Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Listeners that bridge the way to prayer

The image in my mind as I begin is of that ladder Jacob saw in his dream, the one that served as a bridge between heaven and earth. We see in that bridge a picture of Jesus, of how His incarnation, death and resurrection open a way for us to move between this life and eternity. Today I think, too, of the one who listens in the power of the indwelling Spirit, as one who serves the speaker as a bridge to prayer, whose role is to keep the way between the speaker and the Lord clear.

Once again it is Job and his friends who drew this to my attention. Earlier in this series, I wrote about Job’s friends and their “listening.” Three men who came to accompany Job, who stayed with him, who sat in silence in the ash heap, and then, when they finally opened their mouths in response to what they saw, were unwilling and perhaps unable to integrate Job’s story with their theology. Despite what they knew of Job and his life of generous integrity, they put their suffering friend in the “must have sinned” box. No compassion, no pity, no patience. No trust in Job’s integrity, in the faithfulness of Job’s walk with God. Preachy, accusatory responses loaded with falsehood and bad theology. God Himself would say to them (Job 42:7), “My anger burns against you…, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” Only by Job’s prayer, would God withhold due penalty for their folly.

But how did their “listening,” which includes their responses to what Job said, impact Job? Specifically, did they, as listening, attending, responsive friends help Job to stay with his own prayer, to continue to pursue God? For that is the purpose of the discipline of spiritual listening. The listener attends to the speaker and to the Spirit so as to hold the way open, to support the ladder, if you will, so that the speaker finds whatever it is he or she needs to stay with the Lord. The listener is a companion, a helper, a supporter in the pilgrimage of another.

The Book of Job is far too long to work through in detail, but here is what strikes me about the impact of Job’s friends on his prayer, especially when I read through the dialogue between Job and the three quickly:

·      When Job first opens his mouth after seven days of silent mourning with his three friends (Job 3), he pours out raw pain and emotion, and deep confusion that God would have so “hedged him in.” Job’s words. It is not direct prayer, but it is honest, messy, unfiltered, vulnerable sharing. Countered, from the first response, with instruction rather than empathy, heavy spiritual-ese, and bad theology in the suggestion that Job must be hiding some secret sin.

·      In Job’s second speech (Job 6-7) he continues to complain against God and to pray for death, an end to his suffering. He even adds his unkind friends to his list of woes. He argues with them a bit, and invites debate in 6:24-30, and in chapter 7 mixes debate and justification of his complaints with prayer.

·      Job’s third speech (Job 9-10) mulls the vast difference between humanity and God, and his inability to touch God’s purity. He holds, however, to his blamelessness.  Job 9:25-10:22 is direct prayer wherein Job is tormented by confusion, and oppressed by God’s might and His silence. “WHY?” is his cry to God.

·      Still arguing, and now heckling his friends, Job’s fourth speech (Job 12-13) resounds with logic and observation of God’s character and ways revealed in nature and life. From 13:13 onwards, his argument melds back into prayer, this time a prayer to confront God in person, to argue his case, even as he continues to plead for death and the peace of oblivion.

·      In Job 16, Job takes a fifth run, crying out against his miserable friends. He speaks yet again of his pain, his horrific story. He does not pray.

·      In fact, we don’t see Job pray again as long as the conversation with his friends continues. He argues, he reasons, he begs these men for mercy. He cries his understanding of God: “I know my Redeemer lives….” But in the sixth through the ninth and final response to their reasoning, he speaks little of his personal misery and desire. His friends, he has learned, don’t want to know, don’t want to look at what is. And he only talks about God, never to Him.

What has happened? These friends, these men who chose to come alongside Job in his story, set up barriers to prayer. All genuine listening truncated by their revulsion and their bad theology, they worked to sort Job out, to set him straight, to teach and push him into what they felt so sure he needed to do.

In doing so, they failed on so many levels.
·      They failed to look closely at reality that contradicted what they wanted God to be like.
·      They failed to keep to what they knew of Job’s life and character.
·      They failed to give Job dignity, to approach him with humility.
·      They failed to realize that God does not need protecting from human anger and confusion.
·      They looked for pious prayer rather than real prayer.
·      They failed to believe that God knew what He was doing.

Their failure in all of these things made a failure to truly listen inevitable, inescapable. They came to help Job. I believe that. We who desire to practice the discipline of spiritual listening want to do the same.

Lots of failure in this story. At the heart of it, for me, is the failure to understand that our best role as listeners is to simply support the ladder, hold the bridge open, and then do our best to stay out of the way and let God speak and do as He purposes and pleases.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Qualities of listening as evidence of Spirit-indwelling

Consider Peter. He’s the outspoken disciple, the one we feel we know best because he talks the most and because he says the things we would say if we had the guts. He talks the most in the gospels, and there we know him as the one crazy for Jesus who always gets it wrong. He talks the most in Acts (leaving the later-come Paul aside), and there he speaks to crowds clearly and effectively, stands courageous before the authorities, and sets out new understandings of the gospel’s reach couched in wisdom gained through prayer and visions.

We marvel at the change. We say, “That’s the difference Pentecost makes, the evidence of the transformation that is possible with the Spirit’s indwelling of believers.” If we are honest, we also wonder: if that is so, why are we not all so changed? But that is a subject for a different conversation.

Spiritual listening, listening as a spiritual discipline, has had my attention lately. Partly because I’ve been doing a lot of it, and have been much in prayer for the grace and practices to do it in a way that brings forth fruit. And partly because, as I read and pray with scripture, things keep coming to mind that I have not noticed much before. Like Peter, and the quality of his listening to Jesus.

Peter in the gospels

Peter is all over the place. He grudgingly agrees to put down his nets at Jesus’ suggestion, then pushes back from Him because Peter knows his sinfulness. He wants to walk on water. He speaks without asking to claim that Jesus, of course, pays the temple tax. Let’s take a quick look at four vignettes.

Peter, in Matthew 16, declares that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. Jesus responds with the enigmatic “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” In the very next paragraph, Peter pushes back from Jesus’ talk of suffering, death and resurrection: “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.”

In Matthew 17, Peter is among the three chosen to witness the Transfiguration. “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.”

This fresco makes me think of the Transfiguration somehow

In Matthew 26, Jesus foretells Peter’s denial. Peter’s response: “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away…. Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!”

Immediately following these words, Jesus asks weary, confused Peter to wait with him and watch for an hour in prayer. Peter doesn’t say anything this time. He just goes to sleep.

What strikes me today in all of these is the quality of Peter’s listening to Jesus. Peter’s words make clear that he loves Jesus, that he is willing to do anything for Jesus. He is there with Jesus. He hears what Jesus says, and what is said about Him. He declares Jesus as Christ, Son of God. But he, in each instance, makes clear by what he says and does that he does not listen to Jesus. Oh, how we identify with Peter in these moments!

Why does Peter respond as he does? He acknowledges Jesus as Lord, but his own sense of self, of how things are supposed to happen, of what he has to contribute to Jesus remains strong. He continues to live in the old paradigm where Messiahs overthrow the Romans, success is marked by fame and power, and the inner circle adds value through advice and action. He hears, he attends to Jesus’ words, but feels free to disagree. Perhaps we could say that Jesus is his lord, but not The Lord.

Peter in Acts

Post-pentecost Peter’s talk has an entirely different flavor. The unschooled, impetuous fisherman speaks bold and wise truth to crowds. He stands unflinching before authorities and calmly refuses to forsake his proclamation of the gospel. He watches, listens, and speaks to Jesus in his roof-top vision of Acts 10. He’s still Peter: in his roof-top prayer he pushes back from God’s repulsive command with the cry, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean!” But he no longer makes his personal revulsion, his heart-resistance, the end of the conversation. Three times the vision is repeated, and afterwards Peter sits in perplexity. But he remains open, it seems, for when confronted with Cornelius’ request, he applies what God has said and walks into a whole new knowledge of God’s heart for all humanity.

We say that the difference in Peter is due to the indwelling of God’s Spirit following Christ’s death and resurrection; that, from Pentecost, believers don’t simply follow Christ, but are indwelt by His transforming presence that enables us to, in the measure of our surrender to it, live out Jesus’ life in our mortal bodies.

What strikes me today about that is that a big mark of Peter’s transformation is the quality of his listening. It has become spiritual listening, listening enabled by the Spirit-life within Peter.

What are the markers of this quality of listening?

·   Peter no longer sees himself or what he might bring to the situation as necessary to Jesus. He is free to listen rather than to jump up and do, as he offered to at the transfiguration.

·   Peter no longer believes he knows his heart better than Jesus knows it. Sweeping assertions of love and loyalty are replaced by matter-of-fact, step-by-step offerings of power and grace through words focused entirely on Jesus’ story and Jesus’ power to accomplish whatever will happen in that moment.

·   Though he has not entirely given up his habit of contradicting Jesus, he now listens to how Jesus responds to his objection, and he remains alert and watchful for how the new paradigm suggested by Jesus might apply to the present moment. I love this, as it speaks to prayer as dialogue, and to our freedom in prayer to be honest about what we find too repulsive, too hard. But it shows this powerful freedom in transformational context, in right conversation with a loving, understanding Lord.

·   He stays with his prayer. He is found on the roof-top praying. However he is proceeding, he is prepared to notice and to listen when God speaks. He stays with the prayer long enough to absorb something of the power of what has been revealed, long enough to prepare himself to act in accordance with what God has shown him as he prayed.

Much on my heart as I consider how Peter was so transformed by the indwelling of the Spirit is what that has to say in our own life and experience. Today I wonder how much of the real transformation comes about in a new ability to lean into, to listen for, what the Spirit of Jesus has to tell, and then to sit with it long enough to let it transform our response, our actions in this world.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Imaginative Listeners

Today I’m going to take a leap. I suggest that the discipline of spiritual listening includes tools that take us beyond words into realms of visual imagination. It's a suggestion fraught with potential for misunderstanding. So (my mind roams the minefield) I will need to include some “this is not what I’m talking about here.”

I start with a confession. I am a WORD person. I love words and all their power to inform and evoke. I love shades of meaning, word play, and analysis. I love old words, and I even delight in pondering how the way words take on new meaning over time and reflect the changes in human perceptions of self and identity.

When I think of listening, I think of words, conversation, story-telling, explanation. I think of turning memory, image, feeling, idea into words. When I think of listening in prayer, my primary go-to is the Word of God, and then to words of spoken prayer.

So I had to be taught other ways of listening, other tools to help the speaker to get the story, the feelings, the truth of a thing out. Because, I have learned, not everyone relates as I do to words. Not everyone finds it easy or natural to pin down some interior movement into clear verbal thought and language. Many people perceive and communicate much more truly and effectively through images and sensory experience. Along the way I have also discovered that, from time to time, listening and watching for wordless communication can touch even me on a level that words do not reach.

Let's explore some examples.

Picture Jesus

Recently I was with a friend who described herself as “stuck” in pain, anger and resistance. After days of journaling, reading and prayer she had not found her way through. It occurred to me to suggest that she might move away from words, and ask Jesus for a visual, experiential sense of Himself. A way of prayer that at first sounded a little crazy to me, it is an invitation to “picture” Jesus. Or, better said, to ask Him to give an image of Himself located and active in my current situation. As with any prayer, it is one He may or may not answer in the moment. When He does, I am usually surprised to see Him in that way.

I will illustrate with personal experience, just to flesh out what I mean. The first time I prayed this prayer (timidly, having had it suggested to me by a mentor), all at once all the hand-crafted old things around me started to vibrate and pulse in my imagination. If you’ve been to my house, you know that I love the stuff of artisans, the practical old pots, furnishings and rugs of an earlier way of life; the artistry worked into mundane tools of daily existence: a carrier for water, a place to sit, a bag to stuff with goods and load onto the camel. Contrary to any expectation I brought with me into the prayer, I experienced in my imagination not a visual person, but that creative energy that formed this world, and the way it has been, in measure, imparted to us made in His image. I was surrounded by power and joy and, yes, energy and life. As though Jesus invited me to witness a piece of His delight in creative beauty. It still resides with me as sheer gift to have enjoyed His presence in that way that day.

Memik is a modern-day metal artisan of great skill

Once it was His eyes, close and gently focused on me. But I only remember one time when I was the focus. Another time, and more than once I was surprised to “see” Jesus standing at the balcony window overlooking Abu Dhabi. He was watching, longing, brooding. He wasn’t looking at me, but seemed comfortable there in my living room. Comfortable enough to include me in that bit of what was on His heart.

Later, from the balcony of our place here in Turkey, over time again and again, I sensed Him next to me as I stood watch during the mosque call to prayer. Again, I was deeply met, this time with the realization that I didn’t need to find a lot of perceptive words to pray for this place. Rather, Jesus wants my companionship there with Him, my willingness to stand there and share His heart of love and longing.

Here’s the first caveat, what I am not suggesting. As with every other form of true prayer, the purpose is to quiet ourselves and wait. We watch, open to the possibility that the Lord may reveal Himself, His heart, in a way that our human minds can grasp hold of in some small way. The danger, which is the same with word-based (or even Word-based) prayer is that we don’t so much listen as free-associate, insert our own story into the conversation, manufacture an answer that suits our desire to hear something, or give credence to spirits other than the Spirit of God. For me, I don’t pray the “picture Jesus” prayer often. I don’t always sense any response. But from time to time, He has chosen to take me out of myself and into a space of the reality in which He moves, and the things are on His mind that have nothing to do with what is on mine.

Imaginative scripture reading

What I have just shared here is an entry into the possibilities listening not so much for words as with our imaginations, to reach beyond the words on the page or the words of analysis and explanation that I or another can pull out of our minds. Another form of imaginative listening to the Lord includes staying with a piece of scripture long enough to get to know fact, context and ready meaning, and then to prayerfully imagine oneself present in the situation. Take, for example, Zacchaeus up that  sycamore tree in Luke 19. One way to “listen” to that story is to picture oneself there. From content clues, what might it have sounded like, smelt like, felt like? One might simply enter the scene in imagination, stay awhile, and then ask oneself things. Like in which character’s role does one find oneself? Zacchaeus? Jesus? One of the disciples? A member of the crowd? A watcher from the fringe? How does that unconscious choice of place speak to one's current relationship with Jesus or with the community? As the scene unfolds, from whatever viewpoint, what does that person see, feel, want to do? Is there joy, hesitation, fear, curiosity? In prayer, what might that be about? Is there an invitation from Jesus to come closer, to come down, to up-end one’s understanding of who He cares for? And does the listener find himself or herself responding with gladness, hesitation, or even resistance?

Again, a caveat. Imagination is a tool, just like reading. All spiritual listening is aimed at entering another’s story with empathy and compassion. It is about watching for Jesus, for where His heart is turned, and moving toward that place with our hearts, minds and souls. While we may discern things, important things, about ourselves as we listen, we are not the center of the story. To listen is to refuse to manufacture images that simply accord with what we want or we already think we know.

Listening to those who are not "word" people

Which takes me to the third form of imaginative listening I want to take up today. What I’ve spoken of above is cast in terms of listening for Jesus in prayer. But tools of the spiritual discipline of listening apply both to listening for Jesus and to listening to another person. In fact, consistent practice of the tools of this discipline will, in time, lead to a blurring of the lines so that as we listen to people, we are constantly listening for, watching for, Jesus in the story.

This third tool is again grounded in the understanding that not everyone is a “word person.” Some of us process in words, ideas, analysis, language. Others of us process in images and experiences: color, light, smell, feels of space and place.

Which means that there are other ways to help someone get his story out than to ask him to verbalize what is going on inside. My husband, Curt, is of this sort; and there are a lot of others: visual people for who images tell the story. So that to “listen” is to invite the speaker to show things that mean something to him and to talk about that. Vivid in my memory of this discovery is a day I spent with a friend. We were talking, talking, talking when I noticed pictures floating by on her screen saver. Horses, fields, barbed-wire fences foreign to the place I knew her in. “Tell me about these,” I invited. What unfolded in her telling was a deep geography of her spirit, and of her life with Jesus, that she does not reach in any straightforward telling of her story. In that hour, I came to know my friend’s heart as I had not done in years of shared words.

This photo "images" several pieces of this article for me. Curt, with his two cameras, feeling his way into worship in this ancient church-space. The visual imagery of saints and angels in the thousand-year-old frescos. The image this place evokes for me in prayer as I imagine something that is true but that I cannot see, that great cloud of witnesses that have gone before us.

This is why, when we built Spa for the Soul, we included an art studio, a place to play with paint and paper and glass and wood and fabric. For along with the realization that sometimes the way into another’s story is through exploring images and activities they love, is the companion understanding that, for some, visual and physical endeavors can serve as the entry into the sort of prayer that listens for the Lord.

Final caveat. I understand that, for some believers, imagination is a threatening tool. It conjures fear of magic arts, demonic influence, distance from reality, or manufactured spirituality. There are those who go so far as to reject fiction, poetry, film, and other works of imagination as a waste of time, or worse, as a worldliness fraught with demonic potential. And yet. Here we are, created in the image of an imaginative God. Imagination is a gift, a good gift. JRR Tolkien saw imaginative creativity (particularly fantasy and faerie), rightly employed, as the highest form of glory and praise to God. As with all gifts, we can use it well and wisely, or we can run down paths of misuse and abuse.

Paul comes to mind as I cast around for how to close this. As we contemplate ways of listening for the Lord, and to others with hearts and ears informed by His Spirit:

The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Philippians 4:5-8 (ESV)--emphasis mine.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Pre-occupied listeners

It is early Lent, that season of the church year that invites us to journey with Jesus into the wilderness, to enter the solitary, dark place, the refining place, the place where Satan was loosed to throw his worst in Jesus’ path. Three famous temptations, and the first was to satisfy his body’s 40-day hunger with bread from stone, to break into His divinity to satisfy a legitimate personal need, to step outside His human nature and voluntary dependence on the Father’s direction and the Spirit’s power to do this one small thing. The Bread of Life taunted to make His own bread.

“But he answered, ‘It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” Matthew 4:4 (ESV).

Jesus: the Listener. Fully human, fully God, attending, focused, He waits to hear what His Father had to say about bread. He refuses to step out of that dependent relationship even for an instant, even in the direst of circumstances.

Recently I was caught up in an interaction between Jesus and his disciples that concerned bread, arrested again by an image of listening. Fast forward a year or two. Jesus is now famous for his teaching and his miracles, and crowds gather wherever he goes. The religious authorities hate him. His disciples love him and hang on his every word.

This little interplay is recorded in Matthew 16 and Mark 8. Just the day before Jesus had, for the second time, fed thousands by thanking His Father for a tiny offering of bread and then passing it around. Everyone ate until they were satisfied, and then gathered seven baskets of leftovers. As the crowd headed home, Jesus and his band set off in a boat to another shore. We’re not sure where the disciples went, but it looks like Jesus was alone when a group of Pharisees and Sadducees approached. It was not a happy encounter: they demand a miraculous sign, and he calls them an “evil and adulterous generation.” They go their separate ways.

Sometime later, after another crossing by boat, Jesus is still mulling over that conversation. “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees,” he says to the disciples.

Jesus’ remark was cryptic, and their minds were somewhere else, focused on that place a little lower than their hearts. Despite the miraculous feast the day before, their stomachs were growling. It seems they forgot to load the leftovers into the boat. “Leaven?” Their ears prick. They free-associate and settle into the mundane matter of current concern to them. “Oh, Jesus is talking about bread.”

For, you know, Jesus knows our need, and that is always what is uppermost in His mind. … Huh?

As a tender of guests, my mind is often pre-occupied with bread!
They were there, with Jesus. They were listening, thinking some. And yet they totally missed the point. Their attention was elsewhere, on the felt need of the moment. Assuming that Jesus had nothing but them and what was on their minds to talk about. So that when He spoke they heard him in that self-focused context. Or should I say they mis-heard Him. They took in the words, lined them up with what was on their minds, and heard something He did not say.

The words were cryptic, but no one asked Jesus what He was on about. They took no notice of the entourage disappearing in the distance, or of the weary sadness in Jesus’ eyes. Nothing about the miraculous provision of the day before penetrated to shape their awareness of Kingdom methods and priorities. They show themselves as small-minded, inattentive, focused on their bellies. They worry about bread even as they converse with the Bread of Life.

Jesus: the perfect Listener. He made no move without first listening to His Father. He kept the Father’s priorities, the Father’s heart in the center of His attention. The disciples, we, you and me, we are broken listeners. Whether listening to other people, or to the Lord, we can be so pre-occupied with all those things Jesus tells us not to worry about, like food; so pre-occupied with what we would like to hear that we fail to enter into the heart of the speaker. Which means that whatever we do hear we import immediately into our own framework of desire and need. In that, we miss what we need to hear. We miss His compassion for the world, His concern for the neighbor right out our window. We miss the point.

So, Lord Jesus, as I ponder this Word of Yours today, can I ask You: “What is it that You are saying, that You want me to notice? About what am I deaf to You because my heart is tied up with myself, even as I sit in prayer and attend to You? Where are You, where is Your heart caught up, as we are together here in this quiet space?