show up you trust the impulse, the invitation and know all you really have to do is show up. Surrender to the process. Both invite the one to be open, observant, mindful, self-forgetting, courageous with/both/each having its own daemon and its own angel. Both change your life. Both are your life. Both stand on the threshold of the unknown. Perhaps the unknowable. But that is what invites, impels and that is what drives us. Perhaps this time I will discover the secret of life. Meaning will reveal itself. The world will open again and out will fall all those hidden wonders we intuit must certainly be there, just as surely as sunrise and sunset.

And neither one is wholly describable. Each is more experience. Neither has found exactly the right words to describe its magnificence. For one there may come that time call ‘writer’s block’. For the other it is called the dark night of the soul. But if you have been doing it a while, keep at it regardless, because you must, you know neither of these terms convey the core of it: that each of these states is gift. It is the time when things are bubbling below the surface. But our tinkering egos don’t and shouldn’t know it. If you have been at both a while you know that this too shall pass. And you can attend classes on prayer but it is like any other relationship. It is unique to the parties and no one can teach you how to pray. And truth be told, no one can really teach you how to write. You learn how to write from writing. Fill up the page. Storm heaven. Put it all out there. Eventually it will all get sorted through.

We persist. The longer we persist the more assuredly we know that the false labels of success and failure, good or bad, recede like mischievous children around the corner when caught stealing our confidence. These are no longer criteria for a prayer life or a writer’s life. We learn as we go. For they live beyond categorization and critic. The reward is in the process, the always present moment whose exhilaration, wonder and stubborn insistence on itself, keeps us going back to the place we write, the place we pray. We can do no other.

Words lie somewhere waiting to take flesh and we surrender language in order to hear the language of being.

We reach for gods, for ourselves, endlessly becoming, always ever self-creating, dissipative structures winnowed, sorted and sifted, burnt in the fire of each new day leaven for each new day’s manna. We merely receive at the appointed hour we do not know.

In both we are ever close to the abyss and to bliss. Flow and folly. In both we keep the life alive, we believe. I write, therefor I am. I pray therefore I am – forever. We fend off death as we breathe into beingness the experience beyond thrall. And in both we are taken up, we know not how, but that we are.

The dark night of the soul is the writer’s block. We feel nothing. No words come. Nothing is happening. But it is just then that everything is happening. But if we persist, look elsewhere, busy ourselves somewhere else, we will get lift off. Beyond the seeming emptiness something is at work beyond our tinkering egos. Inspiration has sidled away with the earthworms making holes in the earth. But if Spring and Easter are our teachers, we know that the buds will sprout, what was dead will come back to us, the leaves will lengthen, the flowering of each season giving way to the next. The season of fire, the season of color and diminishment. The season of waiting where the barren trees write their calligraphy against the sky and the new fallen snow is a palette for spring and our dreams.

We wish to be forgetful so the truest thing can be born. We approach each with reverence. Each asks us to attend, show up, not measure. Each brings those grace given moments when we are caught up, captured, in-spired, and we go to the pen or pew and write/right ourselves when called, this is a holy pact we make with each knee bend, with each mark upon the page. We are writing in order to catch up to eternity. We pray so as to enter eternity and perhaps find something familiar there.

Each asks us to be open. Let life be unpredictable. Flexible. Fluid. The encounter with our depths, our soul’s depth where god is waiting for our return.

The Power of Love

  IMG_0840    Chapter 8 of Romans is one of the most powerful and instructive writings in St. Paul’s letters. In these (almost) forty verses Paul no longer circles around the Christ-life available to us through Christ’s death and resurrection, but comes to the heart of the matter as he focuses on our life in the Spirit. The spiritual endeavor. Our spirituality.

That the spirituality Paul writes about is life-giving means to me that this is a creative spirituality. The task of a creative spirituality is to discover who we are, whose we are. The spirit is life itself. But often who we are is wounded. In Christ we have a new identity, an identity via the understanding of the meaning of suffering, where not even death can deter the divine possibility in our lives.

We know that life is fragile. We are reminded daily of just how fragile and fleeting our lives can be. Like creation itself life carries within it its own vulnerabilities. It has a power to wash us ashore, leaving us wearied and wondering before it. We can never fully imagine, grasp or set in stone the changing splendor of life, each day’s newness, just as we can never shore our hearts up against the suffering that also comes there. The search for meaning is always a search to make sense of that which is often senseless. Holy Week becomes then an opportunity to enter into our vulnerability. To lay our hurts and sufferings at the foot of the cross, so that the God without stretched arms might turn/transform everything to the good.

We are practiced to celebrate life and conditioned to shun its suffering. And yet, we see the unrelenting, indomitable spirit of humanity grappling with suffering and evil like Job in each new age. In Christ’s death and in his raising back to life, we triumph through the trials by the power of him who loves us. Love is a power stronger than death. Paul knows this. Paul has experienced this. I want to keep reminding myself of this.

For Christ’s love for me is more powerful than anything. Those words ring across continents, cultures and eons. In Paul’s letters we come to understand the sacred design present in the Spirit of Christ as the ever-available source of new life within us, the god-place, our sacred centers within as our truest, deepest, constant and most faith-filled self, ever emerging and becoming even in the midst of the void and chaos of this life, even in death. For in Christ’s resurrection we know that death is not the end. It is only the beginning of our life in the Spirit that is human, enfleshed, our souls, spirits, psyches embodied in the temples that we are.

In the Christ-life we become one with God (justified) who is continually in the process of bringing all things, the created world and the creature world, into his life, his embrace, his kingdom. It is the gathering grace, the generative love of God for his world, for us as his children, who have become sisters and brothers of Christ.

Paul includes all of creation that is in the process of groaning in one great act of giving birth, to fulfill the sacred design that God set in place in the beginning. We are reminded that the essential human gift was not lost when we left the garden. In the Spirit of Christ it continues in complete, unhampered choice, in the freedom to choose oneself, to become oneself and to choose God. A presence, yes. A meddler, no. The final gift of creation, the freedom to name oneself, to be oneself, no matter what external contingencies prevail against us. This is the meaning and the message, the promise going out from the first pages of Genesis, culminating in the writings of St. Paul who too would remind us of one unrivaled truth: We make our way in the freedom of the Spirit through suffering and loss to ourselves and to God. And as we do the world opens to us, like a tomb giving forth the lifeless, finding us as we find ourselves recreated in image and likeness, now the likeness of Christ, as we are endowed anew with the awareness that we remain children of God.

Father Abraham and the Triumph of Faith

Romans 4, 5 & 6

 winter_scene Paul once again is fit with a diatribe about the Law and sin. In another of his tangled arguments (7:14-25) he is demonstrating his own struggle between the good he knows to do, with the unintended ‘sin’ his body seems to be intent on as well. Well, I guess we’ve been down this road before. For too long. The battle between body and soul, the spiritual self and the unspiritual self. The eternal battle of light and dark. Good and evil.

Before this entanglement though Paul reaches back to the origins of faith, to Abraham and the promise made to him by God. He has just pointed out the value of the Law itself: it kept us faithful, and had the ability to render us sacred. But, before the Law was given, even before Abraham was circumcised, he had faith. Paul’s appeal here seems to be to both to the Jewish converts and the non-Jewish converts in Rome. There was most likely a considerable population of Jews that had fled Palestine and were now living in Rome.

So this appeal to Abraham is something they and we can understand. Paul makes it clear: faith came first. Abraham’s faith initiates the fulfillment of the promise to everyone, no matter if you subscribed to the Law, which is good and has good intentions, or not. Another sign of the Mosaic Law was, and still is, circumcision, but again, Paul points out that even this custom, which is a sign of belonging to the law, participation in the covenant, did not precede Abraham’s faith. Abraham is the father of all who have faith. Faith which is first. Faith which is given. Faith which is gift. Faith which is grace. Paul has gathered everyone into the net. No one is lost. We are all counted, if we have faith. Faith now in the God who raised Jesus from the dead. Faith in Christ.

The link to Abraham and the origins of our faith is unbroken.

Through Jesus we enter a state of grace. The grace that is greater than sin. Grace that reigns now and is God’s life within us.

As we make our approach to Holy Week, we circle back to our spiritual heritage. Our ancestors go before us. Their faith brought us to the day of our faith. During the next week we are mindful of Passover, Passion and Death. Just as we journey with him, we will also celebrate Passover with him, we will pray in the garden with him, and we will be challenged and mocked with him. Paul reminds us what we might already know: that suffering brings perseverance which brings hope, the hope that cannot deceive, as God has poured his Holy Spirit into our hearts.

As we enter the heart of Holy Week, we enter the heart of the God who has poured into our hearts the life of a most sacred heart. We enter the tomb with Jesus and we rise with him into the garden of new Life. Jesus’s resurrection is ours as well. It is the ever recurring cycle of life and death, dying and rising. In Christ we are free, even in our most unspiritual selves, and are freely given the grace of the Spirit of Christ which we have only to summons like Lazarus from the tomb, to partake of a sacred legacy that reaches back thousands of years ago and yet is ever present with us and available to us today.

Reading Romans

Romans 1-3

IMG_0849    There is so much misunderstanding about St. Paul and his apostleship among the general public and among the ‘leaders’ of our churches and ‘teachers’ in the religious academies. It was so from the get go. I hear this in the reaction today from those who know I am reading St. Paul for Lent. I’m sure there are those who even see this endeavor as consistent with inflicting penitence upon oneself during the season of Lent! Nothing could be further from the truth.

Today I began reading Romans. Once more, perhaps even more so than in his previous letters, we are stepping through the garden of Paul’s thought. Careful both to see the weeds that entangle us and equally attentive to the growing and gathering blooms that Paul is championing.

Paul begins by first bringing our attention to the world God created. It proves perfectly reasonable that we should see God in his creation. But unfortunately, Paul admonishes, some took the creatures of creation and made idols of them rather than seeing the one living God in them. I love it that now Paul says that the wicked have no ‘brains’ nor ‘compassion’, which I take to mean that the wicked are not ‘with’ the world as sacred but in the world to use it for their own misguided devices. God’s created world can lead us to God, if we view it properly or it will lead us away if we do not honor the handprint of the Creator upon it. Image and likeness I think applies to the natural world as much as to humans, if we can see beyond the veil, our own distorted thinking about the graceful givenness of the world we inhabit.

Since Paul is talking about first things, he then proceeds to take up the subject, again, of our being saved, in the context of the Jewish people and the Law. Here he means the Mosaic Law. In Romans it reads and feels that Paul is better able (clearer) to address this issue. He uses the word justification. What does that mean in this context? I believe it simply means that in being justified we are freed from our failings (aka sins) and made a new person, the new creation Paul keeps referring to. We once more realize the sacred reality that we are, now one with God in Jesus Christ. We enter a new way of being in Christ.

How refreshing it would be if from the outset the churches as they grew had focused on the goodness of God’s creation as a way to recognize the Creator and that that goodness extends to us. What Mathew Fox calls ‘original blessing’. It is by God’s grace freely given in Christ Jesus that we are made new, without having to do anything first. God created us, chose us, calls us; then sets in place, provides a Way (the Law) to sustain his sacred promise he extends to all his creation, first through the Hebrew people, through whom that promise is to be realized.

The Law then is valued as the guideline in leading us to be a holy, sacred people. It is like the light that shines upon and illumines our path; we are aware of the shadows, the darkness (sin) by contrast. And that the Law came first to us through our Jewish brothers and sisters. And anyone who keeps the Law in his or her heart (as Yahweh in Deuteronomy says) are faithful Jews as well. And now through one Jewish man, the promise continues so that God’s saving, regaining us for himself, can be realized for all. It is a faithful Hebrew man who becomes for all the Way. The Way to the Truth that saves us so that we might have Life. The invitation now extended to everyone, ‘follow me’.