Wednesday, March 23, 2016

using

PicassoGuernica.jpg
Guernica by Picasso
I am studying for my doctoral oral defence these days so have little time to write thoughtful blogs or give much attention to other topics. However, I came across a quote from C. S. Lewis a few days ago which speaks not only to my doctoral research but resonates with my ongoing mission to rescue Christianity from the language of "being used by God." Really, we ought not to speak this way. The idea of God as a "user" is deeply disturbing, and adopting this view makes us, as followers of Jesus, prone to imitate this ends justifies the means type of thinking. In essence, we become utilitarian propagandizers instead of people who pursue genuine and loving encounter.

So here is Lewis on the distinction between using artwork and appreciating it as art. It applies to so much more than art, going to the heart of how we view all of creation (everything from other people to the holy scriptures to the flowers that grow in the field), whether as mere tools or as beautiful, living subjects who deserve our respect and have something to teach us.

“This attitude, which was once my own, might also be defined as “using” pictures. While you retain this attitude you treat the pictures – or rather a hasty and unconscious selection of elements in the picture – as a self-starter for certain imaginative and emotional activities of your own. In other words, you “do things with it.” You don’t lay yourself open to what it, by being in its totality precisely the thing it is, can do to you…. Real appreciation demands the opposite process. … We must begin by laying aside as completely as we can all our own preconceptions, interests, and associations. …We must use our eyes. We must look, and go on looking till we have certainly seen exactly what is there. We sit down before the picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it. The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive.” - C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (1992), 16-19.

We, as theologians, can be especially susceptible to this, using knowledge, sacred texts, and convincing ideas to press our viewpoint on others. Let us remember that theology's primary goal is not to persuade people of universal truth, but to awaken us to the presence of the loving Eternal One. Let us be forerunners in looking well, listening well, and receiving well.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

having a conversation with God

Image from speakoutinc.com
Prayer. It seems so easy and so difficult at the same time. Hans Urs von Balthasar writes these words about prayer:

"Most Christians are convinced that prayer is more than the outward performance of an obligation, in which we tell God things he already knows. It is more than a kind of daily waiting attendance on the exalted Sovereign who receives his subjects' homage morning and evening. And although many Christians experience in pain and regret that their prayer gets no further than this lowly stage, they are sure, nonetheless, that there should be more to it. In this field there lies a hidden treasure, if only I could find it and dig it up. This seed has the power to become a mighty tree bearing blossoms and fruit, if only I would plant and tend it. This hard and distasteful duty would yield the freest and most blessed kind of life, if only I could open and surrender myself to it." [1]

I often have the sense that there is so much more to conversing with the Creator of the Universe than I am experiencing, and yet, I don't quite know how to move from my present habits and words and groans to a more profound and fruitful communication with the Lover of my soul. If we think of prayer as dialogue or conversation with God, perhaps the rules of good conversation might provide some insight into the area of prayer. I recently came across an article which expounds on the 10 Rules of a Great Conversationalist [2] and when I read it within the context of conversing with God, I found that a lot of the principles apply.

1. Be genuinely interested in the person. Who are they? What is on their mind? What motivates them? In the context of prayer, are we interested in who God is? Do we spend time asking about him? Do we talk about topics that are not centred around us but around him?
2. Focus on the positives. Rather than talk about past grievances, opt for a discussion of future goals. Are our prayers filled mostly with complaints or problems or do we talk about projects we would like to do together with God?
3. Converse, do not debate or argue. This is not a platform to air your opinions, not a battleground to win. Be ready to chat, discuss, and hash things out, but amiably. Allow for things to be left open-ended. In other words, are we open to hear things from God that we don't agree with? And are we willing to leave room for more discussion next time instead of having everything spelled out today?
4. Respect: Don't impose, criticize, judge, or demand. Respect the other's space, point of view, and choices. If we listen to our prayers, we just might find that we lapse into imposing our ideas and choices onto God instead of respecting his ways, timing, and process.
5. Put the person in her/her best light. Give credit where credit is due. Don't assume you know why they did something unless they explicitly tell you. Look for ways to make them look good. Are our prayers filled with graciousness in how we interpret God's actions or non-actions? Do we reaffirm God's lovingkindness toward all of creation, even when we might be having a bad day?
6. Embrace differences while building on commonalities. Appreciate their uniqueness. Build on common links. Use both difference and commonality to reveal more about both of you. When talking about a divine/human relationship, we can tend to focus too much on God's distance from us, both in goodness and in ability or power. Or perhaps we think of Jesus as our buddy and are overly familiar in our prayers. Let us make room for recognising common ground (Jesus) as well as appreciating God's holy uniqueness in our prayers.
7. Be true to yourself. Don't cover up who you are. Be real. Don't just mime what the other person is saying or do what you think is expected. God already knows us better than we know ourselves, so there is no advantage to putting on an act. Let our conversations with God be filled with integrity and humility.
8. 50-50 sharing. Both parties should have equal opportunities to contribute to the conversation. Don't do all the talking. Pose questions and listen. Yes, one hundred times yes.
9. Ask purposeful questions. To have a meaningful conversation, ask meaningful questions. Get to know a person better by asking good questions. I know that sometimes my questions in prayer are pitiful, rhetorical, or vague and not at all thoughtful. We can all learn to ask better questions, even of God.
10. Give and take. Give someone the benefit of the doubt. Put things in a larger context to get perspective. I believe this also means that we should be good at both giving and receiving. Prayer can be a lively exchange, a respectful silence, a pouring out of our concern or grief, a search for guidance, or an intimate exchange between friends. Sometimes we will be on the giving end more than the receiving end; other times we will be happy to listen and sit quietly. Let us cultivate both skills.

"Prayer is dialogue, not man's monologue before God." [3]

[1] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Prayer (San Francisco: Ignatius Press), 13.
[2] Celestine Chua, "Art of Conversing: Do You Meet These 10 Rules of a Great Conversationalist?" http://personalexcellence.co/blog/conversation/.
[3] Balthasar, 14.

Monday, March 07, 2016

two wills become one

Image from goodfridayblues.wordpress.com
I have been doing quite a bit of reading and thinking about freedom in the past year or two. Some of it has to do with my doctoral dissertation and some of it has to do with my ongoing spiritual formation and a personal desire to be truly free. When we think of freedom in our Western culture, we often think about the ability to make our own choices, to say I don't want to eat pizza today, I want to eat sushi. Or I want to do what I want to do, not what you want me to do. We often see freedom primarily as self-determination, autonomy, and the ability to say No. However, freedom can also be thought of as consent, having the ability to align ourselves with another, the power to say Yes to someone. I want to say more about this second sense of freedom, but first, a bit of an overview of the scriptural idea of freedom.

The Greek words we translate as freedom in the New Testament are:
1. eleutheria: freedom, liberty, especially from slavery; the liberty to do as one pleases, freedom from the dominion of corrupt desires so that we do, by the free impulse of the soul, what the will of God requires.
2. aphesis: pardon, complete forgiveness, a sending away, letting go, deliverance.

We see these words when Jesus quotes a messianic passage from Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release (aphesis) to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free (aphesis), to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor." (Luke 4:18-19, NRSV) and when Jesus answers some Jewish opponents: "I tell you the truth: everyone who commits sin surrenders his freedom to sin. He is a slave to sin’s power. Even a household slave does not live in the home like a member of the family, but a son belongs there forever. So think of it this way: if the Son comes to make you free (eleutheria), you will really be free (eleutheria)." (John 8:34, The Voice)

Other well-known passages concerning freedom are: "Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom (eleutheria)." (2 Corinthians 3:17, NRSV) and "For you were called to freedom (eleutheria), brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another." (Galatians 5:13, NRSV). I won't comment much on these passages other than to say that freedom is closely identified with Jesus, the Son of God. Where Jesus is, we find freedom on display.

When we are talking about freedom in a theological context, it is important to differentiate between finite freedom (what we have as finite beings) and infinite freedom (what an infinite being has). Because we are not infinite, we can never have infinite freedom, meaning that the choices we have before us will always be limited. The good news is that our freedom, granted to us by God, finds its ultimate expression in tying itself to God. Freedom that is focused on autonomy is, in essence, turned in on itself and soon becomes a prison instead of bringing a person to greater freedom. The only thing that opens humans up to greater freedom is being in contact with infinite freedom, divine freedom.

This dynamic intersection of finite freedom with infinite freedom is evident in the story of Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane. Jesus, knowing that suffering and death await him, prays: "Father, if You are willing, take this cup [of suffering] away from Me. Yet not My will, but Your will, be done." (Luke 22:42, The Voice) Here we witness the intimacy between Jesus and his heavenly Father; however, we see not only their oneness but their distinction as two wills are clearly identified. In an appeal to his Father, Jesus voices his desire to be free from suffering and death. This could be seen as a form of self-determination. Jesus follows this appeal with a prayer of consent, choosing to align his will with that of his beloved Father and thereby, uniting his finite freedom with infinite freedom and accomplishing what no mere human could.

Jesus shows us that freedom is not related to a demonstration of power and autonomy, but the ability to say Yes even when we are tempted to say No, and the courage to say No even when others would have us say Yes (think about the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness). Life or death, fame or obscurity, success or failure, love or hate, it matters not. Jesus freely aligns himself with the will of the Father because his freedom is found in the Father, not in his circumstances. 

So what does this mean for those of us seeking to live in freedom? Ignatian spirituality identifies spiritual freedom as indifference. This does not mean that we don't care (Jesus experienced great sorrow in Gethsemane), but that we are not ruled by external forces or internal brokenness. Spiritual freedom means that we are free from personal bias and can submit our wants and desires to God, just like Jesus did. Spiritual freedom means that we are free from disordered attachments (attachments that are out of order) and we can let go of anything which hinders us from loving God and loving others. Spiritual freedom means that we are free from our personal baggage, those past experiences which can hamper our ability to say Yes to God. Spiritual freedom means that we live with open hands, not clenched fists, and that we are able to give and receive freely. Spiritual freedom means that we live fully and freely as the persons God created us to be. 

May we say the prayer of Jesus, "Not my will but yours be done," not as a prayer of weakness and limp submission, but as a prayer which is our greatest expression of freedom and leads us into even greater freedom.