Imitate What They Contain and Attain What They Promise #BlackLivesMatter

A few weeks ago, I was inspired to take up the practice of praying the Rosary. Part of me still cringes at the thought of it and feels a bit dirty, especially during the Salve regina and while reflecting on the last two glorious mysteries. But I can tell that it’s bearing fruit, so I’ll keep at it. “Wisdom is justified by all her children.” I used to have some rather common Protestant misconceptions about the practice. I thought that it was a rather legalistic way of ingratiating oneself to Jesus through his mother. To be fair, I have heard it said by some that Mary is somehow closer to us and more compassionate toward us than Jesus because she was just fully human, not also fully divine. That makes it sound like Marian devotion is necessary to supply some defect in the Incarnation, a heretical belief in all three branches of Christianity.

But the Rosary is actually a meditation on events in the four Gospels (and two others I don’t really believe in, but am rolling with for the time being). They are called mysteries, which I think is very apt. There is more to them than can be said discursively. They have to be meditated upon. One way to do this is lectio divina; the Rosary is another. It is like having a conversation with Mary about these 20 events. When I first started doing it, I was usually thinking about the doctrinal import of the mysteries and had some pretty important insights. Then I found myself focusing more on imagining them, often through the perspective on a particular character (a couple times, I’ve tried to meditation on the Lord’s Baptism from the perspective of the water). For the last week or so, I have found that I am mostly imagining the events taking place in Ferguson, MO, especially the sorrowful mysteries (agony in the garden, flogging at the pillar, crown of thorns, carrying the cross, crucifixion), but also the glorious ones (resurrection, ascension, coming of the Holy Spirit, and the two I’m a bit less sure about: the dormition/assumption of Mary and her coronation as queen of the universe).

Whole new aspects of the story emerge. When I pray the sorrowful mysteries, I see a story of oppression, state terror, and collaboration. When I pray the luminous mysteries, I see that they take place in a context of poverty. Likewise the joyful mysteries. But most significantly, when I pray the glorious mysteries, I see that the oppressed people among whom Jesus lived, died, and rose are not powerless.

I’ve seen this quote by Winona LaDuke a few places around the internet: “One of our people in the Native community said the difference between white people and Indians is that Indian people know they are oppressed but don’t feel powerless. White people don’t feel oppressed, but feel powerless.” About all I know of LaDuke is that she was Ralph Nader’s running mate, so I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the quote. But I think she’s getting at what I have been realizing through my meditations on the mysteries.

The black and brown communities of the United States are trying to tell us something. We have ignored their suffering at the hands of individual and systemic racism for too long. I have heard (and believed) that since the Civil Rights Acts undid segregation and guaranteed legal equality and we all know or at least say that black people and white people are equal, racism is a problem of the past. But our black and brown brothers and sisters have been telling us that this is a lie, and the evidence has been as plain as day for all who bothered to see it and not take refuge in their own rationalizations. Nothing new happened in the last few weeks. The sham of a justice system and brutality of law enforcement against people of color is not news. And people of color screaming this at white America is not (or should not be) news. All that’s changed is that for whatever reason, we’re not going back to business as usual this time. Communities of color have something to tell us, and God has something to tell us.

The wounds of Jesus made visible the reality of systematic violence and oppression that we might otherwise be able to ignore. No more than in the last hours of his life, he was oppressed. But he was not powerless. What kind of power did he have? I’m beginning to learn, but I can’t explain it. You’ll have to hear it from him. Try the Rosary if you want.

The death-dealing oppression of systemic racism is finally becoming visible to those who wish not to see it (even to me, the chief of sinners). That, it seems to me, is half of what our brothers and sisters are telling us. The other half is that they’re not powerless. Wherein lies their power? You’ll have to listen to them to find out. Listen up! #BlackLivesMatter.

“O GOD, whose only begotten Son, by His life, death, and resurrection, has purchased for us the rewards of eternal life, grant, we beseech Thee, that meditating upon these mysteries of the Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary, we may imitate what they contain and obtain what they promise, through the same Christ Our Lord. Amen.”

[PS. I should hasten to make explicit that this is written from my white, male, straight, cis-gendered perspective. I have tried not to presume to speak for people of color or otherwise exercise white privilege. If I have fallen short of that goal, I welcome correction.]

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More Thoughts on Prayer

What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also. -1 Corinthians 14:15

In my last post, I said that prayer is God letting us in on the eternal communication of the Trinity. Another way to say that is that God prays through us. This eternal and divine reality manifests itself in many ways. My working thesis is that God wants us to live into and experience the fullness of divine communion, and so we are led to pray in different ways at different times in our lives. Though God might lead us to pray in a certain way at any given time, and might withhold the gift of praying in a different way, I believe that God wants us to learn all of them. God wants Baptists to learn contemplative prayer and Catholics and Quakers to learn how to make their requests known to God “by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving” (Phil. 4:6). But everyone has to start somewhere. Be thankful for whatever way of praying God has given you, and don’t be in a hurry. The others will come in time (and not all of them are pleasant).

What I want to talk about now is how all this relates to communities and not just individuals. I am of the opinion that different Christian communions have different basic impulses regarding how they pray, listen to, and proclaim the Word of God. These are somewhat akin to the different charisms of Roman Catholic religious orders. These different impulses are not incompatible. They’re also not uniform throughout a congregation or a denomination. And the fact that a community has one basic impulse doesn’t mean it can’t grow and learn to express others as well, though I tend to think that one is always basic. I have learned to pray with the Book of Common Prayer, where the emphasis is on creating a liturgical, sacramental, and thus bodily context for hearing and responding to the Word. But under stress, I go straight to the Bible and a bunch of old Methodist and Baptist hymns about power in the blood (and sometimes to a fairly charismatic way claiming biblical promises and rebuking fallen powers). A congregation whose basic impulse is toward form and order can learn to welcome spontaneous and even ecstatic expressions, and a church that is more fundamentally inclined toward spontaneity or ecstasy can find that those gifts benefit from the form of the liturgy. “Thus one portion of being is the Prolific, the other the Devouring: to the devourer it seems as if the producer was in his chains, but it is not so, he only takes portions of existence and fancies that the whole./But the Prolific would cease to be Prolific unless the Devourer, as a sea, recieved the excess of his delights.”*

Many Episcopalians can be quite snobbish about other forms of worship, especially ones that seem to play more to the emotions. But we shouldn’t be. Those other churches may be missing something that we have, but we are likely missing something that they have. And people from more evangelical or charismatic churches shouldn’t be too quick to judge what must seem to an outsider like the formalism or emphasis on physical actions in our worship. Each of these embody a basic response to God, and at their best they are open to being enriched by the others. When we go to a church and find that its way of praying is not transparent to us (by which I mean that we do not in some way see God through it), then we should not assume that they are doing wrong. Our first guess should be that we have not yet been given the gift of seeing God in that way.

But we all have to go to church somewhere. Many people are raised one tradition in which they remain comfortably for their whole lives. I rejoice for them, though I myself ended up letting myself get transplanted. And as we find ourselves in an increasingly secular and mobile society, people find themselves “picking a church” either for the first time, or when they move somewhere new or feel drawn to something new, or for a million other reasons. And all I can say is that you want to find a church whose basic impulses are compatible with your own, and whose way of expressing those impulses are life-giving to you. It’s no good if it’s a great fit on paper, but you spend the whole service inwardly seething more Sundays than not. You need a church that you can love as it is, and pray with as it is. But you also want a church that is open to having its prayer life transformed and enriched. God leads congregations to grow in prayer, just like individuals.

I’ll end with a brief plug for the Episcopal Church (or at least why it works for me). I wish I could be a charismatic. The deepest and most transformative worship experiences I’ve had were the sort where you let yourself be overcome by emotion in an environment that is designed to evoke an emotional response. If you can get into it, you feel the Lord’s atoning blood close to your soul applied, get lost in wonder, love, and praise (funny that I can only use Methodist words to describe it, eh?). Nothing quite does what Hillsong used to do for me. The problem is that I can’t do that every week, especially as I get older. Sometimes (quite often, actually), the gift of worshiping God like that is just not given to me. And when you can’t get into a service like that, it’s agony. Everyone else around you is in tearful ecstasy, and you’re bored to tears. In Episcopal worship, there are times when I can engage it emotionally like that, and I’ve increasingly given myself permission to do so, even when it doesn’t look like anyone else is. But I don’t have to force the emotions. There’s also something for my mind and my senses to engage. There are actions to perform and things to think about. God meets me on all levels. It gives me the most room to express my own basic impulses, but also to work out other spiritual muscles.

I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray with the understanding also.

*William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Thoughts on Prayer

“Pray as you can, not as you cannot.” -John Chapman, OSB

Good advice if there ever was any. For those of us with evangelical or charismatic backgrounds, it is tempting to think that prayer is successful when it causes the one praying to achieve a certain emotional state. There is, in fact, an important emotional dimension to prayer that most Episcopalians seem largely unaware of. But prayer is not emotional manipulation. Some days, there seems to be no emotion at all, or the emotion is sadness, anger, or fear, or something that just can’t be categorized, but which sucks. Other forms of prayer emphasize the direction of one’s attention while praying. But there are days when you couldn’t concentrate if your life depended on it. Or if you think of prayer in the good old petitionary sense, there are days when you (or at least I) just can’t bring yourself to pray for things you really need or want. All of these are times to heed Br. John’s advice: pray as you can, not as you cannot.

We are not actually the primary agents in prayer. Prayer is God’s gift to us. And if I read the Bible aright (especially Romans 8), it consists primarily in God letting us in on the eternal communication of the three Persons of the Trinity: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:26-28). This communication manifests itself in many different ways. It is different for different people, and for the same people at different times.

Now there are many different specific things said about prayer in both Testaments, and I take them to be promises of things God wants to give us. This includes the boldness to ask for the things on our heart (e.g., John 16:23-24), the gift of reposing before God in silence (Psalm 46:10 or 62:1), the gift of prophecy, tongues, and ecstatic utterances (1 Cor. 14), the gift of praise, and even the gift of lamentation. Eventually, all speech and all thought will be prayer. There will be no distinction between sacred and secular discourse, just as “On that day there shall be inscribed on the bells of the horses, “Holy to the Lord.” And the cooking pots in the house of the Lord shall be as holy as the bowls in front of the altar; and every cooking pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be sacred to the Lord of hosts” (Zechariah 14:20-21a). But while all of this is promised to every believer, it does not all come at once. So if, on a given day, the sort of prayer you want to say seems inaccessible to you, don’t worry about it, and don’t beat yourself up over it. That is not the sort of gift God has for you that day. Try something else. Inasmuch as there is any skill to be learned in prayer, it is learning how and when to knock off trying to receive a gift that God isn’t giving you, and when God is trying to give you something. I’ve never been to a spiritual director, but I imagine that sort of discernment is a lot of what they do.

I think the important thing to keep in mind for those of us doing this more or less on our own is that you can’t fail at prayer. There is simply no standard to fall short of. Furthermore, you can’t fail at something if God is the primary agent. Pray as you can, not as you cannot. If you cannot pray in a certain way, God is not yet giving you the gift of praying in that way. What gift is God giving you instead?

This is the first installment of what I am currently envisioning as a three-part series (plans subject to change without notice). If the Lord allows, the next installment will apply what I have said here to corporate prayer and worship. The third post will reveal my ulterior motive for writing about this.

On Doing Exorcisms (or, What Theology Is)

Did I ever tell you about the time I performed an exorcism? I was doing an internship with a group called The Night Ministry, which among things, takes a bus around to Chicago neighborhoods with high homeless populations and offers basic medical care, HIV testing, cookies, coffee, and condoms to whoever needs them. And there were always a couple of pastors and other volunteers who were there to talk to whoever wanted to talk. It was by far the most fun I’ve ever had. I was two years out of an M.Div. and a year into a theology Ph.D., thinking I’d left ministry behind, only to find myself being introduced to a bunch of homeless men and women as “Pastor Kyle.” Sometimes we arrive where we’re going by fish.

Anyway, on my first night there, I was walking along, introducing myself to people who had lined up for a dinner that some church group had brought, stopping to talk for a minute to pretty much anyone who returned my gaze. Eventually, I came to a man who skipped right through all the pleasantries to ask me if I would pray for him.

“Of course,” I said. “Anything in particular you’d like me to pray for?”

“Yeah. I want you to cast the devil out of me!”

Well, this was new and different. You see, being a mainline Protestant with an M.Div., I lived in a world in which people struggled to flourish in the face of physical and mental illnesses, and systems of social, economic, and racial oppression. There’s certainly something demonic about it all, but the devil? They didn’t teach me this in pastoral care! I wasn’t even sure if I believed in a particular thing that could be called “the devil.” But this guy wasn’t going to take no for an answer.

So after asking the man his name,  I started saying a prayer that I thought was a good compromise. I prayed about human flourishing, and that this man’s flourishing might be enabled. Went on in good seminarian fashion for a minute or two, when the guy looked up and stopped me.

“But, Pastor, the devil!” His tone was desperate.

“Alright. Fine.” I said. “Lord God, we know that the thief comes to kill and steal and destroy, but you sent you Son so that this man might have life, and have it in the fullest. Therefore, God, drive far from him everything that torments him, be it of the world, the flesh, or the devil. In the name of Jesus Christ, it is defeated. Its power is broken. Deliver this man from it, and let it never oppress him again.”

I went on like that for a bit longer. Would have made a Pentecostal proud. When I’d said the amen, the man looked up with a huge smile on his face. Prayer availeth much, I decided, whether from a righteous man, or a wretched sinner who can be bothered to invoke the power that Jesus gave to his disciples when they call on his name. When I told my supervisor about the exchange, he remarked that it was the most theologically nuanced exorcism he’d ever heard of. Whatever else I encounter in my life, that will always be one of the high points of my pastoral vocation. But it was also one of my finer moments as a theologian.

I once had an ordination committee in my old denomination tell me they were hearing a lot about theology from me, and they didn’t really see how it related to being a pastor. In processing that traumatic episode, I think back to this one. Because about the only way it makes sense to me to say that theology isn’t an integral part of ministry is if you don’t know what theology is. I kind of wish I’d told them this story, about how that man and I both prayed together and did theology together. Oh well. God’s will be done, and I’m in a much better place now with respect to my church relationships. But just in case anyone from that committee ever reads this post, this is what theology means to me.