Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. James Michael Dowd, OHC
RCL - Proper 21B - September 27, 2009
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
Br. Randy by our massive Oak in the Lesser Cloister
Photo Originally Uploaded by Rachael Elizabeth Photography
I was very much taken with our second reading from the Epistle of James this week as I began to prepare this sermon. The reading, taken from the end of the Letter begins with a series of questions: “Are any of you suffering?” “Are any cheerful?” “Are any among you sick?” In all those cases, and in many more, we are told by James, that we are to pray. As I experienced all of those questions in real time this week – I was sick and suffered (ok – suffering might be a little strong, but it was unpleasant); and I experienced real cheerfulness due to some very good news I received regarding a ministry I am involved with. And so, I thought to myself: “well, what would James say?” He'd tell me to pray. And this seems like a good thing for a monk to do, indeed for any Christian to do.
But my own personal experience, and the experiences of many people I talk to, indicates that even when a person feels truly called to pray, they often experience hesitation, or even downright resistance to actually praying. And, admittedly, I am reading into James here, but his urging people to pray sounds a bit frantic to me. Like he has had the same experience I have had. An experience that has taught me that whatever the situation, prayer is always a good thing – but sometimes, it's just so hard to bring ourselves to do. When we are sick or in sin, that is, when we are at our weakest either physically or spiritually – we should pray. But not only then. In fact, when we are at our strongest – cheerful is the word James uses – we should pray then too. Whatever the situation, God is the Lord of all and welcomes, indeed, invites prayer at every turn. And yet, all to often we resist.
One of the great blessings in my life is my family. I thank God everyday for them. In recent years, many of these blessings have been manifested in my nieces and nephews. Among my three siblings, I have eight nieces and nephews who range between the ages of four and sixteen. Now back when each of them were between the ages of about four years old and six years old, and two of them still are, they had a way of greeting me when I would visit that was unforgettable and something I will treasure for the rest of my life. It has been so meaningful to me that, often over the years, when things have been difficult – I have thought of these moments.
I'd be visiting from what must have seemed very far away and as I approached the walkway to the house or came in the front door, the kids would charge me with full abandon and dive into my arms, yelling something like “Uncle Jimmy is here!” If you ever want an experience of total, unrestrained and unquestioning love, I highly recommend this. And if you want a double dose of it – just ask a sibling to have twins, as my younger brother has.
I would be greeted with such warmth, hugs, kisses, tussling of my hair, and squeals of delight. The “Uncle Jimmy is here!” sounded as if the greatest event in human history had just occurred with Uncle Jimmy's arrival. It is unmitigated joy.
But this only happens when youngsters are between the ages of four and six, give or take. Younger than four, the children did not know me well enough and would be more cautious. Older than six, a kind of worldly maturity begins to set in, slowly, but surely. And with maturity comes reserve. And with reserve comes self-defense. And with self-defense comes a seeming need to mask our vulnerability.
Now, I have a great relationship with each of my nieces and nephews, whatever their age, and wherever they are at. These relationships have deepened over the years and are incredibly meaningful to me. Each of them are unique blessings that God has granted to me, a rather undeserving soul. But I have wondered about the loss of this type of innocence for a long time. And as I have reflected on it, I began to turn inward and to think about my own experience. What was it like for me to be standing there as one of these great kids was charging me, screaming at the top of their lungs, and diving into my arms?
Well, usually, I protected myself, physically and emotionally, asking myself in an instant, questions like “can I still lift them?” “what about my back?” “what if I drop them?” “why can't I scream with so much joy?” “why can't I tell them that I love them as much as they love me?” And on and on. I would scoop them up and hug them and kiss them – but with a tinge of that reserve, while slowly placing a mask over my vulnerability.
But somehow, the kisses and the hugs and the joy of these great children would relax me and would show me a better way. A way to be open to a love that is pure, innocent, and true; before layer after layer of protective coating begins to be applied.
That's what adulthood does to us. As we begin to age and move into the world we get hurt, we experience pain in ourselves and witness it in others, and little by little, we begin to ask ourselves questions like “can I still lift them?” or “why can't I scream with such joy?” And those very real, very difficult questions, begin to shape how we approach our relationships. And that includes how we approach our relationship with God. An approach that has a layer, perhaps several layers, of protective coating on it.
We are careful. We don't want to be hurt. We don't ask God for too much because perhaps he'll disappoint us in his seeming lack of response. We don't tell God we love him too often, because that just makes us more vulnerable. We don't sing praises to God because we just cannot scream for joy any longer. We don't confess our sins because God must be so disgusted with us. We don't even tell God when we are happy, because we probably don't deserve to be anyway. I think we tell ourselves these kind of lies all the time, because we think they keep us safe.
And that brings me back to what I think might have been James' motivation in ending his Epistle with his pleading instruction to pray. When I think of Elaina, Katie, Patrick, Emily, Matthew, Alex, Connor or Sydney charging me and diving into my arms, I think of God. I actually think that God wants to approach us like a four year old – jumping for joy, diving into our arms, hugging and kissing us with total, unrestrained and unquestioning love. With the announcement that “Uncle Jimmy is here!” and it really is the greatest moment in human history. Just because God is here, present to us.
This is, after all, what the Incarnation is: God throwing open his arms with total abandon and embracing each of us as his own. This is, after all, what the Passion is: God throwing open his arms with total abandon to lay down his life for his friends. This is, after all, what the Resurrection is: God throwing up his arms in total abandon with victory over sin and death for us. This is, after all, what the Coming of the Holy Spirit is: God throwing open our arms with total abandon so that God can pray within us.
In last week's Gospel passage from St. Mark, Jesus tells us "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me." God is a four year old. God wants us to act like four year olds: Totally open to love, joy, welcome, and with a world view that says each and every encounter with God is the greatest moment in human history. That's what James is telling us today. Pray with unrestrained abandon, like a four year old – everyday and in every circumstance. Let God throw himself at you and open your arms so wide that it hurts to receive him. Take off the mask and let yourself be vulnerable. Strip yourself of the layer upon layer of self-defense you have put on over the years. Give back to God what he first gives to you – total love in complete abandon. The only way to do that is to pray – every day in every way. AMEN.