Monday, December 3, 2012

On New Sleds and Other Purposes for Prayer

The podcast for this sermon can be listened to by going to this link:

"What Are We Waiting For?"
Sermon preached the First Sunday of Advent
December 2, 2012

I have a friend from High School back in Minnesota who emailed me a few of weeks ago to tell me the doctors had found a mass of some sort on one of her ovaries.  They poked at her and took some scans and samples, and then sent her home to wait for the results.  Those few days of waiting seemed like weeks.  Finally, they called; the tests were inconclusive; they asked her to come in for another set of tests.  That took a few more days of waiting for the appointment, after which they told her they’d get back to her in a few days with the results.  More waiting.  A few days seemed like a month.  Then they called to say they thought the lump was a benign cyst but now they were concerned about some abnormal growth of cells in her uterus.   Could she come in for more tests?  She’s waiting for that appointment now.    

And so it goes.  She said she’s learning a whole new way of living while waiting.  And of waiting while living. 
Of course, to an outside observer, her life seems pretty much the same.  She still goes to work; she still enjoys travel; she continues to feed the cat and water the plants as per usual.  But on the inside, everything is different – especially time: how it passes, where it goes, where it leads.   

Many years ago, Patricia Moore preached an Advent sermon that I’ll always remember.  She said when you’re on a road trip, driving down a lonely highway in the middle of the night, and the low fuel light comes on, you don’t necessarily panic, but you do find yourself paying more attention to the signs along the highway. 

These are the themes of Advent: sacred waiting.  Waiting, while living, and breathing, and paying attention.   And I suppose the big question is this: what are we waiting for?

So many of us are waiting for something.  Sometimes we live as if our lives haven’t yet started – as if we can’t really live until we get that diagnosis, or get that job, or meet that right person, or make it through this busy time.  My friend, waiting to hear the news from her doctor, is beginning to ask the question: am I waiting to hear if I’m going to live?  Or am I waiting to hear that it’s time to start living?  Or am I waiting to hear what it is I’m living for?

Many of you have picked up this book, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily by Joan Chittister, and have begun reading it.  This is our first attempt at encouraging the entire congregation to read a book together, and to have a series of sermons that addressed the topics in that book.  We’re hoping to do this a few times a year – to give us all a common vocabulary, and a common experience, to learn from one another and draw us into deeper connection.  

We chose this book after we did that survey a while back, in which we asked you to tell us about the challenges you were living with every day.  We heard about a huge variety of challenges and concerns, from health and finances to loneliness and depression to concerns about the kids and the parents and the future – and so it seemed to us that a good starting place would be not to talk about each of these challenges, one at a time, but rather to begin by concentrating on the thing that gets us through any challenge; that aspect of life that strengthens us in our core; gives us the ability to survive and to thrive when times get tough – and that, of course, is our spiritual life.  Because when it comes right down to it, when the rubber hits the road and the chips are down and our backs are against the wall and we’re between a rock and a hard place and we’ve completely run out of clichés – it’s our spiritual life that gets us through.  

It’s our spiritual life that answers the questions “What are we waiting for?” and “What are we living for?”

One thing I like about this book is that she’s talking about a spirituality, if you will, for the rest of us.  This is not a spirituality that retreats from the world – rather, it’s a spirituality that engages the world.  It’s all about living more fully, more consciously, in the world that we inhabit.  

I doubt anyone would be surprised that when it comes right down to it, it all turns on the quality of our listening: are we listening closely to our lives?  Are we listening for God’s voice?  Are we listening to our own voice?  Are we listening to anyone?    And, ultimately, that capacity to listen takes us to the question of our prayer life.  When we forget to pray, or think we’re too busy to pray, she says, 

"…we have begun the last trip down a very short road because without prayer, the energy for the rest of life runs down.  The fuel runs out.  We become our own worst enemies: we call ourselves too tired and too busy to pray when, in reality, we are too tired and too busy not to pray.  Eventually, the burdens of the day wear us down and we no longer remember why we decided to do what we’re doing: work for this project, marry this woman, have these children, minister in this place.  And if I cannot remember why I decided to do this, I cannot figure out how I can go on with it.  I am tired and the vision just gets dimmer and dimmer."
(p. 31-32)

Now, here’s the thing: how many of us, I wonder, get rather uncomfortable with this kind of talk?  I have to confess that I, for one, am always feeling pretty insecure about the quality of my prayer life.  I always feel that I should be praying more; I always wrestle with my lack of discipline – actually, that’s not exactly accurate.  If I were more disciplined, I would wrestle with my lack of discipline.  As it is, I just confess that it could be better.  

The truth is I’m kind of sensitive about this topic.  So whenever someone who is obviously far more spiritual than I am – a Benedictine nun, for example – starts talking about the importance of prayer, I immediately start feeling inadequate.  I have this image in my head of the devoted contemplative priest – the wise old man who rises before dawn, sits with his Bible for an hour, and then puts the Bible aside and lifts his heart in prayer for another hour, and then spends another hour writing incredibly warm and profound letters to people, so that by the time he hits the shower and gets dressed he is practically glowing with piety and wisdom.

I don’t know if I’ll ever have a life like that.  But something inside me says that’s the person I should be.  And the sad thing is that there have been times in my life when I have had a discipline exactly like that – and the thing is that in the short term, it turned me into a smug, holier-than-thou priest who just couldn’t resist letting people know exactly how much prayer and Bible study I had done that morning.  There’s really nothing quite so tiresome as a person who is proud of his spiritual life.  

Well, the refreshing thing about Chittister’s book is that she has no use for that kind of spirituality.  She says, “I pray to become a better human being, not to become better at praying.” (p.37)  And while she reminds us that it’s important to set aside a certain time every day to pray, and to stick to it, she also reminds us about what the point of prayer is.  Prayer is not about bribing God to give us what we want.  Prayer is about opening our own minds and hearts to be transformed into the mind of Christ.   

For example, my prayer life probably began when I started to beg God to give me a brand new candy-apple red sled for Christmas.  But then, when I didn’t get my brand new candy-apple red sled for Christmas, I had the choice of abandoning prayer altogether as an obvious waste of time, or considering the possibility that maybe there is something else that prayer is for.  

Maybe through prayer, I could be given the grace to accept my disappointment and forgive my parents for so obviously failing to love me.  Maybe, with further prayer, I could be led to experience how grateful I am for the gifts I did receive.  And then, maybe, through prayer, I might become more aware of how fleeting the pleasure of receiving gifts is, and how much more satisfying it is to give than to receive.  Perhaps, if I’m praying correctly, I might become more aware of the fact that most children in the world would be happy with a little bit of candy, while I was greedily defining the exact shade of candy-apple red of my new sled.  I might even find myself praying that their needs get met first, before God grants me my desires.  I might even be given the grace to rejoice in the gift of life, the gift of being itself, which permeates all of creation and sings of the glory of God.  I might come to see that, in the end, prayer has nothing to do with getting what I want, and has everything to do with growing into the man God would have me be; it has to do with joyfully embracing this gift of the present moment –this unrelenting, never failing, always fulfilling love of God, pouring out on the whole of creation, every moment of every day.  Finally, perhaps, my prayer life might lead me to embrace and move into a renewed sense of purpose for my life, which is to serve that love, sing that love, let that love fill me and move through me and guide me through each day.  

That, in the end, is what prayer is about.  And that’s just the beginning of this book by Joan Chittister.  Next week we’ll explore the topics raised up through Chapter 7; and we’ll invite the congregation into a discussion during coffee hour.  If you haven’t received a copy of the book yet, no worries, there will not be a test or a grade.  The only test is the life we are given – which is test enough – and our reward is not a letter grade, but a renewed sense of joy and purpose in our lives.  

May this time of Advent be that for you – a time of holy waiting, as we rediscover, together, what we are waiting for, and what we are living for.


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