Where was I again since I last wrote, someplace in Genesis with Abraham and his descendants making a mess of things and their covenants with God and with each other. Yes, that is right, I said you were dammed. Unfortunately, your fate has not changed since then; we are all still heading for a date with death. Our human flesh and our earthly existence have no defined time.
This fatalistic reality only further illuminates the valuable time we have this moment. It is of great value whether we are “joyous, happy and free” or suffering, miserable, and confined physically or mentally by some variation of human tormentors, real or imagined. Our state of being is always moving in one direction or another, always temporal.
But where is our compass to direct our purpose and mission in life? Our human state of affairs reasonably and appropriately must command our due respect. To disregard care for ourselves or others is easily seen by even the simplest minded among us to be pure folly. And then there are those among us that with very bright thinking, run with this motto to the extreme, pursuing every greater emotional bliss regardless of how these emotions are obtained. Who could blame them running hard and fiercely to avoid at all cost any taste of suffering, miserable mood, pain, or some other human calamity? This activity, although important, is rubbish and meaningless if not grounded in a higher transcendent meaning. Perhaps seeking Nirvana is the answer?
The great mystics of history invariable point out the only unchangeable is the absolute, unknowable one, the one we call God. Today we don’t see stodgy bearded men out in the wilderness or working with the poor in the streets. We are more likely to see mega-church preachers or self-help books with covers like the above. I dare you to go find a rock like that and sit on it for 30 minutes the way that lady is sitting. I have a feeling you will not be the picture of Nirvana at the end of the prayer session. That being said, she may indeed have developed a sesne of prayer and stillness that it matters little where she sits, in nature or in the middle of a highway.
Read the great religions and prophets, and they will, as did the old testament, describe man’s search for God and his graces. The languages and literary devices may vary, but at the end of the day, man (and woman) is found seeking God and most often found wanting. Amid this yearning, he is most unfairly plagued by human calamity even when blessed with great fortune. Nothing is ever enough. Seeking God is admirable, but if you are seeking God for spiritual gluttony you will probably be searching in the dark or fall prey to profit driven preachers.
The Gospel of Matthew (chapters 6-9) has some of the answers to these riddles for me.
- Do good to please God (no other, expect no reward here on earth)
- A form of prayer, converse with God, and the provision of the Lord’s prayer
- Lay up your treasures in heaven
- Do not worry about your life
- Ask, and it will be given to you, seek, and you will find, knock, and it will be opened for you
- Build your house on a rock
Matthew repeated these words of Jesus and many more in rapid-fire succession in three pages. No back and forth or interpretation. A grave warning to those who choose not to listen that Jesus will declare, “I never knew you” when it is their time.
Today in the public sphere, our eyes roll at the mere mention of any theoretical framework like existential philosophy, transcendent morality, or cross-societal ethical considerations. Most of the time, if someone is raising this, it is because they are trying to cleverly tell us why we can’t or shouldn’t do something. We would probably not listen if not for the rule of law that has developed over the centuries to codify what little humanitarian gains we have made over the centuries.
I can see the eyes rolling now if a man without credentials or status told us the things Jesus told the crowds. They had perhaps an advantage over us. God knew their hearts were hardened, so he gave them signs again in rapid-fire from Matthew’s account, a leper was cleansed, a servant healed, and Jesus even saved Peter’s Mother in Law. I am unsure if Peter appreciated the last miracle. Other miracles would follow as Jesus marches towards his suffering and crucifixion.
These miracles and the written scripture handed down to us have meaning and value to guide what little time we have left on this earth. Despite this, the disciples still panicked even with Jesus present when the “great tempest arose on the sea,” threatening to capsize the boat. Jesus awoke with disappointment, “Why are you fearful, o you of little faith.”
Jesuit Paul McCarren describes the disciples being as puzzled by Jesus Christ’s indifference to the storm as Jesus was disappointed by their fear and lack of faith.
In four pages of scripture, I am presented with a guide to prayer, evidence of the credentials of the prophet being able to perform miracles, validation that faith is not easy as even the disciples who saw with their own eyes struggled, and Jesus Christ response when they shoe their weakness.
Did this “great tempest arise on the sea.” It is highly possible given the geographical area and the routes that Jesus and the disciples traveled. However, more importantly, most of us don’t make our living on the seas. Very few of us have life-threatening events flash before our eyes while having a spiritual prophet at our side. What does it mean?
Let’s put it all together as to why I think these chapters in Matthew give you the solution to being damned to suffering and death.
First, the Bible (old testament and new), lets sets the framework that you and I are not very special in the sense of the challenges and tribulations we will face. Our ancestors before us have seen it all. The wisest among them were ready for when their time came. If you have ever known someone truly ready when that time comes, you are truly blessed.
Now, Matthew first lays out how to pray and communicate with God. In essence, he focused our attention simultaneously on the eternal and how to live a holy life now. The words of Jesus Christ, as captured by Matthew, lay down straightforward guidance on how to develop a relationship to permanence no matter what our temporal state of affairs is today.
- Act now: Do what Christ says above, and no matter what storm comes your way, you will be okay. He did not promise storms will not come. As we know from the Bible, a series of storms came that could not have been imagined by any of the disciples.
- Prepare now: Prepare for storms by living rightly today. Sadly, I have known human beings to say things like, as long as you follow the policy and blah, blah, I will support you. You have all probably had a time when someone said something like that, and when the going got tough, all of a sudden, you were alone. The lesson for me is trust in God as the only permanent trust one can have. That is not as sad as it sounds. I trust in many people today. I love many of those same people. Some of them will, at some point, disappoint me. I will be hurt to the degree that I trusted them. My feelings, though, will subside as I reconcile that I gave them trust for good reason, and I see they’re coming up short is just what it is a sad and disappointing outcome. This is perhaps the most common type of storm when people do not do what we expect them to do!
- Living rightly: What does that mean? In my view, it means pursuing doing the next right thing now with the right intentions all the time and having an on-going dialogue with the God of my understanding to discern those intentions for what they are. Find a way to still live and ground it in unchanging principles that transcend you.
- Professional Help: Authors note, not all human conditions and suffering can be handled by prayer and good intentions and behaviors alone, some of us need a little help from professionals in the areas of mental health, substance abuse, psychiatric crisis, economic wisdom, or spiritual guidance. Nor reason why anyone has to go through human toil alone (keeping in mind social distancing). Self-help groups can be very beneficial, like Alcoholics Anonymous or other 12 step groups.
- Compassion: No matter where you are on the journey, have compassion for yourself and others without putting yourself in harm’s way unless necessary. Let’s face it; we are not all called to be martyrs or saints. Most of us have other callings. It is improbable. I hope that we will be asked to deny God or be executed, go on a starvation protest, or say take my life in place of the child! Seek to do the most good without treating yourself poorly. We can have compassion for an addicted gambler without giving him a loan. We can forgive a person who violated our trust or hurt us without inviting them back in to do the same again. Letting that happen again not only hurts us but hurts the gambler or the one who cannot responsibly manage trust given to them.
Jesus saw a great need for compassion and love. This was not reserved for those who were perfect. It was for all of us.
These steps match the steps for any profession. Find the manual and start working (act now). Prepare for setbacks, you can never have enough knowledge and will learn by trial and error (Prepare for storms). Do the best you can with the tools you have now and keep adding tools (live rightly). Know when a project is over your head and get help fast, be humble (Professional help). Have compassion for everyone you meet, including yourself.
There is so much in these few pages and this post. How can you translate this into anything worthwhile? Build on what you have now (strengths). Develop a routine (schedule) and stick to specific times for prayer and reflection. Throw in extra time when needed. Journal, read, and be curious. Let others in that will support you.
On the surface, it looks all pretty straight forward and easy. I remember my brother Jimmy out in front of the house with a unicycle. About the only joy that bike bought us was watching him crash. The Bible (and many surface teachings) can look deceptively easy until you have to take the “things” out of the box and start building the damn thing. Trying to live a holy life can meet the same end and people will also enjoy watching you crash. Seeking God requires great humility internally and externally.
Everyone wants a cheat sheet. The bible does not lend itself to be a cheat sheet. Centuries after its formation it is still be deciphered and argued about by theologians and historians. If you wait for them you will probably miss out on the most famous book ever written. Sometimes you can only be helped to get on the bicycle and get a good shove. The rest is up to you. I don’t recommend a unicycle!
The answers are not only in the bible. Fifteen percent of our population is 65 years or older. A good number of them, certainly not all, carry wisdom and solemnity in their final years. They not only have six decades of lived experience, but they also have what was passed onto them from their ancestors sifted through and weighed against current times.
My chariot is built on the teaching of Jesus Christ. His followers are far from being free of error. There are many examples of “living right” that I can model from around my current day and in history. I am not limited to models from Christianity as well. Buddhist monks and meditation practices examine and handle the red hot embers suffering and impermanence by literally being able to walk barefoot over them. They are not free from error either. At the end of the day, we are all too human, imperfect vessels, seeking transcendence.
I have not mentioned 25% of the world who are followers of Allah. The Muslim faith’s true essence alludes me in the chaos of the middle east. Subsumed in that chaos is also orthodox Jewish traditions as well and the state of Israel.
Whatever faith we find to guide our lives, we become living testaments to an ideal higher authority. Our faith and our religious affiliations will be judged in real-time by our actions. Writing a blog on how to pray and seek a sanctified life is useless if after I close the browser I leave my house and treat people with ill-will or are driven by selfish motivations. Any great religion is judged by the actions and lives of its followers.
You can have glimpses of transcendence every day if you look for it. It is all around you in nature, in the acts of other people, and hopefully present in most of your actions and thoughts. This has been a hard post to finish. My prayer life is up against needless human suffering and death compounded by an unforgiving political and economic system that thrives on uninterrupted growth. Sometimes my prayers leave me feeling empty and drained rather than consoled and restored. I am not a mystic or a priest. Just a working family man trying to make sense of tragedy and suffering.
Regardless of the external turbulence, you can be a beacon of calm, humility, love, compassion, strength, and peace to others, if within your heart you are building on a solid rock that is greater than our temporal desires. Your faith or religious identity may provide you a vehicle for life’s journey, but at the end of the day, it is your responsibility to learn to ride it. No religious leader, sermon, or homily can define you. They too can make errors.
To what end is this post. It is written for all of you who everyday strive to be responsible, work hard, and are in general morally upright people. You toil and work hard for your self and your loved ones. You have faced constant changes and pivoted and acclimated to changing times. Although not perfect or faultless, you count yourself as generally a good person, like Job from the Old Testament. And now, tragedy strikes beyond your control even though you practiced spiritual and ethical decision making daily.
If your eye is set on the absolute and the infinite God, all troubles and joys will be minute in comparison. If your faith is made strong by your commitment, actions, and God’s grace, any storm that envelops you will be faced with calm and strength regardless of the outcomes. You will posses a new reality to be able to sit with uncertainty and mystery while still working to do what you can in the face of exterm adversity, upto and including death. Sure, you may have moments of trepidation and angst, but like the disciples, you will find your way back to your core.
Today, three thousand people will perish from COVID. An estimated 50 million people will be pushed into extreme poverty. Upright hard working people just like me and you. Political and economic forces beyond our control will lessen or amplify the pain and suffering we have already experienced.
In my view, we only have one answer. Still the storm and take refuge in prayer. Take stock in your circumstances. Find acceptance for what is today. Ask God for what you think you need and ask him for the strength to handle whatever he gives you! They maybe two different things. Pray a little more to sit with the suffering of others. Pray for them. Contemplate what you can do now, today or tomorrow, to do God’s work in whatever is your calling in life. Leave your refuge of prayer and carry it with you as you go back into the storm to face whatever life has instore for you.