Being with God

February 4, 2018

Bible Text: Isaiah 40:21-31 |

Years ago I was at a conference where Tony Campolo was the speaker. He shared a story of a time he was being interviewed on the radio. In the course of the interview, the question came up, “I wonder how Mother Teresa prays?” After all, she was the real deal, the epitome of someone actually living out the Sermon on the Mount. And Tony Campolo said, “Let’s call her!” “What?!” the interviewer said. “No, really. Right now. Let’s try it.”

So while they’re still on the air, Tony picks up the phone and calls the operator in Calcutta and asks to be connected with the Sisters of Charity. And he was. The phone rang. Someone answered and Tony said, “Can I speak with Mother Teresa?” “Just a minute sir,” came the reply. And a minute or so later Mother Teresa picked it up, and Tony (all excited that he actually gotten through) asked her, “What do you do say you pray?

She was quiet a minute, and then replied, “I don’t say anything. I listen.”

Well that stumped him. But he rallied and asked, “Well what does God say?”

“He doesn’t say anything,” she said. “He listens.” And then after a brief pause she added, “If that doesn’t make sense to you, I can’t explain it any better.” And that was it.

And this story has always stuck with me. At the time I had no experience of praying like this – of sitting with God, listening to each other in silence. But even then, it made sense to me – not perhaps as a technique I could just pick up the next morning, but as a concept or (better yet) a destination – that prayer could become so much more than just trying to convince God to grant me favors. It could become a place of peaceful union, of simply being together. And in so being, becoming more my true self.

And I bring all this up because of the gospel story we just heard. One evening at Peter’s house, Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law. And the next thing you know, Jesus is the most popular guy in town! Everyone’s flocking to him, bringing their own sick and demon-possessed, and he keeps healing. I don’t know how long he was at it. I don’t know if he worked all through the night or if he found time to get some sleep in. But it says that in the morning he went out on his own to pray. The disciples find him and say, “C’mon, there’s more people who want to be healed.” But he replies, “Nah – we gotta move on from here. There are other people who need us. That’s what I came for.” And off they go, carrying on with this intensive ministry of healing and deliverance.

And it makes me wonder, like Tony Campolo calling Mother Teresa, what exactly was Jesus doing when he prayed? Did he have the kind of relationship with God such that – when he prayed – he was simply checking in each morning to get his marching orders for the day, and then off he’d go, totally clear on what he would experience and what he was supposed to do?

When I was a young Christian I used to fantasize about that kind of prayer life. On our campus there was a blind guy I’d see periodically. He was really tall. And in my fantasy, while I was earnestly praying in the morning, God would show me that I was going to see the blind guy that day and I was to walk up to him and lay hands on him and pray and his sight would be restored. It was a great fantasy and it would have been glorious, if only God had thought to see things my way!

And I’ve often wondered, was that what Jesus experienced when he prayed?

Or was it less sensational? Was it more like Mother Teresa’s experience? that in God’s presence Jesus was returning to that place of union with God – that, with God, he settled afresh into who he knew himself to be and what he was about.

We can’t know for certain. But this is what we know from today’s story: Jesus was ministering for a long time the night before. He was setting out to minister again that day. And between those two moments, it was necessary for him to get out very early, while it was still dark, and to pray alone. It seems reasonable to me that Jesus was worn out and it was prayer that kept him going.

But when I say it “kept him going,” I’m not suggesting that prayer is like some kind of caffeinated energy drink, some Jesus-Technique that will let you keep working harder and harder at whatever you’re up to. No, that’s not it. Prayer “kept Jesus going” with purpose and clarity of who he was with God and what he was called to do.

“Let us go on to the neighboring towns,” he said, “that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do” (Mark 1:38).

And when he “proclaims the message,” it’s not only with words, but it was always accompanied with acts of mercy and deliverance. And it was his actions that drew people to him and gave authority to what he said.

Whatever his experience of praying was, he came out of it determined to live out the Kingdom of God with whomever he encountered.

And I think for us, this must also be what we seek and expect from prayer. Life is tiring enough with just the normal stuff of living. And when you throw in intentional Christian living: of being inconvenienced for the other’s good, of advocating for justice for those without power or rights, of choosing to lay down your life: your possessions, your time, your energy, you bet that’s tiring. Left unto ourselves, it hardly takes any time at all to start feeling sorry for ourselves or hard done by and to give up all together.

Some time ago I got called out in the night to help someone. It was the right thing to do, so I did it. But I didn’t do it happily. And when I went to bed that night I realized I had some repenting to do, because without repentance (which was itself an act of prayer), I was totally poised to abandon  my calling to care “for the least of these.”

And when I say, “my calling,” I’m not talking my priestly call. I’m talking my Christian calling – our Christian calling – to be as Christ in this world, bringing healing and hope and love to those without. And (so long as we’re in the business of debunking spiritual fantasies), let’s be clear with ourselves, people who are living a life without healing, without hope, without love can be very wearisome to be around.

And if we’re going to live like Jesus, and truly love those who need to be loved, we’d better learn how to pray. We’d better seek out a kind of “being with God” that is truly restorative. Now, to some degree, that’s what church should do for us. This whole liturgy that we return to each Sunday is one big, long prayer that gives us a weekly “reboot,” that says, “Remember (!) who God is and who we are and what the deep truth of this life is all about.” But we’ve also got to figure out how to foster that kind of intimate, restorative prayer in our private lives as well – in the “early mornings,” as it were, “when it is still quite dark.”

I wish I could tell you how. When I visit my spiritual director this is a regular topic for us. “I can’t tell you how to pray, Eric,” she tells me. “You’re going to have to figure that out for yourself, because you are uniquely made in the image of God, which means you’re going to need to find your own path of prayer.” And as much as that makes me mad, as much as I want her just to tell me what to do, at a deeper level, it thrills me – this hope that there is a relationship with God that is unique to me, that is fully matched to who I am. And I want that true and life-giving relationship more than anything else in this world.

Now, obviously, there are basic prayer techniques that are useful and instructive. This Lent we’re going to share with the parish a structure for praying that we hope everyone will participate in and find to be meaningful. But prior to any techniques or instruction, the most needful thing begins within each of us. And that is our own clear desire to know God and to be joined with God at the center of our being. If that is true of us, then that desire itself becomes a founding prayer.

And please, God, meet us there. As season follows season, may prayer become for us a place of restoration to our true identity as your children, that we may go forth into this world with a determined compassion to be like Jesus.

A friend of mine has a laudable prayer life (I envy it.), whose nature is confirmed by the way he chooses to live. Amongst other things, he visits a detention center every week, talking with the detainees, doing what he can to help them – which often isn’t much. The rules governing these folks are often vague, which makes them vulnerable to some pretty hideous treatment by the guards. Their living conditions are way worse than those of normal prisoners. But my friend discovered a little loophole: whereas the guards can read any incoming mail, they can’t read any outgoing mail. So one of the detainees wrote a long letter describing the conditions they’re living in, and she mailed it to my friend, who in turn mailed it to the San Francisco Chronicle, who promptly printed it and it’s now creating a massive fury at the highest levels. Senator Feinstein’s in weighing in and demanding an investigation!

The way my friend is living is thoroughly connected to the way he prays. Prayer, for him, isn’t a daily, ecstatic experience of God. But it is a daily return to God. Through thoughtful reading, contemplation, and quiet – he re-enters his intimacy with God and – by this union – re-enters his call, his vocation, to live and to love with God.

He is finding what the prophet Isaiah promised to be true:

Have you not known? Have you not heard?

The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.

He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.

He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.

Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;

but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,

they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint (Isaiah 40:28-31).

 

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