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Archive for the ‘Prayer’ Category

Waking Up

“Light that never fades, dispel the mists about us, awaken our faith from sleep.”

This line from the Morning Prayer intercessions hit home. It’s a grey, windy day. We had rain all day yesterday. I’ve been fighting a cold since before Thanksgiving and my energy is sapped. It’s been good to light the candle on the Advent wreath and immerse myself in the psalms and prayers of the Liturgy of the Hours. I said it regularly for many years and then let it slip from my life entirely. Returning to it has that wonderful feeling of coming home.

The readings yesterday, especially from Paul’s letter to the Romans,  were all about waking up, and instead, I dozed in front of the tv most of the afternoon, warm and cozy, but groggy. Today feels more promising. High winds overnight are drying the wet ground and I’m getting back to normal routines. The rituals of Advent are good for that. The Advent wreath, Advent calendars, the return to a daily prayer structure, all help me to focus and to stay grounded in the work of the season.

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This year November has five Thursdays, which gives us the luxury of ten days between Thanksgiving and the First Sunday of Advent. I’ve always had a particular resonance with the season of Advent, and I feel a bit cheated when it begins in the midst of the busy weekend after Thanksgiving. While I mostly abstain from the Black Friday madness, I nearly always have houseguests into the following week. So I’m especially grateful this year to have an extra week to get ready for the season. Advent is, for me, a contemplative time, a time of waiting, a time of reflection, a time to listen to the words of the great prophet Isaiah.

We close the liturgical year in the weekday lectionary with the apocalyptic readings from the Gospels, from the Book of Daniel, and from Revelation. Written to persecuted people, these readings offer a harsh sort of reassurance, the promise that no matter how bleak things look, God is always in charge and God’s rule will prevail. For most of us—thanks be to God!—our lives are not quite that desperate, and the images of cosmic battles seem a bit unreal. But the end of the liturgical year, like the end of the calendar year, reminds us that we have many place in our life that need attention.

Advent is a good time for a fresh start. The days are shorter, the evenings longer. Outdoor chores are mostly finished for another season. I find myself settling into new and different routines, and the liturgical season reminds me to make more time in my life for prayer, for scripture, for a little extra care for my soul.

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We all know what it’s like to be worn down by persistent pestering. Dogs and small children both learn from experience that sometimes it works to whine. And if it works at least once in a while, they know to try it again. And so it is with the parable Jesus tells in today’s Gospel. The widow seeking justice finally wears down an admittedly hardened judge with her persistence. But we think of this as something we ought to outgrow. We’re a lot like the unjust judge, who gives in to the widow’s pleas, but doesn’t respect himself for it. Americans especially are raised with a sense that “God helps those who help themselves.” We don’t like to ask for help. And sometimes we don’t think that other people should ask for help either. We value independence, often at the expense of true hospitality.

Jesus seems to be reminding us that it’s okay to ask for what we need. Part of having faith means being willing to throw our cares and our needs and our desires on God simply because we believe that we deserve what it is that we seek, and that our gracious God wants to give it to us. Part of growing up means not that we no longer have needs but that we recognize which of our needs are truly worthy of being met.

In the reading from Exodus that’s paired with today’s Gospel, we see Moses praying for the victory of the Israelites over the Amalekites. The writer tells us that as long as Moses had his hands raised in prayer, even that meant someone else was holding his arms up, the battle went in favor of the Israelites. This seems to be an interpretation by the early Scripture writers of the way God’s presence in their midst furthered the fortunes of the Chosen People.

But we know that prayers and other religious rituals are not magic. Persistence and perseverance are strong virtues. The widow in today’s Gospel is seeking justice. This isn’t a whim or a selfish desire on her part that keeps her knocking at the judge’s door. She believes in the rightness of her cause. And she’s not going to be dissuaded if her first attempt doesn’t get a response. Part of Jesus’ message in telling this story is that we give up too quickly. The introduction to the parable talks about “the necessity for the disciples to pray always without becoming weary.” And Jesus closes his story with the rather enigmatic comment: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Faith is ultimately trusting that God wants what’s best for us. That trust will keep us asking for what we need. It will give us the strength to persist in our belief even when we’re tired, even when we doubt, even when we wonder whether our cause is worthwhile. And, like the people who held Moses’ arms and found him a rock to sit on, other people will join with us in our quest for justice, for peace, for God’s gracious answer to our prayers. Magic? No. This is the power of love, the power of prayer, the power of true faith.

Persistent prayer of petition reminds us that we need to be focused, we need one another, and we need God. When our need is great, when our cause is just, our faith tells us that we can depend on God to come through for us, even if it takes all night, even if it takes a lifetime.

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In a touching scene in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s well-loved children’s novel The Secret Garden, the fiery tempered young orphan Mary Lennox begins to win the heart of grief-stricken Mr. Archibald Craven with her simple request for “a bit of earth” for a garden. In the course of bringing the long-neglected walled garden back to life, Mary and her cousin Colin discover healing for themselves and those around them. The miracle of green and growing things works a wild kind of magic on their bruised souls.

I thought of Mary’s “bit of earth” when I read the story of Naaman’s healing in today’s first reading. This foreign military general was persuaded to seek healing from the Hebrew prophet and man of God by a young serving girl. Once he’s healed, he wants to give Elijah a gift but his request is refused. Instead, Naaman asks for two mule-loads of earth, which he regards as sacred ground from the land of Israel, the promised land, the place where God can rightly be worshiped.

A superficial reading of this story might suggest that Naaman is some- thing of an oddball, a man with pagan roots who sees some sort of magical properties in this pile of dirt. But there is an unmistakably primal significance to this gesture.

We are rooted, grounded people. We tend to identify with places, with geographical locations, even with bits of earth or bottles of water from sacred places. This is partly because we’re a sacramental people. The “stuff,” the matter of the sacraments, is an important part of the rituals: water, bread, oil, touch. And so it was for the Hebrews of Elijah’s day.

At times we over-spiritualize our faith and our religious life. This is in part because of the strong influence of Greek philosophy on the early Christians. Centuries of theologians and scholastics have further intellectualized Christianity. It’s good to have reminders like today’s readings that our faith needs to be grounded in the everyday realities of life.

Families have something of an advantage here. Finding ways to make religion concrete for small children can open up new ways of seeing, even for jaded adults. Setting up a small prayer altar in the home, even the simple act of lighting candles before mealtime prayers, can be reminders that God is really present with us at all times.

I sometimes find myself remembering such rituals from my childhood with great fondness, and feeling a need to return to similar rituals today to get out of my head and into celebrating the great gift of faith with my whole being. It need not be anything elaborate: a bowl of holy water by the door, a candle on the table, a picture of someone who made a difference in your journey to God. I have my own bit of earth, a bowl of sand from a fam- ily vacation spot. These things are ways to remember the God who gave us life, who made us whole, who healed us of the separation that marred human creation from the beginning of time.

We’re moving into late fall in the northern hemisphere, a time when the ground itself lies fallow and waiting. It’s a good time to give thanks for the beauty of our bit of earth and recognize that God’s grace and the hospitality of loved ones has carried us through another year.

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People often talk about the 21st century, particularly in America, as a time when capitalism, consumerism and advertising have run amok. And while they’re not wrong, it’s somewhat encouraging to discover that as it is now, so it has always been. It’s a difference in degree, not in kind, and it has its roots in the human tendency to focus more on individual needs and wants than on the common good. The source of this misdirection seems to lie in our forgetting that everything we have comes from a gracious God. When we believe that our riches lie in our own efforts, we lose the ground of our being.We worship the golden idol of our possessions, or we gnash our teeth over the possessions of others.

Today’s Gospel begins with a man asking Jesus to mediate between him and his brother over a family inheritance. And Jesus’ pointed comment goes to the heart of the issue: “one’s life does not consist of possessions.” Jesus directs his parable at those who “store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God.” And the preacher in Ecclesiastes reminds his listeners that striving and anxiety lead only to emptiness. The antidote? Remembering that it is God who “prospers the work of our hands,” (Psalm 90). And Jesus’ concern in the Gospel is that two brothers are feuding over an inheritance when they should be at peace with one another.

Our Scriptures call us back to our center, to the life-giving word of God that reminds us again and again that what matters is the we belong to God, not that we have a lot of stuff that belongs to us. We find our identity in our baptismal promises, not in our credit cards and bank accounts. When we are in right relationship with God, we will have the inner peace and security that makes reaching out to others a natural response to God’s gracious gifts.

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The lectionary selection from the Hebrew Scriptures for the 17th week of the year is one of my favorites. Listening to Abraham haggling with God like a trader in the bazaar reminds us that the Judeo-Christian Scriptures have always seen God in relationship with the Chosen People. That relationship, of course, reached it purest manifestation in the incarnation. But from the beginning of Genesis, when God walks in the garden with Adam and Eve in the cool of the evening, the inspired writers show us a God who is both immanent and transcendent, near to us as we are to one another, but nevertheless the unbounded Creator.

When I think of bargaining with God, I usually have in mind a rather self-centered approach where I make all sorts of promises to God if he’ll get me out of some bind that I’ve gotten myself into or grant some deep-seated desire. On a more serious note, we know that bargaining is the third of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages that follow catastrophic news. It comes between anger and depression.

What I noticed this time through the Abraham story is that Abraham is not bargaining with what he will do or what the people will do. His bargaining chip is set squarely on who God is. He’s staked everything on God’s merciful love. And quite possibly on his sense of humor. The lectionary selection stops before the end of the story. As it turns out, not even ten innocent people were found in Sodom and Gomorrah, but God did save Abraham and Sarah and Abraham’s nephew Lot and his wife, thus remaining true to the covenant and true to the divine nature.

Abraham’s story, despite appearances, is one of coming to complete trust in the God who called him. And so is ours. In the Gospel, before Jesus tells the story of the man who woke his neighbor for three loaves of bread, he teaches us the way to rely on God for all that we need, beginning with the words, “Our Father.”  It reminds us of who God is and of who God is for us. And all it asks in return is that we accept the gifts he offers and offer those gifts to one another. One heck of a bargain when you think about it.

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Patricia Livingston is one of my favorite authors and speakers on the topic of everyday spirituality. She often begins her talks by saying that she’s going to remind her listeners of things they already know in their hearts from the experiences of their daily lives. I thought of Pat when I was listening to the Gospel this past Sunday. Jesus tells his followers that the Advocate, the Spirit he is sending, will remind them of all that he has taught them while he was with them. Like Pat’s gentle lessons of the heart, the Spirit’s nudging reminders in our lives keep us focused on the things that matter: peace both in our hearts and in our world, love for ourselves, one another and our God, the faith that’s rooted in our baptism and grows and strengthens as we face life’s challenges.

The lectionary readings for the sixth week of Easter present a realistic view of the life of the early church, one that we can still see in our own century. The tensions and sqabblings over doctrine and authority, the competing self-interest that sadly seems to be part of the human race from the beginning of time, are dealt with honestly in the Acts of the Apostles. It takes the strong leadership and dedication of people like Paul and Barnabas to cut through the controversy and remind the new Christians of the man and the faith they hold dear.

The second reading from the Book of Revelation struck me as a perfect counterpoint to the controversies in Acts. In the heavenly Jerusalem, many of the sources of conflict would no longer exist. In God’s kingdom, the institutions that can become mired in human misunderstanding and sin would be transcended. The popular and charismatic Franciscan preacher Richard Rohr says often that in the Lord’s prayer when we say, “Thy kingdom come” it carries with it the demand that we also say, “My kingdom go.”

As we move through these days between Easter and Pentecost, bathed in the light of the resurrection, we come to rely more and more on the power of the Holy Spirit to guide us, to speak to us and for us, to draw us closer into the love of the triune God. Sometimes we forget what we know in the pressures and tensions of our everyday lives. Family, work, the unsettled state of the world, press in on us and in the clamor we can forget our focus, our purpose, our need to surrender to the spirit. Sometimes all it takes is a little nudge, a reminder that we know that there’s a better way, the way of Jesus, the way of the Spirit.

The readings from the Gospel of John during these final weeks of Easter often seem to repeat the same things over and over again. They can be difficult to grasp, abstract theologizing on the themes of peace and love, of the union of the Trinity and our union with them. But, like a mantra, a repeated prayer that runs through our mind like a favorite melody, the words of Jesus in John’s Gospel can soothe and calm us, can move us forward, can give us the peace and courage that are the gifts of the Spirit.

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