Prayer: “the bird of Paradise”

Part 24 in a series; see other parts here.

Prayer can feel like a kind of death. So many of our waking hours, and especially the restless hours of night, we spend shouldering our burdens and trying to take one more step forward, when that is the price of life against the stasis of death. In prayer, though, we let the weight press us down to our knees, and even onto our faces, as we try to lay the burden down before God.

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Prayer: “The milky way”

Part 23 in a series; see other parts here.

The relationship between mothers and babies affords an intimacy perhaps unparalleled in human experience. The baby begins life as something simultaneously part and not part of the mother, and only slowly dissociates itself, as it must. Early in this process of separation, the baby nurses, [1] living now outside of the mother but still drawing nutriment from her in an experience of bodily nearness. And, as recent studies of lactation have shown, nursing is not a one-way experience, in that the baby’s saliva communicates chemically with the mother’s breast. Nursing is thus our first instruction in negotiating intimate relationships. It is our first instruction in prayer.

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Prayer: “Man well drest”

Part 22 in a series; see other parts here.

Prayer often finds us* at our worst, or at least what can feel like less than our best. We sob convulsively, shout angrily, plead earnestly—or we engage in an activity so rote that we can forget we’re doing it, embarrassed at how many of our prayers are thus. True, there are those moments of pure, blissful praise, or the times when grace’s undertow pulls us suddenly into the depths of divine love, and perhaps in such moments we could think ourselves spiffy, if only the familiar pride were not suddenly and mysteriously out of reach.

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Prayer: “Heaven in ordinary”

Part 21 in a series; see other parts here.

The idea of heaven usually stands in contrast to our everyday lives. Heaven is supposed to be where all that we have done and all that we have left undone finally gets sorted out, where at last we can give proper time to everybody and everything we care about, precisely because time is no more. In heaven, we at last escape the temporal for the eternal, which alone has ample room for our loves. Heaven becomes the projection screen for the unrealized imperfections of life, our photographic negatives in need of development.

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Prayer: “Gladness of the best”

Part 20 in a series; see other parts here.

Although our world roils with its share of ugliness and violence, it also brims with beauty and goodness. Everything from a child’s hug to Duruflé motets to an insalata caprese with perfectly ripe summer tomatoes and basil fresh from the garden, good fresh mozzarella, a little sea salt, a robust olive oil, and aged balsamic vinegar purchased at an acetaia in Modena—such things enliven our world and carry with them the savor of divine life.

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Prayer: “Exalted Manna”

Part 19 in a series; see other parts here.

We wander in this wilderness of life, sojourning strangers for our threescore and ten, our time marked out by the recurring cycle of hunger, whether for the fleshpots of Egypt or the milk and honey of the promised land. Hunger leads us into a strange temporality, its present pangs bound up in memories of past satiety and the hope for future feasts. Sometimes we can almost even taste what is no longer there or what soon will be, and thus we pray, straining to bring near what still feels so far away.

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Prayer: “Bliss”

Part 18 in a series; see other parts here.

So much of prayer feels like a lover’s quarrel, hashing out a messy but committed relationship. Love provides the foundation, but manifests as struggle. Like any relationship, ours with God has its ups and downs. But oh how high are the highs! With feet on the ground and arms raised to the heavens, our souls, in ecstatic elevation, can mingle with the rich fires of star-birthing nebulae or rise with the morning fog as it clears out of a cold spring canyon.

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Prayer: “Love”

Part 17 in a series; see other parts here.

Prayer can be both an immersion in love and an education in it, precisely because prayer is a central venue in our ongoing repentance, or turning toward God. Nothing illustrates love’s richness in paradox quite like prayer, for in prayer the experience of being overwhelmed by grace and acceptance can coincide with that of feeling deeply that serious things in our lives need to change. Adding to the complication, sometimes in prayer we learn that we need to accept the things we thought needed to change and that we need to change things we’ve long accepted. Love is always both simpler and much more difficult than it appears.

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Prayer: “Joy”

Part 16 in a series; see other parts here.

So often, prayer means wrestling with the angel, refusing to let go until God leaves us with a blessing. For all that, though, sometimes prayer is pure joy, the sun clearing the horizon and driving out the shadows. If there are prayers of anguish, there are also prayers of exultation, when we find ourselves so awash in grace as to be overwhelmed. Through heaving sobs of joy we can find no other words than: “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

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Prayer: “Peace”

Part 15 in a series; see other parts here.

Peace is the prayer on our lips that our own hands must answer. As human beings we are capable of great evil, but also great beauty and goodness. We live most of the time not altogether resolved between them, and sometimes we purchase a sham peace by dissociating ourselves from the evil around us. “Not I,” we say, instead of “Lord, is it I?” To which the answer, if we’re really being honest, is usually at least partly “yes.” We are of a species with the human horrors we see, and there will not be peace so long as we deny that fact.

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Prayer: “Softness”

Part 14 in a series; see other parts here.

Prayer is quiet, but never quite silent. So much of prayer involves learning how to calm the noise in order to hear properly—or learning how to hear through the noise. We often call the Spirit’s voice still and small, but it is also soft, in volume, tone, and affect. It manages to be gentle and unobtrusive while also pervading everything, and in prayer God teaches us how to listen.

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Prayer: “A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear.”

Part 13 in a series; see other parts here.

The notion of prayer as a kind of melody sung in unison with God can give great comfort—until we realize that we’re trying to match pitch with a thunderbolt. It’s not that God is out to get us, but that the music running through all of creation is so immense and powerful that it inspires awe, and, if we’re paying attention, not a little terror. Prayer connects us to the music of vast overhanging cliffs, of entire oceans being lifted by the moon’s gravity, of nebulae swirling with newborn stars. Our lives and deaths seem like insignificant pinpricks on such a scale.

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Prayer: “The six-days’ world transposing in an hour”

Part 12 in a series; see other parts here.

The music of our lives often seems to demand the skills of a Franz Liszt to play, as though only the capacity to fly through a torrent of impossible notes with an obscenely graceful sprezzatura will do. Amidst our busyness a voice (the ghost of piano teachers past) whispers, “Keep time! Keep time!” and we promise we will, once we can exchange this molto allegro for andante. Too often, though, such promises end up obliterated by thirty-second-note runs tangled in a barbed wire of accidentals, and when we emerge on the other side, dripping sweat, the voice continues: “Keep time!”

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Prayer: “Christ-side-piercing spear”

Part 11 in a series; see other parts here.

Codex Vindobonensis 2554, fol. 2v (France, 1225) Österreichische Nationalbibliothek

Codex Vindobonensis 2554, fol. 2v (France, 1225)
Österreichische Nationalbibliothek

There’s a long history of seeing Jesus’ side wound as a special route to his heart: I especially love this 13th-century depiction of the Church being born from his side. Herbert also has a deliciously strange poem called “The Bag” that puts the image to good effect in relation to prayer:

If ye have any thing to send or write,
I have no bag, but here is room:
Unto my Fathers hands and sight,
Beleeve me, it shall safely come.
That I shall minde, what you impart;
Look, you may put it very neare my heart.

And, lest this all begin to seem too odd, too non-Mormon, it’s in our hymnal, too:

Rock of Ages, cleft for me:
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From thy riven side which flowed
Be of sin the double cure,
Save from wrath and make me pure.

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Prayer: “Reversed Thunder”

Part 10 in a series; see other parts here.

Feeling a divine thunderbolt tear through one’s spine en route to its ground cannot be called a pleasant experience. Typically in its aftermath, as smoke rises from our hair and electrical remnants spark from our fingertips, we can do little but sit still in a state of, well, shock. At times, though, our eyebrows tingle with premonition, and we manage to send the bolt back upwards with a forehand sharp enough to engender hubristic self-comparisons to Rafael Nadal in his prime.

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Prayer: “Sinner’s tow’r”

Part 9 in a series; see other parts here.

We all know the terrible feeling that follows the realization of a mistake: it’s a human experience whose commonality ranks somewhere between waking up and breathing. Sometimes this experience provokes defensive anger, as we try with all the violence we can muster to make the mistake stick to somebody else. Even when we manage the necessary legerdemain, though, the gnawing at our hearts remains. Even if most mistakes aren’t exactly the Furies pursuing Orestes after he killed his mother, they can still be nastily persistent ghosts.

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Prayer: “Engine against th’Almighty”

Part 8 in a series; see other parts here.

In prayer, God values our candor, meaning that God honors even words like these of Job’s:

If I summoned him and he answered me,
I do not believe that he would listen to my voice.
For he crushes me with a tempest,
and multiplies my wounds without cause;
he will not let me get my breath,
but fills me with bitterness. (Job 9:16-18, NRSV)

Sometimes our relationship with God is such that no prayer short of battering rams and catapults loaded with shrapnel and explosives will do. Herbert wrote a poem that figures tears and prayers as artillery, but I’m thinking more of the rage he expresses toward God in “The Collar” (where “choler” is one of the many puns in the title): “Have I no harvest but a thorn / to let me blood?”

So, it’s okay if our prayers beat and kick at God’s door—which really can seem closed to us at times—and it’s okay if we scream and swear in the process. Anger has a way of focusing our sights on the precise target we mean to hit, which paradoxically means that we rarely think of God so intensely as when we rage at the heavens. In quiet meditation we long to approach the throne, but in anger we can feel near enough to close our fingers around the divine throat, and when we attain such proximity God can the more easily reply: “My child.”

Prayer: “The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth”

Part 7 in a series; see other parts here.

Being an adult means spending quite a bit of time metaphorically at sea, not quite sure whether we’re in or out of our depth. Certainly we only rarely see to the bottoms of things. Herbert’s claim that prayer can find the bottom and measure its depth thus seems like a stretch. After all, the mere fact of praying doesn’t exempt anybody from occasional or even systematic cluelessness. What’s the use, then?

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Prayer: “Heart in pilgrimage”

Part 6 in a series; see other parts here.

Augustine famously wrote that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. (Herbert has a poem about that, too.) Our lives consist of so many cordial peregrinations as we seek to love and be loved, and while saying that all our loves are best founded in God’s love is easy, the practicalities tend to be messier. Devout Jews pray twice daily to love God with all their heart, soul, and might; so serious and difficult is the task of love that only that much prayer will do. In prayer we are pilgrims for love—a destination we never quite seem to understand.

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Prayer: “The soul in paraphrase”

Part 5 in a series; see other parts here.

In Romans 8 Paul writes that we do not know how to pray as we ought. Our hearts teem with tangles and fullnesses that resist expression in words or even thoughts. Sometimes the only prayer we can manage is lifting the knot of feelings toward God and saying, “See!” I believe that God does see such prayers, and yet our minds, even below the realm of speech, operate through forms and concepts that give shape and meaning to our experience—an orderliness made possible only by leaving many, many things out. We inhabit the world in paraphrase, so how can we pray otherwise?

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Prayer: “God’s breath in man returning to his birth”

Part 4 in a series: see other parts here.

The second creation story in Genesis features the vivid image of God creating a human (ha’adam) from the dust and breathing into its nostrils the breath of life. Breath becomes one of scripture’s most potent images, as the Hebrew ruach shifts into the Greek pneuma and the Latin spiritus—words that all indicate a complex of meanings including breath, wind, and spirit. Only in that moment of inspiration (“breathing in”) did the first human become a living soul. Our life, lest we forget, consists in this breath, not in bread alone. Prayer, then, is the stuff of very life.

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Prayer: “Angels’ Age”

This is part 3 in a series; see previous parts here.

Prayer, Herbert says, brings us into the time of the angels. Our lives seem so simple, temporally: one thing succeeds another as the present recedes into the past and stretches into the future. Prayer complicates things, though, by interjecting this orderly succession with eternity. Eternity doesn’t just interrupt time or transcend it; eternity transforms time. Paul describes the effect in 1 Corinthians 7:

I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. (NRSV)

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Book Review: Adam Miller’s Future Mormon

Adam Miller’s new book Future Mormon:  Essays in Mormon Theology is laid out in a series of digestible-length short essays.  Reading his essays is like talking to a smarter, more esoteric friend or maybe sitting next to a chatty and interesting professor on a flight.  His essays generally follow a pattern for me:

  • Adam says something moderately profound but provocative that makes sense and that I totally agree with.  I think to myself, “This is going to be good.  Go, Adam!”
  • Adam follows that up by saying something that sounds really smart but is completely incomprehensible to me.  I re-read it several times, and then give up, shaking my head at how stupid I must be not to comprehend what he’s saying.
  • Adam patiently walks back from Adam-land to where he left me in confusion and patiently, even respectfully, takes me through the steps to get me to the newfound understanding that is the true thesis of his essay.
  • Along the way, like a dad walking on a beach with a small child, he points out interesting things, thoughts I can mull over at a later time, ideas I haven’t ever fully formed before, observations, and insights that have been hiding in plain sight and feel immediately familiar but newly articulated.
  • When each essay concludes, my inner world of ideas has become a bigger place.  My curiosity is awake.  I’d like nothing more than to sit and think my new thoughts, but there are more essays to discover, so I keep reading.

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Prayer: “Church’s banquet”

Part 2 in a series; see all posts here.

Why does Herbert call prayer—and not the Eucharist—the “Church’s banquet”? Christian worship seems to have involved communal meals (“love feasts”) from very early on; Paul talks about them in 1 Corinthians 11, among other places. I love the notion of the sacrament as a hearty feast rather than a nibble and a sip, although these suffice.

Herbert lived not so long after the fierce 16th-century debates about the sacrament, in which theologians lobbed words like transubstantiation and consubstantiation at each other with something like violence. Scholars have argued quite a bit over Herbert’s own allegiances in these arguments. Herbert was a pastor, though, before he was a theologian: does fighting over how exactly the sheep are fed actually feed the sheep? [Read more…]

The Image of the Mothering God

I gave this talk in my ward today.

As a man tasked with speaking on Mother’s Day, I feel that my job is to “look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen,”[1] in the sense that I have to testify of things that I have grown up not knowing how to see, but which I believe are true. So, I begin in gratitude for the women in my life who have taught me to see, although for my part it is still through a glass, darkly.

In the first creation account in Genesis we read: “So God created humankind in his image, / in the image of God he created them; / male and female he created them.”[2] One question that this passage immediately raises is what it means for women to be created in the image of an apparently male God. On Mother’s Day, this question seems worth pondering. Can we think Lorenzo Snow’s couplet—“As man now is, God once was; / As God now is, man may become”—beyond the ostensibly universally-human “man” and toward something specifically feminine? In Mormon terms, if we cannot imagine exalted womanhood, I do not think that we can imagine women fully human. I have friends—faithful churchgoers 51 weeks out of the year—who stay home on Mother’s Day because they see the version of motherhood presented in our discourse as too cramped and narrow for their experience. Perhaps there are women in our own ward who make a similar choice (if you know one, go knock on her door and give her a hug, or a fist bump, or whatever seems right). Our talk of “angel mothers” seems exalted, but is it really “image of God” material? My friends’ experience suggests not.

Why does this matter? When asked about the greatest commandment in the law, Jesus answered: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’”[3] If we collectively do not know what it means for women to be created in the image of God, can any of us—female or male—truly see the image of God in ourselves, enough to love ourselves as we ought? Are we then loving our neighbors in impoverished ways? Is our love of God, however ample it may be, only half of what it could be?

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No Man is “Trash”

Angry? You bet. Tyler Glenn’s latest song and video boil with rage. Glenn, a gay man and former missionary, was embraced by the church for his advocacy in building the inclusivity bridge. That is, until the LDS church’s November 5th policy change regarding homosexuals—a change that codified those in same-gender marriages as apostates, required their excommunication, and forbade the baptism of their children under certain conditions. The policy change hit him hard, like a gut punch, he says. Feeling himself betrayed, denigrated, and literally dismissed over his sexual orientation, Glenn took a hard look at less-visited areas of Mormonism and decided he could no longer believe. The release of “Trash” depicts a stunning reversal of attitude toward his faith heritage. [Read more…]

President Uchtdorf’s Theology of Grace

I mean this post to complement Tracy M’s reflections on the same talk. Go read them if you haven’t already.

I hope that President Uchtdorf’s Sunday Morning sermon becomes a landmark, because of the smart way that it approaches the fraught theological territory surrounding works and grace. The point here isn’t the theological smarts, but the potential for pastoral comfort. We talk sometimes as though the intellectual and the spiritual can’t coexist, but I think that they inevitably do. And, as someone who believes that being critical about our God-talk matters, I’m persuaded that bringing our minds fully to bear on spiritual matters can be of great pastoral benefit, which is why I am praising this sermon. [Read more…]

Mormon Mysticism and #ldsconf

Given the way that Mormonism often seems to privilege certainty, I was intrigued to notice hints of mysticism in several of Saturday’s talks. The vein of mysticism I’m talking about involves apophatic or negative theology, which means defining things by what they are not rather than what they are. Such theology draws attention to the limits of human understanding and encourages ascetic practices, often centered on prayer, designed to bring worshipers toward experiences of the divine that transcend rational description—or at least the usual categories of certainty. Mystics are people who experience God’s “dazzling darkness” in this way.
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Honoring Stephen Webb

We are sorry for the occasion of this post, but grateful to Hal Boyd of Eastern Kentucky University for this tribute to someone whose work many of us at BCC have learned from and deeply appreciated.

The man who so often contemplated eternity has now stepped beyond its threshold. Dr. Stephen H. Webb passed on this weekend.

A protestant convert to Catholicism, Dr. Webb increasingly dedicated his immense intellect to Mormon theology.

For him, the Latter-day Saint doctrine of an embodied God held the potential to rejuvenate what he saw as moribund mainline theology. The Mormon notion of the material essence of “spirit” was a novel breakthrough. [Read more…]

Mormon Deepities

What is a deepity?

Something that sounds profound but intellectually hollow.
Usually has the following characteristics. 1. True but trivial 2. False but logically ill informed. 3. Usually a use-mention error or (UME)  To the extent that it’s true, it doesn’t matter. To the extent that it matters, it isn’t true.

What is a UME?  Confusing the word used to describe a thing, with the thing itself.

Daniel Dennett, the prominent atheist author who coined the term “deepity” in 2009, argues that theology is full of deepities.  To which I say, I know you are, but what am I? [Read more…]