Prayer doesn't happen all at once. I think it's a little like exercise, or learning to play a musical instrument. You have to start at the beginning, but you will eventually build up technique, endurance, muscle memory. And then, at some point, the practice starts to change you.
I'll be writing about once a week with a different spiritual practice, especially geared toward those of us (I include myself in the following statement) who are just starting to learn to pray. But the best advice I've ever received about prayer came from my pastor Dr. Braxton. I've never been very good at praying out loud. I'm working on it. He said to me, "Do you believe in God?" "Yes," I answered. "Just talk to God," he told me.
Like most things concerning faith, it's simple, but not always easy.
This morning I managed to sleep through almost a half hour of static-y clock radio alarm. I finally came to in the middle of someone's rendition of "On the Sunny Side of the Street." Lionel Hampton's, maybe? The result was no breakfast and hastily-applied-on-the-2-train-makeup. Add a cup of coffee (an attempt to stave off hunger) and two very small cupcakes (indulged in as part of a birthday celebration) during the course of morning staff meeting, and I felt lightheaded and dizzy for most of the rest of the day. I'm kind of a lightweight, even when it comes to coffee and sugar.
Feeling nearly high was actually a perfectly appropriate state for a Sarah Lawrence alumni event later in the evening (cue knowing laugh from SLC alums). A physics professor deftly and patiently explained the theory of relativity and my mind started to bend in...strange ways.
Turns out light's the only thing that's constant.
I don't mean that in a way that might imply that I'm weirdly using physics to point towards God's existence or lack thereof. That would be...unhelpful.
I guess it just struck me how beautiful and mysterious the world is, how my mind had to stretch even to comprehend the four (yes FOUR!) dimensions we live in, and how varied and spectacular and the mind of God must be to dream up such a creation, in which space and time hold hands but flex a bit, and light somehow ties it all together.
This sermon was preached at St. Lydia's on Sunday, January 24. The text is Matthew 6:25-34. Click here to read.
It’s easy to write off tonight’s passage about worry. People tell us not to worry all the time. Worrying is considered pretty much a negative thing to do, but something that everyone does. Worrying, stress, anxiety, all part of life, right?
I actually think that this passage about worrying is integral to spiritual practice. And giving up worrying is central to a life of faith. Central to trusting God.
Psychologists identify anxiety as a feeling different from fear. Fear is caused by some external reality. Anxiety, worry, is caused by a lack of control. We worry about things we can’t control. We worry about dying, or people we love dying. We worry about loosing our jobs. We worry about money. We worry about things we can’t change.
The thing about worry, is that it’s generally massively unproductive. The word worry actually comes from the old English word “wyrgan,” which means “to strangle.”
And in fact, that’s exactly what worrying does. I find that worry or anxiety in my life has the ability to smother or cover all of my other emotions. Worry obliterates joy, it wipes out fear, and it moves me toward this emotional paralysis, that above all, keeps me from trying new things. From learning.
Jesus preached to people who had very little control over their own lives, and a lot to worry about. They were poor. Their family members were sick. They worked long days and had little ability to change their lives for the better. They strived to feed and dress their children, yet Jesus tells them not to worry about these things.
It’s one of those moments when Jesus literally makes no sense. In the first verse, he says, “Is not life more than food?” Well…no, actually. You need food to live, the people were probably thinking. But also…yes…life is more than food.
In fact, what he’s preaching is that all the things we worry about, even food and clothing, are second to the spiritual life. If we can just lift our heads from the ground in front of us, focus on God, the rest falls into place.
This is Jesus being a radical again. Because in fact, what he’s offering is freedom. Freedom from trying to control what we can’t control. Freedom to release our anxious minds and set our hearts on the divine. Whether you’re a slave in Jerusalem or a fisherman in Galilee, or a trader on Wall Street, control is an illusion that isn’t hemmed in by class or money. But placing your trust in God, letting go of your need to control, is freedom.
A story about giving up control:
Last year, when St. Lydia’s had just started meeting at
Trinity Lower East Side, we were small enough that congregants used to sort of
RSVP to me if they were going to come or not. Generally, I had an idea of how many we’d be, and could
prepare food for that number. But
one week, about four weeks into our time together, suddenly everyone just stopped. And I had these visions of showing up
at church and having it be me, the lead cook, and food for 12 people!
In the end, it became this incredible spiritual discipline simply to trust God. To allow God to bring whoever needed to be there that night to our doors. I learned to trust that God would give us what we needed to worship together.
Perhaps you have a story to tell about giving up control?
This sermon was preached at St. Lydia’s on Sunday, January 17, as part of our four month exploration of the book of Matthew. Read the text here.
I need to admit something. I haven’t really been able to even begin to process the news of the earthquake in Haiti until today.
I don’t have a television at home. I get my news from the New York Times online. I’ve been looking at the photographs on the front page, but not really able emotionally to explore the articles until yesterday or so. I was in this strange place of denial. I didn’t want to look.
It seems inhumane, impossible, to come face to face with news of such earth shattering destruction and loss, and then to have the privilege of putting thoughts of that pain out of my mind and returning to my work, my writing, dinner with friends, whatever it might be.
It’s not an easy thing to be a preacher in the face of events like this. Where is the good news? How can people of faith, many wonder, go on believing in a God that allows such destruction?
I don’t believe that God did this.
I believe that God made the world. And when God creates, God also lets go. God made a world, set it spinning, surrounds it in love, but like a good parent, relinquishes control.
Do I see God’s hand behind everything in this world? No.
Do I see God’s hand at work at everything in this world? Absolutely.
Many of the people of Haiti remembered this morning that today is Sunday. And reporters tell us that they gathered in the streets, outside fallen churches, to pray.
There are times when there’s nothing we can do in the face of suffering. We’ve made our donations online, and still the planes can’t get in. This is why we pray.
We pray because it’s the only thing to do. We pray because they, somehow, in the face of destruction, are praying.
And because we know that, in the midst of it, God’s hand is at work, God’s grace is abundant.
This is the shock of Christ’s ministry, that of all the people who gathered to hear him preach on this hillside outside Galilee, it is neither you or I who are named as fortunate, as blessed. It is the people of Haiti, who come first in the sight of God.
We share our sermons at St. Lydia’s. What have the words of the text and the words I’ve shared evoked for you?
I'm camped out at the moment, perched on the stairs of a house I'm quite fond of in San Francisco, because it's where I can pick up the wireless signal. It's stormed violently every day, thunder and lighting and driving rain, and it makes me feel a bit disconnected from time, the way even the day is half dark. This morning we drove past a mission with a neon sign outside that was actually flashing "Jesus Saves" and I could almost taste the coffee in styrofoam cups I'm sure they offer inside.
I've been more worried and distracted than usual of late, tugging at strands of my hair and letting my shoulders hunch up because I'm not paying attention. Is is the barometric pressure? The residue of United Airlines? The worry finally catching hold and carving out a place to stay?
I'm leading a conference on singing with a few other folks. We teach each other songs phrase by phrase, echoing back fragments until we've constructed a melody, found our way into harmony. The music seems to come in waves, building energy and then breaking over us. It's somehow astonishing, as if the sound didn't come from us, but from somewhere else.
This sermon was preached at St. Lydia’s on January 10, 2009 as a part of our four month exploration of the book of Matthew. Read the text here.
Tonight we hear what I think of as a “hinge” in the book of Matthew, a trio of stories that launches us into Jesus’ public ministry in Judea. His baptism by John, his temptation in the wilderness and his calling of the first disciples are all setting us up for start of his ministry.
One of the things we’ve been talking about this year is conflict and the gospels. As we’ve begun to investigate the Gospel of Matthew, conflict is all over the place. And conflict is often paired with the movement of the Spirit – something miraculous happening. Joseph’s dreams and the visit of the magi, followed by Herod’s slaughter of the children of Jerusalem. These pairings continue in the three stories that make up our text tonight. Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, the Holy Spirit’s descent, is followed immediately by Christ being led (by the Spirit no less!) to the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights where he is tempted by the devil. When Jesus emerges from the dessert, he is prepared to begin his public ministry, calling his first disciples, who leave family and work behind as they follow him.
I’m intrigued by the way the Holy Spirit and the Devil seem to almost hold hands in this passage. Almost like they’ve agreed on a few things beforehand. The passage reads, “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” It’s like they’re working together! And so often in life, in some strange way, they are.
My pastor, Dr. Braxton, says that in order to be a really good preacher, you have to know your “shadow side.” You have to be willing to look side of yourself you might rather keep hidden. That’s what Jesus is doing in this passage. Before he tries to embark on ministry, he’s spending a little time with Satan taking a good, hard look at his shadow side. And after those 40 days…he’s granted authority. Authority to say to a couple of fishermen, “follow me,” and for some strange reason, they do.
I happened to be sharing this story with my the kids I teach music to today, and one of them asked why the disciples would follow Jesus, so I asked the class what they thought.
There were many answers. One told me that he thought the disciples were “looking for adventure.” Then another one said that he thought that Jesus had “some kind of magic.”
And though I wouldn’t use the word magic to describe Jesus, I might use the word presence. Or understanding.
We tell our children a lot that they’re meant to be like Jesus, and by that we usually mean that they should be kind or good, or nice, or something similarly sticky sweet. But our impulse to place Jesus as the model of our lives is, I think, a good one. As long as we live into the fullness of that model. Model ourselves after the Jesus who turns over tables in the temple, who outrages the scribes and the Pharisees, who eats with prostitutes and tax collectors, and who prepares for the work of his live by spending 40 days with the devil, getting to know his shadow side.
We share our sermons at St. Lydia’s. What experiences would you like to share after hearing the text and my words this evening? In particular, what does it look like to follow Jesus, to be like Christ, exploring our shadow side?
Sunday night I arrived at Lydia's to find we had 12 or so guests visiting from their college in Wisconsin, and they'd be joining us for Dinner Church. Trinity Lower East Side often has youth groups or college groups come and camp out in their sanctuary when they're on a mission trip to New York. It always looks pretty cosy in there with everyone's inflatable sleeping pads and sleeping bags and pillows spread out on the floor, like a big slumber party.
The students came down and helped get the space set up in a flash, and Rachel ran out and picked up more pancake mix (Rachel's instituted a breakfast-for-dinner theme in January, which we've found is the universal key to joy) and about five people crammed into the kitchen cutting up fruit and flipping pancakes.
Guests outnumbered regulars that night, and I liked that our intimate little crew could so generously expand to welcome a whole batch of newcomers with ease. The awkwardness that comes with new ritual melted away as pancakes and strawberries and blueberries and nutella and whipped cream were shared between the tables.
There's a funny fulcrum that exists with community building. What begins as a healthy community that cares and prays for one another can suddenly tip into a insular group, doors closed to others. We're looking for ways of living together that purposely, intentionally keep our doors wide open to whoever might wander in, expecting that whoever shows up will change us, and us them.