Thursday, August 02, 2007

The Contemplative Gift

Contemplative experience is not arrived at by the accumulation of grandiose thoughts and visions or by the practice of heroic mortifications. It is not "something you buy" with any coin, however spiritual it might seem to be. It is a pure Gift of God, and it has to be a gift, for that is part of its very essence.

I have been thinking all morning about these words from Merton and how they speak to me right now.

There is nothing like fatherhood to ruin one's spiritual life. Really, I mean it. There is no time to pray or think or write. There is no time for contemplation. I have to be at the pediatrician's office instead.

For four months now I have been wrestling with this and I have found myself becoming increasingly bitter about it all. I carve out a little time when I am going to be intentional and, what do you know, the kiddo just won't stop crying and Irie is having a breakdown and if I don't help then I'm a dead man.

But Merton's words gave me pause this morning. Maybe I'm too consumed with making contemplation. Maybe becoming a true contemplative means learning to let God make it happen instead.

Learning to view life with God as a gift, rather than something that can be manufactured, means learning to see it as we see the dress of the birds of the air. The cardinal neither toils nor spins for his crimson. It was his from the beginning and will be his in the end. So too is our portion of God - ours in the beginning, ours in the end, and ours right now. If we would only receive it.

Somewhere in his journals Merton uses the imagery of the cup as a metaphor for life with God. We are drunkards and we swing wildly at the cup in impetuous desperation. The wine spills everywhere. The object of our desire lost to the avarice of the human heart. If we would only be still and open our mouths and close our eyes and the drink of life would be ours.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

An Exercise in Prayer

Not long ago I went down to visit Harlene Monta at the Ethan Allen Assisted Living home. I showed up unannounced and Harlene was just washing up for dinner. I told her to take her time and that I would be back in a few minutes. I left Harlene’s room and decided to spend the time moseying around the place, saying hi to the residents there.

I walked into the central living room and visited with a couple of women sitting on the couches. Neither of them seemed to pay much attention to my arrival. “Nice weather out there,” I said. “Yep,” one replied automatically. “Nice weather.” I waited for more commentary but none was forthcoming. “Nice bird,” I said pointing to the cage up above their heads. “Parakeet,” the same woman corrected as if I should have known better. “Parakeet, beautiful parakeet,” I said. “Yep, beautiful parakeet,” she said.

It was obvious that I had worn out the welcome that I never had so I excused myself and made my way back toward Holly’s room. Her door was still closed so I wondered down Holly’s hallway reading the signs on hers and her neighbors’ doors. On each door was a picture of the resident along with a cute little saying. Holly Monta — “Plant seeds of friendship.” Lenny Polow – “Imagination is intelligence having fun.” John Baker – “Gone fishing.”

As I made my way down the hallway reading doors I came to another communal area where a woman was sitting by herself. I had a seat in the chair next to the one she was seated in and introduced myself. “Hi, I’m Ryon.” She smiled largely and said her name was Elizabeth and that she had been a resident at Ethan Allen for six years. “Six years. . .well I guess you about got it down,” I said. She giggled. “Yeah, just about.” I asked Elizabeth if she knew Holly. “Holly,” she said, “yeah, she’s cool.” Now I have to tell you that when I showed up that afternoon about the last thing in the world that I thought I would be hearing was one of these residents call another of the residents “cool.”

“Holly Monta,” I thought to myself. ‘“Planting seeds of friendship’ — that is pretty cool.

When Holly came out of her room she told me that she had just taken another fall — the most recent in a series of falls she has been having for some time now. I looked down and saw that her arm was black and blue. I laid my hand on her arm and paused. I looked from her arm back up into her face. “I’m going to have to pray to God to send you a guardian angel,” I said. “That, or a padded room.” She looked back at me and grinned. “Both,” she said, “pray for both.”

Both, pray for both. Pray for it all; I think that is what Jesus is telling the disciples in today’s text from Luke.

They have come to him and want him to teach them to pray just as John taught his disciples to pray. First Jesus responds by telling the disciples to pray in the words that we say here every week and have come to know as the Lord’s Prayer. “When you pray,” Jesus tells them, “Pray like this:

Our Father, hallowed be thy name,
Your kingdom come
Give us each day our daily bread
And forgive us our sins,
As we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us
And do not bring us to the time of trial.

Then Jesus launches into a story. It is a story about a knock at midnight. “Suppose,” Jesus says, “that someone comes to you at midnight and is weary and in need of food. You have none, so you go next door to ask of your neighbor. ‘Friend,’ you say, ‘an unexpected guest has just arrived and I have nothing to set before him.’ He answers from within, ‘Go away, do not bother me. I was asleep and my children are all tucked in with me. It is a very inconvenient time.’ Truly I tell you,” Jesus says, “even if your neighbor will not get up out of bed for friendship’s sake, surely he will get up because you will not stop pounding on that door.”

“Ask,” Jesus says, “and it will be given you. Seek and you shall find. Knock and the door shall be open. For I tell you whoever asks receives, whoever seeks finds. Whoever knocks, she shall find.”

The disciples have come asking how to pray. Perhaps they are a little nervous about religion. Perhaps talking to God scares them a little. So they ask Jesus to teach them the right words. But Jesus isn’t concerned about the right words. They don’t have to have the right words. He wants them to see that they can pray simply and honestly, like a child talking to his daddy.

We say the Lord’s Prayer every week and we have ritualized it enough that it often sounds formal and stilted. But in reality it is a prayer that a child would pray. In fact, if you think about it, it is modeled on the kind of request that a child might bring to his father wants something. “Father,” “Daddy,” “Hallowed be thy name.” “You know I think you are such a cool, dad. The coolest in the neighborhood.” Then the kicker that needs no modern translation: “Give.”

And here is the thing about daddies — we secretly want to be givers. Our kids know this. At a very early age our kids learn that we dads are the biggest suckers around. Gabrielle has discovered this over the course of these last four months of life with me. I mean, you would not believe the things that a grown man will do to get a smile from his child. It’s pathetic. Downright shameful.

And it doesn’t stop when their infants. We keep on. We keep on because we want desperately for our children to know that we love them. I think of Christmas 2004. Irie and I had been dating for nearly a year and I had just begun what I now consider to be my militant vegetarian phase. I was passionate about not killing animals for the sake of mere style or comfort. I was even shopping for pleather shoes online. But my daddy in Texas didn’t quite get it. Under the tree was the biggest present you ever saw with the tag, “To Ryon, Love, Dad” on it. Imagine my surprise when I opened it. A full-quill ostrich brief case. “Now listen Ryon,” he said, “I want you to know, that it took a whole ostrich to make that brief case.” He must have told me that three or four times. “A whole ostrich.” “A mean a big ’en too.”

I still have that briefcase. I don’t use it much. But I have to admit I love it. I love it, not because a whole ostrich went into it, but because my dad’s whole heart went into also. And for that I’d have to say it was one of the best gifts I’ve ever been given.

“Which one of you if your child asks for a fish will give him a snake?” Jesus says. “And who of you if your child asks for an egg will give a scorpion? If you then who are evil know how to make good gifts, then how much more will your father who is in heaven give you the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.”

And there is the surprise. The disciples wanted to know how to pray, but in the end it is really not us who pray at all. It is God who prays through us with the Holy Spirit. We have only to be open to that and God will give it, because it is in God’s nature to give good gifts and it is in our nature to receive them.

I titled today’s sermon “An Exercise in Prayer.” Like with most other forms of exercise, things happen when we find the discipline to show up. That’s why Paul said pray at all times. Show up and pray and offer the world to the movement of the Holy Spirit and let God do the rest.

We let the Holy Spirit have the residents at the Ethan Allen home, especially those two funny ladies on the couch. We pray for them. We pray for their parakeet also. We ask that his song will bring a small note of the kingdom to somebody today. On earth as it is in heaven. We pray for Lenny Polow also, thanking him for helping us to see what fun God’s intelligence was having when God imagined us into being. We pray for John Baker, who has gone fishing. We pray that he might continue to be a fisher not only of fish, but of men. We pray for Elizabeth and ask that God would let her know that in our eyes she’s pretty cool too. And finally, we pray for Holly Monta. We pray that she continues to plant seeds of friendship wherever she goes. And we pray also for that guardian angel or padded room or both.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and through the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Dr. Jim: Intelligence Having Fun

"Imagination is intelligence having fun."

That was one of the quotes hanging on one of the resident's doors when I visited the Ethan Allen assisted living home the other day (I preached a sermon on that today that maybe I'll share here tomorrow.). It was Lenny Polow's door and next to the quote was a picture of Lenny. And he certainly did look to be having a lot of fun in that picture.

I want to introduce to you someone else out there who seems to be having a lot of fun with his intelligence. His name is Dr. Jim Somerville. Jim is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Washington, DC and he has just begun posting audio links to all of his sermons at the FBCDC mychurch website.

In the summer of 2004 I showed up in DC set to begin law school that August. By then end of July I had come to the conclusion that I was about to make the biggest mistake of my life and that I needed a giant course correction in life if I was going to save my soul.

Now I have to confess. I really have no idea whether or not the sermons I heard Jim Somerville preach that summer were what saved me. But let's say that right now you are about to make the biggest mistake of your life (some of you are). And let's go even one step further. Let's say that this summer you are where I was three summers ago and that you may very well be in jeopardy of losing your soul (some of you are). Don't you think it just makes sense to play it safe and go hear Dr. Jim?