I Have Been Spending an Hour a Day on Things I Don’t Understand and That I Can Barely Explain

I have been waking up an hour early to go to my awesome church, where they have all installed this giant dry erase board.  I have been sitting there, for an hour, almost all every day, with dear friends, great people.  We have been praying for all the requests on that board, and for each other.  There is music, sometimes, and there is only a few of us, sometimes, and there is a dozen, or more, of us, other times.   We have pray out loud, we pray silently, we cry, and we laugh, and yes, sometimes we are bored.

But not nearly as often as I would have thought.

There are so many things about prayer that don’t make any sense.  It is a thing I have struggled with a lot, an area I have grown in, I think, since coming to the place I worship in.  But it’s not that anybody has really explained things to me in a new way.  I still don’t get why God just does things with out prayer some times.  And why he does things only after we pray for them other times.  And why he doesn’t seem to budge toward our prayer other times.

I have a few guesses and metaphors around these things.  But they aren’t the part that really bugs me.  The part that really bugs me is the idea that the world might operate like some sort of Prom-king election, where the cool kids, with lots of people praying/voting, that makes me sick.

And yet I wake up when it is still dark, stumble out of bed and to church before heading off into my job and life.  I am comitted to doing this until Easter, at least.  And the crazy thing is that it does not feel like a chore.  It does not feel like work.  Please believe this is me confessing, and not bragging.  I am not very disciplined or good at time management.  (In truth, I ought to confess that I am a morning person; perhaps that part is easier for me than it would be for you.)

It is not that it is fun.  And it is not that is easy, either.  Sometimes, the weight of those desires ways me down: people suffering from cancer, and depression, and lonliness.  Requests for comfort, support, material things and spiritual realities.  Prayers for the writer, prayers for the people they love, prayers for the church.

People talk about how Jesus took on the sins of the whole world.  I think there is something to that.  While I don’t think that is the whole picture, I do think that in praying for this tiny little sliver of the things that a tiny little population dared to write… this gives me just the tiniest glimpse of some of the things it meant, for Jesus to take all this on.

Somehow, while this brings me out of myself, it also brings me back, to the deepest part of me.  God meets us when we pray, and I have this sense that he emerges from within us as much as he does outside of us.  And as I suffer with people, feeling their pain, it connects to my own.

I suspect, even if I wasn’t praying for others, if I was just sitting, awake but inactive, I would have this sense of something deep within me… stirring.  I am waking up to the reality that so much of what we do is running away from our baggage, our hurts, and our pain.

Our crazy-busy schedules, our constant multi-tasking, our incessant longing for entertainments… I am always running.  Maybe you are too.  I remember when I was little, we used to have these water fights.  They would begin with water balloons but inevitably devolve to using the hose to go after each other.

My older, larger brother is better at being a male than I am.  On those rare occasions when I would briefly gain control of the hose, he would manage to puff himself up, and loudly charge at me, and inevitably I would run away.

I remember when I figured out that when I held the hose, I had the power.  I did not have to run away.  It was an act of will, maybe the bravest thing I ever had to do, standing my ground.  But it paid off.

My fears and brokeness, they are like my brother was, then.  In the act of standing where I am, choosing not to run through business, or noisiness, or activity, in the act of allowing myself quiet and stillness, I make my stand.

Despite my reservations, hesitations, and objections: it works.  After all, it does not make sense to me that the wind holds up an airplane, either.  And yet… it works.


Young man, juust who do you think you are talking to?!?

If I told you only what I said, I would be giving you half the story.

Consider, for example, “You idiot!  Get out of my way.”

It doesn’t actually tell you much, to consider what I said.  If you don’t know who I said it to, you are left with a mystery.

If I say that to a cute toddler who happened to veer too near toward me as I was walking into a liquor store, you are left with the indication that I, at best, am a jerk.

On the other hand, if I mutter that quietly to myself when I am cut off, you might think I am a pretty ordinary guy.  If I shout that because I have figured out the secret to saving somebody, and precious moments are ticking by, and maybe I won’t get “there” in time, you might even call that quote heroic.

Perhaps at the top of the list of “The most obvious statements ever made” is this: context matters.

What we are saying is important.  But who we are saying it to?  That is more important.

I serve in the Children’s ministry at the fantastic Fellowship Church, New England.  The awesome directors of the ministry are having as watch a series of videos by Francis Chan.  I am… ambivalent about Francis Chan.  Sometimes he is a wee bit old-school, traditional, and black-and-white for my post modernist, emergent church sensibilities.  A thing I am keenly aware of: sometimes the people I am most ambivalent about are the people I need most to hear from.

Last Sunday, we watched this video where Chan made a bunch of great points.  But the one that I really carry with me is this:

When we pray, we ought to be really aware of just who we are praying to.

With out meaning to, with out being aware of it, I have been, for a while, just praying to pray.  People more spiritually mature and experienced than me tell me I am supposed to.  It makes me feel good, some times, to pray.  The bible tells me that I am supposed to.  And so I do.

But the thing is, Jesus is really clear about some things.  One of them is that whenever we do things just because it seems like we are supposed to, whenever we get legalistic, whenever we go through the motions… we cheat ourselves.

I cheated myself.

I have been working hard, this week, as I pray, to be aware of the context.  Context matters.  Who we are talking to?  That is as important as the words I say.  And so my heart-felt prayers, the content matters.  But also, the “person” I am addressing these prayers to?  He matters to.  At least as much.  When I pray really thinking about the fact that I am praying to the creator of the universe, the artist who crafted my soul, my biggest fan and deepest lover….  This changes everything.

Love, love, love

Transformers The Ride - 3D
Transformers The Ride – 3D (Photo credit: prayitno)

In the Transformers movies, one of the main protagonists is named Bumble Bee.  Bumble Bee, it seems, has suffered some sort of damage to his ability to talk.  It’s a little strange, because we see some of his team mates get ripped apart and battered unimaginably.  Most of them are fixed, but Bumble Bee is left with out a voice.

Perhaps Bumble Bee has a really annoying voice and nobody wants to hear it.  Or maybe he does not have the right robot insurance or something.  Anyway…

Bumble Bee compensates by stealing phrases off the radio and putting them together to say what he wants to say.  And this is my point, why I have subjected you to perhaps the geekiest blog intro ever.

Some of them when I pray, I feel a little like Bumble Bee.  My prayers evoke what feels like a response from outside of me.  But it feels like this outside presence is using my own memories like Bumble Bee uses the radio, it feels like memories, words etc. that are already inside my mind are strung together in new ways.

This way of progressing does not merely repeat things back at me that I think I already new.  The context within my life, and the juxtapositions of the different phrases etc. brings out a legitimately new understanding.

That was more of  the geeky introduction, in case you like to keep track of such things.  But don’t worry.  The introduction is now officially over.

When I was praying yesterday, I had this experience, of God speaking to me through that which I already know.

His message was liberating and terrifying; at first heartening and then as I pondered it… really hard.

I realized how little truly matters.

It doesn’t matter what I wear, what I buy, what my house looks like.  And doesn’t matter if I’m ugly.  It doesn’t matter if I’m educated.

It doesn’t matter who I know.  Mostly, it doesn’t matter what I know.  It does not matter what my life experiences are.

It doesn’t matter if I am deeply loved by those around me.

In the final analysis, I am powerless to determine all these things.  Through the actions I take (and the ones I don’t take) I can stack the deck a little bit, too increase my likelihood of how all those things turn out.

But the final deal is God’s.  And the way he deals all those things out will emphasize the point: none of that matters.  Even the last one.  It just doesn’t matter how much people love me.

All that matters is how much I love others.  Deeply love them, love them in wisdom and truth.  Love them as unconditionally as I can.

In the end, we will be lead to a cross.  Will we follow His example and pour out our love once we are hanging from it?

Giraffes with Little Necks

I think in prayer, we are like the students.  We have this tendency to think it is about the world outside of us: the granite blocks.

We pray for the things we think would be good.  The things that we think that we want.  Just as the students might think that sculpting a cylander here, a box-shape there would be good.

We might get better at sculpting.  We might grow more mature in the things that we pray for.  But if we do, it’s only because the things we did had effect, the things we did have meaning.  If the teacher had left the students only plastic sporks, the students would never have learned anything.  Sporks won’t alter the rock, no matter how long you go at it.

And if prayers couldn’t impact the world, we wouldn’t have this opportunity for growth.  If we pray for a new car, and then we get the new car, we learn that stuff doesn’t fill the hole in our hearts.

Ironically, in being given this God-like power, to impact reality itself through prayer, we come to appreciate God’s wisdom and finesse.  We realize that if we were God, we would make quite a mess of everything, if the sculpting teaching showed the students his master piece after they made their own attempts at sculpting, they would appreciate it all the more.

Praying, I think, is about molding ourselves into the image of God, not molding the world into the image of Disneyland.  In the very act of trying to make the world into Disney land, we begin to get it.

We slowly begin to pray with a God’s eye view of things, with an understanding of the big picture.   There is this exchange in one of those “Oh, God” movies that came out in the 70’s or 80’s.

A mortal says to George Burn’s God, “Why did you make the giraffe’s neck so big?”

giraffe | i love giraffes
Image by Adam Foster | Codefor via Flickr

And God says, “So that they could eat the leaves in the trees.”

And the girl says “Well, why didn’t you make the trees smaller?”

And God says, “Well, I needed somewhere high up for the birds to perch.”

And she says “Well, why didn’t you just have the birds perch on the giraffe’s head.”

The point, of course, is that she has lost track of the idea that the whole thing began with the suggestion that the giraffe’s head wouldn’t be high up in the first place.  And when we pray, I think we do this to.  We tweak this thing or that thing about the universe, and the more we try to fix things the bigger mess we make.  We end up realizing that the way things were before we started praying was the best way for them to be.

The Sculpture Class

Image by the doodlers via Flickr

When we are confronted with a mystery, a place where opposing view points both seem right, the best we can do is illuminate the fact that there are truths on both sides.

I have some guesses for maybe how this could be.

But the thing I want to say up front is that I’ve seen prayer work.  I believe that God does change his plan, sometimes.  People get what they have asked for, sometimes.  I think they would not have gotten it if they had not prayed.

Permit me an image.

Imagine that a bunch of people walk in to what appears to be an art studio.  There are these tremendous, roughly rectangular blocks of granite.  There are tools.  Not particularly good tools.  But they are tools.

The instructor is watching silently from the back of the room.  He watches as his well-meaning students decide that this must be some kind of sculpting class.

And so they begin.

They aren’t particularly good sculptors.  They put lots of work into chiseling away at the blocks.   They work and work and work at it.  For months, perhaps.  Maybe for years.  Showing up and sculpting, for some inexplicable reason, becomes the center point of their lives.

When all is said and done, Some of them chisel the blocks away into nothing.  Some of them know when to stop.  You can even tell what a few of them actually sculpted.  There is enough resemblance to figure it all out.

Eventually, the teacher reviels to the students his identity.  Some of the students show off their works of art.  Others hide their heads in their hands weeping.  They are ashamed of what they have created.

The student who thought of himself as the most gifted asks, “Do we have a show, somewhere?  Is there a gallery that will allow us to display these?”

The teacher laughs at the young man.  He was marginally better than his fellow students.  But he still has lots to learn.

“A gallery?  No, actually I’ll be piling whatever remains of your granite slabs in the back of my pickup truck this afternoon and drop them off at the dump.”

“What?” Exclaims the “best” student.  “You can’t do that!  I’ve worked so hard on this, for all this time!  If you throw away our works of art, there was never any point at all.”

And the teacher looked at the student.  And his little scultpture.  And he put his hands out, and he said “Give me your tools.”

The student did.

“When you began, you had a chisel that was little more than a hunk of metal.  Through your time here in this class, you have honed the tip to the perfect sharpness.  When you began with the hammer, it had a flat head.  But as time has gone on, after those thousands of times of striking the chisel, the very head of the hammer itself has taken on the shape of the top of the chisel.”

He paused and turned the hammer over.  “The handle of the hammer was smooth and round when it began.  Now?  Now this is your hammer alone.  Look how the wood has come to be shaped to the very contours of your hand.”  He put the tools down and opened the student’s hand.  “And your hand!  It was soft and weak when you began.  You have grown these callouses in all the right places.  The muscles and tendons have grown tight and firm.  Your body has learned the difference between slicing a sliver of granite off the block and splitting it in half.  Your mind has learned to see the grain of the stone itself.  Your imagination has been trained to work in the three dismensions.”

“The thing that we call art?  The thing we leave behind?  That’s just a side effect.  In this case, quite frankly… Not a very good one.  This was never about what you were making of the granite slab.  It was about what you were making of yourselves, of your tools.  It was laying the groundwork for what may come later… and that which may come later, it could be very great indeed.”

When words aren’t necessary

Let me tell you about one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met.

His name was Lerric Odd.  Really.

He was an aide who I believe God brought into my life early in my career as a teacher.  He is brilliant at what he does.  An artist, almost.

He is the sort of figure who belongs in film, or in a book, more than he belongs in real life.   Lerric is a tall black man with features that appear chiseled out of stone.  He’s got this love of gaudy silk shirts.  And he’s got this way about him.  A strength and confidence and a deep knowing of who he is.  A humility, and this great sense of humor.

I learned more from Lerric than I learned in all the education classes I ever took, added with all the things I was supposed to learn in all the inservice trainings I’ve ever been in, combined with all the teaching advice I’ve ever heard.

Lerric was shrouded in mystery.  He’d worked for the residential facility I taught at sense it had opened.  He had just gotten out of prison.  He walked into the place.  It wasn’t opened yet.  He told the man in charge that he didn’t have many skills.  He said he’d learn fast and work hard.  And he stayed at the place for years.

Day 260: Don't Censor Me

At some point he lost his wife and child to a car accident.  He was diagnosed with a brain tumor and did not know how long he would live.

I was terrible when I started teaching and I learned so much from Lerric.  I learned a little something of the camaraderie experienced by soldiers in that job.  We had so little in common, Lerric and I, but this bond!  It was this deep thing.  I could read him at a glance and he could read me.

Especially when the chips were down.  When a student was violent, or aggressive, or self injurous.  It got to the point with Lerric that we didn’t have to talk when we put our hands on the kids.  We just flowed.

On a wider level, when I contemplate the relationships I’ve been engaged in, the thing I realize is that in my very closest relationships, words are optional.  They are not the only way that we communicate.  Things go unspoken, and somehow just known.  There is something deeper than speaking.

That’s the point I’m contemplating right now: words are for people who are not very close together.  There are types of closeness that run deeper than the need for words.

And yet, when we think of prayer, most of the time, we think about something that could so easily be translated to spoken or written words.  At it’s worst (and much to often) this would read like a Christmas wish list: all the things we want Santa-God to bring us.

Such a prayer suggests a person who is not very close to the diety he is praying to.  Such a prayer does not at all sound like the sort-of thing done by a person who is near to his God, who is in him and has God in him.

It’s the principle of the matter, not the principal of the matter.

My youngest woke me up from a deep sleep.  That’s not an unusual thing.  What was unusual, is how thoroughly and clearly I realized something as I woke up:

Somewhere, somehow, my stupid self has stopped praying for God to change me.

I’m going through some difficult circumstances.  My current job has not invited me back for next year.  It is heart breaking because there are things I love about the job, and more importantly, all false modesty aside I’m damn good at it.

When I’m feeling kind I say that there is a difference in vision between myself and the school leadership.  When I’m feeling a little less kind I harp on the fact that my vision is consistent with the spirit of the law, is the one that is rooted in experience (the brand new principal thinks he gets “it” but he doesn’t) and benefits the most kids.

But all that is niether here nor there.  He’s the principal.  I’m not.

I have been a rather mopey and pathetic mess as the school year winds to a close.  I have so much to be thankful for.  Not just the obvious stuff like my health, my amazing family, or the roof over my head.  But there are even blessings directly rooted in this situation.

God loved me enough to close this door:  I would have been miserable next year, if I’d stayed.  He’s reminding me that I’m bigger than my job.  He’s reminding me that I shouldn’t work with emotionally disturbed adolescents to get the affirmation of the worldly power structure.  He’s showing me– yet again– that everything I have and all that I think I am is not something I own, it’s just on lease.

I realized, as I woke up at about 3 this morning, quite suddenly, that I have been resisting all those truths: fighting them.   I’ve been praying for outside circumstances to change so that I could deny these things a bit longer.

I don’t think it’s a problem to pray for external circumstances to change.  I think the problem is when we only pray for external circumstances to change… Before he was crucified, Jesus said “I’d rather not go through with this.”  But he went on to say “But it’s your will, not my will, God.”

In much less brutal circumstances, I’ve been praying, in lots of different ways, “I’d rather not go through this.”  But I have been doing much praying “But it’s your will, not my will, God.”