Sunday, December 26, 2010

Spoken Word

Prayer as Transcendent Experience

John 1:1-18

John’s gospel begins with a majestic prologue, in which almost anybody who has ever cracked open the Bible will hear an echo of the very first words of the very first chapter of the very first book. “In the beginning.” That is, in fact, what Genesis means. And genesis—the genesis of Jesus, the genesis of creation, the genesis of life, the genesis of regeneration, the genesis of faith, the genesis of knowledge—is very much the central theme of the fourth gospel. “In the beginning,” begins John, and with one gesture he pulls aside the curtain of time and steps into a world behind the shadows and scenes of the present. Like the Pevensie children in The Chronicles of Narnia, we follow John through the wardrobe into a strange and yet somehow more real world than the one in which we daily live.

John did not invent that world. But you won’t find it sketched out in some other part of the Bible either. The cosmos known to the writer of Genesis in the sixth century before Christ looked very different from the cosmos that John understood. Sometime around the beginning of the Christian era, a Jew named Philo who lived in Alexandria, Egypt, came up with a blend of Hebrew and Greek thought. Among other things, Philo talked about a “logos,” which to him meant “creative principle.” Greek philosophy tended in the direction of seeing matter as imperfect. Hebrew tradition, on the other hand, saw God as the creator of everything. “Logos” for Philo was a way of bridging the material world and God. The Logos was God’s creative power that brought the world into being. If you have ever heard the Prologue of St. John’s gospel, and most likely if you have ever heard a sermon on it, you know that “the Word” is that Logos. It is that creative power of God that was with God in the beginning. When Philo heard God speaking, “Let there be light,” he was hearing the Logos, the Word.

So John pulls aside the curtain of the present and lets us see what is happening outside time and space. Now the interesting thing about the Logos is that, although it is beyond the world that we see and live in, it is responsible for the whole shebang. All things came into being through the Logos. Not one thing came into being without the Logos. And, like Philo, John sees that what has come into being in the Logos was life. The Logos has brought the world to life, in other words. Not only that, but the Logos is the light that enlightens every person. Don’t miss the importance of that. All persons, not just Christians or Jews or intellectual or spiritual persons, are enlightened by the Logos.

Imagine that right now you could step inside the space, as it were, where the Logos lived before being born in Jesus. Suppose you could just slip right now between your pew and the one in front of you and just disappear to the rest of us while finding yourself in another dimension. What do you think you would call where you were? Heaven, perhaps? All right, maybe not. But would you say that God was there? And, if so, then it really is what we call “heaven,” isn’t it? Would you be aware that if you could do this right now you would not have had to die to go to heaven? You would have simply slid out of this world and into another world. Or, to put it slightly differently, your body would be right here but your consciousness would be elsewhere.

Now some of you will not believe that that is possible. Others will say that even if you do fancy things like this with your consciousness, you have by no means “left” the ordinary world, because anything that the human mind does is by definition in the ordinary world. Fair enough. I’m not here to quibble. But what I am driving at is, first, that there more to reality than we commonly suppose; second, that God is everywhere and everywhere accessible; and, third, that you are perfectly capable of an experience that transcends your ordinary bodily existence. There is a common word to denote that transcendent experience. That word is prayer.

Most of us are used to a couple of notions about prayer. One is that it is a matter of asking God for one thing or another, or telling God something of which we think God might not be aware. Occasionally it is telling God thanks for something wonderful, and from time to time it is telling God that we are sorry for something we have done or left undone. Well, all of those can be prayer and often are. But at its heart, prayer, whether here in church or somewhere else, is not talking to God as if God were a great big Ear somewhere out in the universe, but actually entering heaven—which I am using as shorthand for the presence of God.

In one of Charles Williams’ novels some of the characters are looking for a London address. They go to the street where the building is located, but they do not find it. There is the number before and the number after. But the building is on neither side of the street and is nowhere to be found. Others, however, are able to find the building and enter. There is nothing particularly mysterious about it at all. They simply happen to be attuned to a dimension of existence that others are deaf to. It is not at all unlike the situation in the Harry Potter novels where to catch the train to Hogwarts one has to step courageously into a space between platforms 9 and 10. Muggles, oblivious to the world of magic, do not see Platform 9½. I don’t think that these images of Williams and Rowling are a bad way of understanding prayer. Prayer is stepping into that dimension where the Logos lives both prior to and after the Incarnation.

The whole story of the Incarnation of the Logos is the story of the Word becoming human that humanity might become divine. The Logos bridges heaven and earth, God and humanity. The point of the Incarnation is not to leave us interminably separated from God, but quite the opposite: to unite us to God. The Word joins together things earthly and things heavenly. As John puts it in the Prologue, “as many as received him, to them he gave power to become the children of God.” What the Word, or Logos, is by nature—child of God—we become by grace—children of God. Baptism brings us into union with the Logos. Eucharist keeps us there. Prayer is the practice by which the bonds of the union get stronger and stronger. Remember that prayer is not just “saying your prayers,” but entering that dimension where, as one of the collects of the Prayer Book puts it, the Spirit might lift us to the Presence of God, where we may be still and know that God is God.

As you know if you were here two weeks ago or again on Christmas Eve, my focus for preaching over the next number of months is going to be prayer. So there is no way and no need for me to unpack all that this might possibly mean right now. I hope you will be a part of the ongoing conversation about prayer as we explore it.
Some of you already have forgotten more about prayer than I will ever know. I do not pretend to be a master of prayer. But I do believe that we are created to be in tune—united in purpose and spirit—with the deepest truth of the universe. That the Logos would become one of us is magnificently wonderful. It is even more wonderful that the Logos would unite us to himself so that we can be as authentic, as real, as loving, as grace-filled as the Logos is. Don’t think that it will never happen. The most stunning thing of all has already occurred, namely that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. Coming into his presence through prayer is not impossible. It is exactly what happens when we are born not of blood, or of the will of the flesh, or of human will, but the will of God.

© Frank G. Dunn, 2010

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Heart Warming

Christmas as Prayer

“But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.” –St. Luke 2:18

In Advent last year, Marcus Borg, known to many of us as a refreshingly honest New Testament scholar, came to Washington to address us Episcopal clergy in a diocesan quiet day, a custom for which we gather in early December. Borg began by asking us quickly to recall some of our memories of Christmas when we were children. Several hands shot up including mine. Like the eager schoolboy I once was, I unrestrainedly confessed to my colleagues that when I was a boy, I was the decorator in my family. I saw nothing particularly funny about that, but my comment brought the house down, so much so that Borg commented that something must have been going on that was escaping him. When the laughter abated, I reminisced that every December I would go through the woods surrounding our farmhouse gathering holly and pine boughs which I would use to decorate the front door and the table in our living room, as we had no mantle.

Of the many things I remember about Christmases long ago, the strongest memories cluster about that holly, green at first but rapidly brown because my grandmother heated the living room to something like 80°. Taking my cues from the best source I had, namely the sentimental pictures on the Methodist bulletin covers at that time of year, I would place the family Bible in the middle of the living room table, open to the second chapter of St. Luke’s gospel, flank it with red candles in silver holders, and surround it with holly.

And, long before I knew the word “liturgy,” I liked nothing better than to gather the family in the living room and either read or orchestrate the reading of Luke 2:1-20. On some level the verse that struck me as perhaps the most mysterious was towards the end. “But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.” I have a vague memory of my mother commenting on that at some point. And perhaps I heard our pastor, Mr. Hedgepath, preach on that text. It is somehow connected for me with the very first image of the Blessed Mother that resonated with me: a large, oak-framed sepia print of Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna,” which hung in my Sunday school classroom while I was out gathering holly.

Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. I imagined that the woman I saw on my Sunday school classroom wall was pondering, thinking about, the child she was holding, remembering all the strange things that were said about him and all the weird dimensions of his birth. What I could not have known at that age, but know now, is that Mary’s pondering all those things in her heart was her prayer. And it is prayer more than anything else which spells the difference between getting at the meaning of Christmas and forgetting it or never getting it.

Luke says that Mary “preserved” all these things. What things? What the shepherds reported that the angel had said: “born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” This proclamation fits with what the angel had said to Mary herself at the annunciation: “…and now you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” But then Luke goes on to say something that nobody fully understands. He uses a verb that we hear in English as “pondered.” But that is probably too weak a way of conveying the meaning. It is more like, “she tossed them together in her heart.” Somebody looked into the matter further and came up with the probability that the whole sentence might mean something like, “But Mary treasured all these things, tossing them over and over in her heart, trying to find the right meaning of it all.”

That’s interesting. Most folks I listen to, or whose ads and cards and donation requests I read, have it all figured out. I hear phrases like “the true meaning of Christmas” and it would surprise me if anyone has tossed much Christmas around trying to figure it out. Typically, Christians are used to hearing scripture like this and, unlike our Jewish cousins, assume that we are hearing history, not myth and poetry and symbol. The Nativity is too large to be understood factually. It is beyond the scope of The Washington Post, CNN, or even Fox News. It exceeds all that can be neatly computed and quantified. And here, embedded in the story itself, is a clue as to what must happen if we are ever to find the right meaning of it all: ponder it, savor it, chew on it, over and over in your heart, until it becomes a part of you.

Madeleine L’Engle authored an exceedingly lovely book telling in her own masterful words the story of Christ, inspired and illustrated by Giotto’s famous frescoes in the little Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. She entitled the book The Glorious Impossible, and wrote, “Possible things are easy to believe. The Glorious Impossibles are what bring joy to our hearts, hope to our lives, songs to our lips.” And I would add: the only thing to do with the impossibles is to take them into your prayer.

Notice that I do not say “prayers.” For the first several years that I lived in Washington, I had a spiritual director, a very wise woman, who would ask me periodically what I was doing with thus and such an issue in my prayer? I would typically take her to be asking me what or how I was praying about whatever it was. “No,” she would say, “not what are you praying—as in the words you think or say—but what are you doing with it in your prayer?” It took me many months to learn that “my prayer” was not the content of my meditation, let alone the words I say that begin with “Dear God” or something of the sort. My prayer is my continual pondering, cogitating, ruminating, considering, tossing around the events and images and sounds and patterns of my life, trying to find the meaning of it all. Some of it is words, and sometimes those words are anything but typically religious ones. But sometimes the only thing I can do about the beauty of a relationship is hug or kiss or hold. And sometimes prayer is a formal thanksgiving. But just as often it is humming a song or whistling as I walk down the street or singing something at the top of my lungs when I am in my truck and no one but the Maker of the Universe can hear me. Sometimes such pondering takes me to the piano and my oldest art becomes the medium in which I express myself. I have known it to drive me to a canvas, where something takes hold of me and delivers in color and form what eludes my reason. I have known it to happen in the garden or washing dishes or running or hiking or—yes!–decorating!

In Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna,” two little putti, who have been reproduced ad infinitum on Christmas cards and all manner of angel paraphernalia, are hanging on the balustrade, looking up, their backs turned to the action, yet still aware of the Mother and Child. One cherub is cogitating, its chubby finger on its lips. The other is enchanted, perhaps, or mystified, or adoring, or maybe even a trifle bored. I imagine that the faces of the putti, more than anything else in the painting, betray the prayer of the artist himself, painting this towards the end of his life. Like his little putti, he does not yet know what to make of it all. The magnificent birth eludes him. It is too wonderful for him, so high that he cannot attain it. In a way he is tossing around and around in his paint and form the possible meaning of the Gloriously Impossible, just as the Virgin herself is doing.

Now I know that what I was doing when I was eight or nine years old plucking holly from the woods was my prayer. Some part of a little boy was adoring the Christ Child as really as the Christ Child was adoring the little boy. He had to open the Book and place the holly around it because that was the only way he knew to weave together story and symbol. He could not grasp the beauty of his flesh any more than his little hands could grasp holly without getting stuck and bleeding. But bit by bit, over the years, the story told itself, and things began to sink in. He learned that the flesh which the Word became in being born was something to rejoice in, not to be ashamed of. He learned that the Savior born that day in the City of David had a peculiar pull on him that he could not shake. And he treasures now so many things that do and don’t have to do with what happened on the hillside outside Bethlehem or in the cave where Mary and Joseph camped with the animals. Little bits of boyhood, like the memory of a Christmas shopping trip with his grandmother; the memory of giving an engagement ring when he thought his life had finally come together; one Advent spent working to build a homemade substitute for the Barbie Dream House for his little girls, wondering if they would be at all enchanted by their parents’ creativity or put off by the substitution of craft for expensive toys (they were appropriately impressed!); falling asleep on Christmas morning in the arms of his beloved, too overjoyed at the goodness of life to say much more than “Thank you, God.” Sheep and shepherds and angels and New Life: the glorious impossible he treasures and keeps turning all of it, all of it, Christmas and brokenness, Christmas and healing, Christmas and joy, over and over in his heart, where the boundaries between story and symbol, heaven and earth, Jesus and the boy fade and disappear.

Take your life tonight and all that is in it into your prayer. Memories and hopes, forgiveness and irritations, surprises and boredom, excitement and joy: take them all into your prayer. Keep asking what the Child that was born that day in the city of David has to do with you, and how you ever came to hear the great glad tidings of the angels, and how the mystery of the universe ever became your own Glorious Impossible. Treasure it. And toss it around and around in your heart until you come by grace to your own moment of meaning.

©Frank G. Dunn, 2010

Monday, December 13, 2010

Pray Tell

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with you and the Holy Spirit be honor and glory now and for ever. Amen.

There are three touchstones that keep me connected to the heart of my Christian practice: hymns, psalms, and collects. Of the three of these, the third is far and away the most peculiarly Anglican—if that interests you. If it doesn’t, you probably have no earthly idea of what a collect is. “Is he talking about the collection?” you might wonder. Or, you might have noticed the word c-o-l-l-e-c-t in the bulletin or Prayer Book and have wondered what it is, why it is called that, and where it comes from. Don’t think for a minute that I imagine this to be of enormous importance to anybody. But you would not be wrong in supposing that I am in the process of opening a door that I’ll bet you’ll at least want to look through if not walk through. But hold on a minute.

Back to collects. Collects are so called because they are a specific form of concise prayer offered over the “collecta,” the assembly, of worshipers. The one perhaps most familiar to us is the so-called Collect for Purity: “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid….” Nearly always they comprise an invocation, (Almighty God), a description of the one being invoked (to you all hearts are open, all desires known…), a command (cleanse the thoughts of our hearts), a result (that we may perfectly love you…), and a conclusion (through Jesus Christ our Lord).

The reason I like collects is the reason that many people do, and maybe the reason they have outlasted many another feature of Christian worship. I like them because they are short, memorable, and useful. Sometimes I feel like a motherless child without any words to pray, even to speak under my breath to myself. And when I feel the need to connect to Something larger, I draw on the words of collects that I have known since I was a boy and hear myself saying, “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts…” or “Remember, O Lord, what you have wrought in us and not what we deserve…” or “… that our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found….”

That brings us to today’s collect. For many years, and still in some parts of the Anglican Communion, the “stir up” collect was used on the Sunday Next Before Advent. It was one of a series of old collects which for a long time were used on all five of the Sundays before Christmas that began with the Latin, “Excita.” In many an Episcopalian’s kitchen on or about the Sunday before Advent, spoons and egg beaters began whipping and whirring overtime to stir up puddings and fruitcakes, which has about as much to do with the content of the collect as Jesus has use for Jacuzzis. But that is why “Stir up Sunday” grew in popularity. The collect is a prayer that God will “stir up” power, and with great might come among us. And, it notes, because we are sorely hindered by our manifold sins, we implore God to let God’s bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us.

I want to side-step, just for a little while, the figure of John the Baptist and his message of preparation for Messiah long enough to look carefully at this collect. The door that I want to open is the whole matter of prayer. This is as good a prayer as any to initiate that discussion—to raise serious questions about what prayer is, why it is the quintessential religious practice, and why it is enormously important to Christians and to those of other faith traditions.

The most basic thing about the collect, it seems to me, is the phrase, “because we are sorely hindered by our sins.” Before you retch at the idea of sin actually being in a sermon, stop and consider. Don’t you know that it is true? Before you leap to cataloguing those personal thoughts and actions that you might call sin (either things that you are ashamed of or things that you think are nobody’s business but your own), think of the enormous power that seems to hold the world in its grip. Your list might be different from mine, but mine would include things like willful ignorance that tries to silence the truth of the global climate crisis, self-absorption that turns a deaf ear to the cries of the wretched, power hunger that tramples on the vulnerable, pride of race or nation that justifies killing and unspeakable cruelty, the delusion that any of us is able to be who and what we are without depending upon the rest of the human community, the thoughtlessness or worse that leads to the trashing of the natural world. That is enough to put me in clear mind of how it is that we—the world, the whole lot of humanity—are indeed sorely hindered. Tragically, we hinder ourselves and could easily let up if not stop the behaviors that defeat us. Add to those things the innumerable ways in which we as individuals allow our desires to take control of us so that we lose our balance, falling into various kinds of excess, fear-driven greediness, competition for affection, manipulating others’ emotions and usurping their freedom. Tell me we are not hindered by our sins!

But then we pray that God will stir up God’s power and with great might come among us. It is not a request. It is an imperative. The collect doesn’t fool around with a nice address to God, nor with the customary descriptor. It just goes straight for the verb, the command: “Stir up your power!” What on earth is that about? What do we mean when we pray such a thing? Do we seriously think that God is like some dragon hiding in a cave at the end of the world, snoring through the centuries, ignorant of all that is going on in the universe? Do we think that our prayers, for example, are sharp darts we shoot between the dragon’s scales to arouse her so that she will roar to life, snort some fire, wing her terrible flight through time and space, come to wreck our world, rid it of evil, fix it for all time? Is such a prayer in fact a piece of fairy-tale fiction? Suppose it were true that God is the Being that we hope to heaven will intervene and fix things (we are used to believing that about politicians, for example). Who do we think might suffer, if not we ourselves who are our own chief hinderers? Are we really sure that we want that? There are those that we would laugh to see punished for their wickedness. But are we ready to pay the price we might ourselves owe were our hands pried loose from all we grasp and squeeze and cling to?

This is not what the collect envisions, however. We find ourselves praying that God’s power having been sufficiently stirred up, God will with great might come among us not to beat us up, but with bountiful grace and mercy to help and deliver us. What do you think that might look like were the prayer “to come true,” as my six-year-old daughter once put it? The truth of the matter is we do not know. We can dimly imagine, perhaps, what it might be like if the world were really at peace, if people learned to get along, if we did not go around picking fights with one another, if people were courteous even to strangers, if in short human beings lived on an even slightly higher level than we generally do.

You may take me to task here, voicing the position of the orthodox Christian, claiming that of course we know what it would be like if God came among us with great might because that is exactly what God did in Jesus. Well, yes. And look what happened to Jesus. All that grace and all that mercy that Jesus embodied and modeled and talked about just seemed to evaporate like the dew under Good Friday morning’s sun when the forces of darkness revved up and got poised for a crucifixion. In a sense that is exactly what the gospel today is telling us. It is not only possible for the seriously wicked to miss the point and presence of God’s might in Jesus. Why it was none other than John the Baptist himself, Mister Forerunner, Prophet of the Kingdom-of-Heaven-is-at-hand who was shaken by Jesus’ performance! “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” This is enough to tell us that we would not necessarily recognize God’s great might among us, especially if that might did not match our preconceptions, as clearly happened when Jesus appeared.

Now I must tell you. This sermon will not fully answer the question of what we think we are doing when we pray. I don’t know that any sermon could. But my purpose today is to crack open this subject so that we can begin thinking and discussing what we think we are doing when we pray. To some of you that is obvious. To others of you it may be pointless. But to many of us, skeptics and believers, agnostics and orthodox, prayer must have a point or else it, and the God it is addressed to, deteriorate into utter triviality, leaving us mired in the stuff of sin and shame (though we may try to excuse it), or else trapping us in a silly religious charade that only pretends to be real. I want to spend at least from now until Pentecost pushing us to be ruthlessly honest about prayer; to look at all the various pieces of the Christian story through the lens of prayer—healing and prayer, forgiveness and prayer, desire and prayer, art and prayer, ethics and prayer, resurrection and prayer. I want to see if we can come to understand prayer as less about words we say or even ideas we form than it is about living and behaving in the presence of Truth, that Truth we see most clearly revealed in Jesus Christ.

So this is only the beginning of the discussion. But it is a beginning. Which is to say that this is a kind of Advent in itself. And at its core Advent is not just a season of the year but a season of the heart. Advent is when the heart yearns, sighs, groans, prays, prays, prays to God, please for God’s sake, stir up your power and with great might come among us. Come among us. We have made a royal mess of things, but we know deep down that we can do better. On our best days we know that we do unimaginably splendid things, like giving up ourselves for the sake of others and treating other people as if they are sacraments of your very own divine presence. Come among us with great might, dear Lord. And let your bountiful grace and mercy—which we see in various ones among us, like the Schweitzers and the Mother Teresas and the Buddha and the Prophet and most clearly in Jesus and occasionally in the pew beside us and in the mirror––let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us. So we pray.

So we pray.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2010