At the door of God
February 27, 2022 Transfiguration At the door of God Luke 9:28-36
By this 9th chapter in Luke’s account of Jesus’ life and ministry, Jesus is busy. In the two chapters preceding today’s reading, these are some of the subject lines: Jesus Heals a Centurion’s Servant; Raises the Widow’s Son; Receives messengers from John; forgives a woman; teaches a parable. Interprets the parable. Teaches another parable. Explains the meaning of God’s spiritual family. Calms a storm. Heals someone tormented by a demon. Restores life to a girl, heals a woman. Sends twelve of his followers on a mission. Feeds five thousand hungry people. Reveals his identity and purpose to some of his disciples.
Joan Chittister’s description of 21st century America could easily apply to Jesus in first-century Palestine: deadlines and distractions of a dense and demanding society. We’re told that in the midst of the deadlines and distractions of his dense and demanding society, Jesus went up on the mountain to pray.
The mountain, of course, is an age-old metaphor for prayer; usually for the sense of transcendence it suggests; for removing ourselves from the crowded ways of life; also, an unimpeded view in all directions, allowing for perspective on the day, the journey, the world; and then there is, in our conventional notions of what’s up and down in the universe, greater proximity to God.
But let’s consider one more dimension of the metaphor of the mountain as representing prayer. In order to pray on the mountain, the mountain must first be climbed. There’s an effort involved. And anyone among us who has sought to pray as a daily practice a life pattern, a discipline, a rich and beautiful dimension of our faith journey knows this to be true.
C.S. Lewis wrote this about seeking to pray to begin the day: “The moment you wake up each morning, all your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals, ready to take over your thoughts and emotions. Can you relate?
Here’s the good news—Jesus was busy, too; occupied with people’s needs; always aware of what else needed doing. Luke gives us Jesus as an example for living our own lives with deadlines and distractions in a dense and demanding society; for taking a step toward finding our way up the mountain to pray. One of our bishops, Rueben Job, writes that the tension between being and doing itself becomes a meeting place with God. Our very awareness that prayer is an effort, that it has to be shoe-horned into our day at times, is a step toward prayer.
A few trail markers:
Prayers can be simple. Brief. Portable. The Lord’s Prayer. The 23rd Psalm. A breath prayer. The world has a new war. Ukraine is under siege. The news has been distressing, agonizing. What can we do? In time, many things. But prayer is one: Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as in heaven . . .
My sister shared something Ann Voskamp wrote this week that I appreciate. “All we can do is pray,” we sometimes say. “The least we can do is pray.” Prayer, she writes, is not all we can do; it’s not the least we can do—it’s the most we can do.
Trail markers—simple prayers. Ann Lamott once said she had two prayers: Every morning: Help me. Help me Help me. Every evening: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. You might be saying—that’s my level. Ann Lamott is singing my song: I’m doing well to get those two prayers in each day. One could do worse. Those happen to be two very foundational prayers: Help me is a Kyrie. Lord, have mercy. Thank you is in the beautiful tradition of the gratitude psalms: It is good to give thanks . . .
Another trail marker: candles: We’ve employed candles a fair amount at Laurel Heights, certainly in Sunday worship; our weekly Wednesday thirty-minute prayer gatherings, meetings of various kinds. The candle has many roles to play in prayer.
It can kindle a sense of God’s presence, guidance, warmth, joy. And be an inventory: Where have I experienced warmth, and shared warmth today. Light, and shared that light. Joy, and shared joy with others?
Howard Thurman, philosopher, theologian, Civil Rights leader, is best known perhaps for his poem, “The Work of Christmas.” But that poem has a companion that sees candles as trail markers of the sort we’re considering: “I will light candles this Christmas, Candles of joy, despite all sadness, Candles of hope where despair keeps watch. Candles of courage where fear is ever present, Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days, Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens. Candles of love to inspire all my living, Candles that will burn all the year long.”
Another trail marker: our bulletin. Ritual. Routine. Prayers in the bulletin, the hymns we sing. This—what we do and experience here—is about this. But this is also about that; here is about there; now is about then. Forming us in prayer; lending us the language, the music, the names, the needs, the joys and hopes to carry with us into the week like a bulletin folded into our purse or pocket.
Jesus gives us hope. He seems to understand that prayer is a cherished dimension of his life that will not always be luxuriously provided. He meets God on the mountain, but he will pray down below as well . . . in the midst of everyday life.
Just beyond this passage, Jesus is praying again, something he does often in Luke. His followers notice this, and say to him when he’s back in their midst, “Lord, teach us to pray.” And with that very question, that very yearning, that very petition . . . they are already praying. The desire becomes the fulfillment.
During the season of Lent, which begins Wednesday with a Service of Ashes . . . we’ll study a book by one of the most trusted teachers in the classroom of the spiritual life, Richard Foster, who made this observation: The world needs deep people. By which he means, I believe, people who have been to the depths . . .
The world needs deep people. Yes.. But also bright, joy-filled, exuberant, hope-filled people. People who, having practiced the presence of God in prayer, hold in their hand—or maybe just in their spirit, their attitude, their disposition—hold a gate lamp to a world being mended, healed, made new.
Do you wish to pray, wish to learn to pray more deliberately? Then ask God for this gift, and you will have begun that journey. The door of God is not closed, and waiting to be opened with the right knock or key or turn of the tricky knob; the right technique or method or wrist action. The door of God is already open. Always open. Including now.