Sunday, July 28, 2013

For Those Who Don't Have a Prayer

Scripture Texts
Genesis 18:23-38; Psalm 85: 8-11; Luke 11: 1-13
A few of you have recently taken me up on my offer to preach a sermon series on topics you suggest. Thank you! Today’s sermon is my response to this question posed by one of you: “How do progressive Christians pray?”  This topic and the others suggest that we as progressive Christians are starting to rethink our spiritual practices. 

You’ll notice that, according to Luke’s gospel, Jesus’s disciples had to prompt him to teach them to pray (Luke 11:1). Our question about how to pray is, it seems, as old as the Christian faith.  And the Bible clearly understands prayer in wide-ranging ways, as evident in our varied scriptures for today: prayer as negotiation between Abraham and God, prayer as silence for the Psalmist, and, for the Gospel writer, prayer as naming the needs of our hearts, prayer as aligning our intentions with God’s will. 

This is a sermon for those who started down a progressive spiritual path and at some point looked back to realize they’d left their prayers behind.  This is also a sermon for those who still pray—but without a former earnestness—because their former prayers no long reflect their expanded understanding of God.  And this is a sermon for those who never did pray or who no longer pray because prayer just doesn’t make sense or feel authentic.  If you’ve been exploring progressive theology and have come to doubt, for example, that God is a physical and, specifically, male being whose job it is to comply with all our requests, or at least the requests of his favorite folks, you may have also started rethinking your prayer life.

If you haven’t already felt this dissonance, this sermon may not speak to you. My intention is not to criticize a perfectly beautiful spiritual practice if you continue to find it fulfilling.  I want to open up a prayer path for others without closing off the path you’re using.  Open Table’s mission is to offer our community an alternative and emerging expression of Christianity for folks who would not otherwise have a spiritual community. We are not dismissing the older version of Christianity (and keep in mind, we believe we are in many ways retrieving an even older version than that!).  But there are plenty of churches in Mobile where people can pray in more conventional ways—even with the thees and thous of the glorious King James English.  We want to include those who cannot otherwise reconcile certain tenets and practices with modern science, sound psychology, interfaith understandings, and life experiences.  And I want to call into question potentially harmful teachings on prayer—like the idea that if you pray hard enough you’ll be showered with prosperity.  That theology, my friends, has a limited shelf life.  As a progressive church, we hope to push the frontiers of Christian spirituality in ways consistent with healthy psychology and progressive theology.

And it’s our progressive theology that has caused some of us to think that “we don’t have a prayer.” Some of us understand what poet Christian Wiman meant when he admitted, “I have never felt comfortable praying. I almost feel I should put the word [prayer] in quotes, as I’m never quite sure that what I do deserves the name. . . . Mostly I simply (simply!) try and subject myself to the possibility of God.  I address God as if.”[i]

Progressive theology poses to us at least three problems with prayer as we’ve previously practiced it.  If you don’t want to hear what these problems are, now is the time to inoculate yourself against this sermon by placing your index fingers in your ears.

Problem #1:  Many of us no longer conceive of God as a being. As Joan Chittister put it, “There is only one thing wrong with the traditional definition of prayer: it misrepresents God.” If God is no longer for us a “regal, distant judge outside ourselves” or “male humanity writ large” and is instead the “very Energy that animates us,”[ii] then to whom are we praying?  Are we still addressing a “Father” who “art” in some literal location above the earth?  Are we actually talking to Someone with physical ears to hear and hands and feet to do our bidding?   And if not, if we are not talking to a person—or Super-person—then what is the point of the words we utter aloud in worship or in the words we form silently for private devotion?

I’d respond to that question first by describing prayer for progressives as often a practice of silence.  A wordless prayer might be an embodied prayer—like deep breathing that allows us to experience God’s presence in our very breath and bones and pay attention to what’s going on in our bodies, we who so often disconnect mind from body. Or prayer might be a silent centering prayer in which we contemplate an image, for instance, or repeat a verse of scripture, or practice mindfulness of the world around us. The 4th century Christian teacher Evagrius practiced what he called “pure prayer” that was very like Zen meditation.[iii]  Practices that allow us to still our spirits can heal us from the spiritual violence our noisy, frenetic culture increasingly inflicts upon us.

But progressives also use words in prayer, and even those who don’t direct the words to an invisible personality “out there” can use prayerful words to focus thoughts or follow them to new insights.  I’ll speak in a future sermon about the function of corporate prayer, prayers in worship, for instance.  But I speak now about our individual prayers and suggest that before the Spirit can move us to loving actions, our human brains must conceive of those possible actions through language.  We may or may not choose to address these words to God, and we certainly want to be careful that our images of God are not reinforcing cultural prejudices, but words offer us the power to clarify our needs.  It’s a brave and difficult but healing act to know and name what it is we long for, to put words around the truest thing we desire, to speak about our hurts with a confidence that love can eventually heal that hurt.  We can lead such unreflective lives that we can’t even say what it is we need—what is that one “needed thing” that Jesus, as we learned last week, told Martha she had to discover for herself.

“Ask, and you shall receive” is a mantra that invites us into a process of prayer--not a promise of prosperity. We find our way safely home through the labyrinth of language, guided by the loving Spirit.  And by addressing the unnamable Sacred force, we are tacitly expressing faith that we are participating in and with Something Greater than Ourselves.

Problem #2:  Some of us feel either phony or degraded by praising God as a high potentate.  Any God who requires veneration and flattery doesn’t seem worthy of veneration and flattery.  But we do appreciate the importance of living with gratitude.  We are full of gratitude. And gratitude is a close cousin to praise.  While we know how to say thank you to the neighbor who shared freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, how do we say thank you for bird song?  Perhaps in silence or song or art or actions.  Or with the spontaneous “wow” prayer Anne Lamott recommends. Research shows that “gratitude improves emotional and physical health” and “can strengthen relationships and communities.” One researcher recommends “keeping a gratitude journal,” which is a type of prayer.  We don’t have to say “Hallowed be thy name” to express our awestruck gratefulness for Life’s inexhaustible gifts. But we do need some way of offering a hushed “thanks” and flinging out an exuberant “wow.”

Problem #3:  All of us have prayed for things that never came to pass—despite the Bible’s promise that if we ask, we’ll receive.  There are people who have starved to death while praying “Give us this day our daily bread.” 

Of course, you’ve heard the explanations for “unanswered prayer.”

“Well, you just didn’t pray hard enough or in the right way” is one explanation.  (As if life is a contest won by super pray-ers, or a fairy tale in which you have to figure out the right incantation to break the evil spell!) 

You’ve also heard: “God answered your prayer but just not in the way you wanted it answered.”  (Well, then, that was the answer to SOMEONE ELSE’S prayer.) 

Or “God will answer in God’s own time.” (As I continue to suffer.)  Or “God is using this period to teach you something.” (As I continue to suffer.) 

All these explanations make God seem mean and manipulative.  A loving parent would never inflict cancer on a child, would not even “permit” it, in order to teach her “a lesson.” God has nothing to do with meanness.

When bad things happen to good and prayerful people, some wonder what’s the point in praying. For me, a stronger deterrent to prayer is when bad prayers happen to good and prayerful people. Prayers that treat God like a vending machine.  Prayers in which the pray-er poses as the mouthpiece of God.  I don’t pretend to understand how the miraculous can happen, but I don’t give up hope that the unexpected and unfathomable can occur.  I see miracles of beauty and compassion every day.  I assure you that I pray, in faith, for your healing and for this world’s healing. But as I understand it, the power God wields in this world is Love. Only Love. And one way I understand prayer is my own participation in a flow of love that is the strongest medicine and mightiest miracle on the planet.

We pray not to change God’s mind but to change our own hearts.  We are God’s hands and feet in this world.  When we pray as Jesus prayed that God’s “kingdom come,” we are aligning our intentions for this world with God’s loving purposes.  Holding a person or situation in a loving place in our hearts is prayer, which builds up our capacity for compassion and adds to that mighty Force for good in this world. Praying with regrets for our failings and with extravagant forgiveness for those who have “sinned” against us” is also part of the process that builds up that reservoir of compassion.

We pray as a first step toward action.  Christopher Winan shares this honest story:  “One day when I had gone to a little chapel near my office at lunchtime and was once more praying while wondering how and why and to whom I prayed, a man came in and eased into the pew directly across the aisle form me.  As we were the only two people there, his choice of where to sit seemed odd—and irritating. Within a couple of minutes all thought of God was gone into the man’s constant movements and his elaborate sighs, and when I finally rose in exasperation he stood immediately to face me. He had the sandblasted look of long poverty, the skeletal clarity of long addiction, and that vaguely aggressive abasement that truly tests the nature of one’s charity.  Very cunning, I noted, failing the test even as I opened my wallet: to stake out this little chapel to prey upon the praying! For days it nagged at me—not him, but it, the situation—which, I finally realized, was precisely the problem: how easily a fatal complacency seeps into even those acts we undertake as disciplines, and how comfortable we become with our own intellectual and spiritual discomfort.  Wondering how and why and to whom I prayed?  I felt almost as if God had been telling me, as if Christ were telling me (in church no less!) get off your mystified [posterior] and DO something.”

Ah, yes.  Problem #4:  Prayer can become a substitute, not an impetus, for action.  Progressives must act.

PRAYER: We have preached and heard a sermon on prayer—and we have no idea how to pray.  But surely learning to pray is not about developing technique.  We trustingly enter a silence that speaks to us louder than words. 

[i] Wiman, Christopher. “Doubts about Prayer” Christian Century (7 Sept. 2010) 10.
[ii] Chittister, Joan.  Illuminated Life. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 2000.
[iii] Bondi, Roberta C. To Pray and to Love: Conversations on Prayer with the Early Church. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991. 68. 

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Guided Meditations: "You Are Distracted by Many Things" and "In Christ All Things Hold Together"

(I'm back to blogging my sermons after a two-Sunday absence for vacation.  Today's sermon was actually a pair of guided meditations on the day's Epistle and Gospel lections.  I'm also including a description of the prayer stations we used during our contemplative service.)


Encountering Jesus

 GOSPEL READING                           Luke 10:38-42                                          
38Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

              “O Brother Jesus”            p. 67 in songbook
GUIDED MEDITATION       “You Are Distracted by Many Things”                    

A few Sundays ago we read the story of Jesus casting out the demons from a mentally disturbed man who named himself Legion.  The former outcast then sat at Jesus’ feet in the posture of a disciple.

Today we read the story of Jesus teaching another marginalized person.  A woman now sits at his feet in the posture of a disciple in a culture where only men were allowed to disciple themselves to learned rabbis.  Again Jesus violates society’s conventions, this time to permit a woman to adopt the disciple’s role.  

But what was Jesus’ lesson for Mary? What did he actually say to Mary in today’s story?

We don’t know.  The Gospel writers usually set up a lesson from Jesus by first establishing a dramatic situation in which Jesus instructs one of the twelve or a questioner in the crowd or the scribes and Pharisees. We as readers then can listen in.  But today’s story provides the setting without ever telling us Jesus’s words to Mary—though his lesson to her lasted long enough for her sister Martha to grow so impatient that she expressed her irritation that Mary was not helping with hosting duties. We as readers of this story might even feel a bit resentful that this important lesson is never shared with us.  Like Martha, we never hear what Jesus said to Mary. 

But there is still a lesson for us.  And for Martha, too.  Perhaps Jesus’s brief aside to Martha is the real lesson in the story.  I’ll repeat Jesus’ words to Martha in just a moment.  But if you can in some way identify with Martha—hardworking and earnest Martha—that lesson might also having meaning for you.  Anybody here who is hard working? Who welcomes others? Who takes care of others? Who wants things done right? Good for you!  But for every one of Martha’s fine traits, there is a potential shadow side.  As much as we can admire Martha’s caregiving and zeal and helpfulness, we are aware those qualities can lead to problems.  Taken too far, used too proudly or unreflectively, Martha’s helpfulness can turn . . . 
·         demanding and impatient and critical
·         agitated
·         controlling and selfish
·         insensitive and intractable

Perhaps you recognize some of these tendencies in yourself.  We all need more patience, more peace, more generosity of spirit, more openness to new understandings.  Let’s reflect now on those qualities:   patience, peace, generosity of spirit, openness to new teachings.  In doing so, we prepare our hearts to hear the lesson Jesus spoke to Martha.

I’ll repeat Jesus’ words now to the Martha within us.  To hear him, you need to put a lid on that pot you’ve been stirring, set down the broom you’ve been wielding, turn off the “to do” list in the back of your brain. Sit still with an inner stillness. When Jesus says, “Martha, Martha,” try to hear him speaking to you instead.

Are you ready to hear Jesus’s words to you?

 “You are worried and distracted by many things; 42there is need of only one thing.”

What are the things that worry you?  What are the things that distract you from the truly important things in your life?  What is the ONE THING you need?  What is the one thing we ALL need?


Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t tell Martha what that one needed thing is. He leaves it up to her to figure that out. But he implies that Mary knows what that one thing is. 

We have others with us on the journey and sometimes they teach us, by their actions, what is truly important for spiritual maturity. Thanks be to God.

SUNG RESPONSE            “Be Still and Know”              p. 17 in songbook

Encountering Christ
*EPISTLE READING                          Colossians1:15-20                                      
Chanting an ancient Christ hymn antiphonally
A 15He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation;
B 16for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created,
A  things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers
B—all things have been created through him and for him.
A 17He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
B 18He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning,
A the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.
B 19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,
A 20and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things,
B whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

GUIDED MEDITATION        “In Christ All Things Hold Together”                           
We chanted, rather than read, today’s Epistle lection, which likely was an early hymn already in use among the first Christians and was embedded in a letter to the church in the town of Colossae.  Unlike the simple story about Jesus we read earlier, this is a complex and richly eloquent poem, an early attempt to understand the meaning of Jesus’s life and death and ongoing power at work in his followers’ lives.  By reading the New Testament epistles, we glimpse ways that the Jesus of human history was becoming the Christ of Christian faith.  Christ—which is the Greek word for the Hebrew term “Messiah,” which simply means “anointed one”--soon took on broader, indeed more cosmic, meaning.  Jesus the Christ was understood to be the clearest image of God in any human life and, by the 4th century, was believed to be at one with God in a unique way.  

My love for Jesus makes me feel that anyone would at least admire him, were they to study his life and teachings. The Gospel reading today illustrated Jesus’ radical inclusion, his tenderness, his wisdom, his life-changing encounters with people. I like the definition of Christian as a follower of Jesus—partly because I find his life and words to be so compelling and accessible--and partly to emphasize Christianity as an orientation toward hope, a commitment to healing and peace, a practice of compassion—instead of a set of doctrines to profess.

But my simple definition of Christianity could be misunderstood to mean that the Christian faith is merely the specialized study of a historical figure whose life we then try to emulate. It is more. While following Jesus is a worthy aim, it’s not completely doable. I’m not talking about our inability to be good enough to live as Jesus lived.  I mean that many important facts about the historical Jesus are in dispute or simply cannot be fully known, despite excellent scholarly methods. So we can’t follow him too precisely. And besides, Christianity, like all religions, goes deeper than learning the steps to achieve some new spiritual status.  And if Christianity is simply about becoming like this one man, Jesus, then it lacks a universality that can include everyone.  Although I do often define Christianity as following Jesus, I must clarify that Jesus was pointing not to himself but to something greater. I don’t think Jesus hoped to turn us into little Jesuses any more than a loving mother wants her children to be clones of herself. 

We focused earlier in this service on the Jesus whom Martha and Mary knew. We move now to the ancient hymn in which the Christ is described as the unifying principle in whom “all things hold together.” 

Let’s pause to consider the Divine One as “The unifying principle in whom all things hold together.”  Is that a helpful way for you to think of God? 


In our earlier Gospel lection we sat with Mary at the feet of the very human Jesus of Nazareth.  But we invoke now the mystery of the cosmic Christ.  Is thinking about a God beyond time and space an appealing concept to you?


Christianity gives me a spirituality that prizes both the rational and the mystical, both the ordinary and the extraordinary.  I encounter God in the particularity of human life and in the vastness beyond all thoughts I can think and the deeds I can do.  Jesus Christ is the emblem of our spiritual paradox.

Listen as I speak more literally about Jesus and more metaphorically about the Christ:

The Jesus of history taught people like Mary and Martha about God. 
The Christ of faith is the image of the invisible God.
The earthy Jesus was a flesh and blood 1st century Jew who experienced human sufferings and joys.
The mystical Christ is a way of appreciating the godness in that unique life and in all of life.
Jesus discipled women and men.
The Christ birthed all creation and is our ultimate destination.
Jesus of Nazareth hung out with the lowly and disreputable and eventually hung from the shameful cross.
Jesus the Christ is the image of the human-divine that is creation’s goal.

The flesh and blood Jesus who transformed Mary and Martha’s life is different from but connected to the way the Christ of modern spirituality transforms lives today.  Meditating on the name or teachings of Jesus is a wonderful way to pray.  But for now, I invite you to open yourself to an understanding that you, too, are destined for a union with God that is just as expansive.  In Christ, God was pleased to dwell.  We are “in Christ.”  God is in all.   A danger in being so Jesus-focused is that we think we can corner the religious market by owning Jesus.  But God is in all and all is in God.  When we move toward connection and communion of the Christ, we are moving toward the divine.

These are heady ideas.  This is not the time to analyze.  I invite you now simply to sit with the appreciation and hope that you are not alone.  You are not living an isolated life.

SUNG RESPONSE               “Jesus Christ”                 p. 39 in songbook

PRAYER STATIONS                
1. Praying with the Celtic Cross. Pick up the Celtic cross.  Notice the characteristic pattern of interlacing knots, a pattern without beginning or end.  Trace with your finger the path of the interwoven lines as you consider the ways your life is interconnected with others and consider that the life of Christ is a web of interconnections.  As you trace the pattern, you might say silently to yourself “In Christ, all things are knitted together.”   

2. Praying through Communion. Meditate on the following prayer by Teilhard de Chardin.  Then move toward the altar, remembering you are moving toward a divine goal of communion/union.
   “Grant, O God, that when I draw near to the altar, I may discern the infinite perspectives hidden beneath the smallness and nearness of the Host (communion bread) in which you are concealed . . . a devouring power that, far from being consumed by me, consumes me.  Give me the strength to rise above the remaining illusions which make me think of your touch as circumscribed and momentary.  It is primarily through matter that you touch me.  Your tastes and your temperament converge upon my being to form it, nourish it, and bear it along towards the center of your fire.  In the Host it is my life that you are offering me, O Jesus. May I lose myself in the unfathomable, plunge into the inexhaustible, find peace in the incorruptible, annihilate myself in proportion as I become more deliberately conscious of myself.” Amen 

 3. Praying through Writing.  Compose your own hymn to the Cosmic Christ with the paper and pens provided. Reread the “Prayer for Silent Reflection on the first page of this worship bulletin and the Epistle Reading, examples of two hymns to the Christ, poetic expressions of the human heart. You might start your hymn with “Christ is __” and create metaphors to capture the idea of the Christ in your life. Feel free to take paper and pen to your seat and then, if you are willing to share your hymn, place it in the basket at this prayer station.  The pastor will chant your hymn at the close of prayer time.  You may sign your name to your hymn or remain anonymous. Your hymn need not rhyme or follow a metrical pattern or be a particular length. 

4. Praying through your Offerings. The Hebrew Bible lection for today says: “4Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, 5saying, ‘When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale?’ 7The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds. 8Shall not the land tremble on this account, and everyone mourn who lives in it?” (Amos 8: 4-8). Setting aside time for Sabbath helps us remember the needy with our offerings and relativize our other enterprises against God’s compassionate work in the world. Let’s not be too eager to get back to “selling grain.” With this offering of money we also offer up time to care for our own tired spirits and others’ hurting hearts.