God be merciful to me, a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his home justified.
Yeats in Poetic Prayer
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
(WB Yeats, 1919)
Persistence in prayer is difficult, in our age.
Prayer in Luke
We can readily appreciate the stark rigor of Jesus’ Lukan parables. A Samaritan whose kindness illumines the limits of religion…A rich man who builds bigger barns, but whose soul suddenly is required…A figure of a fig tree, fruitless, but spared for yet another year in hope…A marriage feast wherein humility is tested and the poor are fed…Another banquet to which many are invited but few respond, and out to highways and byways the invitation goes…A lost sheep—found!…A lost coin…found! A lost, prodigal son…found!…A truly dishonest steward whose wiliness shines out…A rich man who turns his back on a poor man, and roasts in hell for it… a persistent widow whose raises her voice to an unjust judge…Talent wasted and invested…A vineyard stolen by tenants…and, today, a publican persistent in prayer.
What drove Luke, alone, to remember or construct these parables? The lengthening years, without ultimate victory, since the cross? The long decades of living without Jesus? The uncertainties of institution and culture and citizenship and multiple responsibilities? The daily stresses of managing a budget? It is the primitive church that can give an example for us today in our time of anxiety. They waited for Jesus to return. And he delayed. And he delays, still. It is enough to make you lose heart.
Though with a scornful wonder we see her sore oppressed
By schism rent asunder by heresy distressed
Yet saints their watch are keeping their cry goes up ‘howlong’?
And soon the night of weeping will be the morn of song.
Persistence in prayer takes faith, to be in faith.
The publican—the tax collector—looks hard into the mirror. God be merciful to me—a sinner!
He uses a word that we avoid. Sin is utterly personal. This we understand. The covenantal commands of the decalogue have a personal consequence (Exodus 20). As grace touches ground in Jesus Christ, sin touches sand in personal confessions. We get lost. It is our nature, east of eden. We get lost in sex without love: lust. We get lost in consumption without nourishment: gluttony. We get lost in accumulation without investment: avarice. We get lost in rest without weariness, in happiness without struggle: sloth. We get lost in righteousness without restraint: anger. We get lost in desire without ration or respect: envy. And most regularly, we get lost in integrity without humility: pride. If you have never known lust, gluttony, avarice, sloth, anger, envy or pride you are not a sinner, you are outside the cloud of sin, and you need no repentance. (You also may not be quite human).
It is a long wait. And that is just the point. Like the bridesmaids who waited with lamps trimmed, we feel the length of the wait. But we can wait, together. We can offer together a common prayer. We can slowly, stumblingly give ourselves over to persistence in prayer, to the forms of religious practice that bear meaning, to the life of the church, for all its foibles, wherein we learn the grammar of grace, and where through we face down the evils of this age.
Persistence in prayer is challenging, in our tradition.
Virginia Woolf’s serious joke that ‘on or about December 1910 human character changed’ was a hundred years premature. Human character changed on or about December 2010, when everyone, it seemed, started carrying a smartphone. For the first time, practically anyone could be found intruded upon, not only at some fixed address at home or at work, but everywhere at all times. Before this everyone could expect, in the course of the day, some time at least in which to be left alone, unobserved, unsustained and unburdened by public or familial roles. That era now came to an end.
When the smartphone brings messages, alerts, and notifications that invite instant responses—and induces anxiety if those messages fail to arrive—everyone’s sense of time changes, and attention that used to be focused more or less distantly on, say, tomorrow’s mail is concentrated in the present moment…You cannot reduce your engagement with the past and future without diminishing yourself, without becoming ‘more tenuous’.
(Edward Mendelson, NYRB, 6/23/16, 34)
Persistence in prayer is challenging, in our culture.
Rather than another hour of email, or on our smartphone, perhaps we could walk, alone, quiet, and talk to God. Tell it to God. Pray. Our overcapacity in email is a direct consequence of our under-investment in prayer.
Prayer in Life: Charles Taylor
One advantage of a life of study, the life of the mind, the college years, is the chance to pick out some new theological eye glasses. Prayerfully consider, for example, the thought of Charles Taylor, our Montreal philosopher. Taylor explores background conditions: social imaginaries, moral perspectives, the cultural influences we sometimes take for granted. His central emphasis is the exploration of ‘fullness’: an experience of what counts most in life. Taylor views the spiritual shape of the present age through the lenses of the work of Ivan Illich, Charles Peguy, G M Hopkins, and I Berlin. He has no interest in a return to an untroubled harmony, which is utterly unattainable, and is even a kind of culpable weakness. Taylor seeks a new more nuanced map of the ideological terrain all about us. Fullness…
I prayerfully remember the summer, thinking in prayer of Taylor. When I see my granddaughter Ellie tubing behind a motor boat for the first time, I have the joyful fullness of watching her as a remembrance of her mother, our daughter, Emily skiing on the same lake. When our youngest granddaughter, Hannah, wakes up from a nap; or when her brother Charlie, ‘screwing his courage to the sticking post’ tries tubing himself; or when their cousin Sally cries out wanting her dad, our son, Benjamin; or when Jan comes home as happy as Yogi Bear, her bucket full of blackberries; or when the blue lake and blue sky outside our blue cottage call out the name of the Blue God; then there is fullness, in a summer hue.
Charles Taylor, a great Canadian, has something he rails against: subtraction (of transcendence) theories. That is, he fights against the late modern urge to bracket out such transcendence. Transcendence in ordinary life, in society, in erotic love, in a new poetic language—Taylor works to make sufficient cultural space for transcendence. That is what we are about at Marsh Chapel, too. Taylor affirms not disenchantment but re-enchantment: claims for belief, for God, a sense of the soul and salvation, over against the modern or late modern experience of malaise, ennui, uncertainty, meaninglessness, melancholy, despair. Here is his question: ‘Where in the culture of expressive individualism is the sacred?’ To this end, Taylor examines a kind of ‘diffusive Christianity’, a habit of moving between belief and unbelief, an emphasis on believing not belonging. His work heralds a new age of religious searching, not a decline in religious belief and practice, but a plurality of forms of belief and unbelief, transitory and fragile, existing within a range of cross pressures within the ongoing contest of religiosity and materialism. He criticizes what he calls ‘excarnation’ (a shift from taking the body seriously, head over other). In all, Taylor is the evangelist for the joy of everyday relationships, conduct, and experiences, his ear tuned to the sacred, his eye searching out the range of the sacred canopy, his mind alive to spirit, his heart given over to a hymnic celebration of our aspiration to wholeness. His work is a hymn to and of persistence in prayer.*
*(Charles Taylor, as seen by Philip Amerson, Robert Allan Hill, and Michael Morgan (Indiana University) in conversation
We fear, and try to find our security in larger automobiles or drug supplies or stock collections or homes or layers of disconnection, gated communities of the mind and heart. But security comes not through possession, but through relationship. Do you want to be safe and secure? Invest yourself in a lifetime of building and keeping healthy relationships. There is your security, where neither moth nor rust consumes.
Such persistence in prayer needs new theological eyes, in our era.
Persistence in Prayer
Ernest Fremont Tittle was the greatest Methodist preacher of his mid twentieth century generation. Tougher than Sockman, truer than Peale, Tittle preached in Chicago until he died at his desk, writing about Luke:
There is special need for persistence in prayer when the object sought is the redressing of social wrongs. God will see justice done if the human instruments of his justice to not give way to weariness, impatience, or discouragement, but persevere in prayer and labor for the improvement of world conditions. Here we can learn from the scientist. Medical research is a prayer for the relief of suffering, the abolition of disease, the conservation of life—a prayer in which the scientist perseveres in the face of whatever odds, whatever darkness and delay. More especially we can learn from great religious leader like Luther, Wesley, Wilberforce, Shaftsbury, who year upon year prayed and fought for the causes to which they dedicated their lives. The need for persistence in prayer arises not only from the intransigence of the oppressor, but also from the immaturity and imperfection of the would-be reformer. We have a lot to learn and much in ourselves to overcome before we can be used of God as instruments of his justice. Recognizing this, Gandhi spent hours each day in prayer and meditation, and maintained a weekly day of silence.
Persistence in prayer takes practice, for those who seek to resist injustice.
A Common Prayer
We offer a common prayer, a prayer that our warming globe, caught in climate change, will be cooled by cooler heads and calmer hearts and careful minds.
We offer a common prayer, a prayer that our dangerous world, armed to the teeth with nuclear proliferation, will find peace through deft leadership toward nuclear détente.
We offer a common prayer, a prayer that our culture, awash in part in hooliganism, will find again the language and the song and the spirit of the better angels of our nature.
We offer a common prayer, a prayer that our country, fractured by massive inequality between rich children and poor children, will rise up and make education, free education, available to all children, poor and rich.
We offer a common prayer, a prayer that our nation, fractured by flagrant unjust inequality between rich and poor children, will stand up and make health care, free health care, available to all children, poor and rich.
We offer a common prayer, a prayer that our schools, colleges and universities, will balance a love of learning with a sense of meaning, a pride in knowledge with a respect for goodness, a drive for discovery with a regard for recovery.
We offer a common prayer, a prayer that our families, torn apart by abuse and distrust and anger and jealousy and unkindness, will sit at a long Thanksgiving table, this autumn, and share the turkey and pass the potatoes, and slice the pie, and, if grudgingly, show kindness and pity to one another.
We offer a common prayer, a prayer that our decisions in life about our callings, how we are to use our time and spend our money, how we make a life not just a living, will be illumined by grace and generosity.
We offer a common prayer, a prayer that our grandfathers and mothers, in their age and infirmity, will receive care and kindness that accords with the warning to honor father and mother that you own days be long upon the earth.
We offer a common prayer, a prayer that women—our grandmothers, mothers, sisters, daughters, granddaughters, all—granted suffrage less than 100 years ago, will be spared any and all forms of harassment and abuse, verbal or physical, on college campuses, in homes and families, in offices and bars, in life and work, and long having suffered and now having suffrage, will in our time rise up to be honored, revered, and compensated, without reserve, but with justice and mercy.
We offer a common prayer, finally a prayer not of this world, but of this world as a field of formation for another, not just creation but new creation, not just life but eternal life, not just health but salvation, not just heart but soul, not just earth, but heaven.
Application in Prayer
Talk to God walking on the river, in the woods, on the beach, once a day: do not use email and other such modes when a silent prayer will suffice.
Go to church, once a week, for sermon and music and eucharist, but also to see different others, to feel different neighbors, to place yourself in the community of God’s people.
Give away 10% of what you earn, to the church you love, to the mission you admire, to the school that taught you, to the place you where help meets hurt.
Read. Read every sentence, when you read, and think it through. Read your Bible. Read a good newspaper. Read.
What shall we say? How shall we pray?
Labor Omnia Vincit
Do not lose heart
Work conquers all
All of us are better when we are loved
Do not lose heart
Early to bed and early to bed and early to rise
A stitch in time
Do not lose heart
Waste not want not
Rome was not built in a day
Do not lose heart
Only the devil has no time
To let things grow
Persistence in prayer begins with a decision to pray ‘without ceasing’.
God be merciful to me, a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his home justified.
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