I continue looking at prayers that have both pulled me and others through personal trials and struggles. In the last several posts I have looked at the Lord’s Prayer itself.
Here are the words of the Lord’s Prayer, as included in my United Church of Christ Book of Worship:
Who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
As we forgive those who sin against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For this is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.”
Today I want to focus on “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”.
When I hear this prayer I cannot help but think “what is evil?”
Often in the face of loss, trauma, and pain, it is easy to identify these painful experiences with evil. The childlike part of ourselves that continues, behind the scenes, in our psyche even into adulthood still can react to pain as if such pain itself is evil. As children, we often come to associate pain with evil, for we are told it is “bad” to touch the stove for it might hurt us and many of us had punishments like spankings that caused physical pain growing up.
Yet most spiritual teachers and those who embark on a spiritual path of any type eventually conclude pain need not be viewed as an enemy. It can even become a kind of friend on our journey.
Notice what St. Paul says in Romans 5:
“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
Jesus seems to share a similar sentiment when John records Jesus as saying, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24).
Richard Rohr, writing of suffering, says:
“It is not that suffering or failure might happen, or that it will only happen to you if you are bad (which is what religious people often think), or that it will happen to the unfortunate, or to a few in other places, or that you can somehow by cleverness or righteousness avoid it. No, it will happen, and to you! Losing, failing, falling, sin, and the suffering that comes from those experiences—all of this is a necessary and even good part of the human journey.” (in Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life).
He goes on to talk of how suffering can actually, when approached using the resources a spiritual life can give us, open us up more fully to life:
“Until we walk with despair, and still have hope, we will not know that our hope was not just hope in ourselves, in our own successes, in our power to make a difference, in our image of what perfection should be. We need hope from a much deeper Source. We need a hope larger than ourselves. Until we walk with personal issues of despair, we will never uncover the Real Hope on the other side of that despair. Until we allow the crash and crush of our images, we will never discover the Real Life beyond what only seems like death. Remember, death is an imaginary loss of an imaginary self, that is going to pass anyway.” (in Near Occasions of Grace).
As Rohr, Jesus, and Paul all point out, to live in this world is to live open to suffering. There is not a person that can bypass this experience of loss and pain. Every one will experience deep wounding in their lives. The question is not if we will suffer but how we will engage our suffering.
Evil, on the other hand, which we all will also experience, is something we can choose to participate with in greater or lesser ways. In Christian spirituality at least evil exists on a personal and communal level. The path of holiness is described throughout Jewish, Muslim, and Christian Scriptures all has having a similar shape to what is described in Micah 6:8’s summary of holy living:
“Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
8 The Holy one has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?”
Holiness is a life of loving kindness, of justice, and of humble connection with God, self, others, and our world. Lovingkindness, mercy, or compassion (depending on your rendering of Micah’s words) is this commitment to treat others around you with a sensitivity, compassion, and respect that recognizes others are valuable. To use the imagery of the New Testament, they are precious children of the same Creator who made the worlds and spoke over Jesus “this is my child, whom I love, in whom I am well-pleased”. It is recognizing that each person we encounter is so viewed by our Creator and ought to be viewed so by us. There is not a person we encounter who does not have this sacred worth, whom if we take the time to truly know and connect with will not shine with a limitless glory, beauty, and potential. To treat each human life with such honor, respect, and value – where we see their feelings, needs, points of view, as of equal worth to our own and to those society deems as “great” and “important”.
I would add, listening to our Native American, Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu brothers and sisters who teach us to value the sacredness of the earth, the life of other living creatures, that you know we ought to also learn to exercise lovingkindness toward nature itself – to the earth, the seas and rivers, the skies, the plants and animals around us. In the Christian Scriptures we are told ultimately the earth is the Lord’s, and that God’s presence can be uniquely seen in the thunder of the skies, the crash of waves, the towering cedars, the cry of birds, the hunting of the wolves, and the playing of the massive sea creatures in the ocean. We must learn from these brothers and sisters in other faiths in our spiritual journey to learn to exercise compassion, lovingkindness, and respect for all of life. Too often as Christians we’ve wedded language of “dominate” and “rule” toward nature more with the colonial, imperialistic mindset of ancient Rome, imperial powers in Europe, and capitalist materialism than with its original context: our call to be gardeners, caretakers, of a world that is not our own but rather God’s creation of great beauty.
Ultimately our failure to see the breadth and this message has led us to the brink of ecological collapse. The example of our Buddhist brothers and sisters who often refuse meat and, like Christian saint Francis of Assisi, are taught to be gentle to even the smallest plants and animals, calls us back to the wider ethic of Scripture, messages we have overlooked, about our role being caretakers not exploiters of creation. The example of Native Americans, Hindus, and Jains who see other living things not as commodities to be used and exploited but as brothers and sisters together with us in this spiritual journey with lessons to teach us and a spiritual life of their own, invites us to see afresh Scriptures like Psalm 104 which put us not on top of some food chain but rather in the midst of community of creation in which the life of the birds in the sky, the creatures of the sea, the wild deer and wolves of the forests and hills, are of equal value to God as our own. In this Psalm God delights not in our dominance over other forms of life but are finding a harmonious place within it.
For many of us, though, exercising such lovingkindness toward other people and other living things comes through learning to work through the traumas, the shaming, the guilting, of our backgrounds so that we see ourselves as the Christian Scriptures say God always and ever sees us – as, like Jesus, children of God who, before and beside anything we can do right or wrong, are beloved and in whom the Creator delights and is well pleased simply for who we are. One goal of the spiritual life is to learn to lay aside the damage that teaches us we are too much or too little – too smart or too dumb, too strong or too vulnerable, too masculine or too feminine, too queer or too straight, and so on – to be of worth. To embrace instead our own intrinsic worth.
In many Eastern faiths a beautiful practice called lovingkindness or self-compassion meditation is often used to re-awaken this self-compassion which makes compassion toward other people and other living creatures, even the earth itself, possible. In Christianity we also can engage in prayer, meditation, mindfulness, gratitude practices, journaling, aimed at awakening this same awareness – and should! For learning to love ourselves enables us to love others.
The justice which is at the heart of spirituality here is as Martin Luther King Jr. says: ““Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” One could also that justice is what love looks like when put to action in our relationships.
And so to do justice is to work to resist and remove systems that oppress, abuse, destroy, and harm ourselves, other people, and other living creatures (even the earth itself). In every aspect of our lives – in our workplaces, our schools, in our nations and towns, even in our families – there exist patterns that scapegoat others, push out those viewed as “not worthy”, that abuse or exploit someone or some part of nature. These patterns and systems dishonor the true sacredness of the lives of others, of nature, of ourselves.
The spiritual life is this humble walking in connection with God as found in our own inner life, in connection with other people, and in connection with the life found in nature and other living things.
Evil is that which both on personal levels in our attitudes and actions, as well as in systems and patterns in our families, schools, work places, communities, neighborhoods, cities, nations, and the world at large overlooks or dishonors the sacredness of other people, ourselves, and other living things and which so excludes, oppressed, abuses, and exploits such ones.
The interesting thing when we consider our experience of suffering is when evil and holiness are viewed in such a way, one can see how when we embrace our suffering not as an enemy but as a teacher on our spiritual journey in the ways in which St. Paul, Richard Rohr, and Jesus seem to treat it, how much sense this begins to make. Since whether choose the path of compassion all our spiritual paths teach is holiness or the path of self-interest and indifference all our spiritual paths teach is evil, I will suffer either way, I can choose to pay attention to my own pain and let it open me up to what their suffering is life in the lives of the people around me and even in the experience of other living things.
If I do that my experience of suffering truly can be my best teacher. For as I endure the inevitable pains of life I am being given an education that can help me learn how to be mindful of others’ pains, sorrows, and joys.
This in fact is the Christian message on suffering. As 2 Corinthians says, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, 4 who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. 5 For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ. 6 If we are being afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation; if we are being consoled, it is for your consolation, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we are also suffering. 7 Our hope for you is unshaken; for we know that as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our consolation.”
Such insight is not unique to the Christian faith. When asked how he could respond to the Chinese people with such understanding and compassion in light of how they had historically abused, exploited, persecuted, and pushed out the Tibetan Buddhists to whom he was responsible as spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama once said that in his practice of meditation, he pays attention to his own experience of suffering, using it to understand his people’s suffering, and then meditates on the suffering of the Chinese people. As he does so, he says it enables him to transform his pain not into vengeful rage but into a deep identification with their unique experience of pain which is not unlike his own, an identification that is the birthplace of a compassion for them.
Let us hear the call of this prayer, to embrace each experience without judging it as evil or good even if is painful but instead as something which can teach us. For all we experience and each person or living thing we encounter, including this living world on which we live, can if we let it be another shining light on our path to living with lovingkindness and compassion, justice, and humble walking with God.
Your progressive redneck preacher,