Of life in the still-Christian South (a retired cleric’s occasional reflections)…

More on public prayer

On each of the past two weekends, here, in Spartanburg, South Carolina, at Clevedale Historic Inn and Gardens, Pontheolla and I have had the pleasure of hosting and housing a bride, her maid of honor and her bridesmaids.

On both occasions, on Saturday morning, in the serving of breakfast, whilst expeditiously ushering hot plates of freshly and lovingly (that is, Pontheolla-) prepared culinary fare to the table, I was brought to an abrupt and dutiful halt by the voice of prayer – the bride and her entourage, with hands joined and heads bowed, sharing in supplications to God…

On each occasion, though different the groups in nearly every ostensible social category, in their eloquent prayers, I found, I heard a striking similitude – if I had to (and I will!) characterize – of praise to God for being God, of thanksgiving to God, the Giver of all gifts, especially life and love, and of oblation to God in the offering of themselves in service to glorify God and to edify all whose lives they touched.

As both groups were 20-and-30-somethings, I offered to God a silent prayer of gratitude for the gift of renewed hope for the next generation, which these women, to a person, embodied.

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pondering prayer

This morning, a dream awakened me. Remembering as much content, images and words, as I could, then reflecting throughout the day, adding context, I share the following imaginary (imagined) encounter: A conversation with Vivian (from the Latin, vivus, “alive”):

From the deep well of her soul, she poured out her problem. Sitting on the seat edge, her hands joined with fingers tightly laced, the posture of urgent attention, she sighed. “I’m not asking you to fix it…to tell me what to do.” What she did want was an empathetic ear. That I could provide. Then she said, “Part of my problem is prayer. I want…I’ve tried to pray, but I don’t get answers. Maybe I don’t know how. Can you help me?”

Coming to mind, the disciples’ request of Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Pulling two Bibles from my bookcase, we turned to Luke 11.1-4.

“Vivian, we call this the Lord’s Prayer, but Jesus gave it to us, worded in the plural. It’s our prayer. The disciples’ prayer. And see how Jesus answered, saying ‘when’, not if. He reflects Israel’s faith tradition affirming an eternal relation between earth and heaven, one nurtured by unending communication called prayer. Now, sometimes I believe, as the old Pentecostal preacher said, ‘You have to take a text line by line, precept by precept.’ So, if you’ll indulge me for a bit.”

“Please, Paul,” smiling, she offered a wave of her hand, “proceed.”

“‘Father.’” Abbā. Yes, an unapologetically patriarchal word. But at its heart is a conviction that God is not distant and apathetic, but intimately joined with us as creator and caregiver. ‘Your kingdom come.’ We, born of this God, ask that the divine nature appear, be in this world, and in us. ‘Give us daily bread.’ To accomplish this, we ask for the sustenance we need, not more or less. ‘Forgive our sins.’ Living in community, knowing we sin or as the Greek word hamartia infers, we ‘miss the mark’, falling short of the truth of who we are, failing to live into the fullness of our created being, we ask to be reconciled, restored in relationship with God, others, and ourselves. ‘Do not bring us to trial.’ Recognizing the presence of forces, both within and without, that tear the fabric of relationships, we ask such temptation be removed.”

“Thanks, Paul.” She smiled. “You confirm some things that I want to be true. Like our connection with God, really God’s everlasting connection with us, but,” she frowned, “I struggle with what, with who God is. I’m not sure I believe or always believe.”

“Not getting answers have anything to do with it?”

“Some…yes, I’m sure it does.”

“I understand.”

Her eyes narrowed, searching my face. “You do?”

“Yes. I have moments when the world and my life lead me to question God’s existence or, if not that, then God’s benevolence.”

“That’s reassuring,” she grinned nervously, “in an uncomfortable way.”

“Don’t tell me,” I smiled, “you expected me always to be certain.”

“No, I know better than that…but, yes,” she laughed, “it would be nice!”

“Well, let me offer you another perspective. Rather than wonder about what or who God is, try thinking about where and when God is.”

“Meaning?”

“In light of the problem you shared, if it couldn’t or can’t be solved, what would you hope?”

Oh, that’s easy. Patience to wait and not worry.”

“OK. Anything else?”

Yes! Strength to face disappointment.”

“Looking back, have you ever had a problem you couldn’t solve and no matter how much you worried, one day, you realized, even though it didn’t turn out like you wanted, you were alright…able to go on with your life?”

She pursed her lips. “I’m thinking. I was ready…too quickly, to say no. But, yes, I’ve had times like that.”

I was silent.

“Are you suggesting that I had patience and strength?”

“Well?”

Yes, I suppose I did. So…”

“Speaking for myself, I believe in love and justice. Unconditional kindness and fairness. That’s what and who Jesus shows me God is. I don’t always find it in the world or in me. But at wonderful, miraculous moments, I do see love and justice. And wherever, whenever I have that experience, I know God exists.”

“Ah, where and when…but when you see where, then you know what and who about God.”

“You’ve said it better than I.”

“This makes me rethink prayer.”

My turn! Meaning?”

“I’ve always thought that prayer is asking God to do what I couldn’t?”

“I believe many of us think that.”

“Well, maybe it’s about me being conscious of my hopes, my ideals, and expressing them.”

“Or both. And something else.”

“What?”

“Prayer, for me, has an element of oblation. Offering. In prayer, I offer myself as freely and fully as I can to the experience of life to be led more deeply into the truth of creation…God, you, everyone, my self, and all that is. It’s less about speaking the right words and saying the right things, and more an attitude of openness to relationship.”

Hmmm, a life of openness or a open life.”

“Again, you’ve said it better than I.”

“Thank you.” Suddenly, a notepad appeared. Feverishly, Vivian began to write, her eyes trained solely on her hand flying across the page. It seemed only seconds had passed when she looked up, smiling. “I opened, offered myself to an exercise in creative writing…rewriting the Lord’s…the disciples’ prayer. Will you join me?”

“I’d be honored.”

She handed me a sheet of paper. “Here, Paul, you get to say the ancient words. I’ll begin. A life of intimate, familial relationship with creation and the creator.”

“Abba.”

“A life that recognizes a greater, richer existence and, in that awareness, longs to live that life.”

“Your kingdom come.”

“A life that yearns neither for past nor future, but is present, alive in the moment, seeking sustenance sufficient for the day.”

“Give us bread.”

“A life, self-critical, but not self-condemning, giving and receiving forgiveness, and aware of its weakness also knows its strength.”

“Forgive our sins. Do not bring us to trial.”

“Amen.”

“Amen.”