Friday, March 20, 2009

Without Ceasing

One of the interesting things about the process of spiritual maturity is that we move through the "hyperbole stage." Here is what I mean - when you first become a Christian, especially if that happens when you are a child, you tend to accept everything you read in scripture literally. A "day" is a day and a "big fish" is a big fish and "all the animals in the world" are all the animals in the world. Then, as you mature, you start taking a more critical eye to the words of scripture; you still believe what you are reading, but you start looking for the poetic, the symbolic, the hyperbolic. You have no problem saying that the words don't "really" mean what they literally say; instead, you say, there is a symbolic message there, and we should look for what the words mean.

Indeed, of course, not every Christian goes through the hyperbole stage. Many never leave the literal understanding of scripture. I don't mean to say that none of those people has matured. What I can say is that I don't understand their maturing process. It seems to me that questioning and looking beyond our childhood reactions is a part of maturation. But that is just me.

As I continue to mature, I am noticing that there are a great many things for which I am coming out of the "hyperbole stage." Things that appeared to my immature or semi-mature Christian self as symbolic and hyperbolic are just now coming into focus as meaning exactly what the words say.

For example, I am just now at the point in my life where "love your enemies" really means "love your enemies." For a long time, it meant something to me like "don't take public vengeance against bad people." I am now starting to understand that love, which really has very little to do with my feelings in any situation, involves actions that can be taken toward enemies as well as toward neighbors.

Another example is the Apostle Paul's encouragement to us in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 to "pray without ceasing." This goes hand in hand with the words of Ephesians 6:18 to "pray at all times in the Spirit." For years, I have treated these verses as hyperbole - I have viewed them as exaggerations to encourage us to pray often.

Only now am I starting to understand what Paul means. I do not think Paul is talking about prayer as a formal event where we bow and close our eyes and fold our hands and make everyone around us be quiet while we "pray." I don't think he is discussing our "daily quiet time."

No, Paul was a man who understood that he never left the presence of God. Of course, if we are Christians, we also never leave the presence of God - that is what the indwelling Holy Spirit is all about. But Paul recognized it, while too many of us do not. Paul had a real handle on the fact that he was constantly in the presence of the Almighty, always in earshot of the sustaining Spirit of God, never outside the aura of the One who had died for him. And Paul figured out that one of the benefits of that constant contact was constant conversation. "Pray without ceasing" is a lot less formal and symbolic than I used to think - it is merely an encouragement to recognize the truth of the fact that God is with us, to talk to Him, and to listen to Him.

There is nothing symbolic about that - it is as simple as our childlike literal minds would want it to be. God is here, God wants to talk with us, God has things to say to us, and we should take advantage of His presence, of His desire to have conversation. He never leaves, so we have access to him "without ceasing."

I do not mean to suggest that there is no symbolism or poetic hyperbole in scripture. There clearly is. "The cattle on a thousand hills" is not a suggestion for us to count high places or cows, and since a day to the Lord is as a thousand years, I have no real idea what is meant in scripture every time the word "day" is used. I think that Jesus' telling us to pluck out our eye if it causes us to sin is an exercise in hyperbole.

Some verses, however, really do mean what they say, but we do little to understand them for long stretches of our spiritual lives. We work too hard at prayer, we struggle too much with trying to "find God" to be able to comprehend what Paul is talking about. "Pray without ceasing" is not a call to struggle or even to "find God." God is here, without our struggle or our search. "Pray without ceasing" is an encouragement to recognize what we already have.

We do not need to be encouraged to breathe without ceasing, because we don't search for oxygen or struggle to find air. If, however, we lived in the vacuum of space, and if a great supernatural being had come along and offered us an eternal scuba tank, we might struggle with the idea. So used to breathlessness, we might well have a great deal of trouble accepting the existence of free, constant, breathable oxygen in a never-ending supply at our disposal.

We have lived too long in a vacuum. Sin separated us from God, and it was only through the supernatural cross event that we obtained eternal life with God. We have accepted that life with Him, but we are so used to living on our own, we fail to recognize the basic essence of what we have - a personal relationship with the loving creator of the universe.

But we mature. We realize whose we are and what we have. And we start to understand that we can revel in that relationship, all the time, without ceasing.

I am not there yet. But I am learning.

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