Friday, April 6, 2012

More Than We Can Ask or Imagine

RCL Good Friday
6 April 2012

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

            When David was six weeks old, he underwent his first surgery to repair the cleft in his lip.  We took some pictures of him before the surgery.  His eyes are bright and his face is wreathed in a wide smile.  We also took some pictures of him after the surgery.  The lip is repaired, but his eyes are not bright, his face is not wreathed in a wide smile.  He had experienced a type of crucifixion and his six-week-old mind could not comprehend what had just happened.  Even now, more than twenty years later, the ripples of this event and the subsequence surgeries still disturb the waters of David’s life and our life as a family.

            But I also remember that David, Paula and I were surrounded by a community of prayer that reached across the United States.  In Colorado, our home before we went to Indiana for me to pursue my doctoral studies, we were prayed for in parishes across the state and there was a parade of clergy, including both the bishop and the suffragan bishop, who visited David in the hospital and prayed for him.  In Northern Indiana, the diocese in which the University of Notre Dame is located, several parishes held us in prayer and the Bishop even gave us a gift of money to help with any expenses.

            Perhaps my perspective is somewhat skewed, but I have to say that David did seem to heal more quickly than some of the other children in his ward.  We soon added the other children to our prayers and asked others to do the same.  We tried to bathe this Golgotha with the prayers of faithful people in order to bring some healing and some peace to these children and their parents.

            In the years since then I have thought and prayed about prayer.  What does prayer do?  Does prayer change the eternal purposes of God?  Does God care more about the people we pray for than the people we do not pray for?  How do we learn to pray?  These and many other questions, some remembered and some forgotten, have occupied me from time to time.  Today I want to offer just a few thoughts which by no means comprehend all the breadth and depth of what it means to pray.

            On Good Friday it is tempting to think that the primary focus of the liturgy is upon the cross.  It is easy to see why we might think so.  The words we speak are filled with the images of the passion, the trial, the crucifixion and the death of Jesus.  What goes unnoticed by some is that part of the liturgy called the Solemn Intercessions.  Its form and content are some of the oldest pieces of Christian worship in the Western tradition.  The deacon or assisting minister will offer a lengthy bidding.  We shall pray in silence.  The presiding presbyter or bishop will then offer a concluding prayer.  The pattern is repeated many times.  What does this lengthy time of formal prayer on Good Friday tell us about prayer?

            1)  Prayer is about quieting the noises of the world around us so that we can hear God.  We live in a noisy world.  Whether the noise we hear comes from the traffic on our streets or the omnipresent ‘elevator music’ in our malls and other places of business, there are few places and times when we can be quiet.  Often I find people have shut out the noise of the world around them by replacing it with another form of noise:  music from a music player plugged into their ears or the ‘hands free’ device attached to their mobile phone.  To pray means, first and foremost, to still the noises around us and within us so that we can hear God speak to us.  When we do this, we discover previously unknown wisdom that helps us to face the challenges of our lives and reveals to us needs and concerns that the noise has shouted out.

            2)  Prayer is about remembering.  One of the key words in the story of the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is the verb ‘remember’.  In the New Testament to remember something is not merely to bring something or someone to mind.  To remember is to bring the power of the past into the present.  When we remember what God has done in our past and in the past of our community of faith, we unleash that power so that the present can become God’s arena of action.  We pray for healing because we remember that God has healed and will heal.  We pray for peace because we remember that God has brought peace and will bring peace.

            3)  Prayer is about the power of community.  I cannot explain what happens when people unite to pray about a common concern.  But I cannot deny that there is power within such a united community.  When people of faith join in offering themselves to each other and opening themselves to God, things happen. 

            I confess that I do not know if prayer changes the eternal purposes of God.  I do know that prayer changes the one who prays.  Prayer orients us to God’s purposes and opens us to God’s grace working through us.  God responds to our new-found awareness of the needs and concerns of the world by offering us the means to use the gifts we have.  We discover new avenues and ways that seemed obstructed are re-opened.  This is God’s work, not ours, but we are the agents of God’s purposes.  When this prayer takes place in a community, then the potential is magnified.

            Today we commemorate an event that has transformed the world.  We will speak words about the cross, but the most important action we will undertake is to pray.  In a world filled with the noise of oppression, injustice and violence, we will calm those voices and keep silent in expectation that God will speak to us.  In a world that forgets regularly and readily that we hold this planet and its treasures in trust for God and for future generations, we will remember what God has done, is doing and will do.  In a world that can isolate human beings and tear asunder the fabric of human community, we will pray together, led by one voice calling us to pray for the whole world and all its peoples and leaders, for all its needs and concerns, and God’s power, working through us, will do infinitely more than we can ever ask or imagine.  Amen.

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