Student connect ~ 4.3.22 ~
“& when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues & on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door & pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, what is done in secret, will reward you.”
Matthew 6:5 ~ 6
As FPCH students and I continue to travel through the gospels focusing specifically on the teachings of Jesus found in his Sermon on the Mount, we have come to the place where Jesus begins to talk about the enchantment of prayer. Prayer within the scripture is not an isolated even that just happens to a Christian (even though the intent and motivation behind the loves that compel us to pray should remain between God and ourselves), but is an Unexpected, Yet Deliberate Encounter with God that therefore becomes the abundant ~ overflow that then cultivates life ~ styles of habitual compassion, meekness, mercy, and love. This is therefore the exuberant consequence of a life of gratitude and humility that naturally works itself out in a life devoted to the spontaneous joy of a life accentuated by prayer.
Prayer, moreover, is an action of trust in the promises of God that is also a natural reaction of our shared humanness and humanity on behalf of others, that therefore affects our neighbors perception of God and will also have a drastic transformation on their relation to God as well. A posture of humility and gratitude in prayer reminds us that we share far more in common with our neighbors that must define our proximity and our emotional investment into others, than accepting our cultures approach, that accentuates any assumed differences as badges of authenticity and belonging that are, therefore, believed to carry far more weight than participating in the hard and strenuous (but vital) work of cultivating common ~ ground.
We, as the local ~ church, must fight against interpreting our emotions in a way that persuades us to negotiate our beliefs (and the beliefs of our neighbors) and check them at the door before we can begin to engage in face to face dialogue. This does not by any stretch mean that our differences do not matter, but teach us that as we allow ourselves to enter into relationships with others who fundamentally disagree with us first, when our differences inevitably rise to the surface, we will confront them by adopting a posture of understanding and compassion, instead of adopting a posture of tense distance and emotional hostility.
Understood this way, prayer creates the possibility of a genuine culture of intimate proximity to those within our context, that is contrary to a process of emotional and relational isolation from our neighbors, that through patient and compassionate living creates a culture that reflects the abundant and relentless loves and ambitions of God, here now. This detailed understanding of prayer brings about clarity to Gods intent and purposes for us not only as the local ~ church, but as believers within our secular ~ pluralistic culture as well.
Many young people within todays culture make the assumption that God is seeking to suppress our individuality and stifle our expression, making us card ~ board cut outs that mimic a religious devotion that places us in a detached distance from our neighbors that then pours cold water on the ambitions within; this couldn’t be further from the truth. Prayer, understood with clarity, brings about the greatest form of personal liberation to our own authentic emotional and relational expression by lifting off the cultural expectations that place boundaries that naturally limit our personal liberty, as we continuously pursue a way to belong that only instrumentalizes our relationships; never allowing us to truly be us.
~ A consistent theme within FPCH youth group is the contrast between two drastically different ways to love and therefore understand the application of our love: passive & active love ~
Passive love assumes rather than cultivates; passive love accentuates religious and ideological tension and the difference it fosters by highlighting an acceptance that solely comes through similarity; passive love allows differences in belief and conviction to set the boundaries on relationships so that we never have to be confronted and taken out of our comfort zones to love people more than ideas; passive love rarely creates the possibility of common ~ ground precisely because it is not able to thrive and flourish within the uncomfortable tension that comes within a context of contrasting beliefs, feeling threatened by those who do not agree with us. Active love, in contrast to passive love, assumes relational and emotional tensions and yet the possibility of flourishing and thriving within difficulties without seeking to minimize and suppress difference.
~ Why? Precisely because Christians, led by active love, are not afraid to build community with others because they are confident in the promises of God ~
What precedes these moments with our neighbors and serves as the fundamental foundation for experiences is what FPCH students and I call Unexpected, Yet Deliberate Encounters. It is never possible to script or plan an Encounter with God; we will never be able to ‘clean up ourselves’ enough or ‘organize our emotional closet’ enough to feel ready and prepared enough to be Encountered by God through prayer. What prayer does, is remind us that it is okay to ‘not feel okay.’ It is precisely within our honest assessment of our own insufficiency that we are reminded of the sufficiency of Christ. In other words: we do not personally repent and corporately confess in light of our own frailty, but in light of the cross.
~ Every Encounter we have with God will always seem Unexpected from our vantage point. However, every Encounter God has with us is never Unexpected from his vantage point, but always Deliberate ~
Therefore, it is very important that as we find ourselves within these Unexpected, Yet Deliberate Encounters with God through prayer we interpret them rightly, otherwise our assumptions about when God can encounter us and by what means He can answer our prayers will make it far too loud to hear when the Holy Spirit actually speaks and therefore answers our prayers.
An excellent illustration of this concept are two brilliant thinkers who have had a radical influence on my life, but who could not be much more different from one another. The first is the Theologian and Philosopher Paul Tillich; the second, the author and self professed atheist Barbara Ehrenreich. With everything that makes these two so different from one another, one thing they did share was an Unexpected, Yet Deliberate Encounter with the divine that drastically changed them; albeit in very different ways (Paul Tillich‘s experience can be found in Paul K. Johnson’s incredible book God’s Wider Presence, and Barbara Ehrenreich’s own experience can be found in her brilliant book Living With A Wild God).
I’ll begin with Paul:
“Living through the horror of WWI as an army chaplain in the front lines… traveling back to Berlin, he went to an art museum… There he saw a painting by Botticelli titled ‘Madonna and Child with singing Angels.’ Tillich likened the event to a baptism. He said the event was transformative of his spirit, opening him to [a new] element of depth of human experience… about religious experience more generally. What happened to him, he said, was a ‘breakthrough.’ Tillich labeled this early experience with Botticelli’s painting as ‘revelatory ecstasy.”
Barbara Ehrenreich however, interpreted her Unexpected, Yet Deliberate Encounter in a different way, as she operated from a different set of assumptions about how and when God could confront us because of her understanding of Gods character. For her, the two separate Encounters she had convinced her of some sort of experience very difficult to explain in any rational and cohesive way, but did not make the same connection Paul Tillich did. Here are her own words:
“Something peeled off the visible world, taking with it all meaning… association, labels and words. I was looking at a tree, and if anyone had asked, that’s what I would have said I was doing, but the word ‘tree’ was gone, along with all the notions of ‘tree~ness…”
Years later walking outside here in California, she had another visceral experience:
“The world flamed into life. There were no visions, no prophetic voices… just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me, and I poured out into it,”
The reasons, as Barbara explains, she did not and felt as if she could not make the vital connection between these forceful Encounters, was because they were far too crushing and confrontational in nature to be associated with (who she perceived as) the gentle, soft spoken, and never confrontational Christian God. Her opinions about how God should confront her had consequential affects on her perception and therefore on any potential relation to God. If I ever had the profound honor of meeting Barbara (her books Living With A Wild God and Natural Causes had profound effects on my thinking) after I got my books signed by her of course, I would explain that the majority of the Unexpected, Yet Deliberate Encounters individuals had with God within the bible can only be categorized as visceral, confrontational, abrupt, sudden, and almost crushing in how God stops the person dead in their tracks in a matter of seconds in a way that “peels back the visible world.” I bring up these events because it deeply matters how we seek to interpret the motivations and reasons that first compel our prayer and our assumptions about the ways by which God can answer our prayers.
~ God answers prayers through the beauty of music; God answers prayers through the captivating vitality of a singers vocals; God answers prayers through the enchanted magic of books; God answers prayers through the beautiful innocence of a child’s joy; God answers prayers through the magic of film and how they set ablaze our imaginations; God answers prayers through the silent & patient humility of creation; God answers prayers, in ways we don’t always assume that he would ~
Why does God seek to answer our prayers in this way? To remind us of what we share with our neighbors. And, most importantly, what Jesus shared with us first; humanity and humanness. God cherishes our relational and emotional expression, and the Holy Spirits still whispers remind us that our individual authenticity is restored by God into real individual liberty, and never discarded or suppressed. God has persuaded us to treat as precious our vulnerabilities as he asks that we seek him in humility and honesty.
~ A helpful biblical illustration of the themes of Gods presence as an answer to prayer in the midst of our relational tensions and emotional uncertainties can be found in the narrative of Jacob and Esau found in Genesis 32:9 ~ 12:
“Then Jacob prayed, ‘O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, Lord, you who said to me, ‘Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper: ‘I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two camps. Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children. But you have said, ‘I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted.”
What preceded this prayer was the possibility of one of the most tense family reunions in the history of the world. Jacob, who had not seen his older brother Esau since he had betrayed him, remains uncertain, suspicious, and skeptical as to how Esau is going to react, and therefore begins to pray, as the scripture tells us, “in great fear and distress.”
This passage is illustrative for a clearer understanding of prayer in several ways:
Firstly, as Jacob begins, he does not make sure that he feels emotionally and spiritually ‘good enough’ before he prays; Jacob does not seek to hide his fear, uncertainties, and anxieties by trying to manipulate God by only misleading himself in the process; Jacob does not assume that if he begins to pray honestly in complete vulnerability and transparency that God will turn from him for such an unfiltered and transparent moment; no. Jacob knows that as approaches God, whether it be in joy or sadness, peace or anger, uncertainty or assurance, to speak softly or speak loudly, that as long as it be done in complete honesty,
~ God will listen and never turn from us ~
Secondly, Jacob does not only pray because he trusts God in the midst of his actual problems, but he also prays because of his misguided and misunderstood opinions and interpretations of Esau’s motives. Before Jacob can enter into intimate proximity with Esau; before a safe ~ space of public common~ ground can be cultivated for Easu to share his reasons for wanting to meet in this moment, Jacob, from an isolated and detached distance categorized and labeled Esau’ intentions and motivations before Esau ever gets the opportunity to share.
~ Jacob assumed that Esau had nothing but retribution and pay ~ back to offer, when he only had forgiveness and mercy within his hands ~
Lastly, Jacobs response is also very typical of how the modern person in our culture today would respond to such a family fall ~ out. Jacob allows his own interpretation of his emotions to dictate the possibility of real relational healing and emotional restoration with his brother. Love as reconciliation is not possible from a distance, but within the middle of actual restoration (which is important but uncomfortable work). This very idea was deeply and profoundly thought through by Alasdair MacIntyre in his book After Virtue. The term he coined to explain this idea is what he called Emotivism. He explains it this way:
“Emotivism is the [idea] that all… moral [beliefs] are nothing more than [individual opinions, and] expressions of preference…”
If we allow our cultures big ideas and main narratives to dictate the way we express ourselves, we will miss sight of what prayer is and precisely why it is so impactful and liberating in its emotional and relational expression. God never says, ‘suppress your emotions before you can pray before me,’ and God never says ‘stifle your relational integration before I will answer your prayers;’ no. On the contrary, prayer before God allows us to express ourselves without being weighed down by cultural expectations and personal validation; prayer allows us to be liberated from the feeling that we must instrumentalize our relationships in order for people to accept us, and through that very acceptance, receive a sense of meaning, purpose, and dignity that does not last. God however, through prayer, allows us access to express who we were always genuinely meant to be,
~ being received in the midst of our struggles in light of the cross ~
Anne Lamott in her book All New People, has a section where her main protagonist of the book, Nanny Goodnman, begins to talk about the spirituality of her mother. Specifically, the way Nanny’s mother understood how, when, and by what means God could speak to us:
“ My mother believed in God lit the stars and spoke directly through family and friends, musicians and writers… and children, and nature ~ and not, as she had been raised to believe, through a booming voice from the heavens.”
when we pray “in order to be seen,” we assume a specific response from God and we assume a posture of prayer that is seeking to receive more than it is seeking to give. We believe, that if God does not audibly answer us from the heavens, or in a burning bush, or in a cloud of fire, or in a prophet on the highest mountain peak, our prayers are not reaching him.
~ However, once we understand prayer biblically, the still whispers of the Holy Spirit will be louder that any trumpet or horn ~
In the Lord Of The Rings, Pippin, one of the Hobbits, loses a very close friend in battle. As Pippin loses him, horns blow. From that moment on, anytime Pippin hears a horn or a trumpet blow, he is reminded of his friends sacrifice. Every time you pray, allow your prayers to constantly remind you of Jesus, your closest friends sacrifice on the cross; the Fathers ultimate answer to our prayers.