February 18, 2015

Praying Our Way Through Lent

Ash Wednesday
February 18, 2015
Christ Church, New Bern

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the
observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance;
by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and
meditating on God's holy Word. -- Book of Common Prayer p. 265

I had the pleasure of having dinner with two old friends recently. I grew up going to summer camp with both of them, and I never would have pictured them together. But when I found out they were dating and then were getting married, it was one of those couples you think, “Yeah! That makes perfect sense.” We hadn’t actually seen each other in about 12 years. We kept up on Facebook and over email and through other friends, but we had not been in each other’s company in a long, long time. Their son is just a month or two younger than my son, and their daughter is just a week or so older than my daughter. We had a great dinner and a fun time catching up. But I doubt we touched on 2% of our lives since we’d last seen each other.

By contrast, I have known my wife for almost 16 years, and in the 14 years we’ve been together, it is rare that a day passes that we don’t have some kind of conversation. Sometimes brief, sometimes long. Sometimes formal, most of the time not. Sometimes we hear each other’s voice, and sometimes it’s over g-chat or text. But because we are in constant conversation, there are few surprises and even fewer times that we have to have a catch-up session like I did with my camp friends.

I tell you those two stories because I want to talk about prayer, and these two situations paint two pictures of what our prayer life can be like.  We can be in either kind of relationship with God: The kind that doesn’t need a lot of “catch-up” time and the kind where we spend a good amount of time saying, “So… How ya been, God???”

Prayer is responding to God by thought and deed, with or without words.
Prayer is spending time with God even if neither of you say a word.
Prayer is pouring out your soul to a God who hears you and knows you and loves you. And prayer is waiting patiently for God to respond. Prayer is the ability to say to God, “Thank you. Help me. I’m sorry. You’re right.” Prayer is the ability to hear God say those same things to you.

We pray not because God needs a reminder that we are here or even what the deepest desires of our heart are. God knows those things even before we do. We pray because God loves us and wants to be in relationship with us. We pray because prayer changes things, even if just in our own heart.

All too often, our prayers are a wish list for God: I need this. Do that. Cure that person. Or me. Make this problem or that one go away.

How many times do we genuinely pause or wait to hear what God has to say to us? At its height, prayer is a two-way conversation, and the most important part is listening to God’s replies.

So how do we listen for that reply? How do we know when God is answering us or even directing or calling us?

We begin by being still and listening to God, to those around us, to what we read and see and all the ways God is speaking through them.  We begin by making room for God to speak to us. I don’t know about you, but I find it incredibly difficult to listen to what someone else is saying when I’m doing all the talking.  So we begin by being still. Listening. STARTING our prayers with the words of Isaiah and so many others in Scripture: “Here I am, Lord.”

We begin by making the time to listen. The great reformation leader Martin Luther, when asked about his plans for the following day, responded, “Work, Work, Work from early until late. In fact, I have so much to do, that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.”

I am not suggesting that we should so radically shift our lives to pray three hours a day starting tomorrow. Such radical shifts rarely stick. But what if, during this Lenten season, we added five minutes. Just to get into a habit of listening. Five minutes of silence. We may find that those five minutes grow to seven minutes then to 10 then 20 then… who knows. Who knows how our relationship with God will grow and strengthen.

I hope you will spend this holy season of Lent examining how it is you pray, how it is that you respond to God in thought and deed, with or without words.

February 8, 2015

Expect the Unexpected

Epiphany 5, Year B
February 8, 2015

I thought all week about last Sunday's Super Bowl. No, not so much the play in which the Seattle head coach practically handed the Lombardi Trophy to Emperor Belichick and Darth Brady (UGH!)

No, I've been thinking about the other great reason we watch the Super Bowl: The Commercials!
There were some really good ones. Fiat and Doritos really delivered. Nationwide Insurance, not so much. But there were also a string of commercials, none of them from the same company, that all seemed to buck a trend, to call on people to break out of "normal" expected patterns of behavior. There was the "Like a Girl" commercial which says that the phrase "like a girl" should never be used as an insult or a put down, but a chance for praise of excellence. And there were several companies that called on fathers to be more active in the lives of their kids. "Be a dad," they said.
Those sentiments, "Like a Girl" and "Be a Dad," have been on billboards and bumper stickers for years, but for companies to pony up the $4 Million for a 30-second spot in the Super Bowl broadcast says that the bumper sticker slogan is ready for the big time, even if our society isn't ready to hear it. (And if you're wondering if it's really worth $4 Million for a 30-second spot, Forbes Magazine says it's a pretty resounding "yes.")

So I was thinking about those commercials as I listened to a a podcast from RadioLab (one of my favorites!) all about the history and future of American football. (http://www.radiolab.org/story/football/) The basic premise of the episode is that American Football began in post Civil War America as a reflection of our society, and as our society has developed and changed, so has the game of football. Those original players at Harvard and Yale and the Carlisle Indian School would have hardly recognized the game if they had watched the Super Bowl last Sunday night.

With these things in tension, the unorthodox commercials last Sunday evening and a conversation about the evolution of the game, I began to ponder the scene from today's Gospel, and how Simon Peter's mother-in-law began to serve Jesus and the others when she was healed of her fever. Most of the story is pretty typical of Middle East culture in Jesus' day, and now, too. A male family member intercedes with Jesus on behalf of the unnamed Mother-in-Law. And having one's Mother-in-Law living with you was not unheard of. In fact some say it was a sign of Simon's financial success that she lived with him. either way, Jesus breaks convention when he reaches out and takes her hand. We don't know who else saw it outside of those mentioned, and we don't know who may have been scandalized.
But this brief encounter (it is all of three verses) has major implications. And much like those unorthodox commercials in the Super Bowl, those implications are going mainstream whether society or religion or anything else is ready for it or not. It is fascinating to note that the word the Gospel writer uses for "serves" is from the same Greek root we have for "deacon" and the same word that is translated as "waited" in Mark 1:13 when Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days and "the angels waited on him."

Simon's mother-in-law could easily have said, "Who is this strange man!" or "Simon, what have you done this time?!" Instead, she responds to Jesus by ministering to them, waiting on them, serving them. Her's was a response of gratitude to Jesus stepping outside of societal norms.
This isn't some menial women's work in a male-dominated society, either. This is messianic ministry where people respond to Jesus' healing touch by serving Christ and those around him. In fact, the mother-in-law displays true discipleship to Jesus, while the original four who were called by Jesus from their fishing boats just a few verses before, stand idly by and don't really realize what they're supposed to do until after the resurrection.

The season of Epiphany calls us to see how Jesus is revealed in the world around him and around us. I would contend that what is revealed about Jesus is his willingness, if not eagerness, to break from societal norms to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom of God.

Those who should have most readily seen the Messiah often miss out because Jesus doesn't fit their expectations. We expected the ads in the Super Bowl to makes us laugh or get our attention in order to buy a product. Instead, many of the commercials got our attention to give us a message we didn't expect. And it happened to be sponsored by a company or two whose products I might buy.

Those looking for a Messiah expected a military leader to usher in the Kingdom of David and usher out (to put it nicely) the Roman oppressors. Jesus introduced a new vision of the Kingdom, and it had nothing to do with military or force. It had to do with love and extending God's grace and mercy to those on the outer edges of society, those who civic and church leaders said weren't good enough to be loved or even recognized by God. What Jesus is starting in his encounter with Simon's mother-in-law will his modus operendi throughout his ministry. We hear it in so many of his teachings: "You have heard it said do what you've always done, but I say to you break the mold!"  In both subtle and overt ways, Jesus is teaching a new way of encountering God, one that says, it's not as hard as you make it and yet, it's more complicated than you think.

What does that mean for those of us striving to be followers of Jesus? Surely there are societal, and dare I say religious, norms that Jesus is calling us to challenge or question? Norms that have pushed people to the margins, that we can help pull them back in and restore their dignity and humanity as people created in the image of God?

Jesus didn't come to protect the status quo, but to shake things up and do the unexpected, to get people's attention. If we strive to be the light of Christ and let that light shine through us and work in the world around us, we might need to shake things up and do the unexpected, too.