I continue looking at prayers that have both pulled me and others through personal trials and struggles. In the last several posts I have looked at the Lord’s Prayer itself.
Here are the words of the Lord’s Prayer, as included in my United Church of Christ Book of Worship:
Who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
As we forgive those who sin against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.”
Today I continue to focus on “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”.
The twin phrases “lead us not into temptation” and “Thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory” stand out to me today.
We’ve noted the work to which the Lord’s Prayer calls us: the difficult work of tikkun olam, joining God and others in the work of mending our world where it has begun to be torn & broken and perfecting it where it is not yet mature and full-grown. This difficult work begins, we said, in recognizing our own inherent worth and the ways in which we have learned over the years to live, act, and believe as if we do not have that worth. For Christians, this work of mending of the self begins with embracing ourselves as children of God, perfectly imperfect, loved and embraced without condition before and beside whatever we have done right or wrong. This allows us to exercise compassion toward ourselves and then to identify with others in their suffering, birthing compassion toward other people, other living things, and God’s good earth on which we live.
We’ve talked about the role forgiveness has to play in this, but how ultimately this moves us beyond the sphere of our souls, our hearts, outside of ourselves. It leads us into active work mending broken relationship, working to heal rifts in our community, and doing practical acts that help other people discover and live into their own self-worth as children of God so that no longer are they willing to simply trampled underfoot. It includes working to raise awareness in ourselves and others about how we have bought into false systems that oppress, so that we can be people of true compassion but also so that we can help work to tear down these patterns of oppression, so that others might more fully live.
We even talked about how, if we listen to the voices of our brothers and sisters on this spiritual journey in other faith traditions, we can be reminded that not only does mending the world and exercising compassion need to include ourselves and other people, it also must include other living things and the web of life itself which we call nature. For we are not separate from nature but an integral part of it and every living thing that God has made has intrinsic worth in itself. So our work to mend the world is not just to mend ourselves, to mend our personal relationships, to mend our communities, but also to mend the fabric of the web of life in which we are sustained and in which the Spirit of God dwells like a holy temple.
This is a tall order, friends! I can’t speak for you, but when I take a moment and look out at the enormity of pain in the world, both my own and that of others around me, it can become overwhelming.
In his moving book on forgiveness, Desmond Tutu imagines God becoming overwhelmed at the enormity of the world’s pain:
“ In a bold anthropomorphic vein I can picture God surveying the awful wrecks that litter human history- how the earth is soaked with the blood of so many innocent who have died brutally. God has seen two World Wars in this century alone plus the Holocaust, the genocide in Cambodia and Rwanda, the awfulness in the Sudan, Sierra Leone, the two Congos, Northern Ireland, and the Middle East, and the excess that have characterized Latin America. It is a baneful catalog that records our capacity to wreck considerable harm on one another and our gross inhumanity to our fellow humans. I imagine God surveying it all, seeing how His children treat their sisters and brothers. God would weep as Jesus wept over the hardhearted and unresponsive Jerusalem, where he had come to his own people, and they would not receive him…….” (Excerpted from No Future Without by Forgiveness by Desmond Tutu. Page 95.)
How much more so can we experience burnout or exhaustion, becoming overwhelmed at the sight of all the suffering and pain in our world. It is difficult enough some days to face into the pain present in our own lives, let alone the pain around us.
I have a dog, Riversong, who is sweet, loving, and adorable but easily overwhelmed by life. Whenever I have a dinner party at my house she will quickly become distressed. Whenever someone knocks at the door she will get on high alert, eyes darting and shoulders hunkered down. When more than two people have come in, she will immediately hide under a table or in a hallway, not sure what to do with all the laughter, the talking, and new faces. And one day when we had over a dozen people over, she went and hid in my bedroom, refusing to move from behind my bed. Painfully shy, she could not handle all of the new noises, smells, faces, voices. It was just too much!
There are moments in looking at the enormity of the world’s suffering and our own, feeling the call to mend the world that this prayer gives us, that we like Riversong can say “it is just too much”. Though in other situations, like her, we are willing to curl up to the Master and hear that Beloved’s call, facing square on all that is going on in the world, we want to find a table to hide under, jump in bed and pull the covers overhead.
And no wonder! If it is all up to us, we are doomed. The world did not get in the shape it is, our lives not as tattered as they are, our communities not as much in tension as we see them, over night. It was not the result of one person but the choices of so many. And so on our own, it is too much.
The late spiritual teacher Henri Nouwen challenges us to pause, take a breath, and consider a different approach at such moments:
“The more I think about the human suffering in our world and my desire to offer a healing response, the more I realize how crucial it is not to allow myself to become paralyzed by feelings of helplessness and guilt. More important than ever is to be very faithful to my vocation to do well the few things I am called to do and hold on to the joy and peace they bring me. I must resist the temptation to let the forces of darkness pull me into despair and make me one more of their many victims.”
“It is not easy to distinguish between doing what we are called to do and doing what we want to do. Our many wants can easily distract us from our true action. True action leads us to the fulfillment of our vocation. Whether we work in an office, travel the world, write books or make films, care for the poor, offer leadership, or fulfill unspectacular tasks, the question is not “What do I most want?” but “What is my vocation?” The most prestigious position in society can be an expression of obedience to our call as well as a sign of our refusal to hear that call, and the least prestigious position, too, can be a response to our vocation as well as a way to avoid it. …
“When we are committed to do God’s will and not our own we soon discover that much of what we do doesn’t need to be done by us. What we are called to do are actions that bring us true joy and peace. Just as leaving friends for the sake of the Gospel will bring us friends, so too will letting go of actions not in accord with our call.
“Actions that lead to overwork, exhaustion, and burnout can’t praise and glorify God. What God calls us to do we can do and do well. When we listen in silence to God’s voice and speak with our friends in trust we will know what we are called to do and we will do it with a grateful heart.”
Ultimately I cannot solve all the world’s problems and neither can you. I had one of my first mentors in ministry who put it well: “Remember, Micah, you can hold someone’s hand. You can listen to their story. You can pray with them. But you can never be their Savior.” That is so true. Ultimately for Christians the Savior is the living Christ, present in all things, moving the world from death to life, turning alienation into community, disease and disintegration into healing and new beginning, turning oppression into liberation. This living presence which is known by other names in other faith traditions is always present with, in, under, and through us and all things.
Our call is to in our own small way partner with this Living Presence. In our practices of prayer, mindfulness, meditation, sacred reading, spiritual journaling, paying attention to our own stories, paying attention to nature – and many other spiritual practices – we are opening ourselves up to this presence. We are cultivating an awareness to the living Christ, who we may experience as personally as the apostles did in a voice saying specifically do this or that but which I think most of us experience more as an energy of life, like a quiet nudge on our heart or flowing river pulling at our toes like ocean waves that drag the sand through our toes. In these practices we open ourselves to at least feeling the pull, the movement, of this energy of life so we can see how to cooperate with its action in turning death to life in practical ways, if we are not those rare few who experience this living presence of Christ as the voice the prophet described as saying “this is the way, walk you in it”.
When we open ourselves to this guiding presence we get a sense of what part of this work of mending the world lies before us. It may be as simple as focusing on working through the damage left in our own hearts and souls from our experience of loss, trauma, and abuse, since at times we must work to be well and whole ourselves before helping others become whole. It may be as simple as lending a hand to a neighbor, opening up to a challenging friendship that calls us out of our comfort zone, or volunteering in our community with organizations that help each week to mend one tiny thread of the web of life.
Listening for the Living Christ reminds us too that it is not all up to us. As the prayer says, the Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory are not ours. They are Christ’s. They are the work of the power of life present all around us and in all things, a power Christians see as personal and embodied in the life of Jesus but available to us in every moment. Ultimately if we do our small part, we can trust that God is big enough, good enough, present enough to do the rest. As we work together with God to mend our part of the web of life, we can know that God is at work with other people around us both in our own community and throughout this world.
For me at least realizing this frees me to accept my own limits, to do what good I can do while also not pushing myself to burnout. It frees me to be creative, realizing I can try new things and not know the outcome. I can trust there is a grace present in the universe, the grace I know as Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit but which is known to others by as many names as there are stars in the sky. I can trust that if I do what small things lie before me, this gracious presence will meet me, helping turn the outcome toward healing, wholeness, and new life.
May you find the strength to engage this presence and this life. May you join me in taking the hand of the Creator, putting yourself to work in helping mend this world.
Your progressive redneck preacher,