Always Being Made New
NW MN Synod Assembly
June 9, 2013
Preach the gospel always and if necessary, use words.
This famous line, attributed to St Francis of Assisi, could also be applied to prayer, I think.
Pray always and if necessary, use words.
In truth, prayer is all about words, except--when it’s not.
Prayer is most assuredly about living life in the presence of God, walking always coram Deo—before God, aware that all of our days are in God’s hands.
And in that respect, sometimes, indeed often-times, no words are necessary for prayer to erupt, to permeate a slice of our lives.
Take this poignant gospel story from Luke 7.
This heart-wrenching scene unfolds in the absence of words. Two large crowds approach the village of Nain, in Galilee. Two young men are leading these intersecting crowds. The crowd approaching Nain is led by Jesus; the crowd departing from Nain is led by a nameless young man who has died.
Two crowds, representing two powerful forces, encounter one another outside the gates of the village.
The crowd heading out of town is a funeral entourage. It is a crowd enthralled by the inexorable finality of death.
The crowd heading into town is following Someone who is bringing boundless hope, wherever he goes—seeking out the lost, unbinding sinners, healing the sick, raising the dead.
They meet in a moment in time, seemingly wordless, and yet the whole episode is wrapped up in prayer….because some prayers, maybe some of the most powerful and memorable prayers, need no words.
The mourners, led by the young man’s mother, a widow now bereft of her only son, her only chance at a future that would not be marked by destitution….
The mourners’ sheer presence constitutes a praying, a crying out to the heavens, for redress, for divine intervention, for a fresh future somehow to miraculously appear.
This must have been a powerful prayer experience—though Luke mentions no request being articulated—but it was not needed. The mourners and the grieving mother didn’t need to SAY what was on their minds for Jesus to know what they longed for and to respond to their prayer.
Sometimes, I think, words may just get in the way of the prayer that bubbles up from the depths of our souls.
Sometimes all it takes is a sigh, or a tear, or a shout of joy, or a moan, or a roar.
In the 11th chapter of St John’s gospel, when Jesus finally arrives at the tomb of his friend Lazarus, we’re told twice that he was “greatly disturbed,” that Jesus wept, and that he “cried with a loud voice.” Barbara Brown Taylor puts it this way: Jesus in his grief “roared so loud at death that he scared death away.”
Sometimes words get in the way of the praying. And sometimes not. Here outside the village of Nain, the prayer of the people comes through loud and clear—as loudly and clearly as Jesus answers their prayers with just seven words: “Young man, I say to you, rise!”
What these seven words accomplished brought life back, not only to the dead son, but to the whole community that had been carrying him to his grave. The great crowd from Nain knew once again, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that God was in their midst, doing what God always does best, snatching victory out of the jaws of defeat, beating back death, opening a fresh future in which we are always being made new in Jesus Christ.
I have a confession to make now. I have known some congregational prayer chain members who drive me nuts. This is a terrible thing for a pastor to admit, publicly….because people on prayer chains offer themselves for some of the most holy work any of us ever undertakes—the work of interceding for others before God’s throne of grace.
But what happens all too often in my experience, is that prayer chain folks are tempted to let their words get in the way of their praying.
More than once I have informed a parish prayer chain about a situation or a person in need of prayer….and more than once I have been asked: “So, Pastor, what shall we pray for?”
In other words: what shall we write down on our prayer chain clipboard—and how will we know when we can put a big red check mark in our “answered prayers” column on that clipboard?
I have wanted to say: pray, just pray, please, just pray.
Friends, it’s not that hard. Anne Lamott in a splendid little book (Anne Lamott, Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, Riverhead Books, 2012) she wrote last year, suggests that all prayer can be boiled down to just three words: Help. Thanks. Wow.
If your prayer vocabulary included nothing more than these three monosyllabic words, it would be enough.
The first and most foundational prayer is: Help!
Here in our gospel lesson, the whole pathetic scene that meets us fairly screams: Help! A widow’s only son has died. This is not just the loss of a mother-son relationship. It is the loss of the woman’s whole future—her retirement plan, on a bier, about to be buried. The pathos of this scene is so thick you can cut it with a knife.
Help! The whole community wails…
…little realizing that they were being met by the Helper par excellence, the only Helper who actually deals with death.
Anne Lamott says, “If I were going to begin practicing the presence of God for the first time today, it would help to begin by admitting the three most terrible truths of our existence: that we are so ruined, and so loved, and in charge of so little.”
Out of such deep awareness, the foundational prayer springs forth: Help! This prayer, writes Lamott, takes “ourselves off the hook and put(s) God on the hook, where God belongs.” We pray Help! In the confidence that there is a Helper who hears and acts graciously, on our behalf and on behalf of those for whom we pray.
The second great prayer is: Thanks!
“Thanks!” (as Ms. Lamott points out) is a prayer that even atheists and agnostics pray when they aren’t paying attention to what they’re saying. Gratitude springs forth—even if you don’t believe there is Someone to thank!
Here in Luke 7, there is no holding back the flood-gates of gratitude. As soon as the crowd of mourners gets over their initial shock, they move swiftly to gratitude to God, giving thanks that “A great prophet has arisen among us!”
And their gratitude erupts in action, as is almost always the case. Again, Anne Lamott: “Gratitude begins in our hearts and then dove-tails into behavior. It almost always makes you willing to be of service, which is where the joy resides….God’s idea of a good time is to see us picking up litter…serving food at the soup kitchen…or hear us calling our meth-head cousin just to check in….You breathe in gratitude, and you breathe it out too. Once you learn how to do that, then you can bear someone who is unbearable.”
What ties the first two great prayers together is the third prayer: Wow!
“Wow!” means” we are not dulled to wonder,” according to Anne Lamott. She goes on to add that the “words ‘wow’ and ‘awe’ are the same height and width, all w’s and short vowels. They could dance together. Even when, maybe especially when, we don’t cooperate, this energy—the breath, the glory, the goodness of God—is given.”
Here in Luke 7, the “wow” actually precedes the “thanks.” Because, Luke tells us, when the young man sits up and speaks “fear seized them all.”
Wow has its way with the citizens of Nain, because it’s so clear that they have a living God on their hands—not a past-tense God we can hold at arm’s length, but a here-and-now God who is right in our faces, waking us up, making us new.
Which is where prayer is always leading us, is it not? Prayer—however it happens in our lives—ushers us into the presence of the living God who is always making us new.
That’s why prayer is never “wasted breath.” Even a groaned “Help!,” even a reflex-action “Wow!” even a routine “Thanks!”…..any of these three tiny words cracks the door open once again, places us smack dab in the hands of an alive-and-well-God, who in Jesus Christ continually throws open possibilities we forgot were available to us.
God invites us into a prayer-shaped life that opens us up to God’s re-creating, renewing presence among us.
God invites us, all our beloved congregations, our Northwestern Minnesota Synod, and our whole Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and indeed all the faithful everywhere to pray always—and use words if necessary.
And if adequate words for prayer come hard for you—feel free to fall back on these three syllables:
In the name of Jesus. Amen.