Sermon for Sunday, May 21, 2017 || Easter 6A || Acts 17:22-31
I’m going to start today’s sermon with a statement, which I hope is confusing enough to make sure you want to stay with me for the next ten minutes while I unpack it. Are you ready? The statement is this: None of us has ever actually worshiped God. That’s the statement – none of us has ever actually worshiped or prayed to or talked about God.
Are you sufficiently confused? Good! I was so confused when I started working on this sermon that I spent a good hour trying to figure out what to say first. In the end I decided to invite you into my confusion and see if together we can find our way out. We have the Apostle Paul to blame. In our passage from the book of Acts this morning, Paul finds himself in Athens, Greece. He strolls the boulevards looking at the statuary dedicated to various gods of Greece and other nations. And then he comes across one altar with the inscription: “To an unknown god.” Paul decides this unknown god is the God of of his ancestors and the Father of his Lord Jesus Christ. So Paul stands up at a gathering of the local scholarly elite and proclaims to them just who he thinks this unknown god is.Continue reading “Magnetic Mercy”→
Sermon for Sunday, April 23, 2017 || Easter 2A || John 20:19-31
Near the end of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the Stone Table cracks and Aslan returns to life. His adversary had executed him on that table in place of the boy Edmund. The witch thinks she has won a decisive victory, but Aslan knows of deeper magic than she. So the witch doesn’t expect the risen lion to appear at her castle while she’s off trying to conquer the land of Narnia. But that’s what happens. Aslan, the Christ-like figure of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, races to the witch’s home to free all those whom she had turned into statues. And do you know how he releases them from their captivity? He breathes on them.Continue reading “So I Send You”→
(Sermon for Sunday, October 20, 2013 || Proper 24C || Luke 18:1-8 )
“Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” So Luke tells us before sharing the story of a woman whose primary attribute is her unflagging persistence. But I wonder how many of us might like to tiptoe past Jesus’ reason for telling the story in the first place – his desire for his followers (then and now) to pray with dogged persistence, to pray always.
We might like to tiptoe past this notion because it seems so unrealistic. How could we possibly pray all the time? Surely Jesus is engaging in hyperbole. Perhaps he’s thinking that if he starts as high as “always,” then when we bargain him down, we’ll still be praying sometimes.
Or perhaps not. After all, Jesus doesn’t seem to be one for haggling. Perhaps he really does yearn for us to pray always, to pray with the same unflagging persistence as the widow in the parable demonstrates in her quest for justice. If that’s the case, then the popular understanding of prayer isn’t going to cut it; that is, an understanding of prayer as simple wish fulfillment. We need a bigger definition of prayer.
And so I submit as Exhibit A my yearly dive into C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. This time around, the beginning of Book Four, The Silver Chair.
Eustace Scrubb and Jill Pole are trying to escape a mob of bullies at the Experiment House, their ghastly boarding school. Jill has been crying, and the bullies can smell tears from hundreds of yards away. From their hiding spot, the two targets hear the angry shouts of the searchers. Eustace looks at Jill and wonders aloud if they might be able to escape to That Place. He begins calling out, “Aslan, Aslan, Aslan!” Even though she doesn’t know what he’s saying, Jill follows his example: “Aslan, Aslan, Aslan!” The bullies draw near, and Eustace and Jill scramble through the laurels and up a steep slope. The weathered old door in the wall is always locked, but this time – miraculously – the knob turns. And the two children step into Aslan’s country.
Immediately after they arrive, Eustace falls off a cliff, but a lion arrives just in time and blows him to safely to Narnia. The lion – naturally – frightens Jill Pole. She tries to slip away, but the lion begins questioning her. Her showing off caused Eustace’s fall, she confesses. For that display of pride, the lion gives her a task to perform. “Please, what task, Sir?” asks Jill.
“The task for which I called you and him here out of your own world,” says the lion. This response puzzles Jill. Nobody called them. They called out to – Somebody – a name she wouldn’t know. Wasn’t it she and Eustace who asked to come?
“You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you,” says the lion, Aslan, the Christ-like figure of Lewis’s fiction.
This exchange between Aslan and Jill Pole illustrates most vibrantly the foundational principle of our bigger definition of prayer. You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you.
The Catechism in the back of the Book of Common Prayer states the same thought like this: “Prayer is responding to God, by thoughts and by deeds, with or without words.” Years ago, when I first read this definition, I was flabbergasted. I had never thought of prayer as anything more than asking God for stuff. God, please give me a kitty that doesn’t scratch me. God, please help us win our soccer game. God, please make Grammy not sick anymore. Now, please don’t misunderstand, I’m in no way condemning these prayers of intercession and petition. Rather, every kind of prayer fits into a larger framework. Petition and intercession, which popular culture misunderstands as “wish-fulfillment,” are several bricks up from the foundation of prayer.
That foundation is, of course, God. More precisely, the foundation of prayer is God’s presence in our lives and God’s call upon our hearts. “Prayer,” says the Catechism, “is responding to God.” We never initiate a prayer. Our prayer is always a response because God has always been active, has always been breathing our lives into being.
Think of prayer as a phone call. You and I never dial the number: we only have the option to answer the phone when it rings. You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you. When we choose to answer, we affirm our desire to participate in our relationships with God. Prayer, then, is the inclination of our lives towards God, our response to what God is already doing in our lives.
How full of light and love would those lives be if we took seriously Jesus’ desire for his followers to pray always? How much light and love would we bring to those around us if we strove with unflagging persistence to respond to God in every situation?
If prayer is everything we do in response to God, then Jesus’ call to “pray always” seems a little more realistic – still challenging, still demanding discipline and rigor, but more realistic just the same.
Monastics down through the ages have practiced this bigger definition of prayer. Even the lowliest jobs at the monastery – peeling potatoes or weeding fields – were prayer. Monks prayed many times a day in their chapels, but the labor they performed in the meantime was prayer, as well. They “prayed always,” because they saw everything they did in their lives as a response to God’s presence. While we don’t have strict priors delegating our labors, we can still import the monastic example into our lives.
Look at your day, your week, your year. How do your engagements and actions display your response to God’s movement in your life? As a member of a family, God calls you to love and enjoy and forgive your spouses, children, parents, and siblings. As a person made in God’s image, God calls you to discover your authentic self, the version of yourself that God sees and celebrates. As a servant of God, God calls you to perform that one way in which you can bring light and love to the lives of those around you. When we respond to God in all these areas of our lives, we pray. We affirm our relationships with God. We live the abundant lives that Christ offers to all.
The prayers we pray this morning in our worship service, the lessons we hear, the music we sing, the meal we share, all nourish us for a life of prayer between now and next Sunday. Jesus yearns for us his followers to pray always, to respond to God’s movement at all times. This brand of unflagging persistence surely is challenging. But the good news is this: even attempting to pray always is a response to God. Even realizing that we aren’t praying always is a response to God. Every impulse towards generosity, welcome, hope, joy, love, and service is a response to God. As are the cries of our hearts when all is dark. Each day of our lives, we are met with myriad opportunities to pray, to be responsive to God’s movement. And this same movement gives us the grace to respond.
“You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you,” says Aslan to Jill Pole. “We love because he first loved us,” says the writer of the First Letter of John. Likewise, we pray because God first called us – called us into expansive, abundant relationship with God. What will our response be?
(Sermon for Sunday August 11, 2013 || Proper 14C || Luke 12:32-40)
C. S. Lewis once said, “Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’; aim at earth and you will get neither.” He said this in a radio talk on the BBC during World War II, and it was later collected in a little book known as Mere Christianity. Lewis’s words aren’t meant as a threat or a platitude, but simply as the truth behind how we orient our lives. “Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’; aim at earth and you will get neither.”
I suspect Lewis had today’s Gospel reading in mind when he spoke these words; well, more precisely, today’s reading plus the ten verses before it, which the framers of our reading schedule oddly decided to skip. The ones we jumped over are fairly well known: Jesus speaks of the lilies of the field, how they grow; and about the birds of the air, how God provides for them. All of this distills down to one simple request by Jesus to his disciples: “Don’t worry!” He goes on to say that God knows what we need, so we shouldn’t spend all our time and energy chasing after such things. “Instead,” says Jesus, “desire God’s kingdom and these things will be given to you as well.”
Or as C. S. Lewis paraphrases: “Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in.’” Of course, we’re talking about priorities again, as we did last week. Aiming at heaven, desiring God’s kingdom – this is the most important priority of our lives. All other priorities build from the sure foundation of desiring God’s kingdom, of being part of God’s dream of bringing all creation back to God. This is the foundation of our priorities because we would find it quite impossible to desire something greater or more eternal than this dream.
Think of it this way. When I was a child I dreamt of being a professional baseball player. (Well, a paleontologist baseball player who also got to drive the garbage truck, but let’s stick with baseball.) My big dream was catching the final out of the World Series while playing centerfield for the Boston Red Sox. My friends and I imagined that ninth inning of Game 7 every time we put on our gloves. Now, wouldn’t it have been a little odd if I dreamt of playing centerfield for Double-A Portland? Maybe more practical, but practicality holds no sway in dreaming. Much like our childhood aspirations, God invites us to dream big – to desire God’s kingdom above all else, to be part of the coming of that kingdom here on earth, and by doing so, to aim always for heaven.
Of course, the world about us entices and cajoles us to set our aims lower. “Heaven is too far away, too much hard work,” say the grumbling, demonic voices of this world. “It’s all pie in the sky, better to focus on the here and now,” they continue, louder and more confident. “You’re not good enough for God’s kingdom, anyway,” they finish with a flourish. These grumbling voices chorus with a multitude of reasons why we should set our aims lower than heaven, but we have limited time, so we’ll focus on these three common ones: laziness, worldliness, and unworthiness.
First: laziness. Ah, my old foe. Out of the three we’re looking at today, laziness has most often enticed me to aim at anything but heaven. I’ve tried to combat my lazy streak myriad ways. One is that a few years ago, I stopped describing myself as a Christian because the label didn’t cause me to act any different than I normally did. Instead, I started calling myself a “follower of Christ.” I chose to do this to remind myself that a follower does something: he follows. This has helped a little, but the old kneejerk laziness is still there. It’s just so easy, so seductively easy to drift through life without purpose or goal. It’s just so easy simply to shoot at the target rather than aim for the middle of the target.
But in today’s lesson, we followers of Jesus hear him tell us to “be dressed for action and have our lamps lit.” Be on the lookout for ways to shine the light of God’s kingdom in the darkness of this world. Be prepared to find God where you least expect it, but where God most needs to be proclaimed. This is the way to aim for heaven, and I assure you, despite the seductive ease of laziness, this is the way to live.
Second, worldliness – the secularist’s call to us spiritual types to get our heads out of the clouds, plant our feet on solid ground, and start using common sense. But what the secularist doesn’t understand is that engaging our uncommon senses fills our lives with joy and purpose. Still, worldly distractions make our aim wild. We worry too much about our security; not that security is bad, but we do tend to overcompensate. We stray too far to the “rich fool” end of the spectrum: he who in last week’s parable wanted to build even bigger barns to store all his stuff. The weight of this overcompensation pulls our aim lower.
But in today’s lesson, Jesus encourages his friends not to worry, but to sell their possessions and give to the poor. He reorients their aim and ours to heaven, where the treasure is unfailing. Your heart will be where your treasure is, he says, so desire to enshrine your heart in God’s eternal presence. The more our hearts soak up the radiance of God’s kingdom, the more generous we will be in the here and now, and the more we will spread that radiance ourselves.
Third, and most menacing: unworthiness. Aim at heaven, instructs C. S. Lewis. Desire God’s kingdom, says Jesus. And yet in a cold, dank corner of our minds, each of us has a small raspy voice endlessly intoning: “Not you…Jesus doesn’t mean you…you’re not good enough for heaven…you’re not worthy enough to spread God’s kingdom.” This feeling of unworthiness is so common and yet so far from God’s reality. It is a feeling that shackles us, that keeps us not just from aiming at heaven, but from aiming at all.
But in today’s lesson, Jesus intimates that worthiness has nothing to do with the equation. He says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Another translation says, “Your father delights in giving you the kingdom.” If God delights in this act of giving then God surely isn’t putting up barriers of worth that would keep God from showering the radiance of God’s kingdom on all people. The more we accept that God’s delight in us is what makes us worthy, the more we can participate in spreading the kingdom.
These three – laziness, worldliness, and unworthiness – can keep us from aiming at heaven. But Jesus Christ proclaims to us today that none of these has the power we think they do. The power lies with God, who delights in giving us God’s kingdom and hopes with all the radiance of heaven that we desire to receive the kingdom. When we do, we enter into the great, eternal dream that God has for all of God’s creation, and we join with God in making that dream a reality. So aim at heaven and you’ll get the earth thrown in.
(Sermon for August 28, 2011 || Proper 17A || Exodus 3:1-15)
Eustace Scrubb had read only the wrong books. The books he had read had “a lot to say about exports and imports and governments and drains, but,” says C.S. Lewis, “they were weak on dragons.” And so when Eustace accidentally accompanies his cousins Edmund and Lucy on a voyage aboard the ship Dawn Treader, you might imagine that he is, shall we say, out of his element. The further the ship sails from Narnia, the more ghastly becomes Eustace’s behavior. He is truly a horrible boy – lazy, selfish, dishonest, self-centered, and his attitude only goes from bad to worse.
So you won’t be surprised to hear that, when the ship finally comes ashore after a brutal storm, Eustace slips off by himself to avoid a day of hard work. And because he’s read only the wrong books, you also won’t be surprised to hear that, when he stumbles into a cave full of treasure, he has no idea that he has trespassed into a dragon’s lair. He has no idea that falling asleep on a dragon’s hoard turns one into a dragon. And he has no idea that he has become a dragon until he realizes that he’s running on all fours and that the reflection in the pool is his own. Now that he has become a dragon, “an appalling loneliness” comes over him, and he begins to see in himself the monster that his cousins and the crew of the Dawn Treader had tolerated for the entire voyage. How could Eustace possibly undo the enchantment? How could he shed the dragon’s skin?
Consider that your cliffhanger until later in the sermon. Before we return to Eustace the dragon, let’s turn our attention to this morning’s lesson from the Hebrew Scripture. Moses grazes the flock of his father-in-law far afield. At Mount Horeb, he sees a bush blazing merrily, but the bush isn’t turning to coals and ash. Intrigued, Moses turns aside to look more closely. And God encounters him there. “Come no closer,” God calls to Moses. “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
Remove the sandals from your feet. On the surface, this command reminds Moses that he and God don’t share the same position. Moses is a supplicant, and he comes into God’s presence unshod to show the vast disparity between the two. Okay, show of hands – which of you took off your shoes when you settled into your pew this morning? Yeah, neither did I. From a cultural point-of-view, removing our footwear signals informality rather than respect. So, we need to look at God’s command here from a different perspective.
On a deeper level than the simple removal of a garment, God’s command to Moses to take off his sandals presents a challenge to each of us who hears this story. This challenge begins with a question. What is God commanding you and me to remove from ourselves when we enter into God’s presence?
Our answers to this question build the wardrobe of costumes we wear all the time without realizing that we are dressed up. We wear these invisible costumes and affix invisible masks to our faces in order to set up buffers between ourselves and other people. If other people get too close, then they might impel us to change, to see the world differently than we desire, to remove ourselves from the centers of our existence. Our costumes are our first line of defense to remain the people we’ve always told ourselves we want to be. The trouble is that the costumes also disguise us from ourselves.
And so we stumble into God’s presence wearing carefully crafted costumes and masks that create barriers between us and everything that is not us. And just as God commands Moses to remove his shoes, God tells us to take off the costume.
What is God commanding you and me to remove from ourselves when we enter God’s presence? What makes up our costumes? Here I can only speak for myself, so listen for where your experience connects with mine. After praying with the question, I decide that the first piece of my costume to remove is Fear. This is the fear that forestalls any type of change. This is the fear that keeps me from entering into any kind of relationship because the other will cause some sort of transformation in me. This is the fear that keeps me from diving into a pool, not because I’m afraid of diving, but because I don’t want to get wet.
The second piece of the costume is Ignorance. When fear keeps relationships from beginning, ignorance is the necessary byproduct. I am blind to the situations of those I don’t take the time and energy to know. Again, this is part of the buffer. If I actively keep myself from developing an understanding of another’s plight, I won’t be putting myself in the position to have to decide whether or not to help, to relate, to get my hands dirty.
The third piece of the costume is Apathy. When ignorance fails, and I do find myself in the position to make a choice – to be in relationship or not – apathy sings the siren’s song. Apathy is the inertial force that keeps me complicit and complacent to the woes of others because I just can’t quite dig up enough empathy to care.
There are many more pieces of the costume, too many to talk about in this sermon, but there’s still the mask. My mask is Pride. When fear and ignorance and apathy all fail to keep me from being in an authentic relationship with another, there’s always pride to keep me living a disguised life. This is the pride that takes all the credit for my giftedness and assumes that I can get along quite well on my own because I seem to have done so thus far.
And this is where we return to Eustace, the horrible boy of C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. After he becomes human again, Eustace relates to his cousin Edmund how he left the dragon behind. A lion had come to him in the night and bade him undress. Since he had no clothes, he began shedding his skin like a snake. He scraped off his scales and stepped out of the skin. But then he looked down and saw another layer was there. He peeled this off as well. And “exactly the same thing happened again,” said Eustace.
And I thought to myself, oh dear, how ever many skins have I got to take off? …So I scratched away for the third time and got off a third skin, just like the two others, and stepped out of it. But as soon as I looked at myself in the water I knew it had been no good.
Then the lion said… ‘You will have to let me undress you.’
The desperate Eustace lay down and
The very first tear [the lion] made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart… Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off – just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt – and there it was, lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been.
When we stumble into God’s presence, God invites us to remove our costumes. Like Eustace, we might be able to slough off some pieces ourselves, but the real costume only comes off when God intervenes and pulls the invisible garments away. When we pray, “I will, with God’s help,” we acknowledge that we cannot take off our disguises until we stand before the God who is the only one who truly knows what we look like. We cannot remove our costumes until we ask God to take them away, to leave them lying next to us, thick and dark and knobbly-looking.
And when we participate with God in this removal, there is just so much room to fill. Hope takes the place of Fear. Awareness fills in the gap left by of Ignorance. Engagement replaces Apathy. And Humility settles in where Pride once kept the disguise wrapped around us so tight. Shedding the costume is hard work that takes a lifetime. But we are not alone. We are in God’s presence, and God is forever helping us shed the dragon’s skin.
(Sermon for Sunday, May 29, 2011 || Easter 6A || Acts 17:22-31)
I wonder what Paul was thinking as he walked the streets of Athens. I’m sure that the many-columned Parthenon was looking down on him from atop the Acropolis, as this temple of Athena had for nearly five hundred years. But no matter the goddess Athena’s appeal, down every street, Paul sees another crumbling monument to one deity or another. He studies them carefully. I imagine he finds statues of all the Greek gods and perhaps other ones from far off places, considering Athens’ booming tourism trade.
At one point on his walk, however, Paul comes across something he doesn’t expect. He stumbles upon an altar with an odd inscription: “To an unknown god.” Now, Paul is no stranger to being run out of town, but he is also never one to sit quietly in a corner and listen. So, after seeing the inscription, Paul stands up at a gathering of the local scholarly elite and proclaims to them just who this unknown God is.
God, he says, is not like the gods of these gold, silver, and stone monuments. God is Lord of heaven and earth. God isn’t bound to set roles like your local gods. God breathes life into all things. God doesn’t live in a special house somewhere. God is not far from each one of us everywhere. And yet, while Paul’s sermon is full of stirring and magnificent images of God, I can’t help but wonder if the phrase “unknown God” still applies more than any other.
Now, I’m going to warn you that we are about to wade into particularly deep and boggy theological waters. I confused myself thoroughly trying to write all of this down, so if your brain starts to hurt, you’re not alone. However, I have confidence that with some help from our friend C.S. Lewis and a stiff breeze from the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus talked about in today’s Gospel, we will all come out on the other side of the bog with our minds intact. Are you with me? Good.
So two extremes play tug-of-war with this concept of our “knowledge of God.” In the case of the first extreme, I claim to have captured God, strapped the Divine to the operating table, and figured out what makes God tick. When I’m done with the exploratory surgery, I stuff and mount God on the wall just like a prize twelve-point buck. With my experimentation complete, I know just what button to push to make God act in my favor, and oddly enough, God disagrees with all the same people I do. This is the extreme where I have God pegged. Now, you might have spotted the flaw in this point of view. (Remember – we’re talking about extremes, so flaws are more common out here.) The flaw here is, of course, the delusion that God is small or mundane enough for me to figure out what makes God tick.
The other extreme is, naturally, the complete opposite of the first. In the case of the second extreme, I claim to have absolutely no ability to comprehend a God who exists for eternity in infinity. When I try to get a handle on God, I am at a complete loss for words and I must conclude that God is so unsearchably unknowable that I might as well give up. I’m an amoeba trying to read Shakespeare. But I make peace with my teeny-tinyness, and I go about my day trying not to have delusions of grandeur, in which I might rise to a level of intelligence that allows me to comprehend even a shred of what God is about. Of course, there’s a flaw here, too. The flaw in this extreme is the faulty thinking that God is too big and majestic to bother with an amoeba like me, no matter the evidence that God has been surprising humanity for millennia by encounters with the Divine, including one in which God sent his only Son to be an amoeba like me.
Now, each of us exists somewhere along the spectrum between these two extremes. When I really need something to happen – to get a job or pass a test or receive successful treatment – I might trend toward the first extreme, in which God comes at my beck and call. When something really terrible happens in the world – a huge earthquake or massive flooding or a category five tornado – I might trend toward the second extreme, in which God may exist in the ether of eternity but surely can’t be bothered with things here on lil’ ol’ Earth.
Do you see what’s happening here? My experience of God changes depending on my needs in the moment. I slide along the spectrum between the two extremes. The unique mixture of my appetites, yearnings, successes, failures, doubt, and faith paints a picture of the God to whom I address my prayers. And whatever else that painting may be, there is one thing that the picture surely is not. And that is an accurate portrait of God. This is why I wonder if the phrase “unknown God” still applies more than any other.
Now, as I tried to wade out of my confusion while writing this sermon, two questions struck me after that whole bit about the extremes. They might be on your mind right now, as well. First, if the God I’m worshiping isn’t really God, but rather my conception of God, then what’s the good of praying? And second, if I’m not really worshiping God, doesn’t that make me an idolater? This is when we need to call in one of the heavyweights.
C.S. Lewis wrote an incredible poem called “A footnote to all prayers.” He begins:
He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow
When I attempt the ineffable name, murmuring thou,
And dream of Pheidian fancies and embrace in heart
Symbols (I know) which cannot be the thing thou art.
These Pheidian fancies are works of the Greek sculptor Phidas, the very statues of gods and goddesses that Paul saw in Athens. Lewis knows that, even when he tries to call upon God, the best he can do is some symbol that could never do God justice. He continues:
Thus always, taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme
Worshipping with frail images a folk-lore dream,
And all men in their praying, self-deceived, address
The coinage of their own unquiet thoughts…
Lewis poetically describes the same predicament we were in a minute ago: in prayer, we address the gods of our own “unquiet” thoughts and thus we blaspheme. But the poem is only half over, for Lewis continues: [we blaspheme]
Thou in magnetic mercy to thyself divert
Our arrows, aimed unskillfully…
Even someone of C.S. Lewis’ verbal skill aims his prayer-arrows unskillfully, always at some conception of an “unknown” god than at the one, true God. But, in the end, our story isn’t really about you and me. Our story is always and forever about God working in, around, and through us, no matter how unknown God may be to us. And God’s story is all about God’s “magnetic mercy,” by which God pulls our prayers to God, even though we shoot them far wide of the target. Lewis concludes:
Take not, oh Lord, our literal sense. Lord, in thy great,
Unbroken speech our limping metaphor translate.
As we slide along the spectrum between the two faulty extremes of our conception of God, we can only speak in “limping metaphor.” But the true God, according to Lewis, speaks in “great, unbroken speech.” This is the speech that voiced light in the beginning and continues to sustain creation. This is the speech that speaks each one of us into being everyday, no matter the degree to which the speaker is unknown to us.
To tell you the truth, this unknown quality of God will be with us until God takes us fully into God’s glorious presence. Indeed, the unknown quality will keep us searching and reaching out and finding God in even the unlikeliest of places. And I believe that God redeems our lack of knowledge through God’s magnetic mercy. God translates our limping metaphor into the leaping speech of abundant life (even the words I’m speaking right now). Here’s the good news. In the end, our knowledge of God places a far distant second to God’s knowledge of us. As Paul says to the church in Corinth: someday “I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
The following post appeared in the Advent issue of Episcorific (a ‘zine for and by the 20s and 30s of the Episcopal Church). You can download the full magazine in .PDF form here.
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The trouble with being human is that most of us aren’t very good at it. We are way better at being couch potatoes or social butterflies or unique snowflakes or chickens. We explain the very act of making more humans by referring to the birds and the bees. A frightened human is a scaredy cat; an insufferable one is a less polite term for donkey. We may exist as humans, but we spend a lot of time filling the roles of other species.
And these other species are darn good at being themselves. Bees fly around collecting nectar and pollinating flowers. Trees keep soil from eroding. Grass scrubs the air of carbon dioxide. Cockroaches allow husbands to feel manly. If evolution teaches us one thing it’s that species thrive when they don’t try to fill the role of some other species.
While we are busy being butterflies and potatoes, we forget that in reality we are human. And who really wants to be human? Our skin isn’t very well adapted to our climates. Our young can’t fend for themselves for at least twenty-two years. Our bodies break down with alarming frequency. And to top it off, I can’t think of another species on this planet that kills its own kind with as much regularity and aplomb as we humans.
But somehow we have survived down through the ages amidst the dangers of saber-toothed tigers, drought, pestilence, war, and deficit spending. We have survived, but, as Tennyson writes, “We are not now that strength which in old days / Moved earth and heaven.” I’m not even convinced that we’ve ever been that old strength. I don’t think that we’ve ever lived into our humanity to the greatest extent possible.
And here’s where Jesus comes in. Jesus didn’t come to show us a new way to be human. Jesus came to show us how to be fully human. The Gospel makes a big deal about Jesus’ own humanity. Matthew and Luke talk about Jesus’ birth. John shows Jesus tired, angry, and sad. In all four accounts of the Gospel, he is brutally murdered. And why present God the Son as such a frail collection of bones and tissue and synapses? Well, he couldn’t be the “Word made flesh” without flesh. And he couldn’t be our hope and our salvation without fully identifying with our lives, however “nasty, brutish, and short” they may be (thanks to Thomas Hobbes for those appropriate adjectives).
So Jesus is fully human – not some ghost or apparition or hologram. And he’s fully divine. 100% of both. This 100% of humanity is the real miracle here. It’s impossible for God not to be 100% divine (God wouldn’t be God without the perfect batting average). But it’s very possible (indeed, likely) to be less than fully human. Jesus succeeded in realizing this unlikely full humanity, and that’s one of the reasons he’s so special. His life and his example teach us to be fully human.
If we aren’t fully human now, what takes up the rest of the space? In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis explains this question well. Lewis calls us “toy soldiers.” We begin as automatons – clockwork beings in need of winding and direction. But God doesn’t want toy soldiers. God wants sons and daughters to love and adopt as God’s children. Jesus’ example and his grace enable us to move through the messy, painful, joyous process of outgrowing our clockwork. Only by becoming fully human, can we fully embrace God’s love for humanity. If we can recognize God’s love for humanity, perhaps we can love other humans, as well.
Eustace and Jill Pole are trying to escape a mob of bullies at the Experiment House, their ghastly boarding school. Jill has been crying, and the bullies can smell tears from hundreds of yards away. From their hiding spot, the two targets hear the angry shouts of the searchers. Eustace looks at Jill and wonders aloud if they might be able to escape to That Place. He begins calling out, “Aslan, Aslan, Aslan!” Jill follows his example: “Aslan, Aslan, Aslan!” The bullies draw near, and Eustace and Jill scramble through the laurels and up a steep slope. The weathered old door in the wall is always locked, but this time – miraculously – the knob turns. And the two children step into Aslan’s country.
Immediately after they arrive, Eustace falls off a cliff, but a lion arrives just in time and blows him to safety in Narnia. The lion – naturally – frightens Jill Pole. She tries to slip away, but the lion begins questioning her. Her showing off caused Eustace’s fall, she confesses. For that display of pride, the lion gives her a task to perform. “Please, what task, Sir?” asks Jill. “The task for which I called you and him here out of your own world,” says the lion. This response puzzles Jill. Nobody called them. They called out to – Somebody – a name she wouldn’t know. Wasn’t it she and Eustace who asked to come?
“You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you,” says the lion.
The lion is Aslan, and the task on which he sends Jill and Eustace makes up the story of The Silver Chair, one of The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. This exchange between Aslan and Jill Pole from the beginning of the tale illustrates most vibrantly the foundational principle of a life of prayer. You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you.
The Catechism* in the back of the Book of Common Prayer states: “Prayer is responding to God, by thoughts and by deeds, with or without words.” When I first read this definition, I was flabbergasted. I had never thought of prayer as anything more than asking God for stuff. God, please give me a kitty that doesn’t scratch me. God, please help us win our soccer game. God, please make Grammy not sick anymore. Now, please don’t misunderstand, I am not condemning this form of prayer. There are many kinds of prayer, and they all have fancy names like adoration, oblation, intercession, petition – you get the idea. Rather, the popular definition that prayer is “asking God for stuff,” is several bricks up from the foundation.
That foundation is, of course, God. More precisely, the foundation of prayer is God’s presence in our lives and call upon our hearts. “Prayer,” says the Catechism, “is responding to God.”** Think of prayer as a phone call. We never dial the number: we only have the option to answer the phone when it rings. When we choose to answer, we enter into the relationship that God yearns for us. Prayer is another word for our part in our relationships with God.
Of course, the phone call is not a perfect metaphor because God is always present in our lives and always calling upon us to serve God in the world. In this context, Paul’s directive to “pray without ceasing” seems less unrealistic. Our striving to respond to God’s perpetual call in our lives is prayer. The collection of our words and deeds that emanate from our relationships with God is prayer. Anything we do in response to God’s movement in our lives is prayer. While prayer comprehends the kneeling-beside-the-bed-at-bedtime image that many associate with prayer, the act of praying is so much more expansive.
Monastics down through the ages have understood this. Even the lowliest jobs at the monastery – peeling potatoes or weeding fields – were prayer. Monks prayed many times a day in their chapels, but the labor they performed in the meantime was prayer, too. While we don’t have strict priors delegating our labors, we can still import the monastic example into our lives.
Look at your day, your week, your year. How do your engagements and actions display your response to God’s movement in your life? As a student, God calls you to learn about yourself and the rest of God’s creation. As a member of a family, God calls you to love and enjoy and forgive your parents and siblings. As a servant of God, God calls you to discover and enact that one way in which you can better the lives of those around you. When we respond to God in all these areas of our lives, we pray. We affirm our relationships with God. We live the abundant lives that Christ gives to us.
“You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you,” says Aslan to Jill Pole. “We love because he first loved us,” says the writer of the First Letter of John. Likewise, we pray because God first called us – called us into the expansive, abundant relationship with God. What will our response be?
* Also called “An Outline of the Faith,” an Episcopal F.A.Q. Most people know it as the thing you read when the sermon is really boring.
Every weekday morning, I walk into the fellowship hall at church to find four delightful ladies chatting over coffee. I shake their hands and pat their shoulders. They welcome me with smiles and critiques of my thinness (along with doughnuts, their remedy for such a physique). If I yawn even once, they launch into mock interrogations of the previous night’s activities. I have known these ladies for two months only, but already I love them, for their warmth could instill no other feeling.
At the appointed time, we move from coffee and doughnuts in the hall to silence and prayer in the chapel. My four delightful friends form the core of worshipers for daily Morning Prayer, a tradition as old as any other in the Anglican Church. This morning, I was checking my email in my office when they shooed me into the chapel, where my rector asked me to lead our morning’s devotion.
“Lord, open our lips,” I prayed.
“And our mouth shall proclaim your praise,” came the response.
These words, so familiar from years of praying the Daily Office,* tasted fresh and alive with new meaning this morning. Notice the progression these two lines demonstrate. We cannot proclaim God’s praise until God opens us up. God is the cause. Our proclamation is the effect. Indeed, God activates our praise. We do not call God tous when we come together in prayer; God calls us to prayer. God is not standing on the doorstep with hands in pockets waiting to be buzzed in. God is already inside prompting within us the desire to gather. Lord, open our lips. Only when God has done this will we be ready or able to proclaim God’s praise.
These words at the beginning of Morning Prayer remind us that we do not have a boxed-up God or a God carved in a piece of wood. Our God does not exist for our convenience. Our God is not a mute receptacle for our cares and concerns. Our God lives a life of radiance and moves with graceful unpredictability through a world which tries its best to forget who deserves credit for creation. God’s radiant life is complete within that life, but, in a wonderful incongruity, God also moves in and through our own little lives. This movement activates our prayer. This movement gives us the desire to praise God. Our mouth shall proclaim your praise because you, Lord, have deigned to open our lips.
In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis comes to a similar conclusion when discussing our connection with the life of the Trinity: “An ordinary Christian kneels down to say his prayers. He is trying to get into touch with God. But if he is a Christian he knows that what is prompting him to pray is also God: God, so to speak, inside him. But he also knows that all his real knowledge of God comes through Christ, the Man who was God — that Christ is standing beside him, helping him pray, praying for him. You see what is happening. God is the thing to which he is praying — the goal he is trying to reach. God is also the thing inside him which is pushing him on — the motive power.”
God both motivates our pray and receives it. When we pray, “Lord, open our lips,” we acknowledge that we would not even be entertaining the notion to praise God if God were not prompting us toward such a notion. Thus, our prayer is our ultimate expression of God’s sovereignty, which (from an anthropocentric perspective) is our inability to control God. When we view prayer as our response to God’s movement, we are less likely to see God as the proverbial divine genie-in-a-bottle or ATM. We are more likely to come to God humbly, overwhelmed by the proposition that the Creator of all that is would desire our mouths to proclaim any sort of praise.
The four delightful ladies with whom I share Morning Prayer understand this gift of God’s presence better than most. They are there every day, expressing their joy that our radiant God moves in their midst, activating their praise.
* “The Daily Office” is a technical term for the various daily times of prayer, which grew out of the monastic tradition of praying the hours. In the Episcopal Church, Morning and Evening Prayer are the predominant pieces of the Office, with Noonday prayers and Compline (nighttime prayers) a close second.
I’ve been rereading C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters in preparation for a class I will be teaching at my church. The book is a series of letters from one of Hell’s executive level devils sent to a junior tempter who is tasked with corrupting the soul of a new convert to Christianity. In Letter #14, Screwtape is alarmed that Wormwood’s “patient” is showing signs of becoming humble.
This is not as dire as it may seem, says Screwtape, because the true meaning of humility is easy to conceal. He counsels Wormwood: “Let [your patient] think of it not as self-forgetfulness but as a certain kind of opinion (namely, a low opinion) of his own talents and character…. By this method thousands of humans have been brought to think that humility means pretty women trying to believe they are ugly and clever men trying to believe they are fools.”
You can see just how handy this kind of self-deception could be for those who work against God (who Screwtape calls “the Enemy”). If people are deluding themselves in such a way as to take less than full advantage of their gifts, then Screwtape and his boss are winning. And here’s the main point: thinking yourself less talented than you are does not lead to humility, but to dereliction of duty.
God pours out on each one of us a collection of gifts and talents. If we don’t use them due to a case of misplaced modesty, then we are not fully living the lives that God’s abundance makes possible. We’d be like those FEMA trucks held back from the hurricane zone, full of uneaten food and unused supplies. Humility has nothing to do with a low opinion of your talents. Humility has everything to do with the proper attribution of and thanksgiving for those talents to God, the provider of all good gifts. And the best way to give thanks to God for your talents is to use them in the service of others—giving of yourself out of the things God has given you. Indeed, the only way to thank God properly for your gifts is to use them and use them fully, with no hindrance from a false understanding of humility.
So, come to the Lord in prayer and ask God what are those gifts and talents God has poured out on you. Be humble by acknowledging that those gifts and talents have a source, and you aren’t it. But do not sell yourself short. God gives gifts so they can be used to glorify God. Any cropping of your talents for the sake of that false understanding of humility lessens your ability to reflect the glory of God out into the world. Give thanks to God for all the opportunities God has given you to reflect that glory and serve God with that life of yours, so full of gift, talent, and promise.