Archive for the ‘Prayer’ Category
Frontline: Syria Behind the Lines
It is a practice of the regime to target [bomb] groups of men.
I won’t muck the works with my comments, but this first-person account of a village being bombed shows, well, you can judge for yourself. Be forewarned: this is graphic. Listen for the rhetorical twists and turns from the videographer’s commentary and the crowd.
Given this was from PBS, I assume it is real footage. If someone knows better, please tell me. Kudos to Olly Lambert for filming this and making it available.
God have mercy.
Of inauspicious beginnings
That’s what my sixth grade gym teacher said as he watched my friend run the cinder track in a time trial. Some days feel like this: nothing doing, no big expectations and no real signs of progress, let alone genius. Some days seem to perfectly satisfy low expectations, like a poem from John Tottenham:
A long time ago I made a decision
to become a failure. It wasn’t
as easy as I thought: browsing through life
from one distraction to the next, while waiting
for the last lost moment to become unseizable.
As if there were some fundamental honesty
to not striving: There wasn’t.
I suspected it all along. (The Measure of a Man, John Tottenham)
For the past week I’ve been working with an old, old story. I can’t let the story go because I want it to frame a chapter I call “Extreme Listening.” I need the story to hint at what is accomplished when we listen very closely to the voices in our lives. I keep retelling the story to myself, emphasizing different elements to see what it is really about, but it remains elusive.
My story is of a Mighty Narrator and a Woman and a Man and Another Man born of humble beginnings. The Woman wanted a baby so badly she would do anything, including dedicating the yet unborn child to God—which meant the child would grow up apart from her. In her desperate soul-searching and panic of spirit and bargaining with God, she appeared drunk and senseless. The man, an observant official who was himself on a long, slow dereliction of duty, said as much:
“How long will you go on being drunk?” he said. “Put your wine away from you.”
“No,” she said. “I am a woman troubled in spirit.”
“Go in peace,” he said. “And may God grant your petition.”
The Woman had the baby and carried out her promise. The Man continued to abandon his duties and became widely known for how he let things slip. The baby grew into Another Man who took over the Man’s abandoned duties and then steered a nation into (yet another) vibrant beginning.
What intrigues me about this story is the mighty narrator. Because behind the scenes much larger things were happening, things that showed themselves as tip of the iceberg stuff in the conversations between the Woman and Man. So…listening and talking that resulted in pivotal actions (human and well, Other).
I think it is a good story—but who was listening to whom?
Multiple Causation Skeins
A thinker I respect—someone who continues to pop out a learned book for her tribe of university professors every year or two—told me one of her habits for writing. As she gets down to the task each day, she records a “wish” in her journal.
“Call it a wish,” she said. “Call it a prayer. But it’s a focus. It is a thing I ask.”
This thoughtful friend comes from a Christian tradition but doesn’t abide the wonder these days. I’m hacking her advice to note this practice: I find myself asking—no, make that recording specific questions, specific prayers, at specific times as I start various projects through any given day. My ask/prayer is for all kinds of stuff that is on my plate for the day, from paragraphs of copy to working out a tangled manuscript to organizing my client’s technology tell.
My friend practiced her “ask” because of the focus it presented. The focus helped her move forward. That is what I want to do as well. And more: I still suspect there is wonder tied up in the minute by minute actions of any given day. I still think our meaning-making is composed of “multiple causation skeins,” to quote Mark Noll. So my ask is directed and hopeful and often historic (yesterday’s ask text) and tries to make room for much bigger things that could be at play through my tiny actions.
There is only conviction and thinking and prayer and conversation.
I’m reminded of the paradoxes of the old culture wars. A couple decades ago when politics were just as heated and dialogue just as rare, Mrs. Kirkistan and I lived in a rough section of South Minneapolis. People of faith in our community—I’ll call them Christians—routinely voted “for” Democrats. Given the particular demographic quirks of the area, it was easy to understand why those candidates did better. For a variety of reasons (economic, housing, vision, spiritual) we ended up moving miles away. We eventually found ourselves at a large suburban church where the assumption was that everyone voted “for” Republicans. Mind you, much of this was never said aloud. It was all just assumed.
After all, Republicans were anti-abortion and that’s where God hangs out—right?
After all, Democrats cared for the poor and that’s where God hangs out—right?
The danger of litmus-test thinking is that it promises some clear, unassailable answer: the candidate is this or the candidate isn’t this. Case closed.
I argue that leadership is and always has been about more than one thing. There is no litmus test because the human condition is complex and society and culture are exponentially complex. And while I’m certain God is all about creating life, the Creator is also bent on sustaining life, so listening to the poor, the widow and the orphan take up a lot of column-inches in our common, ancient text. But even those are not litmus-like tests, because which party will actually do those things best?
I’m hoping the faith communities around the country will have conversations that help their members vote not according to some mandate from a culture-wars war-room, but instead according their growing convictions from dealing with texts, from conversation and from prayer.
It’s time the church led by being counter-culture.
Image via thisisn’thappiness
How to be.
Back when I was newish to this notion of pursuing reunion with the Creator, I began to wonder about prayer. Was it just a kind of thick wishing; full of detail and electric longing, uttered into the silence? The practices of prayer remain mysterious to this day, but way back then my buddy said something I’ve never forgotten:
“Look. Just pray like you talk. Simple stuff. Forget the impressive words. Just talk.”
That proved useful. It still makes sense to me today.
Prayer is an articulated event. A speech-act that causes things to happen out in the world—though not exactly the way you might hope. This is what people who pray believe (people like me): that by talking to the One who controls everything, laying out the case, and leaving it there, stuff starts to happen. Of course, dictation and demands are fruitless. So are bargains. Prayer doesn’t work that way—it’s not exactly a reciprocal relationship.
But what if my friend’s advice worked the other way too: what if that easy conversation full of detail and electric longing was a part of our daily, hum-drum human conversations? So rather than utter desire into silence we uttered it into relationship? That does not sound like wishing into the silence. People would be listening—the very people right around you. They would hear. And sympathize. Or challenge. You’d get known. Your peaks and valleys would be known. There would be no hiding. If our talk were like our prayer, there would be a measure of freedom, and a whole lot of assumptions about the level of interest in our conversation partner.
No. Now I see that would never work.
But. Wait—that characteristic of being known is a peak human experience. What if we were designed for that very thing?
That would be something.
The issues that roil your nerves and kick you in the gut may be instrumental in pushing you forward.
A few days back I wrote about sitting with unresolve as long as you can, as one method for producing creative ideas. John Cleese had a few choice words on the topic. After talking about this in class and listening to Mr. Cleese and experiencing it afresh with my own writing, I realized a couple of ancient voices had been swarming around, punching me in the face with this very point—only applying it to the rest of life.
One voice is a warrior-poet. Aside from being handy with a lyre and deadly with a sling and stone, he had a very lucid and descriptive (often prescriptive) way of asking God to do terrible things to his enemies. And yet, though he often had the power and opportunity to take action, he didn’t. Instead, he turned from the shortcut, obvious solution and waited. We all know that waiting for God seems to take longer than anyone likes.
Same thing with another Old Testament character—Habakkuk. He saw bad stuff coming (a brutish band of thugs coming to decimate his homeland) and decided also to fix his attention on God. And wait.
Something happens when we wait. Sometimes we can fix things in life right away. Often we can’t. So we wait. And just like when we’re working through a creative solution to a thorny business or communication problem, we sit with unresolve and let the discomfort itself push us forward.
Same thing with life. We wait and seek and wait. And–this may be most critical—we reach out. We reach out when things are not right with us. And reaching out is nearly always worthwhile. Reaching out looks like a phone call. Reaching out looks like an email. Like prayer.
Some students from my copywriting class are graduating. Everyone says it’s a low-energy job market—difficult for the job hunter. I sympathize. To these graduates I simply offer the notion that your creative unresolve can lead you forward into networking, conversation and, yes, to reach out in prayer.
I still maintain that the best stuff in life happens in and through the choices and actions made directly from chaotic, creative unresolve.
Copyranter, my favorite, consistently profane and truth-speaking advertising blogger, today wrote about his father dying of cancer. “Asshole commenters” have been lining up to sympathize and pray and weep. All great responses.
Prayer is like wishing, right?
Mention “prayer” and people mostly nod in agreement—what is there to disagree with? My colleague’s husband fell down a set of stairs and broke his neck. Her email from intensive care told the full story. People responded—as they will—with kind wishes and promises of prayer, among other things. Later she updated all concerned with the good news that he would fully recover, and went on to thank people for their positive energy, prayers and good wishes. Her update-—it seems to me—caught the primary understanding of prayer for most people, monotheists of most stripe and Christians included. Prayer, positive energy, good wishes, wishing on a star—all sort of the same thing. There is mystery in the words spoken in silence and the desire and the pain and the faith. Maybe something happens when someone prays. Maybe not. Prayer is hard to characterize.
Probe with a few questions—even among staunch believers and practiced pray-ers—and the mystery only deepens. “Prayer works,” someone might say. And they point to a prayer they prayed and then some related action that occurred. Did their prayer work? Possibly. Is there power in prayer? Maybe. And maybe not like we think. Certainly God has power—complete, entire power over all that is and ever was. And certainly God is under no obligation to fill our order, answer our requests, or even hear us—unless as He obligates himself.
We ask things of God from all sorts of motives with all sorts of expectations. The truth is we know very little about what happens when we pray. But we know prayer is the example and model the Bible holds to out for interacting with God. What does the Bible say about the connection between prayer and action?
Bible people were always talking with God. The list of praying people is extensive and includes those who were face to face with God (Adam and Eve, Moses), sometimes hand to hand (Jacob), as well as those who sat through years of silence in their prayer (Abraham, Hannah), and everyone in between. We typically think of prayer as a solitary, passive activity of last-resort. And yet the Bible routinely shows action following people praying. And not just small stuff, but game-changing action. Action that shifts a story to an entirely different place.
I’m trying to learn more about prayer. And I’m praying for Copyranter and his dad and his family.
“…Words work as stepping-stones through confusion to resolution.” — Marilyn Chandler McEntyre in Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies
This happens in ordinary conversation: I start my explanation with one set of words and end up in quite another place. Often the conversation takes me from confusion to resolution. But more often I come to the end of what I’d never planned on saying with a new insight or a new question that needs answering (if only in my own mind).
But Marilyn Chandler McEntyre was actually talking about the way prayer works in the above quote. She had been quoting a poem by Gerald Manly Hopkins. Here’s how she finished the quote:
“What begins as argument ends in an act of vulnerability and self-yielding. The words we encounter along the way [from GHM’s poem]—just, contend, plead, disappoint, friend—offer stopping points for reflection upon our paradoxical situation before God: familiar and strange, bound by law and freed by grace, fulfilling and frustrating, longing satisfied.”
I had not been familiar with Hopkins’ poem. But the words I encounter in the Psalms offer movement from argument to self-yielding with stopping points for reflection—and the entire Psalter functions like a bolus of spot-on conversation.
Waiting has a silver lining: breathing space
Years ago my wife and I met friends living in a developing country. We hung around for a few days to see what life looked like. Turns out life looked like lines. Long lines. Hours to pay an electric bill in person. Hours more for the water bill. This country was known for layer after layer of bureaucracy to handle the red tape, so the lines kept people employed even as they drove me crazy. I wondered aloud how my friend could stand it—especially knowing he tended toward a Type A personality who relished getting things done. He said, “That’s just the way it is.”
It’s hard to see any benefit in waiting. We work hard to eliminate waiting every day. I pull ahead of drivers focused on phone conversations rather than the road. I seek out the shortest line at the grocer. I click elsewhere when a web page loads too slowly. I don’t like waiting. I bet you don’t like waiting.
But my friend used his waiting time wisely. There was no plugged or unplugged then. Unlike today when most people waiting are looking into a screen, he brought a book. He prayed. He talked with people in line. My friend was a smart guy (still is) and he made a lot of connections between different parts of life. He ran a printing business, started a college and a home for families whose children were in the local hospital—even as he waited in long lines for the business of everyday.
Two recent books advocate intentional unplugging from the web, if only for short times: The Shallows by Nicholas Carr and Hamlet’s Blackberry by William Powers. Both books look at the effect of a mind crowded with stimulus and hint at what might happen with a bit of mental breathing space, which is a kind of waiting. Waiting is also a time-honored means of reflection and forward-movement in the Bible. I just finished reading the book of Psalms and saw how author after author waited for God to do something. They prayed. And they waited. And they watched (and waited).
Waiting comes with the capacity to sharpen our interest, our eyesight and our appetite. Waiting also has a purifying effect on our long-term goals. We become more realistic as we wait (or perhaps we become more insistent). But know for certain that something will change as we wait.
I’m working at waiting. Today I’ll look for an opportunity to stand around and wait. It will be hard to not pull out my phone with its checklists and documents. But waiting may allow me to connect the dots in a fresh way.
Photo Credit: We Love Typography