Glynn Cardy 28/7/2019
Many of us have grown up with the religious framing that prayer is a form of communication to God. Mostly this is understood as words, whether said or sung, whether privately, publicly, or silently. And mostly in this framing God is pictured as a being, a human-shaped being, outside us.
This framing of prayer has a number of shortcomings – like is this communication for God’s benefit or ours? Doesn’t God know what we are going to say already? Does God have ears?
To reframe how we might understand prayer we need to reframe the whole idea of God.
For those who have worshipped here for a while you will know that I think of God not as a being but rather along the lines of, to use Matthew Fox’s language, ‘the sacred pattern of connection’, or David Orr’s language ‘a verb with its sleeves rolled up’, a love energy/fire.
And Christ (thinking of that hymn we’ve just sung “In the name of Christ we gather”) as the smile of that pattern/energy, the smile of God. God is not distant from us, but through, in, among, and beyond us. As this morning’s call to worship says, we are that smile’s body/embodiment.
With that re-imagining of the divine, I would suggest prayer involves us in four movements:
Firstly, Awe. Wonder. Which gives rise to gratitude.
Secondly, Contentment. The result of deep listening, awareness.
Thirdly, Vulnerability. Letting go, grieving
Lastly, Joy. Which is both the source and result of engagement, service.
[Reading about the Fire-Maker]
What is fire a metaphor for in this story? God? Sacred energy, which we co-create?
What is fire for? Warmth? Light? Energy? To bring good change? Healing/hope?
How do we make fire? By care, by love, by awareness of others, by awareness of our connectedness with all?
Ronald Rolheiser says that at the centre of our lives there lies a fiery energy.
As we sing in a moment the Taize song “Within our darkest night, you kindle a fire that never dies away,” the ‘you’ refers to the Sacred. But the Sacred is not separate from us, rather we are immersed in it. So the “You” who kindles the fire is each of us.
In my youth I learnt an acronym in relation to prayer. Prayer was ACTS – Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication – all of which every worship service was meant to include. Ironically what this definition lacked was acts – namely the prayer that is the actions of care, compassion, love and hospitality.
Prayer is connecting with the sacred, an awareness that we are in God, we breath and move and love in God. God is not a being that we address, or at an address, or in a dress… but more like being itself.
Earlier I suggested four words to replace the A.C.T.S.: Awe, Contentment, Vulnerability, and Joy. In a prayer I wrote for today I summarized these in poetic form:
May we know awe –
lost in wonder, touched by beauty, overwhelmed…
And may this awe give rise to deep gratitude.
You’ll notice that I’ve included both adoration and thanksgiving in here; indeed I suggest the former (awe) gives rise to the later (gratitude). This is seeing all life as hallowed. Words struggle to express awe. Music (like the poetic hymn ‘The spacious firmament on high’) is better.
The second movement is contentment.
I’m reminded of an old story of a man who took great pride in his lawn and found himself with a large crop of dandelions. He tried every method he knew to get rid of them. Still they plagued him. Finally he wrote to the then Department of Agriculture and Fisheries and enumerated all the things he had tried. He closed his letter with a question: “What shall I do now?” In due course, on departmental letterhead, a reply came: “We suggest you learn to love them.”
May we know contentment -
having enough, caring enough, being loved enough...
And may this contentment spawn and spread.
The next hymn we’ll sing, which I prefer to call by its last line “O still small voice of calm”, is largely about the prayer of contentment. The discipline needed is to listen; deep listening: entering the place of sheer silence; and come to awareness that we, and all, are both sacred and one.
The third movement would in the old days have been called confession – namely saying sorry to a super-parent God who, if you are contrite enough, will forgive us. The tide has ebbed on that super-parent image, and the control package of the old rite has gone too. Yet there still remains the reality of our fragility, our vulnerability – as individuals and as a species; and the need to let go in order to discover the grace that awaits.
May we know vulnerability –
to feel the fragility of others, and our own.
And may this vulnerability keep us in touch.
The last movement I call joy:
May we know deep joy –
the fount and effect of acting up, standing up, chuckling, pirouetting...
This joy is the heartbeat of God.
Joy is both the source (the fount) and the result (effect) of engagement: engaged with life, with the cosmic Sacred, with the issues of justice, with each other, with our own feelings and bodies… So instead of thinking about joy as being 'happy' or 'content', think of joy as the engagement which gives rise to happiness and contentment. As the poet Tagore once said, “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.” Joy comes with engagement, and brings purpose, empowerment (fire), and hope in its wake.
These prayer movements of vulnerability and joy can be found in our reading from the Hebrew Scripture today (Genesis18:20-33) which I believe is the greatest prayer in the Bible.
Firstly, note that this reading follows the story of Abraham and Sarah being wonderfully hospitable to three uninvited guests by the Oaks of Mamre. That spirit of hospitality – making oneself vulnerable to the ‘other’, and thus making God present - Abraham now extends to the indigenous people of Canaan.
Secondly, as the Hebrew Bible scholar Norm Habel said at the recent Common Dreams Conference, Abraham made friends with the indigenous people of Canaan (which is now Israel). He honoured the people, honoured their gods, swore an oath by their god El Elyon, and tithed to this god.[i] Abraham’s relationship to the Canaanite tribes was closer to what we would call “treaty partners” than the imperial attitude that has dominated the interpretation of Genesis, namely that ‘God’ has given this land to Abraham’s descendants. I note too that Karen Armstrong pointed this out in her book on Genesis 20 years ago.
Thirdly, I call this the greatest prayer because it is very brave. Abraham, unlike most of us, believed that the deity he was arguing with, Elohim, had the power to smite and destroy. He may well have known the Noah legend and the terrible drowning of so many. But Abraham doesn’t flinch, he stands up to Elohim.
This God, as the story goes, had taken Abraham into his confidence about the imminent destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Unlike Noah, however, Abraham did not scuttle obediently to do God’s bidding but had the courage to argue with this frightening and notoriously unpredictable deity. The author tells us that he “remained standing before the Lord” (v:22) – ‘standing’ having that kiwi sense of ‘staunch’ – and dared this deity not to destroy the innocent along with the guilty. Abraham has a concern for a justice that is grounded not in pious retribution but in a restorative compassion. So he pleads for the lives of total strangers in the condemned cities. He calls out the deity: “Hey God, is your heart set on revenge or on compassion? What are ya’?” Abraham not only has a concern for compassion he wants his God to be compassionate, he wants God to be worthy of the title God.
This great prayer has been handed down from spiritual community to spiritual community millennia after millennia.
It contains the thought that not only can the Sacred shape us, we can shape the Sacred. It contains the thought that being vulnerable, making oneself vulnerable, revealing your fears for another, letting go of your own self-interest, even your concern for your own survival (and arguably Isaac had not been conceived at this point) is part of prayer. Prayer takes courage.
I identified earlier that the third movement of prayer is that of vulnerability, of letting go, of grief. As we grow older we experience our bodies declining in their capabilities. We also experience the deaths of beloved family members and friends, and know that death will come to us too. We also often learn that we can’t hold on to very much. Power and status and wealth slowly leave to go into the West (to use a Tolkien-ism). We know these things but it takes courage to admit them and not let them define us.
Secondly this great prayer reflects not only the third movement, vulnerability, but also the fourth movement, the service/engagement that is joy. For Abraham stood, determinedly, obstinately, for what he believed about justice: the innocent should not suffer, even if it means the guilty are not punished - a principle found in modern day law – and a principle which if enacted would make war obsolete. He stood for what he believed about hospitality: that hospitality (love, compassion, grace) is not just something you offer to those you know, or like, or trust, but also to those you don’t. And he stood for the understanding that these beliefs were not his alone, not just his family’s, not just his tribe’s, or culture’s, but were part of the sacred pattern of connecting that Jesus called the queendom/kingdom of God. These beliefs were part of a sacredness bigger than the god Elohim.
And we know too that in this standing Abraham was ultimately unsuccessful in averting the murderous doings of this god [read the next chapter]. Abraham is the exemplar here, not his god.
Such care for the innocent, such a broad hospitality, such clarity, and such courage points to the prayer that engages; the prayer that is a verb with its sleeves rolled up (to again quote David Orr); the prayer than empowers (fires up) both the pray-er and the ones the pray-er is holding in mind and heart. Such care, compassion, and bravery encourage us to be our best selves. Such actions bring us joy to hear about, and joy when we do them. In the doing the God we believe in becomes present. God doesn’t do works of mercy and love, God is works of mercy and love. And great joy is the result of such co-creative engaged prayer. It is a fire to be warmed by.
[i] Habel says that Genesis 14 (my reference is to v.22) is a very ancient text and points to this relationship. Unfortunately most translations use the phrase “The Lord” rather than the names of the deities. All the deities beginning with El are Canaanite deities.