Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Prayer is a conversation we carry on in questions

Who asked first? Photo by Jared Cherup, Flickr

"I am not a man of God," said Tauwhare, frowning.

"And yet there is much of God in you," Devlin replied. "I believe you must have an instinct for prayer, Te Rau -- to have come here today. To pay respects at your dear friend's grave -- to pray over him, indeed."

Tauwhare shook his head. "I don't pray for Crosbie. I remember him."

"That's all right," Devlin said. "That's fine. Remembering is a very good place to start." Smiling slightly he pressed the pads of his fingers together, and then tilted both hands down -- his clerical pose. "Prayers often begin as memories. When we remember those whom we have loved, and miss them, naturally we hope for their safety and their happiness, wherever they might be. That hope turns into a wish, and whenever a wish is voiced, even silently, event without words, it becomes a supplication. Perhaps we don't know to whom we're speaking; perhaps we ask before we truly know who's listening, or before we even believe that listener exists. But I judge it to be a very fine beginning, to make a practice of remembering those people we have loved. When we remember others fondly, we wish them health and happiness and all good things. [...]"


"A prayer needn't always be a supplication, of course," Devlin added. "Some prayers are expressions of gladness; some are expressions of thanks. But there is hope in all good feelings, Te Rau, even in feelings that remember the past. The prayerful man, the good man, is always hopeful; he is always an optimist. A man is made hopeful by his prayers."

Tauwhare, who had received this sermon doubtfully, only nodded. "These are wise words," he added, feeling pity for his interlocutor.

In general Tauwhare's conception of prayer was restricted to the most ritualized and oratorical sort. The ordered obeisance of the whaikorero produced in him, as did all rituals of speech and ceremony, a feeling of centrality and calm, the likes of which he could not manufacture alone, and nor did he wish to. The sensation was quite distinct from the love he felt for his family, which he experienced as a private leaping in his breast, and distinct, too, from the pride he felt in himself, which he felt as a pressurized excitement, an elated certainty that no man would ever match him, and no man would ever dare to try. It ran deeper than the natural goodness that he felt, watching his mother shuck mussels and pile the slippery meat into a wide-mouthed flax basket on the shore, and knowing, as he watched her, that his love was good, and wholly pure; it ran deeper than the virtuous exhaustion he felt after a day stacking the rua kumara, or hauling timber, or plaiting harakeke until the ends of his fingers were pricked and raw. Te Rau Tauwhare was a man for whom the act of love was the true religion, and the altar of this religion was one in place of which no idols could be made.

"Shall we go to the grave together?" Devlin said.

-- excerpt from The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

Prayer #292: Some Questions

What is prayer? Pleas and bows, yes, but is it also hugs and screams? Is it as simple as remembering, as immediate as invoking?

And what of its tone? Is a "prayer" by nature positive, in that its creation signals a flicker of faith where perhaps none is thought to be? Then what of those times when the prayer is a wail, a keening moan flecked with spit and blood that twists throughout an unresponsive cosmos?

And what of your response? If your unpracticed antennae cannot detect a reply, how does that build hope? How do you put an ear horn to the most remote canal of your psyche and listen for speeches in a language you don't speak? How can you not in these silent, ticking moments feel less heeded, less wanted, less loved?

And what of different kinds of love? What of the contemplation of it, the experience of it, the demonstration of it? When the wild first surrounds you, undirected and circumspect, do you make your steps more tender across the shifting bog? When the second hugs you from behind, do you whip around to match arms to face, or do you simply revel in the tight sensation? And when the third -- focused, ordered, intentional -- speaks what you cannot articulate and shows what you cannot describe, what is left for you to do?

What then is prayer? It is a conversation we carry on in questions.


Wednesday, September 02, 2015

In search of a church

"We are each other's holding bread." Photo by Susy Morris, Flickr

Earlier this year, the new pastor at my parish dissolved the music ministry group I was an active part of. For three years, there in the corner to the left of the altar, I had contributed to dynamic worship, befriended faith-filled musicians, and -- in answer to many tearful prayers said from that very spot -- met and fell in love with a wonderful man.

Yet with one executive decision, my roots in the parish were yanked out, replaced with an approach to liturgy that, while I don't disagree with, is not the sole way I want to serve and worship. I hoped for a congregational outcry, a change of heart from the pastor, but neither arrived. Within months the music group was officially dead. So, cut adrift with our wounds still raw, Nature Boy and I spent the summer searching for a church.

The process has been neither easy nor successful. Each weekend we bounce around from pew to pew -- weighing the quality of the liturgy, the impact of the preaching, and the spirit of the parish -- and each weekend we realize anew the depth of our loss. Change is always hard, but it's a particular slog when you feel so powerless throughout the process. And though we've experienced other moving services and witnessed other loving communities in action, none of them feel quite like the home we knew and loved.

One unexpected benefit of this unsettled period, however, is that it has given me a new appreciation for the doctrinal tenet that the Church -- the people of God -- are the body of Christ. Bodies have beating hearts. They are warm, lively, breathing, aching. They yearn to hold and be held, just as Nature Boy and I are yearning right now.

Anne Lamott put it poignantly in a recent Facebook post:

"I think often of the weeks after the end of WWII, in the refugee camps for orphans and dislocated kids. Of course the children couldn't sleep! But the grown-ups discovered that after you fed them, if you gave them each a piece of bread just to hold, they would drift off. It was holding bread. There was more to eat if they were still hungry. This was bread to hold, to remind them and connect them to the great truth -- that morning would come, that there were grown-ups who cared and were watching over them, that there would be more food when they awoke. [...] We are each other's holding bread."

We, the wider community of believers and want-to-believers, are all striving to follow a higher power, though we have moments where doubt and fear tell us otherwise. What we do know for sure, however, beyond dispute or refute, is that other human beings are with us right now, and it is our mandate as fellow travelers to extend hands, offer snacks, and say hello. Because even if nothing ends up coming after this bumpy ride of a life, we will at least have manifested love during our time here.

That's why I remain hopeful that Nature Boy and I will find a new spiritual community. The body of Christ is by definition much bigger than one person and one decision. And the more we seek, the more we explore, the more we hold hands with smiling strangers, the more I feel the wide circle of arms drawing closer, and I know we will be ok.

Prayer #291: Holding Bread

As bakers yawn and stumble gather in the pre-dawn hours to tie their aprons and stoke their ovens, so we rub our groggy eyes and squint to see You in the filmy light. And though we cannot not always see clearly, we continue to bake bread and break bread in Your name.

Help us offer this sustenance in abundance and never with condition. When we profess our need for you, knead us in return -- a gentle heel, a firm pat, an attentive push to rise higher than we've risen before, filled with breath and room and life to spare.