Best of the four letter words
I grew up in a not-so-churchy family. The son of a self-declared “recovering catholic” mother and a father who prayed weekly four months out of the year (5 pending on the playoff situation) when the Washington Redskins played.
I’d be a miss to not allude to levitical irony that the only prayers that took place in our house were directed towards the skin of the most mentioned “unclean” animal of the Old Testament. A stretch to call us “Christian,” we certainly weren’t Jewish, so bacon for breakfast and Pigskin prayers every Sunday it was.
In an attempt to stick to the prescribed 15 minute sermon rubric of the Presbyterian Church, I’ll skip over the strange journey that landed me at Louisville Seminary (I’m still tying to figure out what happened myself…) but to sum it up, my pursuit of a career as a doctor was rerouted by the pursuit of a cute brunette youth group leader. And after several diverse or divine detours I wound up (still single) wearing robes instead of scrubs.
I got a taste of the ER life interning as a chaplain at UofL hospital, where I proceeded to meet the scariest women ever!
Let me preface by asking, “Does anyone here truly enjoy praying out loud?”
I must have slept through public prayer class in seminary because, to this day, I dread the awkward monologue.
Lydia (the aforementioned scary woman) had been in an accident and that damaged her vocal cords and left her bandaged from severe burns. She was a middle aged, slightly large, African American Baptist woman and I’m going to make a blanket judgement in saying, no one cooks or prays quite like an African American Baptist women!
The nurse brought me into Lydia’s room to pray before the day’s skin graft surgery and my hands instantly started to shake and sweat as I launched into panic mode.
What was I going to say? I was a fraud, she’d see right through me!
(By the way, we’re all beautifully fraudulent in our faith… doubt keeps us humble and seeking!)
If anyone’s seen Ben Stiller’s Movie, “Meet the Parents,” what came next was pretty much a hospital rendition of Greg Fauker’s attempt at giving grace to his skeptic future father in law on thanksgiving.
“O dear God, thank You,” Stiller mutters.” You are such a good God to us, a kind and gentle… and accommodating God. And we thank You, O sweet, sweet Lord of hosts… for the… smorgasbord… You have so aptly lain at our table this day… and each day… by day. Day by day by day. O dear Lord, three things we pray. To love Thee more dearly. To see Thee more clearly. To follow Thee more nearly… day by day… by day. Amen.
With my “Amen,” Lydia slowly raised a small pad of paper, her only means of communication, and painfully scribbled out four words that affect my view of prayer to this day.
“You did it wrong.”
There are many examples of prayer strung throughout the Bible and infinite ways to pray when your Bible is closed.
Prayer can take the form of gratitude. Anyone find themselves at the head of the table giving grace a couple weeks back over a thanksgiving feast?
The irony of thanksgiving grace is almost as good as my father’s pigskin prayers…
Words of humble gratitude for family and the abundance of God’s harvest, proceeding an over-indulgent dive into a gravy laden mash-potato ponderosa. As if we’d never eat again.
I’m not sure if its gluttony or too much time with extended relatives that causes the indigestion, but blessed we are.
Prayer can take the form of a request; a divine “Dear Santa” letter that doesn’t require you to sit on any laps, wait until Christmas, or trek to the mall.
We request a lot. Health and healing, wisdom and discernment, and like those santa letters, new cars and Christmas bonuses.
Prayers can be intercessory (praying for another) or personal. They can be happy or sad, celebratory or questioning; but can they be wrong?
Heck yeah they can be! Not because we forgot to bow our head or used the wrong words… but because we used someone else words or prayed with the wrong intention.
A prayer; be it silent, sung, eloquent, or blunt, needs to be passionate and personal. They should overflow with emotion (joy, fear, elation, or anger) and because there are no words that truly express those emotions, we don’t have to fear picking the wrong ones. (By the way, its alright to send a four-letter word skyward on occasion too, God welcomes our passion.)
Our words are but worldly expressions of the an inexplicable communion with God.
Amidst this advent series on prayer, lets take a quick look at three examples.
The Bible is full of painful prayers of lament and tragedy; however, I was fortunate enough to visit on a week where the lectionary passages represented the joyous side of the spectrum.
FYI, a lectionary is a 3 year map of passages that spans the full corpus of the Bible designed to keep pastors from picking and choosing their favorite passages every Sunday.
As a visiting preacher you always hope that you don’t get hit with a dismal lectionary text from Job or a prophetic condemnation from Isaiah (those make it hard to make new friends.)
I’m not going to read each of today’s three passages in entirety for several reasons:
1- I’d like to continue my streak of NOT putting people to sleep (including myself)
2- No matter how much you love Biblical language, you can only digest so much scripture at a time… no matter the translation you choose, this is not always mindless lounge chair reading.
3- Much like Prayer needs to be personal, scripture is a jumping point, not a landing site. These passages inspire our own prayers, they don’t provide scripts for them.
4- Finally, you have Bibles and are allowed to read them outside of our 1 hour Sunday service.
Psalm 146 was touched on earlier in the service and is one of the final five psalms of the psalter which unite in their praiseful tone a characteristic “Praise ye Lord” or Hallelujah closing.
Lets look at some of the key lines of this one together starting with verse 5:
“Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God.”
Maker of heaven and earth,
the sea, and everything in them—
he remains faithful forever.
“Blessed” is our word for the day! In Hebrew it is “Asrih,” like “Isreal,” and simply means “happy,” or in the spirit of the season, “Merry.”
Instead of touching on the not so Macaros debate between “Happy Holidays” and “Merry Christmas” this morning, lets look at why are we “Happy?”
“The lord upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry,” sings the Psalmist.
“He sets prisoners free, gives sight to the blind, lifts up those who are bowed down, and loves the righteous.”
Indeed there is merit for the prescriptive closing line, “Praise the Lord, Hallelujah.”
Psalms are often sung in the Jewish tradition and our second reading out of Luke 1 carries a similar style. Known as “Mary’s Song,” or the Magnificant due to its first line, this prayer is sung by Mary upon visiting her cousin Elizabeth who is pregnant with John the Baptist.
“My soul magnifies (glorifies) the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed.”
This is coming from a women “blessed” by a divine conception out of wedlock and approaching a pregnant pilgrimage to Bethlehem where she will give unmedicated birth in a Manger. “Blessed.” Hm.
Indeed she is, because our truest blessing occurs when we “magnify” the love of our creator. As simple as giving a hug or as complex as birthing the Messiah.
Our prayerful trifecta culminates in the 11th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel.
John, no longer “imprisoned” in Elizabeth’s womb is now… well… in prison. However, “hearing about the deeds of the Messiah
he sends his disciples to ask Jesus, ‘are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”
This passage comes late in Jesus and John’s relationship, so John was not questioning Jesus’ identity for himself, but providing an opportunity for Jesus to speak directly with his own followers proceeding his looming death.
“Go back and report to John what you hear and see,” responded Jesus. “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.”
Jesus concludes this message in an interesting fashion.
“Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”
There is so much to stumble over this season trying to make Christmas perfect that we can easily miss out on the miracle of the moment.
Anyone remember the Hebrew word for “Blessed” that we learned in Psalm 146? “Asrih.”
In Greek that word is “Marcaros” and its etymology is intriguing.
Chronos and Karios both refer to time in Greek. The first is quantitative. It is what your watch says. Karios is qualitative and a little more complicated to explain, but a lot simpler to know.
Karios is the experience of a moment of significance… the root of the common idium, “live in the moment.”
Blessed, happy, “Marcaros” are those who are truly present in the “Karios,” the moment. Merry are those who do not stumble on account of the superficial pieces of the season, but experience and “magnify” the birth of Christ, its truest meaning.
Many prayers this season are for the homeless, but lets reverse things in this advent reflection.
Several years back some local pastors got involved in a red-kettle bell ringing “competition” to see, as the Salvation Army slogan goes, “Who could do the most good…” How humble.
Long story short:
I was challenged into spending 48 hours ringing a bell on a Trampoline without food in downtown Louisville, KY. The bouncing wasn’t actually so bad, it made the bell ring itself!
About 2 hours in the guys who challenged me all went home to warm up, however, as the night progressed, the poor (the ones that the red kettle supported,) started coming out of the woodwork.
They sat with me. They told me stories and brought me coffee to keep me warm and these were individual’s to whom a cup of coffee is a pretty big expense.
Midway through the second night a disheveled man came and sat down. After several studious and reflective moments he spoke:
“Isn’t it sad, all dem people running around the streets, all crazy-like, worried so much about all dat Christmas shopping and stuff.” He paused, as if heartbroken for the wealthy businessmen running around the streets.
“Aint it sad all them crazy folks is too busy to have Christmas.”
Then a smile broke through.
“You should come n eat wid us. Da shelter got real turkey on Christmas eve and da gang all sits and sing all night together. It warm at the shelter.”
The passage in Matthew ends with the line, “he has filled the hungry with good things, And the rich He has sent away empty.”
You see, those who hunger for divine things recognize the abundant joy and the miracle of the moment.
German Philosopher Ludwig Witgenstien once wrote, “Eternal life is for those who live in the present.”
However, those rich with worldly distractions, striving to meet false expectations of a looming holiday are often too full of things to receive the divine gifts.
“Blessed” are we to empty ourselves of all the distractions this Advent season, a time of beautiful and prayerful reflection.
Remember that prayer is simple, but in a world of screens and schedules, that can make it difficult.
For as T.S. Eliot notes, “conditions of complete simplicity; cost not less than everything.”
Allow yourself to surrender to the moment this season. Strive not towards sociological expectations of the season nor to pray with shakespearian eloquence at dinner tables, but simplify… empty yourself so that your may unwrap and share the true blessedness of the holiday.