Sunday, November 4, 2012

Election Eve Examen

In my years of youth ministry, coordinating retreats, missions, other events, I found it helpful to do needed practical, logistical preparation, then allow time for a deeper spiritual preparation. In that context, and in others, I’ve used aspects of the Ignatian “prayer ofexamen”, developed by Ignatius of Loyola, early 16th century Basque knight, hermit, priest, and founder of the Jesuits. His model of prayer invites reflection and humility: an awareness of how easily we mistake our own thoughts for God’s direction, how easily trapped we are by our own unexamined habits or unacknowledged agendas. The prayer of examen offers a chance to step back, review, rethink. As I prepare for Tuesday’s election, I find myself setting aside research on issues and candidates, and moving toward an Election Eve Examen.

Step one: Slow down, be still, and take time to acknowledge God’s presence.

“Be still and know that I am God,” the psalmist says. The Hebrew word for “be still” – rapha - means “be weak,” “let go,” “release.”  It’s easy to be anxious, angry, doubtful, to hold on to resentments, outrage, frustration. God invites us to let that go, to draw close to him as a troubled child draws near a loving parent, trusting our anxieties and fears into kind, strong, caring hands. As this past week's dramatic "Frankenstorm" reminded me, we are not in charge, much as we like to imagine otherwise. 
We bring before You, O God:
The troubles and perils of people and nations,
The sighings of the sick,
The sorrows of the bereaved,
The necessities of strangers,
The helplessness of the weak,
The despondency of the weary,
The failing powers of any age.
May each of us draw as near to You
As You are near to each of us.
            (Anselm of Canterbury, ca 1100)
Step two: Give thanks.

In the Ignatian model, the prayer of examen is done at the end of the day, or even twice a day, with a review of the preceding hours and thanks for the gifts of the day. But this can be expanded. As I look back on the election season, I can give thanks for the current situation, the upcoming opportunity, the challenge and mission ahead. Frustrated as I've been by much of our political discourse, I can give thanks that we're free to speak, write, gather. Unenthusiastic though I am at the choices I'm offered, I can give thanks for the chance to vote, the rights I enjoy through no accomplishment of my own:
Almighty God, giver of all good things: We thank you for the natural majesty and beauty of this land. They restore us, though we often destroy them. 
We thank you for the great resources of this nation. They make us rich, though we often exploit them.  
We thank you for the men and women who  have made this country strong. They are models for us, though we often fall short of them. 
We thank you for the torch of liberty which has been lit in this land. It has drawn people from every nation, though we have often hidden from its light. 
We thank you for the faith we have inherited in all its rich variety. It sustains our life, though we have been faithless again and again. 
(Book of Common Prayer) 
The Evening Prayer, Pierre Edouard Freer,
France, 1857
Step 3: Ask for wisdom, insight, and truth.

I realized at sixteen that I could convince myself of anything I wanted. I could rationalize any decision, argue hotly for any opinion. As I noted several weeks ago, we are easily held captive by our own assumptions, our own "confirmation bias." In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul acknowledged: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” (I Corinthians 13). I think I know myself but in moments of quiet reflection I'm reminded how deep my self-deception can go, how easily I can overlook my own failings, while quick to identify the shortcomings of others. 

It takes time, courage, humility, and grace, to see where we’ve been in the wrong, to be willing to change where change is needed.  We can miss the truth when it’s standing right in front of us – and sometimes the more spiritually wise we think we are, the harder it is to hear voices that don’t agree with our own. Jesus promised "When the Spirit of truth comes he will guide you into all truth," (John 16:13) but that truth is only available as we acknowledge our inadequacy, our willfulness, our pride, our self-delusion. King David himself asked God to dig deep and show him what he couldn’t see himself: 
Search me, God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting. Psalm 139
Step 4: Review.

Look back through actions, attitudes, motives and emotions with honesty, patience, and humility. This is the longest, hardest part of the examen, but the more time spent, the greater the reward. It's a great practice to do this every day, but as I prepare for Tuesday's election, I look over the whole political season, and my own heart as I've tried to engage, and disengage:
  • Where did I speak without listening?
  • Where did I judge without compassion?
  • Where was I motivated by anger, anxiety, pride, impatience?
  • Where did I disengage out of fear, discouragement, laziness, lack of love?
  • What did I repeat, not sure that it was true?
  • What did I believe, not bothering to think it through?
  • When did I side with mockers?
  • What habits held me captive?
  • Who did I harm?
  • Who did I help?
  • Where did I sense God inviting me to something different, but ignored the invitation?
  • Where did I see a way I could serve another, but chose to serve myself instead?
  • Where did I participate in disrespect of leaders, disrespect of others?
  • Where was compassion visible?
  • Where was wisdom lacking?
The goal isn't to pile on guilt, or to drown in self-accusation. The goal is to see more clearly, and to grow in understanding of ourselves, the world, the way of love.

Step Five: Reconcile and Resolve.

Old Man Praying, Edvard Munch,
1902 Norway
For me, confession is a freeing move toward change, an acknowledgement of failure and a willingness to leave my blindness behind and start in a new direction. I like the Episcopal practice of kneeling in confession. It's an outward expression of humility, reflecting an inward desire to move away from pride:
Most holy and merciful Father:
We confess to you and to one another,
and to the whole communion of saints
in heaven and on earth,
that we have sinned by our own fault
in thought, word, and deed;
by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart, and mind, and strength.
We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We have not forgiven others, as we have been forgiven.
We have been deaf to your call to serve, as Christ served us.
We have not been true to the mind of Christ.
We have grieved your Holy Spirit.
We confess to you, Lord, all our past unfaithfulness:
the pride, hypocrisy, and impatience of our lives,
Our self-indulgent appetites and ways,
and our exploitation of other people,
Our anger at our own frustration,
and our envy of those more fortunate than ourselves,
Our intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts,
and our dishonesty in daily life and work,
Our negligence in prayer and worship,
and our failure to commend the faith that is in us,
Accept our repentance, Lord, for the wrongs we have done:
for our blindness to human need and suffering,
 and our indifference to injustice and cruelty,
For all false judgments,
for uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors,
 and for our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us,
For our waste and pollution of your creation,
 and our lack of concern for those who come after us,
Accept our repentance, Lord. (Book of Common Prayer) 
I like to sit in my repentance, lingering over each admission. I'm not perfect. Far from it. It helps to see that clearly: to see how far I am from who I want to be, to admit how very far I have to go.

True repentance, and real reconciliation, lead to resolve: a determination to go forward in a new way. We need wisdom to see what that way might look like. The old way is easy, modeled for us by loud and angry voices, lived out in familiar reactions to old wounds, ancient wrongs. 

The new way is much harder. I find myself turning again to Isaiah 58, and the call to a deeper, more genuine form of faithfulness. My resolve is to live deep into the kind of fast God calls for, and to join with others of God’s people in loosening the chains of injustice, sharing food with the hungry, becoming well-watered gardens, repairers of broken walls, restorers of streets with dwellings. I pray my vote will be part of that work. I pray my prayer will be an even greater part. And I pray my life, day to day, year by year, will show the outward form of faith that God has chosen:
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
    and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
    you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
 “If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
    with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
    and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
    and your night will become like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you always;
    he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
    and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
    like a spring whose waters never fail.
Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
    and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
    Restorer of Streets with Dwellings. 
This is the last in a continuing series about faith and politics: What's Your Platform? Join the conversation.  Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments.