Proper 12C. 28 July 2013.
In loving memory of Susan Massie.
Tomorrow I will be on vacation until Monday, 19th August. I will be coming back for the Rev. Walter Clark's Burial Office next Saturday, so it may not seem that I'm away much; however, the next three Sundays I won't be at the Altar or the pulpit. So let me take just a moment to say something that I often think, but don't say, and that is, thank you.
I am very grateful that you let me into the sacred space of your inmost thoughts to speak about the narratives of our faith, the aspects of our belief, and perhaps most of all, the devout wish that we would not really be leading lives, but rather that Christ would be leading them. It may not seem that way sometimes. I think quite often we feel neither leading nor led, but rather that we are trying to survive life.
When I was a younger man—not that I'm aged now—but when I was younger, I believed that I had more control. When you are just starting off you feel invincible; and you can plan your day without too much trouble. Having children changes that, but so do experiences of great adversity.
Shortly after Peter was born, I endured one of the toughest periods in my life to date. It wasn't that I was a new father, though that was part of it. It was being the rector of a church that could not defend itself adequately against parishioners who wished to cause trouble and dissention. And I recall, in the darkest days, that my salvation could only be found in God. Nothing else could touch it. No amount of affection from anyone could reach the pain I felt. That I could not—through force of desire, and honest behavior—bring health to the parish I once loved, and vowed to serve.
My anchor through those storms was the Lord Jesus Christ, to whom I have vowed my fidelity and diligent service for the remainder of my life. The only moments of pure salvation, were found in the daily private recitation of Morning Prayer.
I would go into the guest bedroom in the rectory, (which was bitterly cold in the winter, because we didn't heat that room, unless someone was visiting) and I would turn to the page in my Daily Office book, and for thirty minutes, I would recite the deathless prose of Thomas Cranmer and Charles Price. I would read from the Bible and the Coverdale Psalter, each in their turn, and then I would sit in the silence of that cold room.
I know it doesn't make sense, but there was something strangely wonderful about the cold. I have no idea why, but the cold was ironically pleasant and comforting. I had no words to speak. I was unable to form a coherent prayer to God, because, as the Psalm (109) reads, "My heart [was] wounded within me."
I continued to say the prayers in the book, and visit the sick. I continued faithfully to celebrate the Sacraments, and I preached the best sermons my mind and heart could offer, but I could not say anything to God that wasn't filled with pain. And the salvation of my soul was the God-filled silence. Deep, prayerful silence.
I took walks then—I had yet to become a runner—and I walked all over the town. Verses of hymns would come into my mind, and I would sing them when I knew no one could overhear me. I was deeply, and silently sad. At one point, I was speaking by telephone to a seminary friend who is now a priest in Iowa, and she said to me, "I can hear in your voice that you have been hanging on the cross."
And God saw the silence of my heart, and heard the prayers I could not say, and one day I went to the mailbox and there was a letter from Woodstock, Virginia. So, I am grateful to be here, and I am grateful for the weekly experience of being welcomed into the sacred space of your souls. It is a privilege that I do not take lightly, because I know that you and I together, in these times—we are handling the things of God. Just as the Altar Guild and I handle the chalice and paten with tenderness, so too should we handle the sacred stories of the Bible, because they intersect with our lives; they give richness and dignity to them.
But let me, please, come back to prayer. What Carl Sandberg and Susan Massie referred to as "deep, silent prayers," because they are the ones we offer the most.
Last week we encountered Mary and Martha, and I spoke of the criticism of Martha as being simply that she was distracted, not that she was busy. Being busy and being distracted often coexist, but it is possible to be busy and still be centered. It takes discipline.
It takes discipline to live in a daily awareness that God is present and active within us and around us. And through cultivating that awareness of God, we become less distracted, because God can guide us.
In our lesson this morning, which follows the issue of distraction, raised by the story of Martha and Mary, the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray. It was a reasonable request, which Luke alludes to by adding, "as John [the Baptist] taught his disciples."
"Lord, teach us to pray."
Sometime ago—I wish I could remember where—but I heard or read that people come to church mostly to learn how to pray. Perhaps it would be better to say, "how to interact with God." It's not that people don't know how to say what's on their minds; but that people—especially people who are sensitive, thoughtful people—are not always confident that what's really on their hearts and minds is getting out. And if it is getting out, there is a worry that somehow God would be displeased to hear it.
Or, alternatively, if the prayer is for someone to be healed, or a situation to change, that there is a way of asking that is more acceptable to God, and that God is waiting to be asked in the appropriate manner.
I'm sure you will remember teaching your children that a request should contain the word "please." A child will say: "Can I have a popsicle." And the response might be, "Can you say `please?'" And the child responds, "Please."
My parents called it the magic word. I wonder if that's part of why we wonder if there is a special way of addressing God that we've been missing when we pray again and again and don't feel that we have received what we've asked for.
Maybe God, at times, seems so completely "other," or the problem so insurmountable that we wonder if God is waiting for the right combination of words. Is the problem that we're not saying "in the Name of Jesus," or the word "Amen"? In my religious past, I have heard in sermons that prayers are like radio waves, broadcasting to anyone out there, but they wouldn't reach God unless the Name of Jesus was used. That you had to say the Name, or that you had to use verses of Holy Scripture to support your request.
When I became an Episcopalian, I came from a background where public prayers were not found in a book, so I took great comfort in the Collects. But a woman who had been a lifelong Anglican once said, "I finally found a spiritual life when I stopped reading the prayers from the book." This bumps us up against the dual nature of prayer in the Anglican tradition—that prayer can be both public and private, and that both expressions have a vital place.
In fact, Lancelot Andrewes, who is one of my favourite Anglican divines—he was, in fact, the main translator for the first five books of the King James Version. Andrewes wrote a book he called the Preces Privatæ, which means private prayers. Even though Andrewes was dedicated to the public piety of the English Book of Common Prayer, he still maintained a private collection of his own prayers in Latin, because they were meaningful to him.
But I think the prayers that are the most honest, most urgent, and most authentic are the ones we cannot bring ourselves to say out loud. Or if we can say them out loud, we have difficulty letting them go. These are the prayers we live—the deep, silent ones.
About a month ago, I found myself going about life, and a sentence came into my mind that attached itself to my soul. I didn't go looking for it. It was like a burr that attaches itself to your trousers when you hike through the woods, and just sort of clings there. The sentence was a prayer, and it was simply this. "Lord, you are all compassion."
I've never seen that sentence in print, although the Psalms often speak of the compassion of the Lord. It is not a prayer in the sense of asking for anything. It's a simple declarative sentence—a definite statement. "Lord, you are all compassion." Where did the "all" come from, I wondered. Surely it is enough to say, "Lord, you are compassion." This equals this. God is love; love is compassion. But something wouldn't let me drop the "all," and I wondered why.
Finally I reasoned that it was because the sentence is attributing all compassion to its source. God is the source of all compassion. God shares his compassion with us to use—for ourselves, for others, and as a stand alone gift.
And I found myself saying this sentence as I drove my car, as I ran in the morning, as I showered. Each time I said the sentence out loud it changed me. I think that's the best kind of prayer.
William Temple, many years ago Archbishop of Canterbury, believed that prayer is intended not to change God but to change us. Perhaps sometimes that is true, but I think prayer also changes God. I think God bends an ear when we are able to acknowledge, without distraction, that God is the emanating source of love and compassion.
Jesus clearly ministered from an uncomplicated trust in the compassion of his heavenly Father, and taught his disciples to do that, to say, "Our Father…" "Daddy…" That was his answer to the disciples who wanted to know how they should pray. And Jesus said, "Like this, `Daddy'…"
What follows is a series of ascriptions and petitions that are short, and to the point. "Your kingdom come, your will be done. Give us. Forgive us. Lead us. Deliver us. Daddy." And then he goes on to say, "Be diligent. Ask. Search. Knock. You know what it is for a daddy to give good things to his children. How much more will your heavenly, compassionate Daddy give to you."
So, let me leave you with this. There are prayers that rattle around inside of you all the time. Prayers for healing for yourself and others. Prayers for peace. Needs and wants. The desire for direction in your life; or for the intervention of God in situations beyond your control. I'm giving you this prayer. "Lord, you are all compassion." Take it with you. Write it on a Post-It note and stick it on your bathroom mirror. Say it out loud when you are alone.
It's not an incantation. It won't necessarily replace any other prayers. But it might open your heart and your eyes to the ways God is already at work. And it might help you to give voice to the prayers you don't know how to offer.
I give you this prayer with my love, my gratitude for letting me speak in the sacred space of your souls, and with my "prayers for you all. My deep, silent prayers."