11.22.2009

Persistent faith

Luke 18:1-8

"Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart."

Last week's Kairos explored this parable, in which Jesus calls the disciples to persistent prayer. In this story, Jesus tells of a widow denied justice by a judge. She keeps going back to him, petitioning for justice. Eventually this judge gives her what she asks for. Not because he respects God or wants to do justice, but essentially to get this woman off his back. Jesus caps the story by saying the God, who loves us more than the judge cares for the widow, will be even quicker to respond to our cries for justice.

As we discussed this, several of us admitted to being uncomfortable with badgering God for what we want. One of the group expressed it well: "If I'm resting in my faith that God is supporting me all the time, then continually asking for what I want seems to mock that trust." Someone else pointed out that the widow is seeking "justice," not her own advantage; perhaps that is an acceptable thing to ask for.

Another question came up: Does Jesus have a deeper meaning in telling us to "pray always and not lose heart"? What could he be pointing to? The parable's example of asking for justice, and our discussion about asking for our needs/wants, are focused on outward circumstances, looking for God's intervention in our external world. What would it look like if we focused Jesus' example on our internal reality?

We turned to an excerpt from Speaking of Faith's interview with "the happiest man in the world," Buddhist teacher Mattieu Ricard. We watched a portion of Krista Tippett's video interview with Ricard, a scientist who is involved in the Dalai Lama's investigation of the links between science and faith. We focused on this exchange:

Ms. Tippett: So I imagine that people ask you how do I become happy? What do you say? How do you respond to that?

Mr. Ricard: Well, clearly by first saying yes, outward circumstances are important, I should do whatever I can. But I should certainly see that at the root of all that, there are inner circumstances, inner conditions. What are they? Well, just look at you. So if I say, OK, come, we'll spend a weekend cultivating jealousy, now who is going to go for that?

We all know that even though that's part of human nature, but we are not interested in cultivating more jealousy, neither for hatred, neither for arrogance. So those will be much better off if they were not ... didn't have such a grip on our mind. So there are ways to counteract those, to dissolve those.

I mean, you cannot, in the same moment of thought, wish to do something good to someone or harm that person. So those are mutually incompatible like hot and cold water. So the more you will bring benevolence in your mind, at every of those moments there's no space for hatred. It's just very simple, but we don't do that. We do exercise every morning 20 minutes to be fit. We don't sit for 20 minutes to cultivate compassion. If we want to do so, our mind will change, our brain will change. What we are will change. So those are skills. They need to be, first, identified, then cultivated. What is good to learn chess, well, you have to practice and all that. In the same way, we all have thoughts of altruistic love. Who didn't have that? But the common goal, we don't cultivate that.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. Ricard: Do you learn to piano by playing 20 seconds every two weeks? It doesn't work. So why, by what kind of mystery some of the most important quality of human beings will be optimal just because you wish so, doesn't make any sense.

I have a friend who is 63 years old. He used to be a runner when he was young. He gave up running. Now, a few years ago, he started again. He said, "When I started again, I could not run more than five minutes without panting for breath." Now, last week, he ran the Montreal Marathon at 63. He had the potential, but it was useless until he actualize it. So same potential we have for mind training. But if we don't do anything, it's not going to happen because we wish so.

Ricard is pointing to two realities that I think are encompassed in Jesus' teaching.

First, there is more to life than the externals. More that what we experience, and how we appear to others. We can respond to what happens to us, what we experience, in ways that are healthy or unhealthy. If someone attacks us we can fight back, or we can turn the other cheek, as Jesus suggests in the sermon on the mount. The former makes us just like our attacker. Turning the other cheek was a radical response, because in Jesus' time this would have challenged the attacker to respond with an open-handed slap. Because it was common to slap a perceived inferior with the back of the hand (an insult), this was a statement of equality with the attacker, rather than pure submission. The first response diminishes the self, the latter elevates the self.

When Jesus speaks of pray often he does not just mean to ask for what we want, or even justice (although that is part of prayer). As he taught the disciples, prayer is also submission of our will to God's, acknowledgment of what we *have* received, and developing an ongoing relationship with our Father.

Second, Jesus spoke often of the need to cultivate good habits of life and spirit, so that we could reap what we sow. The way we live can cultivate anxiety or peace, generosity or selfishness, aggression or cooperation. Jesus calls us to persistence because we will not become peaceful, joyful, generous or self-sacrificing "because we wish so," in Ricard's phrase. Like playing the piano or running a marathon, we develop those spiritual muscles because we exercise them.

When was the last time you got off the treadmill of life and simply spent time in God's presence?

What would happen if, in your prayer, you did not ask God for what you want, but asked God to show you how to be more present with him?

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