Thursday, March 22, 2007

Prodigal Praying

The fatherhood of God has a poignancy that is brought to mind each Friday in the Prayer Book’s daily collect: “Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

I have said the Amen to that prayer every Friday for most of my adult life. Over the last several years, as a father myself (having a younger son and an older son), this prayer has reminded me that our adult children, to become fully adult, must suffer pain as well as taste joy. And this prayer has met me in my helplessness to prevent that suffering, has united my parenting heart to the pulse of our Maker, and has renewed in me the wise hope that our adult children and their parents, exchanging the way of anxiety for the way of the cross, will find a transforming way of life and peace.

I’m all for extemporaneous and informal praying, but give me that prayer each Friday! (And, yes, a bunch of other favorites without which I’d have a poor sense of direction and precious little to offer at a hospital bedside.)

This prayer is also the collect for Monday in Holy Week, having been heard the day before, Palm Sunday, as the station prayer offered at the steps of the chancel, when the procession comes to a halt and we catch our breath before mounting that way of the cross that will lead us to Good Friday and Easter Day.

Where did this prayer come from? It has ties to Western Massachusetts. The Rev. Dr. William Reed Huntington proposed this prayer for the 1892 revision of the Book of Common Prayer, though it didn’t make it in until the 1928 revision. Huntington’s career included a period as Rector of All Saints in Worcester, and his family’s home on the Connecticut River in Hadley, the Porter-Phelps-Huntington House, is an historic site that some of you may have visited.

Christians are people of the Book, and so we thank God for all the men and women whose use of language has given us lasting tools in our kits and colors in our palette. Anglicans are, of course, people of two books—so it stands to reason that today, when prayer is our subject in the Lenten lunch series, that we should be talking about the Prayer Book.

Know that you’re invited downstairs for soup worth staying for, table companions worth meeting, and a conversation about prayer worth having. Sloane Torres and Alison Kolesar will be our presenters.

Among the ancient stories heard on Easter Eve, stories in which we hear our own, even by which we tell our own, is the troubling one about Abraham binding his son Isaac, intending to offer his life in sacrifice to God, believing that God was calling him to that unimaginable tragedy, that unthinkable contradiction.

What tears at the heart is to realize that by the terms of Holy Week, God the Father is not spared, as Abraham was spared at the last, the anguish of witnessing the death of his Son.

A compassionate father stands in our Gospel parable today. We know enough about how parables work to recognize that Jesus introduces us to this father in order to better acquaint us with God.

I remember Henri Nouwen suggesting that this ought to be called the Parable of the Prodigal Father. The old man is the prodigious one, running to greet the returning Junior as if he’d been keeping watch ever since the boy left home, embracing him so instantly as to get him across those toughest few inches of the journey home, and pouring out on him unconditional acceptance so generous that it’s like he’d kept it bottled up for the day of resurrection, the day his son returned from the death of alienation to the life of family and community.

Prayer being our subject today, I hope you’re hearing this parable describe the God to whom you pray. Make sure this is the God you’re praying to.

And to pay attention to what this parable may give us regarding prayer, consider these two sons. Junior gives us the all-too-common language of what prayer often means, and he does this by those two verbs he uses. First is give, and second forgive. What percentage of your praying has these two agenda items in mind?

Notice that by the terms of this parable, prayer is answered! Give me my share of the property is granted, no questions asked. And Father, I have sinned is silenced in the bear hug that restores his belovedness, reveals that even when he didn’t feel it, he hadn’t lost it.

If the younger son’s contribution to our understanding of prayer is to show that God knows, honors, and exceeds our needs, is it the role of the older son to show us a more challenging agenda for prayer?

Like, facing our anger at injustice, or at least what we experience as unjust.

And facing deeper and more vexing motives than those we show in public (I’ve been working like a slave for you, you old goat!)

And admitting needs that we don’t know yet how to express (You’ve never given me a party like this…)

And opening up our judgmentalism (“This son of yours…”), opening space for God’s Spirit to reframe our view (“This brother of yours…”).

I’m going to close the book on this parable and open another book, and invite you to hear the language of a woman whose gifts of expression have made me (and many) thankful. Mary Oliver’s new collection of poems, Thirst, shows a spiritual traveler finding a sense of home. That appears to be in a liturgical church, perhaps the Episcopal Church. Tell-tale words appear in these poems, like “eucharist” and “lectionary”. I’m going to guess that, following the death of her long-time partner, Molly Malone Cook, Mary found a congregation and a priest or two who have helped her name and address the prodigious God whose stunning creation she has long celebrated.

So here is the first of four poems, “Coming to God: First Days”

---by my understanding of copyright laws, the texts of these poems may not be printed here… you’ll find this book in bookstores and libraries, and copies are available here at St. John’s--

How to pray is addressed in her little poem, “Praying”.

That same thought opens her “Six Recognitions of the Lord”. I’ll read just numbers 1 and 4.

If prayer is a school for obedience, the test is often on hospitality. I love her poem, “Making the House Ready for the Lord”. This is her version of what we hear in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, where Coleridge writes,
“He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things, both great and small.”

Finally, her prose poem “Thirst”.