I was spending time with a gospel text this past week, in the way I spend time with stories. I sit on my thinking chair beside a good light and I have open my bible, my journal, some books of spiritual poetry and scattered around me are papers, bits of ideas scratched onto napkins, other journals open – general flotsam of the mind. Steve commented that he has never seen anyone who approached scripture with less connection to biblical resources – commentaries in particular. I want to talk about this.
First, I am convinced of the reality of the Holy Spirit as teacher, guide and one who whispers the words of God. The Holy Spirit is my companion in these meditative times. My confidence is not an excuse away from serious study, it is the beginning of study. I sit with the Word for extended periods of meditation and discipline and live in the story, with the people, in the experience, and I listen.
Second, I travel in a general direction against the flow of some traditional interpretation of the gospel story I am living in. That doesn’t mean I am unteachable and seeking the novel, but rather I try to live into the story as a human before I let the story become just a defense of a particular theological position. Most texts seem to have been un-storied, it seems to me. When stories lose their visceral human connection with our lives and become simply a support of a theological position we are distanced from them and the people involved. And thus, we are distanced from the Word itself.
My fear is that my kind of approach (a human storied approach) to scripture renders my work (apparently) theologically insignificant. But in the world of formation – that is, the world of human experience of God – nothing could be further from the truth. We are not so much changed by rhetoric – talking about changing – as by encountering experiences, relationships and episodes of life. While there is a place for a theological rendering of gospel stories, we suffer loss when we lose a rich life orientation to what is written as a witness to life.
Some years ago I moved quite far from any connection with a local church (relatively speaking of course). My reasons are not important for this discussion, but my journey removed me from the experience of being with other believers. I lived this way for some time and listened to the discourse about ‘faith’ outside the church. I listened to the media, to rhetoric of other faiths, to the average conversation in the marketplace, and came to a settled conclusion: thinking about faith must be done from within the faith community. No outside voice can carry on my faith conversation. I became convinced that I must keep a strong connection with the church – the real and local church with all its flaws – because I cannot understand my faith except from the inside. Theology is the work of the inside – within the biblical tradition and within the house of faith. As ragged as that is, and as seemingly ‘sectarian’, this inner witness is the fertile soil of faith life for me.
All this said, I do finally visit the voices of thinkers and saints who have gone before me. This is my community, my great cloud of witnesses. But as one who is familiar with the great biblical texts and stories, I take the posture of one invited in freshly, finding life and surprise in the story of how the human race has encountered God.
We are ‘unfinished’ humans until we consent to the power of the Spirit and are drawn into a wholeness of being… Christian spiritual masters through the centuries have had different ways of describing that process. All… say that it involves a relationship between God and humanity that we call prayer. For us to pray is to intend to hear God and to respond to God. God is absolutely present to ALL people. Prayer does not make him present. Prayer is not a work. It begins with our consent, grounded in the expectation that God speaks and we can hear. That expectation is what is meant by faith. (A History of Christian Spirituality by Urban T. Holmes.)
Prayer as expectation and intent to listen. I like that. I have done prayer as work, and there is a labor in some kinds of prayer. But the prayer that transforms us and keeps us alive is our soul breath.
How about this for a great verse: Malachi 3:16 “Then those who feared the Lord talked with each other, and the Lord listened and heard.”
So much for saying a prayer at the end of a conversation to tell God what we talked about. Our conversation IS our prayer- as is our joy when we see a friend, our impulse to help someone in trouble, our laughter over a meal conversation and our walk through the corridors of malls and offices and schools – when we walk expecting to hear and willing to respond.