Sunday, May 29, 2016

Proper 4 C- May 29, 2016

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br.Peter Rostron, OHC
Proper 4 Year C Sunday, May 29, 2016

 Seeing God in the ordinary
(Photo credit  Elizabeth Boe)

At last, we are settling into ordinary time. The past three months have been filled with the intensity of Lent, Holy Week, and Easter, followed by the joy of Eastertide with its abundance of alleluias, and, most recently, we’ve had three great, first-class feasts: Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, and Corpus Christi. Now, we can relax and settle into the comfortable routine of what is commonly referred to in the church calendar as ordinary time. School and church programs will be on hiatus. Maybe you’ll take a vacation to visit friends, or explore interesting museums or historic sites, or just lie on a beach and enjoy beautiful sunsets. Or perhaps you’ll just stay at home, slow down, and sip on cool glasses of iced tea. It will be a relief to simply enjoy the ordinary pleasures of life.

But what about our spiritual lives, our prayer lives? They hopefully will not go on hiatus as well. Ordinary does not mean absent or less important or lacking in intensity. God is still present even though we are in between church seasons and do not have the inspiration and ritual of a major feast in these months. God is not a distant force whom we know only in sacred spaces and through eloquent prayer or festive celebrations. No, God is here with us, everywhere present in all things, in us, at all times. The stuff we are made of is the same stuff that the whole of the universe is made of, and that is God. God dwells in the ordinary, and we experience God through very ordinary prayer and in the everydayness of life. No feast or church or script, or even any words at all, are required.

Ann and Barry Ulanov open their classic work, Primary Speech, by stating: “Everybody prays. People pray whether or not they call it prayer. We pray every time we ask for help, understanding, or strength, in or out of religion. Our movements, our stillness, the expressions on our faces, our tone of voice, our actions, what we dream and daydream, as well as what we actually put into words say who and what we are. To pray is to listen to and hear this self who is speaking.” I would sum it up by saying simply that our very lives are prayer. Prayer is our relationship with God. We are part of God, God is part of us, we are never not in relationship with God. When Paul enjoins us to pray without ceasing, it really is not as difficult as one might think. Mostly, it requires us to be continually attentive and intentional - about who we are, what we are doing, who we are with - all with an awareness of God’s immediate and loving presence within and all around us.

I recently completed a four-week, intensive spiritual direction training program, which not only was relevant for my beginning work as a director, but, even more significantly, for my own formation as a monk. One of the central truths that resonated deep within me in the program was the essential role that God plays in the direction experience. There are three present in the room: the director, the directee, and God. It is prayer. As I considered this, it struck me that this dynamic extends beyond just an intimate conversation with one other person to every kind of situation we might be in, from our homes to our workplaces and to the grocery store, while enjoying a fine meal or taking out the trash, with one person or many or none, in harmony or in conflict, awake or asleep. God is present and prayer is happening always and in everything we do, in every ordinary, routine place, even when and where we may least expect it. Our task is to choose to listen, and respond, to the prayer that God is constantly initiating in us.

In the closing prayers of the spiritual direction program, one of the participants prayed aloud for Donald Trump. Many of us remarked afterward that we found this quite jarring. Why should that be? God is present in Mr. Trump just as God is present in each of us, yet for some reason we felt differently about him. Another time in the program, a participant shared his profound experiences of God while ministering to men in a local prison. He said that some of the greatest expressions of love he has ever witnessed took place among those prisoners. As the people of Galatia are turning away from God, Paul knows that God is still present among them. He addresses them harshly, but he does not turn away from them or give up on them. And in today’s gospel, we see a Roman centurion, one who bears the violent authority of the oppressor, as someone who also is a person of deep humility and love, of whom Jesus says, "not even in Israel have I found such faith." We are called to seek God in everyone, to open our hearts to every person in prayer, no matter their place in life.

Likewise, God desires us to bring all of our selves to prayer as well. There is an abundance of content and emotion that can be brought to prayer. In their book, the Ulanovs carefully explore a variety of facets of prayer, many of which surprised me. They devote a chapter to prayer and fantasy, another to prayer and aggression, another to prayer and sexuality, and another to prayer and fear. The message is that there is nothing that cannot be brought to prayer, no part of us that we need worry about keeping from God. God can take it. He can bear our anger, our pettiness, all of our failings, all of our ordinariness. After all, God already knows everything about us, and still loves us. As the psalmist said, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you...are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.”

So, why bother to pray, one might ask? God may know us, but he wants us to know him, too. When we reveal ourselves to God in prayer - in all of our ordinariness - then we are more fully open to receive God’s grace and God’s love. In the radical act of sending Jesus to us, God demonstrated his ultimate wish for us: that we let go of our selfish, ego-driven desires and turn ourselves over to God’s love and will. But that can only happen through prayer. It is in our own prayer that we discover what God’s particular desire is for each of us, and we discern what God would have us do. It is only through this completely unfettered relationship with God, exposing our whole selves, in all of the ordinariness of our everyday lives, that we can become the person God wants us to be.

There are many examples of this which God has provided in scripture. Along with Primary Speech, another of the excellent books that were part of the spiritual direction program was Inviting the Mystic, Supporting the Prophet, by Katherine Dyckman and Patrick Carroll. Sprinkled throughout the book were references to archetypal experiences of prayer found in scripture that can be relevant and inspirational to our modern lives. There is a tendency, I’m afraid, that, because they are in Holy Scripture, we assign them a kind of elevated, other-worldly status. They’re not applicable to us, they’re beyond our own experience. Yet, all of them involved ordinary people whose prayer and openness to God led them to take a risk, to trust in God, and to be open to transformation. Abraham followed God’s call, trusting that he was being led to a better place, for his and his descendants’ sake. Ruth made and kept a simple vow to stay with her mother-in-law Naomi, which ultimately bore great fruit. Moses resisted and argued and pleaded with God because he did not feel worthy or capable of leading his people to freedom, yet he remained obedient. We can do the same. We can listen and respond to God. We can choose to pay attention to the burning bush that suddenly appears amidst the ordinariness of our lives.

Lord, let this seemingly ordinary time - whose beginning was marked by the descent of the Holy Spirit into the church - be a time of deepening prayer for each of us; a time of allowing the Holy Spirit to work within us; a time of knowing our bodies to be the body of your son Jesus Christ, doing your work in the world; a time of fully realizing your love for us and our constant relationship with you; a time for extra-ordinary things to happen.  


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