Saturday, January 29, 2011

Starting Over

In order to grow spiritually, we often have to bury the “Jesus” we once knew.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Moving to the Center

Moving to the Center

I have trouble remembering why
it was such a hard choice, why it
felt like I had so much to lose.

The metaphor I've found most useful in thinking of prayer is a circle with God at the center and people (me included) at the edge. In prayer, with heart directed toward God, I work out my salvation in a life of prayer that draws me ever closer to the center and ever closer to others.

During my junior year in high school, I found that the more time I spent in prayer, the more sensitive I became to the needs of others: alcoholism, neglect, loneliness, depression, desperation. And even though I was overwhelmed by the need, it was a measure of need that previously had been invisible to me. Prayer was creating in me a measure of empathy.

That summer, during a trip to my grandparents’ home, I felt God challenging me to reconsider my path: would I continue to seek a future in the public eye (politics) or would I be willing to set aside what I wanted (wealth and influence) in order to serve others? It felt like a calling. I struggled – in prayer – over what kind of a life I should lead, over what kind of a person God was creating me to be.

During that process, many others joined me in praying for clarity (and for strength to choose well). Today, nearly two decades later, I have trouble remembering why it was such a hard choice, why it felt like I had so much to lose. In this process of prayer – in this daily practice of moving closer and closer to the center – I’ve found both clarity and community. And I can’t even begin to imagine going back.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


My grandpa didn’t get
better, but for a long time, he
didn’t get worse either.

When I first heard – a few years ago – that my grandfather had terminal cancer and only three weeks to live, I asked for help. I asked God to heal my grandpa. And then I took it back. Apologized to God for being selfish. Told him how much I loved my grandpa. Thought for awhile on some of my favorite memories: Grandpa teaching me to bottle-feed a calf, helping him move sheep, walking through an old barn together, his laughter on the phone as he told about teaching Grandma to use an ATM, his pride in a perfectly-browned turkey, his whistle. I asked for a chance to say goodbye.

I believed then – and still do – that God was present in my remembering, that he helped me to know what to pray for, how to ask. My grandpa didn’t get better, but for a long time, he didn’t get worse either. And we visited. And he laughed and I laughed, and we both told stories. And then, about five months later, my grandpa fell asleep. And stopped breathing.

When I heard the news, I remembered: on the phone, a few days before, we’d said goodbye.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


We Sound Like Zombies

these chants, spells,
and prayers reveal something of both
how we pray and why

It can be awkward to enter a religious community that’s not your own. Especially when the people do things that you don’t do at home.

At my first Catholic mass, for instance, I didn’t know how to “pass the peace,” and I couldn’t figure out the patterns of posture – when to stand, when to kneel, when to sit. On my first visit to a Russian Orthodox church, an old woman had to push me out of the way of the priest and censer. My first experience in a Presbyterian service involved communion, and I’d never previously heard it described as a service of reconciliation. In my first Nazarene service, there was a corporate reading of scripture. What I remember most is that the people sounded like zombies.

A piece I recently read on prayer in the Greco-Roman world explores an ancient influence on prayer in the church. And I recognize in the discussion of prayer in “fictional literary contexts” an echo of my own experiences with prayer in literature, experiences that account for my reflection that the Nazarenes “sounded like zombies.” I think of the witches in Macbeth: “double, double, toil and trouble.” I also think of the Harry Potter series, the Earthsea Trilogy, The Odyssey (and others).

What I hadn’t previously realized is that if art imitates life (as well as the reverse) then these chants, spells, and prayers reveal something of both how we pray and why. It’s a revelation that’s somewhat painful. Am I praising God, after all, or simply looking to control the Creator? My motives aren’t pure: after all, there is this idea within me that I bring something to God with an expectation that God might give me something in return. Even when the only things I bring are an attitude of humility and a contrite heart, I expect – and sometimes demand – that God answer.

Richard Foster challenges my expectations with a section in his book on prayer, “The Most Complete Prayer.” He implies that the heart of Christian prayer is nothing more nor less than an experience of the flesh and blood of Jesus, an experience of what it means to be one in Christ, an experience of one-ness. This word from Foster helps me to know that there’s no harm in spoken, corporate prayer (and probably lots of good). But I still think we sound like zombies.

At Barclay Press