Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Prayer II

This was the third meditation I gave several weeks ago at the Oregon Associates Retreat, continuing the subject of prayer. I began with a story that I've blogged about here, and went on to explain that any time you ask someone else to pray for you, there's going to be a filter. It seems easier to farm out prayer sometimes... whether due to our doubts that prayer even works... whether it's really just wishful thinking, magical thinking, or that in our own ignorance we may not know the right things to pray for, or even the right way to pray. Any or all of those reasons can give logical credence to farming it out to the experts: the clergy, the religious, or to established "prayer warriors". But, as in the story I related, what she wanted and what I prayed for were not the same thing.
  • So point #1: Do it yourself. There's really no right way to pray anyway, there's really no right thing to pray for. For me, prayer is a conversation with God. Sometimes in conversations we argue... so argue your case. There's certainly enough Biblical evidence that arguing works.
Here's another story: I was at another retreat recently, and attended a workshop on "Prayers of the People". The leader was a deacon on the priesthood track; most of the attendees were middle-age to older ladies. The main points were: prayers of the people should be direct, concise, specific. And since they are "of the people" the language should be contemporary. Now that's a lot of shoulds to deal with, but everyone seemed interested in getting right down to the task at hand: constructing a set of prayers for the weekend's upcoming Eucharist.

Using our prayer book as a guide, our leader started with the bidding prayer, and then moved (or tried to move) through each section... for the church, the world, people in positions of authority, the ill, the dying, the bereaved. It was a noble attempt—but, as with any committee decision, it got bogged down with too many ways to articulate the exact same thing. As a result, the prayers ended up being indirect, verbose, non-specific, and the language was flowery and stilted. Here's an example: "Gracious all-merciful God, wrap your loving arms around those who mourn and weep." Now let me be the first to say there's absolutely nothing wrong with that image. It's beautiful. Just picture warm loving arms enfolding you when you need to cry your heart out.

But it certainly didn't fit the description of what the group was supposed to be working toward, and I could see the facilitator was a little frustrated. Of course I immediately went into my "They aren't doing it right" number... and went off to explore in my own judgmental mind the usual suspects for why that might be. I started thumbing through the prayer book looking at all the samples, (and we have a number of wonderful samples) and it occurred to me that this liturgy, this very beautiful language, while it unites us, in many ways keeps us distant from the whole point of praying.

If we ask God to wrap his loving arms around those who mourn, then we don't have to. God is going to do it for us and we are off the hook. At that point our prayer is not really to comfort someone else, but to make us comfortable with their grief.

Another thing I noticed about these prayers... we don't mean them. Certainly not all of them. The little group came up with this one for people in positions of authority: "Imbue our leaders with a sense of integrity and compassion." Do we really want that? Because if we get what we pray for we may not recognize it. Compassion will be seen as weakness, integrity will be seen as inexperience, naivety. Maybe what we really mean is: Make leaders tough and able to mete out judgment with an iron hand, wiley and devious when it comes to negotiating our interests as a nation.

Of all the forms in our prayer book, I like Form I best. The prayers themselves are short, maybe a bit too generalized, but certainly inclusive. in my community we seldom use Form I. Why? They take too long. (We're on a schedule.) Form II, on the other hand, is very generalized and short; we use Form II a lot. Form III is the one we can say in our sleep, the call and response... yet if we listen to what we're actually asking for, I wonder... "that your holy catholic church may all be one."

One what? One institution? The reason our Anglican church and the other Protestant denominations exist is because Holy Mother Church was corrupt and abusive. We splintered out of discord... do we really want to all be one again?

"Give us a reverence for the Earth as your own creation." Okay, that first part is nice. It goes on: "that we may use its resources rightly in the service of others, and to your honor and glory." I don't think so. I think what we may really mean is: we want all the fossil fuels that are left on the planet under our control, so we can continue to drive our comfortable SUVs wherever we want and still maintain low prices at the pumps.

Form V: "For the poor, the sick and all who suffer, for refugees, prisoners and all who are in danger, that they may be relieved and protected." Right. No wonder so many priests use the concluding collect: "O Lord, accept the fervent prayers of your people..." Perhaps it's a disclaimer, a code to God that He can just disregard the unfervent prayers?

The confession, at least, is honest: "We have sinned against you by what we have done and not done, in thought, word and deed." In the supplemental liturgy the confession goes even further: "We repent of the evil that enslaves us, the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf." That confession will not let anyone off the hook. We are confessing that we are responsible for what others do to preserve our interests. "He's not my president." won't work with this all-to-painfully honest admission of guilt. In her book The Practice of Prayer, Margaret Guenther explains the purpose of prayer: "It's not to make you feel better. It's to give us an awareness of our own complicity of/in the power to hurt."

In our conversations with God, this awareness is perhaps the most difficult piece of the dialog. We want to be comforted. Life is tough, life is scary and overwhelming and painful. If God is on our side, we want to feel it, no matter what words we use or how imperfect our requests may be. But to stay honest in the conversation we have to attempt the words ourselves and we have to mean what we say. Be careful what you pray for... you just might get it.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Day

Memorial Day is significant as the day to honor the men and women who lost their lives in the service of our country. It used to be a huge observance... with parades, flag ceremonies, graveyard visits, poppies in lapels... not so much now.

For one thing, the most recent "wars" where these men and women have been killed, have been bitterly contested. Viet Nam was the first war to show all the gory details on TV every night. Intelligent people began asking: Why? Why were we sending our brave children overseas to do battle in a tiny country they'd never even heard of? Of course, the enemy then was "Communism." Enemies change. Arbitrary lines on maps change. Agendas change. And we've outgrown some of our valiant naivete in matters political. Or at least that's the spin.

As a child I remember Memorial Day more for the rules and regulations... no white shoes before the date, and always make a trip (the week before) out to the graveyard to paint the urn and plant red geraniums. But in 1991 this holiday took on a new personal significance for me.

I had been away for the weekend, actually only overnight on Sunday, but I hadn't checked in on my mom since Saturday afternoon. I arrived at her apartment Sunday around lunch time and let myself in. She was asleep on the couch. I'd taken to checking her breathing every time I found her asleep, since by then she'd had at least three minor strokes. All was well. She was breathing, so I didn't wake her. I cleaned up the accumulation of dishes in her kitchen and made her some lunch.

When I brought it in, she still hadn't heard me puttering around in the kitchen, so I patted her shoulder to wake her up. Nothing. I shook her. It was then I realized she was stiff as a board. Her eyes were open, she was breathing, but nothing else was going on. It took me some time to process this information. I talked it through out loud with her.

"Mom, something's wrong. Wake up. You aren't waking up. I guess you don't want this lunch I made. I'm going to go call the doctor now. You wait here. Well of course, you will. You're not moving. Okay, I'm just going into the other room to call now. I'll be back."

The ambulance came and she went to the hospital. She never woke up. She died a week later.

For me it's not the date. The date changes every year. That year Memorial Day was much later, because she died on June 6th. It's the holiday I remember.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Holy Trinity, One God

Our celebrant reminded us this morning that Trinity Sunday, unlike other major feasts, is not so much a celebration of specific events in the Life of Jesus (or his mother, or the angels, or any of the various saints we celebrate...) but a tribute to to a theological idea. As she said, the concepts that under gird our faith don't necessarily provide the impetus to get up every morning to do what Christ commanded us to do.

While the concept of Trinity may be one we grapple with from time to time, the commandment to "love God and our neighbor" tends to take up most of our energy. (That's certainly true for me.)

She went on to point out, though, that in today's Old Testament Lesson, (Genesis 1:1-2:4) the story of the dawn of creation and our part in it, points to humankind as a creative tension between two worlds: we are definitely cast as part of the process, creatures that God made, yet we have a unique distinction: we are made in God's image.

She saw the Trinity itself as a creative tension in the way God reveals himself (herself) in so many ways... the concept of trinity/unity/One God tries to make sense of all the manifestations. And what about the Holy Spirit? from a mystical perspective, the Holy Spirit is the energy, the Love, that flows through and between... the glue that provides the Unity.

She admitted this was all still "head stuff" and gave examples of the human experience of this flow: the dance. In her case, it was the physical interaction of training her horse that provided the image: two separate beings becoming one, together yet separate... in harmony as they executed a maneuver they had both been training each other to achieve.

I thought of other examples, but the image of the Dance resonated the strongest... I could picture ballroom dancers sweeping across the floor in such smooth precision they seemed like one body. My friend Pat writes about dancing all the time. I thought of her too. And then in the midst of (one of) my favorite hymns came the line: "I bind unto myself today, the power of God to hold and lead..." aha! God does want to dance with us. I knew it.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Oregon Trail: Intercessory Prayer I

The following is from my notes on the second address I gave at Mount Angel Abbey on prayer:

Frederick Buechner speaks about prayer in The Final Beast. He relates a story about his meeting with a faith healer, Agnes Sanford, and their conversation.

She gave Buechner an image of Jesus standing in the midst of all the Sunday church services... all over the world... with his hands tied behind his back. He wasn't able to do any of the mighty works we hear about in the Bible because the ministers and priests who led the services either didn't expect him to, or didn't dare ask him to do them out of fear— fear that if he couldn't or wouldn't, the faith of their congregations would be threatened — indeed, that their own faith would be threatened. I can relate to that. People ask me to pray for them or with them all the time. Sometimes I have a chance to listen to their story, and as I've been taught, I try to listen as much to what they don't say as to what they do.

A few weeks ago I was at a reception for a representative from GAIA, (Global AIDS Interfaith Alliance). The speaker was a Roman Catholic nun who was also the Project Director for a nursing program in Malawi. There was a young woman there who'd literally been hauled off the street by the host of the event, who had been waiting outside the church to direct his guests to the proper entrance. She had stopped by the church to pray, but it was already after 6:00 and the front doors were locked. He invited her to the reception and she came, and dutifully and politely sat through the presentation. When it was over and I was getting ready to leave, she stopped me and asked if I would pray with her.

It was good timing. I volunteer at that parish once a week and I had a key to my office. I took her there. She was a bright young woman, a student working on her Masters degree to be a teacher, trying to make ends meet in New York City, holding down a part time job at Starbucks and barely paying her rent on time. Personally she was in a place of overwhelm. Yet she'd just sat through a presentation about an entire population of people living with AIDS, thousands of orphans, not enough food or medicine or professional health care workers...

On the one hand was her own life, and she clearly needed some help and encouragement. On the other hand was the conflict over her obvious position of privilege in a world where most everyone has way less than she does. She was both confused and embarrassed, yet she was brave enough to ask.

She told me "I know I should be feeling grateful, and I do feel that. So many people are so much worse off than I am... I know that. But... but everything seems just so hard right now."


So we prayed. Or rather, I prayed. I can't tell you exactly what I said, I can never remember what comes out of my mouth when I pray. God knows. God knows, too, both what she needed to hear— and what she actually needed. And those are not always the same thing, are they?

So, here's my first point about prayer:
  1. You have to ask anyway. In that same conversation with Buechner, Agnes Sanford described prayer as a game. And we are to play the game. Why? Because Jesus told us to, and of all the ridiculous games we already play, most of them are not nearly as helpful.
    The second point is equally important:
  2. Expect to receive. This one can be harder, and I think it's at the very center of why our prayers seem so hollow sometimes.
You read the Bible. You know the miracle stories of healing—where time and time again Jesus says, "Go in peace. Your faith has made you well." Your faith... not my power...

It's a game and it's a bargain. In places where Jesus was distrusted or misunderstood the healing works were few and far between.

So it is in our technologically advanced culture. We bet our lives on chemotherapy while we pray for mercy that it will kill the cancer without killing us in the process.

In this game of prayer, the voice of prayer competes with the voices of doubt. And those voices are devious indeed, drowning out our prayers even as we say them. But as Agnes Sanford advised Buechner, we are to pray down those voices for all we're worth.

The Celts called a certain kind of prayer "Calling Down the Power." It was not a request. It was a demand. Demanding God to act in the name of the Risen Christ, in the name of the Trinity, in the name of all that was Holy. They were on to something.

We, on the other hand, couch our prayers in very polite language most of the time... I know I do. I use words like if it be your will, or for the highest good. I can rationalize that those words are used so as not to place limits on God (as if I could) but are they not to carefully package whatever the results might be... so any blame for lack of results goes to God, and not my prayer? That helps no one. And it's not the game. It's a way to avoid the game.
So the rules of the game (as I see it) are this:
  1. You have to play. (Ask.)
  2. You have to expect to win. (Faith)
But here's a problem: we get suckered into the assumption that God is the opponent, rather than the Advocate... that our will is somehow pitted against God's will, and like in any game of chance, sometimes we can beat the odds.

I think there's something else at work. I think God is on our side, if we're playing poker, our ace in the hole. The opponent is that shadowy figure, we, first of all don't understand, and much of the time don't really believe exists. You can name the opponent; death, sin, corruption, the dark side... all equally adequate titles for an entity, a force, that lies to us about the true nature of God, the Universe and ourselves. Why? Perhaps because he (or she or it) is the opponent.

I have conjecture, speculation, opinions... and those help me make some sense of it, but I won't really know until I'm dead. Until I've gone back to the heart of my creator. But not knowing why has never stopped us before, and it shouldn't stop us now. A liability to be sure, but maybe it's just one of the idiosyncrasies of the game.

I've had people tell me (and I've said it myself) "I prayed and prayed and prayed and God didn't answer. Back in the early nineties I was adrift. I had a history of two failed marriages—both for different reasons—yet failed nonetheless. I was in between careers, holding down a few part-time jobs, barely making it. I had a feeling something was about to happen, but I didn't know what. Here's one of the things I wanted (the things I prayed for):

  • A Boyfriend.
  • And not just any boyfriend. I had recently come back to the church after a thirteen year marriage to a cynic. He thought the institution of religion was a farce, and some days he wouldn't have been wrong. But for me, God—and the various institutions that represent Him— are not the same thing. I was tired of debate, of constantly having to defend my belief. I wanted a boyfriend who believed in God.
  • And not just believed in God, but one who actually enjoyed church and church activities. I wanted a boyfriend to worship with. In all my prayers I never used the word "husband". I was done with husbands. So I prayed and prayed: "God, send me a boyfriend... and not just any boyfriend... and not just a boyfriend who believes in you... (You get the picture.)
No Answer.

In 1995 I moved to New York City. My Florida friends though I'd gone off the deep end, but it was a good move. I found a new church, one that had a strong homeless outreach. I started working in the shelter. Then one Lent I decided to take on the Sunday Breakfast Feeding program as a Lenten discipline. Easter came and went but I stayed on. And it was there I met THE NEW BOYFRIEND. He believed in God. He liked church, and was involved in a lot of church activities. We worshipped together. The answer to my prayers... I was ecstatic, right?

Wrong. Now that I'd finally met the guy I'd been praying for, I figured we should get married. I had received exactly what I'd asked for and I wasn't satisfied. So Point 3 in this game of prayer would have to be: Be careful what you ask for.

The irony of that situation was not lost on me. And I realized that even in my moments of strength, I had been conditioned to believe I was not whole unless I had a man in my life to complete me. Even when it came down to worshipping and serving God, I never even considered I could do it alone, or that there would be fulfillment in doing it alone.

Well, I didn't run off to the convent right away... that took awhile longer. But that tiny crack of understanding in my psyche let enough light for me to begin to question whether this particular rule from my childhood was valid: did I really need a man in my life to love and serve God?

So is there another point in all of this? Perhaps. Perhaps the game of prayer is like Uncle Wiggly, a meandering board game, that travels, not in a straight line, but in seemingly out-of-the-way directions. Our journeys on this twisty-turny-road gives us time. Time... to check the road signs, to change course, to enjoy the scenery, to ask ourselves: Is the destination I'm seeking really the destination I want? And is it really what's best for me?

It certainly doesn't hurt to ask for help. Ask God directly... but look around for the answers. Prayer is always answered. Sometimes the answer is "Not right now." Sometimes the answer is No." And sometimes the answer is "Yes! yes! yes!" but because it's smack dab in front of us... we can't see it.

So... Ask. Expect.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Another Birthday Boy!

My younger son celebrates his 37th birthday today. (He was born on Mother's Day... awwww) so of course he has an extra gold star for that. Both he and his older brother are the loves of my life, as different as night and day, sweet and sour, black and white, polar opposites on every possible spectrum you could use to measure... and as such, on the razor's edge of being exactly alike. It's just another one of those mysteries.

John, my son,
I'm sending you lots of love and best wishes for a happy day and a happy year ahead.
Happy Birthday!

Thursday, May 08, 2008

The Oregon Trail: Update

I haven't written about my trip to Oregon yet, and I want to do that. It was my first "Associates" retreat, my first time to lead a silent retreat. Even with the normal stress of traveling, sleeping in new beds, being with new people, the entire week was an amazing experience!

Oregon is beautiful; it is also blooming this time of year... grasses, trees, ragweed... pollen abounds. I arrived late in the afternoon on Thursday and by Friday noon I was popping the Allegra. My hay fever continued all weekend until we left for Klamath Falls (high desert). There I could breathe again. A slip on gravel-over-rock sent me down hard and something jarred in my chest. At first I figured I'd just had the wind knocked out of me. Then I was thinking I might be having a heart attack... then I guessed a heart attack doesn't last three days or more. Whatever happened in that slip is still with me. It hurts to bend over, cough, hiccup, burp... I had a chest x-ray yesterday. No news is good news I guess. Anyway, I have some halfway decent pain killers at my disposal now, and though they don't exactly do the job, they at least take the edge off.

My first evening at Mount Angel Abbey Retreat Center was one for introductions, hugs all around from Sr. Mary Christabel and my opening address. I talked a little about my religious name... why I chose it, what it meant to me. I told them I believed God has a sense of humor and hoped I'd be able to give them a few examples over the weekend, and then I told them to take a good look at me... in official uniform, because the next day I would be wearing a red dress. (Okay, this may not sound like such a big deal to most people, but as individual sisters, we've been wearing street clothes for three years now. Yet the folks in Oregon have never seen us in anything but habit.) I was breaking them in.

The meat of my first talk was the concept of Sabbath time. Since this was a silent retreat, it would be an opportunity for them to give themselves a break from the unrelenting pace of our Western culture... not just to rest from the busyness of their normal lives, but to rest from measuring everything.
  • "How am I doing?"
  • "Am I getting it right?"
  • "If I have to practice Sabbath time I may as well be good at it."
The whole idea of Sabbath as NOT doing, rather than doing is part of the mystery of the grace of it. We carry with us a whole list of unconscious assumptions about life. These become our reality without us realizing it. Things like:
  1. Busyness is a virtue and a sign of importance.
  2. Time spent waiting is wasted time.
  3. Empty space must be filled.
  4. Multi-tasking is a spiritual gift, and more...
So I asked them to spend their time... not necessarily wisely, but to spend every moment. Spend is a verb, and I also happen to believe that God is a verb, not a noun. Little envelopes were passed around containing verbs. So what's with all those verbs if we're supposed to be not doing anyway? But that, too, was part of the mystery of spending the grace... and since my next two addresses would be focusing on prayer (another verb) it made sense to me.

We ended the evening with Compline and their silence began... All were in my prayers that night for a blessed retreat.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Home soon...

Home soon... tomorrow afternoon.
Long trip. Good retreat (I think) in Oregon... new friends, new ties to the west coast.

It strikes me as odd that I've not had "the need" to post while I've been away. For one, not much opportunity (until I reached my son's house) and for two... I'm now on what's known in the convent as family time. Not rest and retreat, (our equivalent of vacation) because as everyone knows, family time is not a retreat, neither is it restful. Those exact words from another nun were perplexing to me at first, although I laughed at the time. But now I get her drift. Life in the convent is different enough to make life in the outside world seem pretty weird.

It's been a weird visit. I'm sure some of it's the nun-thing, some the time difference (3 hours), some the fact that even though both my son and daughter-in-law took vacation time to be off, my son still pretty much sticks to his night shift schedule, and my daughter-in-law spends a lot of her time online while watching TV. That's not a problem. I don't need to be entertained. I have my knitting and my son gave me a good book to read. It's something else.

Nobody wants to make a decision about what we should do, where we should go, what TV we should watch... and once a decision is somewhat made, then there's a whole lot of resistance and/or argument about it. I'm so used to stating my position on an issue and then going with the consensus, that I have no understanding of the nuances of "I don't care what we do" to mean "I don't want to do that." Or... "I will make you pay if we do that." It's disorienting. I'm bouncing along thinking everything is just fine and then notice somebody's unhappy. Or so it seems.

These kids snap at each other. I have no doubt there's true affection between them, I've seen that as well, but the whole kindness for its own sake thing has eluded them. It's been so long since I've been in a relationship with just one other person, I can't remember if I was the same way. Probably... the apple doesn't fall far.

The dog seems to like me better this time.