Jesus

Pray then Contemplate then Meditate then Pray...

Photo by  Motoki Tonn  on  Unsplash

Photo by Motoki Tonn on Unsplash

Listening to different groups of people I hear three words used to describe some of their practices. The religious (often conservative) use the word prayer, academics (often liberal) use the word contemplate, and mystics (not just Christians) use the word meditate. Sometimes there words are used interchangeably in popular culture, but my lived experience teaches me that these are not different words for the same practice, but rather three different practices. The trouble is, most of us just do one of these when we really need all three.

Prayer is many things, however at the core, prayer is paying attention. it is the act of paying attention to the needs around us. It is paying attention to gratitude. It is paying attention to the hurts and pains in the world. It is paying attention to what the still small voice of God whispers to us.

While prayer is using our peripheral vision to pay attention, contemplation is the practice of focusing on something. It is focusing on one scripture or one concern. It is focusing on what God is inviting us to do or become.

Meditation is the practice of letting go. If prayer and contemplation are about opening our eyes to different degrees, meditation is about closing them. Not closing them to the pain of the world or the concerns of God, but closing them so to empty ourselves. Meditation gives us access to our limitations and shows us how we are not in control or in what ways we are limited to effect change.

To pray, contemplate or meditate in isolation is not only difficult to do but we are missing out on the fullness of these practices. They each build upon one another and connect to one another. We pay attention, we focus, we release, only to pay attention once more.

Since we are just out of Lent, perhaps it is easier to pull the example of Jesus from Matthew 26 36-42. First Jesus prays (pays attention):

Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I go over there and pray.’ He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. Then he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.’ 

Jesus is praying and in doing so he is paying attention. He is paying attention to his situation becomes grieved and agitated, even to death. Jesus asks the disciples to “stay awake with me” to pay attention to what God desires.

The story continues:

And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.’ Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ 

Now Jesus moves from praying to contemplating. He is focused on the real possibility right before him. He narrows his choices to two - let this cup pass or thy will. Additionally we wonder if Jesus frustrated with the disciples because they are asleep or because they are not paying attention? The story then makes the final turn toward mediation:

Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.’

Jesus lets go of a desire to control the outcome. He is aware of his limitations in the situation. He clears his mind through meditation and said “the same words” of release to God. Once this threefold movement is complete, Jesus remains frustrated, not at his impending death mind you but at the disciples who could not even do the first step to stay awake, pay attention, pray.

Tossing Jesus Off A Cliff

…And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” ’ And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

The group is excited because they are anticipating that Jesus is going to not only do great things among them, but probably even going to give them a little extra. Like when you go to a restaurant and know the server and they tend to your table a little more than others and bring you a birthday dessert even though it is not your birthday. This town is looking to get the hook up, as the kids say.

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Jesus says that in fact God has a history of giving favors to people other than the chosen ones. Jesus cites two times when Elijah and Elisha both were sent not to the chosen people but to the foreigners.

The people around Jesus got super angry and move to give him the death of a heretic. All because Jesus reminded them that God is less interested in giving the “extra good stuff” to the chosen ones and more interested in integrating the ones that the people of God thought were downright unrepentant sinners.

Imagine a group of people agreeing that they are in the right, that Jesus should take care of them first, because he is one of them, and they are the majority. Jesus says he is not going to do that but go to the hated minorities. Perhaps people cry out, but we are the majority Jesus and we are the faithful ones! Jesus might have reminded them that they should be the first ones to understand why he is to go integrate the minority. Instead of seeing that grace compels us to move beyond what we identify as kosher or orthodox, they decided to drive Jesus off a cliff.

But that was a long time ago.

Giving up Bible Reading in 2019

Photo by  Priscilla Du Preez  on  Unsplash

Reading the Bible is a time honored tradition in the life of the Christian and this year I think I am giving it up. I am giving up reading the Bible for scripture reading.

Reading the Bible and scripture reading are different not in content but in posture. The same words are engaged but it is a different approach. When we read the Bible we tend to look for what we can learn or what we can gain. We look for the teaching or the wisdom we need to get through the moment. We find something that can challenge us or stimulate our thinking. The vast majority of Bible studies that I have been apart are interested in expanding your thinking in order to shore up belief structures. Reading the Bible puts the reader as the protagonist (the main actor) in the process.

Reading scripture is different.

First of all, we do not read scripture - scripture reads us. Scripture exposes to us the things in our life and world that we are blind to and even need to repent of. However the primary difference is that scripture reading means that we are open to (and expectant of) an encounter with the living Christ. This means scripture reading is not an action but an event. It is a “happening”. It is a theophany.

Shifting from reading the Bible to scripture reading is ultimately differentiated by the fruit each practice bears. If we are not transformed by the words we read, then we are reading the Bible. And so, as a start consider this scripture reading:

But if you had known what this means, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice”, you would not have condemned the guiltless.
— Jesus, Matthew 12:7

The Voice of Jesus, Grammatically Speaking - Guest Post

Virginia Parrish (@texpatnj) is among the intelligent people I know. I asked if she would write about the grammatically passive voice of Jesus in the Gospels. What follows is a theological and philosophical exploration of the additional meanings found in the voice of Jesus, grammatically speaking of course. (I added the image and all underlines and bolds to the text.)


How can we make war not war?

How can we make war not war?

            I’m a language person, as you know if you’ve seen my Twitter rants on the incorrect usage of words like notorious and fulsome. Words matter. Not only that, but the arrangement of the words matters, giving us that thing we call grammar. I love grammar, partly because I like the orderly structure of it, but even more because grammar allows us to be precise in communication. Grammar is about things like tense, which tells us exactly when something happens. I eat cereal and I’m eating cereal are both present tense sentences, but the first is the simple present and the second is the present progressive. If your friend calls in the middle of breakfast and asks what you’re doing, you automatically respond with the second, even if you never heard of the present progressive tense. Grammar is hardwired into our brains, and we make grammatical choices every time we open our mouths.

            We now also have computer software that checks our grammar, just in case we don’t have English-teacher friends to do it for us. When I write something, I always run a grammar check, just to be sure everything is clear. It usually reminds me not to start sentences with conjunctions. I know that’s incorrect. But sometimes I want to emphasize a point. My grammar check may also tell me not to use sentence fragments. Seriously, though?

            One thing almost everybody gets snagged on with grammar check is the use of passive voice. Most grammar software programs hate passive voice. If you’re not a grammar person, you probably aren’t sure what passive voice even is, but it just sounds like it must be weak writing, right? You don’t want to be a passive person. Software seems to look at sentences as if they were people – let’s make sure they all stay active!

            Except sometimes keeping all sentences in the active voice is ridiculous or impossible. Here’s a sentence in the passive voice, taken from an HGTV show today:

The house was built in 1890.

            It’s passive because the subject of the sentence, the house, performs no action. The actors – those doing the building – aren’t in the sentence. That may well be because we don’t know who they are. If I try to change the sentence to the active voice, I get

Some people whose identities are unknown built the house in 1890.

            That’s a silly sentence, so HGTV’s original passive-voice sentence works much better, and they’re right to use it. When we’re writing sentences about houses, it seems logical not to expect them to be active, but what about human beings?

            There are times when there is a good reason that a sentence focuses on the person receiving the action rather than on the actor.

Thousands of soldiers were rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk.

            That headline and others like it in 1940 gave hope to those at home. Later, maybe, they would hear about how the rescue took place and who performed it, but their immediate need was to be reassured that thousands of soldiers, their loved ones, were safe. In that moment, those who had been rescued were the most important.

            Here’s another use of the passive voice.

Stones and bottles were thrown during the demonstration.

            Now things get a little murky. This sentence uses the passive voice to focus on stones and bottles without saying who threw them. We’re writing a journalistically neutral story, and we don’t want to place blame. Besides, it looked like everybody was throwing stones and bottles, so how can we know who started it? The grammar is correct, but the ethics? Maybe not.

            Later, maybe the follow-up story on that demonstration will say things like.

A man was injured.

Arrests were made.

Laws were broken.

            Grammatically, the subjects of these sentences did nothing; something was done to them. They did not act; they were acted upon. We don’t know who injured the man, who made the arrests, or who broke the laws. The passive voice can be a convenient grammatical hiding place. Listen to how often a politician on the news says, “Mistakes were made.”

            In the Gospels, Jesus uses the word forgiven nineteen times; in eighteen of those instances, he uses the passive voice.

You are forgiven.

Your sins are forgiven.

Their sins will be forgiven them.

            There’s no question about who is doing the forgiving. In each instance, Jesus could have said, “I forgive you.” Why did he hide himself grammatically? When he could have been naming himself as the divine actor, he instead excluded himself from the sentence, pointing us back to ourselves.

            We have adopted that use of the passive voice. We are forgiven. We are loved. We are blessed. But have we taken what Jesus did and turned it backward? In grammar, as in all things, God has acted, and we have received. Jesus made us the subject of those sentences, and we accept that gratefully in our repetitions. The difference is that Jesus spoke in the second person – you – and we repeat in the first person – we. Jesus kept himself out of the sentence to focus on us; our repetition in the passive voice focuses us on – us.

            Maybe Jesus put us in that grammatical place because it’s usually the subject that performs the action. His use of you as subject moves us into an active role. If we are forgiven, loved, blessed, it’s because God has acted on our behalf. If Jesus makes us the subjects, it’s because we are to act in his name. We forgive. We love. We bless.