Tag Archives: mystery

Ask and you shall recieve. Or, you know, not.

Sometimes you can ask, and ask and ask and... nothing seems to happen. (photo from elca.org)

Sometimes we can ask, and ask and ask and… nothing seems to happen. (photo from elca.org)

 Text: Luke 11:1-13

I find this text to be… difficult. I mean, the Lord’s Prayer, I’m fine with. Who can argue with that? The part I find difficult is at the end. “Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened…” We’ve all heard it. And I think it is safe to assume we have all asked and not had it given unto us. It’s hard, and it hurts.

When I worked at Northwest Memorial in Chicago, during my seminary chaplaincy, I was called to the room of a woman who had, for lack of a better phrase, full body cancer. It had metastasized everywhere. While we were talking, she asked me about prayer. She was a lapsed Catholic and wondered if I might bring her a rosary and help her learn the Hail Mary. I went to the office and grabbed her a rosary and a Catholic prayer book, recited the Hail Mary with her (as my Swedish Lutheran grandmother’s head spun somewhere in Ohio), and said goodbye. Weeks later, she was back in and asked to see me. She wanted to tell me that she had been cured through prayer. After her last time in the hospital, she started going to church and attending a women’s prayer circle. The women prayed for her and laid hands on her every week. Now, no cancer. They were just running some final tests.

I wanted to be happy for her, I really did. I tried. But as she prayed for a cure, so did I. I prayed and prayed for my father’s brain to somehow be rid of the malignant tumor that was killing him. There was no cure. He would die. God is so fair that God is unfair, a friend once told me. Some prayers are answered in the way and time we want and, well, some just aren’t. And it sucks.

Sometimes, I watch televangelists when I can’t sleep.

I was watching a particular evangelist known for preaching what is called the prosperity gospel. The prosperity gospel is the idea that God wants you to have everything you want, and you will get it if only you pray hard enough and work hard enough (and, often, donate a lot to the church or preacher who is telling you this). This preacher was on a prosperity gospel roll when he remarked that people who have financial troubles have them because their faith is not strong enough. Then he went on to say that people who are ill, people who have cancer, people who are dying, are in that state because they weren’t praying hard enough.

Wait, what the what?

But there it is in the scripture, right? Ask and it shall be given unto you! Seek and you shall find! Knock and the door will be opened! Jesus said it, it’s right there. So if it’s not happening for you, there must be something wrong with you. That’s what this preacher was telling the people in his congregation and the people he reaches across the world through the glowing screen.

Few things get my hackles up as much as placing the brokenness of the world on people’s shoulders and telling then that it would go away if only they worked hard enough. I guess that is the Lutheran in me.

This kind of thinking is dangerous. It can kill faith. When we walk around with the idea that God is a cosmic butler who will respond to our desires (as long as they are Godly desires, naturally. Or maybe desires for a new car), with a resounding yes!, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment.

But still, we have this section of the Bible (and in Mark and Matthew as well) that tells us that if we ask we will receive, if we seek we will find, and if we knock, a door will open. So what do we do when that doesn’t happen? What do we do when we have been unemployed for months and we are knocking and asking and seeking, but no doors seem to be opening, no answers coming, no jobs to be found? What about when a loved one is ill and we pray and pray and pray and yet there is no cure, no remission, no end to the pain?

If we have hung our faith on a God who will do exactly what we want, when we want, it may not sustain us through hard times – because that’s not how God works.

We have ways we explain God’s apparent lack of response to our prayers. God answers all prayers, sometimes the answer is no. It wasn’t the right time, be patient. But these answers are wholly unsatisfying. I want what I want and I want it now.

It’s one thing when I don’t get something I want like a parking space (yes, I have prayed for those before), or a shiny new car. Then it’s pretty sensible that God’s answer was either no or silence (because I don’t doubt God has better things to do than help me get a parking space). But when we pray for a cure, for an end to pain, for a job that will help us feed our families – then the silence on God’s end seems uncaring and distant. It is this silence that leads people to disbelief, to observe that a good God just wouldn’t let these horrible things happen, so either there is no God, or God is not good.

This misunderstands who God is, what God is, and God’s role in our lives and the universe.

God is not a genie, or a celestial butler or a vending machine. God is so much bigger and more than this. God is a mystery we have only seen in pieces and parts. But all of those pieces and parts add up to one thing: God is love. God is the creator, the ground of being, beyond our comprehension, And sometimes, this is really hard to deal with. We want a God who is like us. We want a God whose primary job it is to respond to our demands in the time we want the way we want. When we do this to God, we make God small, and relegate the source of our being to our servant.

But what so we do with the fact that something that Jesus said doesn’t jive with our experience of God and our stories of God in Jesus Christ that tell us God is a God of love? What do we do when something that Jesus said doesn’t appear to be the way the world works?

We put it back in context. We look at the verses around it, we use the rest of the Bible and our tradition to help us out. When we do this, we discover that  maybe because we aren’t making the connections Christ wants us to make, we’re making the connections we want to make, the connections that give us butler God.

To make sense of ask and it shall be given unto you, seek and you shall find, knock and the door shall be opened unto you, let’s look at the prayer Jesus taught his disciples. What are we to ask for? What are we to seek? Where shall we knock?

For Jesus, it is all about the kingdom. Start with thanksgiving, with a heart of gratitude. Ask for our basic needs to be met. Ask for forgiveness. Seek the ability to forgive others. Seek God’s will. Knock on the door of the kingdom.

I can tell you from personal experience that when things are falling apart, starting the day or your prayer with gratitude feels impossible. It is really hard. It can feel forced. But it can also switch your frame entirely and change the way you are looking at your life and change how you approach your day.  A little thanksgiving to the creator can refocus not only your day, but your life.

It’s about God and the kingdom. God wants us to seek the Kingdom, God wants us to knock on the door of the kingdom. This is the gift we are to ask for – and it is already here. The kingdom, Christ said, is here. It is in prayer that we encounter God and it is in seeking God’s will, seeking to forgive and be forgiven, to praise, to ask for salvation and to ask for our basic needs to be filled that we knock on the door of the kingdom. When we live in a Christ centered way, when we live in prayer and love, we seek the kingdom and we will find the kingdom. For most of us, the discovery will be fleeting. We will have kingdom moments, moments when we are filled with God’s love that everything feels perfect. Then the moment will fade. The world will get in our way. We will start thinking about ourselves and our needs and what we don’t have, we will compare what we have to what those around us have. Or our illness will break through, despair will grab a hold of us and we will become blind to the kingdom again. Sometimes we may pray and pray and pray and it will seem like the door isn’t opening and there is nothing to find. Then a friend will appear at the perfect moment with words of encouragement and the kingdom breaks through into our world again. And again. And again.

I don’t want to sound like I’m saying God doesn’t want us to pray for cures or love or hope or for the pain to go away or for whatever else we may be praying for. God does. God wants to know what we want, God wants us to be in relationship together and one of the paths to relationship is by being honest about what you want and need. But it’s not always going to work out the way we want it to. Sometimes it will. Cures happen, jobs appear out of the blue and sometimes love falls out of trees. But it also might not. Because the world is a broken place, and as much as God may love us as individuals and as a people, we aren’t always going to get what we want. But we will get what we need: love. Forgiveness. Community. Small glimpses of the kingdom.

The kingdom is the best gift God can give us. It is the opposite of giving a child a scorpion. The receiving, finding, and opening to God’s kingdom is the gift of eternal life. It’s not about what I want or what you want, which is hard. But it is about God’s kingdom, which, even in glimpses, is more than anything we could possibly ask for.


Theology with Ice Cube: the beauty of metaphor and killing it with facts

Ice Cube's good day -- a utopian fantasy

These are the things I think about in my spare time. Ice Cube and exegesis.

A few months back, there were attempts made to figure out exactly what day was Ice Cube’s good day in his song Today Was a Good Day. If you aren’t familiar with the song, here’s one of the more pastor’s-blog-friendly segments:

Drove to the pad, hit the showers

Didn’t even get no static from the cowards

‘Cause just yesterday them fools tried to blast me

Saw the police and they rolled right past me

No flexin; didn’t even look in a niggas direction as I ran the intersection…

Plus nobody I know got killed in southcentral LA – today was a good day.

The song has references that help to place it in time – the Lakers beat the Supersonics, Yo MTV Raps is on, the Goodyear blimp is flying (so there’s some kind of big game), people still used pagers. So, some people took these hints and “figured out” exactly what day was Cube’s good day. It was a fun little exercise that got passed all around the interwebs.

When Ice Cube was asked about this recently he made it clear that there was no one particular good day – this was all just stuff that would make a clearly awesome day (for Ice Cube). It is, if you will, a utopian fantasy. In pointing out exactly what would make a good day, Cube points out some stuff that is really messed up about society. It is rare for a day to go by when no one he knows gets killed. The fact that he is surprised that he drives past the police and nothing happens emphasizes police harassment of people who look like Ice Cube (black, car with hops, gangsta: any or all of the above). Making it about facts takes a lot of this commentary away – it’s no longer a commentary on anything, just a story about a rad day Ice Cube had back in 1992 or so.  Making it literal takes some of the commentary out of the song, it weakens it, takes out the creativity and the story. It’s a fun game, but it’s not really what the song is for. The song is a story meant to express Ice Cube’s dreams – some base physical needs (sex, food, money) and some greater needs (freedom from the constant threat of death, from the watchful, profiling eyes of the police). When it becomes literal, some of the magic is gone. It is just another day.

(It’s pretty clear that this song is not meant to be taken literally – especially the end of the song, where Cube says, “Wait, wait, wait a minute poo, stop this s***. What the f**k I’m thinkin’ ’bout?” Like man, this is just a dream. Let’s get back to it. )

Does this sound at all familiar? Do you recognize the practice of taking an interesting and disturbing story that points to immediate and greater themes and reducing it to dates, times and facts? Isn’t this what many of us do when we study the Bible?

So much of the Hebrew Bible is this amazing compilation of stories written by people who were trying to make sense of their world. They were trying to communicate their immediate needs and their longing for freedom, love and peace.  The people who wrote the Old Testament were helping their communities grapple with famine, death, oppression, and slavery (not entirely unlike a lot of rap and hip-hop music today). Their stories gave meaning to people’s lives and provided hope for a future that will have something different to offer.

Much like a lot of rap, these stories can be violent, disturbing and confusing. So we try to make them into fact. We try to pin dates on things, we try to find Noah’s ark and the location of the Ten Commandments. We take a metaphor and strip it of its meaning by reducing it to facts, all so that we can be more comfortable.

One of my least-favorite examples of this is Jesus’ statement that it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to get into heaven. Ow. This is awful for most American Christians. Most of us have a lot –we are rich by the world’s standards even when we feel poor. So, this verse sucks. It makes it pretty plain that at worst we won’t even get into heaven, at best our money won’t help us get there. So we try to make it into fact. We make the eye of the needle an actual geographical place that was really narrow, but not so narrow that a camel couldn’t get through. Jesus was using a metaphor to make a point. We use truth to avoid it.

I’m not saying this is all bad. Archeologists and historians have their thing to do – it is their job to ferret out the truths of the ancient world. Christians have another job, a different job. It is our job to hear the voices of the Bible speak to us as they spoke to the people of their time. It is our job to hear the cacophonous multitude of voices express pain and grief and violence and hope and to hear what they were saying to their community through these stories. It is our job to sit in the difficulty of the story and the challenge of the metaphor, to let it inform our faith, our ideas of God, and our actions in the world around us. The question is not whether the events and stories in the bible are factual, it is whether they are True. Harsh, confusing, violent, full of hope, full of pain, replete with love, lust, mistakes, hubris and just plain weird — that sounds an awful lot like life, doesn’t it? True? True.

Today, it was a good day.


Dreams and mystical things

Only in dreams

A year or two after my father died, I had a dream that I hold close to my heart. I was in a laundromat (I think?) and my dad was there. He told me that my grandfather would tell me something important; my grandpa would tell me something that my dad himself wanted to say to me. I try to remember all of the dreams I have about my dad. They’re like little visits with someone I can’t see anymore. I consider myself very lucky to have dreams like this. Sometimes, they are weird and make no sense and I can be pretty sure that it is just my brain recycling and filing information. This dream felt different. So I held on to it.

A few days later, I got a letter from my grandfather. In it he told me that my father loved me very much and would be very proud of the woman I had grown into. I lost it, into full on ugly cry.

Now, this letter may sound normal to anyone who doesn’t know my grandfather. Grandparents, in theory, say this kind of stuff all the time. Not Grandpa R. I clearly remember the first time he told me he loved me. I was about 16 and it was his 85th birthday. I called him to wish him a happy birthday and he sounded kind of sad and told me he loved me. I was so shocked by this I handed the phone to my dad saying, “Um, I think grandpa’s drunk. He told me he loves me.” He wasn’t a big drinker, but that was the only reason I could think of that would explain his informal and (in his world) unseemly expression of emotion. So, this letter was not his normal way of expressing himself. It was kind of a big deal.

The letter itself seemed almost Godsend enough, when my dream (that I had the day my grandpa sent the letter) is added, I can find no explanation other than one that involves God, the world beyond this, the Holy Spirit and general mystery. There is too much happening here, too much I can’t make logical sense of. And that’s okay with me. Because I think it is wicked cool that, somehow, my dad visited me in a dream and told me to look out for a message from him through an unlikely source. I’ve had some pretty cool dreams in my life. I’ve had dreams that have helped me to see that I’m going down the wrong path in life, dreams that helped me let go of things I had been holding onto, and a really awesome lucid dream in which I defeated Darth Maul. But this one is still my favorite.

Why share this? What is the point of my story? I share it because it is real, for me anyway. It is very, very real. And my experiences will be readily and easily dismissed by people of faith. People who believe that a man was physically raised from the dead and then, after hanging out with his friends a bit, disappeared. People who believe in an afterlife, in God, in the invisible mover in so many things that are intangible, will  think that my dreams are nonsense and/or just a psychological projection of my grief.

Why are we so afraid of things we can’t explain? Why do we have to understand everything, to parse fact and fiction in the Bible and in our spiritual lives? Why do so many people I know dismiss the idea of the healing power of prayer (or make it psychological)? Why do we stick to the rational and the safe when Christian lives are built on a faith that is wholly irrational and strange?

This handicaps us as individuals and as leaders. As individuals, our insistence on the rational and quantifiable takes the mystery out of life. Where is wonder when everything has to be defined and answerable (and answered)? Where is the Holy Spirit when everything has to be concrete? Why bother praying for healing if it doesn’t actually do anything? I have seen many rational, all-head Christians end up a total wreck when they are facing death or pain because they had spent their whole life thinking about God and not experiencing God. There are mysteries in life, there are things we don’t and can’t understand. This is okay.

As leaders it hampers our ability to communicate with those outside our world of rationalist faith. A few weeks ago, in a workshop with Ian Mobsby, there was a lot of talk about the numinous and people’s renewed interest in spiritual things. He called our times post-secular: more people than in the past are curious about the spirit. Strangely, technology plays an important part in this reawakening. He calls this techgnosis. We spend all of this time with these crazy new inventions that broadcast our thoughts into space and put it somewhere else and it has created a new sense of wonder (even though, logically, we know how all of this works, or at least that it is science). So, we have all of these people in our churches and our communities who are having experiences with dreams and sunsets and gardening and hiking and computers and who knows what else. When (if) they come to us, we look at them like they’re nuts because their reality doesn’t match ours. Then they walk away, and never come back. We haven’t killed their sense of wonder, but we have told them that their observations and questions don’t fit in our box, and therefore, they are not welcome here.

So, yeah, I sometimes have freaky weird dreams that seem to be more than just my brain resorting my life. Sometimes I feel God’s presence so strongly it makes me want to cry because of a song on the radio that met me at exactly the right time and I feel like God is speaking to me through the radio. I’m putting this out there because I think we need to hear more of it. We need to talk about our experiences of God that are beyond explanation, that are a little weird. So many people have this happen to them and are embarrassed or don’t know what to do with it. I know I’m still afraid that if I share some of my experiences of God, people will think I am a) crazy and b) either not Christian or possessed by the devil. We have to get over this if we want to walk into this post-secular time as effective ministers of Jesus Christ, we have to be able to listen to people’s stories of the mysterious and to talk about our own. We also have to do it because we shouldn’t be embarrassed by our encounters with God. Not that we should brag; that’s not what this is about. It is about being open to the presence of the weird and mysterious Holy Spirit in our lives and in the lives of others in ways that we cannot explain. Because she is there, and she wants your attention.