For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘prayer

The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction by Eugene Peterson, Eerdmans, 1989, 171 pp.

Contemplative PastorI read and return to Eugene Peterson whenever I need to be grounded again in my pastoral calling. I don’t always agree with him, and sometimes see his generation and gender coming through too much, but I always find much wisdom and inspiration for what the life of a local church pastor ought to be all about.

Having read The Pastor and Under the Unpredictable Plant, I was disappointed, but not surprised, to discover that The Contemplative Pastor did not contain a lot of new ideas or concepts. As always, Peterson emphasizes that the pastor should be a local theologian, an unbusy presence in people’s lives, attentive to what God is doing in a particular community, focused on reading and teaching more than administrating programs. This book also contained a unique focus on poetry, arguing that pastors should also invest in the art of poetry, as both readers and writers. Each chapter begins with a brief poem, and the closing chapter is a collection of Peterson’s poems.

Rather than big, new insights and ideas about what the true essence of ministry is, or how to do the work of pastoring, I found in this book a series of short, beautiful statements that remind me of my purpose and reorient me toward my mission as a pastor. I share favorites below.

Here is an example of that reorientation toward mission:

The pastor’s question is, “Who are these particular people and how can I be with them in such a way that they can become what God is making them?” … I’m responsible for paying attention to the Word of God right here in this locale. The assumption of spirituality is that always God is doing something before I know it. So the task is not to get God to do something I think needs to be done, but to become aware of what God is doing so that I can respond to it and participate and take delight in it. (4)

Again, later, he emphasizes the pastor’s task as listening and pointing out what God is already doing in the church and its people. This is what it means to “cure souls.”

What has God been doing here? What traces of grace can I discern in this life? What history of love can I read in this group? What has God set in motion that I can get in on? (61)

One of the things Peterson does best is talk about prayer in the life of the pastor, and its central role in the pastoral way. I love how he addresses the tension here between God and pastors:

Prayer is the joining of realities, the making of a live connection between the place we find ourselves and the God who is finding us. But prayer is not a work that pastors are often asked to do except in ceremonial ways. Most pastoral work actually erodes prayer. The reason is obvious: people are not comfortable with God in their lives. They prefer something less awesome and more informal. Something, in fact, like the pastor. Reassuring, accessible, easygoing. People would rather talk to the pastor than to God. And so it happens without anyone actually intending it, prayer is pushed to the sidelines. (42-43)

Following a long exegesis of Annie Dillard, he concludes that teaching prayer is primary.

My primary educational task as a pastor was to teach people to pray. I did not abandon, and will not abandon, the task of teaching about the faith, teaching the content of the gospel, the historical background of biblical writings, the history of God’s people. … The more I worked with people at or near the centers of their lives where God and the human, faith and the absurd, love and indifference were tangled in daily traffic jams, the less it seemed that the way I had been going about teaching made much difference, and the more that teaching them to pray did. (89)

Peterson is always good for me when I lose my way in this work, and need to get my feet on the ground and my heart right with God again. While The Contemplative Pastor was not as good as the other two listed above, and less likely to receive a reread in the future, it still served its purpose and moved me to prayer.

Lit: A Memoir, by Mary Karr, HarperCollins, 2009, 386 pp.

I heard about the book on an NPR interview with the author, and picked it up on a whim when I saw it on the clearance rack at the bookstore for $2.50. It was not an easy read, because Lit tells the story of Karr’s descent into alcoholism and her long, slow journey to recovery. Karr is a poet, and her prose carries the density and rich vocabulary of her other literary craft.

The book tracks a downward spiral into a life controlled by the need to drink, beginning when Karr is 17 years old and living as a runaway in San Francisco and continuing through her college years, graduate school, marriage and motherhood. Thinking back, (I completed reading a few weeks ago), the first half of the book is hard to recall. It is blurry, muddled and full of memory-impressions that are vivid but do not unfold in a clear narrative. This parallels Karr’s descent into drink.

The memoir turns when she begins the road to sobriety, even though the journey is rife with setbacks. Her journey out of alcoholism reminds me of a maze. You know you’re headed somewhere, but you don’t know where it is or how to get there. Dead-ends are everywhere that make you double back and start again. You feel lost and alone. There are haunting images of her attempts to care for her son, and finding herself out of control again.

I was surprised to discover that this book was a journey into prayer and Christianity for Karr. Her struggle to find faith was the most compelling part of the book for me. Her sponsors and advisors in her recovery tell her again and again that she needs to find her higher power and learn to pray, but she resists because she can’t believe in God. A doctor who is also in recovery tells her:

Faith is not a feeling. It’s a set of actions. By taking the actions, you demonstrate more faith than somebody who actually experienced the rewards of prayer and so feels hope. Fake it till you make it. (217)

Karr is worried about money, so the doctor instructs her to pray for money:

Then pray for it. Just pray every day for ninety days and see if your life gets better. Call it a scientific experiment. You might not get the money, but you might find relief from anxiety about money. What do you have to lose? (219)

I found this so familiar to my own experience of prayer. Unlike Karr, I have had the feelings before, and still do from time to time. But prayer is far more about discipline, openness and relationship than it is about feeling something.

One more section of conversation about prayer:

Deb says, Mary’s reluctant to get down on her knees because she doesn’t believe in God.

I add, What kind of God wants me to get on my knees and supplicate myself like a coolie?

Janice busts out with a cackling laugh, You don’t do it for God! You do it for yourself. All this is for you… the prayer, the meditation, even the service work. I do it for myself, too. I’m not that benevolent.

How does getting on your knees do anything for you? I say.

Janice says, It makes you the right size.

Lit is powerful as an inside perspective on what it’s like to build a self around alcohol, only to discover you’re lost—then to recreate a new self in sobriety. Beautifully crafted, this is an interesting read for anyone who’s been down this road of addiction and recovery, or loved someone who is somewhere on it.

Mothering God, my son starts kindergarten in the morning.  Please watch over my tiny child, my most precious one, as he climbs up those giant steps and into the mouth of the big yellow bus, its insides wriggling with elbows and knees and backpacks and lunchboxes. Give him calm in the chaos. Let him catch the excitement of his peers, but not their cruelty. May it be the grand adventure he dreams it to be.

Once that bus swallows him up, I can’t accompany him. I can’t hold his hand, and I can’t make sure that he gets where he’s supposed to go. So I’m imagining you, Mama God, standing beside him, a firm hand on his shoulder, your swishing skirts providing a path through the chaos and a safe place to hide if he gets too nervous. Take his hand when I can’t, and guide him where he needs to go.

Back when I was his whole world…

Since before he was born, I have been trying to protect him and keep him safe. I made sure his environment was safe with crib rails and car seats, baby gates and bike helmets. It was a small world, and I could keep it padded and protected. Now his world is getting bigger. I want his world to be as big as it can be, even if it means I can’t protect him from it. Remind me that this whole big world is still in your hands. Show him all its glorious expanse, but promise me he’ll always be in your care.

I want him to go to school to learn, and not just ABCs and 123s. I want him to learn how to be a friend. How to make good decisions. How to get along with all kinds of people, even mean ones. How to say “no.” How to fail and try again. How to lose and still have fun. How to deal with stress. How to overcome adversity. These lessons aren’t learned with books and worksheets. They can’t be learned in a “safe” environment. They hurt sometimes. Teach him hard-won lessons, because those are the ones that matter, but do not let his spirit be broken. Give him courage and resilience and companions for the journey.

Reassure me, O God, that my one precious child will never be lost in your care. Mother him for me when I cannot. Help me teach him to walk away from me. Hold me tight when I have to let him go. Amen.

Little boy in the big world.

Today marks one full week since my return from sabbatical. And by “full” week I mean FULL week. Last week was our monthly Council meeting, Ash Wednesday service, and the biggest event of the year, a Sausage Supper fundraiser where our little church fed over 700 people. Also, I returned to a nearly-completed construction project and four hospitalizations last week alone.

A full house for our Sausage Supper! I love these folks. (Photo by Ann Swilley)

The good news is: it’s great to be back. I was fearful that I would return half-heartedly, that I would long for the quiet days of sabbatical, or discover my passion had waned. None of those things has been true. It has been my heart’s joy to reunite with all the folks of the church. I struggled during sabbatical when major events were happening in people’s lives, and I was not a part of them. Now, I am able to return to my vocation, to offer pastoral support to people I have come to know and love, to be involved in the church I care so much about. There have been the requisite stresses and details that no one wants to have to handle, but those have been dwarfed by the joy of re-engagement. Leading worship on Sunday morning felt like coming home again, as though everything was right with the world.

The bad news is: the spiritual disciplines I so carefully cultivated during sabbatical were already washed up in the first week. And in Lent even! When I started the week, I was delighted to discover that my ritual of morning and evening prayer had become so much a part of me that I felt adrift without it. Rather than a burden, these spiritual disciplines felt like the anchors holding me steady in the hectic return. I was overwhelmed with conversations and news from people’s lives, and I craved the silence. However, at some point late in the week, I fell asleep exhausted without pausing for reflection. One day, I woke up with a migraine, and I just slouched out the door having barely opened my eyes, much less focused on praying a psalm. The next morning, I forgot altogether. The pastoral disciplines I had so ardently carved into my calendar didn’t make it through the first week either. I wrote my Ash Wednesday sermon in the pre-scheduled time, with great focus. But the time allotted for my Sunday sermon gave way to two hospital visits and an urgent meeting over an interpersonal conflict, which meant it was Saturday night writing again.

Here is the difference sabbatical has made: realizing that today I can pick up where I left off. Sabbatical was only a week ago. The personal and pastoral disciplines are not long-lost fantasies. So what if I messed up a few times last week? It’s Monday again, and I can start over. Today, I returned to the morning psalms, the page still bookmarked where I abandoned it. The distractions in my mind were more annoying than they were a week ago, but Psalmist’s words helped a great deal: “you encouraged me with inner strength.” (Psalm 138:3) After morning prayer, I realized that I needed to cultivate my inner strength by returning to my introverted ways. I needed to spend time writing this reflection, and so I did. I have made my list of tasks for the week (my first to-do list since I gave them up for sabbatical). I will include in my schedule a large block of time for sermon preparation before Saturday night, and hopefully this time it will hold up.

One of my readings at morning prayer said, "May you experience Jerusalem's goodness your whole life long." (Psalm 128:5, CEB) That is what spiritual disciplines help me do---experience to the presence of God in everyday life, just as I did during my pilgrimage. (Photo of a Jerusalem street, by me.)

Crazy, hectic weeks like last week will always be a part of ministerial life. They will always be a part of any life. The key is not letting crazy and hectic, or tasks and to-do’s, become the norm. It would have been very easy to wake up this morning and head straight into hospital visits, to-do lists and newsletter articles. Instead, I recognized I needed to stop and reorient myself. The gift of sabbatical has been to restore me to those disciplines that will sustain me in ministry. Prayer is called a “discipline” for a reason—it is a way of disciplining your self and your life in the shape of God. All those pressing tasks will get my time and attention, but not before God does. That’s why I got into this ministry thing in the first place. I was so in love with God and I wanted to find a way to show that love to others.

As I re-enter and re-integrate my spiritual life as a pastor and a person, I want to keep God at the center of every day. That’s easier said than done, but it is what must be done for me to continue to delight in this pastoral life. It’s good to be back—back to work, and back to the spiritual disciplines that sustain the work.

After the morning at the Holy Sepulchre and the early afternoon at Wujoud, I felt emotionally and mentally exhausted. It’s taken me all these days and hours of writing to begin to grapple with the information and experiences and revelations of that day. When a few members of our group planned to continue on to the Western Wall, in spite of the intensity and length of the day so far, I first thought they were crazy. I just wanted some time away to think and pray over everything we had experienced. In my writing up to this point, I have made sense of my feelings and had some time to process the day. On the day itself, and especially at this moment, I just felt worn down and broken apart by the experience. I wanted to huddle under the covers and cry. That’s when I realized that the Western Wall was exactly where I needed to go.

The Western Wall

Of all the sites in the Holy Land, the Western Wall has always been the place I most longed to see. My spirit is captivated by the idea of a place where people go to mourn. I first learned of the wall as the Wailing Wall, where the Jewish people mourned the destruction of the temple. I think there is a part of me that has never felt like I had permission to lament, like weeping was somehow a sign of my failure, or that it communicated to the people around me that they had failed me. Yet the truth is that much of what is broken in our lives and in our world deserves lamentation. The older I get, the more I think that the world needs our weeping as much as our rejoicing, calling out all that is broken, crying over the pain and sorrow that afflict us, and mourning for what cannot or will not be. The Western Wall, in my mind, was the place to take our sorrows, cry out to God, and know that God hears our affliction.

I knew before we arrived that the Wall might not match my expectations, but I was still drawn there. The women’s side is only one-third the size of the men’s side, so it was crowded. There were women of every age—young mothers wearing their babies, old women with canes and walkers, and an enormous number of schoolgirls in uniform, each one bowing toward the wall with their faces buried in prayer books. I found my way to one of the plastic chairs, about three people back from the wall itself. As soon as I closed my eyes and opened my heart to God, the tears started to flow, just like I’d always imagined. Many others had tears on their faces, but no one was really wailing. Still, my sniffles and occasional sobs were drowned out by the mumbled prayers of the women around me and singing of the men on the other side, so I felt completely free to lament. My heart’s sorrows poured out before God, like crashing waves hurling themselves on the shore until they flattened out and returned calmly to the sea.

Sign at the entrance to the Western Wall Plaza

I began with my personal lament for the day—for the exhaustion, and for my longing for home and family and church as I knew it. Then I cried for the pain we had seen that day—for the brokenness and fighting at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, for the way that Christendom has piled gold on Jesus’ tomb rather than finding the living Christ, for the hardship of the Palestinian people in Noora’s community and the Jewish people praying next to me, for the convoluted and seemingly intractable conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, for all the wars of the world.

When I had finished weeping for those things, I drew myself together to find the prayers from my congregation. I had invited anyone to send written prayers with me, and promised to pray for each one of them and tuck them into the cracks in the wall. I had not opened the prayers at all until I pulled them out of my backpack at the Western Wall, and began to read the outpouring of people’s deepest concerns and longings. The tears began to flow again immediately. I have been the pastor of this small community for more than six years, and I have come to know each family very well. I know many of their pains and sorrows and struggles very well, and I love these people dearly. As I made my way through their prayers, I lamented for the brokenness that each one carries. When I finished the written prayers, I went through the list of names and imagined each person sitting in their place in the sanctuary. I cried for their sorrows, for their worries, for the heartbreaks of their lives. I wept because I loved them, and their pain deserved lament.

I moved on to my family, my friends, myself—just letting the tears and the grief flow freely. I felt like I was leaving the grief in the place where it belonged, with all the accumulated sorrows of others. I wasn’t leaving it behind, but I was sharing it with God, laying it out plain, refusing to hold it inside anymore. Lamentation was liberation, and the Wall was everything I needed it to be—a safe place to weep, for as long as I desired.

The prayers from my church, prayed for individually and placed together in an opening in the Wall.

The challenge came when I was ready to leave. I made my way forward to the Wall itself, and found a hole big enough to hold the entire envelope full of prayers from my congregation. I noticed that the Jewish folks around me were walking backwards away from the Wall, as a sign of respect and deference for the former Temple Mount. I started to walk backwards away, keeping my eyes on the Wall, but my soul was ready to turn around. I wanted more than anything to turn my back on the weeping and face the world again. Backing up made me feel tied to the sorrow, to the longing, to the lamentation, rather than to the hustle and bustle of the people passing on the plaza. In spite of all that is broken in this pain-filled world, we have life and have it abundantly. As the Psalmist says, “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy will come in the morning.” I was ready to turn toward the dawn.

I knew how to get to the lamentation at the Wailing Wall, but I didn’t know how to get out of it. As a Christian, my usual place of weeping is the cross, which always points to the resurrection. For those pious Jews around me praying at the wall and carefully backing away so as to keep it in their sights, what is the path from lamentation to joy? I know it is there (see Psalm above), but I don’t know the way. As I watched the schoolgirls backing away, I wondered how they turned mourning into dancing (again, a reference to the Hebrew scriptures). In deference to the traditions of the holy site of another faith, I dutifully backed away from the Wall, but what I really wanted to do was to place the prayers in the Wall, literally and figuratively, then turn and walk away without looking back. As important as it is to have a place of lament for this broken world, it is even more important to turn and face forward again with hope, to look toward the things of life and walk boldly into them.

When I was finally able to turn away from the Wall and face forward again, I felt exhausted, but somehow lighter than before. All the angst and conflict of the day had been left behind, but I was spent. I made my way back to the hotel for evening prayer, thanked God for familiar comfort food like spaghetti on the hotel buffet at dinner, and crawled in bed by 8:30 p.m. It’s taken me three days of writing to finally work through the power of that one holy day.

I awoke this morning sensing that God was very near. More accurately, realizing that my heart, mind and spirit had been broken open to feel God’s presence. I just knew that, if I could stay open, God would come very near. I felt as if my spirit was waking up after a long sleep. St. Patrick’s Breastplate prayer came to me:

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through the belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness
Of the Creator of Creation

After taking B to school, I went to a nearby park to take a walk. Instead of my normal alt-folk-rock Pandora mix, a classical station appeared. I realized that wordlessness suited my prayerful mood, and set out walking. What happened next felt like magic, a mystical revelation of God’s presence.

The music was in 3/4 time, and my feet slipped into a waltzing pattern. I couldn’t help it—it felt like I was dancing along the path instead of just walking. I first noticed it as I came upon the duck pond. Over the music in my earbuds, I could hear the quacking and squawking—and they seemed perfectly attuned to the pulsing staccato of the symphony. As the wind blew through the trees, I began to imagine that nature’s own movements had been choreographed to the music in my ears. Through a short line of trees, the thickness of the symphony dwindled at the same moment I stepped into a wide, open meadow. The chatter of the symphony calmed, as did the ducks. The violins played a simple melody, clear and smooth, as a solitary bird flew overhead, from one end of the meadow to the other. I waltzed across the meadow entranced, open to the simple melody, to the space and to the spirit.

The symphony grew thicker and more invitational, and I approached a grove of trees. I imagined them welcoming me into their fellowship, out of the solitude and emptiness of the open meadow and into a space of warmth and companionship. Together we frolicked with the lilting of the music, and I felt like I was a guest at a lovely party. I found myself triple-timing the waltz steps, and my arms followed the arc of the music.

Slowly, the music turned heavier, as the grove of trees also became more dense. I felt the weightiness of journey, of struggle, of pilgrimage. I contemplated the way our life’s journeys twist and turn, grow thick and thin. Sometimes we are surrounded by friends, sometimes we are alone. I kept walking in time with the music. The tension and discord grew heavier, then suddenly exploded into fullness and light, beaming with deep radiance.

I felt my Spirit coming alive. God did not choreograph the movements of the trees and the birds to the movement of my feet, like Disney’s Fantasia, but God opened me again to the music of the world, to the ability to pay attention to all that was happening around me.

I finally looked to see what the piece was. It was Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, which is called “Resurrection.”

These are the things for which sabbatical was made. Long walks, a spirit of prayer, attentive listening. For resurrection. Thanks be to God.

(Below is the entire symphony. I was listening, I suspect, to the second movement, which begins around minute 24. I discovered, in researching the piece when I returned home, that the second movement is based on a Ländler, an Austrian folk dance that preceded the waltz. When I was in a folk dance group in college, the Ländler was one of my favorite dances. No wonder my feet stepped in time. Zillertaler Ländler was always my favorite.)

Today marks exactly one year since I started this little blog project. When I look back over the year, it is the thing I am most proud to have accomplished. I am pleased not because I think I have created masterful works of literature, but because I have returned to writing as a spiritual practice.

I write myself into being and I write myself into the presence of God. When I was a teenager and young adult, I poured my heart out into journals. Through those critical identity-forming years, I wrote in order to try on ideas, to sort through questions, to ponder faith, to pray, to figure out who I was. When my relationship with God fractured along the way, I wrote the angry, angst-ridden missives to the Spirit to give voice to my aching spiritual loss. God came to me and our relationship was repaired as I put paper to pen and imagined God’s responses in love.

As I got older, I drifted away from writing as a spiritual practice. When I fell in love and got married, conversation with my partner took the place of my journal as the place to process and heal from daily events. When I entered ministry, my writing became my work, a public project for worship and preaching instead of a private place for prayer and contemplation. After 13 years of marriage and nearly 10 years of ministry, I am glad for both the ongoing conversation with my spouse and the public voice I have cultivated in ministry. But something was lost when I stopped writing just for me.

A year ago, when I started this blog, I had a surplus of ideas and stories and concerns and questions. I wanted to dedicate time and concentration to reflecting on them. I needed to write about it all, to talk it through, to sit with words, to feel the Spirit move to sort and challenge and synthesize. I also realized that I wanted other people to participate in that conversation. I wanted to do my own reflection, and then invite others to weigh in. I made the move from private journaling to public blogging.

I still write just for me, about whatever it is that I want to consider, without trying to be entertaining or professional or focused or niche. As I wrote in the first introduction to the blog, some posts may eventually develop into more published, professional writing—but the goal is not the publication, it is the practice of writing itself. The Book Reviews and Sermon Saplings have blended the personal and professional in ways that feel organic and whole. Yet the blog still contains reflections on all aspects of my life. I simply open those conversations to others who might be interested in eavesdropping on them or participating in them. Today, I am taking another step toward making this writing public by attaching my real name, so that when you search for me on Google you will not only find out about my ministry and my marriage, you might find this page too.

Writing regularly has made me more attuned to the presence of the Spirit in my daily interactions with my family, my church, my work, my world. My eyes and ears are more alert to God and aware of God’s action. I have slowed down to contemplate life more, and sought escape and distraction less. I have met new friends in the blogosphere, and gratefully found others considering the same questions and concerns. I have been vulnerable to the fleeting ecstasies of praising comments and escalating hit counts, and to the cutting edge of trolls and detractors. I have put ideas out there, only to be filled with doubt and questioning. I have edited myself when I probably shouldn’t have, and spoken stridently when I probably should have remained silent. These experiences remind me always of God’s grace.

Writing regularly here has put me back into deeper, more sustained conversation with my spiritual self. It has opened my private prayer life in new ways and strengthened my public voice for ministry. It has connected me more profoundly to God’s presence around me and the ongoing movement of the Spirit. I am grateful for this space, and for the chance to share it with you. Thank you, and here’s to year number two.

This is a new (what I hope will be weekly) feature on the blog–an initial reaction and some opening thoughts on this week’s lectionary passages, in preparation for preaching on Sunday. For more info, see About My Blog.

Highlighted Passages: Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122

Opening Thoughts on Advent

We treat Lent as the great season of abstinence, self-examination and spiritual discipline in preparation to cleanse ourselves for Easter, asking God’s grace and forgiveness for our sins. Advent, on the other hand, has become a season for carols and decorations and pageants, as though we are preparing for a party rather than the disruptive presence of God. I think Advent should be more like Lent. I don’t mean dour and deprived, but I do mean a time of heightened intentionality and spiritual attunement. In Lent, we examine our souls and our behaviors and ask God to make us righteous again. In Advent, I think we are challenged to examine our cynicism and closed-mindedness and ask God to make us visionary again. The scriptures of the lectionary during the Advent season present some of the most compelling visions of peace, hope, love and joy in the whole Bible. Advent urges us to dream bigger, open ourselves to more possibilities, and to raise our expectations for what we can do and what God can do. My sermon series this year will focus on digging deeper into those traditional Advent themes of peace, hope, joy and love, and challenging us to pray for them in a more meaningful and considered fashion, with faith that God will answer our cries.

Advent I: Praying for Peace

People use the phrase “peace on earth” with abandon this time of year. It comes directly from Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ birth, where the angels announce that he comes to bring “peace on earth, good will to all.” From the beginning, then, Christmas has been tied to the promise of peace on earth.

But I think our thoughts and even our prayers on the subject are puny at best. In fact, they seem to be more like letters to Santa than petitions to God.

“Dear Santa-God, I’ve been very good this year. Please bring me a new bike, a new car, an X-box 360, those cool jeans I saw at Abercrombie, and an i-tunes gift card. That is all. Oh yeah, and peace on earth.”

It’s as though we use our prayers for peace on earth at Christmas to assuage our guilty conscience. The frenzy of consumerism and desire for worldly things seizes us particularly tight in the days between Black Friday and New Years Day sales. We recognize the selfishness and self-centeredness of all this spending on things that we may want but probably don’t need, and we feel guilty about it. We pray for peace on earth and try to give a bit extra to those in need this season, so we can feel better about all the money we spend on ourselves.

Perhaps that is a little too cynical. I think most of us go for something more like this:

“Dear Santa-God, who makes wishes come true and everybody happy, I don’t want anything for myself. All I really want for Christmas this year is peace on earth.”

There’s nothing blatantly wrong with this kind of prayer, but it just seems so weak to me. The only image I can conjure for “peace on earth” is a Coca-cola commercial with lots of little kids of different hues holding hands and singing. That’s nice and all, but not exactly powerful. It’s certainly not going to bring a stop to the decade-old United States wars in Afghanistan or Iraq. It’s not going to stay the violent hand lashing out in anger at an innocent child. It’s not going to free the woman held captive to an abusive husband. It’s not going to make a suicide bomber stand down and stop making bombs.

And we all know it. Which is what bothers me. We all know that these prayers for peace are pathetic and weak. But we don’t really know what to do about it—so we just keep praying with the angels, for “peace on earth, good will to all.”

God is better than that. Our prayers should be worthy of God’s true power, God’s true longing for peace and the depth of brokenness in our human condition.

Peace, true peace, is not about wishes come true and smiling children and a contented, happy people. True peace is risky, uneasy, fragile, vulnerable, and challenging to all our contentedness. It requires courage and probably will make people unhappy. After all, war usually makes some people happy at the expense of making others miserable—I figure peace is probably going to make those victors lose some ground and leave them feeling displaced and discontented.

Isaiah and the Psalmist in this week’s readings—they really knew how to pray for peace on earth. In the Psalmist, I hear pleading, almost begging: “For the sake of my relatives and friends, I say: ‘peace be with you.’” That sounds like the kind of prayer that might be uttered by the spouse or parent of one of our soldiers currently deployed in a combat zone. Or even by the family of one of our enemies—terrorists have families too.

Isaiah takes it even further. He puts flesh on his prayer. He asks God to serve as judge between the nations, rather than allowing the victors of the war to set the rules and make the judgments. This is where the unhappiness comes in, as those victors see their privileges disappearing. He paints a picture of what peace looks like, in which human beings take their weapons of war and melt them down into tools for growing things. Swords into plows, spears into pruning hooks.

Behind both of these prayers, the thing that makes them so powerful is the absolute confidence that God can make that peace possible. It is the absolute conviction of the person praying that peace—no matter how fractious and uncomfortable—is what God wants, and what God’s followers want.

Can we pray with such conviction for peace on earth? What does a hearty prayer for peace really look like? Dare we pray for our armies and those of the terrorists to lay down their weapons? With the passion of the Psalmist and the specificity of vision of Isaiah, can we move beyond a generic “peace on earth” and start praying for a concrete vision of peace, with sacrifice? Are we willing to give up some comfort and even some happiness in exchange for peace? Will we let God’s peace reign in the world, knowing it may disrupt our way of life? Will we let God in, so peace is possible?

Yesterday was my first day back from a wonderful vacation. I met a friend at a mountain cabin for a week of reading, resting, writing, praying, singing, eating and enjoying God’s beautiful fall foliage. Although I returned to town on Saturday and even preached on Sunday, I did not yet feel ready to be back at work in the office facing so many competing demands. I was dreading Monday.

I almost never dread a work day, but I knew that my week off was about to send me careening into a pile of unreturned phone calls and e-mail, unopened mail, last-minute preparations for the night’s Council meeting and writing a stewardship letter and newsletter announcements. There was nothing in the day that I was looking forward to. I also knew that the day in the office would be full of interruptions and distractions, which I expected to leave me feeling frustrated and behind schedule.

But God is good, and sometimes sends us just what we need to remember why it is we do what we do. Yesterday was one of those amazing days in ministry, full of random happenings that reveal the workings of the Spirit and bless a pastor’s heart. A wise pastor once told me that ministry happens in the interruptions, that God lives in the interruptions. I give thanks to God for all of yesterday’s interruptions.

  • A man called on the telephone seeking prayer. He didn’t want anything else, but he said he needed us to pray for him, and that he would pray for us as well. He declined to provide details, but said it was serious, it was nothing new, and it was no big deal for God to handle. I was touched by his quiet confidence and witness of faith in the power of prayer.
  • A man rang the doorbell. He announced he was a concert pianist seeking practice space. I said that we were open to the possibility, but he would need to make arrangements with our musician. As his story unfolded, I realized he was visiting from out of town. He was looking for a place to play, just for today. His wife was a retired UCC pastor, so he sought and found our church. For the next two hours, I sat in my office and enjoyed a beautiful impromptu recital of Handel, Chopin and Mendelssohn on the grand piano outside my door.
  • One of the unreturned phone calls was from a woman whose father-in-law had been a long inactive member of the church. When he died two years ago, I officiated at his funeral. She called because she and her husband had decided to make a gift of $500 to charity in lieu of an extravagant Christmas this year. She sought my advice on local charities (including our church’s soup kitchen) and how to contribute in the most meaningful way. We talked deeply and passionately about generosity, compassion and hope.
  • A woman from across the country, who had become my friend on Facebook because she was trying to learn about the use of social media in ministry in the UCC, wrote to me to let me know that she and her husband had decided to become members of their local UCC congregation this coming Sunday. She shared her appreciation for my online friendship and openness, and for my willingness to connect with a stranger in the name of Christ’s church.
  • A young woman wandered into our building and found her way directly to my office. Her face was swollen and bruised, her eye blackened. She confessed that she had just been married and moved to town, and her new husband had done this to her. A copy of the completed police report was in her hand. Her family was ready to welcome her home, but they were out of state and she had no money for transportation. They advised her to find the closest church and ask them for help. I connected her to the local domestic violence shelter, who offered her safe haven and assistance in traveling back home. I was so grateful that our door was open when she needed us.
  • After the long evening meeting, I had the chance to check in with a church leader in the parking lot. Normally a private person, this leader is not one to seek counseling or make public family concerns. In the dark of the parking lot, a private person found space to open up about a family crisis, and we talked for nearly 30 minutes. I was able to listen, offer prayer and support, and will be able to better attend to this family’s needs as a result. I felt honored to be invited into this painful situation and vulnerable heart.

Somehow, amid all that beautiful interruption, I also managed to get the Council preparation done, stewardship letter written, phone calls returned, mail opened and a bit more. God’s work is such a gift.

I am so grateful for the opportunity to be in ministry, to participate in God’s work of hospitality, healing, hope-building. I give thanks for the church that pays me just to be there and attend to these moments and afforded me the privilege of saying “yes” to all these voices of need. I marvel that in our secular world full of negative images of Christianity, people still turn to the closest church for compassion, whether as giver or receiver of aid. I praise God for beautiful music, for faith in the power of prayer, and for the healing of wounded hearts. I ask forgiveness for ever dreading a day in God’s service, and ask God for many more days to do this work, and many, many more interruptions.

Home by Marilynne Robinson, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2008, 325 pp.

Marilynne Robinson is the master of tension. In Gilead, the tension is all internal, as she dissects the mind of Rev. John Ames, the Congregational preacher haunted by loneliness, history, guilt and grudges. Home moves down the road in the town of Gilead, to examine the family of Rev. Ames’ best friend, Rev. Robert Boughton. Rev. Boughton is the Presbyterian pastor and father of a brood of children, including his eldest son the perpetual troublemaker and disappointment, Jack. The story in Home takes place as Rev. Boughton has reached the age of infirmity, and his daughter Glory returns to take care of him. While she is there, Jack returns home after an absence of 20 years.

The tension in this story is no longer contained inside one man. Robinson writes with such subtlety and beauty that she creates a tension between Glory, Jack and their father that made the book almost agonizing to read, as I felt every small slight, strain and stress between them. Both characters and readers are rewarded, however, when the ice slowly begins to thaw between them, and Robinson treats us to glimpses of true grace, forgiveness and love. She explores what it means to be “home,” the place that seems to exist only in recollection, and is therefore both permanently fixed and constantly elusive. In the end, Glory, Jack and Rev. Boughton  find home with each other, if only for a short while.

One of the great gifts of Robinson’s prose is its ability to capture a level of spiritual honesty, born of a long friendship with God. She records Rev. Boughton’s prayer on the first evening of Jack’s return, as they gather awkwardly around the table for dinner and forced ease and familiarity:

Holy Father…I have rehearsed this prayer in my mind a thousand times, this prayer of gratitude and rejoicing, as I waited for an evening like this one. Because I always knew the time would come. And now I find that words fail me. They do. Because while I was waiting I got old. I don’t remember those prayers now, but I remember the joy they gave me at the time, which was the confidence that someday I would say one or another of them here at this table. If I lived. I thought my good wife might be here, too. We do miss her. Well, I thank you for that joy, which helped through the hard times. It helped very much…

The prayer continues, but that is just a taste of the intimacy and beauty of Robinson’s language. I want to write an entire sermon about hope based on that prayer—the way that prophecy and hope help us find joy in the hard times, trusting that the joy will come from God someday.

Another insight on prayer, as Glory struggles to deal with the complexity of her love, anger and frustration at her brother:

Her father told his children to pray for patience, for courage, for kindness, for clarity, for trust, for gratitude. Those prayers will be answered, he said. Others may not be. The Lord knows your needs. So she prayed, Lord, give me patience. She knew that was not an honest prayer, and she did not linger over it. The right prayer would have been, Lord, my brother treats me like a hostile stranger, my father seems to have put me aside, I feel I have no place here in what I thought would by my refuge, I am miserable and bitter at heart, and old fears are rising up in me so that everything I do makes everything worse. But it cost her tears to think her situation might actually be that desolate, so she prayed again for patience, for tact, for understanding–for every virtue that might keep her safe from conflicts that would be sure to leave her wounded, every virtue that might at least help her preserve an appearance of dignity, for heaven’s sake.

There’s an entire sermon on prayer in that paragraph—about honesty, about God’s ability to hear the things we cannot say and see beyond the words we can utter, about taking our brokenness to God, and on and on.

The novel is full of incredible moments like these, passages that call out for further contemplation. It should be savored for all its rich layers of flavor and meaning. Home is a thing of beauty, and so is Home.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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