Tag Archives: Anglican

How Can These Things Be?

The full readings for this Sunday can be found here.

“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

In the name of the Living God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

          Back in 1975, my parents packed me up and loaded me onto an airplane bound for Lacombe, Louisiana. There, I would attend a minor seminary, which was a kind of a prep school for young men who wanted to become priests.  In addition to the regular courses, we would study Latin and theology. And we went to Mass every day.

          While I was there, I became close with three young men: Steve Delacroix, who taught me the benefits of being a rogue; Gerard Lascaux, who taught me how to play poker; and Jariet Randall, a young African-American man who taught me a great deal about courage.

          Well, every now and then, the four of us would sneak off from the seminary into the Louisiana night and go through the woods into the town of Lacombe. There was an old swimming pool there where the girls from town would go, and we would meet them for what my friend Gerard Lascaux called “general mischief.”

          So this one night, we snuck out of the dorm and went walking towards town, and it was way past dark-thirty. And I observed that if the priests caught us sneaking out, we would be in real trouble. And my friend Steve Delacroix said, “Oh no, chère.  They won’t be upset, cause we’re doing this for their benefit.” Well, I looked at him and said, “Delacroix, how do you figure we are doing this for their benefit?”

          Well, Steve, he looked at me and said, “You see, we’re living such holy lives here at the seminary that if we didn’t sneak out every now and then, we wouldn’t have no sins to confess, and the priests wouldn’t have nothing to forgive.”

          Well, it turns out that my friend Delacroix had misjudged the priests’ attitude about our late night adventures, and they weren’t nearly as grateful as we thought they might be.

          So, in today’s Gospel, we hear about another fellow who has been sneaking around at night, albeit for reasons somewhat more noble than were mine and my friends’.

          We meet this man Nicodemus, a leader of the Jewish people, who Jesus calls “the teacher of Israel.” He comes to Jesus as one of the stewards of the religious traditions of his people. Now the Evangelist John is a very fine poet, and when he says Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, we need to recognize that John’s not just talking about events that took place after sunset. John means that Nicodemus was walking in a spiritual darkness. And he comes to Jesus at night, in secret.

          Now Nicodemus was a Pharisee, and he had inherited a rich, long tradition and had devoted his life to it. And yet, he was drawn to this man Jesus, drawn to the signs he has seen, drawn to the miracles, and drawn to the clear presence of God in Jesus’ life.

          And then, their conversation takes a very strange turn. Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born from above if he wants to see the kingdom. Now this is a moment that transcends Nicodemus’ initial curiosity. This is not just a minor adjustment in Nicodemus’ ideas about God. This is a completely new way of being, which will require Nicodemus to let go of most everything he thinks he understands.

          And understandably, Nicodemus is confused. He doesn’t get it; he takes Jesus literally. He wonders how an old man is supposed to be born again, to go back to the womb. And Jesus’ response doesn’t necessarily clear that confusion up. He tells Nicodemus that what is born of flesh is flesh and what is born of spirit is spirit. In essence, Jesus tells him, you’ve got to be born all over again; you’ve got to start from the very beginning.

          Jesus tells him that Spirit goes where it will; we don’t know where it comes from and we don’t know where it’s going. A life in the spirit of God, a life like that of Jesus, isn’t neat or calculable or predictable. The Spirit is holy and wild and unrestrained. Jesus is telling Nicodemus that God will not remain in the box that we try to keep God in.

          And Nicodemus doesn’t understand. He is confused. He reveals his amazement when he says, “How can these things be?” There is a certain terror in his confusion. Because like every birth, being born in the spirit will involve a certain amount of pain as well as some chaos. But there is a certain grace in that bewilderment.

          God will not stay inside the box of our comprehension. As a friend noted, “God, as I understand Him, is not well understood.” Or, to paraphrase the great physicist Werner Heisenberg, Not only is God stranger than we think, God is stranger than we have the capacity to think.

          We all like our mountaintop experiences. We love those moments when we think we can grasp God, or the movement of God in our lives. But those aren’t the moments where growth happens. Spiritual growth arises more often from moments when we say, “I don’t understand this at all” or “What is this happening here?” or “How can these things be?” If we want to follow Jesus, really follow Jesus, we need to become comfortable with being uncomfortable.

          We might call these moments of “holy confusion.” In times like these, God draws us closer. God calls us to change. God calls us into something completely new. In such moments, we feel like the rest of our lives don’t make sense anymore. We feel like new people; we feel reborn.

          One of my favorite theologians is a rabbi named Abraham Joshua Heschel, who prayed that God would give him the gift of wonder. He once said “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. . . . to get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” As Heschel knew, we are far closer to God when we are asking questions than when we are convinced of our answers.

          But we know a few more things about Nicodemus. We know that at the trial of Jesus, he was the only person who stood up for Christ. Nicodemus, who had initially come to Jesus in secret, spoke up for him in public. And we know that when Jesus was crucified, it was Nicodemus (along with Joseph of Aramethea) who took the body to be buried and anointed it. Somehow, the encounter with this man Jesus changed Nicodemus.

          And we want to know more, we want to know what happened to him. But I think that John’s Gospel intentionally leaves that story unfinished. Our story, too, is unfinished. But God wants to make something new of us; God draws us into a holy vortex where God is making all things new again.

          For Nicodemus, like many of us, faith had become a beautiful heirloom rather than a living fountain from which we drink and are refreshed. You see, I don’t think we need a little more God in our lives. I think we need to be born from above, into the life of God. Every now and then, if we’re really lucky, God will shake us to our core.

          And in this holy season of Lent, it’s my prayer that we all walk through a bit of that night, a bit of holy confusion. As we approach the nightfall of Holy Week, it is my prayer that we find ourselves wondering at the meaning of the Cross and Golgotha, awestruck by the mystery of God.

          If we do, we may find that we, too, have been reborn and we are a new creation. Let it be, Lord. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2017

 

Teach Us to Pray

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The full readings for today can be found here:

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray….”

In the name of the Living God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Good morning, good morning. It’s good to be back with you at St. Paul’s.

You know, there’s an old family legend among my kinfolk about my great-grandfather, an Irishman who lived in Boston. One day, he had an appointment with the Bishop, and he was frantically running late. Well, he couldn’t find a parking spot, and so he lifted his eyes to heaven and spoke: “Lord, you know I need to speak with the good bishop. If you will find me a parking space, I promise that I will go to Mass every day for the rest of the year.”

Well, miraculously, the clouds parted on this dreary day, and bathed in a beam of glowing sunlight a parking space opened up right in front of the cathedral and my great-grandfather looked up to the heavens and said, “Never mind, Lord. I found it myself.”

So, today’s Gospel reading centers around prayer, and prayer for many of us is a bewildering thing. Sometimes, our prayer tumbles out so easily, as the need pours out of us and into God. Sometimes we stutter and stammer, lost in a wilderness of inarticulate mumbles. And sometimes, our prayers are nothing more than groans and silence. Sometimes, I think my best prayers are the simplest: I tell God “Help!” Or I simply say “Thank you.” And sometimes, there just aren’t any words for what I want to say. I just want to be, to abide in presence of the God who said I Am.

I know a lot more about what prayer is not than what it is. I don’t think God is some sort of sacramental concierge or holy genie who will give us three wishes. I don’t think prayer has much to do with making all our dreams come true, at least not in the way many people understand it. I suspect there’s not a one of you who’s not had a prayer go unheeded, and worried that it might have gone unheard.

And yet, the Gospel tells us, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” What are we to make of this?

Well, I think we get a hint of that in the way Jesus teaches the disciples to pray. I think this whole reading is teaching us something about the idea of the Kingdom of God. It’s worth noting that when the disciples ask Jesus how they should pray, the first thing he tells them to pray for is the Kingdom of God. Now, maybe that’s just something he thought they needed because they were an oppressed people suffering under Roman occupation who were living a subsistence existence.

I mean, for people like that, the Kingdom of God looks pretty good.  But what about people like us? One of the bishops in the Anglican Communion, a bishop from Africa, once observed: “In America, you don’t need God. You have air conditioning.” And it’s true. In this country, we idolize those who stand on their own two feet, who pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.  We idolize the “self-made man.” And I use that word deliberately. We idolize them. We have made an idol of them.

I don’t like to go to God asking for things. It makes me feel like a beggar. And then, sometimes I think, that’s exactly why I need to pray. You see, everything I have comes from God, and I need the humility of prayer to recognize that. Because I was born on third base, and mostly I strut around like I just hit a triple. I am prone to the delusion of my adequacy, my self-reliance. I need prayer to teach me about my dependency on God for all good things. I need prayer to teach me that I am a beggar.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with praying for the things we want or need, and I don’t think there’s anything too silly to take to God in prayer. I think all of our prayers, no matter how trivial or crude, involve what Evelyn Underhill called a “brush with Pentecost.” We who are fallen, we refugees from Paradise, have a chance to speak, anytime we want, with the Holy Trinity and to call Them into our lives. And it helps me to realize that while Jesus taught us to ask God for our daily bread, He also taught that He is the bread of life. And I think that whatever I pray for, in the final analysis, I end up with Jesus.

Many of us turn to God only when our lives seem out of control, when we are confronted by the violence of this world in places like Orlando, or Dallas, or Baton Rouge, or Munich, or Istanbul, or Kabul. Because then, everything seems out of control, at least beyond our control. So, maybe we do have a hint of what it felt like in first century Palestine, when the whole world seemed to have gone crazy.

Jesus told his disciples several things about prayer. The first of these is the story of the “friend at midnight” who comes knocking very late to borrow three loaves of bread. There are few things more troublesome than having a friend or being a friend. It doesn’t always happen when it’s convenient, and our friends rarely need us only when it’s convenient. I think Jesus is also telling us, and this is very good news, that it’s never too late to ask for God’s help. Prayer is an awkward thing. It is not always polite, nor can we put our prayers into some manageable cabinet or corner of our lives. Jesus counsels that we should turn to God when our hearts ache and we are in need.

Jesus then suggests we look at our relationship with God as we would look at a parent and a child. When our children ask for something, we don’t give them snakes or scorpions. Jesus reminds us, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” It is the Holy Spirit that compels us to pray for the coming of the Kingdom, for a time of justice and mercy and for a time of peace. And once we have prayed for it, we can join with the Spirit in working for it in a world where these things are needed desperately. Even when God does not bring us the things we ask for, God comes and brings along the Trinity, and that is enough.

You see, I don’t think that when the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray that they were asking for a set of specific words to say, or an incantation to be sure that God was listening. And I don’t think that’s what Jesus really gave them. I think they were wanting to know how to get their hearts in the right place, so that they could have the kind of profound relationship Jesus had with the Father. I think they wanted to know how to imitate their rabbi, so that their whole lives would become extended acts of prayer.

There’s a wonderful story about Michael Ramsey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury and one of the giants of the Anglican Church. Someone once asked Ramsey how long he prayed each day. Ramsey answered, “About five minutes. But it usually takes me about an hour to get there.” We have to be willing to take the time to allow our relationship with the living God to develop, to take the time to allow the noise of the world to die down. Only then, can we listen for the voice of the One God to emerge and to become the first voice we listen to in a world where it’s so rarely heard. Only then, can we join in bringing about the Kingdom which is to come. Only then, can our whole lives become a kind of prayer, a living icon of Christ in the world. Lord, teach us to pray.

Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2016