Saturday, July 11, 2009

intercession [disciplines for the inner life]

"Today I imagined my inner self as a place crowded with pins and needles. How could I receive anyone in my prayer when there is no real place for them to be free and relaxed? When I am still so full of preoccupations, jealousies, angry feelings, anyone who enters will get hurt. I had a very vivid realization that I must create some free space in my innermost self so that I may indeed invite others to enter and be healed. To pray for others means to offer others a hospitable place where I can really listen to their needs and pains. Compassion, therefore, calls for a self-scrutiny that can lead to inner gentleness.
If I could have a gentle "interiority" -- a heart of flesh and not of stone, a room with some spots on which one might walk barefooted -- then God and my fellow humans could meet each other there. Then the center of my heart can become the place where God can hear the prayer for my neighbors and embrace them with his love."
-- From The Genesis Diary by Henri J. Nouwen
God has been transforming my ability to embrace the tensions of emotional honesty and Christ-like compassion. It may kill me.

I'm not even kidding.

My understanding of intercession is elementary and cloddish. I imagine long to-do lists of People To Pray For and complex systems of remembering them all. I've at least learned not to tell someone I'll pray for them if I don't really want to do that. Better to risk appearing unaffected by another's plight than to perjure myself.

The holiest, most common, most necessary practice in the spiritual life is the presence of God, that is to take delight in and become accustomed to His divine company, speaking humbly and talking lovingly with Him at every moment, without rule or system, and especially in times of temptation, suffering, spiritual aridity, disgust and even of unfaithfulness and sin. We must continually work hard so that each of our actions is a way of carrying on little conversations with God, in any carefully prepared way but as it comes from the purity and simplicity of the heart. -- from The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence
Brother Lawrence's journey toward practicing the presence of God began when he was captured by the image of a barren oak tree. I like the symbol -- although I'm not sure for the same reasons as Brother Lawrence. When I was a little girl we spent much of the warm weather months at my grandparents' cottage on a little pond in the middle of the country. On walks we'd disappear into the forest across the road and up a gravely pathway. At the top of the foresty hillside -- just after walking from the cool leafy darkness of the trees into the bee-buzzing sunlight -- stood an ancient, towering tree overlooking a black-berry-bush-infused field and a small twinkly lake. I loved this tree. It marked the top of a climb, yes, but also it had presence. I often would pause my hike long enough to sit against its bumpy trunk and journal or read or wonder. During my sixteenth summer I sat down in the presence of the aged tree in the angsty throes of a teenage romantic break-up. Years later when I took my children on walks around the lake we played games of spotting the tree way up there on top of the hill.

This is not some kind of pantheistic sonnet. Just a symbol of strength and comfort in the presence of something unmoveable and ancient. I think this is what I was supposed to learn about intercession. Well, that and one other: intercession is not about warm fuzzy words for the people we like, but I'll come back to that.

Nouwen's words pierce me. I am quite skilled at providing an external image of warm, hospitable empathy but much, too much of the time my interior self is as the priest states, crowded with pins and needles. This makes true intercession nearly impossible. There is no space to bring another with me into the presence of the Father. There is no place to intercede, to remember anyone outside of my own immediate concerns and preferences. No soft spots for another to stand barefooted in my remembrance.

This is where intercession becomes a discipline. I have no problem remembering people. Or maybe that should read: I have a problem remembering people. I think about, worry about, stew over and stress about people all the time. It's the remembering to the Father part that makes this a discipline. It's kicking the clutter of my soul out of the way to create a clear path to take that person to the Father.

"Will you pray for him?"
Prayer. An act of love, Mother had said.
"Of couse," Grandfather replied. 
"How do you pray for someone like that?"
Grandfather held out his open hand, palm up. "There are many different ways. I simply take him into my heart, and then put him into God's hand." Again he smiled. "That sounds like rather an athletic feat, doesn't it? Nevertheless it's as close as I can come to telling you."
-- from Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L'Engle
With that truth learned, intercession becomes about all who come to my mind and all I allow to enter my mind and heart. Not just the loved and the lovely; the lonely and the whole, the sick and the well, the wounded and the wounder, the friend and the enemy, the faithful and the faithless. With a gentle interior I am able to make space to bring many with me into the presence of the Father for His care and His judgment and His healing.
A Christian fellowship lives and exists by the intercession of its members for one another, or it collapses. I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me. ...This is a happy discovery for the Christian who begins to pray for others. There is no dislike, no personal tension, no estrangement that cannot be overcome by intercession as far as our side of it is concerned. Intercessory prayer is the purifying bath into which the individual and the fellowship must enter every day...Intercession means no more than to bring our brother into the presence of God, to see him under the Cross of Jesus as a poor human being and sinner in need of grace. Then everything in him that repels us falls away; we see him in all his destruction and need. His need and his sin become so heavy and oppressive that we feel them as our own, and we can do nothing else but pray...To make intercession means to grant our brother the same right that we have received, namely, to stand before Christ and share in his mercy. -- from Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
The Bible is full of hearty examples of saints disciplined in intercession. Numbers 14 tells an account of Moses interceding on behalf of the Israelites who were busy with the task of slandering him and grumbling against him. Moses did not intercede out of some twisted sense of self-preservation; he interceded with the goal of God preserving His own Name and reputation in front of all the nations.

In 1 Samuel 12, the prophet admonishes the people for their sin of rejection of God as their king (you guessed it, slandering and grumbling and wish-dreaming for their ideal leader again). He then performed a sign of rain in the dry season to prove God's displeasure. The people begged Samuel to pray for them to not be killed by this God. Samuel assured them and instructed them this way: God, simply because of who He is, is not going to walk off and leave His people. God took delight in making you into His very own people. And neither will I walk off and leave you. That would be a sin against God. I'm staying right here at my post praying for you and teaching you the good and right way to live. (I haven't yet learned the discipline of calling down rain, but certainly I'm capable of staying at my prayer post!)

In Genesis 18 Abraham literally stands in God's way and confronts Him about His plans to to deliver harsh justice to Sodom. Abraham displays a holy blend of boldness and humility - confronting with persistence and frankness while at the same time acknowledging his frailty as a man before his Master. God seemed pleased with Abraham's behavior and consented to his requests.

It is amazing that a poor human creature is able to speak with God's high majesty in heaven and not be afraid. When we pray, the heart and the conscience must not pull away from God because of our sins and our unworthiness, or stand in doubt or be scared away. When we pray we must hold fast and believe that God has heard our prayer. It was for this reason that the ancients defined prayer as an Ascensus mentis ad Deum, "a climbing up of the heart unto God". -- Martin Luther
Intercession as climbing, confronting, remembering, staying, imagining, bathing, welcoming --athletic feats indeed. But none apart from the immoveable, welcoming, all-knowing, ancient, smiling presence of God.

Ascensus mentis ad Deum: may I become lithe with its movement.
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