Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Un-Vain Repetition

Growing up in the little Baptist Church that I did, Matthew 6:7 was etched into our brains at an early age:  "And in praying do not heap up empty phrases (“vain repetitions” in KJV) as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words."  Even a cursory google search can bring up hundreds of excellent thoughts and questions regarding these words of our Lord.

For example:  What did Jesus really mean by this?  As a Rabbi, didn't Jesus know all the Psalms and repeat them often?  Wasn't the most repetitive Psalm (136, the one with the refrain 'for His mercy endures forever') most likely the one that Jesus said together with the disciples at the last supper?  Didn't Jesus repeat the same prayer over and over again in the Garden of Gethsemane?  (Mark 14:39 - "using the same words" or "saying the same thing".)  Didn't Jesus commend repetitive persistence in two of his parables? (The woman and the unjust Judge, the neighbor trying to get loaves of bread for his out of town guests.)

Whatever Jesus meant in Matthew 6:7, it wasn't simply about repeating phrases or words, for he clearly taught that with the right spirit this is a good thing and he led by example, repeating often some of the most used prayers on planet earth: The Book of Psalms.

I grew up thinking ONLY fresh, new, freely flowing, original prayers were really spiritual.  Common prayers shared and prayed by all (like the Our Father) were not promoted in the Church of my youth.  Needless to say, people prayed the same little phrases (self composed) again and again when they lead us in prayer.  We had favorite hymns and spiritual songs that we repeated again and again.  That was ok, but not the "Our Father" or other such things.

Isn't it strange how difficult it has been to dislodge that teaching...  I mean, even ten years after I embraced using set prayers of all sorts, I still get nervous that I'm somehow going against Jesus' command in Matthew 6:7.  Powerful thing, what you're taught as a youngling.

But Jesus is striking at the heart of the matter here and that is the matter of the heart.  If my heart is truly calling out to God, using or not using repetition in my prayers is of no consequence.  In fact, repetition is an excellent tool for pondering a single thought.  In my experience, I cannot hold a thought in my mind if I don't repeat it several times a minute.  My mind wanders that quickly and there seems to be an ocean of other thoughts just clamoring for my attention when I try to focus on something Jesus did for example.  

So how does that look in a real life situation?  Let's say I'm trying to think of Jesus' being born in Bethlehem.  (Like I often do when I'm using the suggestions from the Meditations for All page.)  Here is a snippet of how it might go in my head:

Ok, I want to think about Jesus being born in a little village.  I want to think about it for at least a couple minutes, here I go...
Let us pause to think of Jesus, who was born in Bethlehem for our sake...
...I wonder how far the Tigers will get in the playoffs? What was that sound?  This house is so old, my daughters say they saw a little girl...  oh yeah,..
Let us pause to think of Jesus, who was born in Bethlehem for our sake...
I have to remember to buy eggs, my car's been making funny noises, I should make an appointment... will that dog ever stop barking?  ummm.. oh
Let us pause to think of Jesus, who was born in Bethlehem for our sake...
Ok, focus... yes, a tiny village, God was born there...
Let us pause to think of Jesus, who was born in Bethlehem for our sake...
Crazy when you think about it, it's like me being born as a paramecium in order to help all the other paramecia.. 
Let us pause to think of Jesus, who was born in Bethlehem for our sake...
Mind blowing really... I have to sneeze!  <achoo!>
Let us pause to think of Jesus, who was born in Bethlehem for our sake...
ok, where was I... yes, God becoming so tiny he could become human.  Wow.

This is kind of how it works for me anyway.  My mind is very active and that is ok, that's the way God made it.  But just because it lacks focus and sniffs and barks like a dog at everything doesn't mean that it cannot be trained.  So I repeat the phrase and refocus on the thought, again and again until I'm actually contemplating the idea in a more or less focused fashion.  I don't feel alone in this either.  It seems to be common enough experience even for non ADD people.

So repetition is one way to get our minds to contemplate important matters.  Can it become vain repetition?  Of course it can!  Anything I think or pray, if I withdraw my heart and loving attention from it can become useless.  But it isn't necessarily useless babbling if my heart is in it.  After all, I say "I love you" to my family members many times in a day and I really mean it, so it isn't useless or vain just because the same words are repeated, right?

So what can we do to ensure our repetitive prayers don't become useless babbling?

Well, those before us found that repetition can help us focus and they found other things as well.  Pictures help.  The one to the right is a good example of a picture that was made to help one focus on the Nativity of our Lord.  Many such pictures and icons exist as windows into the eternal.  They are meant to help us focus and ponder important events and people in our faith history.

Being very visual myself I was so ecstatic when I was allowed to have icons and pictures of Jesus and all the famous people from our faith tradition.  The church I grew up in did not allow such things.  What a relief to find out that it was not only ok, but encouraged to have pictures and icons around to help me remember to pray and reconnect with God throughout the day.  Of course the most holy icon of God is my neighbor, who is made in His image.  As my pastor has said, both/and not either/or is the best approach here.  I need all kinds of prayers and all kinds of prayer tools to train my mind and heart to truly trust in God moment by moment.

Hmmmm... so is there anything else that one can do to keep one's focus on an idea?

We have repeating a phrase, while looking at a picture and then...

Well, what about doing something with my hands to count my repetitions... I can count on my fingers,.. since I have ten I will repeat each prayer thought ten times.... yes that works for me.  That will be enough times to allow the thought to sink in a little bit.

Counting fingers works in a pinch, but I like the tactile feel of moving stones from one bowl to another as well.  It is more visceral and it actually helps me focus on the thought.  A cord with ten knots tied in it works good as well.  Beads on a string or a ring of beads is probably my favorite.  I can squeeze and kneed a bead and it is solid and real,... perhaps I like it because it makes the thought more solid and real in my mind.

Repetition, images, icons, beads, stones, fingers... all of these things have become popular tools of prayer in so many faith traditions down through the ages.  They can all be used for good or like any tool, they can become dull and useless if I don't take care.  I have favorite tools in my prayer kit, but one must find what works for them.

Coming to embrace all these tools has been a very uncomfortable journey for me as it simply wasn't how I grew up doing things.  Each step toward a more focused contemplation of whatever things are good, lovely, true, praiseworthy, etc.,  has been met with my own hang-ups, biases and misinformation.  

But it has been worth the trip. 

Selective bibliography:
Hermeneutics article
Fr. Jimmy Atkin (Very well done YouTube Video)
John Frye
Tim Staples

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The Rescue

Back on Good Friday this year, I had some friends come over to think of Jesus and say a prayer or two.  I put together this video to get our minds on the reality of it all.  It seemed to help and we said some meditative prayers to keep Jesus and his suffering in the center of our minds for a while.  It must have been effective for it kept coming back to my mind throughout the day.

So why have I waited until a Tuesday Evening in July to post this reflection?  Well... you know, life happens and I kept putting it off and then I kept thinking well maybe I should wait until Good Friday comes around again... but then, a conversation with a friend earlier today caused me to reconsider.

Simply put, it occurred to me that today and every Tuesday, millions of Christians take time to meditate on Jesus and his suffering.  It is part of the most popular Christian devotion on earth to set aside two days of the week, Tuesday and Friday, to meditate on the key sorrowful moments in our Lord's life, specifically the final hours leading up to and including his crucifixion.

Adding some historical perspective, for the past several centuries it has been common to pause two days out of the week (traditionally Wednesday, the night our Lord was betrayed and Friday, the day he was crucified) and think about our Lord and his suffering.  Other days are dedicated to more glorious and beautiful events in His life.

But still I hesitated.  I mean, most people don't want to think about Jesus suffering, it makes them sad.

Well, there must be some plot to get me to post this today because I then had another conversation with a friend about the way we avoid thinking about such a horrible, bloody and gory event.  She wondered why (rightly so since we seem fine with gore and violence in much of our entertainment) and it triggered a memory.

We are protected from seeing blood,
it is considered bad presentation...
Years ago my Pastor preached about how in America we are now protected from the sight of blood in everyday life.  It isn't just for sanitation reasons either, it is a presentation and selling point, even in the way we package our meat now with little pads to soak up the blood.  I still remember the bloody butcher shops of my youth and the way meat was packaged with the blood quite visible.

I suppose in societies that are still centered on agriculture they are more comfortable with seeing the blood and gore involved in everyday food preparation.  I certainly remember the times we processed our own chickens on our farm.  It was a bloody, smelly, feathery mess!  But that is just the way it was.

So my Pastor had a point.  We are protected from the site of blood in everyday real life.  The movies can depict it in a surreal fashion but with more and more people being urbanized, we just don't get exposed to blood every day in real life.  And since blood represents life (we cannot live without it) it is especially disturbing when we see the blood of somebody we love.

Yet I'm not sure this accounts for all of our aversion.  There seems to be more to it. (Pastor Bill probably thought so as well, but alas, I cannot remember the rest of his sermon.)

Perhaps we simply are not comfortable with a God who suffers with us at all.

But our God does suffer with us.  Even now.  Somehow His suffering echoes in eternity and forever He is united with all human suffering, participating in it.

That being the case, it only stands to reason that we too can unite our suffering with His.  Maybe this is what Paul was getting at in Colossians 1:24.

For me, when I allow that to sink in, it is the most comforting thought on earth.  What is there left to fear?  My God even walks through death with me.... and then conquers it for me because death cannot keep Him down!

Ahhh... see there, I get ahead of myself!  That meditation is typically done on Wednesdays and Sundays.  But then, there is nothing stopping any of us from meditating on all of the events of Christ's life every day, and some people indeed do just that!  The daily meditation suggestions are more like minimal guidelines than rules anyway.  See them all by clicking here!

Christ is risen from the dead,
trampling down death by death
and upon those in the tombs
bestowing life!

Arabic Transliteration:
Al-Masih qam min bain'il-amwat,
wa wati al mowt bil mowt,
wa wahab'l hayah lil ladhina fi'l qubur

المسيح قام من بين الأموات
ووطئ الموت بالموت
ووهب الحياة للذين في القبور


Christus is opgestaan uit de doden,
door Zijn dood vertreedt Hij de dood
en schenkt het Leven
aan hen in het graf!

Le Christ est ressuscité des morts;
par la mort, il a vaincu la mort;
à ceux qui sont dans les tombeaux
il a donné la vie!

Christus ist auferstanden von den Toten
hat den Tod durch den Tod zertreten
und denen in den Gräbern das Leben geschenkt!

Greek transliteration:
Hristos Anesti ek nekron,
thanato thanaton patisas,
ke tis en tis mnimassi zoin harisamenos

Χριστὸς ἀνέστη ἐκ νεκρῶν,
θανάτῳ θάνατον πατήσας,
καὶ τοῖς ἐν τοῖς μνήμασι,
ζωὴν χαρισάμενος!

המשיח קם מבין המתים
רמס מות במותו
וחיים למתים נתן

Cristo è risorto dai morti,
Con la morte ha vinto la morte,
E a quelli nelle tombe
Ha donato la vita!


Christus resurrexit a mortuis,
Morte mortem calcavit,
Et eis in sepulchris
Vitam donans.

Chrystus powstał z martwych
śmiercią podeptał śmierć
i będącym w grobach
życie dał!

Hristos a înviat din morţi,
Cu moartea pre moarte călcând,
Şi celor din morminte,
Viaţă dăruindu-le!

ru|Христос воскрес из мертвых,
смертью смерть поправ
и пребывающим во гробах
жизнь даровав!

Cristo ha resucitado de los muertos,
pisoteando la muerte por la muerte,
y a los que están en los sepulcros
dando la vida.

Mesih ölülerden dirildi,
ölüm ile ölümü tepeleyerek

ve mezarda olanlara hayat bağışladı.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Listening to The Tune

One of the readings at Church today was from the book of Samuel.  It was the story of how Samuel, a young man growing up in the temple kept hearing somebody call his name in the middle of the night.  He would get up and go to Eli the priest and say "You called me?" Eli kept sending the boy back to bed and then finally realized it was God speaking to him and so instructed him when he heard it next time to say "Speak Lord, your servant is listening".

Samuel hadn't learned to recognize the difference between the voice of God within and other voices.  He went on however to learn to listen very well and to tell others what he heard God saying.  He eventually anointed David as King over Israel.

But taking time to listen to God's voice within is not always easy.  It takes practice and the ability to set aside time, quiet our hearts and prepare them for being able to listen.

For example, there was a time in my life where my self-loathing was so pronounced that I was afraid to listen for God's voice because I thought he'd be mad at me.  It took years to grow past this and I remember a turning point was reading Henri Nouwen's "Life of the Beloved" in which I learned to hear and believe the voice of God who loves me infinitely over the voice of my self-loathing.

Recently, I've finally taken the advice of my spiritual advisors down through the years to start journaling... being quiet, listening to God and writing down what I sense Him saying is a highly effective focusing tool for me.  I can always check what I'm hearing against scripture and bounce it off my spiritual advisors to make sure I'm hearing it right... but it has been an extremely valuable experience over the last couple years.

As we were discussing today's reading in my study group, I couldn't help thinking back of the old Larry Norman song called "The Tune".  Probably my all time favorite musical metaphor, it was created by chance in a concert.  He improvised the entire thing live after he flubbed up a bit on the piano and jokingly said "Once there was a tune!" to kind of mock himself.  Luckily someone had taped the show and he was able to recreate it and eventually record it.

Today I went back and watched the little Youtube video I put together back in 2005.  I cannot believe how powerfully it still affects me when I watch it.  I harvested simple images and matched them to the lyrics which are in turn whimsical, funny, tragic and joyous.  I wept at the joyous parts today.  Again.

Maybe you will find joy in it too.

Below are all the lyrics.  Blessings!

Once there was a tune and everyone knew how it went
But as time went by, people began to forget
Until at last no one could remember.
And there was hatred, and wars, and death.

Then one day somebody said, "How does the tune go?"

"There is no tune, there never was; it's only a myth."
These were the philosophers.

"You mean there's no tune at all?"

"Well, it doesn't really matter what tune you play
As long as you play something."
These were the religious leaders.

And so the world played on.
And there was hatred, and wars, and death.

Then one day the people became weary of this song
And they all sat down on the side of a hill
And suddenly they heard a very strange voice
And somebody said, "That sounds like the tune."

"There is no tune, there never was, there never will be."

"Well, it doesn't really matter what tune you play
As long as you play something
And you don't hurt anybody - especially me."

But the people listened
And a man appeared before them
With a smile on his face
And a sad look, too,
And he was singing the tune.

And some of the people began to sing along.

And the people who loved Him
Decided to follow him,
But the people who hated him
Decided to kill him. And they did.

And when it was finished,
They went back to their houses of philosophy and religion
And they sat down to their tables to eat and drink.

Suddenly, they were interrupted by a familiar voice
And they ran to their windows and looked outside
To see who it was. It was him.

And they became confused and afraid
And they wondered how they could be rid of him
Once and for all.
And while they were watching him,
Something very strange happened.

"How did he do that?"
"I don't really know, but he's gone...
And when trouble goes, you don't ask where.
He'll never return again. I hope."

Yet again they were interrupted.
This time they ran out into the streets to lay hold of him
But they couldn't find him.
Just a lot of people smiling, and they all know the tune.

And when the people made a mistake
They stopped and they listened.
That's how they knew the tune,
Because they listened.

And if you listen, you'll heart it.
It's all around you.

Just listen to your radio,
Watch television,
Listen to your leaders, to the authorities,
To the governments, to the experts.

But if you really listen,
You can hear another tune,
But you have to listen quietly,
And you have to listen every day.