Lately, as I begin my morning devotions, I quote this Psalm (Psalm 1), surely one of my “top 10s”:
Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, or stand in the way of sinners, or sit in the seat of mockers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on that law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers. Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away…
Psalm 1 sets the trajectory for the entire Psalter. The “blessed” – fortunate, happy, well-off, wholesome – life is a life rooted in God. It is a life conditioned by and anchored Yahweh’s in wisdom, for of course no one knows better than the Creator where and how our flourishing as human beings is effected. And so the “blessed” man is the one who, like a tree, is planted near the ever-flowing water and in the fertile soil of God. From this place he is fruitful. Echoes of Jesus’ words in John 15 can be heard here: “I am the vine, and you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit. Apart from me, you can do nothing.”
The call of Christianity is to anchor ourselves in God, to let our lives spring out of the soil of the Divine, to let our “doing” rise up out of our “being-in” God.
And that is just where things get difficult for many of us; for many of us are do-ers, and have defined ourselves mostly by what we can accomplish or produce. Somewhere along the line, at an early age, we bought into the notion that “We are good IF________”. For some, we are good if/when we are novel and exceptional. For others, we are good if/when we are beautiful. For still others, we are good if/when we are powerful and successful. And for others, we are good if/when we are “right.”
All of this is vanity. It is the pursuit of a “self” that is not anchored in God’s first love for us, and therefore it occurs to me that MOST of what drives MOST of our lives is … is there another word for it? … sin. The Apostle Paul says that anything that doesn’t come from faith is sin (Rom 14:23). Is it possible that a good deal of the energy of our lives comes from a basic lack of confidence in the love and mercy of God? And so we quest after _______ (you fill in the blank) in a desperate attempt to soothe an ache or fulfill an “if-then” that is better soothed and fulfilled somewhere else.
For me, the “I am good if _______” equation looks like this: “I am good if/when I am accomplished.” I am an achiever. I want to preach sermons that blow peoples minds and cause their hearts to rupture. I want to write blogs that do the same. I want to build a community that people notice (even envy?). I want to write books and lead seminars on how to do … oh I don’t know … ANYTHING that I’ve learned how to do. I am DRIVEN by what I can accomplish.
Accomplishing is not bad, by the way. But all of that “if/then”-ing can easily lead to the construction of a sort of “false self” that is built on and anchored in things that will easily pass away.
Not every sermon will impress
Not every blog will inspire
The community will always be a work in progress
Someone else will always be more accomplished
And one day
Even if I wind up being wildly successful in this life
EVERYONE WILL FORGET ABOUT ME
(How’s that for a dose of reality?)
This is why prayer is so important for me. And not just any kind of prayer, but contemplative prayer. As a born and bread charismatic, my prayer life can easily become yet more place where my vanity and need to define my worth by my accomplishments (read: sin) expresses itself… Did I “experience God” in a profound way? Did I pray with intensity over the things that needed praying for? Did anything happen in prayer that was worth telling other people about? Did God speak to me?
And there again… the vanity… the if/then-ing. So much of our lives, and even our prayer lives, is built on an energy of the flesh, when it really needs to be built on the energy of the Spirit, who comes to us as the gracious Gift of the Father from the Son to graft us into the family of God, where we are already loved, already secure, already known, already safe. This is what contemplative prayer is all about, and why I love it so much. Because simply BEING in the presence of God – without “judging” or scrutinizing how “well” I’m “being” – is the death of vanity, the end of my seemingly endless need to impress and inspire and accomplish. Simply being… God will not be impressed or inspired by it… and there is nothing to “accomplish” of it. To pray in this way is to remember that “we love because he first loved.” It starts there. And the energy – a right energy – for “doing” comes from there. Henri Nouwen once wrote:
Through contemplative prayer we can keep ourselves from being pulled from one urgent issue to another and from becoming strangers to our own heart and God’s heart. Contemplative prayer keeps us home, rooted and safe, even when we are on the road, moving from place to place, and often surrounded by the sounds of violence and war. Contemplative prayer deepens in us the knowledge that we are already free, that we have already found a place to dwell, that we already belong to God, even though everything and everyone around us keeps suggesting the opposite. (From In the Name of Jesus)
I love that. My impression of most people in the church is that even though they’ve acquiesced mentally to whatever-it-is they see Christianity as, their lives are still driven by a whole host of neurotic, ridiculous passions… The Spirit has not yet liberated them to become the “true selves” God wants them to be: liberated, anchored, at rest, strong, free, and full of love in his presence.
Prayer – the kind of prayer that leads us into God’s first love – is a powerful first step towards taking us there.