5th in our Series on Naked Spirituality: a life with God in 12 simple words
Rev. Leanne walt
This week, once again, we pick up on our journey through Brian McLaren’s book Naked Spirituality: a life with God in 12 simple words. I hope you’ve been enjoying absorbing this exploration of the spiritual life as much as I’ve been enjoying leading it and I hope that you’ve been trying some of these practices on your own, outside of worship. It has facilitated a consideration and deepening of my own spiritual life and practice, for which I’m always grateful. I’m just curious, have any of you picked up this book to read alongside our weekly sermons?
Well, here we stand the first Sunday in August – offering that old cliché to one another that once again summer’s flying by - and we’ve reached the halfway point in this sermon series.
What I find so compelling about this book is the thread that McLaren runs throughout all the different seasons of our spiritual life that he lays out: our spiritual awakening, strengthening, surviving, and deepening. And that thread that runs throughout all of these is the simple truth that we are not alone. The spiritually mature realize and live their life in accordance with this truth that our existence is not singular, but communal, not separate from but contingent upon, and that we are part of an intricate web of interdependence.
We often think of the spiritual life as private, as something that is deeply personal, something that happens within us, and really as something that is between each one of us, individually, and God. And, there are times when our spiritual life is private. There are certainly private moments in our spiritual life. Prayer is something that we do in private, we do of course pray here together on Sunday mornings but most of the prayer that we partake in is personal and it is private. A walk on the beach or a long drive, a morning cup of coffee or a quiet afternoon spent reading a book, these are private moments that are ours and ours alone.
Yet, McLaren works to connect our spiritual life with our public life and this connection is perhaps most pronounced in the chapters that he devotes to the word, “Please.” McLaren is using the vernacular word “Please” to describe a spiritual practice that is traditionally referred to as intercession, a word whose Latin roots suggest “going between.” Intercessory prayer is a petition to God on behalf of someone in pain or need. This is the kind of prayer we offer in corporate worship, praying for the needs of others in our community and beyond.
St. Cyprian, the Christian martyr who was beheaded for his faith under the rule of the Roman Empire in the 3rd century AD when they were persecuting Christians, said that, “Our prayer is public and for all, and when we pray, we pray not for a single person, but for the whole people, because we are all one.” (read 2x)
“That they all may be one.” John 17:21, Jesus prays this prayer in the gospel of John. He asks God that the people may all be one – this intercessory prayer is inscribed on the insignia for our denomination, the United Church of Christ. Take notice, if you haven’t already, that written on our sign out front on the UCC emblem is this very prayer that Jesus offers, “That they all may be one.”
And so, how do we all become one?
How do we embody our unity in God and in Christ?
Brian McLaren offers one possibility: that we all become one by exercising compassion, that is expressing empathy for the suffering of others. The idea of compassion is one that, I think, we typically assume to be almost an inherent part of our life and faith practice. You know, we are good people and we care about others, when someone is sick, we pray for them/ when someone is in a nursing home, we visit them/ when a natural disaster strikes an area of the world, we offer financial support as best we are able. And these are moments of compassion.
Yet, we shouldn’t take these moments for granted because actually it’s very difficult to practice compassion – to truly relate to another person’s pain because our natural human inclination is to not want to experience pain or suffering or need. There is, within each of us, that force of judgment that rages against compassion. The opposite of compassion is not hatred, it is not indifference, it’s judgment.
I demonstrated this just recently when I heard that a six year old was killed in the Aurora, Colorado shooting. “What was a six year old going at a midnight showing of Dark Night Rising?!?” I exclaimed to Bill. “What kind of parent takes their kids out that time of night and to a violent movie?!?” And after I went on and on pontificating about what’s wrong with our society. Bill asked, “Does it really matter?”
It mattered to me because casting judgment upon the situation made it easier for me to distance myself from the devastation that mother must have felt in loosing her child.
The homeless should get jobs and addicts should stop using.
When we intellectualize the suffering of others and criticize them for not acting differently or doing better, then it frees us from having to share in their suffering.
Yet, time and time again in the gospels we see Jesus exercise a ministry of compassion over condemnation. Offering living water to the divorced Samaritan woman he meets at the well and forgiveness to the woman caught in adultery, breaking bread with the sinners and praying for the Roman soldiers gathered at the foot of his cross. His the ultimate ministry of intercession, serving as the bridge between God and humankind.
The story that we heard this morning from the Gospel of Mark about Jesus healing the paralyzed man is one of my very favorites because there are many points of entry for us, the reader, the hearer, the seeker. There are times in our life when we are the man on the stretcher, paralyzed by fear, grief, anxiety, doubt, despair, financial need, or illness of some kind. At other times we are one among the crowds that gathered in and around the house at Capernaum that day, casting judgment and standing in the way of healing. And, by the grace of God, are times when we are one of those four men who carry the stretcher through the massive, unruly crowd, all the way up to the top of the roof, and lower it down into the house to bring their friend to Jesus.
When asked why she went into the ministry, a colleague of mine tells the story when just months after her mother died, she lost her father. And, she had a difficult relationship with her dad. Her grief was complex and she was really angry with God for a number of reasons. She confided in a friend during this time that she just felt empty of faith, that she didn’t believe that God could actually be working in her life and her friend asked her, “Well, what if I believe for you?”
When the men finally reach Jesus through the crowds and set their paralyzed friend before him, Jesus is impressed by their faith – not just the faith of the paralyzed man but that of his friends as well.
Through the practice of intercessory prayer, by way of whispering “Please” to God on behalf of others, we are extending compassion, we are offering to carry the stretcher, to allow the weight of their condition to become our burden to bear. “Our job isn’t to criticize or scold people for their lack of faith, but to carry those whose faith has been paralyzed, to keep faith for them, and to see carrying them not as a burden but as our calling” (133).
Held within this conversation of intercessory prayer is that age-old question of whether or not prayer makes a difference, the question that a group of us spent some time exploring over the weeks of advent last year. I offer McLaren’s answer to say that, “however much or little prayer changes things, prayer certainly changes you.”
Confession/ Petition/ Intercession
Sorry/ Help/ Please
When we adopt these rhythms of prayer in our own lives, we will become habitually more aligned with God’s compassion and we’ll begin to recognize that “those who are in pain need to receive our compassion, but no less than we need to extend it” (125).