Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Pray Uppity

It seems to me, as I reflect on the week I spent at the St. John's Monastery in Minnesota, just how much I have prayed 3 times a day with brothers (or sisters at St. Benedict's in St. Joseph), and another couple times a day, plus a time each day of Lectio Divina with my own brothers and sisters in the dispersed community of St. Brigid of Kildare.  At some times in my life, that amount of prayer would have equaled a years' effort. 

 What first struck me a couple of years ago, when I went to St. John's the first time, was the silence.  Most people don't know what to do with silence.  Some just can't stand it.  They will turn on a TV or a radio not to be entertained or informed, but just so that void can be filled.

But in this week, silence was a constant companion, and for those used to it, a companionable one.  We each had our own room, or “cell”, I guess in monkish terms, and that was a place of quiet and peace.  The brothers would walk in silently to pray, and walk out just as quietly. 

The main structure of Benedictine prayer is to pray the Psalms, all 150 of them, in a week.  Each Psalm is either recited or chanted, and there are always three or four, plus other worship elements.  And there is at least a full minute of silence between each element, between each Psalm.

Being comfortable with silence is something many of us human beings grow into.  For us in the developed world, silence doesn't feel natural, the way it might for the vast population of the US. 

Now this is not a sermon about how “I am such a better pray-er than you.”  We were all raised, those of us who were raised in the church, anyway, to believe that prayer was a requirement, a duty.  Maybe, for some of us, it even became a chore. 

When prayer feels the same to you as doing the dishes, we've missed the point. 

We're trained by our culture about what prayer should be.  We assimilate the proper ratio of praise to petition, and to use poetical words.  We've all learned the way to do it.

Have you noticed, though, that the Lord's Prayer does it wrong?

Have you noticed that the Lord's Prayer rushes through a perfunctory praise section, and gets right to the asking for stuff? 

“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done...”

“All righty”, we say,  “got that done, now to the petitions, which is the point”

“Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Don't you think that's kind of odd, that the language seems to put a one-to-one equivalency between what we forgive and what we're forgiven for?  That isn't what it means, I think.  I think it means that we are to forgive as God forgives, meaning, in the same manner, with the same generosity and the same forbearance. 
  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil...”

In other words, “please God, keep us fed, don't let us be punished as harshly as we might deserve, and help us to be graceful with the people who have hurt us.”  oh, and keep us safe.

And then we get a little more praise at the end.

Jesus prays it wrong, according to the ways we were taught as Christians.


Jesus then goes on to talk about persistence in prayer.  He tells the story of a man who goes to his neighbors' house at three in the morning, because he's just received a guest, and the guest is hungry.  The man has no food in the house, so he goes to the next door neighbors' hoiuse and says “help help!  I need some bread for my guest!”  Well, the neighbor of course tells him he's not going to get up, it's three in the morning, the door is locked, all the kids are asleep.

But Jesus tells us that if we are persistent, the neighbor will of course get up.  There's another story of the same type, a few chapters later in Luke, which Jesus tells the story of a woman who is persistent in her complaint with a Judge, and the judge finally grants her her justice just so she'll stop bothering him. 

Where I grew up, the word “bold” was generally a positive term-you could get bold flavors, paint in bold colors, or someone had made some bold (and therefore admirable) decisions.

Then I move to Northeastern PA, and learn that it is a negative attribute here.  It means “uppity”, or “impolite”, or “rude.”

Folks, this text is telling us to pray boldly.  We're being told to pray impolitely; we're told to pray persistently.   
There's a quote that I want to share with you all, which was very new to me this week, but is apparently an old chestnut, from George Buttrick:

“If God is not and the life of man poor, solitary, nasty, brutish and short, prayer is the veriest self-deceit. If God is, yet is known only as vague rumor and dark coercion, prayer is whimpering folly: it were noble to die. But if God is in some deep and eternal sense like Jesus, friendship with Him is our first concern, worthiest art, best resource and sublimest joy.”

What he's basically saying is:  If God doesn't exist, prayer is a self delusion.  We
re hollering our worries and joys into a vacuum.  If God does exist, and yet we don't know anything about God, God is just a great big unknowable entity, then prayer is pathetic and sad.  We don't know whether God cares. 

But if Jesus can be seen as evidence of God's character, if we know about God because we know the stories of Jesus, then we know we lift our prayers to someone who hears and cares. 

Now, of course, Buttrick believes the third choice.  Scripture tells us that Jesus is indeed a reflection of God; the term “Emmanuel” means “God with Us.”  Everything we know about God's character, we know through Jesus. 

It pays, therefore, for us to pay attention to the words of Jesus in the Bible.  It behooves us to attend to what Jesus tells us about prayer.  They are the answers to the test!  It is God telling us how to pray to God!

And God's telling us to be bold... to be impertinent.  God tells us to be uppity!

God tells us to be persistent.  This is how we are supposed to pray.  Not lady-like, or gentlemanly, but whooping, and crying, and sighing and groaning.

Thy will be done, give us this day our daily bread, forgive us as we forgive others, and don't let us get into trouble.     


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