10 October 2014

Prayer Lessons Learned on a Bike Path

There's a sort of strange phenomenon that happens sometimes when one is riding a bike. If one is riding on a bike path, for instance, and comes to the place where the path crosses a road there will be posts which signal to the biker that they need to be wary. In the paths around my hermitage anyway, it takes real skill and more importantly, a particular perspective, to ride a bike through these posts without crashing into them! (They seem more narrowly spaced than in the above picture.)

You see, the interesting phenomenon is that if one focuses one's attention on the posts themselves and tries to avoid them in this way, if, that is, one looks from right to left and back again and again while thinking something like, "I must steer away from that post, and I must do the same here on the right," one merely ensures one will crash into them! But if the biker keeps focused on the place where the wheel meets the path, one will move forward smoothly and sail right through the posts. We heard the Biblical version of this dynamic last Wednesday when the Gospel from Luke had Jesus admonishing folks that, "One who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is unfit for the Kingdom." Jesus' point was also about perspective. To plow a straight furrow, to make a field fit for a huge harvest, one has to keep one's eyes on a distant point; otherwise the furrows one plows will veer off and leave the field unready and fallow. So much of the spiritual life is about maintaining a truly human (and divine!) perspective!

In today's Mass readings ** this whole problem shows itself again. In Paul's letter to the Galatians the Apostle is telling the story of  the making of Israel into a People of faith and a blessing to the nations. Abraham is the Father of faith and for him and for the rest of the OT and the NT as well we come to understand that real faith is about allowing God to be God and keeping a longer perspective; in that way of seeing things we trust that if we keep our focus on God while we remain open to his living presence within us God will then draw us beyond any obstacles and make of us a People who are a blessing (that is, who mediate God's presence and power) to all of the world! A piece of Paul's story is about keeping our eyes (and our hearts) focused on or centered in God. This is a lesson we ought to hear very clearly, especially if we seek to be people of prayer! For in the main, prayer is not something we do; it is something God does in us and something he MAKES of us! Often our only job in prayer is to sit down, shut up, fold our hands quietly (some of us fold them into our cowls to make the point more acute!), and allow God the time and space to do whatever it is God desires to do with and in us.

This attitude of prayer is really the heart of the Covenant. Remember its term and essential dynamic: "You shall be my people and I shall be your God!" This does not refer merely or perhaps even primarily to an external contract between God and Israel (though this, of course, is involved) but rather to the God-Events they will become if they allow God to really BE GOD within them.  In other words, let me be the fire that moves and empowers you, let me be the love that makes you whole and impassions your love for others, let me make you missionaries of MY presence and we will transform the world with my touch! The symbol of this covenant is the Law and it truly does indicate what such human beings look like: they love God above all else, they are other-centered and do not covet or steal or commit adultery or bear false witness or do murder, and so forth. In a sense the tablets of the Law are a bit like the posts on the bike path. They signal caution and mark when we have gone off course, but they are not supposed to draw our entire attention or become the focus of our spiritual perspective and efforts. That way lies disaster, just as it does on the bike path --- or in the field we are trying to plow!

And this is what Paul is describing in today's reading from Galatians. The Jewish leadership and through them much of the People of Israel have lost their perspective. They are not focused on simply allowing God to work in them or trusting that he will make of them a blessing to the nations. Their gaze has been drawn from God's presence to the Law he gave as a gift and like the biker who becomes focused on AVOIDING the posts and so inevitably crashes into them, they do the same with the Law. They are so focused on avoiding sin that they are drawn straight into it because they cease to trust sufficiently in the power of God and the perspective this faith gives them to move forward in their journey. In fact, so blinded have they become in all of this, so narrow and constricted their perspective, so concerned with the strictures of the law and the achievement and protection of an isolating personal holiness rather than the vision of life the Law celebrates, that when the very fulfillment of the Law, the living Covenant-with-God comes up to them from their midst, they condemn him for blasphemy and murder him in the name of the Law!

It is this same blindness, whether willful or not, which Luke also describes in today's Gospel. The Jews do exorcisms. Jesus does exorcisms. When Israel does them they consider this to be the power of God at work through them, but when Jesus exorcises demons, Israel considers that he does so by the power of evil! They see him clearly through the lens of the law, but it is this lens which prevents them seeing he is the fulfillment of the law; he is the human being who reveals covenant with God to be the essence of our humanity and covenant with us to be the fulfillment of God's will and Kingdom as well. Like bikers who get anxious about and focused on the posts in the bike path rather than the path, the distant goal, or the One who draws them inexorably to that goal, Israel's relation to the law ensures they crash big time! Christians. however, hold the cross and God's victory over sin and death before themselves at all times; we trust that precisely in Jesus' abject helplessness and openness to his Father's powerful presence, God has raised him from the dead, and therefore will continue to overcome every obstacle, every instance of sin and death. The cross is quite simply how Christians maintain a long view which allows them to move forward in justified confidence and the powerful love of God.

In our spiritual lives, especially, we really must keep focused on God, and not as a reality merely or even mainly external to ourselves. Like Abraham we must be people of faith, people who trust God to act within us and who allow God to do so in a way which will draw us past any obstacles that stand along our path. "Prayer" that is more focused on self than on God is not prayer; "prayer" that is full of effort and the need to achieve or control is not prayer. Prayer that is anxious and concerned with or focused on our own sin rather than simply mindfully bringing all that to the touch of God's powerful and transformative mercy, is not the prayer God calls us to! As Proverbs also reminds us: [[ 25 Keep your eyes straight ahead; ignore all (sideshow) distractions. 26 Watch your step, and the road will stretch out smooth before you. 27 Look neither right nor left; leave evil in the dust.]] If we do this the fire of God's life will be allowed to heal, empower, and inflame us so that we may transform the world with our presence! In short, we shall become the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham, a People saved by grace received in faith, a People as innumerable as the stars who are a genuine blessing to the entire creation!

** Galatians 3:7-14, Luke 11:15-26