(Excerpted from a sermon I delivered on 6-1-14 at Mt Hollywood Congregational UCC Church in Los Angeles. Biblical text: Matthew 4: 1-11.)
Picture a quiet evening in a house in Los Angeles fifty years ago or so. Allan Hunter, who for 37 years was the pastor of Mt Hollywood Congregational Church, was sitting at the kitchen table reading the newspaper while his wife Elizabeth washed the dinner dishes. The dishcloth fell from her shoulder onto the floor. She saw that he saw that it dropped. But he didn’t move to pick it up, much less offer to help with the dishes. Slowly she approached and stood before him until he lowered the paper to pay attention. Mimicking his preacher’s voice, she twisted a line from the Psalm 46 in the Bible. “Be still and know that you are not God,” she declared.
This self-deprecating story appears in a short pamphlet that Allan Hunter published in 1978 entitled “Preventive Prayer and Meditation”. He was 85 years old at the time he wrote it. Even today it would be considered edgy progressive theology. He makes reference to Transcendental Meditation. He offers guided meditations. He describes Christian prayer in terms of mysticism – the prayer of the heart seeking union with God, rather than making supplications to gain the favor of a supernatural divinity. Hunter was the regional chairperson of a group called The Disciplined Order of Christ, a movement devoted to the intensive practice of contemplative, meditative prayer.
Here are some of his guided meditative prayers from the pamphlet:
“I breathe Your blue sky deeply in (inhale)
To blow it gladly back again. (exhale)
I breathe Your healing energy gratefully in
To vibrate through each body cell.”
“I breathe the joy of Your forgiveness in
To make my relationships new and glad.
We breathe your reconciling Spirit in
To bring peace to our divided wills and Planet Earth.
We breathe Christ’s strong compassion expectantly in
To stir our will to share with those who starve.
We breathe His warmth and strength and humor in
To share joyously with all we met.”
Allen Hunter believed that prayer and meditation could have a profound effect on preventing conflict and unhappiness in the world. “It is the conscious practice of being so open and responsive to the audacity we see in Jesus that evil in some form or other is nipped in the bud before it has a chance to do any harm. Or to put it more positively, it is a way of being so filled with the Spirit that little room is left for preoccupation with self.”
“Be still and know that I am God.” Psalm 46:10. For Allen Hunter, that meant being still and knowing that his ego was not God. It meant getting himself out of the center and putting God in that place.
Jesus started his work of service in the world by spending 40 days in the wilderness, probably on the eastern desert side of the Judean hills, being tempted by Satan. It is a mythical way of describing the practice of meditation or contemplative prayer. He sat in the desert and stared down his own ego until finally he was still enough to know that God was God and that he was a human being. That God was the center of his life, not his own ego or personality. The gospel story describes this meditation as a drama of Satan urging Jesus to play the role of a supernatural God and jump off the top of the temple, to turn stones into bread, to become the ruler of all the kingdoms of the world. No, no, no – “worship the Lord your God, and serve only him”, answered Jesus.
This is how it goes with meditation or contemplative prayer. Be still. Sit and stay quiet. And notice what is happening in your mind/body. What do you feel, physically and emotionally? What thoughts arise and take your attention? Just watch these scenarios unfold. Just see what happens. Don’t judge, don’t try to fix anything. Just be present with gentle compassion and close attention.
Be still and know what’s going on inside yourself, and after a while your relationship to yourself will change. There will be the One who observes with kindness and patience, and the one that is observed – and after a while you’ll identify more with the kind and patient Observer than with the one who is observed. The compassionate Observer is God. Then you’ll know that God is not some supernatural superhero working miracles in the cosmos. You’ll know instead that God is love even for your worst enemy, who, all to often, is your own selfish self.
Consider how often we replay difficult events of the past, and come up with clever resolutions to conflicts, devising brilliant zingers that we wished we had used for one-uppance against those who hurt our feelings or did us wrong. Yes, Hollywood is the capital of the movie business – but in fact everyone, everywhere, is a film producer. We’re all making movies in our minds that have more satisfying outcomes than our real-life stories. In meditative prayer, we take time to watch these movies in our heads and see them for what they are: fictions in which we play the roles of Superman or Wonderwoman, making everything turn out just the way we want it. This inner film-making is what Jesus observed as he sat and meditated in the desert. Each time the movie played in Jesus’ mind, with him playing the role of Superman and King of the World and Master Magician, he came back to consciousness and remembered who he really was. Each time he reoriented toward the divine, compassionate Watcher whose only superpower is love.
Around the world, prayer and meditation begins and ends with this movement away from the selfish self and toward the divine Other who lives within and among us all. In Islam, prayer is a practice of physically aiming away from one’s selfish self, and prostrating on the ground toward Mecca in submission to Allah. A few months ago, our 7-year-old granddaughter Rumi came to work with me for a day. I showed her around the building in which I work, the University Religious Center. I took her upstairs to the Muslim prayer room. There we met a graduate student from Turkey, who was getting ready to pray. Touba wore the hijab headscarf, which fascinated Rumi. Rumi is named after the Sufi Muslim poet, and her dad’s heritage is Iranian Muslim, but she has had no religious training or practice. So I asked Touba if she’d be willing to show how a Muslim prays, so that Rumi could learn the tradition of her heritage. Touba explained that when she started the prayer in a standing position, she was praying along with the trees that stand upright in the forest, praising God. When she did the part of the prayer when she bent over, she was praying with the animals that walk on all fours, praising God with them. When she prostrated herself on the ground, she was praying with and for the grass and the flowers and the insects that are on the earth. “I praise God with all creation,” she told Rumi, who then watched Touba go through all the motions and words of the prayer. “Allahu akbar!” God is great! Rumi’s mouth was hanging open in slack-jawed awe – another form of Other-oriented meditation – as she watched Touba pray.
Buddhist meditation aims away from the selfish self and toward the Ultimate Reality beyond. Gautama Buddha’s first awakening was to the fact that all life is suffering. It’s the first of his four noble truths. The way out of suffering? To stop grasping so desperately for me-me-me. To let go of cravings and loosen the grip of desire. That’s one of the chief aims of Buddhist spiritual practice.
Hindu tradition shifts the center of life from the ego to the Higher Self. The sacred mantra “Tat tvam asi” in Sanskrit means “I am that” in English. I am not my personality, not my bundle of roles and identities in society. I am That – the sacred Other who includes my personality and all others.
Becoming Other-oriented leads to personal and global transformation. That’s what Allan Hunter believed. He was an activist for peace and justice in Los Angeles and in the world. For him, that activism depended on meditation practice. “It is when the moment for drastic action arises that we are shown what to do, if we are in tune,” he wrote. Are we in tune with our selfish selves, or with the Divine Universal Self whose love is limitless? Are we aimed at the Holy Wholly Other? If we are, we’ll be oriented toward compassionate service and action for progressive social change.