Some thoughts on prayer, rhythm, and systems

Mark 6: 1 - 13
Sun 05 Jul

Prayer and power are intimately linked for Christians.  But I don’t understand prayer as talking to God; or power as persuading others to do what we want.   Rather prayer is more like being in time with a rhythm; and power is like an energy that brings hope and healing.

One of Fr. Anthony De Mello’s books is called “Taking Flight”.  It’s a title that doesn’t refer to flight in the sense of taking off or fleeing.  Instead taking flight metaphorically refers to leaving a 180 degrees grounded environment, and moving into a 360 degrees space.  It’s about a change in perception.

There’s a Hasidic tale told of a Jews in small town in Russia who were eagerly awaiting the arrival of a Rabbi.  This was going to be a rare event, so they spent a lot of time preparing the questions they were going to put to the holy man.

When he finally arrived and they met with him in the town hall, he could sense the tension in the atmosphere as all prepared to listen to the answers he had for them.

He said nothing at first; he just gazed into their eyes, and hummed a haunting melody.  Soon everyone began to hum.  He started to sing and they sang along with him.  He swayed and danced in solemn, measured steps.  The congregation followed suit.  Soon they became so involved in the dance, so absorbed in its movements that they were lost to everything else on earth; so every person in that crowd was made whole, was healed from inner fragmentation.

It was nearly an hour before the dance slowed down and came to a halt.  With the tension drained out of their inner being, everyone sat in the silent peace that pervaded the room.  Then the Rabbi spoke the only words he pronounced that evening: “I trust that I have answered your questions.”[i]

I’ve been reading Bruce Perry’s book The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog.  Bruce is a renowned child psychiatrist who marries his understandings of therapy, brain development, and a practical interdisciplinary openness to ‘what works’ in helping traumatized children.  It’s a very powerful book.  It underlines the importance of the early stage of a child’s life: touching, talking, rocking, singing, and - through all – loving, in order that the child’s brain and personality develops in a healthy and resilient way.

Perry writes, “It may seem odd, but rhythm is extraordinarily important.  If our bodies cannot keep the most fundamental rhythm of life – the heartbeat – we cannot survive.  Regulating this rhythm isn’t a static, consistent task, either: the heart and the brain are constantly signaling each other in order to adjust to life’s changes.”  He goes on, “we know that the maternal heart rate provides the patterned, repetitive signals – auditory, vibratory, and tactile – that are crucial to organizing the brainstem and its important stress regulating neurotransmitter systems.”  When a parent holds and rocks a distressed babyI’ve been reading Bruce Perry’s book "The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog". Bruce is a renowned child psychiatrist who marries his understandings of therapy, brain development, and ‘what works’, in helping traumatized children. It’s a very powerful book. It underlines for me the importance of the early years of a child’s life: touching, talking, rocking, singing, and - through all – loving, in order that the child’s brain and personality develops in a healthy and resilient way. to calm them, interestingly the rate of rocking is usually 80 beats per minute, the same as a normal resting adult heart rate.  Perry concludes, “To soothe our children we reattune them physically to the beat of the master timekeeper of life [the heart].”[ii]

The most important thing about prayer is listening, not talking.  It’s about stilling the turbulent waters of the mind.  Yet it is an active listening in the sense that we are trying to attune ourselves to a rhythm. 

In the story of the Temple Bells, the pilgrim goes to the seashore hoping to hear the legendary and beautiful sound of the submerged bells.  Like listening for hope, the young man pours his concentration into the task.  But to no avail.  Try as he might he can’t hear hope.  He tries to block out the sound of the sea so he can hear.  But it is only when he gave himself over to the rhythm of the sea, allowing his heart to be attuned to that rhythm, that he experienced the wonder of the transcendent bells.  In my reading of the Temple Bells God is in both the rhythm of the sea and the peeling of the bells – both in the avenue of prayer and the hope it produces.  Just as in the story of the Russian Rabbi, God is in the song, the movement, what is happening within each person, as well what’s happening in the whole system/community – as avenues of prayer and hope.

We come to church to pray.  Full stop.  That is why we are here: to pray.  In order to pray we need to listen to the noise and rhythms around us.  We need to listen to the noise and rhythms within us.  We need to hear the different rhythms.

So, there’s the building itself.  It has a ‘pulse’.  It has memory.  It is not a neutral space.  There is a residue in here of prayer, and love, and conversation, and meaning.  Those of us who have had the opportunity to be a tourist, popping in and out of historic and interesting churches around the world, may have experienced how some empty churches feel ‘warm’ [and it’s not just a comment about temperature].  Some are easier to pray in than others.

Then there are those of us who come to church here and make up our community.  Each person brings a rhythm and energy with them.  Each person is a face of God.  One way of understanding liturgy is that it attempts to synchronise these rhythms for a time in order that the energy called God becomes more ‘transparent’, or [thinking of the bells] ‘audible’.

Last week I mentioned the doctrine of Imago Dei.  The incarnation [God in humanity] for Progressive Christians is something predating Jesus.  God has always been known in humanity.  Human reasoning, autonomy, compassion, and responsibility are reflective of the essence of God.  So are laughter, joy, and fun.  We can be the face of God to each other. 

So praying, even before the service starts involves attention to both the building and the people within it.  We are listening and responding to the heartbeats of God.

Then there is music.  It has the power to still us and transport us.  It has the power of uniting votes, uniting the rhythms of lives.  Music is a pathway into God.

So too are the words.  And it’s not just the meaning of the words, but the way they are spoken, and the voices who speak them.  Some of the words are to evoke memories [the Bible reading often does this], some to evoke concerns for people or situations, and some [like the sermon] to evoke new thoughts or combinations of thoughts.  The sermon is really what is happening in your head, and maybe in your heart, rather than the words I am speaking.

The building, the people around, spoken words, sung words, music, silence, and movement all have different rhythms, some more in tune with our heart than others – all of them mediating God to us.  When this combination ‘works’, when church ‘works’, there is - like in the Rabbi story - a bringing together of the fragments of our lives.  Ideally we feel more ‘whole’ when we leave.  We mightn’t articulate it like that.  It might just be a feeling of contentment, or even unease.  Bringing together fragments can do both.

There is one other very important aspect of common worship that is alluded to in the Gospel reading today.  In Mark 6 Jesus goes home.  Those who know about family systems tell us that Jesus probably had about 15 minutes to be his adult differentiated self before his family and community of origin slotted him back into the role they had marked out for him from childhood.  You might have experienced something similar: being away from your family and developing your own professional and personal life and then returning home for say a wedding or funeral and being slotted back into the role the system of your childhood had marked out for you.  The psychological forces that ‘slot’ you are very powerful.  Those forces are so powerful that Jesus, the chosen Messiah, who can allegedly walk on water and raise the dead, could do no ‘deed of power’ there [v.5].  In other places though Jesus can mandate his followers to go out and heal and transform.

Last week I attended a seminar by David Lee Jones, an American Presbyterian academic, who has published in the area of family systems theory and its application to congregations.  A congregation is like a family system, and as some family systems give positive energy to those within them, so too some congregations.  And the reverse is true.  As some families generate negative energy, so too some congregations.

Family systems theory talks about open and closed systems.  A closed system has features like promoting dominance, sameness, and ‘group thinking’.  Such systems discourage equality, change, independence, or questioning.  They often have ‘peace mongers at the top’ and/or unduly rigid boundaries.  Then tend to acquiesce to the least mature members or those who hold the most power.  They are often ‘deadly serious’.

My guess is that the community of Nazareth – Jesus’ hometown - exhibited a number of these features.  Change, though not impossible, is very difficult within such a system.

An open system on the other hand values transparency, diversity, discussion, and giving voice to all.  Information is shared openly.  Leaders and members stay connected to each other by discouraging domination, gossip, secrets, and ‘parking lot meetings’.  Open systems value playfulness, mystery, paradox, and challenge.

Please note that whether a church community is a closed or open system is not dependent on their theology.  More indicative is the style of leadership they are comfortable with.

These understandings of systems impact upon prayer.  The rhythms of a congregation can produce positive energy that enables people to meet with God on their own terms, or the rhythms can produce negative energy that tells people they can only meet with God on the system’s terms.   So when I say that ‘the building, the people around, spoken words, sung words, music, silence, and movement all have different rhythms, all of them mediating God to us’ there is the important proviso that sometimes – in an open system – these rhythms can produce life-giving and life-changing power for an individual, and sometimes – in a closed system – they can do the opposite.

What I like about the Jesus story in Nazareth is that he didn’t stay around.  He realized that he couldn’t operate within a closed system.  So he left.  His need to be attuned to the rhythms of God and let the energy of hope and healing flow through him took priority over his allegiance to the religious congregational system of his childhood.  We know too that some of his family – at least his mother and brother – in time left too.

[i] A. De Mello Taking Flight, p.18

[ii] B. Perry The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog, New York: Basic Books, 2006, P.142-5.

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