Monday, October 1, 2012

Considering the Other

Before we read Mark 9:38-50, let's reflect on today's reading from James: "Are any among you suffering? You should pray. Are any cheerful? You should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? You should gather with the elders and pray over them. The prayer of faith will save the sick; the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective." (James 5:13-20)

Now I have a chip on my spiritual shoulder that impacts my approach to these closing paragraphs in James. My chip is finally shifting and healing, but I still notice it and I have to think through it. I share it with you in case it resonates with your own spiritual chip-on-the-shoulder about prayer. Two experiences color my perspective on this passage:

(1) First is simply that all-too-common experience of someone saying, "I'll pray for you," in such a way that you think they may not actually pray for you ... or you suspect their prayer for you might not be your prayer for you. Certainly "I'll pray for you" is often sincere, but sometimes it functions as a religious cliche that someone says because they don't know what else to say. James 5:13-20 can sound like that condescending cliche: "Are you suffering? I'll pray for you. (hug) Are you cheerful? I'll pray for you. Are you sick? I'll pray for you too. (pat pat)"

(2) When I was in college, I was part of a charismatic Christian student fellowship. Our group went on retreats with other college Christian groups during the school year, so we were always meeting other Christian students and talking about faith. On one retreat, I was in the women's restroom washing my hands and another young woman came in, started washing her hands. There were many groups attending the retreat that particular weekend, so I didn't know this student. But we made eye contact in the mirror and she said, "So, has God spoken to you yet this weekend?" To this day I have no idea how I responded to her question; I only remember my shock that (a) prayer was a bathroom topic and (b) that she had nailed me on my greatest insecurity in faith -- prayer.

The irony of having written books about prayer is that I always struggled with prayer. The letter of James says, "The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective," but I had no illusion that my prayers had that kind of impact. My time in prayer was full of spiritual dead silence. It's wonderful that my college peers on these retreats heard God's voice; it's wonderful that Elijah could pray and stop the rain, as James notes -- but clearly I missed that lesson in Sunday School!

So I have to wade through my "stuff" when I read James' exhortations on prayer, and maybe you have to wade through your stuff too as you think about prayer.

But -- having noted our doubts and insecurities about prayer, having looked at them and now setting them down for the time being -- it's important to notice that James isn't approaching prayer as an individual spiritual exercise or as a supernatural encounter. James is showing us that prayer is an attitude of community and prayer is a perspective on God's presence in life. Prayer holds the perspective that God is in all things and amidst all circumstances -- suffering or joy, sickness or discord. And prayer assumes the absolute necessity of community for the sake of healing -- when there is sorrow, gather together; where there is brokenness, call the elders; when there is a reason to celebrate, call the whole community!

In our lives, sometimes we maintain a disconnect or discrepancy between aspects of our lives without realizing it; the same is true in our spiritual lives! We often say that we believe God is life and God is love. But we can forget God as life and God as love when we pray, instead approaching prayer as a feat of spiritual athleticism, like we're climbing a rock wall to reach a faraway God. And we're contorting ourselves in every way to reach the top but entirely missing the fact that God is the rocks we're climbing and God is the air we're gasping and God is the climbers beside us on the wall.

Prayer shouldn't forget that God is life and God is love and God is presence in its pursuit of ethereal heights; prayer should draw us closer to God in life and God in love. Prayer should draw us closer to the activity of God in the world and in community and in us. Prayer should draw us closer to the Other, teach us to recognize God's presence not only moving in our own lives but moving in all life. Prayer should change our hearts by keeping us attuned to God's heart beating through life. Prayer should heal our hearts, heal our lives, by stretching our hearts out from our own chests to meet the heart of God in another's life.

There was an awful story in the news this past weekend that revealed too vividly what's at stake in our collective ability -- or inability -- to recognize the heart of God in one another; what's at stake not just in being able to recognize God here and there, but in practicing at every moment the recognition of God in others. In a small town in Connecticut, in the middle of the night, a man received a phone call from his sister who lives next door. She thought someone was trying to invade and rob her home, so she called her brother for help. The man grabbed his gun, went outside. There was someone between the two houses, wearing a mask, carrying a knife. The man shot and killed the person in the mask. It turned out that the person in the mask was his son.

Life is at stake in our willingness to recognize God in others. Prayer, James says, is a spiritual tool for training our eyes and our hearts to recognize God in another life, even in a life that is hidden behind a mask.

The disciples came to Jesus: "There's someone we don't know, doing things that we don't understand. He's casting out demons and saying your name, but we don't recognize him so we're suspicious -- we think he shouldn't be trusted." Jesus said, "Don't stop him, just because he's going about his work differently. He's not your competition or your enemy. The cup of water that he shares is just as valuable as the cup of water you share.

"In fact," Jesus says, "let me go a step further. Not only should you not interfere with his work of healing -- I'm holding you responsible for his well-being overall. I'm holding you responsible for recognizing that his life is sacred too. If you cannot recognize God's life within this man, it will be as if you are choosing to drown your own life.

"If your hand cannot extend in welcome to a stranger, it would be better for you to lose your hand than to miss encountering God in that stranger. If your foot refuses to cross a border or to walk on the other side of the tracks, it would be better for you to cut off your foot than to let your spirit be corrupted by your foot's inability to recognize God's presence in foreign and unfamiliar territories.

"Likewise if your eye cannot see God -- living and breathing and dying -- on the other side of a mask or hijab or uniform; and if your tongue cannot consider greeting God in the life of the other; it would be better to lose your eye or cut out your tongue than to live in the hell of the heart that has not learned to meet God in all of life.

"What good is salt that has lost its saltiness? What good is life and community if not to experience God?" (Mark 9:38-50)

Prayer is not about our individual efforts of spiritual athleticism. It's not about what Herculean effort we make on the strength of our own spirits to reach God. Prayer is about considering the community and maintaining a perspective on God in all of life.

Prayer keeps us salty by putting us in a space where we must give God and give the Other as much attention as we give ourselves. The practice of prayer is the practice of considering more than just ourselves in this life. The practice of prayer gets us in the habit of recognizing God amidst all life. The practice of prayer gets us in the habit of considering God's presence in one another -- in community -- over and over and over again until we see past the masks and the assumptions and the stereotypes and the judgments. The practice of prayer changes us -- heals us -- by continually exposing us to the heart of God in all moments of life.

The alternative, if we take Jesus seriously, if we take the news seriously (not just this story out of Connecticut, but every story of war and abuse and violence) ... the alternative to recognizing God's movement through all life, the alternative to acknowledging God's presence in others, the alternative to prayer, is death. Prayer keeps us from the death of self-consumption -- prayer keeps us salty -- by putting us in a space where we give God and give the Other as much attention as we give ourselves. Prayer gives us life by keeping us in community.

So pray for one another: through suffering, through joy, through illness, through wandering. Expect prayer to tune you in -- perhaps to God's voice -- but most of all to God's movement! Give yourself the grace and the peace of not having to make some spiritually athletic effort to reach up to God; pay attention to God where you are, with the understanding that God will start to show up in more places, in more faces, than you anticipated as you pray. Let prayer be the space where the heart of God changes your heart and gives you a heart for others. Amen.

Sermon preached at Grace United Church of Christ, 9/30/12.

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