Monthly Archives: September 2016

On Prayer, 4

Last time I didn’t get beyond Jesus’ address in The Lord’s Prayer, but I did promise to take apart the rest of the Lord’s Prayer. It’s time to redeem the promise.

In more traditional versions, Jesus next invokes God’s Kingdom. Now, it is a very common thing for Jesus to speak of the Kingdom of God. That made sense because in his time almost the only form of government was some form of monarchy. On the other hand it has always struck my ears as an unfortunate metaphor in an age when we think the most appropriate from of government is democracy rather than monarchy. The issue for us, then, is how to understand that metaphor in a way that makes sense in our culture.

I think Jesus is pointing us to a time when people actually followed God’s Law, which, for him was Torah (Talmud not yet having been written and compiled.) Few of us outside of the Jewish community, though, feel at all compelled to follow Torah. So, again, how can we understand this language? Well, Jesus also tells us elsewhere what he thought the core, the essence of Torah is: Love of God and love of neighbor. And these, he believed, were essentially the same thing since one cannot simultaneously love God and fail to love one’s neighbor.

Suppose we were to adopt love of God and love of neighbor as the essential standard for all of our behavior. Suppose we were to adopt this as our rule, if you will. (I use the word “rule” in the sense of “The Rule of St. Benedict”.) Then our rule would then, by Jesus’ lights, be God’s rule, God’s standard and guide to living a good and upright life. And this is why I have used the word “rule” rather than “Kingdom” in my paraphrase.

To understand the rest of the prayer, we have to consider the matter of punctuation. Ancient texts often had either no or rather ambiguous punctuation. The result of this is that there are often multiple ways of reading the same text, and these readings are not always compatible, something that can sometimes drive scholars screaming from the room. The usual way of reconstructing the prayer in modern English makes the final three sentences petitions and this turns the whole thing into a petitionary prayer.

But just a few sentences previously, Jesus had told us that petitionary prayer is unnecessary since God knows what we need before we ask for it. Petition, then, is pointless, simply verbiage. So why would he now teach us to pray using a petitionary prayer. That doesn’t seem to me to make much sense.

So what are these three sentences about? Well, in the English, the subject in not stated but understood. The subject is the pronoun “you”, and look what happens when the pronoun is stated. The petitions become descriptions. These are things that You, God, do for us. “You give us the necessities of life. Your forgiveness of our sins, our shortcomings, is the model for our forgiving one another. And far from tempting us into evil and wrong-doing, following your Rule protects and shields us from evil.” In short it turns the prayer into a prayer of thanksgiving.

Finally, I have left out the usual closing, “For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory forever.” That is because there is no reason at all to think that Jesus ever said that. The oldest version of the prayer that contains those words dates to only the fourth century CE, several hundred years after these Gospels were written, and there are older manuscripts that do not contain them. In short, those words appear to be add-ons. I don’t much like them, because I fail to see why God needs our praise.

Here then, is The Lords’ Prayer as I understand it. First my simple paraphrase:

Our Father in Heaven, You whose name is Holy, may your rule become as manifest on earth as it is in heaven. You give us our daily bread; you provide forgiveness and teach us to forgive; you do not us lead into temptation, but rather you deliver us from evil.

And second my interpreted version:

God, who stands to us as loving and gentle as Abba, living within and around us as Spirit to spirit, may we adopt your Rule as the Rule of our lives. You give us the necessities of life. Your forgiveness of our sins, our shortcomings, is the model for our forgiving one another. And far from tempting us into evil and wrong-doing, following your Rule protects and shields us from evil.

And this, I think, is the manner in which Jesus taught us to pray. The true Lord’s Prayer is not in the words of the mouth but in the words of the heart. Or so I think.

On Prayer, No. 3

After a brief vacation from prayer, it’s time to turn again to the Lord’s Prayer. Last time I reflected on the fact that Jesus seems never to have intended us to repeat the actual words of the Lord’s Prayer, but rather he intended us to adopt his manner of praying. “When you pray, pray like this”. And even in Luke, when he does say, “When you pray say this”, he is responding to the disciples request that he teach them how to pray, not what to pray.

So now let’s look at the Prayer itself. As noted last time, I have consulted seven different translations. Of course they are all, though somewhat different, still the same in substance. I won’t quote them here; you can look them up for yourself if you care to. It will be helpful, though, to have a text here to comment on. Here is my own, slightly paraphrastic, version:

Our Father in Heaven, You whose name is Holy, may your rule become as manifest on earth as it is in heaven. You give us our daily bread; you provide forgiveness and teach us to forgive; you do not us lead into temptation, but rather you deliver us from evil.

Consider the address, “Our Father in Heaven, You whose name is Holy”. To begin with the first part of this address, we need to consider a language issue. Even though the Gospels were written in Greek, Jesus words were Aramaic, a Semitic language closely related to Hebrew. Of course, we do not know what words he may have uttered, but most scholars believe that he usually used the word “Abba” when addressing God.

Now, “Abba” is an intimate and informal form of address. I have even seen it translated as “Daddy”, though that does seem to lead to a rather flippant version of the prayer. I think Jesus’ use of “Abba” tells us that he saw the relationship between us and God to be deeply and ultimately intimate and yet as casual as the loving relationship between us and our fathers, our Abbas, our Daddies. Just as we can rest comfortably and securely in our fathers’ love for us, we can also relax into God’s love. There is no need for strict formalities and ritualistic forms of address. We can simply be ourselves in God’s presence. For, as Jung points out, “Bidden or unbidden, God is present.”

And what about Heaven? Did Jesus think of heaven as a physical place where a physical God and angels lived? Surely not, since that would have been idolatry. So what, then, is heaven? I think he believed that Heaven is a spiritual “place”, a “place” that pervades the physical world and yet is separate from it and so no place at all. This makes God around us and within us and yet unapproachable except as spirit to Spirit.

“Our Father in Heaven”. Those simple four words of invocation are, in some ways the entire prayer. “God who stands to us as loving and gentle as Abba, living within and around us as Spirit to spirit.” We are immediately invited to step beyond our physical lives and into our spiritual lives, beyond ourselves as biological agents and into ourselves as spiritually and morally responsible agents, what I think of as human beings.

Interestingly, Jesus’ address contains a second part: “You whose name is Holy”. What could it mean that God is named “Holy”?

At this point, I need to get personal. I conceive of God as not a thing at all, and therefore cannot be named. The point of naming things is to pick them out from all the other things there are. If God does not appear on the list of things in the universe (“…sealing wax, cabbages, kings, neutrinos, Uncle Harry, Aunt Matilda,….”) then God cannot be named. You can’t pick something out of a list it does not appear on. To name God would be to make of God a thing among other things, and that is the essence of idolatry. In fact, that, I believe, is the wisdom within the prohibition against uttering God’s name.

When Jesus says that God is “named” Holy, then, he is doing something else entirely. He is point a linguistic finger. To be holy is to be whole, unbroken, indissoluble, unmarred. There is no such thing, of course, but God is not a thing. In saying that God is Holy Jesus is moving us still further out of our ordinary, thing-full lives and into the realm of the eternal, the timeless and placeless, into the realm of the spirit. It is in this realm that prayer works.

And now, having entered that spiritual place that is no place, we are ready to pray. The next several sentences have their own issues to contend with. And that will be the subject for my next installment.

 

On Being Able To Hear Again

Just a quick reflection on my newly functional hearing aid. (I have only one, in my left ear.) In case you missed it on my Facebook posting, I discovered that the speaker died, but it died so slowly over the year or so that I didn’t realize it (frog in the pot and all that). But now I have a new speaker and a whole new world of hearing has opened to me.

I hear things that I haven’t noticed for years, like walking down the street and hearing someone several houses away on the other side watering their garden. Or sitting next to the organ console at choir rehearsal Thursday evening and hearing the higher frequencies reflected back at me. It’s like getting new glasses and feeling like I can count every leaf and blade of grass.

But wait; there’s more. Not only do I hear new sounds, but also I have to learn how to hear all over again, and that is just fascinating. What?! Learn to hear again?! Absolutely. I’m hearing and noticing background noises that my brain has to learn to ignore all over again. Things like my hair brushing against the hearing aid receiver, or my clothes brushing against my body as I move around. When you scratch an itch, I’ll bet you hardly even notice what it sounds like. Right now, I often hear these scratches loud and clear.

These are the things people learn in very early childhood that can safely be ignored as we go about our daily business. I’ve not heard them in such a long time that my brain has forgotten the difference between background noise and serious sound, at least at the upper frequencies. It’s the buzzing part of the famous “booming, buzzing confusion”. And I now have a deeper appreciation of what people must have to go through who have been deaf for a long time and get a cochlear implant or who have been blind and suddenly can see again. So, as I said, it is fascinating.

There is a possible downside to all this, though. For a very long time, my right ear has been the stronger of the two, but now it is my left ear that is stronger. And the hearing in my right ear has degenerated down to borderline status so that I now have to decide whether to go ahead and get a hearing aid for that ear as well. I might have waited for a year or two, but I am so aware of the difference between the two ears that it is somewhere between annoying and distressing.

Some people would have no problem with this. Just get used to it, right? Well, the imbalance is driving me nuts. And given the reality that I will ultimately need to get one anyhow and that they will only get more expensive the longer I wait, I’ll probably take the plunge. On the other hand, though, if I do get a second hearing aid, then my hearing in both ears will be far better than it’s been in years. So maybe it’s not such a down side after all.

Not everything that has happened to me this week has been this exciting of course, but I’ve certainly enjoyed this part of the week. As I said, it’s been fascinating. Or so I have found it.

Oh, and if you are wondering about my next installment of reflections on prayer, just be patient. It’s coming in a few days.

Link

Well, last time I promised to write about the Lord’s Prayer and suggested that Jesus never intended us to repeat his words. I’m sure he would not object to our repeating his words, but I see nothing in the Bible that unambiguously suggests that he wanted us to. The fullest version is found in Matthew, Chapter 6 verses 5 through 14. There is a version in Luke, but it is rather truncated, and the version in Mark is barely there. I will concentrate my thoughts for the most part on Matthew’s version. Since I don’t read Greek, the original language of the Gospels, I have to depend on translations. I have consulted seven.

To begin at the beginning, Jesus says not to pray in public, but in private, in your own room with the door shut. He also tells us not to “heap up empty phrases” (Revised Standard Version, the Jerusalem Bible version is “do not babble”), and since God already knows what we need, there is no point in asking for anything. So, for Jesus, true prayer is done in private, silently, and with humility. After this introduction, he says what I think is the crucial point. He does not tell us what to pray but how to pray:

  • “After this manner therefore pray ye” (King James)
  • “Pray then like this” (RSV)
  • “So you should pray like this” (Jerusalem Bible)
  • “This is how you should pray” (The New English Bible)
  • “This, then, is how you should pray” (New International Version)
  • “You should pray like this” (Contemporary English Version)
  • “Instead you should pray like this”(The Jesus Seminar Version)

All of these translations are in agreement, even though each group of translators comes from a different place on the Christian spectrum. So it would seem that Jesus was not telling his followers what to say but how to say it. At least that seems to me what he was up to in Matthew.

The other version of the Lord’s Prayer is in Luke, Chapter 11, verses 1 to 4. There is no preamble in Luke as there is in Matthew. Jesus is simply responding to the Disciples request that he teach them to pray. His instruction is that, “When you pray, you should say” (Jesus Seminar version).

The two Gospels, then, are not in agreement on this. It seems to me that when faced with two contradictory passages there are only two options. One can try to resolve the contradiction or one can choose the one that seems to be the more coherent with the rest of the body of teachings. In this case, the contradiction seems so bald that I see no obvious resolution, so let us see which seems the better fit with Jesus’ other teachings.

First, I note that The Jesus Seminar does not think it likely that Jesus actually uttered either the Matthean Preamble or the Lukan Instruction. Therefore we cannot fall back on noting that Jesus probably said one and not the other. Chances are he said neither.

As I read the Gospels, though, Jesus thought that the crux of the religious matter is something that is between each human being and God. Thus, for just one example, we are told not to judge one another since judgment is God’s business. It seems to me unlikely, then, that Jesus would insist that prayer consists of specific words being said or even that God would care more about the words of the mouth than the words of the heart. Therefore I think the Preamble is more coherent with Jesus other teachings than the Instruction, whether or not Jesus actually uttered it.

I conclude, then, that Jesus intention was not to teach a specific prayer so much as an attitude or a manner of prayer, not so much “Pray this prayer” as “Pray in this way”. And which way is that? We should pray privately, in the silence of our hearts, and with humble thanksgiving. At least that is how I read it.

In my next installment, I’ll consider the prayer itself and how I understand it, which understanding you may find somewhat non-conventional. Some do; some don’t. See what you think.

 

On Prayer

When I was child growing up in the Presbyterian church, I was told that prayer is conversation with God. It isn’t begging for something; it isn’t rote repetition of words learned and repeated so often that they have lost all meaning. And surely telling God what God already knows is not prayer; nor is asking, or even directing, God to change the world prayer. Prayer is not idle or empty praise, and praise, unless it is a form of thanksgiving, is empty and idle and not prayer. All of this means that the vast majority of “prayers” one hears are not prayers at all. They are people talking to themselves. I’ve even heard prayers that are actually not very cleverly disguised sermons. None of this is prayer.

Prayer is honest, open, and free conversation with God. Even though I’m no longer a Christian, I still think this is true. A genuine prayer is a conversation with God. Anything else is at best boring and at worst a form of idolatry. I recently wrote a blog in which, among other things, I talked about conversation as a turning of one heart toward another. This means that prayer, true prayer, is the turning of the heart toward the heart of God. A tall order, that!

To pray you must open yourself so that you so you are able to enter into the presence of God and speak your truth, knowing that your truth is always only partial, never more than half-formed, just a dim glimpse of something far larger than you can understand. And prayer is also listening to the response, listening honestly, deeply, with humility, and with no preconceived expectations.

To pray is to be open to change, sometimes a small change and sometimes a profound change. That means prayer is terrifying and even dangerous—or at least it should be. It’s not that you can be injured, but you stand naked before God. Well, your soul is naked, open, and vulnerable. You need to be ready to be told that you must change your life. (And whose life can’t stand a little change from time to time?) It’s hard enough to be told by someone you love that you must change your life, but to be told by God that you must change your life is something else entirely.

What you hear in prayer is not something you can deny or pretend you didn’t hear, not when you are truly praying. You can choose to ignore God’s teaching; you can choose not to change your life, but you will know that it is a choice you have made. And you will walk away troubled and unable to forget.

In the final analysis, a conversation with God is, I think, really about just one thing: learning how to make God’s Presence more visible and manifest in our own living. In fact, I think this is what the religious life is actually about: becoming increasingly transparent to God’s Presence. This is the reason we are instructed to make of our lives a prayer. It also means that a lot of what passes for religion is not religion at all. If your religion teaches you anything other than how to make God’s Presence a beacon of unconditional love shining from your heart into the hearts of others, then it is a false religion. But that is another blog for another time.

I am sometimes asked whether I pray. Well, I certainly meditate on a regular basis. “Yes, but do you pray?” Given my understanding of prayer, I’m not sure of the difference. To meditate is to so still the mind, the heart, and the soul that one is open to what the Buddhists call the Buddha-nature. It is to forget the self so that one can address the Self.

The Buddha assured us that we are all already Buddhas. The task is not to become a Buddha but to awake to the Buddha we already are and then, being awake, to live our lives in wakefulness. Meditation is the tool par excellence to awaken. Seems to me this is close enough to Christian prayer as makes no difference. Or so I think.

My next blog will use this understanding of prayer to reflect on The Lord’s Prayer. As a teaser, let me observe in closing that I doubt Jesus ever intended us to repeat this prayer. But more about that next time.