I continue to look at prayers my church, the United Church of Christ, suggests as prayers in times of crises and trial in our Book of Worship. My reasoning is that the more I go through the up’s and down’s of life, the less I feel a need to relate to God in simply the personal relationship, the “me & Jesus we got our own thing going”, way of the evangelicalism of my childhood. There is a part of that approach which is very helpful: the deep mysticism I learned among the charismatics with whom my faith first woke up. A sense that God is intimately involved with me, surrounding me by love, and ever open for me to be deeply vulnerable by removing every mask I wear in public, simply boldly coming as myself to God. A freedom to be truly me, truly alive, in the present moment. That is still so life-giving and something only emphasizing the corporate nature of our prayer, the ways in which we are a part of a tradition bigger than ourselves, can lose sight of if not balanced by the personal connection with the Sacred.
But I focus on these received prayers, prayers that people who lived long before I was ever thought of in this earthly sphere, prayers that helped people resist martyrdom and mayhem, death and dismemberment, disease and dictators, time out of mind because I have found when the world spins out of control, moving beyond what I understand, my own words fail me. I have found that there are times in life I cannot speak my own words, for my own words come out as a sputter. Though there are mystical practices that help me when I am beyond words (for instance, though I would not describe myself as charismatic, I do still at times speak in tongues – a practice I experience as a way of opening one’s self up to communication with God beyond words when words fail), ultimately even being open to the mystical requires a certain energy that in my darkest moments I lack.
I have found to be true what is true for most of the patients I care for on my hospice line as a chaplain, and in looking back I now realize was often true of those in similar situations when serving as a pastor: what people long for in crisis is not usually the flush and excitement of some new experience of the Sacred. What they want is the tried and true way, the path that was familiar whose steps they know but, now, in the midst of these moments in which the boundaries between life and death, beginning and ending, weakness and strength, us and others, begin to fade, appear in a new revolutionary light.
And so I have learned through my losses and the losses of others the value of liturgy to hold life up, to give it space for meaning. In his book The Phoenix Affirmations, Rev. Eric Elnes suggests in a section on worship that the role liturgy has whether it is the repeated prayers, practices, and rites of corporate worship or the personalized practices we engage in as a part of the way our faith community teaches us to pray, to medidate, to serve is like a container or path on which we can meet the holy. The holy which flows from the Holy One is everywhere present, illusive like the wind, unable to be bottled any more than we can bottle sunlight, and yet also alive like lightning. Elnes suggests the horrifying stories in Leviticus of people approaching the ark of God, which represented God’s presence in the world for Israel, in a non-reverent way only to be struck like one caught in a lightning storm or in a lava flow dead, serve the purpose not so much of telling us what God is like – for a God who smites us for not saying the right words hardly is a God good enough to be worthy of our worship – but to picture metaphorically our need for regular patterns of prayer, silence, meditation, connection with others. Our received practices — whether they be singing the old Gospel hymns, praying Psalm 23 and the Lord’s Prayer, the Daily Office, the liturgy of our favorite church each Sunday, the many ways we might take communion, or even our daily walk up the creek with our dogs — all create pathways through which we can walk to encounter the Holy. To glimpse its glory. To become through such experiences new and renewed people.
And so I turn again to one of the prayers of Scripture included in my church’s Book of Worship which is offered to give words for those seeking hope. This prayer is adapted from Isaiah 63:
“The Spirit of the Holy One is upon me,
Because the Holy One has anointed me
To bring good news to the afflicted;
God has sent me
To heal the broken-hearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives,
And the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
To proclaim the year of God’s favor,
And the day of our God’s vengeance;
To comfort all who mourn;
To grant to those who mourn in Zion
A garland instead of ashes,
The oil of gladness instead of mourning,
The mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit;
The planting of the Holy One,
That God may be glorified”. Amen.
My first thought on reading this passage is, why does my church think this prayer is a prayer for the struggling and suffering? I jump to this thought every time I read this text in such moments because of how deeply I have been formed by the Gospels and the Christian story. In Luke 4, Jesus appropriates this text for Himself at least in the minds of the story-teller who writes Luke. Jesus is pictured there as the embodiment, the very fulfillment, of this prayer. And so my first thought is to see this text as a description of my Jesus: the One so uniquely anointed by Spirit. The one whose purpose is to bring good news to afflicted people. To heal the broken-hearted. To proclaim liberty to the captives. To open up prisons and places of oppression so the once-oppressed can go free. To transform grieving into mourning. I find myself thinking of the many ways Jesus did this in the Gospels. And to be honest, so often when I am grieving and in pain I find those stories, though pretty and important, so far removed from my life. For Jesus was in Nazareth long ago, and here I sit – broken, heart shattered, tears in my eyes.
Where stood Jesus as I sat by the hospital bed of one dear to me who tried to take their life? Or of my dear friend who died painfully of AIDS complications last year, whose husband lost his mind from grief? Where was Jesus as I slowly watched my late wife die of Chiari Malformation, and as I woke to see her not breathing? Where is he in the people standing at borders south of our country, and all over Europe, crying out to be let in so they can be safe from danger?
In a literal way, those situations sure do seem far removed. The man Jesus is not strolling into those circumstances, speaking the words “be healed”, “your faith has saved you”, and sudden miraculous things occurring. Often such places in our life are dark and alone.
And yet this imagery does speak, doesn’t it?
It helps to remember that Isaiah did not know of Jesus, the man of Nazareth. Sure we have a sense in the Christian community that the ancient prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and Micah all were looking for an anointed Messiah to come riding in to rescue the people. And though there is some limited truth to that, by and large they viewed these texts as descriptions of their own mission.
The author of this section of Isaiah, possibly Isaiah himself but more likely a later student of Isaiah or Isaiah’s prophecies, is probably describing their own personal sense of mission. Whereas earlier in the book of Isaiah, the message was one of judgment. Of hard words. Of certain disaster unless people turn from their ways, now the tragedy has come. The people are heart-broken. And this prophet feels God telling them that people need to know: I am not the God of unrelenting anger. I am not the God of rejection and judgment. I am not as far off as I feel.
And so they proclaim healing. Liberty. Freedom. They let people know as they cry out “Where is God?” that there, there, there, there is where the Living God dwells. In those places in which healing is coming in the midst of disease & brokenness. In those moments in which alienation and isolating fear break open into deep community, reconciliation, and friendships that are borne unexpectedly, the Living God is at work.
I can relate with this one myself. I have not had the crushing despair of the destruction of my nation that the people this prophet addresses has faced. But I do know what it is to wake up feeling as if my world has been destroyed, as if all I live for has fallen aside like a tree crashing down in a summer storm.
In such moments it can be hard, almost impossible, to see God as present in my life. I have had moments of darkness in my life that I looked all about me but could not see or feel God’s presence because my grief and loss was so bad. Then, I looked and a friend was there lending a shoulder to cry on. A neighbor was bringing a covered dish. I found a moment of hope and peace. And I could see just enough of God to get through. I could see God as present in that healing, that community breaking forth, that becoming alive to one’s life again.
God is always, ever present there and in those places. This is a good reminder to me both as a caregiver and a sufferer. At times when we go through great ordeals it can feel wrong to embrace the goodness breaking out in our lives. I remember the day I began to feel good after a long dark night in my life after my late wife passed. I began to have energy, passion for my life again, even notice other women. I felt like I was betraying her. But then in quiet moments I could sense a whisper in my soul – “Live”. Whether that was the voice of my dear departed wife from beyond, the call of the Almighty, or the cry of my own soul, that voice calls me to embrace life. At least after the death of my late wife, embracing life has been scary. I find myself afraid to open up, afraid to connect, afraid that I will be rejected by others. I think that I carry with me not just a feeling of being abandoned by friends when I began to do queer-affirming ministry, which I have spoken about here, but also a feeling of being abandoned by how suddenly my late wife was gone. It makes it hard for me to open up, to trust.
But God is where life is. God is where connection happens. God is where oppressions end, freedom breaks out. Going to those places where life can be found, and opening to them even when they hurt, is how healing comes.
It reminds me of one of my favorite lines from Regina Specktor’s song “On the Radio”, which says, “ “No, this is how it works / You peer inside yourself / You take the things you like / And try to love the things you took
‘And then you take that love you made / And stick it into some
Someone else’s heart / Pumping someone else’s blood
‘And walking arm in arm / You hope it don’t get harmed / But even if it does / You’ll just do it all again”
The call to life is the call to an openness, to not let the cynicism of our pain lead us to close the door to love, to hope, to new beginning. It is so easy to choose that path, but its end is further pain. And being open to life will yes bring heartache. But I have to believe that ache can, like the ache of muscles after working out in the gym, grow our hearts. Make them strong and whole.
A final thought on this prayer is this: if the anointing can be a reference to the prophet and to Jesus, to me it suggests a different way of looking at Jesus and His role. Early on when I first read these words, I imagined Jesus as this unique man, the sole human to really be so anointed by Spirit, to truly be God as man with men & women to dwell, Jesus Our Emmanuel. But the more I walk this spiritual journey, the more I reflect on Scripture, the more I wonder. I no longer believe that what made Jesus fully God and fully human was in fact some accident of his birth – being born of a set lady or family, or his mother’s sex life (or, as tradition suggests, lack thereof). I think instead those elements of the Gospel story are just icing on the cake added to highlight what was truly unique of Jesus – his own lack of uniqueness. Jesus was fully human, fully experiencing the range of human feeling, pain, heartache, temptation, joy, success, failure. And not by denying his humanity, but by fully embracing it on a level most of us can hardly imagine, Jesus discovered God. God fully present in every nook and cranny of who he was. In every aspect of His life. In every person he encountered. God. And so Jesus found Himself to be in fully being human, fully encountering and reflecting the Divine. If this is the case, and I think it is, then God coming in Jesus is not God highlighting some uniquely special person but revealing to us that what is true for Jesus is true for us. God showing us we can encounter the Sacred not by flying from our lives, but embracing them in all their complexity, pain, and messiness.
Each of us have God present fully in every nook and cranny of our life, every experience, every trial, every person we encounter. To be fully human is to fully embrace each aspect of our lives and of others as places baptized in Sacred fire, places where the Living God is brimming to overflowing like a river after torrential rain. Learning to no longer push aside who we are, how we feel, what we need – and to no longer push that aside in others – is the path to Divine encounter. It is learning to discover God as present within ourselves, our lives, our worlds.
To me the vision of life such spirituality evokes is beautifully pictured by the “New Creed” developed by the United Church of Canada, and used by many Congregationalist churches like my own:
“We are not alone,
we live in God’s world.
“We believe in God:
who has created and is creating,
who has come in Jesus,
the Word made flesh,
to reconcile and make new,
who works in us and others
by the Spirit.
“We trust in God.
“We are called to be the Church:
to celebrate God’s presence,
to live with respect in Creation,
to love and serve others,
to seek justice and resist evil,
to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,
our judge and our hope.
“In life, in death, in life beyond death,
God is with us.
We are not alone.
“Thanks be to God.”
Embracing this reality, that we too can grow to deeper union with God not just despite our sufferings, but like Christ through them — in our brokenness of body and poured out-ness of life — is a wonderful mystery and gift.
We need not fear, but can trust. We also can find ways to take our pain to let us be shaped in ways that allow us, like Jesus, to in our own small way become avatars of God, mirrors of this Sacred light that shines on every heart, so that others around us can as we redeem our experiences of pain, find the joy, hope, life, healing, courage, community, deliverance from oppression, that the life of God blowing into our lives through others around us has helped us find.
Let’s continue this journey together.
Your progressive redneck preacher,