Prayer and Transcendence

We leave the obsessiveness and anxiety of finite time that culminates in ending and death, and enter into eternity. 

In the introduction to Dostoevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karmazov’, Prof. Marie Jaanus writes describing the experience of reading Dostoevsky…

We leave the obsessiveness and anxiety of finite time that culminates in endings and death, and enter into eternity. 

While I was reading it, I couldn’t help but wonder how this describes prayer so well. In our normal life, we are caught in the prison of timely anxieties, and crave for the “two seconds of pure joy”  like Ivan Karamazov. Prayer lifts us away from the suffocating anxieties of everyday living. Prayer is a vehicle of transcendence that draws us into an ecstasy giving us a taste of eternity, from within the present life. This ability for transcendence frees us to enjoy our present life enriched.

Don’t Let a Crisis Go Waste – Soar on Eagle Wings Instead…

The shrewd people of the world use crisis for personal benefit. The foolish people of the world let the crisis define them and waste away. As wise Christians we use the crisis to know ourselves by involving in healthy enterprises, know people around by being vulnerable about our weaknesses and to know God by looking up at Him for help.

There is a saying in politics, ‘Don’t let a crisis go waste’ meaning when bad stuff happens, after the immediate crisis is over, during the ‘crisis recovery’ phase when people are vulnerable and impressionable, the shrewd politician should attempt to channel the emotions poured out into avenues that further desired policy agendas. Case in point… the President Bush used the opportune window that 911 to pass the in the Patriot Act,the President Obama sees the Newton incident as an opportunity to promote his agenda on gun control laws.

Politics apart, the idea of ‘don’t let a crisis go waste’ has some significant applications to Christian living too. Often in life we come across disappointments. A disappointment depending upon the magnitude of it can be a crisis. Every time we face disappointments there is accompanying set of emotions from anxiety to anger to despondency. During the ‘crisis recovery’ phase, depending on the nature of the crisis and the personality of the individual, people will process and respond to it differently. Some live in a state of depression of regret over the past, others are anxious about the prospects of future and some others live in a state of denial ‘kicking the can down the road’ (if you will) and then there are people who to escape the dreariness will get into addictions and waste away.

The question to the Christian is how do we channel ourselves as we get through the crisis recovery phase. There are three aspects to channeling the emotions as we work through a crisis recover phase which are distinct and stand on their own but still are related to each other as well.

1. Take up a healthy enterprise you enjoy and discover yourself. In C.S.Lewis’ last novel ‘Till We Have Faces’, Orual is depressed out of her senses. In her recovery phase, she finds pleasure and a way back to stability by learning the skills of warfare and governance from the King’s Commander Bardia. When I went through a minor personal crisis, I found my joys in reading good books, watching good movies, and at work. Books I read were the Holy Bible, ‘Doctrine of Knowledge of God’, ‘The Great Gatsby’ etc… I watched good movies made by independent filmmakers, ‘Safety Not Guaranteed’, ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape’ etc… Then I worked hard at the office, my journal then at the gym… In all of this, I experienced God extending the grace to me so that I will enjoy them and worship Him through them. Such healthy enterprises were also a means to spend some time in solitude and get to know myself.

2. Share your burdens with the community and allow them to provide for you understanding, companionship and comfort. A deep instinct that we have when they are in phases of ‘crisis recovery’ is that we crave anonymity  We want to disappear. We do not want anyone else to know about the vulnerability, pain and suffering. In wanting to disappear from the community some may follow a healthy pleasure in some enterprise (# 1 stated above) and find comfort in seclusion. Though # 1 is good, in an off itself, it will not help. We need the community. It is at such times that you really know who really cares about you. Being away from family, I found comfort in the community among my christian friends. I spent time eating dinner, watching movies, talking, having coffee at Starbucks etc… The community is a place were you get to know other people and experience God’s grace by hanging-out with folks that love the Lord.

3. Look up to God to save you! Even as # 1 & 2 (stated above) are good and great, they are still not complete. Ultimately, you need to know that you are eternally loved with a steadfast love… If we aren’t assured of this eternally secure love, doing # 1 and 2 no matter how great it may be, amounts only to enjoying a peg of wine, a game of poker or some other indulgence on deck of the sinking Titanic. It is the assurance of the eternal love of God that gives us the security to freely enjoy # 1 and 2 as God’s gifts to us. Enjoying a healthy enterprise (# 1), enjoying community (# 2) cannot truly flourish unless God gives us eternal protection in Him. All this to say, that when we go through challenging crisis recovery phases, primarily, we need to look up ‘unto the Hills from where comes help’. Every time we look up at Him through the crisis, we get to know Him better. By the time you get out of the crisis recovery period you’ll be glad you went through it. For, by losing a part of you in the pain and suffering, by looking up at God, you would have gained knowledge of God that is invaluable. After all, Paul compares ‘everything else’ to manure when compared with pleasure of ‘knowing Christ’.

As I was looking up at the Lord by reading through the Word of God to soothe my soul during my crisis recovery, I came across the passage below that showed me how much God really loved me, and that my soul being in turmoil is ok, for ultimately my salvation is in the Lord. I just have to remember His ‘steadfast love’ and prayerfully be in His presence.

Psalm 42

5. Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    my salvation
6 and my God.
My soul is cast down within me;
    therefore I remember you
from the land of Jordan and of Hermon,
    from Mount Mizar.
7 Deep calls to deep
    at the roar of your waterfalls;
all your breakers and your waves
    have gone over me.
8 By day the Lord commands his steadfast love,
    and at night his song is with me,
    a prayer to the God of my life.
11 Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    my salvation and my God.

Of course, what I have described isn’t a 1-2-3 technique… To say, ‘Just perform this 3 step technique, and you’ll be fine’ is a hoax. Life is too messed up for there to be an easy way out of loss, pain and suffering. After all even Christ wasn’t exempt from life’s crisis.

Even as you enjoy healthy enterprises, commune with healthy people and look up to the Lord for help, you’ll still find yourself slipping through the cracks, you’ll have ups and downs, but for a while the overall trajectory may continue to be downward. You’ll keep going down until you hit the rock-bottom. Depending on the nature of the crisis it may take only a little bit, or it may take a long time. But you will hit the rock-bottom. Once you have hit the rock-bottom you will realize that you really are standing on the Rock, the Redeemer the Christ. From that point you will ‘soar up in Eagle wings’…

Isaiah 40
27 Why do you complain, Jacob?
    Why do you say, Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Lord;
    my cause is disregarded by my God”?
28 Do you not know?
    Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
    the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
    and his understanding no one can fathom.
29 He gives strength to the weary
    and increases the power of the weak.
30 Even youths grow tired and weary,
    and young men stumble and fall;
31 but those who hope in the Lord
    will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
    they will run and not grow weary,
    they will walk and not be faint.

As we feel like we are going down the spiral, we may be tempted to complain and ask God what it is about. It is ok to complain to God as long as we also listen to 1) God’s response that He is ‘understanding’ of things is better than ours and 2) God’s promise that no matter what happens He will not allow us to grow weary or be faint (even when we are at the end of our strength). Christian life is a long road, we will come across many a crisis. God promises that no matter what we will be renewed in strength, even as we walk long tough paths, we  may complain, but will not grow weary. It is through crisis that we get to experience God’s grace that upholds us through our long lonely walks. Such experiences of God’s grace are worth the long lonely walks.

The shrewd people of the world use crisis for personal benefit. The foolish people of the world let the crisis define them and waste away. As wise Christians we use the crisis to know ourselves by involving in healthy enterprises, know people around by being vulnerable about our weaknesses and to know God by looking up at Him for help. Even when things are bleak, we keep walking onward trusting God’s got our back. Every crisis is an opportunity for us to courageously cherish life, commune with sympathetic people and worship a Brilliant and loving God more. After all, the crisis is worth it if we don’t waste it but with God’s help use it to walk, run and soar up on Eagle wings.

Saving Power of Imagination!

My introduction to Woody Allen movies was through his later film ‘Midnight in Paris‘. I liked Woody Allen’s use of imagination in the movie. ‘Midnight in Paris’ is a story about a couple, Gil and Inez, engaged to be married that go to Paris for vacation to celebrate their engagement. The lady’s personality is that of a ‘philistine’ in that she lives in the ‘material’ world cares pretty much for nothing else other than good food, dressing well and exciting sex. The man on the other hand has a finer tastes for life. Gil is thrilled that he is in Paris the city of dreams for the quintessential artist.

The man and the woman see and experience very different worlds in Paris. Inez goes about the city uninterested, disenchanted and ends up having an affair with the guide. Gil on the other hand, finds his imagination getting fired up. He can’t get enough of the city and goes about exploring it. Inez sees no point in enjoying the night walk in Paris. Gil goes it alone. It is in one such midnight walk that a carriage pulls by and he is asked to hop over into it. He gets transported into the Paris of the 1920s when it was thriving richly with a host of young Bohemian artists. He meets everyone from Ernest Hemingway to Gertrude Stein and spends the night in their August company. This happens every night. Gil lives a dream life in his imagination. He is a happy man.

The question here is… What do you make of Gil’s imaginary world? Does it really matter that the guy has such a powerful capacity for imagination? Or may be he needs to see a Psychiatrist? Why make such a big deal of this imaginary world? Should we just dismiss this cinematic depiction of the power of living in an imaginary world as a crazy old Woody Allen’s attempt at making mediocre movies towards the tail end of his career.

I think the answer to this question is implied at the end of the movie in how Paris changes the lives of the couple. Gil is not looking for anything specific in Paris to satisfy him. He surrenders to allow himself to be surprised by his imagination. The more Gil is drawn into this beautiful imaginary world, the happier he is in the real world. That he does not get any sexual satisfaction from his bride to be is immaterial to him when compared with the beautiful imaginary world he is a part of. The woman on the other hand presumably gets ALL she the exciting sex she thinks will make her happy, but ultimately ends up dissatisfied.

When Inez finally confesses that she has been has been having an affair with a mutual friend of theirs and wants to break-up, Gil isn’t the slightest bit perturbed which infuriates her all the more. Gil was living in such a beautiful world of imagination that the pleasures offered in the real world seemed mediocre. His imagination was powerful enough to make life satisfying for him. He did not need a ‘hot wife’ after all. He has his eyes set on a world where ones satisfaction isn’t determined by ones needs but by ones ability to be eternally surprised by imagination.

I think there is a Christian principle here. Just like Gil is satisfied by the hope, joy and love offered by the imaginary world do that he does not care much for the mediocre pleasures of the real world, the Christian is to be satisfied by the hope, joy and love of the Heavenly world so that sometimes when we have to give up some of the pleasures of this world it wouldn’t be that big a deal.

The Bible uses our imagination to enthuse us about the great goodness of the Heavenly world. The Bible talks abstractly about the next world in terms of the length, breadth and height of the treasures God has prepared for those that love Him. Then the Bible also talks concretely about streets of gold, sea of glass, great mansions. This abstract and concrete figures of speech is meant to fire-up our imagination so that in the imagination empowered Hope of the things to come, we would endure the hardships of this world.

If we do not use our imagination to envision, explore and be enthralled by the Hope we have in Christ we, like Inez will see a very ‘reductionistic’ world and will ultimately begin seeking after silly pleasures to satisfy us. Christians like Gil have to be people with fired-up imaginations so that we see that there is more to this world than meets the eye. We should go about exploring the world through the Word of God. The imagination empowered vision of the World painted by the Bible will help us set our priorities right and live a happier and FULLER life in this world and the next. Unless Christians use their imagination to see the BIG world that God created and called us to be in, we would become a bunch of petty people seeking after silly stuff in a reductionistic world. Imagination saves us from this narrow focus by helping us SEE the great things God has in store for those that love Him.

Chick-fil-a – an Apology from God???

As much as Christians love to show their solidarity with the ‘Christian’ President of a Fast Food Chain, it might be a better idea for the Evangelical Christians to show equal care and concern for  the plight of the poor and the oppressed.

I was at the Chick-Fil-A on the 1st of August (Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day) at 10:00 PM and there were about a 150 people in there, most of them presumably Evangelical Christians showing solidarity to the fast food chain over controversy created by a statement made by the ‘Christian’ President of Chick-Fil-A  essentially saying that America would incur the wrath of God because of its laws becoming increasingly Gay-friendly. Presumably, millions of Evangelical Christians went to Chick Fil A Nationwide that day.

A more interesting spectacle was watching the liberal Mayors vociferously oppose Chick-Fil-A plans to build more restaurants in their cities only to back track their statements because to do so would have been illegal – the President was just exercising his first amendment right. Here is a really funny video made by a gay dude asks the Mayors to chill. All of this ‘tempest in the teapot’ not withstanding, what really caught my eye was an article quoting Billy Graham quoting his late wife Ruth saying

Some years ago, my wife, Ruth, was reading the draft of a book I was writing. When she finished a section describing the terrible downward spiral of our nation’s moral standards and the idolatry of worshiping false gods such as technology and sex, she startled me by exclaiming, “If God doesn’t punish America, He’ll have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah.”

I don’t know about God needing to apologize to anyone, but let us go with this for now as there is a bigger point to be made.

Billy Graham in his letter ‘My Heart Aches for America‘ quotes the statement above and then the passage from Ezekiel  16:49-50 from which this quote is purportedly derived from and then goes on to talk about the sins of abortion and sexual depravity leading to impending judgement from God. Yes, abortion and sexual depravity are sins as per the Bible. Yes, America is like Sodom and Gomorrah, but there is a key point to be noted. America’s similarity with Sodom and Gomorrah is not just in it sexual depravity, but in its indifference to the poor and needy. 

Read Ezekiel 16:49-50 (ESV)
49 Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. 50 They were haughty and did an abomination before me. So I removed them, when I saw it.

Yes there was rampant sexual sin in Sodom and Gomorrah, but God’s primary objection against Sodom and Gomorrah (and Israel) is not sexual immorality, it is indifference towards the poor while living in excess. The crime is in not treating a fellow human being as someone with dignity – the dignity that comes in one having been made to reflect the Image of a fiercely loving God.

God equating Israel to Sodom and Gomorrah in Ezekiel has more to do with Israel’s indifference to the poor and needy than its sexual depravity.  In the New Testament, Christ brings similar complaint against the Jews in the Story of Lazarus and the Rich man – the Rich man did not do anything wrong per se, he was just indifferent to the poor man at his doorstep.

This complaint of indifference applies as much to Evangelical Christianity today as it did to Israel back in the day. Ruth Graham is probably right that if God is to use the same yardstick, He will have to judge the America, but not so much for the sexual depravity of the non-Christians as much as for the indifference of Evangelical Christianity towards the poor and needy around them. Unfortunately, Christians today often tend to exaggerate the consequences of sexual sins while trivializing the consequences of sins of indifference towards people that need our love. 

Of course, Evangelical Christians give more to the cause of social upliftment than the non-Christian counter parts, but the question is do we give enough to offset God’s impending judgement, if God were to use the same yardstick that He used against Sodom and Gomorrah. I suspect that answer is no. As much as Evangelical Christians pray and work towards a National revival of the non-Christians, we should also pray and work against Christian indifference incurring the wrath of God that was directed at Israel and Sodom and Gomorrah. 

As much as Christians love to show their solidarity with the ‘Christian’ President of a Fast Food Chain, it might be a better idea for the Evangelical Christians to show equal care and concern for  the plight of the poor and the oppressed. The day when we see a 150 Evangelical Christians at 10 PM at Nationwide ‘show compassion for the poor and needy’ campaigns, Evangelical Christianity would have inched closer towards a more God-pleasing state of existence. Pray that that day would come soon, before it is too late! Least God should have to apologize!! Of course, He needn’t. 

Positivist Christian vs the Faithful Christian

I was reading Jim Collins book ‘From Good to Great’. He coins a phrase called ‘Stockdale Paradox’ which I think is a great analogy to explain Christian hope. The story is about an American Colnel Stockdale who was tortured as POW in Vietnam. He was one of the very few who made it through the brutal POW life. Below is the narrative of the meeting between Jim and Stockdale.

When Jim asked Stockdale what gave him the strength to make it through, Stockdale replied…
“I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

When Collins asked who didn’t make it out of Vietnam, Stockdale replied:
“Oh, that’s easy, the optimists.”

Collins was confused. He thought Stockdale’s statment about not losing faith make him sound like an optimist. Collins questions him on how optimists were different from him.

Stockdale replied…
“Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

The POWs had two types of faith. One prevailed, the other did not.
1. One faith believed that circumstances would change. When that did not happen, the faith died along with that the person too.
2. The other faith believed that no matter what the circumstance, the self was powerful enough to make it through. The self remained powerful enough to make it through.

Among Christians too we have two kinds of people. The optimists believe that life will provide for them what they want at just the right time as long as they have the positive attitude and work hard enough. They expect they’ll be married when they are 25, have a beautiful suburban house when they are 27, kids when they are 30, a great executive position when they are 40, become a Church Elder when you are 45, a director when you are 50 (if not a CEO) and have grand kids by 60. For whatever reason when that does not happen, they’ll begin to grumble, they’ll be angry at God, go in to a bout of self-pity or even depression or worse end up in mid-life crisis induced addictions from alcohol to drugs to illicit sex.

Then there are the Stockdale believers who don’t quite expect that everything in life will turn out the way they expect it to. But no matter what happens, they TRUST God would work it all out for good (Rom 8:29). The Christian believer’s faith has a better foundation than Stockdale’s. Where Stockdale has faith in his self, the Christian’s faith is based on the finished work of Jesus Christ. The Christian does not just say he’ll make it through because he has a strong will. The Christian says he’ll make it through because Christ has already secured a place for the Christian in Eternity.

Stockdale then added:
“This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

This an important point we need to remember. We should not try to deny or trivialize the brutal realities of life. Instead, we should acknowledge that life is tough and that we live in a fallen world. We need to remember that NOTHING in this world can separate us from Christ.

Romans 8:35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

 The positivist Christian who expects external realities to turn for the good will be disappointed, because in a long enough timeline we will all die. On the other hand, the faithful Christian is more than a conqueror, not because he has a better attitude or luck or marriage or achievement or pleasure, but because even if life deals its worst cards, he has faith that he will not be separated from our Lord who has secured for us a place in Eternity by dying on the Cross for us.