Three years ago, I reluctantly gave in to requests to preach on the subject of prayer and I devoted my sermons during the season of Epiphany to the subject of prayer. I have been asked to re-post those sermons. In the course of three years, my theology has continued to evolve. However, I have resisted the temptation to edit the sermons and so the manuscripts are what they are, an exploration of sorts. Here’s the Fourth sermon in the series. I shall repost the seven sermons in the series over the course of the Season of Epiphany.
Prayer #4 – AWE: Reclaiming the word Religion, preached on Epiphany 4B, 2012 – listen to the sermon here
Readings: Genesis 28:16-22;
Hildegard of Bingen – Soul Weavings:
“The soul is kissed by God in its innermost regions.
With interior yearning, grace and blessing are bestowed.
It is a yearning to take on God’s gentle yoke,
It is a yearning to give one’s self to God’s Way.
The marvels of God are not brought forth from one’s self.
Rather, it is more like a chord, a sound that is played.
The tone does not come out of the chord itself, but rather,
through the touch of the Musician.
I am, of course, the lyre and harp of God’s kindness.”
Our Gospel reading was extended to include Mark 1:21-35 “Rising Early the next morning, Jesus went off to a lonely place in the desert and prayed there.”
I was about 16 or 17, when God first overwhelmed me. I’d been attending church for about two years. Looking back on that confused young girl, I can see how I might have been attracted to Christianity by Jesus. Jesus the radical, who changed the world, is a compelling figure for a teenager who’s out to change the world. I remember that I prayed a great deal back when I first got involved in the Church. I can remember believing that prayer could change everything. Prayer could change the world. Prayer could change my life. Prayer could change other peoples’ lives. Prayer could even change the mind of God. If only I could figure out the correct way to pray. And if I prayed often enough and hard enough and at just the right moment, prayer would change everything.
The trouble was, I was praying often, I was using all sorts of types of prayer and nothing seemed to be working. So, I remember deciding, that my ineffective prayers had nothing at all to do with the power of God or the power of prayer, but with the power of me. I kept telling myself that if I could just learn how to pray, God would definitely do the rest. So, I prayed and I prayed, and I prayed and when nothing much seemed to happen, I blamed myself for not being a good enough Christian: if only, I’d spend more time reading the bible, or if only I was a better person, or if only I was a better believer. It was all up to me. So, I promised myself, and sometimes I even went so far as promising God, that someday, I’d learn how. Someday, I’d find the right teacher, I’d study hard and I’d learn exactly what I needed to do to make my prayer life, more effective. But in the meantime, I’d keep trying, even though it felt like no one was listening. I told myself that this kind of persistence is precisely what people meant when they said, “have faith”. Having faith means praying when it seems like there’s no point at all, in praying. So, I had faith and I prayed…and nada. Not a single thing. It was like talking to myself. Not even a warm fuzzy glow. But I had faith that somehow God, that big guy up there in the sky, He, and I do mean He, cause back then God was an old, bearded, guy who lived on a fluffy cloud, and spoke King James English, in a very lofty way. Anyway, He, must have been hearing my prayers, but because he was God and all, and knew everything there was to know, he was keeping stuumm in an effort to teach me something. So, all this empty praying was going to pay off in the end.
Eventually, I began to expect very little from prayer. Prayer became something akin to my car insurance. I knew I had to pay it, even though I couldn’t afford it, because someday it might just come in handy. But I never really expected my car insurance to do anything for me, especially as I couldn’t afford to pay for collision insurance. But if I hit someone else, well it just might keep me out of jail. So, I kept on praying, trusting that if I happened to hurt someone else, God would function kinda like my car insurance, only instead of keeping me out of jail, God would keep me out of hell. It was all about me back then. And then one night it happened.
My little world was blown apart and for the first time in my young life, I knew that life wasn’t all about me. It happened on the beach. Actually, it was on a boardwalk down by the ocean. A bunch of my friends and I had managed to talk our parents into letting us spend the night sleeping out under the stars. It was late August and there was supposed to be a particularly amazing meteor shower. The only problem was that in our part of the globe, the best viewing time was supposed to be between 3 and 6 am. So, we begged and we pleaded, or we miss-lead our parents and told them we were staying over at a friend’s place and about a dozen of us headed down to the boardwalk to sleep out under the stars.
It was a fabulous night. No adults to tell us what to do. Good friends to talk to. Swimming after dark. An illegal campfire to make us feel just a little bit afraid that someone might catch us. And just enough beer to make us feel like we were big shots and not enough beer to give us a buzz, because only a couple of us were brave enough to try to buy beer from the dozy lady at the convenience store who never seemed quite able to do the math when she bothered to card us. Did I mention that we’d slipped down across the boarder, not because the meteor shower would be any better down there, but because we lived close enough to Washington state and the beaches in Pt Roberts were very attractive because, we knew that there was only one sheriff on patrol and we figured that we could out-run him if we had to. Besides old Dusty, weren’t much of a sheriff and he pretty much stayed away from the boardwalk cause he knew better than to go looking for trouble. And we were trouble. We were a gang of kids from church, about a dozen kids, with about a dozen beer, and we were gonna stay up all night and watch the stars and no, no good copper was gonna stop us.
It was a brilliant night. We were all convinced that we were wasted cause the beer went straight to our heads. And we laughed and we played and we solved all the problems of the world and we never saw a single meteor. Around about 3 o’clock in the morning we settled down and began to fall asleep.
I’m not sure what woke me up. But I do remember looking up and seeing nothing but stars, and when the first meteor streaked across the sky, I almost screamed out to my friends so that they could see what I saw. But I just lay there watching as streak after streak stretched across the darkness. I knew in my head that they were meteors, but it was as if the stars were putting on a show. I’d never seen anything like it and I couldn’t believe my eyes. Suddenly space, was more than just a backdrop to my imagination. It was actually there, right there in all its glory. It was the most beautiful display of grandeur I had ever seen and I was totally overwhelmed by the vastness of the universe. Far from feeling small, I felt like I was big enough to reach out and touch the stars. It was wonderful right up to the moment when I felt that I wasn’t the only one doing the watching. There I was lying below the sky, looking up, feeling strangely at peace. Suddenly, for the first time, it felt as though I was actually being watched and seen. I was being seen and known by something bigger than the sky. In a sea of a billion galaxies, the Creator of all of it, was there, right there. The gentle see breeze seemed to caress me, and I knew that I was part of something far larger than myself. I was conscious of tears streaming down my face. I could hear the heavy breathing of my companions. I began to wonder about stardust, and breath, and wind, and Spirit, and I knew that somehow the heart of what I was staring into was kin to the heart that was beating in me, and the tears flowed and I knew such joy.
It was as if space itself had opened up inside of me, and for the first time I knew who and what I was. I also knew somehow, deeply knew, that the breath in me and the Spirit at the heart of the universe that was exploding before my eyes, is intimately related. I remember that my joy was tinged with fear, because I knew that this was bigger than anything I’d ever been able to imagine and I wondered if my head was about to explode. I remember chuckling as I wondered if this was what being drunk was like. And then I remembered that I didn’t even like the taste of the beer, and so I hadn’t actually consumed any, even though I’d pretended to be tipsy.
I suppressed my laughter, because I didn’t want my friends to wake up and find me deliriously happy. I knew I’d never be able to explain the joy I felt. Nothing had ever filled me so full. I had no words.
I still don’t have the words to describe what was happening to me. I felt as though my whole being was going to burst open because the joy, and love that I felt simply couldn’t be contained. The only word that even comes close is: Awe.
But even Awe doesn’t really begin to capture it. I remember thinking that God had better ease off just a little or I was going to entirely loose the plot. It was too much to take in. I wasn’t sure I could take much more, when suddenly; the sky began to change its hue. I was conscious of colour behind me. Don’t ask me how you can be conscious of colour, I just was. I was afraid to look toward the colour, because I knew that behind me the sun would be rising, and if tiny meteors streaking across the sky could do what they did to me, I wasn’t sure I could handle the sun rising. I closed my eyes, and in the darkness of my own mind, I felt the power of God overwhelming me. Silence.
It took a long time for me to have the courage to open my eyes and when I did, the light was blinding. I remember struggling to get out of my sleeping bag, and when I finally stood before the orange ball of burning gas that was the sun rising over the treetops, I laughed out loud at the beauty of it all. Awakened by my laughter, my friends began to wax poetically or as poetically as a bunch of adolescents can be at an early hour and before long we were marveling about the beauty of a God who could make all of this. Laid bare by the magnificence of a summer morning, we kept hugging one another as we declared how great it was to be alive.
I can’t tell you how amazing it felt to be so totally connected to all that is and ever shall be: connection to God, Connection to Creation, Connection to the Universe, Connection to the Earth, Connection to my fellow travelers, Connection to those who were no more and those who are to come, Connection to the creatures of the earth, Connection to the Spirit that lives and breathes in us all. Awesome.
Back then I didn’t have any words let alone religious words to describe what was happening to me. I struggled with words like Awesome and Connection, Love and Peace, Joy and Exhilaration. None of those words even began to touch what had happened. Eventually I learned the word Spiritual. For a long time I would have described what had happened to me as a spiritual experience. That is if I’d ever had the courage to talk about it. I kept my spiritual experience to myself. I sensed that it would make people uncomfortable. So, I quietly relished my Spiritual experience trusting that it was real, without ever needing to explain it.
These days, I’m called to put words on experiences. Even though it is popular for people to celebrate that they are not religious but they are spiritual, if you were to ask me to use words to describe what happened, I would call it a truly religious experience. It’s time for those of us who are religious to reclaim the word.
The origin of the word religion makes it clear to me that what happened to me all those years ago was a religious experience. The root of the word religion is “l i g” lig, which is also in the word “ligament.” It means to connect, to join together, to unite, to bring everything together in one body or one wholeness. The little word “re” simply means “again.” Religion is a word that means to re – connect, to put together again. Religion is about binding us together into ONENESS with the ONE who made us. Religion is about connecting us to God, to Creation, and most importantly to one another. That connection that I felt infusing me all those years ago, is what true religion is all about re-connection.
We have different re-ligions because different people have different ways of connecting. Good religion is always about re-connecting with God, and reconnecting with one another. Religion is about bonding and uniting us again with one another and with all creation, with the stars, with space, with all that is other. Being religious, truly religious is about seeking vital connection.
Another word for vital connection is love. Love born of connection, real connection to that which is beyond ourselves, that kind of Love never stops with the connection it moves on beyond that to loving, the other, this kind of loving, is, what I believe, prayer is. Prayer: born out of the awe that comes when we experience the connection to that which is beyond ourselves, prayer born out of that kind of awe, may begin with thanksgiving, but that awe that inspires thanksgiving, will also compel us to love. It’s like a kind of spiral, connection, spirals outward through awe, to love, to that which is beyond us, to loving, to connection, to God, who is in all and through all, until you can’t distinguish between awe and thanksgiving, between prayer and loving, between God and Love, between other and self, between Creation and Creature, between God and self, we are all intimately connected and my prayer, our prayer, is the stuff of that connection.
Prayer is not the words we speak, but the life we lead; a life connected to God, Connected to one another, connected to creation, connected to the universe, connected to the stars, Connected in, with, through and by the ONE who is was and ever more shall be, Connected. Now that’s religion.
May each of us be overwhelmed by God, and be awe – inspired to let our prayers flow from that Connection, so that our lives can be LOVE. Amen.