Praying, NOT Performing

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Continuing in our series of the Sermon on the Mount, we now arrive at the second of three sections that go together which explain the meaning of the 4th Beatitude:

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” Matthew 5:6

The chiastic structure of Jesus’ sermon explains this “fortune cookie” by providing three examples of acts of righteousness; giving, praying and fasting. Last week we examined giving, this week we look at praying. I know many of you shared with me how last weeks podcast seemed a bit severe yet I hope that doesn’t dissuade some of you from hearing these words. Sometimes we need deconstruction, this is one of those times. Contemporary “Churchianity” has gone off the rails in a similar way to ancient Judaism and Jesus’ words were likely very hard for his audience to hear too for similar reasons. Jesus is clearly deconstructing organized religion, and steering people into a private faith. Consider these words from Matthew 6:5-15.

“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And yourFather who sees in secret will reward you.

 And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this:

‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

Immediately we see the same framework as we saw last week with giving. In the same way, the focus of righteousness cannot be about performance or looking good in front of others, praying as an external display diminishes the whole point. This should beg the question about how Christians and other religions approach public prayer, whether it be in a corporate worship setting, a restaurant, on a blanket facing East, or in some contorted pose. Jesus’ is not condemning prayer, but it’s public display when the purpose of it is drawing attention to oneself or ones religion.

The subject of prayer should really open up deeper questions that examine our practices. Do we really need someone to lead everyone in a group prayer? Jesus seems to be saying no. “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”. This means praying isn’t so much about our words or even our gestures, as it is about something else, something hidden (cruptoi). It also means that praying out loud isn’t necessary in order to be heard or understood by God; praying needs no words at all. Try that sometime. Praying is for our benefit and those around us. Corporate prayer can bring unity of mind, but most of the time it doesn’t. How often is our mind wandering when someone else is praying? How often do we just go through the motions rather than go deep? If so, isn’t this just another form of performance art to be seen by others which misses the point?

The promise of the Beatitude is that we will be satisfied. This passage seems to be saying that if we draw attention to ourself and our prayer, the only satisfaction we can gain is the approval of others–“…they have received their reward.” How many prayers requests have you heard that were never answered? Isn’t the point of asking an all-powerful God for his attendance to our needs the hope that such needs will be met? Perhaps we’ve missed something because we think our prayers function like coins in a theological vending machine. Satisfaction is when it’s enough that God sees.

Where is this “kruptoi” (secret/hidden/dark) place where God sees (blepo) us? What does this mean? Many but not all modern people are beyond pre-rational consciousness which externalized God to up there, out there, or over there looking down on us. Still, religions and their buildings still presuppose this paradigm in their design. Notice how architecture is upward, outward or vertical. With the exception of some prayers, meditations, or contemplative practice, there is very little that is inward. As I showed last week, we don’t need a building, a budget, or an organized program to go inward, yet this is where all our dollars go. Inward and private is Jesus’ trajectory for this conversation and what do we find when we get in there? Ourselves or at least an echo of our self.

Is it possible to differentiate between true prayer and self-talk? Think about this carefully, it’s not an easy answer. Remember, John Calvin and many other theologians have concluded that the discovery of God and the discovery of oneself are indistinguishable and inseparable from one another. Could Jesus be suggesting that the satisfaction of the soul is to finally find your true self as Kierkegaard would say “transparently grounded in God?” Is not the reward, the spiritual progress (makarios-happy), the conscious awareness to observe one’s thoughts and realize for even a brief moment that the observer of the thought cannot be the same as the thinker of the thought? In this moment where words have no value, no purpose, or power, the reward is the presence of Being? Just being. Just abiding. Just staying, not saying.

Jesus eludes to this when he says: “do not heap up empty phrases like the Geniles (éthnikoi/ ethnic/heathens) do.” Many scholars believe this refers to the endless mantras and repetition of liturgies found in many religions. Jesus’ point is that within the privacy of your own mind, formulas and ritual are pointless. Instead, we go to our “inner room” and close the thúron (door/entrance). In other words, go into a private place away from everyone and close off the entrance. Create space for nothing to enter so that you can truly be alone so that you can converge with your true self hidden in there with your Maker.

How many of us would do well to deliberately carve out space each day to sit still and say nothing, do nothing and just be with ourself as we are. What would happen if we stopped running our mouths, and the endless mantras of noise, talk, distraction that parades in our heads? No one could see it, yet it’s the most spiritual thing we can do. Eastern religions call it meditation. Mystics of all religions call it contemplation and prayer. Psychology calls it stillness, downtime, or self-reflection. What if we stop performing for some “god” or for “those around us” and just became still enough, quiet enough to join the Eternal Present Moment? Jesus offers a simple framework for this.

The direction for what or how to pray is not simply to be a rote memorization. It’s a framework for reality.

When in our hidden place, there is no denying that a conversation is always taking place. Our first assumption is that is ourself, but in fact, we are not alone. Our Maker, is closer to us than we are to our self. This is why Jesus instructs us to recognize “Our Father who is in Heaven…” It’s ok to have doubts, uncertainty, since this secret place is unfamiliar and even hostile to our egoic pretenses. Pay respect, because what sounds like the voice in your head, exists, but isn’t you. Recognize that you are joining the eternal moment: “On Earth as it is in Heaven…”

Notice any petitions or thoughts that take you away from this moment of being. Let them go, it’s not time to “do” anything. Don’t go with them. Just remain still. Be. There is no time in the present moment. Everything just is. Don’t form words around all that occurs to you. Everything is already heard before you can say it within the moment. All that ever was and ever will be is only here right now. A well articulated monolog gets you no further. The present and the Presence are indistinguishable once we have eyes to see the kingdom come. This is the only place we are able to join reality apart from time.

Obviously we can’t stay here very long because our present reality is fixed within space time. Though just a blip, the hidden place is where we have always been and where we will ultimately always be. Returning is reminding. Being hidden in God and God hidden in us means that prayer is the jumping point or portal through which we move between our lives in space time and the eternally present moment. In between we need help, reminders, and protection that we are not tempted nor distracted by the noise and anesthesia of everyday life: “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil…”

Trying to write about the secret place that we all possess but struggle to access is not easy. It wasn’t easy then nor is it now. Our language is different, but the essence is the same. It all comes together in a unique horizontal application:

Forgiveness.

We know we’ve accessed the secret place in God when we can forgive reality for being what it is. Forgiving others for being imperfect, flawed, confused, disoriented, and lacking truth means that we see this reality within ourselves. Only that which isn’t us can show us this. If we see our failings and frailty and realize we need a pass or some grace, then it’s incumbent upon each of us to give others a pass and offer them some grace. The evidence that our prayers are heard and attended is our very ability to forgive. Once we see that this is a deliberate, conscious act, then we realize that something other than us is prompting our gestures of goodness to others.

Unforgiveness is our default mode. Otherness is the disease of low consciousness. We cannot be released ourself until we release others: “neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” This isn’t a threat as much as it is a statement of interconnectedness. Forgiveness means you are free to converge and love others as yourself. The wordless conversation in the secret place helps us to rise above our instincts and competition. Loving the unloveable means that we were not alone in the secret place, we joined not just our Maker, but every soul that has ever existed.

If we can learn to live from our secret place, the sacred space heaven, then the Kingdom of God has come to us. It’s a place religion can never enter. Can heaven really be as easy as this? The myriad who know the hidden place resoundingly say “Yes.”