A LIfe in Prayer “Now What?”

19 06 2014

IMG_0054“Now what?” In a very real sense, that’s where prayer starts. Or at least what we normally think of when we think of prayer. It’s the point where life starts in a meaningful way.   A path has suddenly opened in front of us, and we’re ready to start walking.

As unpleasant as they are, God uses moments of crisis to wake us up.   Even if you wake up just to discover you’re not ready to out of bed. After my dream, I began to search for what the proof might be.   At least I knew now there was proof to be found. I just had to look.

Good Friday that year was a gorgeous day. The somberness of the day Jesus was crucified had a special significance that year.   I felt I had gone through my own trial, my own suffering. I could identify with the passion of Jesus.

The bright sun, the warmth of Spring, the bounty of summer freedom that lay just ahead on this most somber and holy day declared God’s presence, love and forgiveness. This is what the rainbow must have looked like to Noah.

I tried to remember as many Good Fridays as I could and I remembered them all as days just like this. Was this part of the proof my dream was leading me to?

This idea was so compelling I mentioned the gorgeous weather to a friend. We were playing stickball.

“It’s Good Friday today and it’s beautiful. Good Fridays are always like this. Makes you think.”

He shrugged, “You’re up.”

Could it be that there was an underlying logic to the world and everything that happened could be understood if we only knew what to look for?   Could it be that truth was always there, waiting for us to discover it, even if there were only crumbs of it? And God too?

Prayer is often the first glimmer that we are a part of something larger. That knowledge is born of prayer, and the engine that sustains it.   I am struck by how innate this is in us.   We teach children to bow their heads, fold their hands, close their eyes and pray. I remember my own nightly ritual at the altar of my bed. The truth is that praying may be as natural as breathing, especially in children. We should pipe down and learn from them.

I used to constantly talk out loud to myself as a child. Enough that it worried me. It wasn’t conscious or intentional. I would just suddenly be aware that I was talking out loud to myself after I’d been doing it for a while.

A couple times getting caught and laughed at taught me the prudence of keeping my inner dialogue between me and me. But I only learned discretion. I never stopped the conversation. No one does.

Anyone who has practiced any type of meditation or mindfulness practice knows that the brain is like the monkey the Hindus describe, constantly swinging from thought vine to thought vine. Driving us to distraction. Dragging us helplessly through the forest of our own thoughts, to the point that our thoughts become our identity. It can be a profound breakthrough to realize finally, “I am not my thoughts.”

Self-consciousness ends a kind of innocence and inhibition, we pack up our things and leave the Garden, but it doesn’t end the conversation.

Having kids, I saw the same thing. I would hear long conversations when I’d walk past their room and they’d be alone playing on the floor, sometimes projecting their inner voice to a car, or a toy soldier, or a book standing on end. It didn’t matter. Sometimes, it was their own hand, finger-striding like a behemoth at the end of their arm, through the toys scattered around them.   It’s no accident the words ‘playing’ and ‘praying’ are so similar.

The world is an animated wonderland before self-consciousness blossoms and moves it all indoors. Bedroom doors close, words are guarded, heart’s hold their secrets tightly and a necessary page of development gets turned again for all of us. We leave the Garden. We have no choice.

Looking back, I think the crisis of faith I experienced was the blossoming of self-consciousness and my inevitable transition from one world to another. Prayer was a part of the transition, before I ever knew to call it prayer.

In that sense, prayer is built into us. It’s how we engage our own existence in and with creation. Prayer begins spontaneously at first, becoming ritualized and utilitarian as we get older. The sense of prayer we are born with becomes something we do to get what we want as opposed to the way of being who we are.   In that sense for me, “writing is the form that prayer takes in me,”  as Pat Conroy says.

It wasn’t until years later that it rained on Good Friday. I immediately thought of that stickball conversation and I realized how well it had served its purpose. It had carried me over a bump in the road that was now long gone, like looking back at the road unfurling as mysteriously behind as the road that lies ahead. What we know is just another version of what we don’t know.

There is proof that Jesus is alive. Yes. God writes it in every heart in a language meant uniquely and individually for each of us.

 





Life in Prayer con’t

12 06 2014

One night that week, I had a dream that put an end to this chapter for me. It was simple. Sort of matter of fact. No parting of the seas, no walking on water. Just a voice that declared, “There is proof that Jesus is alive.” egy_6209_ww_sonne

Well, there you go then. I felt light and free when I woke. Considering how long this was gnawing at me, the whole thing was probably a microsecond in real time.

My dream voice didn’t say what that proof was, and my dream self didn’t ask. In a sense, the question, “Did Jesus exist?” had lost a lot of its power. It just didn’t seem that important. I was looking to draw conclusions. Hoping fervently for a “yes” which only opened the possibility of a “no.” Which one was it? Yes? No? Maybe both!

My dream voice didn’t offer conclusions, as much as a starting point. A place to begin.   Like someone had tipped the box I was trapped in over on its side, and I crawled out free, stood up straight.

I looked around at a vast, unencumbered landscape and asked, for the first time, “Now what?”

“Now what?” In a very real sense, that’s where all prayer brings us to and where living starts. Everything else is sleep walking.             And, as unpleasant as they are, God uses these moments of crisis to wake us up.   Even if you wake to discover that it’s too early to get up. You need more time to sleep. Go ahead, go back to sleep. That sleep is never the same. And sometimes the dreams in that in between sleep are even more vivid and compelling.

After my dream, I went back to sleep. I still wasn’t ready to get completely out of that box. I took the words as a challenge and an assurance. I knew that what I was looking for was there to be found. So, I began to search for what that proof might be.





Life in Prayer (asking for help)

11 06 2014

After a week of studying my pocket New Testament, I finally approached my teacher during a class writing assignment. We were supposed to be writing about a family trip we’d taken. I hadn’t written a word.images

The teacher sat at his desk, in the unfamiliar territory in the front of the room, while pencils scratched on sheets of paper like little insects tunneling to freedom.   This was the first time I had ever had a male teacher. All of us were trying to get used to this. It completely changed the room dynamics. Personally, I had no idea there ever were such things as male teachers. That they even existed. Who knew?

The world of the classroom is different for boys. There were no role models. There was no one, except other boys, to show you the ropes. It was the blind leading the blind. The classroom felt like the domain of women and girls. All the teachers were women. The behavior they valued, the skills they taught, felt foreign and unreliable. So we made it up as we went along as boys. Always having to play to our weakness in the classroom, we were full of bravdo, ignorance and insecurity. Because we were always on foreign turf.

Having a male teacher changed that, and I don’t know that I would have considered doing this if I had had another woman teacher that year.

Since I was tall, my desk was in the back of the room. Once I was briefly seated in the middle of the room, when the room was set up alphabetically. But a girl in the back of the room complained she couldn’t see the board, and I was again banished to the back row.  The male ghetto. Virtually all of us back of the room were boys. This was where we’d spent most of our school year and received most of our education. Back where the coats were hung.

Walking from the back of the room to the front of the room, where authority and power was centered, was like crossing borders, classes, ontological levels of existence. There was the resentful land of the smaller boys, mixed with a smattering of girls. On to the ruthless and sheltered land of the girls. On past the no man’s land in front of the teachers desk, and now, uninvited, I stood at the side of the teacher’s desk.

I stood there, and for some reason, was not sent back to my seat. The teacher looked up, and I took out my pocket New Testament like someone who had been caught stealing and before he could say anything, laid it on his desk and pointed to the red letters. It was the passage where Jesus called himself the good shepherd.

“What does this mean?” I blurted. I could feel that my whole face was on fire.

Of course, I couldn’t ask what I really wanted to know. Was this Jesus real like you’re real? Or is this all just made up? Would I ever really sleep again? Would I feel safe? Is there anything that can be trusted? I didn’t dare risk such questions because I didn’t know I was asking them.

He picked up the book, turned it over and looked at the cover, looked at the open page for a long time, and then he looked at me. But he didn’t look at me like a student in his classroom. He looked at me with profound kindness and respect that made me dizzy. My arms and legs tingled. He looked at me like I was real. Like there was something to see.

He closed the book and handed it back to me.

“You should probably ask your parents about that.”

I was right back where I started. I went back to my desk, through the now conquered borders of 5th grade society. All eyes raised, furtively looking at me as I went past. Wondering what had just happened. Wondering whether they should mock me, or applaud.

He hadn’t even taken my book away and stuck it in his desk drawer. When I slipped into my seat and tried to focus on the assignment, I realized for the first time that I half hoped he would.

(next time; resolution)





Life in Prayer (con’t)

5 06 2014

One day, I found a pocket New Testament in my father’s study.  I discovered it while I was sitting in the company of all those books my father had on shelves that reached to the 10 foot parsonage ceiling.  I was fascinated by their rigid spines, their random symmetry—short, fat, fat, tall, short, short, thin…images

Mostly, I sat enjoying the unique silence that can still only be found in a room full of books. The study was one of my sanctuaries. A place I was almost sure to find some relief.

Somewhere in all those books, there must be an answer. That wall of books was like a dam. If just one cracked, the ideas would just come flooding out and I would be baptized in the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of the ages. I was waiting.

I began thumbing through the pocket New Testament. Bits and pieces of familiar stories caught my eye. Lost sheep. Missing coins. Healed lepers. I realized after a bit that everything Jesus said was in red letters. How convenient. Here was a place to start.

I slipped the book into my pocket. For the next two weeks, I carried it everywhere. Just having it seemed some comfort. At school, I would sit at my desk carefully poring over those red letters, hiding the book with my hand while the lesson was being taught at the board.

I wasn’t getting anywhere though. My basic question, “Is Jesus real,” wasn’t an issue in the Bible. Jesus never said to anyone, even in red letters, “yes, I’m real. And here’s how I’ll prove it.”

As far as that goes, reading the Bible was like watching TV. You could watch and listen, laugh or not, but no one on TV was actually talking to you. No one on TV even knew you were there.

Whether Jesus was a real person was not an issue in the Bible nearly as much as whether Jesus was really who he said he was. That’s what everyone was having such a hard time wrapping their head around. Even the people talking to him face to face couldn’t tell. No one really got Jesus, or understood what he was talking about.

In that way, the Bible had an unreal quality about it. It was largely disappointing for someone like me, looking for proof. The Bible was real enough. I could hold it in my hands. I could see it, feel it, smell it. It had heft and weight. A black cover. Gold letters.

But, I couldn’t take Jesus in my hand. Couldn’t touch him. Couldn’t see him. God knows what he smelled like. The Bible smelled sort of sharp and leathery, like skin and sweat. And there was something compelling about it, despite its many disappointments.

The authors wrote the Bible because they heard Jesus, and by what they wrote, admitted that they really didn’t know what Jesus was talking about. But at least they heard him. I couldn’t hear Jesus. I could only read what they wrote and what they heard when Jesus spoke to them. Maybe they just got it all wrong. Maybe there was nothing to get in the first place.

I was getting dizzy going around in circles. Searching for the answer to a question that could only be asked once you assumed the answer was ‘yes’. So, why ask it?

Because I had to ask. Everything that was and everything that was to come hung on the answer for me. Was Jesus real then? Is Jesus real now?

(next time, stepping out for answers)

 





Life in Prayer (2nd Installment)

30 05 2014

I learned to hide my fear and mask my uncertainty behind a sense of bravado and nonchalance. This might be the first threshold you cross into adulthood. I was in fifth grade then. Developmentally, right oFeatured Image -- 326n schedule. Feeling more vulnerable and unsure as I ever have and acting like nothing is a big deal. Because everything is a big deal and the slightest ripple can swamp your little adolescent ship. Besides, I already had the sense that the adult answer to the shadow the dark was, was not really an answer at all. In fact, I suspected there were even bigger things in the dark waiting for those adults than for me.

My first crisis of faith came tumbling through the darkness that waited for me every time I closed my eyes, in a starry night of sleep.

How do you know Jesus is real? Where is physical proof that you can pick up and hold and say, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Jesus is real. Nothing.

Already, I had the sense that everything somehow depended on Jesus. Jesus was the lynch pin that kept the world from spinning out of control. Jesus was the light that all the adults kept switching on, without ever naming it. Jesus took away all the things that I feared in the dark and Jesus was the safe refuge where nothing could hurt me.

Except that now I realized I had no real basis for that belief. I’d never met Jesus. Jesus, if he was real at all, was real in a way I could not experience or prove. If Jesus really existed, the proof was in the depths of the darkness that arose in the blink of an eye, just extending backwards instead of forwards. The past darkness was as unlimited as the future darkness.

The difference was that the future darkness was where I was going. A gaping abyss, drawing me forward, ready to swallow me whole. The past darkness was a closed door. A dead end. Unreachable and unknowable, and everything I needed to know was waiting there. The real Jesus, if there was such a thing, was in that closed darkness of the past, forever out of reach.

For the next three weeks, I walked around haunted. Occasionally, there were breaks in the darkness that seemed now to have found its way inside me, whether my eyes were closed or not. I had no idea where the light switch was. Opening eyes was no help. But those moments of relief, if you could even call it that, were fleeting.

This was a time of intense prayer, though I don’t remember ever reciting one. What would I say? Yoo hoo, anybody home? The deepest prayers are beyond words, prayed when you think you’re busy doing something else. Living your life. Going to school. Shooting hoops on the corner. I didn’t know that yet. I just felt hopeless and lost, like I was going to throw up all the time.

 

 





Did You Enjoy School? (today’s journal writing prompt)

30 05 2014

I loved school.
I never left it.
There is too much still to learn.
But why did I despise
so many of my teachers?
Why did I leave
their safe paths
for my own?
Why have I carried
their warnings in my head,
like a leash,
pulling me back,
going only so far
before giving myself a failing grade?

Oh how well I have learned!
Thank you Thank you Thank you.

Today, I want to say
there is no failing but
the failing to pursue
your dream,
no matter how outlandish
and farfetched.

Today I want to say
there is no secret to success
beyond persistence,
no content beyond courage,
no goal but humility,
and no joy that doesn’t
lay all three of these
at your feet
like a single, precious, gift.

copyright Charles Oberkehr
(from an upcoming collection Labyrinth of Prayer)





A Life In Prayer:

15 05 2014

Prayer is central to our faith, and yet prayer largely remains a mystery to us.  What happens when we pray?  Who’s speaking?  Who’s listening?  How do you do it?  Is there a right way to pray?  A wrong way?

In church, we just assume everyone knows how to pray.  Say the Lord’s Prayer (the one with the arts, and thine’s and thou’s) and that’s all you need to know.  Is that really all we need to know?

I think we need to do a better job helping people in church understand prayer.  How to do it and what it looks like in all its forms.  Why?  Look at Jesus.

Jesus was always going off on his own to pray.  What did that prayer look like? Jesus was fully God (and fully human).  Did Jesus talk to himself?  Carry on an inner dialogue?  Is that prayer?    shapeimage_1

These questions prompted me in my own reflections on prayer and the role of prayer in my life.  This has evolved into an ongoing process for me.  A much longer work than I thought it would be when I started.

So, I will be blogging excerpts of this work, and invite your comments.  Who knows where it will lead?  Sort of like prayer itself.

A LIFE IN PRAYER:  INSTALLMENT ONE

I have been praying all my life.  Consciously, with scripted words handed down by those who went before me and with words unformed and largely unspoken in any conscious way.   Like finding your center of gravity while riding a bike. It seems to happen on its own.  You couldn’t explain it, even to yourself.  And if you thought about it too much, you’d topple over.  Prayer had elements of that.  Prayer before I knew what to call it.

 
As a child, my sense of prayer went no further than the prayers my mother taught me, kneeling by the side of the bed in pajamas, fresh from the bath, the smell of Ivory soap like the incense of childhood innocence, the sacramental taste of toothpaste fresh in my mouth.

 
“Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord thy child to keep, Guard me through the starry night, and waken me with morning light.”

 
I liked the starry night part.  It made sleep feel like a journey and an adventure taken to the stars and everything unknown and full of promise.  Sometimes those stars found their way into my dreams while I slept.   What joy that was.  What a gift and a blessing was the God however vague and unrefined my notions of him, who had your back through the sparkling reaches of the starry night.

 
The second part of the prayer was the God Blesses… my brother and sister, my mother and father, aunts, uncles and cousins. And of course God bless me.  Make me a good and fit center to this small constellation that revolved around me called childhood.

 
As I got older the bedtime prayer ritual stopped. No more kneeling in the sweet smell of Ivory soap, lifting my concerns to the vague Almighty who lived out among the starry night and under the watchful eye of my mother.  Now the lights went out and I lay in bed, eyes closed, staring at the blackness, always just a blink away, and imagining it extending as far as I could imagine it going.   Which was limitless.  All the way to nothing at all.

 
Now, there were monsters under the bed.  Creatures in the closet.  Unspeakable things in the cellar when the lights went out.   The darkness was alive, teeming and tingling with a palpable sense of urgency and danger.

 
Sure, the light scattered the darkness, and the light felt safe, but the darkness absorbed the light.  And the creatures what inhabited the darkness seemed much more immediate, pressing and real, than those of the light.  I mean, I was a creature of that light.  How more ordinary could you get?

 
Creatures of the light did not yet have mystery or power.  At least not then anyway.  Only the other was invested with these things.  Things, as a child, I was too timid to claim.  And without the light behind me to back me up, I vanished just as thoroughly as flipping a switch, from on to off.

 
Everything was conditional.

 
Parents and adults were so sure of themselves with their list of “no such things.”  No such thing as: Ghosts, monsters, goblins, bogeymen, vampires, werewolves, leprechauns, fairies…  My parents would triumphantly switch on the light when they sensed my hesitancy at the top of the basement stairs, as if that proved anything.

 
“See nothing there!”

 
Exactly.  No monsters.  No Jesus.  No dead presidents hung from my classroom wall, soberly staring down on us little Americans, who didn’t know how lucky they were to be born in this greatest country on earth when we could have landed in the outer darkness with the rest of the world.  Where children starved and the only way we could change that was by finishing the food on our plates.

 
The light showed there was nothing there at all. Just an exasperated adult and a stupid little kid and all that good, safe, electric light.  No words for any of it.   Except maybe GE and the good things it brought to light.  Maybe I just had to look harder.

 








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