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Illusions of the Heart

Our country is still in mayhem after the assault on the Capitol on Wednesday, January 6, 2021. What aftereffects will occur, it’s difficult to say at this time. But, as a woman of faith, this juncture cannot be ignored.

Naturally, we can all pray: for peace, for wisdom, for understanding, for renewal, for justice, for explanations. And yet, despite our prayers, the question of “why” dominates my mind. How has violence become the only avenue for expressing frustration and inequity?

Today, I was meditating on “Psalms for Praying” by Nan C. Merrill and in Psalm 1 (her interpretation) presumably the last verse, she writes, “. . . Love’s penetrating Light breaks through hearts filled with illusions: forgiveness is the way.”

Another scripture says, “A good man [person] brings good things out of the good stored up in his [or her] heart, and an evil man [person] brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his [or her] heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” [Luke 6:45, NIV]

An illusion misleads intellectually and its intent is to cause misinterpretation of its actual nature (see Webster’s dictionary). This is where we are now. We can tell that illusions exist because of the words spoken and quite honestly, the actions (the violence). Illusions have found root in many hearts and, in my mind, the only way to break such illusions is by an act of God, or literally, the pure Light of the Christ.

People are regularly captivated by clever magicians who can transform what we believe to be truth into something else. And that something else becomes the replacement reality. I cannot dissuade someone who has fully engaged an illusion as real.

I suppose I may be steeped in illusion as well, but of another kind certainly, where love guides. My faith in God keeps me in the “Way,” but what about the people who read the same Bible I read, pray to the same God I do, and yet justify behaviors and words far outside my understanding of the verse, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind; and your neighbor as yourself” [Matthew 22:37].

According to cult de-programmers, it can take up to five years to bring a loved one out of the deep influence of a charismatic leader or group. This process is about unconditional love, questions, and patience. Illusions do not fall like a curtain, but in pieces and cracks. Hostility, name-calling, disgust, and chips on the shoulder are no help. Let us instead, look for points of concurrence. This is my prayer.

In recent days, I have been practicing Lectio Divina again** with some regularity and have found it profoundly illuminating. Partly, I believe it’s because of the familiarity of the Christmas season scripture passages. Most of us know them well, and it’s often difficult to hear/read something new from them. This practice is perfect for a renewal and discovery in God’s Word.

I found a lovely app for my phone called “Ritual” and on it, a daily Lectio podcast presented by theologian, Kathleen Cahalan. The other day, she read a passage about Simeon and Anna from Luke 2. The part about Anna struck me the deepest [Luke 2:36-38]:

“There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.” [emphasis mine]

In the past, I simply found her devotion admirable albeit somewhat extreme, and moved on. Or, how lovely for Mary and Joseph to have received two prophetic utterances on the same day, etc. But on this day, I was captured by the Temple itself and the conundrum of the temple within and the temple without. After all, scripture is clear, “Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” [I Corinthians 3:16, NKJV] And all I could think about was the wonder of never leaving the Temple within. If I could really remain in the holy place, dwell there, and from that vantage point, look out, wouldn’t my view of others and the world around me be transformed?

So, with the help of my “Monk Manual” [MonkManual.com], I was drawn to this idea and have embraced it as my theme for the month of January. There’s no real “doing” in this theme, there’s no success or failure, no comparison, no wrong or right. It’s a small globe of thought on which I want to rest each day and allow myself to wonder again and again: I am in the temple of God and the temple is in me; I am not alone there.

**Lectio Divina is a contemplative way of reading the Bible. It dates back to the early centuries of the Christian Church and was established as a monastic practice by Benedict in the 6th century. It is a way of praying the scriptures that leads us deeper into God’s word. We slow down. We read a short passage more than once. We chew it over slowly and carefully. We savour it. Scripture begins to speak to us in a new way. It speaks to us personally, and aids that union we have with God through Christ who is himself the Living Word.

From the Anglican Communion.org

First of all, please understand, I am not an “out and out” advocate for abortion. This is not my point. In most circumstances, it is not a choice I would encourage anyone to make, the unintended consequences being far-reaching, unpredictable, and possibly heart-wrenching. And yet, I do not consider abortion murder either. Not in the way so many of my Christian brethren believe. For them, I am apostate.

With that said, please feel free to skip this post. You see, because I will not condemn the woman who chooses this path, particularly without full knowledge of her circumstances, her history, her heart.

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” [Matthew 5:21-22a, NIV] Isn’t the implication here, the “same” judgment?

“. . . For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” [Romans 3:23b, NIV]

“As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one; . . . [Romans 3:10a, NIV]

Are there people who abuse the legal right to an abortion, treating it like the “morning after pill?” Absolutely, and I find this grievous. But there is no law that doesn’t have abusers and liars. The more often someone abuses any law, the easier it becomes, not allowing the import of their choices to weigh upon their souls.

I know, there are many people I love and respect; for them, there is no time that ending a pregnancy is justified. They claim they speak for the innocents. I get it. But condemnation comes cheap these days, forgetting that no sin is worse than another, not really. Can we really walk in the shoes of the woman who must choose? To make the choice “illegal” will not make her journey any easier.

In other words, I am not the judge or the jury for a woman who seeks to end a pregnancy any more than I am the judge of lifestyle. I have friends of the same sex who have been in very long relationships while many heterosexual (even Christian) friends have cheated on their spouses and often divorced (all forbidden by the “letter of the law’).

“Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?” They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger. They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” [John 8:4-7, NIV]

It’s a dilemma and a mystery where to stand. I understand, intellectually, both sides of this dilemma, but, in the end, I have made my choice, one of mercy and grace (given to the very ones who don’t deserve it any more than I do).

When I look at the circumstances into which many children are born in the name of “righteousness,” I quake. Too many children are physically and emotionally abused by unloving adults; too many go hungry; too many are cast-offs and enter a life of resentment and paybacks for the misery of their childhoods. Is this an excuse? No, but it is a reality. Bringing a child into the world comes with responsibility and demands. This is one of many reasons, advocates support a mother’s right to choose – is she a fit mother? Is there a man or partner willing to share the burden of parenthood? Is this the best for the child?

In my view, there is not enough anecdotal evidence of “close-calls” for those adults who were nearly aborted, were not, and became gifts to society. Of course, God is God and anything can happen. But my feeling is that for every wonderful story, there are ten or hundredfold of sorrow. If it were not so, endless poverty cycles and unwed mothers would not be our society’s norm.

Best case? Teach people about longings. Teach both men and women of all ages about sex and why it exists, for joy, yes, but not just a one-night stand but a long-term, ever evolving relationship that is part of becoming parents. Teach people about contraceptives and give them away for free! Demonstrate love. Apply grace.

And let God work out the rest.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” [Mark 12:30-31, NIV]

Note 1: This topic is too big for a single blog post; I know that. I can only address a few aspects of sex in order to make a point.

Note 2: As a heterosexual female, I can only reasonably speak to sex between men and women. Not to necessarily discount the rest, I am simply unfamiliar with other practices, nor do they help in my argument about the relationship between longing, sex, and unwanted pregnancies.

Spoiler Alert: If you have trouble with the words vagina, coitus, sexual intercourse, orgasm, ejaculation, or copulation, you may want to skip this post.

Random Facts and Processes

  • Sex is noted throughout the Bible, both in the Old and New Testaments. Most of the time, it’s a warning. “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immortality;” [I Thess 4:3, ESV]
  • Sex (as a word) has become, over time, an over-arching term for the whole she-bang (no pun intended): foreplay, coitus, and recovery.
  • Sexual intercourse can be a pleasant and satisfying experience often culminating in orgasm. In some cases, both partners (the ideal) have orgasms, but far too often, only one does, generally the man.
  • When two people agree to have sex, the immediate outcome is often pleasant.

However–

  • In the case of non-mutual consent, sexual intercourse is primarily one-sided with the male forcibly entering the female for personal satisfaction.
  • A male can also weaponize sexual intercourse, commonly called rape.
  • A woman, in these situations, is an “object.”

Nonetheless–

  • In all cases, if the man has successfully ejaculated inside a woman’s vagina, sperm laden semen will move through the vagina and into the cervix and beyond. In the case of withdrawing, also known as coitus interruptus or pulling out, it is possible for some sperm/semen to find its way up the path.

Long Term Outcomes

  • If either the man or the woman has an STD (sexually transmitted disease), that disease will likely pass to the partner.
  • Depending on the female cycle, a single sperm can successfully travel into the cervix and fertilize a waiting egg, create a single cell zygote, and in essence, create a pregnancy.

Why Do People Engage in Sex if One of the Key Long-Term Outcomes is Pregnancy?

  • They want to have a child together.
  • One or both use contraceptives to prevent a pregnancy. In other words, they don’t want a child. Unfortunately, they tend to forget that a surprise pregnancy can still happen. No contraceptive is completely foolproof.
  • Sex is fun.
  • Sex, particularly orgasms, release a number of hormones that specifically impact the partners. [see https://www.sciencealert.com/here-s-what-happens-to-your-brain-when-you-orgasm] Among them are:
    • dopamine: releases feelings of pleasure, desire, and motivation.
    • oxytocin: releases feelings of bonding (the same hormone releases during breastfeeding), a sense of love and attachment. Note: after orgasm, oxytocin continues to be release in women which often explains their desire for post-coital closeness and “cuddling.”
    • prolactin: releases feelings of satisfaction.
    • serotonin: releases feelings of happiness and sleepiness, a good mood, and relaxation.
  • Having an orgasm stimulates the brain in the same way as “doing” drugs or listening to your favorite music.
  • One of the chemicals released during sex can even desensitize a person to pain.
  • All of these feelings and “hormone releases” are a “reward” for sex.

“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the Father’s love is not in him. For everything that is in the world does not come from the Father. The desires of our flesh and the things our eyes see and want and the pride of this life come from the world.” [I John 2:15-16, NLV]

Is There Any Wonder?

  • In review, my previous post about “longing” was the set up for this simple truth: sex fills a lot of longings.
  • If a person is sad, lonely, anxious, afraid, disappointed, insecure, unloved, or just have any number of unmet needs, sex can fill the bill. For those moments, it all goes away, just like a drug-induced state of mind.
  • In a time of loss or deprivation, sex is usually still available. For such a reason, total strangers will have sex, like a drug, to forget their circumstances.

Historically–

Because, we must remember, for centuries, women were possessions or slaves (although some cultures have female goddesses and have created myths about women). But in practicality, ordinary women had many social restrictions, few rights, and lived in the home at the whim of men. There have been pioneer women in every age who stepped out of the norms, but true self-discovery for average women came in the last century, beginning with the right to vote.

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” [Genesis 1:27, ESV]

What I really want to highlight is that, in this modern era, sexual relations are different. Earlier, women were used for a man’s pleasure only, and at his demand, in addition to bearing children. Today, more women believe they should have equal say about when and how and with whom they have sex and they also want control over the outcomes.

For some people, this change for women is too brazen, outrageous, and merely sets the stage for widespread sexual immorality. For other people, this change for women means the freedom to experience intimacy in a variety of different ways.

But whether sex is forbidden or permissible, it is the drive to have sex and it’s “rewards,” that puts women at the locus where pregnancy can happen. The man plays a vital role and yet, a resulting pregnancy is still primarily viewed as the woman’s responsibility to carry.

So, in this era, most women want to have a say. They want a full participation and mutual responsibility. And yet, whichever partner has longings, needs, or desires, if a child is created, it’s still regarded as “her” problem and in some circles, her “sin” or “punishment.” In my mind, this view is held both in and out of marriage (a topic to be considered at another time – that of fidelity and infidelity).

I believe too many people have lost the ability to recognize sex as an intimate expression of love and a medium for spiritual union. Sexual encounters have become physical and hormonal experiences exclusively. Whether that’s good or bad, the result is a monumental disconnect between sex and the production of children.

“Therefore, a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” [Genesis 2:24, ESV]

The Dilemma of Longing

Psalm 143:6
I stretch out my hands to You;
My soul longs for You, as a parched land. Selah.

Certainly, when it comes to scripture and to God, there is no greater thirst than the desire for God, to taste and see, to know and to be known. That is, if we recognize the source of our yearning. In discussion on this topic today, I was reminded of the fragility of our understanding. My friend said, in essence, that she believes longing for God is planted within all of us and that we are all, in one way or another, searching to return to who we are meant to be, in communion with God. How this resonated with me.

But what happens when we don’t know the source or true nature of what we are desiring or yearning to know? What if that longing is corrupted along the way? What if the idols of our world or the temporary “feel good” moments clamor to become the objects of our desire?

How many men and women have allowed sex to fill that void, or power, or success?

Longing is usually accompanied by vulnerability. In the language of faith, that is a good thing. Our hearts and spirits open to the Presence of God, we hear God’s “voice,” holy words are revealed in scripture, and we are willing to surrender–“Thy will be done.” But if our longing is misdirected and we are vulnerable as well, then we may find ourselves abused, physically or emotionally. We mistake sex for love, power for influence, and success for self-discovery.

In human psychology, longing is considered a “secondary” emotion, usually associated with the primary emotions of love and sadness. Often, longing is looking for a change. I love you, but I long for you to love me. I am sad, but I long for you to change so I won’t be sad anymore.

In my mind, the only truly safe place to put our longings is in God. When focus on other human beings, we move out of alignment. Like a car, we can still move forward, but with each mile, we become more and more damaged.

I long for a world where peace and justice and kindness reign. I long for understanding and trust and renewal. I long for unity. But my current ideas or thoughts about how our cultural losses can be undone, are misplaced. I have missed the point. No state of being can be mandated. No human law will change the course that is being set today through abused longings. Too many of us are looking for results before we look for the source of our fractures. We ignore our interdependence and play the “blame game.” We have become like two fans on separate sports teams “praying” to win. Whose prayers will God hear? Both and neither, because we are longing for the wrong result.

Let them give thanks to the Lord’s unfailing love
    and wonderful deeds for humankind,
for God satisfies the thirsty
    and fills the hungry with good things.
(Ps 109-8-9, NIV, pronoun edits my own)

The Dilemma of Prayer

I’m sure some of you may be surprised that I am writing about prayer as a dilemma. After all, isn’t it fundamental to our faith? How could that be a problem? But then, if it’s not problematic in some way or another, why are there thousands of books written about prayer: how to do it, when to do it, why we do it, etc. From what I can see, most people spend a good deal of time lamenting how little they pray. I should–I could– if only and so on.

My first realization that there are a variety of ways to pray came from Richard Foster’s book, “Prayer.” Written in the early 90’s, he laid out 21 different types of prayers. Oh dear! I was only really good at the first one: simple prayer. So, I figured I’d read through the book, and one by one, I’d practice these other prayers. Ha! By the time I got to the the third one, I gave up (the prayer of Examen). I didn’t get it. Then.

In later years, I became deft at public prayer. I could really bring the people with me into the holy of holies, calling forth the power of a miraculous God. This was a time of many “Praise the Lords.” In those years, I also practiced praying in the spirit (and singing in the spirit). Looking back, I think the biggest benefit to praying in tongues is that words get out of the way.

I confess I also learned how to pray manipulatively; that is, in such a way as to suggest to God how situations, like my marriage for instance, could be better and what my husband could do to implement that change. He would be sitting next to me. Surely, I was infuriating.

As I began to do more speaking engagements and perform in churches or para-church organizations, I learned to pray for others. That was a sweet time, a meaningful time. There was a flow to touching another person’s spirit with my own through prayer.

When I did my skits, I often made fun of various prayer times: everything from prayer poses to coffee breaks to distractions and of course, falling asleep. People laughed because they recognized themselves in the skits. I drew from my own experience.

I knew and I know that prayer is important: it’s the way we communicate with God. But doesn’t God already know what we need? Healing? Food? Shelter? Work? A new Cadillac. Whoa, should we pray for such things? New acquisitions? A Trip to the Bahamas? More stuff? I don’t think so.

Gradually, year by year, my practice of prayer has changed and changed and changed. And although I can still pray out loud with the best of them, I find that silence is the deeper form of communication with God. In silence, I can experience the Presence of God and surrender to God’s intention. I am with God and God is with me. I am with Christ Jesus and Christ Jesus is with me. Holy Spirit is with me and I am with the Holy Spirit.

Privately, when I pray for others now, I say their names and then I wait. When I pray for our nation or our political turmoil or violence in the street or inequality, I state the situation, and then I release it to God. I read a passage of scripture and sit with it. I read a poem and ponder it. I write. I journal. I sit. I slow down. Prayer is more about listening than speaking. Prayer is dwelling in the secret place, God’s dwelling place. And it is in this place, that the words from that famous song make sense: It is well, it is well, it is well with my soul.

The Dilemma of Religion

Religious symbols

Yesterday, two friends and I discussed the word “religion.” The three of us have been working on “personal creeds” as an exercise in spiritual practice. After all, what do we believe? Is there more for us beyond the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed? Does it matter? And, is this creed-building an aspect of religion?

Librarian that I am, I looked up the definition. Webster’s has a few choices: a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices; a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith; and, for interest’s sake, an archaic meaning: scrupulous conformity or “conscientiousness.” A thoughtful addition to all of these definitions comes from Wikipedia, “The word religion is sometimes used interchangeably with faith, belief system or sometimes set of duties; however, in the words of Émile Durkheim, religion differs from private belief in that it is “something eminently social.” That resonates with me.

Religion has gotten a rather bad “rap” these days, primarily because of people who are using it to practice exclusivity. On one hand, they claim that everyone is welcome into their club, but that welcome only lasts as long as one follows the doctrine, the rules, the agreed upon credo. And yes, it is a social interaction. For many years, I learned to use the right language, to ignore the anti-whatever of the day, and to pretend I didn’t watch adult movies or read the Harry Potter series.

I remember attending churches where the word “religion” was used dismissively, as though, their worship ways were higher or “spirit-led” and therefore unbounded by the rigidity of religion. And yet, over time, these free spirits ended up with an “order of worship” and a belief statement and lines drawn in the sand. Often, the Bible, as a whole, is used as a standard, calling on the inerrancy of scripture as the foundation for everything. But, isn’t that religion?

I remember attending a church unlike my charismatic beginnings for about three years. Liturgical and systematic, every week’s service was codified and several passages from the book of prayer were repeated each week. This form of worship is often derided as “dead.” But, in the end, it was not the liturgy that drove us away, it was the people who said, in more ways than one, “we don’t do that here.”

Religion is an overarching term that encapsulates the way we choose to worship and what we believe. Just within the “Christian” religion, there are 6 major mega-blocs (according to http://www.philvaz.com/apologetics/a106.htm and The World Christian Encyclopedia [WCE], people who identify themselves as Independents, Protestants, Marginals, Orthodox, Catholic, and Anglicans.) Within those blocs, the WCE has identified 33,000 denominations. Each one slightly different in practice. Is there any wonder that people fall away? We’ve managed to make it all so very complicated.

Judaism has managed to keep the number around six or seven while Islam appears to have only two. I’m sure there are other minor differences there too of which I am unaware, but honestly, the comparison is noteworthy.

Religion, in and of itself, is not a bad word. In fact, it’s a very broad term, much like a forest. The trees and plants that make up that forest are varied and beautiful, useful and ornamental. But they are all part of the forest. And it’s the forest that helps keep us alive.

What do you believe?

 

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