January 24

The Architecture of Prayer

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 4:14-21

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To illumine the imagination by the beauty of God.  To quicken the conscience by the holiness of God.  To warm the heart by the love of God.  To devote the will to the purposes of God.

An architecture of prayer.  A house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.  The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.

Let us pause for moment along the trail.  Our journey of faith, cradle to grave, carries us along, headlong, day by day.  In this year, this school year, this calendar year, this liturgical year, this particular year, we have attended together to prayer.

Now we have had other fish to fry, to be sure.  Various thematic Sundays in the fall, from Matriculation to Thanksgiving.  The seasons of Advent, and Christmas, and the New Year, and the legacy of Martin Luther King, as well.  We have our struggles—with health, with direction, with trauma, with worry, with change.

Yet our common mind, our shared intention, here, has this year been to deepen, to broaden, to strengthen, our life in prayer.   Prayer makes the mind still before God.  Prayer is certain sitting silent before God.  Prayer is the strain to think God’s thoughts after God.  Prayer is the hurt of loneliness become the joy of solitude.

Prayer puts eternity into time by the memory, which like a lasso casts its circle around a day past. (Not to go all Marcel Proust on you!) When we can truly evoke a day past, today, when we can see and hear a day from the dead past in the experience of this hour, then time has given way, and we are raised from the dead.  

 That is the glory of an education.  With it you are freed from the present.  You are transported out of this time, and into another.  January is a good month, but not a great one.  2016 is a good year, but not a great one.  The 21st century is a good century, but not a great one (at least not yet).   So, we want of course to learn all we can about context and contexts, about integration and synthesis, about analysis and critique of our time—5%.  The rest is an escape from today, a liberation from the now, into the eternal now.  For those in theology it is biblical, historical, philosophical, pastoral study, and the chance to see the desert stars with Amoun of Nitria, to walk the North African sands with Augustine, whose Latin was great and whose Greek was not, to immerse yourself in love with Bernard, in grace with Luther, in vital piety with Wesley, in short, not to be stuck at in January 2016.  Behold:  you may skate on the pond of eternity if you truly leave the present and enter the past.

Do you pray?  How do you pray?  How shall we pray?  Do you know the Lord’s Prayer, the 23rd Psalm, the Apostles’ Creed, the 10 commandments, the beatitudes? (A mind is a terrible thing to waste). What is the architecture of your house of prayer?


Step first with me into an open dazzling spacious room, glass before and above, light all light filling the parlor.  Such a room is like a beach, like the sand and surf and open big blue of the shoreline.  Pause.  Light streaming in from the higher windows.  Light, sunlight or light with shadow, entering the parlor from the lawn and from the street.  Light, moonlight, starlight, light at night joining with candles and lamps.  The Scottish call the moon ‘the lamp of the poor’.

In God’s light we see light.  Light opens life, and prayer initially turns to the light, like the weary soul turns east when the dawn has come.   Prayer illumines the imagination.

Luke loves to open Jesus’ story.  At every turn Luke adds.  His main addition is half his gospel, from Luke 9 to Luke 18.  But that does not surprise us because he does so all along the way.  He follows Mark, but paints in extra accounts.  Today, where Mark simply has Jesus show up in synagogue, teach, and be rejected, Luke has added a sermon of sorts, a mixed quotation from Isaiah 61.  He hears Jesus this way.  Luke hears Jesus announcing deliverance from human hurt, and especially deliverance for the poor.   He adds to the gospel as he writes his gospel.

He praises, adores, loves, enjoys, celebrates the divine light splashing upon human life!   This is the first room in the great architectural design of prayer.  ‘When I consider the work of thine hands…’

You may be neither fully a theist nor technically an atheist, neither fully an existentialist nor technically a naturalist. Neither naturalist nor supernaturalist, though if you allow one definition, ‘supranaturalist’ might work.  Repeated citations of Chesterton, Sockman, and Hammarskjold, regarding wonder will have to suffice.  You may think we can say less than most of the theists say, and more than what most of the atheists say.  You may think atheists know too much and the theists too little.  You may think the atheists say too much and the theists say too little.  You may recall JB Phillips’ little book, Your God is too Small; or maybe on the contrary it is Wordsworth who touches you, ‘to see eternity in a grain of sand and heaven in a wildflower’   We are not really in a position to say what God can or cannot be, nor what God can or cannot do.  We are surrounded, shadowed, embraced, and faced by mystery.  Great, deep, fathomless mystery.   We know neither less nor more of God, in one sense, than did the psalmist, or Paul, or Nehemiah or St. Luke.

Illuminating prayer begins with hymnic praise, hence the gift of Methodism, the singing Methodist.  The heavens are telling the glory of God…


Now walk with me into another room, this one small and austere.  It might be a library in a large home.  It is quiet more than the books, here, that apprehends us.  A lamp, a chair, a painting.  Yet the books, large and small, ancient and modern, Bible and Shakespeare, stand before us to embed our prayer in the range and wealth of human experience.  Of human suffering.  Our lot is more to suffer than to settle, more to suffer through things than to settle things.

Here we can make a list of mistakes, ancient and modern, personal and collective, and learn from them.

But are we ever fully free, heart and spirit, to see and be and be awed by the sunrise, to at and be entranced by the night sky, to love and be in love with the beloved, to swim in the fresh water of freedom, grace and love?  Do we live to work or work to live?

The world does not revolve around your inbox.  

What if meaning is not in connectivity but in dis-connectivity, being truly plugged in is going unplugged, real surfing is really surfing, with ten toes not fingers, and faithful wisdom inspires a courage to ‘tune out, turn off, drop in’?

With a little quiet, we too as a people can recall the language of compunction, the grammar of contrition, the syntax of lament, the alphabet of confession.  Our current grotesquerie of rhetoric in the public, political sphere, was not born last night.  Such unspeakable speech comes up out of a long, pained, tragic history.  It comes from somewhere. Listen for its march.  As our friend Ed McClure asks, is our rhetoric that of confrontation or conciliation?

In the library, lamp lit, psalter open, quiet around, we might get better acquainted.  With ourselves.  In the new, lovely movie, CAROL, the protagonist declares (in a library), ‘I am no good to anyone if I cut against my own grain’.  We will add the footnote to Dean Thurman.


Here is a third step forward, yet another room, but this one with a hearth.  Neither parlor nor library, here is a den, and fire behind a grate.  The embers lift off of the logs.  The wood crackles.  The ancient experience of firelight warms us.  As it did for you on first camping trip, or your first winter hike.  Sit for a moment in the January cold and thaw out.  Dry your mukalucks, tuc and gloves.  Here is a grate.  Here is a fire.  Here is a chimney drawing well.  Prayer brings us back before love.  What do you love?  Whom do you love?  How do love?  You tell me how you love and I will tell you who you are.

Hear the Gospel.  St. Luke does not here commend to us an agenda, some work, a proper policy and procedure.   He announces, before the fireplace.  He announces what God has done.  The prophetic is a part of the Gospel but not the heart of the Gospel.  The Gospel is God in Christ, reconciling the world to God-self.  Paul says the same in 1 Corinthians.  He does not admonish or direct.  He does not say, ‘become a body, become the body’.  He does not write a book of discipline.  He announces.  You are the body.  This is given to you.  Like an architecture of prayer—parlor, library, den, kitchen—you are the recipients of grace.

‘Warmth, warmth, warmth, we are dying of cold, not of darkness.  It is not the night that kills, but the frost’ (Unamuno).   It is not the night of ignorance that kills as much as the frost of hatred.  It is not the night of unknowing that kills as much as the frost of unfeeling.

We send warmth to our listeners in Washington DC, in northern Virginia (including my attorney brother John) and in New York City, this morning.  We have been there.

Last Monday our MLK speaker was the US poet laureate Juan Herrera, who came to Boston from sunny California.  His presence warmed us.  His voice warmed us.  His humor warmed us.   He helped us get up again to face hard things with hope.  You are here out of love, to face hard things with hope.  He remembered elementary school in San Diego.  He spoke almost no English.  In the third grade his teacher was Mrs. Sampson.  She taught him, but more, she cared about him.  She could see that he would survive the night on his own, but not the frost.  One day, he remembered vividly, in the third grade Mrs. Sampson looked at him.  Mrs. Sampson called to him, in the back row.  She said, ‘John, you have beautiful voice.  John, you have a beautiful voice.  Come up here to the front of the room.  Come up here to the front of the room.  Sing for us.  Sing ‘three blind mice’.  Sing for us.  You have a beautiful voice.  You have a beautiful voice. “I write while I’m walking, on little scraps of paper,” he said. “If I have a melody going, I can feel it for days.”

A melody like Rilke’s:

Flare up like flame

and make big shadows I can move in.

-Rainer Maria Rilke


We end in the kitchen.  Why does everybody always end up in the kitchen?  You can spread your guests and pastries through all the house, and into every room, but all gather, in the end, in the kitchen.  A place of labor, of production, of distribution, of nurture, or community, of shared affection, the place for the community of faith working through love.  Water splashing, knives cutting, plates filled and unfilled.   My grandfather stationed himself at the sink, following dinner, to wash while others dried and stored the dishes.  How vibrant that after dinner conversation, now many decades gone!

No meal is perfect.  In the kitchen we gather for devotion to shared divine tasks.  To feed the hungry.  To clothe the naked.  To visit the sick.  To release the prisoner.  We make our mistakes here and we acknowledge our regrets here and we move forward together here.  To devote the will to the purposes of God.

Some of our doing may involve reshaping our work life. One accomplished journalist, Janet Malcolm, recently (6/7/13) expressed regret about her chosen profession: ‘I learned over time that journalism is morally indefensible…it is a moral anarchy that willfully places a text’s necessities over and above a person’s feelings’.  She came  to the ability to face the hard and hardened truth of her occupation, from one perspective.

Sometimes it takes calamity, micro or macro, to teach us devotion and purpose.  As Proust wrote, Illness is the doctor to whom we pay most heed:  to kindness, to knowledge we make promises only; pain we obey (II, 104).  Thomas Hardy: ‘a certain provincialism of feeling is invaluable’.

We are committed here, speaking of devotion and purpose, to the shaping of a community that honors, or tries to, the freedom and soul and personhood of young adult women and men, but also the  privacy and safety and security of emerging young adult women and men.  Our work with women, with communities of sexual minorities, with survivors of predatory behavior on campus, with themes, now either neglected or denigrated, of honor of morality of virtue of sensibility of respect, continues today.  

In the kitchen, prayer helps the work continue.


Prayer illumines the imagination by the beauty of God.  In the parlor.

Prayer quickens the conscience by the holiness of God.  In the library.

Prayer warms the heart by the love of God.  In the den.

Prayer devotes the will to the purposes of God. In the kitchen.

Though what I dream and what I do

In my weak days are always two

Help me, oppressed by thing undone

O Thou whose deeds and dreams are

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

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