Saturday, July 23, 2016

Heart’s Desire

Luke 11:1-13

There is hardly any way that I am ever going to be anything other than a Christian.  I am well aware that I am a Christian because I was born one, because my parents were at least nominal Christians when I became their son, and because the culture in which I began my life was to all intents and purposes Christian.  It is equally true that at a good many points in my life I have affirmed and owned this faith tradition in which I was born and baptized.

            But it is impossible to grow up in this particular culture and not be at least marginally aware that in the marketplace of religious ideas, Christianity is only one among many brands.  Rather than seeing these as competitors, I look at all of them as so many fingers that are pointing to the moon.  The fingers are interesting, even important.  But the fingers are only pointing, not the point.  “Look at the moon, stupid,” a friend of mine says.  And the “moon” is the Truth, the ultimate truth, the bedrock soul of the universe, the most common name for which is probably “God.” 
A wise friend, when I told him several years ago that I was interested in pursuing Buddhist meditation, asked me, “Are you prepared to give up desire?” I said no, I didn’t think so.  He said, “Well, that’s the ultimate line between Christianity and Buddhism and the essential difference between Christian and Buddhist contemplation.”  In Buddhism the cessation of desire is perhaps the key outcome of practices such as meditation.  In Christianity, desire is in harmony with reality and therefore in harmony with God, not opposed to God. 

            Desire is what I’d like to talk with you about for a few minutes.  My starting point is today’s gospel. In Luke’s narrative, Jesus and his disciples are on the trip to Jerusalem that will end with the crucifixion and resurrection.  Along the way he is praying.  His disciples take note of it, asking him to teach them how to pray as he does.  So he gives them some words.  They are not quite the version of the prayer that we know as “the Lord’s Prayer,” but they are the core of that prayer.  Notice how much of the Lord’s prayer voices desire:  hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, give us our daily bread, forgive us our sins, do not bring us to the time of trial.  All of these are desires stated as petitions.  The one thing that is a declaration rather than a desire is that “we forgive everyone indebted to us.”  What is conspicuously absent in Luke’s version of the prayer?  “Your will be done…”  And that is the way we normally think of God, isn’t it? As a being with a certain will—that things be done a certain way, God’s way.  We see ourselves as either in conformity with God’s will or not, usually not.  So we spend a good deal of time and energy imagining that God wills one thing and we another.  Many of our prayers suggest as much.  “Help us to ask only what accords with your will,” goes one.  A hymn, one among many on the theme, contains the verse, “Breathe on me, breath of God, so shall my heart be pure, until with thee I will one will, to do and to endure.” 

            What would happen if we were to shift from seeing God as having an unchangeable will for us and for the world and see instead that God desires something for us, desires something from us, desires something about us and the world?  What if our job on earth were not to figure out what God’s will is and to bring ourselves into line with that will? What might result from our shifting into a frame of reference at whose center is what we desire?

            Let’s get back to Jesus’ response to his disciples.  After he gives them the model for prayer, he launches into a little teaching about desire.  He tells them the parable about the fellow banging on the door of his friend at midnight asking for a loaf of bread to share with a guest.  The point of the parable is that even when inconvenienced, the friend will grant the neighbor’s desire if for no reason other than to shut him up.  Then Jesus distills his point in a direct piece of counsel that amounts to a promise.  “Ask and you will receive, search and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you.”  It is prayer that he is talking about, remember.  But what is prayer?  It is the deep desire of the heart.  Now Jesus is not saying that no matter what you desire, if you simply cast that desire in the form of a prayer to an external God somewhere “up there,” you’ll be sure to get it, as if God is Santa Claus and you are a kid making a Christmas wish list.  So desiring is something very much deeper than wishing. Desire exceeds dreaming about various possibilities that seem quite nice.  Desire is a stirring of the energy of our soul, something that comes out of our very nature.  That does not by any stretch of the imagination mean that our desires are good.  It is not a good thing to desire evil or harm to befall innocent people, though that may be a very popular desire.

            Jesus does not seem to be interested in parsing desires by sorting them into piles of “good” desires and “bad” desires.  He seems to be intent on saying to his disciples, “Cut loose, go ahead, ask for—what?  The Holy Spirit.  Fooled us, didn’t he?  We might have thought there for a minute he was talking about praying for just anything at all.  No, he specifically says to ask, seek, knock, for what assuredly God desires to give us, namely God’s very self, God’s immediate presence, which is what “Holy Spirit” above all means.  Holy Spirit is the code language for God here and now, not God in or from another world, another time.  Not God the transcendent Creator, but God with us right here, comforting, strengthening, guiding us.  The passage climaxes in the question, “If your child asks you for a fish, would you respond with a snake? 
Or if your child asks for an egg, would you present a scorpion?”  If that is beyond you, who are not all that great, how much more will God give you God’s own heart’s desire—God’s own Holy Spirit?” 

            All that is well and good until we begin facing what it is we really desire.  And frequently human desire is not for God’s very self at all.  I’m thinking right now of the cross-currents in this political season, and more widely, the differences in what people seem to desire on the whole for themselves, the nation, and the world.  I rather doubt, though I do not know for sure, that you who are here fall into the category of those who spew hate, who disdain people who are different from you, who cook up reasons to incite violence, who project your own worst traits onto those who are different, or who tell lies upon lies with absolutely no accountability whatsoever, and who then ask in so many words, “so what if I lie?  I’m popular with people.”  This is no joke and you know it.  Suddenly you may feel, as I do, that arguing against such a hideous caricature of desire is not what you signed on for.  You want to be peaceable and respectful, don’t you?  You want to respond to human need with compassion, don’t you?  And you don’t want to stoop to the level of the demonic clowns who make a mockery of respect by calling it weakness or who defame and insult people who try to make a point of calling for restraint to those who seem happy to kill people whose color is their own, as if to complain about that is itself a violent act?  What is this?  And why would we even be thinking about such idiocy on a hot Sunday morning in church? 

            The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind, to coin a phrase.  It is that some folks, and you know who they are, are pretending that snakes are fish and that scorpions are eggs.  The world is turned topsy-turvy.  What is evil is sold as patriotic, as safety, as greatness.  And worst of all, 75% of those who attend church weekly are lining up behind the liars because they honestly believe (apparently) that God’s desire is to sanction their claim to own the country, and maybe even the world.

            Well, it is not.   And there is no way—none at all—to justify all that as Christian, or even religious.  No holy book, not the Bible, not the Quran, none of the Vedas and Upanishads of Hinduism, not the dharma of the Buddha, none can be twisted to justify this kind of perversion of the truth.  The danger for me, and perhaps for you, is that I will let my own mind and soul be poisoned by the very presence of this cancer in our public discourse to the point that my own desire is warped and twisted and I become as noxious as anyone. 

            It is not just prayer that we need to learn how to do.  We need to become conscious of what it is our hearts truly desire.  And even more, we need to awake to what it is that God is desiring for the human community.  And remember that the dream of God is always that the creation would so look upon the Creator that it begins to mirror what it sees, and we become like God, not by being God, but by allowing God to possess us, to infuse us, to saturate us.  Most of us are, like those disciples of Jesus, clueless as to what is to come.  We only know that we are on the road.  It will indeed take us to Jerusalem, no doubt, where everything that we know and believe may be sorely tested and we ourselves may feel utterly lost.  But at the end of the journey we will find that desiring God with all our hearts, minds, and strength is worth far more than gaining the world and losing our souls in the process.

            Don’t be shy or fearful about witnessing to your faith.  The hour for true Christian witness is here.  Ask, search, knock. You will have everything you need—and all that your heart desires.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2016

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