Saturday, July 28, 2007

Meditative Prayer with Scripture Part 3

29 July 2007 * Proper 12C

Genesis18:20-32 * Luke 11:1-13

The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills, Maryland

The Word Is Very Near To You: Meditative Prayer with Scripture Part 3

Over the past two weeks we have moved from a notion of prayer as conversation with God to an understanding that God is a conversation – a conversation that is eternal and already ongoing between Abba/Father, Jesus/Son and the Wind/Breath/Spirit of God. And we have discovered that Meditative Prayer with God begins with our attentiveness to God’s word, receiving it in love, and responding to it, letting God set the agenda. And we learned that in fact our attentiveness may be all the response that is needed!

We also learned that Meditative Prayer with scripture is both a welcoming of God, Father, Son and Spirit, into the household of our heart as our guest, while at the same time allowing God to become our host, inviting us, calling us, wooing us to share in the very intimacy of conversation, dance and song going on between the three persons of the Christian Trinity.

How wonderful is it that we draw these current reflections on prayer to a close with the teaching of what we call The Lord’s Prayer, and the example of Abraham.

“Jesus was praying in a certain place…” Jesus needs a place to pray, and so do we. We need to find a place as free of other distractions as possible. In Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus directs us to find a room and to shut the door. Which is not to say that we cannot pray anytime and anyplace, but for meditative prayer with scripture, a quiet place will aid us in giving God our undivided attention. Find a certain place to pray.

This seems to be a luxury in our time and place, and we will find many excuses to say it is impossible to find a certain place to pray. This may reflect an unconscious resistance to finding intimacy with God. It may reflect a cultural suspicion or discomfort with solitude and quiet. It may reflect our shyness at letting others know our need for a place specifically for prayer. And it may reflect our fear of being unable to settle down once we find a certain place to pray. We wonder where to sit, how to sit, how to orient our bodies and ourselves to facilitate our attention to the conversation that is God.

Similarly, we wonder when we can possibly find the time to spend half-an-hour being attentive to the conversation that is God. As Martha thought last week, there are so many other important things we need to be doing, attending to the needs of others and ourselves. Yet, as Jesus suggests, when we allow Him into the household of our hearts, and let him feed us, nurture us, care for us and tend to us, we become far better equipped to extend hospitality, especially His hospitality, to others. We become more fully our selves so we have more to offer.

We need at least a half hour to attend to God’s Word to even begin to sense that God’s word is, indeed, very near to us. Once we sense the nearness of God’s Word, we need time for it to touch us, to formulate our response, and then time to transition back to “business as usual.” With any luck, however, after spending time in a certain place with God and God’s Word, there will no longer be “business as usual,” but instead a life that is continually and eternally transformed and made new!

The disciples want to know “how to pray.” John the Baptizer had taught his disciples how to pray, we want to know too. Jesus may have his own reasons up to now for not teaching the “how” of prayer - perhaps because he wants us to experience the presence of God’s Word without concern for technique and form. Remember, Jesus wants us to share the very same intimacy with Abba-Father that he already shares. Technique and form might only get in the way of such intimacy – might hold us back from just jumping into the eternal dance that is already in full swing between Abba/Father, Jesus/Son and Holy Spirit.

But if you must have “some thing” for which to pray, pray for kingdom living – Hallow God’s name, pray for God’s Kingdom, pray for bread which is given daily, forgive and be forgiven, resist temptations to sin. Note how simple Luke’s version of this all too familiar prayer really is. We have gussied it up for public worship, but at its core it is stripped down and to the point.

In meditative prayer with scripture we might find our selves reflecting on just what it means to allow our selves to be dependent on bread which is given daily. How might our lives be shaped by such dependence? Or, just how does one “hallow” God’s name? How might every thing we say and everything we do reflect the hallowedness we desire to give to God’s name?

Giving our attention to Genesis 18, what do we learn about responding to God’s Word? Do we sense that it is OK to challenge God? Do we sense that like Abraham we might have a say in what God does or does not do? Do we sense that God allows us to disagree with God? Do we sense that an important role for us is to advocate for the needs of others – others who might not have a standing before God, or don’t even know our God the way we come to know God through meditative prayer with scripture?

Martin Smith suggests that the shape of such prayer might look like this: Select a specific story or passage before your prayer time. Find a certain place. Set a certain time. Find ways to settle down. Ask God to touch you through this scripture. Read the scripture several times (perhaps even while walking). Notice which words or phrases you trip over, or jump out at you. Stay with those words. Place the Bible aside and let your imagination go. Bring the scene to life. Become a participant. How are you feeling? Let the drama unfold. Don’t control the story. Don’t be thinking of applications to your life. Be attentive to the words and actions of the story and your feelings. Let yourself respond. Tell God/Jesus/Spirit how you have been touched! What are you thankful for? What do you need? How is God inviting you, wooing you, caring for you, tending to you? Sometimes it is best to just soak it all in, savor it, and let your attentiveness be your response. Come to a simple conclusion, perhaps with the Lord’s prayer or some other familiar or easy prayer. Or, forget about these guidelines altogether and just be with the Word that is very near to you. Martin Smith, The Word is Very Near to You (Cowley, Cambridge: 1989) p. 105-107

Jesus concludes today by saying to us, “…how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.” This is an invitation to prayer, to communion and intimacy with Abba/Father God. As George Herbert so eloquently puts it in his poem, “Prayer 1,” it is an invitation to:

Prayer the Church's banquet, Angel's age,

God's breath in man returning to his birth,

The Soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,

The Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earth;

Engine against th'Almighty, sinner's tower,

Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,

The six-days world transposing in an hour,

A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;

Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,

Exalted Manna, gladness of the best,

Heaven in ordinary, man well dressed,

The milky way, the bird of Paradise,

Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,

The land of spices; something understood.

The Word is very near to you. Attend to it with your heart and mind and soul, and it will be the Father’s good will to give you the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Meditative Prayer with Scripture: Part 2

22 July 2007 – Proper 11 – Genesis 18:1-10a – Luke 10:38-42

The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, St. Peter’s at Ellicott Mills, MD

The Word is Very Near to You: Prayer with Scripture Part 2

Last Sunday we began to reflect on Prayer with Scripture, or what is sometimes called Meditative Prayer. We examined a standard definition of Prayer: Prayer is a conversation with God. Although we tend to assume it is our responsibility to get the conversation going, we discovered that prayer is not initiated by us.

God initiates prayer – indeed, one might say God initiates all, but all is a rather too comprehensive a reality to take on within the friendly confines of a Sunday morning sermon! As we begin to reflect on the reality that it is God who is calling us, wooing us, choosing us and inviting us, that the “conversation” is already in process, we learn that the first priority in a life of Meditative Prayer with Scripture is to be attentive to what is already being said, to receive it from God, and to respond. We also have come to see that our attentiveness may be all the response that is needed.

So that if we discover in our time with scripture that God loves us, we are to savor that, and allow it to sink in. We do not have to “do” anything except perhaps bow our heads, or raise our hands and say, “Thank you, Lord.”

Yet, it is far too easy to simply reverse the common definition of prayer as conversation and say, “In prayer God speaks and I answer.” For to say that implies that God is out there speaking to us in a one-on-one confrontation, and to stay with this understanding prevents us from living into the distinctly Christian experience of God – God as expressed in Trinitarian worship and Trinitarian belief.

Early Christian writers soon discovered that the experience of Abba-Father, Jesus-Son and the Indwelling Spirit-Breath-Wind of God were not simply colorful metaphors to enliven our devotion to the One God, but rather the Christian community was led to a radical revisioning of who God is, a revisioning that is as daring today as it was nearly 2,000 years ago! So that Christian Orthodoxy came to insist that we cannot have a simple “one-on-one confrontation with God because God is not merely one. Got is a three-fold life – Trinity! The ‘personal’ God of Christian experience is not an omnipotent Individual, but a communion of self-giving love.” The Word is Very Near You, Martin Smith (Cowley, Cambridge: 1989) p 26

So when we are attentive to the conversation that is already going on, we come to know that there is no individual to whom we respond, but rather we are drawn in to a relationship and dynamism of mutual love and self-giving going on within God. So that it is “one thing to say that prayer is conversation with God. It is another to say that God begins the conversation. But it is yet something else to say that God is a conversation. In God love ever flows between the Father and the Son in the Spirit. Love is answered by love, and the conversation … takes in the suffering of a whole universe striving to attain fulfillment with its Creator.” Ibid, p 28

Prayer is communion between all that we are and all that God is.

When we allow our selves to sit with a story like the one in Luke 10 we sense some of all this. It is a continuation of a series of stories in Luke reflecting on our calling to love God and neighbor. Like Abraham and Sarah welcome the three mysterious strangers by the Oak tree, Martha welcomes Jesus into her home – much as we do in prayer, welcoming Father, Son and Spirit into the home of our hearts. Like Sarah and all middle-eastern women of her time and ours, she sets about meeting the needs of the guest in her home. Her sister Mary simply sits at Jesus’ feet and listens.

It is interesting to pay careful attention to what Jesus replies when Martha suggests Mary might be more of a host in the traditional sense: “Mary has chosen…” We might find it interesting to stay with the portrayal of Jesus who is open to the choices of women. He does not expect women to run for the kitchen when he comes within their home. Despite the traditional take on this story, Jesus does not appear to be chastising Martha, but rather is suggesting that she might also choose to sit at his feet and listen. There is room for Martha to join him as well. He permits choice. In so doing, Jesus becomes the host.

Much as the three mysterious visitors in Genesis 18, one of whom is later identified as the Lord, after receiving the extended hospitality as honored guests of Abraham become the hosts when they announce the good news that Sarah shall conceive and bear a son. Jesus and God desire to come into our home as guests and soon become our host.

Suggesting two things: 1) it is important to find time to welcome God as Father, Son and Spirit into our households, and 2) it is just as important to allow them to host us. For when we open ourselves to receive them into our hearts, we find they come to care for us, to tend to us, to heal and nurture us.

We are all “Marthas” much of the time. We are so busy doing, doing, doing day and night that we forget that when God enters the households of our busyness we have permission to drop everything, even time honored and expected hospitality, and sit quietly as our guest becomes our host, caring for us, comforting us, holding us, loving us for who we are, where we are.

Imagine what it would feel like to allow Jesus to wash your feet for just a few minutes in quiet once a day? This is what Meditative Prayer with Scripture means to be for us – an oasis of God offered hospitality in the midst of an otherwise all too busy day.

Concludes Martin Smith, “In the love the All-embracing Father has for the Son, and in the love the Son has for the Father, in the issuing of the Spirit from the Father and the Spirit’s return in the Love of the Son, there is everything we mean by prayer – intimacy, adoration, self-offering, love, desire, crucifyingly acute sympathy for a world torn by pain and joy. Our prayer is not making conversation with God. It is joining the conversation that is already going on in God. It is being invited to participate in the relationships of intimacy between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There is an eternal dance in full-swing, and we are caught up in to it. Prayer is allowing ourselves to join the dance and experience the movements, the constant interplay of the persons of the Trinity.” Ibid, p 28 To be continued. Amen.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Prayer With Scripture-Part 1

15 July 2007 * Pentecost 7

Deuteronomy 30: 9-14 * Luke 10: 25-37

The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills, MD

The Word is Very Near to You: Prayer with Scripture Part 1

“The word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”

-Deuteronomy 30:14

A generation or more has passed since the rag-tag group of slaves was delivered from Egypt and at Sinai forged a covenant relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In Deuteronomy they are on one side of the River Jordan ready to enter into the land of the promise. We can assume an air of excitement over-lain with anxiety and even fear of what lies on the other side of the river. It is a feeling we all know.

Moses has called everyone to review and renew the covenant before going one step further. God restates God’s promises and expectations. So as to reassure us, the Lord our God insists that the commandments and God’s word are not far away in the heavens or beyond the sea, but rather “the word is very near to you.”

Yet, despite such assurance the Bible can be seen as a record of just how far away God’s word seems at any given time or place. That word which is meant to ground us, form us, shape our lives, and keep us safe and abundant often seems to be set far away from our day to day circumstances, anxieties, fears, complexities and a just generalized sense of chaos – lives out of control. If this “word” is so near, how is it we cannot hear it, feel it or even know it is here?

Quite simply, there are many competing words and voices – voices which we too often allow to occupy our attention, distract our attention, and subsequently disrupt our covenant life lived with and even in God. These competing voices offer all kinds of promises, and yet most often result at best in disappointment, and more often lead us to loneliness, sadness and despair. Like Biblical characters from Abraham all the way to Jesus, Paul and beyond, we seek some way, some avenue of access, to this word which is said to be “very near you.”

One of the Four Holy Habits, daily prayer and study, is meant to offer us such access. Yet, the very thought of prayer and study can baffle us, intimidate us, and make us hesitant to even begin to make prayer a habit. Even if prayer becomes a habit, too often this degenerates into virtual endless talking and thinking on our part, distancing us even further from this “word” which is said to be “very near you.”

This could be, suggests Martin Smith in his guide to praying with scripture, “The Word Is Very Near You,” (Cowley:Cambridge: 1989) because we have too often been told that “Prayer is a conversation with God.” Which itself suggests we better get talking and hold up our side of the conversation! That this is a conversation that we had better begin ourselves! And the attendant expectation is that once we have spoken our side of things, God will reply with just the word we need to hear.

But this only raises further questions, such as just what do we expect God’s reply to sound or look like? And if prayer is a conversation with God, why is God’s side of the conversation often so sparse, sporadic and just plain silent? A silence that is often repeatedly broken by what Smith calls “the static of our random thoughts.” This can lead us to believe that there is something wrong with how we are praying, which itself is often a thinly veiled resentment of a God whom we experience as an all too passive partner in prayer.

All this, asserts Smith, calls for a new understanding of the whole enterprise of prayer, giving our attention first and foremost to attentiveness and receptivity. The God of Israel is the god who takes the initiative to address and approach us. After all it is in Deuteronomy that we hear God say, "I choose you not for what you have done, but because I love you." This makes prayer primarily about our attentiveness to God’s disclosure to us and the heart’s response to this disclosure. In fact, our attentiveness quite simply can be our response.

For instance, if in prayer we are made aware that “God loves us as we are, even in our mediocrity, our best response is to savor that, to allow it to sink in, rather than to start to make resolutions and promises to God, which might be a subtle way of changing the subject to what we can do.” To change the subject would in some way prevent God from doing to us what God desires to do: to love us and receive us into the household of love, the household of Father, Son and Holy Spirit - suggesting that prayer is more about our receiving rather than doing. God has already started the conversation – and from a Christian point of view this conversation includes the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Prayer is our way of being attentive to their conversation that is already ongoing, some of which is recorded in scripture. Prayer with scripture helps us to attend to what God is already saying.

For instance, when we pray with the story of the Good Samaritan we may find that what God is saying to us is to know ourselves to be the man lying on the side of the road. Our need for prayer says that is who we are – we need someone to come to our aid, to comfort us, to take care of us, to arrange for our care. To admit this, however, makes us uncomfortable, since it means facing our need and accepting dependence on another. In the story the other who comes to take care us of turns out to be the most surprising person of all, a hated, enemy Samaritan. Yet, even if that other were to be God, we are still anxious to surrender our self-sufficiency and allow ourselves to be served. Prayer wants us to become aware of this need of ours and our dependence on God’s grace and God’s love.

For those who are attentive and receptive to this word, God sends Jesus to heal us, who in turn arranges for our eternal care by the Holy Spirit.

For God is a lover, not a taskmaster. Prayer is meant to bring us deeper into the truth of this love. And prayer as attentiveness to what God is already saying to us reveals to us that we are not alone in this need for dependence on God’s care and love – whether it is care and love from God directly or through the many stranger/Samaritans God sends our way.

“You are not alone” is perhaps the singular message of prayer – by which prayer draws us into relationship with others, all others, who are also exploring this mystery. For if we are in God’s prayers, we are in one another’s prayers – all other’s prayers.

God is already talking to us. In prayer with scripture we attend to what God is saying, receive it in love, and let God set the agenda. Prayer and the desire for prayer, writes Smith, draws us out of isolation into the greatest of communities, the ultimate one, the communion of saints. To be continued. Amen.