Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Like a Prayer

More than any other time in my life, it seems like the world has been plunged into a swiftly moving river of confusion.  Daily outbursts of violence strike terror into the hearts of the world’s citizens. Dividing lines of ethnicity and class are becoming more crystallized and visible by the second.  And we, as Americans, are daily bearing witness to an extraordinarily divisive presidential election, with two dueling political parties that seem fundamentally unable to find common ground.  To listen to politicians, activists, and media personalities on either side of the political spectrum reflect on the very same events is to endure the manipulation of fact that has come to define political rhetoric in America.  As each new sun rises, there comes another attempt to shape and mold the narratives and stories which in turn shape and control our perceptions of what is right, and just, and true.  But when confusion abounds in such a great volume, as we are seeing day in and day out, truth becomes like a vapor riding the wind, elusively evading our grasp.  Though he is no saint, I’m reminded of the wise question Pontius Pilate posed to Jesus on the eve of his crucifixion: “What is truth?” That’s the question many around the world are asking themselves these days, desperately trying to resist the strength of confusion’s current.

So many of us begin our search for the answer to that question in all the wrong places, for we see in Jesus’ teaching from the Gospel that truth, identity, and genuine stability come from nowhere else but the deep well of living water that is prayer. “Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples." He said to them, "When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial." Time and time again during Jesus’ ministry, he took time to pray. Sometimes he prayed alone, seeking the wisdom of God apart from the noise of the world and the clamor of the crowds.   And from these times of prayer, we know that he drew his strength, his depth of understanding of what the kingdom of God was to be about, his mission and his purpose.  And this was evident enough to the disciples that they sought his wisdom in how they should pray.

And this is the prayer that he gave them, and to us as well.  A prayer that begins with recognizing the holiness and goodness of God.  A prayer that seeks the arrival of the kingdom, a kingdom marked by the breaking of chains, the opening of blind eyes, and the release of oppressed captives.  And it’s a prayer that forces us to first recognize our own sinfulness before we recognize the sinfulness of others.  It is a prayer that, when truly lived into, when truly internalized deep down in our bones, will shape the way we see and interact with the world regardless of how thick the cloud of confusion is that hangs over us.  Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, illuminated this prayer beautifully: “The Lord’s Prayer begins with a vision of a world that is transparent to God: ‘May your kingdom come, your will be done; may what you (God) want shine through in this world and shape the kind of world it is going to be.’ And only when we have begun with that affirmation, that imagining of a world in which God’s light is coming through, only then do we start asking for what we need.”

That phrase, ‘Imagining a world in which God’s light is coming through’, is a phrase of both beauty and conviction. Beauty, because it sets before us a vision of a world of hope, goodness, and the light of God illuminating the darkness and driving the shadows away. Conviction, because it's a challenge to us, the people who make this prayer every Sunday, to be a people who envision ourselves as the lens through which this beautifully holy light shines through. Reflect on your life for a moment? Is this prayer, and all that it entails, a song that echoes in your heart, the truest marrow deep in your bones, the breath that fills your lungs? Is this prayer, and all that it teaches us to be, one of your primary identity markers, one of the wells you turn to when the confusion of the world threatens to dry you out?

It's a funny thing, prayer. We make the mistake of thinking of prayer primarily as a dialogue, a conversation, where ideas are exchanged and requests are made. But prayer, the true prayer of the heart, is so much more than a mental exercise. It's a dialogue of intimacy, and engagement with the very person and being of God, an enterprise whereby we become a new person. We are changed, transformed, shaped and molded by an intimate encounter of mutual love with the God who never leaves us unchanged when we open ourselves up in vulnerable surrender. We sell ourselves short when prayer is more like a conversation between two acquaintances and less like the passionate embrace of two lovers who become united in both body and soul. Only when our prayers are infused with that level of intimacy will we become the lens through which that beautiful light of God shines in the world.

Paul gestures toward this when he says, ‘In him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him,’ and, ‘God made you alive together with him.’ Thus, in the face of narratives and identities that do nothing but breed confusion and animosity and in a world on the brink of collapse, when truth has become a product bought and sold by talking heads, we must be a people who are constantly praying as Jesus taught us to. The only hope we have of seeing true change and greatness in the world is when our first priority, above all else, is to be a disciple sitting at the feet of the Master, being taught to pray in ways that do nothing short of transforming us and drawing us more deeply into the mysteries of Jesus Christ.

Yes, we live in a time of great confusion, but so too did those early disciples who made this prayer their pledge, their mantra, the words that echoed in their hearts and guided their actions.  We see in them what happens when the action of prayer becomes like the action of breathing, an action that sustains us, without which we simply cannot live.  Lives were changed, a movement of love was born and disparate peoples were united for a common goal. When we seek the presence and will of God in our lives, and we pray for God’s kingdom to come on this earth, and we first and foremost recognize our own shortcomings before shaming others for their own, then the cloud of confusion begins to dissipate.  Then we can become who God is truly calling us to be.

*A sermon preached at Trinity on the Hill Episcopal Church in Los Alamos, NM on July 24, 2016.  The texts were Genesis 18:20-32, Colossians 2:6-15, and Luke 11:1-13.

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