Monday, July 20, 2015

Smoke Your Prayers

The other day I drew an animal medicine card (as is my daily practice). It was a buffalo. The buffalo is a symbol of prayer and my corresponding book went on to tell me that when I draw a buffalo card, I am encouraged to remember the power of my prayers. In many tribes, Native Americans would smoke their prayers either through the passing of the peace pipe in their religious ceremonies or through fires lit with herbs and sacrifices tossed on them as an offering to the Great Spirit. They believed that the smoke would carry their prayers to Great Spirit. This practice isn't as unfamiliar to us as we might initially think. 

Smoking prayers is an ancient human ritual. The Jews did it all the time in the temple, sacrificing animals and burning them as an offering to God to atone for their sins. The Greeks did this in their temples, honoring and making requests of the gods as did the Mayans and Aztecs, and the ancestral worshipers in Asia to name a few. In many Christian services today, particularly in Catholic mass, you will see the burning of incense commonly practiced in worship. 

When Joel and I traveled around South East Asia, we encountered homes, stores, and street corners that had a twig of incense tucked into a crack in the sidewalk, a shrine on the side of the building or even in a hole in a tree, burning their prayers for luck and protection from evil. 

Incense offerings for protection and luck in Hoi An, Vietnam

Very often, celebrating with friends at bars or breweries, someone who doesn't usually smoke will declare suddenly that they like to "smoke when they drink" and buy a pack a cigarettes to pass around to anyone who would like to partake for the evening. The very act of this gathering time together on many levels is the prayer itself. It is a prayer of thanksgiving for the thing we celebrate as a group of friends in support of another. Or it is a prayer for community, a hope for uniting to another living soul for a moment of authenticity. Or a prayer to be released, even for just a few hours from the burdens and tasks to come in the day ahead. This simple, unspoken prayer is answered as another celebratory smoker hops up to enjoy a moment of one-on-one-time with a friend, releasing their prayers for peace, community, connection, freedom, gratitude and hope into the night sky. 

Human beings have been smoking our prayers for an eternity in all cultures and backgrounds. We gather around grills and campfires, letting our lungs fill with the charred scents of our hopes for nourishment, company, rest and refreshment. We make great efforts to build fire-pits in the backyard and invite people over to burn moving boxes or love letters or anything we can make an excuse for, in an effort to smoke our prayers to heaven. We love to do this with people and we love to do it alone. We love to smoke our prayers.

Prayer, as I have said before, is communication with God. It is the speaking and listening that happens in a healthy relationship with the Divine. In order for this post to make any sense at all, you first have to decide who God is for you. If God is this unreachable old, bearded man in the sky who you can talk at when you feel like it, then smoking your prayers might be a hard idea to wrap your head around. But if God could be something more, could be the very atoms that make up your being, could be the very water that gives your body fullness, or the breath that is literally keeping you alive, then perhaps, you might connect to this powerful idea. 

Incense offerings to Buddha in Chain Mai, Thailand

Scripture tells us that we are made in the image of God. God is the creator of all things who created each of us and the systems that we are intricately a part of. The creation story that many Christians love so well, speaks of God literally breathing life into Adam (which means man). Then he shapes Eve (which means life) from Adam's side and breathes life into her. God's very breath gives life. Made in His image, would this story not also share with us a truth that our very breath gives life? That all the words that we utter in earnest are powerful, energetic forces bringing these words into existence as something alive? 

Christians and Jews are not the only ones who talk of creation this way. Humanity knows our words build up and break down. We know this in the core of who we are. 

In Hebrew the word for God's Spirit is Ruach which means breath. The breathing in and exhaling out in our daily living is an encounter with the Divine. It is our connection to the Living One from which our very breaths are also co-creating life with the words and energies we are releasing into the world and into our own awareness. We are calling forth our joys and our sorrows. God has given us the power to do this alone and he has given us the choice to do this WITH him. It is co-creating with Him that has brought so much goodness into the world.

No wonder we are so attracted to smoke. Hookah bars, campfires, pot, candles, hearths, we love to gather with others around a source of flame and smoke in all these forms. Are we drawn to the warmth? Are we drawn to the feeling it gives us? Are we drawn to the community that gathers around and shares this intimate space? Is it all of these experiences rolled into one?

Perhaps,we most aware, even unconsciously, that when three or more are gathered together, Christ is there also.That there is power in numbers. That unity with God brings us into community in Christ. And in community, our prayers are even more powerful. The energy we pour out is even more magnetic or destructive. And then to add an energy source like a flame and smoke, suddenly our prayers are rising into the atmosphere and calling forth the uttered and unuttered desires of our souls... this is no joke!

We are already living in prayer. We forget who we are praying to, we forget who we are drawn to, and we forget who we are longing to connect to, but our practices remain as true as they were 10,000 years ago. We gather in community together, lighting candles, incense, cigarettes, weed, campfires, fire-pits, hookahs and stoves because somewhere, deeply ingrained in our collective human unconscious, we know we are one step closer to holiness when we do this. We are one step closer to the Holy One. Which means, we feel just a little bit more whole ourselves.

Imagine, what could be possible if we did any of this with intention and conscious awareness of the power that the Divine has placed in our very breaths. We could have faith that moves mountains. We could do as Jesus promised we could do, greater miracles than even he. 

Image result for blowing out the candles

The power of prayer, which is the power of being in united relationship with Great Spirit. The power of community which is present love and abundance in the moment, connecting you to all creation. Combined with the intentional practice and gestures of faith, could change the world. And what's crazy, is that we are already doing all three of these things regularly. We just don't even think about what it means or what it could mean if we did it with intention.

What if we KNEW we were smoking our prayers? What if we intended to smoke our prayers together as a community, a church? How could our communities transform? What about our hearts? Our faith? Our lives? I truly believe that anything could be possible. 

*Just for the record, I am not condoning smoking marijuana or cigarettes. I am just noting what I think it means for people in our culture on a spiritual level.

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