Viola Davis Comes to Visit in a Vision
Picture Viola Davis in an orange dress. The aubergine undertone of her skin is the perfect complement to the vibrant hue. She wears an ivory mandala around her neck composed of three concentric circles so each wheel can spin forward and backward. This is the beginning of my dream.
The dream went something like this: I walk up the steps to the library after fleeing a storm. She puts the mandala in my hands and tells me this is the benzbala mandala. This is a prayer wheel. With it, the visionary shows me how to pray.
Dreams are balm for the dreamer. They leave a bitter taste for those who have no interest in hearing others. Bear with me here. I have to tell you about this dream because the woman in orange taught me to pray.
She showed me the inner wheel and said, "This is your past."
She showed me the middle wheel and said, "This is your present."
She showed me the outer wheel and said, "This is your future."
"Take your finger and outline the circumference of each wheel. Mentally write there how God has been present to your in your past, in your present, in your future."
She showed me how to turn the wheels, to create an invisible prayer connecting past to present, present to future. She showed me how to use the wheels as a way of praying through change, grief, change and transition. The wheels could turn, lining up various manifestations of God's presence and my prayers across space and time.
Sharing the vision with my husband the next morning, he hurried to the computer and typed in "benzbala." We learn that Mercedes Benz has a "Bala" location in the United Kingdom. Bala is near the Snowdania National Park across the Irish Sea from Dublin.
I pick up pen and paper, sketching out various depictions of the prayer wheel. I imagine wearing the wheel around my neck and consider what identity and authority such a tool might provide as a way of offering prayer to others. I picture myself turning the wheels on the mandala, thumb moving in forward and backward circles, and I realize how much I have always wanted a rosary: a physical way of praying. I discover ancient roundels depicting a form of circular prayers.
I tell a friend about the dream and she asks graciously, "Do you feel like you've been spinning your wheels?" How did she know? I've been driving around in my motherly red van listening to Selena Gomez's "Round and Round and..." over and over again.
Mark Batterson has many thinking about praying in circles to live into our biggest dreams and to transcend our greatest fears. For him, the three circles of prayer are dreaming big, praying hard and thinking long.
Waking up to this prayer, I want to tuck into his hands this method of praying circles. We are able to live into our biggest dreams and transcend our greatest fears through prayer by remembering God's action in our past, asking for God's transformative presence now and yielding to God's will as the future unfolds.
Pray. Remember. Ask. Yield.
The prophet Ezekiel helps us understand this acronym for pray.
Ezekiel Envisions a New Mechanism for God's Movement
The Book of Ezekiel begins: "On the fifth of the month, the word of the LORD came to Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, by the Kebar River in the land of the Babylonians. There the hand of the LORD was on him." Ezekiel may not have carried a Benzbala prayer wheel, but he was born Ezekiel Ben-Buzi, that is, "son of Buzi," and he was exiled to Babylon before age 30.
In the fifth year of that exile, he receives a vision he finds difficult to describe. He relies on phrases like, "and I saw something like a..." or "I saw the appearance of the likeness of..." for Ezekiel, these visions are hard to capture by words.
Integral to Ezekiel's vision of the throne of God's appearance to the Babylonian exiles is the picture of a chariot that is driven by the motion of a "wheel within a wheel." These wheels, with their capacity to move in any direction, are Yahweh wheels. These are the "I will be what I will be" and "I am what I am" wheels that will not be nailed down by momentary situations, or even, exile.
To comprehend the vision of Ezekiel, it is important to consider the theological crisis of a community in exile. Forced from the homeland of Israel in a forced deportation to Babylon in 598 B.C.E., the Hebrew people struggled to find new conceptions of a God who could allow such a devastating event to occur. Everything this community considered to be right and true and just and loving about God changed in an instant. Their forced march northward created a catastrophic theological crisis.
How incredible, then, that one small mechanism within this large vision provided such a strong theological statement for a community in exile. The wheel within a wheel represented another direction for a journey in which they had no choice. They may be forced north, but God's power could move in any direction. They eyes surrounding the outer rims of all the wheels displayed God's omnipresent vision. This Yahweh God has the capacity to freely move, despite circumstances that are otherwise conscripting.
And a follower of Yahweh could move through the power of the imagination and interior life to move in an alternative direction than the forced march of circumstance and violence and oppression. The realignment a believer can find through prayer in this cyclical narrative provides prayer, hope and promise of deliverance.
In some Hebrew thought, the wheels called the ophanim are perceived as angels that have the power to carry and transcend and deliver messages of prophetic hope. They are carriers of the very throne of God who has now moved from the promised land to the place of exile.
While the wheels in my vision were certainly different than those of Ezekiel, the structure of Ezekiel is not unlike the three concentric circles I pictured while asleep. One commentator describes the structure of Ezekiel as an inward look predicting Jerusalem's fall from its past behavior (1-24), an outward look at the nation's naming the present crisis (25-32) and an onward look to the future predicting the promised restoration (33-48). These three movements are certainly circular wheels upon which Ezekiel spins a prophecy of judgment for the past, lament for the present and hope for the future.
Past, Present and Future Circles
I needed a lesson in prayer because the prayers of our world are so big right now. Syria. North Korea. Afghanistan. Greece. For cynical people, prayer can't create changed outcome in these complicated countries; prayer is simply spinning one's wheels. But for those willing to pray circles, we need the collective strength of remembering, asking and yielding in prayer to transcend fear and dream big.
Visions may leave the prophet straining to describe their meaning with clarity. But for a world that is all too clear in its exile, we rely on these veiled images to speak beyond subtlety to a broken world.
As the mainline church experiences further and further exile from Main Street, Ezekiel's vision offers a challenge to envision new mechanisms for God's movement in the institutional church.
And perhaps, outside of the institution, the vision of the wheel within the wheel encourages the identity of all believers to take on the mantle of this mandala while offering prayer for the past, present and future of self, nation, church and world.
Ezekiel spoke the difficult truth to a community in exile: perpetual sin left them spinning their wheels but going nowhere under the Babylonian command. His vision of a wheel within a wheel provided a new mechanism not only for prayer, but also for hope itself.
Thanks Viola, for showing up in my dreams with the Benzbala method of praying circles. Now, as the world spins, I have something to hold in my hand to keep on turning and praying.