A Prayer Away

My sermon for Sunday, October 20, 2013

A woman sat on a park bench observing the people around her.  She felt the pain of a child who had fallen down off his bicycle.   She felt the tiredness of an old man who was slowly making his way home.  She felt the joy of the children playing together on the jungle gym.  She saw the happiness of a couple walking hand in hand.

"Some people glanced her way as they passed the bench on which she was sitting.  They never, however, gave her a thought." Photo courtesy of http://l.navarro.tripod.com/jlnavarro/

“Some people glanced her way as they passed the bench on which she was sitting. They never, however, gave her a thought.”
Photo courtesy of http://l.navarro.tripod.com/jlnavarro/

People glanced her way as they passed the bench on which she was sitting.  They never, however, gave her a thought.  No one noticed the unshed tears in her eyes as she sat there watching and feeling. “So much pain in the world.  So much happiness and so much loneliness,” she thought as she reflected to herself. 

As she continued to watch, the woman’s mind drifted to another place, another time.  It was a time when she was like the people that she observed—all wrapped up in their own misery and joy.  Sometimes she wished that she could return to those days, and yet.

Her attention lingered on the image of her face that was reflecting in the pond.  She hadn’t seen that face in a long time.  It was a face that reflected contentment, joy, peace and love.  Wiping away the remnants of tears, she stood up and headed toward the fallen child.  She helped him up.  She wiped his tears.  She smiled at the child.  She offered to help the old man home with his shopping. 

She thought, “No, I don’t want to return to the old daysthose were days when loneliness was unbearable.” Though she is still lonely for human company, she has love in her heart because comfort was just a prayer away.

Indeed comfort is always only a prayer away because the person to whom we pray is a God of comfort.  God’s love is what informs God’s work of comfort.  Being blessed with the comfort of God in Christ Jesus, we are empowered to look beyond our own pain and help others in theirs.  Therein is our comfort.

God has great pain when God looks over the good creation that God framed.  Sin damaged it.  Sin brought corruption.  Sin brought tragedy of one kind and another.  The ultimate tragedy that sin brought was death.  Might God have remained in pain, ignoring humanity’s pain on earth?  God could not do that; God’s heart is too big. It is in comforting others in Christ Jesus that God’s pain is comforted. There was great pain in the Father’s heart.  How could the Father cast humanity into oblivion? 

God had an undying love for humanity, proven poignantly when God created humanity from the dust of ground.  God took a handful of dirt and breathed into it God’s Spirit.  God gave God’s very self in the Spirit.  There is no demonstration of love greater than that.  Even Steven Spielberg could not dramatize a greater love than that of God breathing into mud-people God’s Spirit.  That is an undying love. A person who loves that way cannot remain content while others suffer.  Such a person will indeed reach out to comfort.  Such a person will reach out to comfort because that person feels deeply the other’s pain. 

Jesus so felt other people’s pain that he made it his own.  Whenever Jesus sighs deeply, he breathes in other people’s pain.  He makes it his own.  That drives him to heal, to love and to forgive.  Jesus cannot help but sympathize and empathize.  He cannot help but comfort, for that is what his Father does.  Like Father—like Son.

It would only follow that any words addressed to Jesus and his father will be taken seriously.  Any words generated from pain God will hear and address.

God not only hears words; God especially hears the heart that prays them.

God sees the heart that prays.  God communes with the heart that prays.

God strives with the heart that prays.

God lives with the heart that prays.

God accompanies you as you travel through the shadows of death, and the Light of Life is always with you.

God is always in you, by you, above and around you.

God is closer to you than you are to yourself.. 

"God sees the heart that prays.  God communes with the heart that prays." Photo courtesy of: http://www.saintbrigid.net/blog/belonging/

“God sees the heart that prays. God communes with the heart that prays.”
Photo courtesy of: http://www.saintbrigid.net/blog/belonging/

That is not just any God.  That is the Father of Jesus, who is a God of comfort in this vale of darkness and tears called life.

In the Old Testament, God was with Jacob in his moment of crisis.  Unfinished business was lurking at the door of Jacob’s heart.  No matter how hard he tried to forget how he had cheated his brother Esau out of his inheritance, he could not.  No matter how hard he tried to ignore all the pain that he brought to his family because of his selfishness, he could not.  He was severed from his family in a distant land far from his beloved mother and father.  You don’t appreciate your family until you have lost them.  With every waking moment, Jacob thought about his beloved home.  His ambition could not give him the joy that he got at home with his parents.  The memories caused his heart to ache.  Those memories never go away.  They remind you that experiences count, especially experiences that stretch your soul to such capacity that you can experience even more, the even-more of eternity. You will die with the memories of your life, your parents, your friends, and your children, for they make up who you are.

Jacob had to meet his brother Esau.  He fretted over that impending confrontation.  His mind had engaged in splitting—it went to the worse case scenario as he thought about meeting Esau.  He was told that Esau was on his way to meet him and he had amassed four hundred men in preparation for that confrontation.  Overly dramatic, Jacob’s mind knew no rest about what that impending meeting would entail.  He thought that he would die.  He thought that his children and wives would be cut up by the sword.

Jacob had every reason to be frightened.  He had every reason to be troubled in heart, mind and body.  After organizing his families and giving them instructions in how to meet his brother, he spent time alone with God.  He cried.  He expressed anxious thoughts of the ghoulish images he foresaw, the torture and death of his children and wives.

We’ve all been there: Jacob’s mind went to the worse case scenario. It is the frame of mind of which ulcers are made.  It is the frame of mind that causes the body to close up on itself.  The mind entertains the ultimate escape: relief in death.  Death seems better than continued living.  You have been there.  You know what that means.  If you do not know what that means personally, then you know people who have gone through such dark nights of the soul where death is preferable to life; death seems like a pleasant escape. 

Jacob is in such mental anguish that he wrestles with God.  After the battle, God changes his name.  No longer will be called Jacob, the one who deceives.  He will now be called Israel. The etymology of the name Israel is uncertain.  It has been the subject of scholarly debate for many years.  In its purest meaning, Israel means God conquers; God wins.  Jacob is given that name.  Why?  He had to learn that God conquers.  God will have God’s way. 

Jacob Wrestling With God, painting by artist Jack Baumgartner Photo courtesy of http://theschoolofthetransferofenergy.com/

Jacob Wrestling With God, painting by artist Jack Baumgartner
Photo courtesy of http://theschoolofthetransferofenergy.com/

Jacob’s deceiving ways have gotten him into so much trouble since the day that he reached out of his mother’s womb to try and overtake his brother Esau.  His lying and deceptions have brought nothing but grief.  By changing Jacob’s name, God is giving Jacob a new operating system.  No longer will he strive against men and God.  He will let God win; he will let God have the right of way.  

Jacob finally surrenders to God.  His prayer fundamentally changed how he was to act in the world.  He was to put away the insecurity that caused him to rely on his own devices to get what he wanted. 

Jacob will let God win and conquer.  He will learn to pray.

Prayer is letting God win.  It is surrendering.  In prayer, the troubling circumstances of life lead you to surrender, to put away your attempts at figuring things out.  You come to realize that you cannot figure things out.  You learn to surrender amid all the ambivalence that spawns insecurity and all the wrong ways we try to address our essential insecurity about what is always just around the corner.

We learn what Jacob learned: God is just a prayer away and God is always there. God desires to comfort. What is winning to God other than comforting you through love, for God lives with you; strives with you; in God you live, move and have your being. 

Prayer is a confession that God has a better way to face the “Esaus” of your life, especially the self-inflicted Esaus that come back to haunt you, causing your stomach to churn and keeping you up late at night in your own battle with yourself and God.  The only way to face all such Esaus is through surrender.

Paul encourages the young pastor Timothy to to remain fully engaged in the Word of God, the scriptures, for they can make him wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.  What does it mean to be made wise for salvation? It means to live a life of wisdom that will usher forth in salvation.  God is not only concerned with saving our souls.  God is also concerned with how we live in this life.  Sacred scriptures, inspired as a gift of the Spirit, can lead us in such wisdom.  In the Bible you have the collective wisdom of the ages.  You have a record of people’s dealing with God.  You have God’s laws and strictures on how to live a godly life.  Everything in the Bible can build you up in wisdom and preserve you until God calls you out of this life. With such wisdom you become competent and you don’t have to rely on the kind of struggles that you see in Jacob.  Jacob was not wise.  He was smart and clever, but he was not wise.  His lack of wisdom got him into one trouble after another.

"Each of us has all of God." Photo courtesy of http://nealobstat.wordpress.com/2012/01/

“Each of us has all of God.”
Photo courtesy of http://nealobstat.wordpress.com/2012/01/

God does not want to be a mere rescuer.  Let us not make our lack of planning and unwise decisions constitute a crisis for God.  At the core of a wise life is a prayerful life, especially a prayerful life informed by the word of God.  The prayer that is most informed by the word of God is worship.  Worship is through and through the word of God: we sing the word in the hymns and liturgy; we hear the word in the readings; we hear the word in the sermon; we pray the word in the prayers; we eat the word in the Eucharist; and we finally apply the word to our bodies in the benediction as we go out into the world.

Each of us has all of God.  Each of us has all of God’s attention, because God is already moving and breathing as you traverse this life.  That’s an even greater motivation to take all your needs to God, to a God who is only a prayer away.

Some of you still labor under the misconception that God does not care a whit about you. If that is your idea of God, then you have to change it.  It is wrong.

God became a man in Christ Jesus to die for your sins and to be the true Israel, the one who conquers, the one who wins, Cristus Victor over sin, death and the devil.  In him you have eternal life.  In him you have the Holy Spirit who preserves you in wisdom until the end of your life.

This is a God who is most concerned about you, in a deep and personal way.

This is the God to whom you pray, for this God is only a prayer away.  Forgiveness is a prayer away.  Joy is a prayer away.  Love is a prayer away.  Comfort is only a prayer away.

"This is a God who is most concerned about you, in a deep and personal way." Photo courtesy of www.saintbonaventureparish.org

“This is a God who is most concerned about you, in a deep and personal way.”
Photo courtesy of http://www.saintbonaventureparish.org

Trash Talk

Muhammed Ali, the great heavyweight boxer, was a prolific trash talker.  As an athlete that talked trash, Ali was not unique.  Trash talk is standard operating procedure at any sporting event.  Opponents on the

Photo courtesy of www.spottr.hu

Photo courtesy of http://www.spottr.hu

gridiron, the diamond and the court conduct a quasi psychological warfare against each other, intentionally distracting their opponents, causing them to lose focus, and commit mental mistakes for one purpose: to get the edge.

Ali took trash talk to a poetic level. On February 25, 1964, before his big fight against boxing’s Heavyweight Champion of the World, Sonny Liston, Ali emerged on the world stage rhapsodizing:

           Clay comes out to meet Liston and Liston starts to retreat.

           If Liston goes back an inch farther, he’ll end up in a ringside seat.

           Clay swings with his left; Clay swings with his right,

           Look at young Cassius carry the fight.

           Liston keeps backing, but there’s not enough room.

            It’s a matter of time till Clay lowers the boom.

            Now Clay lands with a right, what a beautiful swing.

            And the punch raises the Bear clean out the ring.

            Liston is still rising the ref wears a frown,

            For he can’t start counting till Sonny goes down.

            Now Liston disappears from view; the crowd is frantic,

            But our radar stations have picked him up over the Atlantic.

            Who on earth thought, when they came to the fight,

            That they would witness the launching of a human satellite.

             Hence the crowd did not dream, when they laid down their money,

            That they would see a total eclipse of Sonny.

Capturing the heavyweight title, trash talk would become Ali’s staple.  Ali mesmerized his opponents and the world with his facility for words.  The sole purpose of his trash talk was to distract and intimidate his opponents, to keep them off-balance—if he could get his opponents to hate him, then he would have the edge over them.  The most vulnerable people are those who hate, for being enmeshed in the emotional muck and mire of hate, they lose their concentration. Competing maximally in a sports competition is just as much mental as it is physical.  The athlete who places mind over matter emerges victorious.

Photo courtesy of http://usahitman.com

“The athlete who places mind over matter emerges victorious.”
Photo courtesy of http://usahitman.com

Each of us has a quasi Ali inside of us that has a facility with words.  This inner Ali talks trash.  He talks incessantly.

Spiritual growth involves gaining mastery over the inner voice that is adept at trash talk.  When we begin something new, the trash talk starts right up: “You can’t do that…You failed before…What are you trying to prove?…Just give up…Don’t work so hard.”  So, we do give up. Trash talk can show up at the most inappropriate times, when our focus should be on the sublime.  It drags us through the dirt.

Last August, I performed the wedding service for someone whose wedding I had long wanted to do.  I first met Cynthia at UCLA when I was a campus pastor and she was 18 years old.  She became a part of our campus ministry as a freshman and remained active through all four years as an undergrad and a grad student.  Over the years we kept up with each other.  She would end her emails reminding me that, when she married, she wanted me to perform her service. She wanted to be married—it was only a matter of finding the right man whom she found a couple years ago.  And so, I had the pleasure of marrying her in her beloved city of Boulder, Colorado last summer. The ceremony took place in a mountain pavilion that overlooked the city of Boulder and the University of Colorado.  It was a most beautiful wedding.  The setting was inspiring.  As the ceremony began, I was eager and ready to enjoy myself, which is hard to do as an officiant.  Nevertheless, I made a conscious effort to be present to the ceremony, to savor every minute of it.

“The ceremony took place in a mountain pavilion that overlooked the city of Boulder and the University of Colorado.”

“The ceremony took place in a mountain pavilion that overlooked the city of Boulder and the University of Colorado.”

All of a sudden, it started.  In my own head, I heard such trash talk that I could not turn off: “It looks like it’s going to rain. …Why is that guy smiling at me like that? The music should be louder…Why is the flower girl stopping…Kids are fun but unpredictable—they can really mess up a ceremony…I hope my robes hide that few pounds I’ve packed on…”

The trash talk went on and on.  I could not stop it.  I was literally being taken from the moment. I was being robbed of the joy that I had long anticipated savoring.  I took a few breaths to gather myself, to firmly place myself in that moment.  Then I proceeded and performed the wedding trying to be fully aware of what I was doing, trying to get out of my head to serve Cynthia and Phillip.  This had never happened to me before. . .

Contemplation is the best way I know to deal with trash talk. Time in contemplation will expose the inner trash talker that we all have in us.  This trash talker is known by many names: the ego, the false self, the old Adam. I call it the historic self, because it is a composite of many voices and experiences.  It has so much ammunition to use in unending ways to frustrate you and to enslave you. The theme is always the same: a wall of resistance that interferes with action you take to better yourself, to become more spiritual, to grow into what God wants you to be.

It is this trash-talking self that we have to engage on a regular basis, taking on a life of its own, a judgmental life, a negative life that at times seems foreign to us; yet, it is very much a part of who we are.

Photo purchased through istock.com

“…it is this trash-talking self that we have to engage on a regular basis…”
Photo purchased through istock.com

It highjacks moments and keeps us off balance in the way Muhammed Ali engaged in psychological warfare against his opponents: to weaken them, to wear them down, to make them surrender their will to fight.

This is the voice we have to quiet.  How so? You confront this trash-talking voice in contemplation, which gives it a platform, allowing it to be revealed.  It is exposed, reaching your awareness. You become adept at watching it.

Through contemplation, you are able to watch that voice from your true self in Christ Jesus. You watch at rest.  The author of Hebrews says something quite profound in his letter.  He says, “Let us strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.  For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.  And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”  (Hebrews 4:11-13)

The word of God is Christ in you, your true self.  He is living and active.  Your true self enables you to objectify and look at yourself, so that you can see what thoughts are from your true self (spirit) and what thoughts are from your false self (soul), the trash talker that talks incessantly.  This is the self that exhausts you, keeps you off-balance, keeps you locked up in guilt and shame.

We over identify with this trash-talking false self.  It is not you.  Thoughts are not you, least of all ones from this false self.  It was liberating for me to come to know that I am not the sum total of the thoughts that I have, especially the ones from my false self.

We are not our thoughts, but we place a premium on our thoughts.  Rather, we need to put all thoughts in perspective: they are not the essence of who we are.

Photo courtesy of www.lssacademy.com

Photo courtesy of lssacademy.com

The 16th century French philosopher Rene Descartes said, “I think; therefore, I am.”  With that statement, Descartes and other idealists made thoughts all-powerful.  That is not true. Thoughts are mere objects that can be ignored.  We do not have to pay attention to every thought that comes down the mental and emotional pike. “Take every thought captive to Christ Jesus,” said Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians.  The true self clearly separates in us what is from the true self and what is from the false self.  Too often the two get merged in us. The true self begins the process of objectifying thoughts and feelings so that you can ignore them.

Contemplation empowers you to look at trash-talking thoughts and then let them go.  The key to overcoming trash talk is to realize that it is trash. It is not you.  It is not true. You are much more than merely a composite of historic thoughts and feelings acquired from your childhood home, your culture, your tribe. You are eternal in Christ Jesus, made such through God’s personal invitation to divinize you through the sacraments.  A church father said it best, “God became what we are to make us what God is.”  Nothing is hidden from this divine self in Christ Jesus.  It is this self that gives you rest from the compulsive, incessant trash talk of your false self. In contemplation, you let the trash talk come as it may; you face it, but you ignore it. You watch it and let it flow by as a boat floats down a river.

It is most liberating to believe that you are not your thoughts. Thoughts can come from anywhere.  Thoughts arise that you should ignore. The more you do contemplation, the more adept you become at identifying the origin of trash-talking thoughts and the deficient parts of you from which they arise.  You are not depression.  You are not anxiety. You are not fear.  Be wary of the trash talk that these produce and ignore them.

What brought on my trash-talking episode at Cynthia’s wedding, with its endless commentaries that were petty and negative?  The episode was informed by the pressure I had put on myself to perform a perfect wedding for her. I wanted her wedding to be flawless.  The idea of achieving perfection fired up my fears.  That fear showed up as trash talk that muscled its way into my thoughts as I awaited the procession of the bride.  I couldn’t run from the trash talk; I couldn’t shut off the endless, insidious commentary.  I had to let it run its course and just not identify with it.  Had I identified with it, I would have brought fear into the occasion and ruined it for all present.

The boxers that were victorious over Ali were the ones who could ignore his trash talk and focus on the task at hand.  They knew his psychological warfare was meant to distract and make them vulnerable to him. The key is to sit in the seat of your higher self and watch the endless parade of thoughts that only abate when you face them and yet ignore them.  That is your true power over the false self.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Van Glider www.contemplativeoutreach.org

Photo Credit: Jennifer Van Glider http://www.contemplativeoutreach.org