Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Pray working

Luke 18: 1-8
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
October 16, 2016

            “Actors are storytellers. And storytelling is the essential human art. It’s how we understand who we are. I don’t mean to make it sound high-flown. It’s not. It’s discipline and repetition and failure and perseverance and dumb luck and blind faith and devotion. It’s showing up when you don’t feel like it, when you’re exhausted and you think you can’t go on. Transcendent moments come when you’ve laid the groundwork and you’re open to the moment. They happen when you do the work. In the end, it’s about the work.”

            I heard actor Bryan Cranston read those words from his autobiography A Life in Parts in an interview on NPR’s “Marketplace” Wednesday morning.  Everyone has a filter, and my filter is church.  When I heard those words, I thought, church people, faith people, all people are storytellers.  It’s how we all understand who we are.  As church we tell our own story in the context of the faith story, the meta-narrative, the human narrative, the story of human evolution.  We tell our story in the context of the Church’s story and the story of this church.  I don’t think we’ve sung this hymn since I’ve been pastor of this church, but there’s the old hymn:

I love to tell the story
of unseen things above,
of Jesus and his glory,
of Jesus and his love.
I love to tell the story
because I know it’s true
It satisfies my longings,
as nothing else would do.

I love to tell the story;
‘twill be my theme in glory:
to tell the old, old story
of Jesus and his love.

            When we pray, we’re telling a piece of our story.  We’re working it out, this story of ours; this story that interweaves with other people’s stories; this story that we’re not sure how it’s going to work out; this story that requires our discipline and our discipleship, our repeated telling of it, our failures, our perseverance, our sometimes dumb luck, sometimes blind faith as in a leap of faith, and always our devotion.  Prayer is when we lay the groundwork and we’re open to the moment, and sometimes something transcendent happens.  Prayer is when we do the work of faith.

            I love this image of the persistent widow as an image of prayer life:  the lowest person on the totem pole, someone on the bottom of society, who never lets up until they get what they’re asking for.  This kind of persistence reminds me of Sheldon in the TV show “The Big Bang Theory”:  whenever Sheldon needs something from his friends Leonard and Penny, he knocks on the door and says their names over and over until they answer just to stop him from knocking.

            Author Anne Lamott might say that kind of persistence isn’t exactly keeping one’s sticky fingers off the control pad.  For more than 20 years Anne has had this prayer practice of the God Box.  She writes her prayers on little pieces of paper, puts them in the God Box, promising to keep her sticky fingers off the controls until she hears God’s wisdom.  Sometimes it comes in a phone call or a piece of mail, but she says it always comes in a quantity enough to get her through the moment or problem or situation with grace, humor, resilience, and forgiveness.

            Persistence in prayer can be a problem for those of us who like to have control, who obsess about our difficulties, let alone serious injustices like that of the widow.  So it helps us to remember that whatever it is we’re nagging the Almighty for, we’re not the lowest person on the totem pole.  In point of fact, we are compelled to nag on behalf of those who are on the bottom of society, to repeatedly tell their story:  the poor and the poor in spirit, those experiencing loss of any kind, Syrian refugees, victims of floods and earthquakes, Native Americans trying to protect clean water, the very earth itself.  We are compelled to agitate the One who made heaven and earth to bend the moral arc of the universe.

So often we wonder what do our prayers accomplish?  If God is still speaking, is God also still listening?  United Church of Canada pastor Gretta Vosper, in her book on prayer entitled Amen, writes this striking thought:  “Because people live and thrive with prayer, it may have something very worthwhile to offer.  Because people live and thrive without prayer, it cannot be necessary.”  Do we pray because we’re supposed to?  Do we pray because we’ve witnessed its outcomes?  Do we pray because we can’t help ourselves, because it comes pouring out of us?  Do we not pray because we don’t feel like we need to, because there are no outcomes, because we help ourselves?  All of which is valid.

But it really isn’t as black and white as that, is it?  Prayer isn’t the end but the beginning.  Author Frederick Buechner wrote, “Whatever else it may or may not be, prayer is at least talking to yourself, and that’s in itself not always a bad idea.  Talk to yourself about your own life, about what you’ve done and what you’ve failed to do, and about who you are and who you wish you were and who the people you love are and the people you don’t love too.  Talk to yourself about what matters most to you because if you don’t you may forget what matters most to you.”

In seminary I wrote a paper for my Christian Ethics class on prayer.  I said that prayer was the first step, the beginning of ethical behavior and action.  My professor, the Rev. Dr. Max Stackhouse, in whose presence I felt the equivalent of a 90 lb. weakling, did not entirely agree with me.  He was very exacting, as he should have been when it came to Christian ethics.  So often we progressive Christians are labeled “wishy-washy” because we are so situational.  The favorite joke about the UCC is that we are “Utterly Confused Christians” or “Unitarians Considering Christ”.  When we pray, what is it exactly that we’re not only praying for, but praying to?  What is the faithful use of prayer?  Why be persistent in it anyway?


Octavia Butler in her book The Parable of the Sower writes this about prayer:

Pray working.
Pray learning,
Pray creating,
Pray working.
Pray to focus your thoughts,
still your fears,
strengthen your purpose
Pray working.

Prayer focuses our thoughts, calms our emotions.  Through prayer we align our purpose with God’s purpose, with what I call authentic living:  unconditional love, restorative justice, compassion, confession, forgiveness, wholeness, joy, and not only for ourselves but for everyone.  Through prayer we acknowledge a power greater than ourselves; we don’t do any of this alone; we live in a mystery we don’t fully understand, and in that mystery we live and move and have our being, all of us interconnected and interdependent.  Relationships, if they are to be life-giving, demand our persistence, our perseverance.  Poet Ellen Bass says it well:

Pray to whomever you kneel down to:
Jesus nailed to his wooden or plastic cross,
his suffering face bent to kiss you,
Buddha still under the bo tree in scorching heat,
Adonai, Allah. Raise your arms to Mary
that she may lay her palm on our brows,
to Shekhina, Queen of Heaven and Earth,
to Inanna in her stripped descent.

Then pray to the bus driver who takes you to work.
On the bus, pray for everyone riding that bus,
for everyone riding buses all over the world.
Drop some silver and pray.

Waiting in line for the movies, for the ATM,
for your latte and croissant, offer your plea.
Make your eating and drinking a supplication.
Make your slicing of carrots a holy act,
each translucent layer of the onion, a deeper prayer.

To Hawk or Wolf, or the Great Whale, pray.
Bow down to terriers and shepherds and Siamese cats.
Fields of artichokes and elegant strawberries.

Make the brushing of your hair
a prayer, every strand its own voice,
singing in the choir on your head.
As you wash your face, the water slipping
through your fingers, a prayer: Water,
softest thing on earth, gentleness
that wears away rock.

Making love, of course, is already prayer.
Skin, and open mouths worshipping that skin,
the fragile cases we are poured into.

If you’re hungry, pray. If you’re tired.
Pray to Gandhi and Dorothy Day.
Shakespeare. Sappho. Sojourner Truth.

When you walk to your car, to the mailbox,
to the video store, let each step
be a prayer that we all keep our legs,
that we do not blow off anyone else’s legs.
Or crush their skulls.
And if you are riding on a bicycle
or a skateboard, in a wheelchair, each revolution
of the wheels a prayer as the earth revolves:
less harm, less harm, less harm.

And as you work, typing with a new manicure,
a tiny palm tree painted on one pearlescent nail
or delivering soda or drawing good blood
into rubber-capped vials, writing on a blackboard
with yellow chalk, twirling pizzas–

With each breath in, take in the faith of those
who have believed when belief seemed foolish,
who persevered. With each breath out, cherish.

Pull weeds for peace, turn over in your sleep for peace,
feed the birds, each shiny seed
that spills onto the earth, another second of peace.
Wash your dishes, call your mother, drink wine.

Shovel leaves or snow or trash from your sidewalk.
Make a path. Fold a photo of a dead child
around your VISA card. Scoop your holy water
from the gutter. Gnaw your crust.
Mumble along like a crazy person, stumbling
your prayer through the streets.

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