Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Pray Like Jesus

During my rotation at Novato Community hospital, I was called to the bedside of a twenty five year old man with a painful and incurable disease that would not kill him. It would only leave him more and more disabled and in pain that could not be completely addressed by opiates. He’d been in and out of hospitals for years, and here he was once again. He let me know that before now, he had always been able to talk himself back into believing in the goodness of God, but this time he said he’d just hit a wall and couldn’t get past the bleakness of his situation. Why?” he asked. “Why doesn’t God hear me? Why doesn’t God answer me? I am Christian. I have many people around the world praying for me. But things only get worse, with no end in sight. I’m not even praying for healing any more, just that I would find purpose and meaning – but I don’t hear God. Still, I am not done praying.”

When we enter into prayer – we enter into deep mystery and there are often not very satisfying answers to our questions. Because when there is a disparity – as there often is – between our expectations and the results – there are basically two options we have to explain this: The first option is about me – I’m not good enough. I’m not praying the right way. I don’t have enough faith. And the second option is about God: God doesn’t care. God doesn’t listen. Or finally, God doesn’t exist. Because most of us are pious, we usually take the first option and think that there is something wrong with us. But I’m guessing that some of you know people who have taken the other option – and given up on God.

What was remarkable about this young man who had suffered for most of his life, and could only see further suffering into the future – was that, as far as I could tell, he hadn’t taken either option. He clearly did not believe there was something wrong with him or with his faith or with the purity of his prayers. And he had not given up on God. What he had done instead was enter into deep relationship, into deep struggle with God, into conversation with Mystery where most of us would hesitate to step. But it is the kind of conversation that Jesus had in mind for his disciples. It is the kind of relationship into which the Christ invites you and me. Because basically, “a Christian is someone who is engaged in lifelong training in how to pray like Jesus.” Will Willimon

The first think I notice about this prayer is that it is not sentimental, or pious, or particularly devotional. It is a prayer for people on the road – a prayer for people who are figuring out, step by step, how to live with God in Christ.

So this prayer just starts - "Father." Not as someone who has to beg for a hearing, or for forgiveness, or for anything for that matter. Father. Almost like a teenage son asking for the car keys so he can take his girlfriend out. There’s an incredible presumption of familiarity and trust.

When my son was about three years old, he would make the rounds of the dinner table, looking to see what was on everyone else’s plate and asking for a share in whatever looked good. Somehow the zucchini on my plate looked better than the same thing on his plate. He was completely shameless in his asking.

And I say shameless for a reason – our translation uses the word “persistent” - the friend is persistent in his knocking and so gets a response of the three loaves of bread - it is easy to think that wearing out your knees in prayer is one way to get God to answer – but the word does not mean "persistent" so much as it means "shameless." Be shameless in your asking - it has a different flavor than persistent doesn’t it.

On the Good Shepherd camping trip last year, one of the young children, much like my son, quite shamelessly made the rounds asking each of us what our snack was. Someone had an orange, someone else a cookie, someone else a sandwich. Whatever she liked, she simply asked for a bite of it – or the whole thing if it was especially tasty to her. This is the kind of shameless asking that Jesus is recommending. The same kind of boldness. The same kind of familiarity and trust in our status as beloved children of God. By the way, my son grew up to have excellent table manners and is socially quite competent – so our parental indulgence did not spoil him! And I’m quite sure our young parishioner will have excellent manners as well! Jesus however, isn’t interested in our manners when it comes to prayer. He didn’t teach a formula - 2+2=4, pray this way and get this result. No, he taught boldness, confidence, trust and surrender. Above all, he taught childlike receptivity.

I was at the Kodet household earlier this week, and watched Todd carry his baby granddaughter, Charlotte, off to bed, wrapped up in a towel after her mommy had bathed her – Charlotte was completely relaxed and cooing in his arms – a picture of trust and happiness. Even when she began crying, her trust in the solidity of his arms did not diminish.

Jesus trusted - and when the soldiers were on the way to arrest him, he prayed: “Father, if it is your will take this cup away from me.” He asked, he pleaded, he wept– and he did not get what he wanted. Nevertheless, his trust remained, through the absence of any positive response from his Father to his prayer.

This is what I was privileged to be a part of in the hospital room of the young man hooked up to a morphine drip that barely masked his pain. A conversation that did not, from any human point of view, look satisfactory. A man willing to have deep relationship with God and not turn aside. In truth, I was the one tempted to turn aside by offering pat answers. But when you are face to face with the cross, with suffering, any glib response crumble to ash in one’s mouth. All I could do was to stay with him, listen to his questions and his struggle, and not turn away.

So the disciples asked Jesus what you and I would want to ask him – how to pray. And at one level, his answer is not very satisfying. He gives no mathematical formula, and he doesn’t give any assurances of outcome. In fact, if his life is any indication, there are certainly no assurances of the things we often pray for: ease, prosperity, health, lack of suffering. Quite the opposite, in fact.

On the other hand, what we are offered is of immensely greater value – and that is a living, amazing relationship of familiarity and boldness with God, an invitation to shamelessness on our part, in what we ask for and how we are invited to approach our God. This section on prayer ends with the assurance that God readily desires and is ready at any time to give us the gift of the Holy Spirit – of God with us – the Lord, the Giver of Life – the one who will sustain us in all trials and temptations and who will deliver us from all evil. The Holy Spirit is ours for the asking – our challenge is to receive. Receive. Receive. When we lift up our hearts before God, our hands open in prayer, it is this that we are truly praying for, asking for – and which we can, without any hesitation, affirm that God pours down upon us.

In this context, asking publically and in common, that God gift us with the presence and guidance and courage of the Holy Spirit, I turn to a vexing issue. As many of you know, Good Shepherd has been challenged for some time with the Gordian knot of a gift of twenty acres that entailed a bank loan, in that the guarantor of the loan became unable to follow through. We have an excellent negotiating team which has been working hard to resolve this for the past year – however, in this past week, Rabobank filed a complaint against the church for nonpayment of this loan. The Vestry has referred the lawsuit to our attorneys to evaluate our options and to advise us in responding to the bank’s lawsuit. The Vestry has asked the land committee to continue to work on solutions – and we will keep you informed of all material developments. Because matters like this requires that all communications between an attorney and client be kept confidential, however, we cannot respond to specific questions. What I can say is that, while the person who guaranteed the loan has also been sued, we don’t know of any basis by which anyone else – parishioner or Vestry member or priest, could be found responsible for this loan which was taken out in the name of the parish.

I know that this announcement kind of takes the wind out of the room – and that it most likely raises lots of questions and emotions. And my guess is that everything I’ve just preached about has likely flown out of your minds. The truth is, however, that this is precisely the type of situation in which disciples of Jesus flees to God, to pestering God shamelessly for what? For relief? For guidance? For bad things to go away? For solutions? Yes – for all that. But even more – for the Holy Spirit to descend, to cover, to encourage, to enable us to bear witness to the ways of the Kingdom. And as we run to God in prayer for the Parish, we will not just pray for ourselves, but for all those who are affected by economic downturns. We will pray for all those who need word of God’s Love – the Word which is the reason for our being and the wellspring of our life.

While the Land committee and Vestry are taking care of the legal issues, I would like to invite anyone who would like to form a weekly prayer group to see me after the service in the side chapel.

We pray, just as we live, just as we move and have our being, In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Content and Contingent

Anyone know what the acronym KISS stands for?

Right! Keep it simple stupid!

It’s a principle used in software development, in mathematics, in scientific theory, and in AA. It can be traced back and back - through the Franciscan logician of the 14th century – William of Ockham, and before him, to the Dominican theologian Thomas Aquinas, and before him to Aristotle – and before him – to Commander’s Naaman’s servant in the 2nd book of Kings.

“If he told you something difficult to do, wouldn’t you go all out trying it? How much more, since he gave you very simple instructions.”

How we love to complicate things! Especially when it comes to things that are important to us – like love, like relationship, like healing, like God. And most of the time, it’s the complications of our head – of our thinking – that trips us up and creates problems. Thus - the relevance of KISS wisdom – the servant’s wisdom in this story about the Commander and Elisha.

Don’t you just love his question! “If he’d told you something really difficult to do – wouldn’t you go all out doing it?” It reminds me of fairy tales – you know the fairy tale drill: before you get to marry the princess, you have to steal the golden harp from the closet in the dragon’s cave, but first you have to ask the mythical bird that nests on the highest mountain peak to find out where the dragon’s cave is, and then you have to cross the barren desert to get to the dragon’s cave…and on your travels you will fight giants. And of course, the hero always says – “YES! Let me go on the quest and I will come back triumphant or die trying.”

But Elisha didn’t ask the war hero to go on a complicated quest. He simply told him to go immerse himself seven times in the Jordan River – the quentissential River of Israel – the River of the Hebrews, the same River in which John would later baptize Jesus.

It wasn’t physically difficult to do this; but it did mean swallowing his pride in several ways:

1. The Jordan River is not known now, and was not known then, for being a beautiful river. It’s muddy. It’s not impressive.

2. There were much nicer rivers in the Commander’s homeland.

3. Why should his healing happen in Hebrew river water, when his own people’s river water was clearly better?

4. Why was he even talking to this slightly insane medicine man out in the desert who wouldn’t even come out of his shack to personally greet him, the General of all the King’s men?

So - Elisha’s instructions were simple – but following them was not. It meant that Commander Naaman had to break all his patterns of habitual behaviour. He was the right hand man of the King, the Commander of the Empire’s armies - accustomed to giving orders. Accustomed to being obeyed. Accustomed to luxury. In other words, he felt entitled. At the very least, Elisha should do something showy and complicated – a shaman dance, wave his arms around, perform magic – something to compliment and confirm his importance. Instead Elisha gave him the one thing necessary for his healing.

I’m guessing that this is, in fact, why this scientific principle has been adopted by recovery groups. Because we are all at least a little bit addicted to our own sense of importance – to our own sense of entitlement. And the truth is, we cannot become truly sober, truly in tune with reality, until we get a truer perspective on where we actually stand in the order of things – until we lay down, let go of a sense of inflated importance.

For some of us, that sense of importance isn’t always on the positive side of things. We can also become inflated with our sense of being terrible sinners – so terrible that God couldn’t possibly really forgive or love us. My friends – the conviction that somehow you are much worse than your neighbor – is just as inflated as the sense that you are much better than your neighbor. We all carry shame of one kind or another. We all carry hurts of one kind or another. We all carry weaknesses, and we all carry strengths. We all bleed. And we all breathe.

William of Ockam, was a logician and Franciscan monk in the 14th century. His theorem popularized the idea that the best explanation is usually the simplest explanation. For Ockham, the only truly necessary entity was God; everything else, the whole of creation, is radically contingent through and through. That means that you and I and everything we see and know is not eternal – we cannot generate our own existence. In other words, God can make something out of nothing. We cannot.

The corollary to that is that, in reality, no one person is more important or less important any other person.

Elisha’s simple instructions sent Commander Naaman colliding with this truth – and he went into a rage – a tantrum really. A few Sundays ago – also in the book of Kings - we heard about another tantrum – remember? King Ahab crawled into his bed, and cried and wouldn’t eat anything, when he didn’t get his way with the small landowner, Naboth. He wanted Naboth’s vineyard, and Naboth said no.

It’s obvious from these stories in the Book of Kings, that entitlement leads to a kind of psychological and spiritual fragility, a lack of resilience and actual illness. Would you agree with me that it is much more difficult for those in positions of privilege to accept this core truth of universal dependency on God and absolute equality with every other person?

When Jesus taught, “Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth.” “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God,” I’m guessing that at least one aspect of what he had in mind was that blessedness lies in contentment with our dependency on God and our equality with others. Content and contingent. Simple, yes?

There is healing for you and for me – let’s not hesitate to wash in whatever our version of the Jordan River is.