Sunday, June 28, 2009

Is pain an answer to our prayers?

In The Problem of Pain Lewis makes the case that pain is God's way of taking things from us that have been making us insufficiently satisfied. He imagines that God is preparing his faithful ones to be content only in him. He writes, Now God, who has made us, knows what we are and that our happiness lies in Him. Yet we will not seek it in Him as long as He leaves us any other resort where it can even plausibly be looked for. While what we call 'our own life' remains agreeable we will not surrender it to Him. What then can God do in our interest but make 'our own life' less agreeable to us, and take away the plausible sources of happiness? It is just here, where God's providence seems at first to be most cruel, that the Divine humility, the stooping down of the Highest, most deserves praise. This serves as one of the themes in The Great Divorce -- the only ones who will not enter heaven are those who refuse to because they are not willing to surrender everything.
This is a hard view of God. We don't like to attach pain to God. The truth is, I'm not sure I want to either. I'm afraid to consider God as the source of all things. But I'm not sure I want to think that he has lost control, or that he never had it. Rabbi Kushner in his When Bad Things Happen to Good People wants to let God off the hook and say that some of the really bad things God has no control over. They happen, and God's role is to be with us as we journey through the consequences.
But where does the change come in? Is God trying to change us in the events that take place? Even the pain? Is pain an answer to our prayers?

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Approaching the Lion

Continuing on this theme of "safe and good" I am reminded of my favorite Chronicle -- The Silver Chair -- in which Jill Pole, ravished by thirst, sees a babbling stream of clear, cold water but lying at the edge of the stream is the great lion Aslan. Aslan knows that Jill is thirsty and invites her to drink. Terrified of the lion, Jill asks, "Will you promise not to -- do anything to me, if I do come?" Aslan replies: "I make no promise." Often implied in many of my prayers is the same hope -- that I can drink from the living water without God doing anything to me. It's kind of like my strategy for shopping -- get in and get out. Richard Foster in his book on the spiritual disciplines said one simple thing about prayer that has forever altered my view of the practice: "To pray is to change." That altered the whole tenor of my conversation with God. My relationship with God was designed around the changes he wanted to make in me. To get to the cool water, I have to encounter the good, yet unsafe lion. Think of it: to pray is to enter the lion's den. We're likely to come out a little different than when we went in.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

He isn't safe, but he's good.

In our C.S. Lewis reading group this week we discussed The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and savored together the wonder of that story. While Lewis never wanted to claim any type of originality in respect to his thoughts, I think when Susan asks Mr. and Mrs. Beaver if Aslan the Lion is safe and Mr. Beaver replies, "Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe, but he's good." -- Lewis is interjecting an original thought about the nature of God and our relationship with him. It provides a constant corrective for me in my prayer life. How often I go to God for safety. How often I go to God to "cover" me. How often I go to God as the domesticated lion. Yet, it's not why God wants us to come. God wants us to come for his goodness -- and often his goodness is not safe. His goodness will often send us to unsafe places or to explore unsafe regions inside and outside of our hearts.
Think of when the rich young ruler came to Jesus and asked, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" He was looking for a safe answer or an answer that would get him to a safe place. Jesus gave him a good answer. He told him the truth of what he needed to do: Sell everything and follow him.
When Peter and John came back to the community after being arrested and grilled by the Sanhedrin, Luke tells us that the community prayed and asked -- not for safety -- but for boldness!!
When you pray are you prepared for the kind of goodness that will take you to wherever you need to be, regardless of its safety?

Friday, June 19, 2009

The dark night

Each time I read Letters to Malcolm I am struck by the depth of Lewis' spirituality. Here is a disciple toward the end of his life who has seen the peaks and valleys of the spiritual walk. He is weathered. His views on prayer are unlike most of what you read today. God is not -- contrary to what you often read today -- someone who necessarily wants to give you whatever you want. In fact the deeper we grow in relationship with him the less we might receive. I alluded earlier to Lewis' speculation that God seems to grant less to the mature in faith than to the novitiates in faith. In Letters he talks of how the very act of creation results in separateness and ejection. "Can it be," Lewis asks, "that the more perfect the creature is, the further this separation must as some point be pushed? It is saints, not common people, who experience the 'dark night'". Just turn to Jesus' dark night in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross to understand his point. The perfect creature experiences utter abandonment.
Lewis, of course, writes out of his own dark night of losing his beloved Joy to cancer. When he prayed to God for her healing what he received was the sound of bolting and double-bolting on the other side of the door. Paul prayed three times for the thorn in the flesh to be removed and it wasn't. Is this God's way of revealing his power in our weakness?
Prayer can teach us things we may not want to know about God!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Did you pray before you prayed?

Here's a quote from Lewis out of Letters to Malcolm that has profound implications concerning our prayer relationship with God:

We have long since agreed that if our prayers are granted at all they are granted from the foundation of the world. God and His acts are not in time. Intercourse between God and man occurs at particular moments for the man, but not for God. If there is -- as the very concept of prayer presupposes -- an adaptation between the free actions of men in prayer and the course of events, this adaptation is from the beginning inherent in the great single creative act. Our prayers are heard -- don't say "have been heard" or you are putting God into time -- not only before we make them but before we are made ourselves.

Humans have a sequential view of time. It's hard for us to understand time in any other way. It's what gives us the thought that prayer is a part of some human-divine cause and effect, i.e. "I prayed, and God delivered." I've heard many say, "Prayer works." But is it prayer that works or God that works? God, of course. And the point that Lewis suggests is that if we believe that for God all time -- past, present, future -- is one moment then the events we see in sequence, God sees them happen all at the same time.

I liken it to the Big Bang. In the moments prior to the Big Bang all of what creation was, is and will be was held together. It was in one moment -- and then the Bang put it into linear motion. Maybe that's a way to think of the difference between our experience of prayer and God's experience of prayer.

What do you think?

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The duty exists for the delight

It's hard to be disciplined in praise. At least I find it so. Maybe there is enough Type A in me to want to speed to the prayers of confession and intercession. I want to make my sins and requests known and then got in with the rest of the day. But to be a pray-er of the Psalms is to find a discipline in praise. As Lewis reminds us, God would have us praise him in order that we might discover the joy of discovering more of who he is:

"In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him. Meanwhile of course we are merely, as Donne says, tuning our instruments. The tuning up of the orchestra can be itself delightful, but only to those who can in some measure, however little, anticipate the symphony. The Jewish sacrifices, and even our own most sacred rites, as they actually occur in human experience, are, like the tuning, they may have in them much duty and little delight; or none. But the duty exists for the delight. When we carry out our 'religious duties' we are like people digging channels in a waterless land, in order that when at last the water comes, it may find them ready.' (Reflections on the Psalms, p. 97)

Maybe a disciplined reading of the Psalms would be our channel digging?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Psalms

I've been taking a little time and rereading Lewis' Reflections on the Psalms. It's a real treasure. While reading it you discover the role that the Psalms played in Lewis' prayer life. Simply, they served as the framework of his conversation with God. He assumed that the 150 psalms are there not just for God to speak to us, but for us to speak to God. They are to serve as our prayers. Deitrich Bonhoeffer in his litte book on the Psalms -- Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible -- in that same spirit says, "if we wish to pray with confidence and gladness, then the words of Holy Scripture will have to be the solid basis of our prayer. For here we know that Jesus Christ, the Word of God, teaches us to pray. The words which come from God become, then, the steps on which we find our way to God."

I grew up being taught that the best words we can offer to God are the honest words from our hearts. No one ever suggested that the words of the psalmist were the place to begin. Bonhoeffer adds that if we really believe that scripture is the word of God, why wouldn't we want to use those words when we pray?

Lewis' favorite was Psalm 19. It's a great exercise to let that Psalm be your prayer in the next few days.

What do you think?

Monday, June 8, 2009

Someone once said, “Pray as if all depended on God and work as if all depended on you.” Somewhere in the middle of all that is likely a balance for the spiritual life. It’s the like the story of the woman who was ill and received a visit from her church friends. At the end of the visit the friends told her that they would be praying for her. “That’s all well and good,” said the woman, “but I’d like it even more if you could empty the dishwasher and do a load of laundry.”

I guess it would make us wonder about the topic of our prayers. Do we end up with a yearning to understand not what we want God to do, but what God wants us to do? “What fruit, Lord, do you want me to bear in this situation? How can I be a faithful disciple through the concerns I have?” At the end of the day, as Lewis mentioned earlier, it won’t be God who has to answer for his deeds, it will be us. God has done all he could – dying on the cross. Now what about us? Has God’s saving grace resulted in our loving fruit? This will be the crux of the matter.

Friday, June 5, 2009

In what I believe to be the greatest sermon ever preached (my Lewis bias once again exposed), The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis said this about the day when we come face to face with God:

In the end that Face which is the delight or the terror of the universe must be turned upon each of us either with one expression or with the other; either conferring glory inexpressible or inflicting shame that can never be cured or disguised. I read in a periodical the other day that the fundamental thing is how we think of God. By God Himself it is not! How God thinks of us is not only more important, but infinitely more important. Indeed, how we think of Him is of no importance except insofar as it is related to how He thinks of us.

A lot of spirituality these days spends a great deal of time reminding us over and over again about the grace and love of God. And so it should be. As an extension of that thought we also talk a lot about how God accepts as we are and that God loves us unconditionally. And so it should be. The prodigal son is the parable that speaks best to all this.

But often the conversation ends before we talk about what God fully thinks of us. He loves us – but is there a yearning on his behalf that we would be different? Not unlike the father that goes to bail his son out of jail. He loves the boy – unconditionally. That’s why he stops at the ATM along the way to get the necessary cash to spring his offending offspring. But that is just part of the story. What he fully thinks of his son is that he better get his act together or a wasted life is ahead.

If, as Jesus tells us, he is the vine and his Father is the vinedresser and he prunes the branches that don’t bear fruit and throws them into the fire – then it seems that we should be paying a lot of attention to what the Father thinks of us.

Or to put it another way -- I guess each day God loves us enough to try to keep us from becoming the branches he might throw away. In that spirit prayer is the effort to explore with God what he fully thinks about the fruit of our life and to ask for the Spirit’s help to produce more of it. Prayer is the continued conversation with the Almighty all the way to the point when his face is turned upon us. We wouldn’t want to be surprised at his expression.

Monday, June 1, 2009

I talked earlier about how prayer’s ultimate goal is to know and obey the will of God and perhaps the greatest thing that God wills is to “know” us. Immediately we might say that God already knows us, but then there are the words of Jesus at the end of the Sermon on the Mount when he anticipates that there will be the day when many will say to him: “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” And Jesus’ response will be: “I never knew you.”

What are we to make of this? It seems that Jesus is putting a high priority on relationship. There’s a difference between giving someone information “about” you and giving someone “you”. In his Letters to Malcolm Lewis suggests that it is not until we will ourselves to be known before God that we treat ourselves as true persons. “To put ourselves thus on a personal footing with God could, in itself and without warrant, be nothing but presumption and illusion. But we are taught that it is not; that it is God who gives us that footing. For it is by the Holy Spirit that we cry “Father.” By unveiling, by confessing our sins and “making known” our requests, we assume the high rank of persons before Him. And He, descending, becomes a Person to us.”

How often have you thought of it that way? That we are not fully persons until we make ourselves known to God – the good and the bad. Isaiah put it into his own words as he stood before God: “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips.” It was his biggest step toward becoming a real person.

It may be the greatest gift we have for God -- our unalloyed selves. How much of your prayer life is spent in letting God know you?