Monday, October 4, 2010

It's Time for "The Talk" (Ahhh!)

An Altar in the World is Barbara Brown Taylor's creative exploration of spiritual disciplines. In it she makes this confession:

“I would rather show someone my checkbook stub than talk about my prayer life.  I would rather confess that I am rotten godmother, that I struggle with my weight, that I fear I am overly fond of Bombay Sapphire gin martinis than confess than I am a prayer-weakling.  To say that I love God but I do not pray much is like saying I love life but I do not breathe much.”

Is that true for you like it is for this renown preacher?  I know it is true for me.  Being asked directly, "Shawn, how's your prayer life going?" makes me feel exposed, vulnerable.  Sadly, it is almost as bad for some of us as having to have "The Talk" with our parents.

On the one hand we want to affirm the simplicity of prayer: "It's just talking to your Father in Heaven like a close friend.  He's right there beside you; just say whatever is on your heart."

But we also see that that type of thinking is not entirely healthy.   God is more than my cosmic pal, my divine counselor.  Free association psychotherapy is not the sum total of the biblical witness of what prayer is about.  Sure God is my Father.  Undoubtedly he loves me!  Certainly I am free to pour out my mind and heart to Him.

But if my mind and my heart is the beginning and end of all the resources used to fuel a prayer life, it won't go far, and it won't amount to much.  If my heart is the only script for prayer, the drama will lack depth, meaning, plot, direction, and meaningful fulfillment.  My conversation before God must transcend casuality.  He is holy, after all.  He is the Consuming Fire, I must remember.

Here is where the conundrum often occurs.  Where is the balance found between shooting the breeze with Jesus and some kind of rigid, scheduled, depersonalized ritual? Between letting my feelings set the agenda and being awkwardly fitted with an empty liturgy?

I think the contrast is better stated in terms of "prayerfulness" and "saying prayers" because impromptu praying nor set liturgy is the meat of this topic.

In Gratefulness - The Heart of Prayer Brother David Steindl-Rast makes the distinction between prayerfulness and prayers.  By prayerfulness he means a cultivated openness to the presence of God in all things and in all places.  It is the awareness of the gift of all of life and a willingness to embrace it as such.  It is a heart, a will, prepared to deliberately receive all of life as prayer, as communion with God.  Work, play, child rearing, napping, taking a walk, encountering storms, etc. is all a part of being fully alive to the fullness of God in every moment.

Prayerfulness sounds good, doesn't it?  But it can, if we are honest and engage this type of logic long enough, become nothing more than a Joel Olsteen "Live Your Best Life Now" kind of Gospel.  It replaces the health and wealth gospel with a be happy, fulfilled, and blessed gospel.  Less ridiculous but still borderline in this harmful approach is John Ortberg's recent book The Me I Want To Be.  I like Ortberg and generally enjoy his stuff.  This book, though, is troublesome to me as it leans to close to associating a life lived in the flow of God's Spirit as a life full of energy and drive and excitement and emotional fulfillment.  It gets too close to saying that whatever you enjoy, whatever "gives you life," whatever you have fun doing, that is spirituality, that is the flow of God in you.  Only because I know what Ortberg stands for and what he is trying to accomplish would I say that his book is not saying this.  However, when read with an ear for a culture too ready to embrace that kind of self-fulfillment spirituality, I am cautious about recommending it.

Steindl-Rast is more nuanced, though. I think his descripiton of prayerfulness is more balanced and substantive that what Ortberg offers.  It honors the sacredness of all of life.  It recognizes the call to "prayer without ceasing."  It affirms the doctrine of God's omnipresence.  Yet, it also holds up in high regard the other necessary side of the coin: prayers.

Prayers are what breed prayerfulness.  Prayerfulness is sustained by prayers.  Prayerfulness gives meaning to prayers.  Prayers opens us up to know prayerful living.

If prayerfulness is a cultivated, deliberate disposition of openness to God in all things, prayers are the set, disciplined times of direct 'verbal' communication with God that is held up and driven and formed by the ancient traditions of the Christian faith as mediated through Scripture and the church.  Without prayers in this sense, prayerfulless becomes vapid, ephemeral.  Without prayerfulness, prayers just become empty, dry, rigid.

The healthy place is where prayers are used to cultivate prayerfulness, and prayerfulness finds its deliberate expression in prayers.

It is too easy to just choose one out of reaction against an unhealthy version of the other we've seen or lived - or simply out of our own general personality profile.  Developing a robust life with God requires a balanced diet, though.  I cannot settle for either (a) that which appeals to me and affirms all my own inclinations b/c I am only functioning out of my own resources or (b) empty, scheduled, compartmentalized religiosity because it leaves me comfortable and unbothered by a God who desires to enter into and transform our every moment.

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