There is a qigong gesture called “The Prayer Wheel Keeps Turning.” As a beginner, one usually starts by using the arms to move one fist over another. After a few hundred repetitions, one might get a few where the movement is connected through the torso, so the hips move the hands because the form is held correctly. After a few thousand repetitions, one or two will feel connected all the way from the ground through the leg all the way up to the hands. After a few tens of thousands of repetitions, it will feel more right than wrong and some will occur mindlessly, feeling the flow of the qi. And after a hundred thousand repetitions, one will accept that the goal is an empowering practice, not the achievement of perfection. I remember the first time I felt like I was following the qi moving through me rather than mentally moving the qi. At that moment, I learned the truth of the expression “fake it ‘til you make it.” I’m not sure I believed what I was being instructed, but as I practiced qigong I could sense that I was approximating proper execution and definitely felt invigorated by the practice, so I felt encouraged to continue.
I think that too many of us today hear Jesus’ caution about avoiding babbling and long-winded wordiness in our prayers and simply point the finger at others. It is easy to look at Tibetan prayer wheels as an exercise in futility attempting to grab the attention of a disinterested deity while using the all too familiar words of the Lord’s Prayer (which Jesus offers specifically as an alternative model) as simply a mantra of sound without meaning. Ironically, we may simultaneously disparage the value of centering prayer using a mantra. The pervasive use of the Lord’s Prayer provides the opportunity to find words to make meaning when it is most difficult to muster the spirituality necessary for the situation. It is not unusual for a person deep in the delirium of dying to mouth the words of this prayer when offered by someone at their bedside. Many a soldier in a foxhole has had only this memorized prayer to recite in a frightening foxhole. Perhaps while we avoid piling up words in our prayers as some sort of molehill that we attempt to make into a mountain we can ascend to God, we might actually in the practice of our prayers store up treasure in heaven instead.
Even this concept requires some interesting unpacking in the context of this first teaching passage in Matthew. Having heard that we are happy when we are poor and that heaven is not far away in time and space, but rather here and now being revealed, what does this heavenly storage plan look like? Surely Jesus is not simply suggesting that we practice right living now so that we can send ahead the resources to furnish our post-death houses. Yes, Jesus does promise us eternal blessings, but he also emphasizes the blessing of God’s presence in the here and now. So even as we put on our spiritual spectacles in order to make sense of the blessedness promised in the present suffering, we should not avoid the more practical and literal meaning in the well-worn words of the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” What if the spiritual savings plan of storing up treasure in heaven is very simply by being free from financial oppression in this life? If we were all to live without assuming that we were due anything (financial or otherwise) we might actually experience the freedom of God’s provision of our daily bread. In fact, we are likely supposed to think of the test of the manna in the wilderness when we think of daily bread. Manna was a magic commodity. If you tried to store it up, it spoiled. If you failed to collect enough, it stretched to meet the need. And once a week you were to trust that God would make a double portion not spoil so that you could rest on the Sabbath, remember (perhaps re-learning) that God was truly in control. Who knew there was so much financial advice in the prayer that is fixed so firmly in our beings?
So perhaps we need to keep spinning our own version of a prayer wheel, learning deeper and deeper connections of meaning as we fake it ‘til we make it.
Rev. Ian Lynch is pastor of Old South United Church of Christ, Kirtland, Ohio where Darkwood Brew is used as part of an effort to be the church beyond walls. He also has a YouTube channel of two-minute videos called Bible Bytes.