What we do when we pray

A new Sunday School teacher was struggling to open a combination lock on the classroom supply cabinet. She had been told the combination, but she couldn’t quite remember it. Finally she went to the rector and asked for help. The rector came into the classroom and began to turn the dial. After the first two numbers he paused and stared blankly for a moment. Finally he looked serenely heavenward and his lips moved silently.  Then he looked back at the lock, quickly turned to the final number, and the lock opened. The teacher was amazed. “I’m in awe at the strength of your prayer, Father,” she said. “It’s really nothing,” the priest answered. “The combination is written on a piece of tape on the ceiling.”[i]

Christians pray a lot.  Episcopalians pray more than most.  My goodness, we’ve already prayed the collect for purity and the collect for the day in this service, and we’re not even to the halfway point yet!  The book with the cross on it that we treat as if it were the Bible’s big brother is called, of course, the Book of Common Prayer.  Yes, we pray all the time.  But when we pray, what exactly are we doing?

I’m reminded of that great, climactic scene in the Jack Nicholson-Tom Cruise movie “A Few Good Men.”  Nicholson is on the witness stand, and Tom Cruise is interrogating him.  “You want answers?” Nicholson growls.  “I want the truth!”  Tom Cruise cries in reply.

That captures in a nutshell what we want from prayer most of the time, I think.  We want answers: solutions to the things in life that vex us and those we love.  If my loved one lies weakened in the hospital, I want the cure that will restore her to wholeness and health.  If my job is a slog, I want the message that will tell me how to endear myself to my boss, or at least to smite him in front of my co-workers.  And if I’m a student struggling in school, I pray for the actual, literal answers for the Scantron bubble sheet on the desk in front of me.

Bubble sheet

I’m happy to report to you that these kinds of prayers are legitimate.  (Well, maybe not the one about smiting one’s boss.)  The catechism in the Book of Common Prayer names them as prayers of intercession, where we pray for answers for those around us, and prayers of petition, where we pray for ourselves.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus gives us the very paradigm for Christian prayer.  He teaches the disciples what we call the Lord’s Prayer, and it bears a closer look.

There is petition in the Lord’s Prayer, but only a little, and it has a different character from the prayers I described above.  Jesus encourages us to ask for only two things: our daily bread and help resisting temptation.  A couple of years ago Pope Francis helpfully offered a thought on the line about temptation.  “Lead us not into temptation” is “not a good translation,” the Pope said.[ii]  “Do not let us fall into temptation” is better, or, “When temptation threatens, lend us a hand.”  I like that.

Daily bread can be construed literally or metaphorically.  It means, in essence, “God, grant us the strength to persevere through another day.”

By way of petition and intercession, that’s about it.  The weight of the Lord’s Prayer is elsewhere, and the key to grasping how it encourages us to pray is in those following verses of Matthew, most remembered by Episcopalians in the hymn we sang just before the Gospel reading: “So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”

At first that reads as if we are, once again, searching for answers.  But walking through a doorway, across a threshold (which is the prevailing image in Jesus’ words) is not the same thing as solving a puzzle or being given an answer, is it?  What is it like?

Let me tell you a story.  I am originally from Northeast Arkansas, and a couple of hours west of my hometown one reaches the Ozark foothills.  There, the Spring River runs swift, and throughout my childhood my grandparents took my siblings and me camping on its banks.  Once, when I couldn’t have been more than five or six years old, my grandfather Pop took my brother Robert and me by hand and waded with us into the river.  He turned with us against the current and said “Walk,” and we, with our spindly legs, tried to push against the flow of the stream.  It was physically difficult, but more than that, it just felt wrong, as if we were pushing against the force and tide of how the river was supposed to go.  Then Pop looked down at us with his shock of white hair and wise smile and said, “Now, turn around.”  We did, and Pop led us forward with the river’s current.  The difference was, of course, immediate.  The struggle relented, and we were moved along with the river’s flow.  There was still effort required, of course, not to lose our footing and be swept along too quickly, but it became an effort that felt right, in concert with wherever it was the river sought to move.

I believe that is what prayer rightly and most often has as its purpose and goal.  Prayer is that posture of body, mind, and spirit whereby we turn around in our lives and orient ourselves to the flow of God’s Spirit.  It is not, after all, primarily about getting things from God but about shifting ourselves from the attitude of “I want answers!” to being buoyed along with God’s own hopes for us and for the world God has created.  Prayer is a letting go into the current of God.

Pop in his shop

Pop, in his wood shop

The Lord’s Prayer begins with “hallowed by your name; your kingdom come.”  It ends, as we’ve already said, with “Do not let us fall into temptation,” which is another way of saying, “Help us not to turn against your current, but to walk with it, and thus with you.”  This is adoration and oblation, which are the two kinds of prayer with which the Prayer Book catechism’s explanation of prayer actually begins and ends.[iii]  A prayer of adoration expresses our love and joy for God for its own sake.  It says we adore God, which is the first and necessary requisite for any prayer.  A prayer of oblation offers ourselves to God.  It says, “I want to move into the current of your being,” which is, of course, love.

One more story.  Joy Sylvester-Johnson is a friend of mine, a brilliant pastor and teacher who knew all there is to know about prayer.  And then her husband died unexpectedly and tragically from a head injury after falling on the ice.  John lingered for weeks, and no prayer of petition or intercession led to physical healing for John’s wounded brain.  Nevertheless, as Joy sat with John she prayed, and she chronicled daily the ways in which her prayer was transformed and thus she herself was transformed in the process.  On day thirty-four after John’s accident, Joy wrote this:

“Here is what I know: at the darkest point of the night when there was no sound except my own breathing, the presence of our Comforter [was] with me.  It prepared me—regardless of the outcome—to be at peace…Over the last thirty-four days I have had time to remember and to dream, but most of all I have had time, without any distractions, to be in the presence of the One who loves John more than I do.”

For Joy, petitions and intercessions—the need for answers and solutions—receded, and she walked through the door, across the threshold, to something much deeper, something that she sought even before she knew she was seeking it.  She turned from walking against the flow of God’s Spirit in her own need and found the buoyant peace that comes when we enter into the current of God’s love.

Seek and ye shall find, says the Lord.  The current of God’s Spirit is all around us.  We need only heed the voice of God that says, “Now, turn around.”


[i] Found on the internet, where else?

[ii] https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/lead-us-not-temptation

[iii] Other than the bookend of petition and intercession, which we’ve already discussed.

Distracted by many things

Several essays in my book In the Midst of the City have led to spirited and challenging interactions with readers, either in person or online.  As recently as this past week, I had a fruitful debate with someone over the book’s essay on gun regulation.  Other essays that have sparked the most conversation focus on Southern monuments and the 2016 presidential campaign.  No surprise there.  (By the way, In the Midst of the City is available in the Cathedral bookstore.  You can purchase your copy and schedule a debate with me, too!)

Last year when the book was being prepared for publication, I asked several people to review it.  A single essay in the book irritated one reviewer, and to my surprise the essay was not one of the usual suspects.  Neither immigration nor human sexuality provoked a response.   Rather, the chapter that irked the reviewer was my essay on Mary and Martha.

Let’s hear the Gospel again: “Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to Jesus 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.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’”

Image result for mary and martha

In my book’s essay, I faulted Martha for her busyness, and the book’s reviewer reacted defensively.  I get that.  I’m really busy.  So are you.  And we put a premium—we often judge our very worth and the worth of others—by the gauge of our busyness.

If you doubt it, recall the favorite and most often retold story from Dean McGehee’s tenure at the Cathedral.  In the middle of a worship service, as Pittman is coming down the center aisle, an unknown woman in a red pantsuit leans over and claims that she is Jesus, or at least that she sees Jesus (depending upon who is telling the story).  Pittman gets to the altar and asks Canon Logan, “What if she really is Jesus?  What should we do?”  To which Canon Logan responds, “Look busy.”

Canon Logan speaks for all of us.  If the Lord returned we would do our best to appear as if we were actively, busily engaged in productive and constructive tasks, whatever that is for each of us.  It is the old Protestant work ethic in a twenty-first century guise.  The more our wheels turn, the more worthy we must be.  As we run and run and run to get done all the things that need getting done, Jesus’ words to Martha wound us.  Jesus seems neither to understand nor to care what our real lives are all about.

A closer look at the Gospel text reveals, however, that nowhere does Jesus indict Martha for the tasks she undertakes.  Martha is engaged in hospitality, after all.  She is opening her home and providing sustenance to weary travelers, including Jesus himself.  Her busyness (more than mine most of the time) is truly laudable.  So then, what is at the heart of Jesus’ critique?

“Martha,” Jesus says, “you are distracted by many things.”  Jesus is not, it turns out, unempathetic toward Martha.  Jesus, whose own ministry keeps him busy at a frenetic pace, is concerned for her.  But it is not the value or even quantity of Martha’s tasks that are the locus of Jesus’ concern.  He is concerned about her distraction.

What is distraction?  The most comical image is of “Dug” the talking dog in the Pixar film Up.  Dug can be in the middle of any conversation and suddenly—Squirrel!—find his attention diverted by whatever catches the corner of his eye.  We laugh, but a bit uneasily.  Distraction prevents us from being truly attentive to what is before us.  It keeps us edgy and uncentered.  It is that background voice saying “Hurry up!” in the midst of even our most important moments that inhibits us from being truly present to the experience.  Distraction may be the most common attribute in our lives.

Image result for distracted

The author Philip Simmons developed Lou Gehrig’s Disease in his mid-thirties, and as his body slowly failed, he learned to pay attention to the world around him.  But first he became, for the first time, deeply aware of his own distraction.  He says, “Seems it’s always time to be doing something other than what we’re doing at the moment.  While reading in your chair, you find yourself thinking about last night’s argument with your spouse; you’re thinking that it’s time to rake leaves, check your email, get some sleep, get to work, pick up the kids, feed the boa constrictor, water the chickens, exercise the gerbils.”[i]

Simmons’ litany is intentionally ridiculous, because so are the things we allow to distract us in our lives.  As his illness progressed, Simmons remained very active, busy even, but he learned, no matter where he was or what he was doing, to be attentive to the present moment.  He says, “The present moment, like the spotted owl or the sea turtle, has become an endangered species.  Yet more and more I find that dwelling in the present moment, in the face of everything that would call us out of it, is our highest spiritual discipline.  More boldly, I would say that our very presentness is our salvation; the present moment, entered into fully, is our gateway to eternal life…You might say I want my eternal life now, before it’s over with.”[ii]

Simmons is more right than he knows.  When scripture talks of eternal life, we mistakenly interpret that as the afterlife, where we go when we die.  But that’s not what scripture means at all.  Eternal life in the Gospels means the life lived in awareness that all moments are embraced and enveloped by God.  It is a character of being in which we have the opportunity to participate not only or primarily when we die, but now.  It is that awareness into which Jesus invites us whenever he speaks of eternal life.  It is that awareness that Mary enjoys and Martha fails to grasp, because the greatest enemy to it is distraction.

Philip Simmons Quote

Philip Simmons

What does participation in eternal life look like?  Philip Simmons offers, “Dwelling in the moment, on our breath, on the works of our hands immediately before us, we’re drawn into life’s luminousness, into the mystery at the heart of ordinary things.  Dwelling in the present, at least at first, involves forgetting the past and future, stopping the mind’s whirlwind of memory and expectation…with further practice we may find past and future returning to our awareness, only now without bringing anxiety or distraction along with them.  Instead, we become aware of living in eternity, knowing that this moment has found its proper place in the stream of all time.  When we feel this way, the present moment enlarges, draws past and future into it, until we are dwelling not just in the moment but within the whole of life…We feel in touch with life’s unchanging essence, the bedrock beneath the flowing stream. We enter the eternal life beneath the surface of this passing one.”[iii]

Not long ago Junior Warden Andre Jackson told me, without realizing the depth of what he was saying, that this is a major difference between parenting and grandparenting.  For parents (at least for this parent), even in the most tender moments with our kids we are constantly thinking about the next thing, distracted from what is right in front of us, whereas the grandparent, at a different place in life and with a better understanding of its transience and fragility, savors the present miracle of a grandchild, soaking in the blessing of her presence in the world.

This—this being truly present to the present moment, whether it be active or still—is the “one thing” of which Jesus speaks today.  It is our only need, the “better part” without which life is incoherent, unsteady, and always off center.  With it, we enter eternal life even now.  We encounter and connect with the God who grants us the miracle of our presence in the flow of time, in a world of grace.

[i] Simmons, Philip.  Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life, 145.

[ii] Ibid, 145-146.

[iii] Ibid, 147 & 149.

The Healing of a Nation

This morning we have read the story of Naaman.  Through this story comes up in the lectionary once every three years, I daresay for many it did not register.  In the grand scheme of things, Naaman is a bit character in the sweep of the biblical story, with vanishingly brief stage time.  And yet…

In the story, Naaman is the commander of the army of the King of Aram.  The kingdom he serves, Aram, is at a pinnacle of its geopolitical position in these days.  Aram has recently defeated Israel in conflict.  Aram is a power and a power broker.  And Naaman himself is the man everyone wants to be.  He wins battles.  He enjoys the esteem of those around him.  He lives in material comfort.  Naaman lives the life we all aspire to and hope for.  Except for one thing.  Naaman has leprosy.  And leprosy in the ancient world is the worst thing with which one can be afflicted.  It is a highly contagious skin condition that causes chronic, disfiguring lesions.  In the primitive medical understanding of the ancient world, leprosy is believed to be more than a physiological ailment.  It is the outward and visible sign of a deeper, internal, we might say spiritual rot.  The leper has misstepped in some crucial way, has erred in a manner that is causing everything—including his own body—to fall apart.  To see a leper is terrifying, and terror includes a fear of contagion, that the rot could expand to the world around.  In the ancient world, people who have leprosy are the objects of loathing and disgust.  They are pariahs from the rest of society.

There are hints in the story from 2 Kings that Naaman has, for a long time, been able to keep his disease secret.  He remains at the apex of the king’s service, when knowledge of leprosy even in a Gentile land likely would have required that he be ostracized.  The only people cited as knowing about his disease are a personal servant, who was privy to things those outside the household would not see, and the king, who surely has a vested interest in keeping a secret that would extend the service of his champion.  The very stability of Aram depends upon Naaman being strong and whole, and the king is as afraid as everyone else of a world in which Aram is weak.  Keeping up a veneer of robust health, hiding the disfigurement beneath armor and trappings, is vitally important.  But as the story opens, it is clear that the disease has progressed such that hiding it has become all but impossible.  The lesions are too deep.  They pain too much.  They are now evident for all to see, and both Naaman’s life and the way of life in the kingdom he serves are at risk of collapsing.  The only options left to Naaman are to succumb or seek healing.

Image result for healing of naaman

The Healing of Naaman

It is also not lost on me that today in our prayers and music we are acknowledging our nation’s birthday on this Sunday after Independence Day.  I think the Naaman story has something to say to us on a national level.  I doubt I would receive much argument against the assessment that something is wrong in our national life, and that the disease is not new.  For a long time, perhaps forty years, we were able to mask it.  Through our bravado, beneath armor and star-spangled bluster, we were able to present to ourselves and to the world as though both our external and internal signs of strength were ample evidence of health.  That was important.  Our societal stability and the stability of the world depends upon the health of the United States.

But it is obvious in the United States these days that our national veneer has cracked, that lately ugly things long hidden have erupted through as lesions onto the very surface of our common life: The vicious ways we speak about one another; the premier value placed on ideological purity over the common good; the worst motives imputed to those with whom we disagree; the disdain exhibited toward those different or most vulnerable among us; and the cavalier way our leaders increasingly disregard the very principles that have made the United States, in our best moments, the light of nations, are all grossly visible.   These things disfigure our national soul, and we are no longer able to hide our ailment from either ourselves or the world around us.  For many on all sides of the political divide, it feels as if our shared life is at risk of collapse.

Naaman is silently desperate, and when his house servant claims to know of one in Israel who can possibly heal him, he grabs hold of hope.  But Naaman mistakenly, almost comically, believes that the same bravado that enabled him for so long to hide his illness can facilitate its cure.  He loads up the symbols of his high standing and the materiel of his wealth, believing with a show of power he can bluff and buy his way to health.

But when Naaman eventually makes his way to the Prophet Elisha, he quickly learns that one cannot be healed by yet again pretending the disease is less than it is, and one cannot be restored to health by continuing to act and interact in the ways that have contributed to the disease.  Naaman is at first confused and then chagrined when Elisha merely sends word through a proxy that what Naaman must do is go and wash in the Jordan River seven times to be healed.  At first the instruction doesn’t even compute for Naaman.  It is counterintuitive.  It involves not a show of bluster or power—the things that make sense to Naaman—but humility, contrition, and a willingness to strip down (literally in this case) and be cleansed.  Naaman doubts the healing power of this prescription that doesn’t look like any kind of power he’s encountered before.  But despite his doubts and misgivings, Naaman is desperate, so he goes to the Jordan and washes.  And when Naaman emerges from the water, we are told, he is restored and made clean.

Image result for fourth of july fireworks

I believe, firmly and with my whole heart, that Elisha’s prescription for Naaman is the path to healing for us as a nation as well.  In my conversations, people increasingly either express a hopeless myopia about our future or a thin bravado that fails to mask our signs of soul sickness.  There is no longer time for bravado, but there is still ample room for hope.  Even with our national pockmarks deepening and ever more visible, I believe that the Jordan still flows and still beckons us as a people.  I believe grace for the United States is even yet possible.  But nationally just as individually we must—all of us—recognize, like Naaman, how our healing will come.  It won’t be by raining fire down on one another, or from self-satisfying displays of bluster and power that only seek to mask our disease.  Healing will come from the acknowledgement that we are in need—desperate need—of God and one another.  Healing will come from humility, from contrition for the ways in which we have willfully wounded one another and our nation, and by stripping ourselves bare in vulnerability to be present to each other and see in each other not adversaries or interlocutors but sisters and brothers, children of God and of this great nation.  Healing will come by extending grace to one another, and especially to those who are most vulnerable.  Healing will come when we speak out and insist that our leaders do all of these things as well.

One deep dive won’t do it.  Like Naaman, we’ll need to submerge again and again into God’s grace.  But if we will do, we can still emerge healed, a nation restored that can again be a light to all nations.  With God’s help, may it be so.  Happy birthday, friends.