Monday, July 25, 2011

Neither Heaven Nor Hell

I grew up outside the Episcopal Church – outside the Book of Common Prayer – outside a three year lectionary cycle – outside the church calendar with it's seasons and colors. I knew nothing about the Season after Pentecost, for instance, and that green was the associated color. The idea that there would be formally written prayers for virtually any situation imaginable, was unimaginable.

We made up our prayers – out of our own hearts, out of our own experiences, and out of our own courage and conviction. Instead of Prayers of the People, we prayed our “Joys and Concerns” out loud and spontaneously. That made for some rather simple prayers – but they were, for the most part, deeply heartfelt. They were also, often – too often – centered on family, friends and self. And it's true - our Heavenly Father wants us to tell him what is on our heart and our mind, and to pray deeply and fervently for those we love.

Belonging to a “free” church is a heritage I treasure – But perhaps because of that background, I am even more conscious of the treasury of the Book of Common Prayer, and the lectionary and colors and all the rest that goes along with being a “liturgical” church – because each of those things takes us beyond our personal joys and sorrows and plunks us into the wider sphere of the grand diversity of biblical witness, the depth of church tradition, the heritage of the saints who have lived faithfully in a variety of circumstances, and in the world around us.

The structured format of the prayers of the people causes us to lift our eyes up from only personal needs to also look into the eyes of hungry children around the world. We are compelled by the structure of the prayers themselves to look outward to the needs of creation, to the decimation of species and to political and social needs – to continue begging of God that our leaders would be inclined towards the ways of justice and compassion, rather than self-centered interest.

But the truth is, whether our prayers are inward and silent, or out loud and informal, or out loud and formal – they are nothing but clanging brass if our hearts are not turned in the direction of love and if the Holy Spirit is not present – praying with us and through us and for us. It is an illusion to believe that the powerfulness of our words, or the beauty of our phrasing or the poetry of our position before God can weave any spell that would make God bend his ear in our direction and do as we have asked. God does indeed care – more than you can imagine – and God provides – in ways you cannot fathom. But you cannot command his caring and provision, whether your prayer is homemade or formal. What you can do is ask for a discerning heart that wants what he wills and trusts in his ultimate goodness and never failing love.

This is what Paul was pointing towards - this discerning heart that wants what God wills and trusts in God's goodness and love. He was convinced that all things work together for good for those that love God – not because he’d had a bad time and then things got better – but because he saw everything that happened through the lens of the cross and resurrection of Jesus - this trust that Jesus had towards his Father even as he shouldered the cross down the stone streets of Jerusalem. Paul lived through eight attempts on his life, countless beatings and being jailed, hunger, loneliness, betrayal, being shipwrecked. He was eventually martyred in Rome. So – he is not saying that if you love God enough, with enough fervor, and if you pray just right – everything is going to work out hunky dory.

It may seem odd – but I find that comforting – because it reflects reality. And as I get older, I find that I want truth more than anything else – I find myself more and more attuned to what is authentic and what is not, what is real and what is not. Children are like that as well, I’ve noticed. So I like that Paul tells the truth – sin brings death, following Christ can be difficult, suffering is real – And I like that his vision is very deep and thoroughly grounded in the death and resurrection of Jesus – because it leads to this other truth that Paul is adamant about - this truth that has been tested and lived out by so many saints and believers through the ages - that there is nothing – no dire circumstance, no hardship, no illness, no loneliness, no bad choice, no personal disappointment, no bad business deal, no boss, no public failure, no dark dream, no anxiety, no economic meltdown, no crazy congress, no power on heaven or on earth – that can ever separate us from the love of God through Jesus Christ.

It is easy enough for this truth to get obscured and lost amidst the daily ups and downs of life. It’s easy to forget that God is unequivocally for us, especially when outward appearances don’t easily reflect that depth of divine love. The parables are helpful to restore our vision. Because Jesus tell us that the presence of God’s kingdom is like a tiny mustard seed – almost imperceptible, found in what might seem like insignificant gestures of kindness and goodness, in fragile beginnings of understanding and compassion – in unlikely places of hope. We tend to look for the big and the obvious. But Jesus tells us that the presence of God’s kingdom is more like the 2 tablespoons of yeast that leavens an entire loaf of bread. You must pay attention or you will miss it.

Paradoxically, God’s reign is also large enough and perfect enough to contain the wheat and the weeds, the good and the bad, your prayers and mine, handmade and formal - all are undergirded and empowered and held in the hands of his perfect, unconditional, utterly trustworthy love.

Photo of Dominus Flevit Franciscan church, Mt. of Olives, Jerusalem, by author

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