Archive for May, 2021

Prayer on the Edge of Time.

One of the first things I found myself doing when preparing for parish ministry was to collect as many books and resources I could about prayer and the examples of what prayers contained. I stood in awe of ministers who could spout off huge long prayers without reading them. I knew I could never be like them for two reasons. One was that I never trusted my memory to be so rich in vocabulary and two I was never a fan of extemporary prayer because It seemed so readily available that it lost its depth of sincerity for me. I have never been a fan of repetitive rites.

Before I set out on this new and rather daunting experience of Parish Ministry, I. gathered together some resources to help me. In my day it was that each of the denominations had its own so called ‘Prayer Book of Book of Common Prayer and there were a smattering of others who had written books with examples of prayers for all occasions.

One of the challenges for me at that time was the idea that “Prayer… is the language of the heart, akin to poetry. Its concern is not with exact description, as that of prose so often is, but with reality itself and with the power to evoke our spiritual resources. Prayer goes on where other language leaves off: it has to do with what is least known and yet most deeply felt.”  (Davies 1956:6)

In all my thinking about and struggling with, prayer, those words have become the basis of prayer for me, It is less about an exhortation to converse properly with God and more about a song of the heart.

Under the strain of difficult conditions, or in severe loss or bereavement, or when emotionally moved by a scene of natural beauty, there is something within us that cries out for expression. Prayer is a natural thing.  It is essentially and expression in sound the heartfelt connection with the sacred that is to be found in the midst of ordinary life and in the natural world. That is the purpose of prayer and what makes it special is not the words but rather it is “something more than ourselves in which we ‘live and move and have our being’… It is what poetry attempts to do, to reach beyond the mind and heart and to find that place of connection with the other…and that which in various ways, calls us and the world, on the edge of time, to move beyond present states of existence” (Peters 2008: 12).

Having given prayer this task we come to today’s gospel story by the bloke we call John, as a very small part of the tradition which was circulating about Jesus’ prayers or prayer life. The tone of this rather long-winded prayer is very personal. He addresses God as someone whom he knows very intimately indeed, and as someone whom he trusts implicitly. It is classic ‘theism’.

But it is also more than that.

In Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, a father and his son journey through the ruins of a post-apocalyptic earth. The world has been reduced to a dismal landscape drained of color. Nothing can grow on earth. No crops for food. The ghastly nature of survival has reduced people to cannibalism. The father struggles to protect his young son from cold, sickness, starvation and evil men. As his health deteriorates, we sense that the father is a doomed man. He’ll eventually die and have to send his son up the road without him. It’s a grueling, but simple and powerful story- the depth of a father’s love, and the depths of hell he will go through in order to keep his son alive.  

In the gospel reading, Jesus’ life and ministry are rapidly coming to a brutal end. For John, He’s going back to the father, and he prays on behalf of his disciples. Like the father in The Road, he’s sending his disciples on up the road without him. He guarded them up to this point, and loves them greatly, but now they have to further the ministry of the kingdom and step out on their own. He asks God to protect them from the evil one. He asks that they be sanctified in truth. In a world hostile to the values of the Kingdom of God, they will need the clarity of truth and the comfort of Jesus’ words.  Here we have the idea a dualisms atonement and the personification of evil. 

Our tradition steps in here and says that it’s not just the disciples Jesus prays for, but us as well. He sends us out into the world and prays for us, asking the father to protect us from the evil one and to sanctify us in the truth of his love and grace. We journey up the road as witnesses to his gospel. Jesus goes back to the Father, but his spirit is with us. He goes through hell for us, and with us, and then sends us up the road sanctified in the purity of his truth, to reach others in sacrificial love.

And in this prayer John has Jesus weaving together the past, the present and the future into a kind of timelessness, which he suggests is available for all. This particular prayer is quite different from the ‘The Abba Prayer’. Which I guess, shows there are many different types of prayer and many different approaches to prayer. So, in spite of some advice to the contrary there is no one way which is either right or wrong.

Prayer which somebody leads in church or in a prayer group on behalf of others, is quite different from private prayer. On the other hand, prayer may be just a couple of words; or a waiting in silence. Whatever the sort of prayer you prefer,
there does need to be some time for silence…

The deeper you get into prayer the more it tends to be listening prayer or a song, or poem rather prose or a speaking prayer. That silence may be when you’re outside gardening, or enjoying a bush or beach view, or looking at a picture, or out for a brisk morning walk in winter. It may also be while you’re ironing, or painting the shed, or washing the car. Or it may be in deliberate meditation.

Helder Camara, a Roman Catholic bishop in Brazil, has become an inspirational figure for many around the world. He died or rather was killed some time ago now, but his work of solidarity on behalf of the poor and exploited will long be remembered. He once wrote some words on prayer to the people of his diocese, at a time when they were enduring horrific suffering. He talked of payer as; “putting our ear to the ground” in order to hear the Divine voice…  to recognise that God always is by our side, even when in our agony we are silenced and unable to think at all.

“Put your ear to the ground
and listen,
hurried, worried footsteps,
bitterness, rebellion.

“Hope hasn’t yet begun.
Listen again.
Put out your feelers.
The Lord is there.  (Camara 1984)

Peter Millar from the Iona Community offers this perspective on Camara’s prayer:
“Is this not the essence of prayer – to see the One who is always near, and who is constantly inviting us, in gentle compassion, to come back to our inheritance as a human being made in the divine image?” (Millar 2000:37)

Another perspective on prayer, especially how ‘it works’, comes from Christine Robinson.  She suggests that prayer ‘works’: “on our own hearts, calming us enough to hear our own wisdom, to reroute habits and habitual responses, to help us adjust to and find good in all that we cannot change, and see the light in each person, no matter how difficult they are, in our lives” (C Robinson. First Unitarian, Albuquerque web site, 2007).

Prayer ‘works’ not because of a so-called all powerful, supernatural being who just happens to be listening, waiting for our orders. It ‘works’ because our lives and our world are porous to new and creative re-imagined possibilities. Prayer ‘works’ in the re-creation of the one who prays.  (Wieman 1946)

Finally let’s acknowledge that this sermon has been words on prayer. But words on prayer should also share in a prayer. Powell Davies has just such a prayer: a short prayer on prayer, It is a short, soft-theistic prayer which addresses the ‘sacred, or the ‘divine’ in personalistic ways:  ‘Help us, O God, lest we make our prayers a substitute for what we should do with our lives; what our prayers begin, may our lives continue’.

I want to conclude today with a comment my colleague and friend Rex Hunt concluded a sermon with. Borrowing from his theology mentor, Henry Nelson Wieman: he said; “Religion, with wisdom born of centuries of experience, tells us that qualities of mind and heart, rather than physical blessings, should be a major concern in our prayer life. That we should pray not for more of the bounties of life, but for more awareness of life; not for more recognition and love from our peers, but for more capacity to give love and recognition. These are some of the things which are truly worth praying for, and they are all within the range of possibility for everyone, of us.”(Wieman 1946) Amen.

Davies, A. P. The Language of the Heart. Washington DC. A. Powell Davies Memorial Committee, All Soul’s Church, 1956.
Millar, P. Waymarks. Signposts to Discovering God’s Presence in the World. Norwich. Canterbury Press, 2000.
Peters, K. E. Spiritual Transformations: Science, Religion and Human Becoming. Minneapolis. Fortress Press, 2008.
Wieman, H. N. The Source of Human Good. Carbondale. Southern Illinois University Press, 1946.

John 15:9-17

Love isn’t a noun, it’s a verb!

One of the most fallible things today is to say I or we have the truth and if you listen to us you will have it too. Why? Because theology can never begin by assuming it already has the answer. And any theology that does not begin with radical doubt is basically dishonest. (Scott 2001)

Biblical scholar and Jesus Seminar Fellow, B. Brandon Scott. Made that statement which is not only challenging to all of us who engage in theological and biblical discussion or study groups, but also personally challenging, to all who would follow the Way of Jesus. One old is quotes as having said, that the first word in religion must always be ‘No’. ‘No’ to all the nonsense that often goes under the name ‘religion’, Why? so that there is space to say ‘Yes’ to the more profound insights, of the best in religions.

And as Brandon Scott also reminds us: “Our faith is not a single moment of coming to faith or conversion, but an ongoing activity or process.  This is not to say that there might be a moment when once can mark a change or an awareness but rather to acknowledge that our faith grows and develops in response to our concrete experience…  The issue is that we don’t know or can’t know what we need faith for.  Faith is in its very nature a gamble about what might be, not what certainly is” (Scott 2001:1148).

But it can be hard to say ‘No’ when the politics and interpretations from the past,
or the church bureaucracy of the present, have framed or shaped a story in a certain way. That’s because for two thousand years there has been this big contradiction between the religion of Jesus and the religion about Jesus.

So let me offer a few initial comments about what I mean by that.

The religion of Jesus is found in the things he talked with people about. How to live. How to treat one another. How you can be made whole, here and now. How you can help make the world more whole, here and now. A constant pressing at the margins, for justice and empowerment, as he ate with toll collectors and prostitutes, called the poor blessed, and praised the confessions of common folk.

The religion about Jesus is about believing a certain story, often aimed at frightening people into accepting agendas such as: hating gays, or independent women, or the sanctioning of torture against so-called ‘middle-eastern terrorists’. Coupled with the promise that if you do ‘believe’, you’ll be ‘saved’ after you die.

It is my opinion and of many people today that Jesus would have hated that story. He, would have said ‘No’ to that ‘about’ story.

Today we have one of those ‘in process’ stories as our gospel story. And you will have recognised it is a story about ‘love’. But not the ‘Women’s Day’ or ‘New Idea’ celebrity love story. Or the Hallmark card, sentimental, love story. Yet it is a love story which has inspired our storyteller to both tell it and to wrap it around the name of Jesus. And more importantly for my claim today, a story where where ‘love’ isn’t a noun, but rather a verb.

I want to share with you a love story and a prayer written by Davidson Loehr.
and quoted by Rex Hunt more recently. Both are about love as a verb. Not as a noun.

The story…

A monk, Friar Bernard, lamented in his cell on Mount Cenis, the crimes of mankind.

Rising one morning before daybreak from his bed of moss and dry leaves, he

gnawed his roots and berries, drank of the spring, and set forth to go to Rome to reform the corrupt people there.

On his way he encountered many travelers who greeted him courteously. And the cabins of peasants and the castles of lords supplied his few wants. When he came at last to Rome, his piety and good will easily introduced him to many families of the rich.

On the first day he saw and talked with mothers with babes at their breasts. They told him how much love they bore their children, and how they were perplexed in their daily walk lest they should fail in their duty to them.

“What!” he said, “and this on rich embroidered carpets, on marble floors, surrounded by expensive sculpture, and carved wood, rich pictures, and piles of books about you? “You’re rich Roman pagans, not even Christians! How can you be good people?”

“Look at our pictures, and books,” they said, “and we will tell you, good Brother, how we spent last evening. “These books are full of stories of godly children and holy families and sacrifices made in old or in recent times, by great and not mean persons. “And last evening, our families were all gathered together, and our husbands and brothers spoke sadly on what we could save and give to others in the hard times.”

Then the men came in, and they said, “Greetings, good Brother!  Does your monastery want gifts? Let us share with you.”

Then Friar Bernard went home swiftly with other thoughts than he had brought, saying, “Their way of life is wrong – they are not even poor, and they are not Christians! “Yet these Romans, whom I prayed God to destroy, are lovers. They are lovers.  What can I do?”

That’s the story.

Davidson Loehr offers this comment: “Friar Bernard has a couple choices.  He can try to forget what he’d just seen and felt, and return to his comfortable beliefs, or he can realize that his beliefs are too small to hold life, or even to serve it in a way that isn’t a curse to others.” (DLoehr. First UU Church, Austin, web site, 2006)

Now the prayer and it is a little edited.

We pray to the angels of our better nature and the still small voice that can speak to us when we feel safe enough to listen. Help us to love people and causes outside of ourselves, that we may be enlarged to include them… Help us remember we can, if we will, invest ourselves in relationships, institutions and causes that transcend and expand us. Help us guard our hearts against those relationships and activities that diminish us and weaken our life force. And help us give our hearts to those relationships that might, with our help, expand our souls and our worlds. We know every day, both life and death are set before us.
Let us have the faith and courage to choose those involvements that can lead us toward life, toward life more abundant… May we see more clearly in these matters. May we have the will to hold to those relationships that demand, and cherish, the very best in us. Just that.  Just those.  Amen. (DLoehr. First UU Church, Austin, web site, 2006).

The question we are left with is “what does it take to let love get lived?” I think as others do that Love, of the kind our gospel storyteller is talking about, is a verb rather than a noun.

This love creates – a dynamic, living whole, a strong harmony, a deep unity, which does not diminish or weaken, but rather expands our life force, encouraging a response in expressions of joy. And it is greeted in open and honest ways that can lead us toward life more abundant.

Theodore Parker, the great Unitarian reformer of early 19th century America, once wrote near the end of his life: “I have had great powers and have only half used them.” We all have great powers that we have only half used, suggests Davidson Loehr. “Isn’t that one reason we come here to church – to keep being exhorted to develop the other half of our great powers, and to use them to help ourselves and our world come alive?  We come seeking wholeness, and so often we don’t want to admit that we can have it.” (DLoehr. First UU Church, Austin, web site, 2008). It is as if we would rather wallow in self-pity or hide from the fear we have created.We lock in the idea that we are not good enough to love wastefully in rules about belief, and creeds and literal prisons of certainty that we can never achieve, and we maintain myth as an untruth, as opposed to a liberating ground from which to live.We make Love an unassailable noun when in fact it is a verb.

Like faith it is not in the conversion event that we grow but in the living of it. It is in the loving that love exists not the other way round. Love as a noun is that which we escape from by giving it all sorts of meanings from romance to blind acceptance but as a verb it is clearly an action that changes things. Nothing is ever the same after an experience of loving and being loved. Look at that which happens between almost every parent’s experience, be careful here not to fall back into the noun, Love as a verb is unconditional. Amen.

Scott, B. B. 2001. Re-imgine the World. An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.