The Joy of Hope
Written by: Paul Lickteig
A few things have been happening
as of late when I sit down to pray.
Option 1: Obligations stretch out before me. Reading, papers, exams, committee meetings, conferences, house tasks…these are the things that fill my time. Sitting in prayer or reflection can quickly turn into a moment of planning. I have obligations to fulfill and I feel like I need to fulfill them well.
This goes for the practical…
“I am going to read two hundred pages tonight.”
“I need to put in one hour a night studying for this exam between now and April.”
“How am I going to get to my appointment, then to class, then to the prison, and also find time to shop and cook?”
As well as the more intangible…
“That’s a great insight! I should bring that up in class.”
“I need to plan this out so I don’t say something stupid.”
Option 2: When I am not plotting, I am reliving. Recollections fill my imagination, and this is not always where I need to be. Sometimes I think about triumphs, but more often failures (neither one of which I am certain I can recall with complete accuracy anymore).
Sometimes I am busy thinking of people that I wish I could talk to:
“I wish I had remembered to call them.”
“I miss her.”
“What ever happened to him?”
Sometimes I am recalling moments where I felt particularly useful;
“I cannot believe I did that.”
or ones that might make me cringe:
“I cannot believe I did that.”
And then there are the times when I am aware of my sins:
“I was judgmental and selfish when I…”
“I was prideful and ungrateful when…”
“I was being overly critical…wait, no. I was not critical enough…”
Analysis: These triumphs and failures, I picture them as stones of various sizes that I offer to God. Some I think are gems, crowning jewels. These are my accomplishments. “I am such a good person. Look at how much I did!” Some of the stones are jagged rocks, the kind that would lead to my death at the hand of an angry mob. “I fell short…again. I am such a bad person!” Either way, my sense of identity is attached to what I do, good or bad.
So, I bring these things to God and hold each one up before him. I am searching either for emotional salve or spiritual approval (which is not a bad reason to go to God). The problem is, I am so attached to the things that I offer up, what I have done or what I will do, that I might forget why I pray to begin with. I do not sit in prayer so I can ruminate and plot. I pray so that I might understand how God is moving in my life and calling me into a deeper expression of the creation fashioned in me. Unfortunately, with one eye to the past and the other to the future, my awareness of God diminishes in a cross-eyed stare.
It might come as no surprise, then, that metaphorically speaking, when I hold up these “prayer stones,” God never picks them up.
Because they are not really real. First, I am not so much offering these moments up to God in prayer as I am reflecting on me and projecting my will upon the world. I am immersed in my own emotion or machination, preoccupied by my sin and my success. Second, while I am viewing my behavior in a reflective way, it is not helpful to judge my own actions and decide which I will celebrate as “me” and which I will try to pretend are not really a part of me. The problem is that they are all of me, but for whatever reason I cannot make them fit together into my vision of self. The thing is, part of the miracle of God is not that I live in perfection, but that the Spirit is somehow bringing all of these parts of me together, refining me, and teaching me how to live with myself.
Option 3: To paraphrase GC 34, I am a sinner called to follow Jesus. There is a space in my interior world where I become aware of the immense love that God has for all of creation. In this place, my past and future come into focus in a mysterious overlap. It is a place where I am aware of my limitations and strengths as well as my failures and triumphs. I feel my emotions and my desires. I see my successes, but do not become so attached to them. I recognize my sin, but I stop dwelling on it. I still might feel strongly about doing something well or having messed something up, but beneath it all, I feel God’s love. I recognize I am being taught. Triumphs and failures are only so because of how they build up community. I see my shortcomings not as negatives in and of themselves, but as part of who I am. Likewise, my triumphs are not what make me lovable, but simple moments where I was expressing a certain fullness, a fulfillment of a gift. At this point, my actions stop be just about me and what I am doing, and start being about how I am in relationship to God and all of creation.
I have started calling this space “the Joy of Hope.” It is a space where desire, obligations, emotions and virtue become revealers of a grace-filled possibility. It is as though the two lenses of my understanding (past and future) meet to give the present world a shape that I can recognize God’s presence in. That is, rather than my deeds becoming something that I can grade my self worth on (A- on that random act of kindness, C+ on that moment of service) they become lenses through which I learn to see grace at work. My focus centers on understanding why God loves me, and why God loves us. I find myself in a place of interior possibility. I find myself better able to sit in the presence of God and feel the grace of His gaze. It is a mindset where I begin to see how the love I carry into my relationships is what is important, and that my actions reveal my spiritual state. Or perhaps said in a better way, I see how I am participating in grace more clearly. I become more aware of how I am responding (either accepting or rejecting) the loving presence of God in my life.