The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 51: True Love

An African boy with an “I Love Jesus” shirt in front of a painting in a museum, Paris, 2017, by Alexandralovejesus. From Wikimedia Commons

As he explains the Way of Devotion (bhakti yoga), Krishna describes how someone behaves who has truly renounced attachment to the results of their actions and devoted themselves to God:

That devotee who looks upon friend and foe with equal regard, who is not buoyed up by praise nor cast down by blame, alike in heat and cold, pleasure and pain, free from selfish attachments, the same in honor and dishonor, quiet, ever full, in harmony everywhere, firm in faith — such a one is dear to me. (BG, 12:18) 

This is the conclusion of a long passage in which Krishna lists attributes of a devotee, and says, “this one is dear to me.” I don’t read this as being conditional love: God loves everybody. I read this as describing how, as we enter into this reciprocal love, we are opened more and more to God’s love for us. We realize how dear we are to God when we allow ourselves to be loved by God, and see this radiant love extended to every atom of the universe.

There are two new Testament passages that echo this for me. The first is Jesus’s words in the Sermon on the Mount, which describes this impartial love of looking “upon friend and foe with equal regard.” God’s love is described as sunshine and rain, which falls on us all without distinction.

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:44-45 NRSV)

The second is Paul describing the equanimity of one who has renounced attachment to results:

I have learned how to be content in any circumstance. I know the experience of being in need and of having more than enough; I have learned the secret to being content in any and every circumstance, whether full or hungry or whether having plenty or being poor. I can endure all these things through the power of the one who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:11-13 CEB)

I appreciate the way Krishna links impartial love with non-attachment. Though love can change us, love is not about fixing us. Love doesn’t enter our lives like a scolding parent trying to force a particular result. Love is about radical acceptance. It is through non-attachment that we come to understand true love.

Paul’s strength and endurance in every situation doesn’t come from gritting his teeth and plowing ahead. It comes from acceptance and non-attachment. As I learn to love impartially, like God’s own sunshine and rainfall, I come to bask in the sun and feel joy in the rain. I can be content in many circumstances.

Prayer:
Source of Love, of sunshine and rain, I long to love as you love, without anxiety or attachment to results.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 50: The Way of Devotion

A Muslim Boy Praying in the Mosque, 2015, by chidioc. From Wikimedia Commons and Pixabay

After his cosmic vision, Arjuna asks who among Krishna’s devotees “are more established in yoga?” Krishna responds:

 Those who set their hearts on me and worship me with unfailing devotion and faith are more established in yoga. (BG, 12:2)

Just as a reminder, the four paths of yoga Krishna describes are:

  • Karma yoga: the way of selfless service
  • Raja yoga: the yoga of meditation
  • Jnana yoga: the way of knowledge (jnana, gnosis, and know all share the same root)
  • Bhakti yoga: the way of devotion and surrender

Krishna goes on to say that if you can’t do one of these, do the other. If philosophizing about the divine is too difficult, still your mind with meditation. If you are too restless to still your mind, engage your hands in selfless service. If none of these work, surrender the results of your actions to God and just worship.

I pointed out earlier that when discussing the four paths of yoga, Krishna has a habit of calling whichever one he is talking about at the moment the “best,” or praising its particular virtues. Here he does it again:

Better indeed is knowledge then mechanical practice. Better indeed than knowledge is meditation. But better still is surrender to attachment of results, because there follows immediate peace. (12:12)

I think “best” in this case has to do with the effects of practice on the practitioner. Devotion is best because gives us immediate results, a sense of peace and acceptance.*

To be honest, this is not how I usually think, and it does not come naturally for me. In church culture, prayer is often described as a way of “giving it to God,” turning loose of our concerns and troubles and realizing “it’s all in God’s hands.” I’ve generally found such sayings to be trite and unsatisfying. Yet I suspect there is wisdom here that is closer to “non-attachment to results.” Devotion, the way Krishna describes it, is not simply a naïve belief that God will make everything work out for the best if we just trust enough or try to believe in our hearts. It is an active process of loosing, of liberating the self through surrender and devoting the self to God. (The word Islam literally means to submit or surrender).

This is one reason I appreciate the study of Bhagavad-Gita. It gives me new language to appreciate aspects of my own faith tradition. I have a knee-jerk reaction to someone telling me to just “give it to God in prayer.” But I do understand the concept of surrendering the results of your actions. There is a reason this section follows Arjuna’s vision of Krishna’s glory: It’s easier to “give it to God” when you realize Who God Is. 

*(There are other ways to understand this passage, but they involve discussions of translation that are beyond my ability).

Prayer:
I let go of my attachments so that I can hold more firmly to You.

The Prayer Jesus Taught (An Inclusive Version of the Lord’s Prayer)

Holy One, our Mother and Father
Let your name be revered.
Let your kin-dom come,
Let your will be done on earth as it is in the heavens.

Give us today the bread we need for today.
And forgive our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.
Save us from the time of trial,
And deliver us from evil.

For yours is the kin-dom, the power, and the glory
Now and forever.
Amen.


This version is written to be gender inclusive. I sometimes use the first line, “Baba, our Holy One.” Baba means “Father” in some African and Middle-Eastern languages and “Grandmother” in some Eastern European languages. Jesus sometimes used the semitic word Abba, to which it is etymologically related.

“Kin-dom” language is borrowed from Ada María Isasi-Díaz, who borrowed it from Georgene Wilson.

“Heavens” is a better translation of the Greek word, in my opinion, and it does not have the afterlife connotations that it has in modern English. The vision is for a just and peaceful God-ordered planet, the way God has ordered the movement of the stars in the heavens.

“Bread we need for today” is a reference to the story of manna in the Hebrew Bible, which is a lesson about greed, security, trust, and sharing.

I believe the implicit lesson on forgiveness is not that God’s mercy is contingent on our mercy, but that forgiveness is a form of reciprocal grace. It is not “forgive us inasmuch as we forgive others,” but “as/while we are forgiving, forgive us.” See Matthew 18:21-35, Matthew 5:21-26, Matthew 6:14-15.

As the Pope has said, God does not ever “lead us into temptation.” God is not a tempter.

The doxology added to the end of the prayer is a Protestant tradition, but its first appearance is the in Didache, an early church document from the second century.

Karmic Prayer

“Dear God, please forgive me. It was wrong to wish death on that person.”

“No worries kiddo! Your wish is granted, BTW.”

“What!? No, I take it back.”

“Too late! Yep, he’s definitely going to die. 100% chance of it.”

“……Ah, I get it. Yeah, not funny.”

“Oh, no, it’s actually hilarious, cosmically speaking. I mean, tragic, too. You’re gonna die, as well, FTR. It’s kind of a package deal.”

“But not because I wished it on someone else.”

“No! Not really. …Well …maybe a little bit.”

“This shared mortality thing is supposed to make me have empathy for my enemies, is that it?”

“What kind of monster do you take me for? And yes.”

The following article originally appeared at Ministry Matters.

When I ask laypeople to write prayers for worship, I give them these instructions.

Group or corporate prayer is an important part of worship. The congregation is not just sitting back and relaxing while one person talks. They are allowing a person (or group of people) whom they trust to give voice to their joys, concerns and petitions.

If you have been asked to pray an offertory prayer, a pastoral prayer or an invocation in our church, you are welcome to find a prayer online or in a book and use it. You can also modify a prayer or write one yourself.

Lots of people think prayers should be off-the-cuff and spontaneous. This is okay in some cases, but if you were bringing a petition to a king, and speaking for a group of people, you would rehearse what you would say, right? You’d probably go over it in your head a hundred times. You’d write it down so that when you delivered your petition, you would come off as a competent representative of your people. I believe that’s the way we should approach corporate prayer. We are not praying “our own hearts.” We are praying for the assembled Body.

The main parts of a public prayer are:

1. Addressing God: Any conversation begins with a greeting or an address, even if it’s just “Hi, there.”

2. Talking to God: This is the “meat” of the prayer. It could be invocation: “Be present with us today.” It could be praise: “You are wonderful.” It could be complaint: “We are tired. Why don’t you hear us?” It could be thanksgiving: “Thanks for this amazing day.” It could be a request: “Bless Aunt Mary.” Anything you can imagine saying to God in a group is appropriate here.

3. Conclusion: There are a lot of formulas people use to “sign off,” but the simplest is just, “Amen,” which means “so be it.” In a group, the congregation will often echo your amen. Read some other prayers to see how folks conclude, and find a way that feels natural to you. “By the power of your Holy Spirit we pray” or “In the name of Jesus Christ” are common ways to end public prayer. The main thing is to avoid stumbling to the end, like: “So, anyway… yeah. I guess that’s it. Amen.” That’s fine for small group prayers or private prayers, but not when you are standing in for the voice of the congregation.

If you choose to write your own prayer, here are some guidelines:

1. Short is good. A paragraph that takes up one-third to one-quarter of a page of paper is probably long enough — that would be around a minute and a half. Pastoral prayers tend to be longer because you have more needs to address, and a diverse congregation with many different needs.

2. Use “we” language. You are speaking for the congregation, so this isn’t about you. It’s about we, the church. “We praise you today,” not “I praise you today.”

3. Let the images do the work. Rather than use a lot of abstract words, think about a single image you can paint with your language. “When we see parents pushing their kids in swings at the park, we remember your motherly love for us.” “We are sad, and the ache in our chests makes it hard to catch our breath.”

4. Use inclusive language. It’s okay to call God “Father,” or use “he,” as long as we remember to balance it out with gender-neutral or feminine imagery as well at other times. Avoid saying “Father and Mother God,” because that’s just overkill. Try instead, “God who loves us like a parent,” or “God who loves us like a mother.” You can also address your prayer to Jesus, in which case it’s fine to use masculine language, or the Holy Spirit, in which case I’d prefer you use feminine language. The main thing here is not to be “politically correct,” but to give people a chance to connect with God using imagery that will help them grow spiritually. Big Daddy God is fine, let’s just not overdo it or limit ourselves to one expression.

5. Think about your own experience. The best resource you have for writing prayers is your own experience and your own spiritual journey. Think about what you need to hear from God, and craft your prayer around that. So, if you’re writing the invocation, maybe you say, “Let us hear your voice, God. Speak our names.” If you’re writing the offertory prayer, maybe you say, “Help us let go our fear of not having enough, and trust in your abundance.” Let God inspire you through your own walk of faith.

6. Avoid preaching. While it’s okay to refer to Scripture or use biblical imagery, you aren’t doing this to teach or change attitudes. Again, remember that you are the voice of the congregation.

Advice for Small Group Leaders: Using the Magic Question

I’ve absorbed my share of sermons and essays that lament how we greet each other. “When you ask someone ‘How are you?’, do you really want to know?”, they ask.

No. No, I don’t.

I figure it’s pretty obvious to anyone who can read social context that “How are you?” isn’t actually a question. It’s a greeting. Sometimes we shorten it to “Howdy!” Imagine saying “Howdy” to someone only to have them stop, scratch their head, ruminate for a few minutes and reply, “Well, I feel a bit melancholy today, but I think it is because I didn’t get enough protein in my breakfast.” I wouldn’t want to lengthen the conversation.

For the ancient Romans, “Salve!” (sal-way) was the preferred greeting. It means “Health to you!” It’s also where we get the word “salvation.” We’ve simply turned a wish for health and well-being into a call-and-response rhetorical question.

Jesus gave his followers guidelines for how to show love for others in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5:47 says, “If you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” He uses greeting people who are not your brothers and sisters as an example of impartial love for all people. Greeting others demonstrates a loving attitude toward all people. It creates a culture of hospitality He did not say you needed to stop and have a therapy session.

Having said all that, there are times, especially in small group meetings, when I do want to encourage people to share. John Wesley’s “How is it with your soul?” is a bit abrupt in its intimacy. I’ve found that if I replace “How are you?” with the following question, people begin opening up to talk about their lives:

“How has your week been?”

Rather than saying “Fine,” or “Okay,” people tend to talk about specific events, feelings, and activities. Once we are having that conversation, I find it much easier to ask people where they see God active in their lives. We might even get around to addressing John Wesley’s “How is it with your soul?” question. It also creates opportunities to pray for specific things that people might not mention if the leader only asks for “prayer requests.”

I also like the freedom the question “How has your week been” gives to others. You are still free to answer “Fine,” if you don’t really want to go into detail.

I stumbled on this question about ten years ago when I was putting together a worship team that would pray before practice each week. I wanted our prayer time to be something more than the usual perfunctory words about the weather and playing well. I wanted the group to bond as a team, and to honestly pray for each other and to know what was going on with their team mates. I started beginning each practice with this question, and we’d spend the first thirty minutes of band practice praying for each other.

I noticed that after about six weeks, they started asking “How has your week been?” in other contexts. They started asking it of me. They started asking it of people during worship. That simple change of phrase did far more to change the culture of our congregation than a dozen sermons asking “Do you really care about the answer when you greet someone?”

Psychologist John Gottman talks about the importance of a married couple having their “magic ten minutes a day.” This is the time they spend reconnecting at the end of the day in a stress-reducing conversation, which can begin with a simple “How was your day?” I’ve started calling “How has your week been?” the magic question for small groups. Creating intimacy by hearing each other and praying with each other is part of building a successful small group.

It’s amazing how a fairly simple change of wording can shift the way we interact with each other.