Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Complexity And Challenges of Praying for Others

"Please pray for me."  - "Please pray for her." - "Please pray for him."

It's an essential refrain of the faithful. The call to pray for each other is echoed throughout the Bible, but perhaps most clearly in James 5:16, "Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed." Each Apostolic letter is full of examples of the fathers of the Church asking other to pray for them.

Prayer requests seem simple, but I struggle with them because God's version of how a situation should play out is always more complicated and interesting than any version of an outcome that I could pray for. As the Garth Brooks song says, "Some of God's greatest gifts are unanswered prayers."

As a child, I easily prayed for someone to be healed quickly or their life made easier. It's become harder as I move through adulthood and have been forced to realize both in my own life and the lives of others that horrible situations often make people better. These challenges can be essential to our development in faith, love, and humility.

The harsh reality of improvement through adversity is reflected in scripture. In the Old Testament, the Lord describes refining the Israelites through the "furnace of affliction." Isiah 48:10. This message continues on into the New Testament. "Consider it all a joy, my brothers, when you encounter various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance." James 1:2-3. 

Similarly, "[A]lthough now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire, may prove to be for praise, glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ." 1 Peter 1:6-7.

Should I pray that someone avoids a situation that could deepen their faith or play an essential role in turning their life around? 

If that prayer isn't answered, does it mean it wasn't heard?

When the situation goes beyond mere personal trials and towards death, simplistic prayers for a continuation of life are complicated by the belief that earthly death is an essential step to union with the Divine Love. 1 John 4:16.

Is it okay for me to pray for the delay of someone's journey to their spiritual destination? What if they are in horrible unending pain?

What does it mean for me and my faith if those prayers aren't answered?

Beyond that, what kind of prayer am I supposed to offer for enemies and persecutors as required by Matthew 5:44? Most of my attempts in that arena turn out pretty selfish, basically backhanded attempts to pray for myself.

Simplest answer that I've seen to these conundrums is a simple prayer described by Russian monk in 19th century Orthodox classic The Way of the Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way.

"Merciful Lord, may your will be done; you wish that all men come to the truth and be saved, have mercy and save your servant __________. Receive this petition from me, as a cry of love which you have commanded."

This humble method of asking for divine intervention is applicable to friends, family members, and foes alike. It leaves plenty of room for interpretation on the need and direction of help. It's applicable for both those who are struggling in earth and those on their way out of this life.

Please give it a try. This world is desperately in need of prayer.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Monarch Butterflies, Paramecium, and the Mystery of Christmas

This time of year, we all beat each other about losing the true spirit of Christmas. I can't argue against our collective guilt. Awash in a world of decisions between where to shop, what to buy, and how to wrap the gifts. School vacations plan. Trees to light up. Meals to make. Friends to visit. Family to love and argue with...

It's hard hard to keep track of anything, much less the divinity of a baby born in in Israel over two thousand years ago. We can beat ourselves up over consumerism and loss of faith, but we should also be honest that it's hard to keep the focus on something beyond what our human brains to truly understand.

I can easily picture Mary and Joseph in a stable with Baby Jesus in a manger. Same thing with wise men following a really big star. Angels in the heavens are a little more difficult, but possible if  I mentally graft on some white wings.

That level of clarity doesn't extend to all the details. According to the Christian faith, Jesus fundamentally changed the relationship between God and humanity. As described in John 1:14, "[T]he Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the gory as of the Father's only Son, full of grace and truth." That concept is a lot more slippery. 

How can we grasp the nature of that massive spiritual inflection in human history when we can't figure out how to stop the cold virus or predict the weather with a higher degree of accuracy?

That doesn't mean we enough to form a connection with the Divine reality of Jesus; to sense and react to something deep, powerful and earth-changing. A Monarch Butterfly summering in southern Canada cannot perceive all of the details of its 2,500 mile migration to winter in Mexico, but it successfully makes the journey.



A paramecium doesn't need to understand everything about its environment to know that it needs to move towards warmth.



The physics of the Divinity of that child born in Bethlehem will always elude me, but there is something in my soul that knows that the son of God prophesy of Isaiah 7:14 was realized when Jesus was born to Mary. Matthew 1:18-25. It is the same voice that has spoken to other souls for over 2,000 years. In the same way that something in the Monarch Butterfly tells them it is time to begin flapping those little wings south and within the structure of the paramecium telling them to push and spin towards warmth.

That does not mean that Christmas is wrapped up in too much mystery to be celebrated and loved. There is a very basic concept that we can latch onto and treasure. The purpose of that child born in Israel was to help us each overcome our own personal battle between right and wrong.

Nothing is more obvious than the fact we cannot find the path to good on our own. We start out with the best of intentions and eventually slide off course. There is something incredibly good in us that knows that we can and should do better, but somehow we don't. Whether the fault lies on belief systems, brain functioning, or simply the human condition is up for debate; but the reality that we cannot find redemption on our own is self evident

In response, the Lord sent a child. I cannot understand exactly why, but I am eternally thankful that He did.

If you haven't heard it before, please take a few minutes to listen to Steve Earle's haunting Christmas song, "Nothing But a Child."

Merry Christmas.





Wednesday, November 20, 2013

1990's Magic Eye Posters and the Illusion of Ownership

Note: This post is dedicated to Joe Day. Joe was a regular at the NAMI Montana office before passing away this week. Joe courageously battled serious bipolar disorder and poverty. Despite these challenges, he really enjoyed life and helped make all of us better - even when we didn't want to.


Magic Eye hidden 3-D image posters were really popular when I was a teenager. Swirls of dots and shapes - an optical illusion that revealed itself to the trained eye. I'd helplessly stare at them on my friends' walls.

"Put your nose right on the poster, then slowly move back"

I followed their orders, but didn't see the hidden image.

"Relax your eyes."

Still nothing.

"Don't you see the ship?"

More nothing.

"Keep trying, eventually you'll see it."

I never did.


In my unqualified opinion, the greatest spiritual works are similar to those Magic Eye posters. There's more to them than you initially see. It might take multiple readings or even years of multiple readings for your mind to grasp the secondary meaning. Those strokes of insight are precious.

I recently grasped a deeper meaning in the Parable of the Tenants that I'd never seen before.The Parable of the Tenants is one of Jesus' teaching that he gave in Jerusalem under the fierce questioning of the chief priests, the scribes, and elders. Mark 12:1-12, Matthew 21: 33-46, Luke 20: 9-19.

Jesus described a landowner who built a vineyard on his land and then leased it to tenant farmers while he was away on a journey. The landowner later sent servants to collect some of the proceeds of the vineyard, but the farmers beat them and sent them away. Then the landlord sent his only son. The farmers killed him in hopes of having the vineyard for themselves.

Jesus finishes the parable with a quotation of Psalm 118 ("The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.") This powerful combination of ancient prophesy and a prophesy of Jesus's crucifixion delivers a powerful message on Jesus's divinity. That's the message that hits the Sunday sermons.

But, the secondary message is also valuable. The foundation of this parable is that human beings are the tenants of Creation. That is more than just a setup for the story.

We are tenant farmers of all that God has created. Everything that we've been entrusted with bears the expectation of that we will use it to serve the God of Love. The implications of this lesson are broad:
  • Our talents, interest and abilities belong to God.
  • Our property and resources belong to God.
  • Our family members belong to God.
  • The natural world and all of Creation belong to God.
This secondary meaning is so important that Jesus also describes it in the Parable of the Talents when God is described as a master who gives his servants gold coins in expectation that they will invest them and gain him a return. Matthew 25: 14-30. 

We are expected to care for and use the tools that we have been given to serve the Creator to the best of our ability, just like any tenant farmer would for the owner of the land. But, we must remember that they are not ours.

A river of personal suffering stems from misunderstanding this fundamental rule of Divine ownership. We cling to and try to dominate what was never ours to begin with and then blame God for taking it away.

As described by Dalai Lama, "Attachment is the origin, the root of suffering; hence it is the cause of suffering."


NOTE: This brings up the followup question of what does God expect us to put our time, efforts and resources towards. There are a lot of places to look for answers for that question, but Matthew 25: 31-46 which describes the process of Divine Judgment and the judgment of the Seven Churches in Revelation 2-3 is a great place to start.


*** Please use this link to book your hotel and airline tickets.  You get Expedia's great prices and they'll donate a portion of the sale to Uganda Rural Fund's critical services in the heart of Africa.  Thank you!***

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Bible’s Blueprint for Political Decisions in a Democracy

NOTE: This post is a lot drier than my usual posts, but I believe that the United States is at a critical stage in our democracy and it's important to seek guidance on how the government President Abraham Lincoln described as "of the people, by the people, for the people" should continue forward.


As an advocate for people who live with mental illness and their families, I work a lot in politics. Partisanship has no positive value in my job. I work with and against Democrats, Republicans, government workers, the military, government unions, government contractors, professional associations and anyone else remotely involved with the mental illness treatment system. We work together on one issue and disagree on the next. It's that way on the federal, state and local levels. Any other tactic or strategy is a disservice to the people that we're trying to help.

While there is a lot of general discussion of Christian values in politics, it's hard to distill how these values should guide complex policy decisions or even help determine we should vote for. The main reason for this is probably that Jesus was more concerned with saving souls than he was in establishing effective political mechanisms.

The New Testament offers the general guidance to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. It is the clear duty of each person to care for the poor, the oppressed and the excluded. However, there is no clear statement on what the government's role should be in carrying out these and other responsibilities? If there is a role, how do we balance it with Saint Paul's message that society should limit free-loading? 2 Thessalonians 3:10.

We have to turn back to the Old Testament to find an answers those questions. All the way back to Psalm 72.

What was Psalm 72 and Why Look to It for Guidance?

Like a multifaceted prism, Psalm 72 is open to multiple views and interpretations. The main controversies in these interpretations regard whether the Psalm is David’s prayer for his son Solomon’s reign, a prophecy of the Messiah, or some combination of the two. I don't want to wade into a theological battle which has divided some of history’s brightest theological minds. I ask the reader to read Psalm 72 as King David’s prayer for his son Solomon’s reign as King. This is not to deny any of the Messianic overtones that Saint Augustine, Martin Luther, Pope John Paul II, Martin Bucer and other preeminent theologians agree are there. One does not exclude the other, but this seems to be the interpretation favored by King David’s son Solomon and in that light the interpretation still has value.

The evidence of this is that the Biblical depiction of King Solomon’s reign specifically describe events prayed for in Psalm 72. The details of these events are so specific in both accounts that their congruence could not be a coincidence. As an example, Line 10 of Psalm 72 prays that the Kings of Tarshish and the islands bring tribute to the king while the kings of Arabia and Seba offer gifts. In its description of Solomon's rule, 2 Chronicles 9:21 states that Tarshish did end up sending King Solomon tributes of gold, silver, ivory, apes and monkey every three years. Similarly, 2 Chronicles 9:14 describes how the kings of Arabia also brought gold and silver to King Solomon.

The specific examples of how Psalm 72 guided portions of King Solomon's reign make it clear that it is not simply a Messianic prophesy. It was prayerfully used to guide government's roles and functioning. While some of the specific military and diplomatic lessons passed with King Solomon and his time, the broader statements of what makes a government legitimate and righteous are still valuable.

[I've underlined the relevant portions of Psalm 72 below.]


Psalm 72

Of Solomon

I.

O God, give your judgment to the king; your justice to the son of kings;
That he may govern your people with justice, your oppressed with right judgment,
That the mountains may yield their bounty for the people, and the hills great abundance,
That he may defend the oppressed among the people, save the poor and crush the oppressor.

II.

May he live as long as the sun endures, like the moon, through all generations,
May he be like rain coming down upon the fields, like showers watering the earth,
That abundance may flourish in his days, great bounty, till the moon be no more.

III.

May he rule from sea to sea, from the river to the ends of the earth.
May his foes kneel before him, may his enemies lick the dust.
May the kings of Tarshish and the islands bring tribute, the kings of Arabia and Sebia offer gifts.
May all kings bow before him, all nations serve him.
For he rescues the poor when they cry out, the oppressed who have no one to help.
He shows pity to the needy and the poor and saves the lives of the poor.
From extortion and violence he frees them, for precious is their blood in his sight.

IV.

Long may he live, receiving gold from Arabia, prayed for without cease, blessed be the day.
May wheat abound in the land, flourish even on the mountain heights.
May his fruit increase like Lebanon’s, his wheat like the grasses of the land.

May his name be blessed forever; as long as the sun, may his name endure.
May the tribes of the earth give blessings with his name; may all nations regard him as favored.

***

Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who alone does wonderful deeds. Blessed be his glorious name forever; may all the earth be filled with the LORD’s glory. Amen and amen.

The end of the psalms of David, son of Jesse.


Broad Roles of Government in Described Psalm 72
  • Ensuring justice, especially for the oppressed.
  • Stop the powerful from oppressing the weak through violence and extortion (this includes oppressors within the government).
  • Effectively managing natural resources.
  • Caring for the sick and injured who cannot care for themselves.
  • Rescuing the poor and oppressed.
  • Having a strong enough defense and police force to stop potentially oppressive forces from both outside and inside the governed region.
  • Supporting the economy.
These roles can and should be interpreted prayerfully by each individual. The question of what level of government should complete these tasks, how the task should be completed and how to pay for them are up for debate and they should be debated. The answers to these questions and others probably will not fall directly on party lines.

Societies need both liberal and conservative view points in order to thrive and prosper. Brain scans reveal that the Creator purposefully imbued us each with different talents and insights into the interpretation of risk and other factors that help structure our political beliefs. These differences are just as essential in determining the means of justly governing a society as the differences between talents and insights in any other intellectual endeavor such as art, medicine, and science.

Yet, we need a basic foundation on which to build those political arguments. Psalm 72 is a great place to start.


Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Lesson From A Sermon So Long that It Killed One of the Faithful

Note: This post is dedicated to my friend and colleague Boyd Roth. Boyd was a long-time NAMI volunteer in Kalispell, Montana. He passed away last week. Boyd had a courageous battle with severe bipolar disorder and a number of physical issues, but he always focused on helping others rather than himself. He also had a missionary zeal that would have amazed even Saint Paul.


We super-size the men and women of the Bible until they become spiritual giants, almost unrelatable to our everyday lives, talents and predicaments. I don't know if there is a better antidote to this concern than a paragraph in Acts 20 about Saint Paul's missionary work in the town of Troas in ancient Turkey.

The roaming Saint Paul had set up his congregation on the third floor of a building. He was leaving the next day and knew that he had to pack a lot into the sermon. Saint Paul started preaching around dinner time and continued on until midnight.

A young man named Eutychus was sitting on a windowsill.  He'd listened to Saint Paul as the sun faded into dusk and then further into darkness. The sermon continued on by lamp light and Eutychus began to nod off.

Having been at more than one late night Mass, I easily picture Eutychus nodding forward, waking up, then nodding forward again. Leaning his head against the side of the window as the words droned on past into the starry sky.

Eutychus's sleeping body reset itself against the window and then leaned backwards. There was no screen, pane or other brace behind him. The fateful sleepy lean dropped Eutychus backwards into the night. He plunged three floors down, landed on his head, and apparently died. Acts 20:10. 

Saint Paul "threw himself" on the boy performing what was probably an ancient mix of physical and spiritual CPR, before announcing "Don't be alarmed; there is life in him." 

Saint Paul then went upstairs, had some bread to eat and continued the service until day break. The passage concludes with the statement that the faithful "took the boy away alive and were immeasurably comforted." Acts 20:12.

I image they were "immeasurably comforted" that the young man survived the sermon. Although I bet there was more than a little grumbling when the act of nearly killing a disciple through boredom didn't provide more of a break from that night's lesson.

This was the same Saint Paul so touched by the Holy Spirit and filled with Truth that he was able to seed Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. Yet all of those divine gifts didn't prevent him from performing  what may be the only sermon in human history that actually killed a member of the congregation. 

Saint Paul was painfully human just like the rest of us. He had bad days. He had committed egregious sins. He had major conflicts with the people that were closest to him. Yet those flaws did not prevent him from bringing the light and love of Christ to an entire empire.

We too cannot allow our own flaws and weaknesses from preventing us from doing all of the good that the Divine intends for us. 

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Lessons for Students Going Into High School

Note: Thanks to LeeAnn Berry for convincing me to share the outline for a speech that I gave to a group of middle school graduates a few years ago. Always a teacher, LeeAnn also convinced me to add another lesson to the list.


1. Be involved. Jump into high school life: academics, clubs, sports, work, and friends. The pace you set now will help guide the pace of the rest of your life. The world can be incredible and exciting, but only if you're willing to get up off the couch and participate in it.

2. Learn to fail. Don't be afraid to push yourself in school, athletics, and other activities to the point that you fail. It's the only way to improve yourself. When you do fail, confront your failure, learn from it and move on. In the words of leadership expert Zig Ziglar, "Remember that failure is an event, not a person."

3. Be nice to people. You are going to have some very real regrets from your high school years, but you'll never wish that you were meaner to someone. Your harsh words and actions will haunt you for years. Do your best to minimize them, so you don't have to carry that baggage around.

4. Be careful who you hang out with. Bad things happen more often to people who hang out with people who do bad things. You can lose opportunities or worse by being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

5. Don't listen to people who tell you you can't achieve your dreams. There will be a lot of adults who tell you that you can't achieve your dreams. They aren't qualified to tell you that. The world is complex and changing everyday, no one can tell you with certainty that a dream is out of your reach.

6. Be humble. Humility is essential to success. Without it, you won't be able to judge how hard a task is and whether you need help to accomplish it. Every truly significant task requires a team to help complete it. Without humility, you won't have the support of friends, family, and colleagues when you need them. Arrogant people don't have a lot of supporters.

7. Identify your interests and talents. Finding out your personal interests and talents should be your major career-building objectives over the next four years. Those interests and talents will point the way to your future.Because of the broad nature of high school academics, you'll probably have a clearer view of your talents and interests now than you will again until you're in your mid-thirties. Don't waste this opportunity to understand yourself. You may discover some of your interests and talents in school, but many of them can only be fully explored outside of the classroom.

8. Continue working in the areas that you're not good at. It's okay to focus on your strengths, but you can't totally avoid the subjects and tasks that you're not good at. You'll have to be well-rounded in order to achieve your goals. For instance, it's hard to imagine a job that makes a living wage that doesn't require basic knowledge of higher math. Make sure you take at least one more year of math than you have to.

9. Realize that you live in an incredible and exotic place. No where else in the world is exactly like the place that you live in now. The people, culture, landscape, activities and shops are different in every place and community. Do your best to cut through teenage cynicism to enjoy the best of where you're growing up. You only get one chance to experience life as a teenager. Don't waste it wishing you were somewhere else.

10. Volunteer. I work in a nonprofit and I'm often amazed about how much good a single person can do for an organization. It may not be easy to find an organization that both has a cause that you care about and needs the skills that you can offer, but you will find something if you ask around. Volunteering is a great way to make difference in your community while building up valuable work experience that will help you in the future.

11. Take good care of your brain. Neuroscientists are just beginning to figure out the mysteries of the brain. If you do damage to your brain either by ingesting drugs, high levels of alcohol or through physical trauma; there is no guarantee that it will ever be the same again. I know that taking risks is part of growing up, but be careful. Everyone's brain is different. Some of the coolest brains are the most easily damaged.

12. Explore your faith and beliefs. The transition of a person's spiritual life in the teenage years is an incredible thing. Listen to your parents and spiritual leaders, but don't be afraid to question them or to look for the answers on your own. If you're not able to answer those critical questions or get comfortable with a certain level of doubt, your faith will not be there to support and guide you through the challenges of adulthood.

13. Give yourself a break. The world is a tough place, especially when your a teenager. Problems can seem huge and unresolvable. They almost never are. If life gets too overwhelming, slow down and let things settle out. You'll be amazed at how often they do.

____________________


Please support the fight against mental illness by donating to Montana’s NAMIWalk. You can make a donation at my Walk page at http://namiwalks.nami.org/mattkuntz. Thanks for supporting this critical cause!

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

When to Stop Pushing: Life Lesson from a Macebell

NOTE: The Macebell can be very dangerous without proper instruction. Do not attempt it without guidance from a fitness professional that can assure you're doing it safely.


In February of 2008, I received a Macebell for Valentine's Day. I try not to care to much about material things, but workout gear and sporting goods are my weakness. I'd been doing kettlebell-style workouts for about five years and the Macebell, a steel pipe with a massive weighted ball on the end, seemed like the obvious next step.

UPS dropped the Macebell off at the law firm. I carried it home through downtown Helena that night with a huge grin on my face, not bothered by the fact that I looked like Captain Caveman in a sports jacket. (A side benefit of living in the town that you grew up in is that no matter what you're doing, people have almost always seen you do something more ridiculous.)

[In case you haven't seen a Macebell, here's a video of professional wrestling legend Karl Gotch doing Macebell 360's.]



I went in the back yard that night and attacked my workout with the fervor of a lab rat running from an electric shock. I swung the Macebell up, down, and around. I spun it over my head and smashed it into the snow-covered ground. Sweat dripped and my muscles burned. There was only one problem: I couldn't do the signature Macebell exercise, the 360.

In the 360, the exerciser starts with the weighted ball vertical over their head, then swings it behind their back in a pendulum motion, and finishes by raising it back to vertical. I tried it over and over again. Cranking the weight down behind me and then heaving it back up again, but I couldn't get it to rise above my shoulders.

I dove back into Youtube research. I might have been a little overambitious in the size of Macebell I chose, but it was clear that I should have enough strength to complete the 360. There were some beasts slinging Macebells around on Youtube, but they weren't all beasts. The weirdest part was that the other exercisers didn't appear to be struggling at the part where I kept hitting the wall. The helpful realization that I should be able to do the 360 didn't translate into my workouts.

It wasn't for lack of trying. Each week, I completed a full-session of intervals with Macebell lifts combined with jumping rope.  I attempted the 360 after my warm-up while I was still fresh. I'd crank the weight downward behind my back and then heave it back up, but it would stop just before clearing the height of my shoulder. Then I would try it again, and again, and again...

A year passed. I switched jobs, built a house, became a father, published a book, but still couldn't complete a 360.It was becoming my nemesis.

One afternoon, I made another 360 attempt at the end of my workout. I was exhausted, but obsessed. I lifted the weighted bar high over my head and began to swing it behind my back. This time I was too tired to push the weight downward. I just let it flow under its own power and trajectory. The Macebell swung past the point where it usually stopped.The pull over gravity loading it up automatically for the final movement.

I was so surprised that I wasn't ready to make the final heave over my shoulder, but the next time I did. I completed it in one direction and then back the other way. Repetition after repetition. Over and over.

I never had another problem with that exercise. The simple, but essential trick was realizing that I had to let the weight work for itself. My efforts to increase momentum through the downward movement were only slowing the weight. I had to control it, but not force it. It was counter instinctive, but obviously true. No wonder the other exercisers weren't straining at that point, they were letting the Macebell rotate through the lift.

I learn the same lesson in life over and over again. When I am stuck with an impassable problem, it's often because it's not my turn to shoulder the burden. It's time to leave it to God, the goodness in other people, or to time to resolve. No amount of force, effort, or worrying on my part will make it any better. In fact, it often makes the situation worse.

Thomas Merton, the acclaimed Catholic mystic and author, spoke to this challenge. "It takes some doing, but if I do not insist on having everything exactly my own way, Our Lord will do most of the work. My biggest obstacle is my own tendency to decide beforehand how I want to serve Our Lord, instead of letting Him tell me what He wants."

Realizing the proper time to let go requires a careful balance of toil, observation, and prayer. It's a lot more difficult than swinging a Macebell. We'll never get our efforts aligned exactly right with the Divine will; but it's an essential part of our spiritual journey.



Note: Here's another Macebell video for the curious. Seriously, please be careful if you are going to try this lift. You really, really don't want to have that weight pendulum into your knee or torque your shoulder out of the socket.

Please also consider making a donation to Montana's NAMIWalk to help fight mental illness.  We're trying to raise $150,000 by Walk Day on September. You can donate at this link.  Thank you!