Monday, October 22, 2007

Pentecost 21 - Year C

A rabbi stands before a casket; a casket way too small. The devastated parents are sitting in the front row. All ears are tuned to this bearded little man, wondering what he’ll say. Wondering what he could possibly say that would be of any comfort to the family, or to anyone who’d lost someone WAY too early.

The rabbi slumps. One hand on the casket. Mutters a prayer to himself, his head shaking.

After a moment of silence, he raises his fist and shouts, “God! How could you have let this happen!?”

The congregation nods in agreement.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t pray like this. At least not out loud. Some wouldn’t even call it a prayer. Not a prayer we’d pray, not in church. Not usually.

Prayer is something we do with our eyes closed instead of gazing towards the heavens. Prayer is where we keep our hands folded instead of shaking a fist at the sky. Prayer is where we keep our heads bowed instead directing them towards the one we say we’re talking to. If you look closely at our body language when we pray, you’ll see it’s a posture of submission.

I’ve been wondering if that’s a good thing. Are we saying to God or to ourselves that our prayers shouldn’t be seized with the Rabbi’s raw emotion? Are we saying that to be submissive toward God is to deny sharing our deepest pain with the One who knows what we’re feeling anyway? Are we saying that we shouldn’t show our truest selves with the Creator?

Or are we protecting ourselves from ourselves, not wanting to confront what’s REALLY in our hearts, pretending that life may have a few bumps, but is generally okay. And making sure that no one else gets infected by our occasional bouts of human messiness?

If so, then maybe we have to re-evaluate how we pray.

One of my favorite prayers doesn’t come from those luxuriously poetic Celtic prayer books I keep on my shelf, or even from the utilitarian prayers we find in our worship books.

One of my favorite prayers comes from Homer Simpson. Before you tune me out, let me explain. One Thanksgiving while offering table grace, Homer loses it, offering thanks for “the occasional moments of peace and love our family has experienced…well, not today. You saw what happened. O Lord, be honest! Are we the most pathetic family in the world or what!?”

To which the family offers a hearty “Amen!” Prompting Selma, Homer’s sister-in-law to mutter out loud “Worst. Prayer. Yet.”

And we -the audience - are supposed to agree with Selma’s assessment and laugh at Homer’s obnoxiously inappropriate prayer. Because, by polite standards, that prayer was a joke.

But I thought, “Wow! What a great prayer! It’s real. It’s heartfelt. It flows from genuine pain. I think God is more interested in hearing prayers like that than the prayers we often rattle off at church. There are worse prayer models to follow.”

By the end of that Thanksgiving episode, the family conflicts are resolved; the runaway Bart comes home regretting how badly he hurt his sister Lisa. Lisa forgives him. The epic yet disastrous meal which is their Thanksgiving is cleaned up, and the family gathers around the table for simple turkey sandwiches. The soundtrack cues the Thanksgiving song, “We Gather Together,” and Homer prays another prayer, “O Lord,” he says, “on this blessed day, we thank thee for giving our family one more crack at togetherness.”

Again, another great prayer.

It reminded me of last week’s clergy meeting where we talked about our prayer lives. One pastor regretted how most of his prayers were the “O God please help me hold my tongue when I talk to a difficult parishioner” variety.

(BTW, that wasn’t me. So please don’t look at me like that)

To which other said, “That’s still a prayer. And we grow spiritually through those prayers.”

“Maybe,” I thought. “But I’d like a deeper spirituality than throwing a prayer against the wall to see if it sticks. I’d think that God wants more from us as well.”

But our discussion got me thinking: just what is this prayer thing all about anyway? Every time I wonder about prayer I’m transported back to my first day at my first parish. I went to the hospital to visit the council president’s father-in-law. He was dying of cancer.

When I arrived at his room his family was holding a bedside vigil. Like I said, it was my first day on the job – EVER. I had no idea what to do. So I opened my pastoral toolbox and pulled out the only tool vaguely I knew how to use – prayer.

I prayed for him, giving thanks for the gifts he’d offered to the world. Then I prayed for him to die peaceful and holy death, that God’s Spirit would comfort him as he died. I prayed for the family gathered around him.

After my prayer I noticed a small tear trickle down the dying man’s cheek. He couldn’t speak or respond. But obviously he could hear. Something was happening.

He died the next morning.

“Pastor, we want you to preside at the funeral,” the son said.

“Wasn’t your dad a member of the United Church?” I asked.

“Yeah, technically. He never went. Not even at Christmas or Easter. Only weddings and funerals. Church just wasn’t important to him,” he said.

Just what a pastor wants to hear. At least he wasn’t feeding me a line.

“So, why do you want me?”

“One thing you need to know about my dad. There wasn’t anyone in town he didn’t drink beer or play cards with. And a lot of pastors came to see him when he got sick. But you’re the only pastor who prayed for him or talked about God. And it touched him when nothing else did.”

So I did the funeral.

I tell this story not to make myself sound like a good guy or to trash my colleagues. But because prayer sometimes does things. I don’t know what. But prayer does something.

And I don’t blame my friends and colleagues for not praying. I wonder if they share my struggles. Maybe they’ve prayed so many prayers that went unanswered that they wondered what the point of praying was.

I was green. Wet behind the ears. A novice. I didn’t know any better. My struggles were a few years in front of me.

I prayed at hospital beds, but heard from funeral directors instead of the Almighty. I prayed with families to stay together, only to have them visit the lawyers instead of being visited by the Holy Spirit. I’ve prayed too many prayers for justice, for hard hearts to soften. Only to shudder from the chill of injustice.

So, one of the reasons why I struggle with prayer is because so many times prayers go unanswered. So I think “why bother?”

Sometimes I’m told that unanswered prayer – God’s silence - is God’s way of saying “No.” “No” is an answer to prayer, I’m sometimes told. But I think there’s a difference between a “No” – which is a definite answer, and stark silence – which feels like you’re being ignored.

And that’s what I think today’s gospel reading is about. Jesus compares prayer to a widow hassling a judge until the judge give her what she wants, not because he’s so wise and compassionate, but because he’s sick of being hassled.

It’s like Jesus is saying, “You pray and you get nothing. Don’t let God get away with that. You need to get in God’s face. God’s made some pretty bold claims about what God can and will do. So pray some bolder prayers.”

He’s right.

Prayer’s a cry for help. It’s the cry after you’ve just had the latest blow-out with your spouse and you say, “God I just don’t know how much longer I can do this!”

Prayer’s when you say “God my kid is out of control and I don’t know what to do!”

Prayer’s when you say, “God my parents are driving me crazy. I feel like I’m living in a straight jacket!”

Prayer’s when the x-rays come back and you say, “God, I don’t want to die. Please help.”

It’s the prayer of the persistent widow. She kept at it because she knew that God could do something. Maybe she’d seen God alive and working before and she wanted God to do the same thing NOW!

Maybe she was praying because there was nothing else she could do. That’s something we can learn from her. And maybe that’s what Jesus was getting at.
So perhaps, like the persistent widow, some people keep praying because their hope is stronger than their pain, and their expectations of God are greater than their frustrations with life.

I’ve been amazed by people praying until the bitter end, on their knees until their joints hurt and muscles cramp, who will not stop or move until they’ve heard from God; people who storm the silence of heaven with shouts of praise and cries of anger, because they know there is a resurrection day and they want to see it NOW.

So maybe faith is heart felt desperation, not a sunny, smiling confidence.

I don’t expect people will stop praying, and praying BOLDLY. At least I hope not. The world needs all the prayers it can get. Every time you hear about prayer being answered, remember that you are getting a peek into the kingdom of God.

There is no simple formula for success, no one way to pray for instant answers. So we keep praying, we keep pestering God, then, with God’s help, we won’t lose heart, and we will become what we pray for: a people of peace, a people of healing, a people of bold, audaciousness, getting in God’s face.

May this be so among us. Amen.


Blogger Trent said...

I know that we should be reverential. I know that we should be respectful, but sometimes the only thing I have in heart is doubt and confusion, and sometimes that is quite painful. If that is all that I have to give in prayer, then so be it. What option do I have? Ignore my creator? I can't. Where else will I find life?

Sometimes the confident prayer of confident believers are the result of wearing blinders to what is really going on in the world. I am not saying that we should lose faith, but I am saying that we should count the cost of that faith, and it seems that this is exactly what the Rabbi was doing. "God, if you are who you say you are then..."

Thank you for this post.

9:07 PM  

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