YouTube Video: Let’s Talk Prayer
As most of you know, prayer has played a vital role both in Unity’s founding and in our ongoing presentation of spiritual principles. In our ongoing examination of what I’m calling the mystical thread, I’d like to turn our attention today to a few passages that give us a pretty good indication of how Jesus understood prayer.
Preserved in the Gospel accounts are some pretty extraordinary claims Jesus made concerning the subject of prayer. He says through prayer, we can move mountains. While we don’t necessarily want to take this statement literally, we do want to pay attention to the fact that his understanding of prayer involved principles that could make a positive difference in the daily life of the people he spoke to and, of course to you and me.
An important characteristic of the mystical thread is that it consists of principles that the average person can put into practice. So, we always want to look beyond the religious embellishments imposed by the early writers and seek to draw out the spiritual principle that Jesus was conveying to his listener. If he says that through prayer, we can cast a mountain into the sea, then we know he was telling his audience something they could actually do. We know he wasn’t talking about mountains per se. He was saying that prayer, as he taught it, was an effective tool for dealing with life’s challenges.
He was very transparent about the secret of his demonstrations. He acknowledges as his source of power the limitless spiritual resource he calls his Father. He stakes no exclusive claim on this source, but encourages his listeners to know their Father as well. He said, “Pray to your Father who is in secret.” He also said, and I’ll paraphrase here, “If you believe what I say about going directly to your own spiritual source, you will do the same kinds of things I do, and even greater things” (John 14:12).
This would be like Rembrandt’s first teacher, Jacob van Swanenburgh, saying, “If you adopt the basic methods of painting that I’m teaching you, you will do the works that I do and even greater works, because I’m giving you the principles employed by the masters.” All the world knows Rembrandt today, but relatively few have ever heard of his first teacher.
As I’ve pointed out, the Gospel writers intentionally portrayed Jesus as a larger-than-life figure, one that was set apart from the rest of us. Unless we understand the evangelical mission of these authors, this depiction can present a confusing obstacle, as it places Jesus in a class all by himself. The modern metaphysician has done the same thing, but in a slightly different way. Jesus is presented as a soul so advanced that we have little hope of expressing at that level.
The German theologian, Meister Eckhart, made it pretty clear that he didn’t find these types of characterizations of Jesus as helpful:
- “Now one authority says “God became man, and through that, all the human race has been ennobled and honored. We may all rejoice over this, that Christ our brother has through his own power gone up above all the choirs of Angels and sits at the right hand of the Father.” ‘This authority has said well, but really I am not much concerned about this. How would it help me if I had a brother who was a rich man, if I still remained poor? How would it help me if I had a brother who was a wise man, if I still remained a fool?’”
Eckhart, a country priest who spoke weekly to a congregation of average people, was a master at discerning the mystical thread and presenting it in a way that people could actually use. The Church authorities were devoted to maintaining great distance between Jesus and the everyday man and woman, so they condemned Eckhart as a heretic.
It’s an old story – church authority verses mystical insight. We have to take care, even in our New Thought depiction of Jesus as Wayshower, that we don’t continue to repeat this same mistake. Whether we brand him as Eckhart’s one who has gone up above all the choirs of Angels to sit at the right hand of the Father, or we see him as one who is so spiritually advanced that it would take the average person many lifetimes to come close to his level of enlightenment, the chances are good that we’re putting him, and the true value of his teachings, beyond our reach, an example we can never hope to achieve.
On one occasion, Matthew even gives the impression that Jesus spoke in parables to intentionally confuse the intellectual elites, the religious professionals (Matthew 13:3). But why would he do this? What teacher would intentionally confuse those who stood to benefit from the message they’ve devoted their lives to passing on?
Every spiritual teacher knows that the principles they teach must be intuitively rather than intellectually grasped. The use of the parable was intended to convey a deeper truth. Matthew actually makes this point a little later in the same chapter when he paraphrases a passage from Psalms:
- “All this Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed he said nothing to them without a parable. This was to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet: ‘I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.’” (Psalms 78:2-4)
Yes, we study and even memorize spiritual concepts. But these are like an unplanted seed that we carry about in the pouch of our mind. They bear little or no fruit in our life. Spiritual principles do not become a living part of our consciousness until we know their truth at the intuitive level. Again, this is like the yeast incorporated into the flour and water. It was for this reason that Emilie Cady advised her readers with this statement:
- “If you want to make rapid progress in growth toward spiritual understanding, stop reading many books. They only give someone’s opinion about Truth, or a sort of history of the author’s experience in seeking Truth. What you want is revelation of Truth in your own soul, and that will never come through the reading of many books.”
She’s saying, the time comes when we have to stop reading the cookbook and actually start making the bread.
Though a given principle that Jesus was trying to impart may not have been immediately grasped by his audience, we should assume that he knew it was within their ability to understand. I think he made it clear that anyone who was willing to put aside their preconceived notions, to become as the child who so easily embraces possibilities that might confound the adult, could grasp and put into practice the ideas he taught.
In other words, I think it’s safe to assume that he was giving instruction as one human being to another, imparting information that could be utilized by the average listener. In my thinking, any teaching attributed to Jesus carries value only to the extent that he was addressing human problems with remedies that could be implemented by people like you and me.
His message was extraordinary in the sense that he spoke of a great power that is accessible to all, and yet, even today, it’s almost completely missed by the vast majority of people. The reason that it’s missed is because it isn’t understood. It isn’t understood because it cannot be empirically observed or embodied in language or formulas that can be passed from one mind to another.
In our culture, this is how we’ve been trained to learn. We’ve constructed entire religions around a conceptualized kingdom of God. We’ve mistaken the edifice for the house not made by human hands (2 Corinthians 5:1). We’ve translated this religion into fabulous brick and mortar cathedrals, and mega churches that some claim run a mile wide but only an inch deep. I frankly don’t think Jesus envisioned this kind of development as his legacy.
He said if you believe that you receive what you ask for in prayer, including moving mountains, it’ll happen. As I already said, the mountain-moving he’s talking about is any situation that looks bigger than we think we can handle. And I’m sure we’ve all experienced mountains that didn’t seem to budge, no matter how hard or how earnestly we prayed. We may have felt that our faith was insufficient. From my own experience as a minister, I’m sure that Jesus understood that the people he was talking to encountered the same problem. I also feel certain that he wasn’t simply hyping his message by making impossible statements with the hope of impressing his following and maybe increasing his numbers. He was sharing spiritual principles he knew would help make people’s lives better. And these are the principles that make up what I’m calling the mystical thread.
If we look at some of the other references Jesus made to prayer, we can find vital clues that bolster our understanding of the principles he taught. I think one of the most important bits of instruction he gave was to go alone to our room – and I think of this as our own inner space – shut the door – that is, turn away from all external concerns – and pray to the Father who is in secret. When it comes to establishing a productive prayer life, this is by far one of the most important practices. He’s talking about setting aside a time when our entire focus is not so much on resolving our life’s issues through prayer, as it is on getting to know God through direct communion. It makes perfect sense that we should first build an awareness of God as a living and very accessible presence. As this relationship grows, all else falls in place.
As Eric Butterworth suggested, we make the shift from praying to God to praying from a consciousness of God. With our growing awareness of God, we begin to see that it’s no longer just a limited set of apparent facts that are on the table. We’re acknowledging that infinite intelligence is working through us to bring about the best and highest solution. I may not know how to cast that mountain into the sea, but I’m bringing myself into alignment with a higher wisdom that does. I’m in alignment with Jesus’ understanding by acknowledging that it’s not me, but the Father within me that’s doing the work. Knowing this Father, this inner source of my very being, is a powerful first step to successful prayer. It’s the very bedrock upon which I build my own personal house of prayer.
Another idea worth including is the notion of learning to lift our eyes – our inner visioning sense, the mind’s eye, the imagination – to see the completion of the answer we seek (John 4:35). I touched on this subject last week. It involves taking our attention off appearances and moving into an acceptance of the solution, even before that solution becomes apparent in our experience.
How do we do this? How do we believe we’ve received an answer we don’t actually have? This principle is illustrated in the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand. He lifted up his eyes – that is, he took his attention away from the problem – and he gave thanks that God always responds. He then began passing out the bread and the fish. He’s acting as if the problem is solved before it actually is.
Whether or not we take this story literally, we can employ the principle. We take our attention off the problem and we give thanks that the proper solution is now coming forth. How do we take our attention off the problem? One way is to begin asking how we would feel if our situation were successfully resolved. We might even jot down the list of responses that come to us. We then give heartfelt thanks that our resolution has occurred.
To some, this might seem like a form of self-delusion. And the truth is, most of the imagery that floats across the screen of our mind never materializes. Why would this be any different?
It’s different because we’re making the concerted effort to back this imagery with the power of faith. Remember the writer of Hebrews tells us that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). We may be visualizing the worst-case scenario and pouring our faith in that. We may be rehashing all the known facts about our situation, wondering how we’re going to resolve them, and asking God to intervene while frantically looking for quicker answers. We’re exercising our faith, not in the solution, but in the perpetuation of the problem.
This is reminiscent of Jesus’ parable of the farmer who sowed wheat, but an enemy snuck in at night and sowed weeds. He ordered his workers to not pull the weeds until they were fully mature. That way they could tell the weeds from the wheat (Matthew 13:24-30). In other words, the farmer was telling his workers to let go, to stop trying to resolve the problem by constantly mulling over all the known facts. By doing this, they would end up causing more damage.
How do we know that we’ve crossed that threshold of believing we’ve received? We know by how we feel. We’re at peace with our situation. Isn’t the experience of peace of mind the essence of what we’re trying to achieve with the resolution of any problem? The farmer that was telling the workers not to pull the weeds was really saying, “Be at peace about this. You’ll know what to do when the time comes. Don’t let this situation rob you of your present peace of mind.”
There are many ways we can approach prayer using the teachings of Jesus as our basis. But let’s focus today on the three principles that I’ve already touched on.
1. We first establish conscious union with God as our source of power. I’m basing this on a saying of Jesus: “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:6). Establishing a conscious union with God, is an intuitive, experiential exercise. As Paul wrote,
- “… that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel after him. Yet he is not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’” (Acts 17:27-28).
To feel after God is to seek to know God as a living presence that is working in and through us right now.
2. The second principle is this: We take our attention off the problem and turn it to the solution. I’m basing this principle on another saying from Jesus:
- “Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see how the fields are now ready for harvest” (John 4:35).
The action of lifting up our eyes, taking our attention away from the problem, is an exercise of our executive faculty of imagination. Charles Fillmore wrote: “With our imagination we lay hold of ideas and clothe them with substance.” I’ll talk more about this in a moment.
3. Here’s our third principle: We treat our faith in the outworking of the problem as evidence that our solution is now coming forth, in the right way and at the right time. I’m drawing this principle from a well-known saying of Jesus:
- “If you have faith and never doubt, you will … say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ and it will be done. And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith” (Matthew 21:21-22).
Believing we have received involves the two faculties of imagination and faith, which Fillmore ties together in this statement: Faith is “the perceiving power of the mind linked with the power to shape substance.” The perceiving power of the mind is the imagination. The power to shape substance is faith.
The thing we want to do now is explore ways we can implement these principles in an actual situation. Whether we’re talking about a healing need, a prosperity challenge, or some type of a disruption or conflict in a relationship, the application is the same.
The first principle of spending time alone with God is something we do well to develop as daily habit. My own best time for doing this is early in the morning, before the rest of the world begins to stir. There’s no right time for this, but I think it’s helpful to set a fairly regular schedule. I published two chapters on meditation from my book, The Complete Soul, on the church’s website, and I’ve included the link in the description area below. I think it’s important that we make this our practice, that we find ways that work best for us. Jesus said to go into your room and pray to your Father. I think he’s saying that we are to make this our experience, that we find our own way. With regular times alone with God, we’ll begin to feel the quiet surge of power that assures us we’re not alone. The more pronounced this gets, the more success we’ll have with the next two principles.
It isn’t easy to take your attention off a problem and try to see a solution unfolding. But think of this: It’s actually harder to stay focused on the problem. It’s harder on you. It’s harder on your creativity. It’s harder on your ability to be optimistic. Yes, it’s easy to worry, easy to visualize the very worst possible outcome of a situation. But look at the toll it takes. So, you have to make the decision that you’re going to use the power of your imagination in a positive and deliberate way. You’re not going to pretend that your problem doesn’t exist. And, you’re not going to stop looking for positive action you can take to resolve it. But you’re going to make a concerted effort to lift the eye of your imagination to the fields ready for harvest – the successful outcome of your situation. Interrupt your negative movie and begin seeing it play out into a happy ending. You’re not trying to force a change; you’re seeing the change unfold in your own mind. You’re now ready to move into the third principle of believing this change is real, and it’s yours now.
Whatever form your mountain has taken, think of Jesus’ call to have faith and never doubt. You’re moving past this challenge. You’re declaring it cast into the sea. Here you employ denials – the releasing of negative pictures, thoughts and feelings – and you’re affirming the greater good you’ve committed to seeing unfold, is doing so right now. If you find your faith wavering, bring yourself back on track. This is your life. It’s your mind. It’s your world, and you want your experience of each day to be the very best it can be.