Friday, March 25, 2011

Conversation Starter

Prayer as Dialogue

“Have a little talk with Jesus,” suggests an old gospel song. “Tell him all about your troubles. He will answer by and by.” Today’s gospel is a gem of what happens if you really do have a talk with Jesus.

Don’t you think that the anonymous woman at the well in John 4 is one of the most attractive and interesting characters in the entire Bible? She is earthy, she is real, she is salty. She can keep up with Jesus, even though she is not at all sure of where the conversation is going. She loves easily, yet she is no fool overly eager to sign on to a novel religious idea out of sheer credulousness. You have to respect a woman who does not shrink in timidity when a strange man, especially one of a rival ethnic group, starts a conversation. And when that same man begins talking about her private life, which is nothing of which to be particularly proud, she has the audacity to wrest the conversation from him and turn it to religion. You have to respect that kind of spunk.

While I wouldn’t want to suggest that the conversation of Jesus and the Samaritan woman is in any sense “prayer” as we normally think of it, I think we can see, as we listen to the story, a handful of really important clues as to what prayer is and what prayer might do.

For starters, let’s assume that most of us think of praying as praying “to God.” That certainly is not true for everyone, but it is probably true for most. There is nothing the matter with that at all. It seems to me that one of the perennial problems that beset religious people is that we nearly always have to cut God down to slightly bigger than human size in order to relate to God much at all. Thus we trivialize “God” by calling “him” things like “the man upstairs.” We sometimes imagine that God is little more than the magician in charge of the world, mostly for our benefit. We thus can get really snagged when things don’t go especially well for us and begin believing that the great God that rules the universe is somehow disappointed or downright angry with us. (Else why do things go so poorly for us?) Generally, in my experience, we sometimes go on to fantasize that “God” is far more interested, for example, in the details of our sex lives than in whether or not we support governments that consistently engage in warfare that they themselves have great difficulty explaining.

I pause to point out that it is precisely such issues as these that frequently invite the thoughtful skeptic and the non-believer to dismiss religious people and our “God” as hopelessly out of touch with reality, and well beyond being simply confused.

But let’s not digress too much. Let’s instead look at the figure of Jesus. We see in Jesus not “God cut down to human size,” but rather a full, complete human being that embodies for us the nature of God. We have in Jesus a person who expresses what we perceive to be the Truth of God, and thus the moral Truth of the universe. Jesus, for Christians, is our connection to that Truth and thus our connection to Ultimate Reality, a name for which is God. If you don’t get that, you really never get the heart of Christianity—which is not to say you can’t be quite a good, ethical, devout Christian nonetheless. But the unique center of it all is there on the page where we read the epistle today. Paul says, “Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.” In other words, the place where humanity and divinity come together in thorough harmony is Jesus. It is not the Law for Paul that defines our relationship with God. It is Jesus, specifically Jesus’ death and resurrection. That has opened up not only a new perspective on who we are and who God is; it has opened up an entirely New Age. Keep that in mind as we listen to more of the gospel story.

Notice that Jesus is the one who begins a conversation with our neighbor, the woman who has come to draw water at the well of Sychar. That is an important clue as to how the relationship between God and us first takes shape. It is a relationship that God initiates. In simplest terms, the Creator creates us, puts us here. Yet that is not the last of it. Whether we look at life on a macro level or on a very personal level, the same thing holds true: through nature, through our experiences, through our stories, in the medium of whole traditions, God is always initiating contact with us. My favorite theologian in many ways is the writer Alice Walker. According to her character Shug in The Color Purple, God is always trying to get our attention, carrying on a flirtation with us. Shug says to Celie, “Us sing and dance, make faces and give flower bouquets, trying to be loved. You ever notice that trees do everything to git attention we do, except walk?” Even more memorably, Shug says, “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it.” We see in Jesus at Jacob’s Well precisely this kind of reaching out. Frequently we fool ourselves into believing that our relationship with the deep truth of the universe depends upon our intentions, our consciousness, our intelligence, our capacity to understand. We are in a relationship with the divine before we ever know it, just as we are in relationship with the world about us, or the family encircling us, before we even become aware.

So Jesus asks the woman for a drink. That’s interesting. A Jewish man asks a Samaritan woman for a drink. All kinds of hell could pop loose from that little transaction. Man talking to woman, Jew conversing with a member of an enemy group, religious man presumably not observing some ritual regulations about washing vessels before using them: all point to something quite extraordinary about having a talk with Jesus. Jesus—and let’s go ahead and say God, for that is who he is—God—God the Son—is cutting through a whole stack of prejudices to meet the woman where she is. He who did not shun the Virgin’s womb nor the hard wood of the cross does not shun someone who dwells in the shadows until high noon when everyone else is preoccupied or napping when she traipses to the well unnoticed by the neighbors. Instead he begins a dialogue, which cannot happen except the woman willingly participate. She is in her world where at the moment the paramount thing is drawing water, which, if I remember my boyhood farm days, is not the easiest task on a hot day. “If you knew who it is who is asking, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” The woman, stuck in, shall we say, a materialist frame of mind, sees no evidence of fresh water and takes his comment to mean that somehow he has his own water supply, which to her must seem stupid. That is to say, she is in one frame of mind, Jesus in another.

Dialogue is a kind of dance between humans, who are frequently on different levels. The same is true of dialogue with God. I am on one level, God on another. Jesus neither gets defensive nor dismissive. Instead, he reaches out to bring his dialogue partner to where he is. Yet his language eludes her. She has no earthly idea of what he means when he says, “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” That sounds like a good idea to the woman, who either seriously or superciliously (I would guess the latter) says, “I want some. I’d like not to have to keep drawing water.” Conversation with God inevitably means that we keep hearing things that don’t exactly make sense. One response is to shut off the conversation and to tell ourselves that it is all imaginary anyway, that there is no reality to a “God” that is unseen. But another possible response is to thrash it out with God. The psalmists sometimes did that. “How long, O Lord?” they asked. “Why do the heathen rage?” they raged. Vexed, they cried, “O God, why have you utterly cast us off? why is your wrath so hot against the sheep of your pasture?” It should not surprise us that any God worthy of the name would have a perspective different from our own. Prayer is the place to wrestle with the Dazzling Stranger who calls all things into question. God is not put off when you call God into question. Witness Job, whose honest questioning far surpassed his proverbial patience.

Prayer is the place to wrestle
 with the Dazzling Stranger
 who calls all things into question.

Then Jesus takes an abrupt turn. “Go call your husband.”

That hits a sore spot. “I have no husband,” she claims. Jesus knows. The clear implication of the story is that Jesus is all-knowing. God knows our hearts’ desires. As an old hymn put it, “Jesus knows our every secret; take it to the Lord in prayer.” At this point the woman understandably takes charge of the conversation and changes the subject to religion. “I perceive you are a prophet, so let’s talk about religion.” Jesus lets her get away with it. He goes with her. “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…. The hour is coming and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.” Then comes the moment of self-disclosure. “I know that Messiah is coming,” says the woman. It may be a kind of Sunday school creed parroting what she has heard or been taught. But it might be an honest expression of heartfelt faith. “I know,” said Job, “that thou canst do all things, and that no purpose of thine can be thwarted.” At the end of the dialogue, we sometimes find ourselves confessing our terminal smallness. We stand in the face of mystery, whether of galaxies or of quarks, with minds stretched to the limit in the face of suffering we cannot understand or of evil we cannot explain or of beauty and joy of inexpressible sweetness. And in the silence following the last thing we voice, Jesus says, “I am he.” The great “I am” speaks, sometimes in a whisper, sometimes through an insight, sometimes through an unexpected peace.

Diego Rivera, Woman at a Well, 1913
If enough dialogue goes on, day in and day out, we find ourselves in the company of One who we are sure knows us perfectly, with no condemnation. Yet the very conversation proves over and over that God keeps calling us to live on a different level, where our desire for a mere thirst-quencher morphs into a thirst for Living Water.
We might even find ourselves called to be and do things that seem totally beyond our habits, outside our comfort zone. You can love your enemies. You can forgive and move on. And so dialogue bring us to the point where we leave the everyday task we’ve brought along with us, and run to say to some others, “Come see a man! Come see a man who knows me better than I know myself. He can’t be the Messiah, can he?”

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2011

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Ashes and Glory

This year an uncommonly late Ash Wednesday has given me more time to think about Ash Wednesdays and Lents in the past. I remember some fondly, others not so fondly. I spent one Ash Wednesday in Jerusalem, and remember imposing ashes on the foreheads of the faithful in a high wind as we stood in the night overlooking the Old City. I recall Ash Wednesdays in Connecticut where the ice was so thick you practically had to use a pick to get out the front door. My favorite Ash Wednesday was probably the one I prepared for on a Caribbean beach, lying out in the sun when a couple of dozen youth swarmed around on a work-study trip.

But the Ash Wednesdays that run together in my mind are those that felt like the beginning of something new, something big. “This Lent,” I have often said to myself, “This Lent I am going to get it right.” So I have vowed to begin a discipline, or to resume one that I had discarded. And those vows and promises go up in smoke, and come to so many ashes falling from the sky and covering me on Ash Wednesday.

You may know that the ashes of Ash Wednesday come from the palms that we waved last Palm Sunday, or some other Palm Sunday. They were signs of victory, emblems of triumph. Altar guilds all over the place go outside on Shrove Tuesday and fire up their hibachis for burning palms. They get a little cupful (a few ashes go a long way). And we smudge the foreheads of the faithful, veiling the baptismal cross marked on us when we are sealed by the Holy Spirit in our New Birth at the font. Those ashes we are told are signs of our mortality and penitence. They are reminders that we are but dust and to dust shall we return.

But the ashes are more than remains of palms and reminders of mortality. Ashes are what is left from all the resolutions we made and did not keep, the vows we vowed and broke, the covenants we entered into and found we could not keep. Ashes are, for sure, signs of our humanity, our fallibility, our weakness.

And ashes are reminders of not only things that have been burned up and destroyed, but those that need to be burned. There are things that cling to us like beggar-lice in a winter field: passions that deflect us from our calling, anger that warps our dispositions, self-absorption that blinds us to injustice and cruelty around us, worldviews that keep us enthralled to our own prejudices. We need to cast them into the fire and burn them up. We need to put just enough ashes on our foreheads to remind ourselves that none of these things makes us pretty.

But ashes are not all there is to us. We are not just dust. We are glory, too. The ashes may veil our shiny cross of chrism, but they do not dim it forever. Glory shines through dust and ashes. Dust may bring us to our knees on Ash Wednesday, but glory makes us ache for the God we adore. If we are inspired to seek God, it is the glorious part of us breaking through the crust of ashes wanting to be something truer, something nobler. If we are inspired to love God, it is the glorious part of us erupting from the earth of which we are made, trying to grow, to blossom, to flourish in the light and warmth of our Maker. If we are inspired to serve God, it is the glorious part of us responding to the movement of the very God that came among us as one who serves.

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. But remember that you are glory, too, and your glory will not rest until it beholds the Author of Glory, as face beholding face.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2011