Thursday, May 27, 2010

In the Zone

Luke 11:9-13

“So I tell you, ask – it’ll be given to you; seek – you’ll find; knock – it’ll be opened for you.  Rest assured: everyone who asks receives; everyone who seeks finds; and for the one who knocks it is opened.”

This series of aphorisms is among the best known and – along with the Beattitudes – most basic of Christian affirmations.  It comes at the end of Luke’s series on prayer.  However, as we have seen, this particular selection of sayings and the interpretation was purely Luke’s. Scholars theorize that rather than being a promise of God’s answer to persistent prayer, Jesus’s directive to ask, seek, and knock was an assurance that those who take up the same kind of itinerant life Jesus led can expect hospitality wherever they look for it, or ask for it.  Even a knock on the door at midnight would not be ignored.

Luke’s point was that God will provide whatever is asked, will reveal whatever is sought, and will open the way to whomever knocks on God’s door.  He has Jesus expand on this by comparing God’s answer to prayer with giving good gifts to one’s own children.  But Luke’s Jesus here abandons the prayer for daily provision of bread, which he started with.  Instead of food, “the heavenly Father will give holy spirit to those who ask him.”  Later, in the Gospel of John, the emphasis shifted from God to Jesus.  John’s Jesus says “whatever you ask in my name will be granted to you” (John 14:13-14; 15:7, 16; 16:23).  Ultimately, the saying morphed into the icon from Revelation 3:20, in which the Christ declares to the Church in Laodicea: “Listen!  I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.  To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.”

The 1st Century transformation in the meaning of Jesus’s words is like the viral transmutation of political speech in the 21st Century news cycle.  In less than a week in May 2010, the meaning of the reported words of a candidate for the United States Senate evolved from idealistic, libertarian theory to racist bigotry. In less than 100 years from Jesus’s death, the expectation of hospitable acceptance for wandering wisdom teachers became justification for holy war.

Jesus’s original words to ask, seek, knock, and trust in the custom of hospitality have become a magic spell.  The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, conducted in 2007 by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, found that 60% pray daily, although the content of the prayers was not broken down.  While no one has done a survey of the percentage of people in the general population who routinely pray for parking spaces and find them, the efficacy of intercessory prayer has been studied frequently.  Unfortunately, the results are inclusive at best.  One study that looked at complications arising after coronary surgery for patients receiving intercessory prayer versus patients who were not prayed for found a slight advantage in terms of fewer complications for those who did NOT receive intercessory prayer.

With such murky findings, the fact that belief in the magic power of prayer persists must be attributed to the mysterious way human consciousness has developed.  Perhaps we are hard-wired for hope in hopeless situations.  Or perhaps something else is going on.

Jesus was not originally talking about the answer to prayer, as Luke and the tradition like to think.  Jesus was invoking the ancient rule of hospitality for itinerant travelers.  Scholars are fairly certain that Jesus depended on that rule for his and his disciples’ support as they traveled from village to village throughout the region of Galilee.  He had an expectation, based on complete trust in God’s imperial rule, that he would find a hospitable response.  However, his followers did modify their own expectations in the interest of practicality.  As all three synoptic writers report, if the disciples Jesus sent out did not find a welcome, the solution was to “shake the dust from your feet” (Mark 6:11; Matthew 10:14; Luke 9:5).  Matthew’s Jesus adds, “I swear to you, the land of Sodom and Gomorrah will be better off at the judgment than that city [which does not welcome you].”  Sodom and Gomorrah, you may recall, was the Old Testament poster child for the total breakdown of hospitality.

Jesus himself seems to have experienced a level of trust in God’s realm that most humans find difficult or impossible except in rare instances.  If we take the words attributed to him in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount as his own, Jesus was able to live within the same kind of seamless realm experienced by the birds and the lilies of the field (Matthew 6:26).  In that realm, there is no boundary between creator and creation, God and humanity, or between the worlds of life and death, spirit and flesh.  For most of us, this experience manifests as a quality of life where everything works without effort.  It’s a string of lucky circumstances; serendipity; everything falls into place.  Miraculous healing can happen there.  I call it “being in the zone.”

The difficulty of describing that kind of experience – in any language – is clearly illustrated by what has happened to Jesus’s original teachings over time.  It is not a matter of simply saying the name of Jesus, or petitioning God to intervene and change the physical laws of the universe, even in company with two or three others.  The key, prosaic as it may be, seems to be the willingness to ride the horse in the direction it is going.  In other words, to ask, seek, and knock with the expectation of receiving, finding, and opening the way means to align oneself with the way things are.  In Buddhist terms, surrender.  That does not mean giving up.  It means total acceptance of whatever is happening now, with no concern about what any particular outcome may be.  While clear intent about the desired result may important, the key is not to care.

The idea of “not caring” drives most of us crazy.  How can we “not care” about our mother dying, or our friend with terminal cancer, or physical pain of any kind, or about torture victims, or the poor, or any of the other kinds of suffering produced by disaster, whether from natural or human causes?  Those are the tough questions.  Entire books have been written about the answers.  Tough or not, the key to the end of suffering, the power that drives healing, is to accept what is, right now.  That means a radical indifference to the nature of the ultimate resolution.  Mother may die; the cancer may win; the pain may only be alleviated with heavy doses of morphine; the torture may not end; poverty may continue to condemn the rich; disasters – of natural or human cause – may happen.

Jesus calls us into that radical indifference through trust.  It is a latter-day itinerancy, in which we let go of conventional ideas, unnecessary possessions, market demands, and even life itself.  We cannot answer that call so long as we see ourselves as the victim of our life circumstances, trapped in the normalcy of economic and political systems, or determined by the lottery of our biological heredity.  Nor can we answer that call if we resist or resent what happens to us, or if we ignore the realities of the world in which we live.  Tradition tells us that Jesus himself fell out of the zone at the horrifying end of his life.

Even so, the message of Christianity is that even death on a cross does not negate the truth of living in the zone – the realm of God – where we ask, seek, knock and find whatever we need for abundant life.  But you can’t just point your magic wand and scream “Aguamenti!”  Before the water comes from the rock, or the door opens to your knock, you have to trust the process.


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