A Word In Time
Here we are again this week in the mystical, metaphorical gospel of John. We get words about glory and eternal life and knowing God, and to some these words might sound like poetry, to some they sound like a prayer, to some of us they simply sound confusing. To add to the confusion the church serves up these words with Luke’s story in Acts about Jesus leaving. There’s a sense of waiting for “what’s next.”
The church gives us these two passages this last Sunday of the Easter season as we get ready to move into the season of Pentecost. Since Christmastime and right on through the weeks of Epiphany and Lent and Easter, we have been marking the events of the life of Jesus. Starting next week with Pentecost, we begin to look not so much at the story of Jesus, but at the story of the church, our story as the people who carry on the work of Jesus. And so to get ready for that work, we have John’s story of Jesus at prayer, and Luke’s story of the disciples left behind, waiting for power, the kind of power they must have felt when they were face to face with their friend Jesus. These are stories that the church has told for twenty centuries now, to help us to be the church in the world, to help us get a sense of empowerment for our work in the world.
There is a key to these stories, a key to unlock what’s important in these stories, and I believe a key to unlock something important in our lives. The key is prayer.
In Luke’s words in the Book of Acts, the disciples wait for a sign of what to do. How do they wait? What do they need for this work? They wait in prayer, together.
In John’s words, written several decades after Luke, and after Jesus, words written to a group of people struggling to be a community of faith, we see Jesus getting ready to leave his friends. John’s imagination places us within this intimate gathering of friends, within earshot of Jesus’ parting words. We see Jesus looking up, in the traditional Jewish posture for prayer. We eavesdrop to hear the metaphors of prayer. He is leaving, and he wants them to be safe, to be close still to him, to God, to the source of their strength for the work they are to do. He doesn’t give them a plan. He gives them the key to eternity. Eternity, he tells them, is not future life. Eternity is knowing, intimate knowing. Eternity is this moment, when the moment is lived in awareness of God. In this awareness, he prays, they will know God is in them and they are in God. They will know what they need.
As I wonder about what those early disciples must have felt they needed to carry on, I recall something that happened nearly 30 years ago, when I was preparing for ordination.
My spiritual director at the time, a Jesuit, asked me what I wanted to bring to the church. I had come to the Episcopal Church because I saw it as a place of action for social justice. I had gone to seminary suspicious of the church, wary of piety; I had gone to study social ethics and the church’s role as an agent for social change. All my heroes were social justice activists. I was something of a zealot for social justice ministries and I was ready to light some fires.
But in answer to his question, I said, with some surprise to myself: “I want to be a woman of prayer. I want to be a priest who prays. I want the people in church to be people who pray.” If I had learned anything by that point, I had a hint that the energy for justice work dissipates without a grounding in prayer.
There have been many days in the last 30 years when I have forgotten that, days when I have been filled up with plans and projects and programs and problems, days when I have spent lots of time thinking and talking and producing and planning—and too little time in the attentive posture of prayer, too little time listening to the small Voice inside. On those days can feel like off-center days, when my words and actions get clumsy and I lose connection with my own soul.
What I’ve learned about prayer is that it is not about method. There are so many ways to pray: the corporate words of worship, the walking prayer of the labyrinth, the silent word of Centering Prayer, the sound of music, (as St. Augustine said, ‘to sing is to pray twice’). Some people dance their prayer. Some people paint. Someone cooks a meal for friends, or for strangers, another rocks a baby to sleep. Someone holds a hand. Someone weeps. There are many ways to pray.
It’s so simple we miss it. It’s not that we do anything special, it’s that we do ordinary things with a special intention, an awareness of God. As Brother Lawrence said in The Practice of the Presence of God: “I turn my little omelet in the pan for the love of God… Do everything for the love of God, make use of all the tasks one’s lot in life demands to show God that love, and to maintain God’s presence within by the communion of our heart with God’s.” It’s simply an assumption that our waiting, our watching, our thinking, our listening, our speaking, our daily tasks all rest on a foundation of prayer. We build that foundation by simply acknowledging that God is already praying within us. It’s so simple we miss it.
John’s language is about this simple stance of prayer, about placing the events of a life in the context of a connection with God. That’s eternity: knowing God, intimate knowing of God, and allowing ourselves to be known. Eternity signals the meeting with God in this present moment, in such a way that can transform the present moment and the future. We simply need to notice it, to notice the instances of eternity all around us: the warm sun of a May day, the newborn baby’s perfect fingers, the teenager’s goofy giggle breaking through her practiced nonchalance, the sudden memory of one who is gone. We know the things that make us catch our breath in delight, in wonder, and we know we sometimes catch our breath with the sharp intake of pain. In that breath is the breath of God, the spirit praying in us in ways beyond words, bringing us into awareness, into the oneness Jesus promises.
So with summer approaching, I hope to find moments for that breath that bears the promise of prayer, the promise of change, the promise of eternity. I hope you will join me.
Speaking of summer, A Word in Time will be taking a bit of sabbatical. Watch for Beatitudes Newsletters, and the return of A Word in Time in September.
Echoes from the Edge
Finally, the Poet
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?