From the psalms: “I am weary with my moaning.” (Ps. 6:6) and almost scared to open a newspaper. “How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?” (Ps. 13:2) The flags don’t get back to the top of the poles until they need to be lowered again. “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God! They are corrupt; they commit abominable acts.” (Ps. 53:1) What is going on in our nation with guns, power, and difference? “My heart is in anguish within me, the terrors of death have fallen upon me.” (Ps. 55:4) No place feels safe: school, church, car, peaceful demonstration.
This week has been horrifying, becoming surreal as officers monitoring a peaceful demonstration protesting the killing of two more black men, were shot down by a black man. “Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge.” (Ps. 16:1) It seems there is, indeed, no other place. Not that we should wait until trauma hits to seek refuge in God! Hopefully, on and off at least, we take our refuge in God as our dwelling place. Because in this time of personal, communal, and national crisis, we desperately need something firm beneath our feet.
We need words to express our anguish and our hope; we need community so we know we are not alone in this chaos; and we need action to do our part to move the world from despair to hope, from loneliness to connection, from other to neighbor, from fear to trust. Now that’s a big task and when put that way, I kind of freeze, not knowing quite how to do that, not knowing where to begin. But I think, truly, that is not really our task. We are not called upon to be God; we call upon God to do that.
The psalms caught my attention this week. The Book of Psalms is a magnificent collection of songs, of prayers of the people of God. We recognize some of them based on the first few words (“The Lord is my Shepherd…”), appreciate the beautiful language of many of our translations, and find words of great comfort. The psalms were not written to be great works of literature, however. They were written as prayer from the hearts of those passionate for God, from those lost in this world, from people angry, disheartened, in the depths of despair, and from those ecstatic with joy. The psalms are very human prayers.
We’ve heard a lot about prayer lately. Facebook is covered with pictures of candles and yet one more plea for prayers for yet one more (or 49 more) families with devastating loss. I have a sense of prayer fatigue, a questioning of the efficacy of prayer. How does the power of prayer stand up against the power of an assault weapon?
The first verse of Psalm 25, that Jackie read, is beautiful language: “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul” or, in more straight forward language, “To you, my God, I dedicate my life.” Then I read the Colossians text to “pray without ceasing” and the Lukan report of the lawyer asking Jesus, “What must I do?” and “Who is my neighbor?” I felt this flow of prayer from “Here is my heart”, to concern for others, to prayer as action. Not a bad set of texts for this week. Or any week.
There are probably approximately as many ideas about prayer as there are people in this room. Do you remember that game show where teams were given a word (let’s say “religion”) and amongst themselves they were to decide what the top five terms associated with it would be? If the term were, say, “religion”, what do you think; probably “God” would be tops, and I would guess “prayer” might be a close second. But that doesn’t really mean that we know what prayer is all about, or how to go about it very well.
In this room there is a lot of life experience, a lot of education, a lot of spiritual seeking, some new to spiritual seeking, perhaps, without a lot of preconceived notions of how it is to be done. I, for one, have a Master’s Degree in Christian Education, and an M. Div. and do you know how many of my prayers begin? “Go…oood! Make this better! Take away this thorn in my side, this pain in my…” Well, you get the idea.
This is not my theological understanding of prayer. Prayer as whining is not my theological stance, but it is sometimes my opening statement. And maybe that’s okay because it shows me to be in honest, heartfelt conversation with God, and that, I believe, is what prayer is all about.
“To you, O God, I offer my life. In you, O my God, do I trust.” Wow. Okay. Perhaps that would be a better way to start my prayer! That would be a good way to start, but it’s not always where I am and I think God would rather hear where we are than to hear someone else’s words. Sometimes praying is hard because we’re not sure where to go with it. I don’t believe I can manipulate God into making my life different than I have made it (i.e. cleaning up my messes). But lots of other things could happen besides dumping my angst onto God’s lap. Here are some things that could happen:
-In my attempt at having a conversation with God, and this is true of having a conversation with anyone, I slow down, maybe even stop. Not bodily, perhaps, because I have some of my best conversations while walking, but slowing down my brain, opening up my mind and heart in order to hear, in order to really pay attention, rather than just to react.
-I could let go of the part of the world I think I’m in charge of and realize God’s got it covered. This might loosen up some set ideas I tend to live by about other people’s places in the world.
-In unceasing prayer I could watch and listen for the needs, struggles, and joys of my neighbors.
-I could step outside myself and, with imagination and input from God, decide what I can do to be God’s hands and feet with my neighbor.
“What must I do?” Jesus basically told him, “You know.” The lawyer answered his own question with the foundational belief of his faith: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” He added, “And love your neighbor as yourself”. Jesus agreed. Love God, love self, love neighbor. But the lawyer couldn’t quite leave it alone. Whatever it was that was tapping at his brain, soul, or heart, pushed him into asking, “And who is my neighbor?”
In his book Not In God’s Name, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes of our biological, innate fear of the Other. We find our tribe, take care of our kin, are wary of those outside our circle. That’s how humans have survived for millennia. And, as people of faith, we don’t stop there. God calls us out of that circle to care for those beyond.
That person living next door that pretty much looks like me and has the same basic complaints as I do, and whose experiences feel fairly familiar to me; that person I can love in a Godly way without a whole lot of stepping outside my circle, my comfort zone. I can love that person safely. But in my heart, soul, and mind, I know that’s not the only neighbor God is calling me to serve.
Rabbi Sacks writes that we can’t love universally. We can’t authentically, meaningfully, transformatively love all of humanity. Sacks says we love particularly, specifically. We love particular people. We see them, we touch them, we pray for them.
This past week has been heartbreaking, and scary. Our society feels like it’s spinning out of control. Who is my neighbor? What is my responsibility? How can difference be celebrated, rather than feared? Who do we trust? And who have we, intentionally or unintentionally, overlooked?
After this week, after the past few years of people of color, LGBTQ persons, women seeking safe abortion, children, Bible study participants, the categories, the lists of names is long; way too long: with this insanity of anger and fear, leading to more anger and fear; how do we do anything but circle the wagons, pretending we are safe, and how do we move from being numb, anguished, and heartbroken?
We can slow our heartbeats, remember the Source of our being, dedicate our lives to God, look our neighbor in the eye, say hello to a stranger. Yes, there is much work to be done; big work, transformative work.
In order to do that work, to be a part of that work, we recenter, rededicate our lives, remember that we have a both/and God, to whom we pray for comfort, for guidance, for strength to go do the work, and then to come back to for comfort, for guidance, for strength. “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul”. May we dedicate our lives to God, and live out our prayers of love and compassion.