Prayer Always Works

Jesus spent many long hours in prayer–whole nights, 40 days in the wilderness preparing for his life mission. He probably spent hours every day in prayer. He was a busy man. Why was he spending all this time in prayer? And what was he doing with all this prayer time? Certainly, Jesus was not doing the sort of long-winded praying for which he criticized the religious leadership of his time. In his teachings, he clearly recommends solitude and sincerity.

In the opening verses of the 11th chapter of Luke’s Gospel, we find the disciples noticing that Jesus spends much time in prayer. One day, after he finishes praying, they ask him to teach them to pray. Jesus, according to Luke, gives his disciples a brief set of terse sentences we call “the Lord’s Prayer.” Then Luke continues the subject of prayer with Jesus teling his disciples a story about a man who goes to his friend in the middle of the night to get three loaves of bread for his suprise guests. The friend is already in bed and won’t get up. Jesus says that if this man persists, his friend will get up and give him everything he needs.

Jesus applies this story to the subject of prayer, “And so I tell you, ask and it will be given you, search and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you. The one who asks will always receive; the one who is searching will always find, and the door is opened to the person who knocks.” (Luke 11:9,10) These verses seem to contradict about half of what we experience in our real lives. We have all asked for things we never received. We have all done some passionate seeking without finding. And we have all done some knocking on doors that never opened.

Some interpreters of these verses have suggested that our problem is poor praying. If we were to pray correctly, we would receive what we are praying for. But such interpreters have never satisfied me; nor have they convinced me that this is what Jesus really meant. In the 14th chapter of Mark, we see Jesus himself praying all night not to have to drink the cup of crucifixion. As part of his prayer, he notes that all things are possible to God. Yet he apparently knew that God might not give him his request, for he concludes his prayer, “Yet it is not what I want, but what you want.” (Mark 14:36)

So what does it mean to say that the person who asks always receives? An answer to this question can be found in the verses that follow the verses about always receiving:

“Some of you are parents, and if your child asks you for some fish, would you give that child a snake instead, or if the child asks for you for an egg, would you give that child the present of a scorpion? So if you, for all your evil, know how to give good things to your children, how much more likely is it that your Heavenly (Parent) will give The Holy Spirit to those who ask (Him/Her)!” (Luke 11:11-13)

God gives the Holy Spirit! What a curious thing to say. The verse seem to imply that if we ask God for some fish or an egg, God will give us The Holy Spirit! And this gift is a “good thing.” The Holy Spirit is a better gift than fish or egg or whatever specific things we asked for.

Is this the way that prayer works? No matter what we ask for, God gives something better. God sends the Holy Spirit! Let me stretch this metaphor out a bit: The divine prayer-answering order-house works very simply: it only has one product, all packaged and ready to go. No matter what you order, you get this same package, the Holy Spirit. This makes things easy for the prayer-answering order house. You pray for a new car. God sends the Holy Spirit. You pray for better health. God sends the Holy Spirit. You pray for a lover. God sends the Holy Spirit. You pray for a workable, planetary social order. God sends the Holy Spirit.

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Spirit Penetration

In the stories of Matthew, Mark, and Luke we see Jesus engaging persons whose personality habit is to think that he or she knows what is good and what is evil.  Some come to Jesus complaining about what he does on the Sabbath day.  Jesus penetrates their personality with sayings like, “The Sabbath was made for human beings, not human beings for the Sabbath.”  Or they express their shock and revulsion that Jesus is eating meals with tax collectors, riffraff, and other Jewish lawbreakers.  Jesus says to them, “It is the sick, not the well, who have need of a doctor.” 

One of the best stories about penetrating a moralistic personality is the story in which Jesus is having a meal and a discussion with a Pharisee who invited him for a visit and apparently has a modicum of interest in Jesus and his wisdom.  While they are there at the table, a woman comes in and begins washing Jesus’ feet with her tears and drying them with her hair.  The Pharisee recognizes her as a woman of the streets who has probably made her living providing bodily comforts to the male population.  He is repulsed that Jesus is permitting such a woman to touch him.  Jesus recognizes the Pharisee’s feelings and asks to speak to him.  The Pharisee consents, and Jesus tells a story about two men who owe another man a debt.  One of them owes a big debt and the other a small debt.  The lender forgives them both.  Jesus asks the Pharisee, “Which one do you suppose will love the lender the most?”  The Pharisee gives the obvious answer that it is the one who owes the most.  Then Jesus points out that this woman whose sins are very great is showing great love.  He also points out that nothing comparable is being shown him by the Pharisee.  Then Jesus makes this penetrating remark, “Her great love proves that her many sins have been forgiven; where little has been forgiven, little love is shown.” (Luke 7:47)  The Pharisee is left to ponder whether his harshness toward the woman and his lack of love for Jesus indicates layers in his own life that need forgiveness.

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Mono-devotionality

The word “monotheism” has experienced some disrepute among recent theologians and secular philosophers.  Nevertheless, H. Richard Niebuhr gave this old term “monotheism” some new life in his breakthrough book Radical Monotheism and Western Culture.

Too often overlooked is Niebuhr’s insight that the word “God” in biblical writings does not point to “a being,” but to “a devotion”—that the word “theism” or “God” is a devotional word, like the word “sweetheart.”  Niebuhr holds that the Hebraic Scriptures and the New Testament, as well as Augustine, Luther, and thousands of others use the word “God” to mean a devotion to a source of meaning for our lives.   Luther was very explicit about this: “Whatever your heart clings to . . . and relies upon, that is properly termed your God.”

So, if we view the syllable “theo” in the word “theology” to mean a devotion rather than a being, then “theology” might be termed “devotionology.”  “Monotheism” becomes “mono-devotionality.  “Polytheism” becomes “poly-devotionality.  And “henotheism” becomes “heno-devotionality.”

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The Cost of Realism

Psalm 23 has been a favorite Scripture of many people, but it has often been cheapened through a sentimentalized understanding of the word “God” or “Lord.”   The richness of this Psalm only appears when we view this “shepherd” as the Reality that creates, sustains, and terminates all realities, as the Reality that we confront in all the ups and downs of our daily lives.  So here is my very slight rewording of this Psalm in order to emphasize its original meaning:

Reality is my shepherd, so I lack nothing.
This shepherd provides green pastures,
and leads me to peaceful drinking water.
This Ground-of-all-being persistently renews life within me,
and guides me step-by-step on the path of righteous realism.
Even when I walk through a valley dark as death,
I fear nothing, for the Great Shepherd is leading me.

Dear God, my shepherd, when Your staff pushes me
or Your crook holds me back,
I see these actions as my comfort.
Indeed, Oh Final Mystery, You spread a picnic for me,
even in the presence of my enemies.
My head is anointed in Your oil of honor.
My cup of aliveness runs over.

So I say to all of you here listening:
Goodness and love unfailing will attend me,
all the days of my life,
and I shall abide happily within this Enduring Wholeness
my whole life long.

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A Larger Language

“I had begun to form a philosophy of existence that demanded a larger language than the scientific one I had concentrated on for the last few years.”

This is a quote from a book, Crossing the Unknown Sea by David Whyte, (page 75) and it states exactly what was happening to me at age 20 as a senior in college in 1952.

In order to share with you the depth of this shift, I need to brag a bit about my accomplishments in mathematics and physics at that tender age. I had taken every course in mathematics that was offered in my high school and made an A in all of them.

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In But Not Of

Birth and death are two wings on the same bird, and that bird’s name is time or temporality.  The Christian life is an attitude toward both temporality and Eternity.  Strange as it may seem to people of our era, we are each an inescapable relationship with both the Eternal and the temporal.  The experience of this paradox can be spelled out in terms of these four words:

In But Not Of

The quality of the Christian life has to do with being “in the world, but not of the world.”

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Do I Want to Be a Christian?

When I first began my work in Christian religious renewal, the people with whom I was working were mostly nominal Christians who were interested in knowing answers to questions like: What do we mean by the word “God” What does it mean to say, “God loves us? What does it mean to call Jesus, the “Christ”? What are we pointing to with by being filled with Holy Spirit? How do we distinguish the true church from its many temporal manifestations and from its massive perversions? And what role does social justice play in a renewed Christian life? That was what I faced and learned to deal with in the nineteen sixties.

Today, in this second decade of the 21st century, many people have no interest, positively or negatively, in these old Christian symbols. If there is some relevant meaning in these old symbols, they don’t care. They even fear that finding some relevant meaning in this confused heritage will justify carrying on with the oppressive forms of Christianity that they have known and now wish to thoroughly avoid. Some of these folk have given up on religion of any sort. Why have a religious practice at all? What good is it? Who needs It? Some of these folk have given up on Christianity, but have moved on to a Buddhist practice or an Islamic practice or a Pagan practice or some other religious practice that they much prefer. Or perhaps some fresh, new therapeutic community or scientific discipline seems to help them well enough to not need a religion.

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Cross and Resurrection

This post is part of a commentary on the last three chapters of the Gospel of Mark

It is fair to say that the symbols of cross and resurrection are as central to an understanding of the Christian revelation as meditation and enlightenment are to Buddhism. Yet both cross and resurrection seem cryptic to many, even weird.

The last three chapters of Mark’s 16-chapter narrative are about the meaning of cross and resurrection as understood by that mid-first-century author and the surprisingly vigorous religious movement of which Mark was a part. I know of no better way to introduce to a contemporary explorer of Christianity the power of these two symbols than with a commentary on the last three chapters of Mark’s Gospel.

Members of a our current scientific culture may be excused somewhat for having a weak understanding of resurrection. Most of us know, if we are honest, that belief in a literal return to life of a three-day-old corpse is superstition. Yet this meaning of resurrection has been paraded as Christian by many. Mark did not see resurrection in this light. Or perhaps we might better say, “Mark did not see resurrection in this darkness,” for a literal return from the dead means nothing deeply religious to Mark or to you or me. If such an event were to happen today, it would be open to hundreds of speculative explanations, none of which would be profoundly or convincingly religious.

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Belief and Faith

Belief, Faith, and the History of Christianity
a dialogue with Harvey Cox

In 2009 Harvey Cox published an accessible, well written book entitled The Future of Faith. I agree with his basic insight that the history of Christian religion can be meaningfully viewed in three overarching periods: (1) the early period before Constantine, (2) the period following Constantine until recently, and (3) a current period that is more like the first period than the second.

Cox characterized that first period as an age of faith, the second period as an age of belief, and our present and future period as another age of faith. Cox is clear that faith is an act of our deep existence and that belief is a matter of images, stories, and doctrines of the mind. I agree that it is important to understand this distinction between faith and belief, and also the relationship between them. Cox’s elaborations using this basic model are convincing and useful; nevertheless, I want to suggest that a still deeper perspective is needed. For example, Cox is clear that faith was not entirely dead in period two, and that the confusion of faith with belief existed in period one. Nevertheless, I will show how easy it is for Cox’s readers to idealize period one and demonize period two. Though Cox does not, some Protestants have virtually claimed that faith died shortly after the Bible was written and was not recovered until the time of Luther. This view of Christian history is deeply wrong.

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So What is Morality?

The essence of morality is not a gut response, but a social construction. Morality is like the custom of stopping at stop signs. At some point our society simply decided that stopping at red lights is the thing we are supposed to do. All morality is like that. If our morality is about marriage being only between a man and a woman, that is just a custom some social group constructed. It has no more authority than that. If morality means not killing people, except in circumstances of self defense, appropriate police action, or declared warfare, that is also something that a society has decided.

We can have gut responses to our moralities. We like them. We don’t like them. We are nauseated by people to violate them. We enjoy seeing people violate them. These gut-responses are not our moralities, but attitudes we ourselves take toward the familiar moralities that our society, community, parents, or peers have taught us. Our superego, as Freud called it, is nothing else than our internalized social moralities, plus the various attitudes we take toward those moralities.

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