July 24, 2016
“Don’t Give Up!”
The CEO of Tyson Foods arranged a meeting with the Pope at the Vatican. After receiving the papal blessing, he whispers, "Your eminence, we have an offer for you. Tyson Foods is prepared to donate $100 million dollars to the church if you change the Lord's Prayer from 'give us this day our daily bread' to 'give us this day our daily chicken.' "
The Pope responds, "That is impossible. The Prayer is the word of the Lord - it must not be changed." "Well," says the Tyson man, "we anticipated your reluctance. For this reason, we will increase our offer to $300 million dollars. All we require is that you change the Lord's Prayer from 'give us this day our daily bread' to 'give us this day our daily chicken.' "
Again, the Pope replies, "That, my son, is impossible. For the prayer is the word of the Lord and it must not be changed." Finally, the Tyson guy says, "Your Holiness, we at Tyson Foods respect your adherence to your faith, but we do have one final offer. We will donate $500 million dollars - that's half a billion dollars - to the great Catholic Church if you would only change the Lord's Prayer from 'give us this day our daily bread' to 'give us this day our daily chicken.' Please consider it." And he leaves.
The next day the Pope convenes the College of Cardinals. "There is some good news," he announces, "and some bad news." "The good news is that the Church has come into $500 million dollars."
"And the bad news, your eminence?" asks a Cardinal. "We're losing the Wonderbread account."
When I was in seminary, I took a class on prayer with a wonderful professor. Each day, I madly took notes as he spoke eloquently on prayer and each time I would leave his class feeling like I would never be able to pray. What he said was simply beyond my reach. I heard him interact with people and knew that he spoke from a deeply prayerful place, but I had no idea how he got there. I remember leaving his class one day discouraged and disappointed in myself. I walked down the hall to another professor’s office. Roberta Bondi was very open about her struggle with prayer and the spiritual life. Naming my own struggle to Roberta was freeing for me. Roberta has given me some language and imagery that make prayer accessible. First, she talks about the misconceptions we have about prayer.
She says, “We have some peculiar and self-destructive convictions about prayer…To begin with, many people believe that for real Christians both love and prayer should flow effortlessly with sincerity and spontaneity. Along with this conviction we also believe two of its corollaries: first, if we are not sure how to pray, and love for God and for others does not flow out of us regularly with spontaneity and sincerity, we must not really be Christians. Second, if we use the words of others instead of our own flowing spontaneously from our hearts when we do pray, our prayer is not sincere. These three convictions combine to make us feel guilty, frustrated, and embarrassed because we are not more loving and we do not pray more. Vital energy in church life is then squandered trying to keep other people from finding out that we may be Christian frauds, while underneath the good fronts we put up are suffering, discouraged, and often very angry hearts.” (To Pray and to Love: Conversations on Prayer with the Early Church, p. 49)
This language of being Christian frauds has stayed with me. I will slip into a pew and wonder, “how many on this pew feel like Christian frauds today?” Why do we spend energy trying to put up a good front instead of honestly saying we need help or prayer is difficult? Really, we don’t come here because we already have it figured out; we come to learn and to grow. We can’t do either of those if we aren’t honest about where we are on the journey. Every Sunday, we say, “no matter who you are and where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” We mean it. So the place to begin is where we are not where we think we should be.
Some of the most holy moments for me have happened when someone is honest about where they are. I remember a moment in a book study when someone openly acknowledged racist feelings and how much they wished they didn’t feel that way. Without knowing it, that person opened a door for us to connect. This week, we had a small group in text study. I told them how much I am struggling with all the events in the world and we had an honest conversation about where we are. As each of us named our vulnerability, we had the chance to be community in a new way. We were allowing real relationships to develop. I don’t know what we need to do about all the violence in our world, but I believe we need to start by cultivating relationships. That is what Jesus was calling the disciples to do. He asked them to follow him. He didn’t give them a curriculum and walk away. He asked them to share life with him. When they wanted to learn to pray, he gave them language to use to help them deepen their relationship with God. But the emphasis here is not on the words he used. It is on the relationship.
Roberta gave me another image of prayer. She said when we live with someone for a long time; we may find ourselves at the breakfast table together each day. We may be reading a newspaper and even be distracted for the most part. But we may talk to each other about the ordinary stuff of our lives or an article we saw in the paper. She said there could be casual conversation and silence in between. She called it kitchen table prayer and said spending time with God is like spending time with a spouse or friend that we share our lives with already. (To Pray and to Love: Conversations on Prayer with the Early Church, p. 69) I’ve always liked this because it takes the pressure off of us to have all the answers and to be perfect every time. It is a practice and the biggest part of the practice is showing up for it.
The wonderful thing about the prayer Jesus taught is that it isn’t asking us to become something we aren’t already. True prayer helps us become who we are. Prayer is how we begin to change the world. As my first seminary professor said, “In prayer, we hold the hand of the One who holds the destiny of the universe.” As we deepen our connection to God, we deepen our connection to the world.
I have heard that one way to cultivate a deeper prayer life is to pray the prayer Jesus taught us, but take an hour to pray it. Ruthann Janney is going to take us through this prayer in a few minutes and we will have the opportunity to turn off the autopilot and really listen to the words we say each week. In the first church I served, a second grader was just learning the words to this prayer. She was so excited to finally learn the words that we said each week that she would yell them. I loved hearing her enthusiasm and it reminded me that in this prayer, we are a community. In our bulletin, we offer options about how we address God. When Jesus used the word Father, he wasn’t replacing one rigid title with another, but defining our relationship in a new way. Neither father nor mother, or even creator for that matter, completely describes God. Neil Douglas-Klotz translated this prayer into Aramaic and back to English again. Because Aramaic is rich and full of nuance, he offers several translations for each of the phrases of this prayer. One possible beginning is: “O Birther! Father-Mother of the Cosmos.” God will not be limited by our use of language, but the words we use, no matter how imperfect they are, allow us to connect with God.
Prayer is an invitation to fullness – to use words, silence, gestures, music, color, anything we have at our disposal. The point of prayer is not to seek perfection, but to be persistent in seeking God. Jesus goes on to tell his disciples to be tenacious using the story of a man who won’t get up to welcome his friend. He gives three verbs to encourage us: Ask, seek, and knock. Those are words he uses to call us into a deeper relationship with God. Don’t give up. God wants to be in relationship with us. Our diligence pays off and takes us into places we didn’t believe were possible. We may not know what to do with all that is happening in the world right now, but we have the tools we need to start: ask, seek, and knock. God is ready to take this journey with us. Start where you are. Reach out to God. Ask for help. Show up every day. Don’t give up. In your pursuit, you will discover God is with you every step of the way.