HELP THANKS WOW by Christine Hemp
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend
October 26, 2014
|Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17|
|1 Thessalonians 2:1-8|
For the past three weeks I’ve had the privilege of meeting at the Mezzanine hour with those who wish to shape their prayers into words. The sessions were divided into three kinds of prayer: HELP THANKS, and WOW! This was stolen, of course, from a book by Anne Lamott—a title so good, who really needs to read it?!
The first week we explored prayers of supplication, the art of asking–sometimes awkwardly (often desperately!) but always honestly. The second week we delved into prayers of thanksgiving–and we ended up thanking our God for the wildest things (some as simple as the fact that our car was running). And the third week (just this morning) we ended the series with prayers of praise.
Now I don’t think God really cares whether or not we frame our prayers into Elizabethan English or a mere primal utterance. Or even that we write them down. Doesn’t She know what we want and need anyway? Before we even ask? Isn’t it all kind of redundant? The answer to all of these questions is, of course, is yes.
But I’ve found that shaping our utterances into prayer actually deepens the intimacy of our conversation with God. And I have witnessed a visible change in my fellow saints of St. Paul’s when they transformed their feelings into thought. And as a side note, after singing Psalm 90 this morning, who can’t thank the Psalmist for recording such stirring words?
In today’s Gospel, Jesus also shines light on the play between emotion and intellect. The passage is one in series where Jesus is challenged by the big-hitters of Judeo-Roman politics. Each time a keen thinker believes he’s nailed Jesus, however, Jesus has muted him with a firecracker comeback.
Last week’s reading showed the Sadducees trying to trip him up about Jewish authority. If he were indeed the son of God, they said, then what are we to do about Roman taxes? Instead of replying right away, however, Jesus –in typical Hebraic fashion–answers with a question: them if anyone has a denarius (a Roman coin emblazoned with the face of Tiberius). “Whose face is on this coin?” he asks. He then shuts down the questioners with a simple, “Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s,” not only dismissing the corrupt Roman powers that be, but the line of questioning that was thought to snare him.
Today’s reading involves a Pharisee (think Harvard Law Review with some political savvy thrown in) with a similar rhetorical test. Let’s hear today’s “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me!” challenge again:
When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
This question reminds me of a similar one posed to the Nobel prize-winning novelist and short story writer Isaac Bashevis Singer. I sat with several hundred other people in the packed M.I.T auditorium to hear him read one fall evening. After he finished reading a killer story, we were still recovering (in awe) when the question/answer period began. A woman stood up: “Mr. Singer!! Which of your stories is your best?! The greatest? The one you love most?” Mr. Singer, still gracious and elegant in his 80’s, replied without skipping a beat. “Tell me, do you have children?”
“Why, yes,” the woman replied.
“Three,” she replied.
“If I were to ask you the same question, how would you answer?”
The woman sat down without saying a word.
And Jesus responded to the Pharisee,
He said to him, “`You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
With that (Like Singer) Jesus shined a laser right on the spot his questioner knew well. The Pharisee knew the law as intimately as that woman know her children. In fact, Jesus pulls his answer straight from Deuteronomy–The Shema- “Hear oh, Israel!” –the oldest fixed daily prayer in Judaism, recited morning and night since ancient times.
The Pharisees asked no more questions because there were no more to ask.
The principle stands clear: Love God. And in order to love God, you must also love your neighbor. But there’s more:
Within these two ancient commandments, there, too, is an elegant balance of feeling and intellect. Loving God — and treating our neighbors as we would like to be treated ourselves— requires more than a nice, fuzzy feeling or a saccharine smile at coffee hour. In fact, these commandments sound mighty similar to what the Buddhist calls loving-kindness:
Loving-kindness is a meditation practice. It brings about positive attitude changes as it develops the quality of loving-acceptance. It acts as a way of healing the troubled mind, and of all Buddhist meditations, loving-kindness has the immediate benefit of changing old negative patterns of thinking–not just about others but all of Creation.
In other words, real love actually engages all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind. And the way to understand this is not merely an intellectual endeavor, as if “Hey!! We’ll be okay if we stick to beliefs! The creed is all we need!” No. We are clearly asked to jump right back into our bodies–to feel in a different kind of way: To act. To embody love.
And how do we do this exactly?
They don’t call it spiritual practice for nothing: Tithing, training guide dogs, polishing candlesticks, taking a daily walk, sending a Hazmat suit to West Africa, mentoring a child from a troubled family, knitting a shawl for a confused friend, delivering soup to a sick neighbor (one we don’t even like that much), making music even when we are short a soprano, lighting a candle for a teenager who has killed his neighbors and himself, meditating daily when we don’t feel like it, speaking our truth when everything seems to point against it.
Sometimes the only response to this terrifying and beautiful world is a primal utterance. A cry in the wilderness, a shard of true feeling, or a stunned nod to the Mystery.
But I have discovered the darndest thing — and even more profoundly in these last few weeks on the Mezzanine. Shaping prayer into words not only intensifies conversation with my Creator, it has deepened the intimacy with my “neighbors,” including all of you right here. Right now.
Writing prayers takes our initial impulses–the HELP THANKS WOW -and transforms that primal call into something with a life of its own. Not only because language can shape our feelings — but sharing the prayer beyond our own mind renders it an act of loving-kindness.
What has risen out of the prayers written in the Mezzanine sessions has taken my breath away. Each prayer is a braid of thought and feeling, coming from a place of specificity and truth. And, like Jesus with the coin — and every other parable he told us during his time on the planet — the best prayers seem to be loaded with things. Stuff. Everyday objects that we handle, look at, smell, hear, and taste. We found that the more specific we got, the more powerful — and universal! — the prayer became.
So to end, I would like to read you a poem by the prayer-writers of St. Paul’s. I’ve taken lines and phrases from each of the prayers written in the last few Sundays, and I have woven them into a poem. To God, from us to you, and to all our neighbors, known and unknown.
Of course, it’s called
HELP THANKS WOW
Welcome, oh my Landlord!
Judge me not, help me
fix the dishwasher. You know. I don’t. Please…
a dog is running loose
under my care. His timing is bad.
Smudges on the glass-topped coffee table, unfinished
bouquets, and the threat of rain
cloud my mind in this storm.
Get this darn (damn)
ego under control. And never let them
neglect my mother, her finger tapping her cane.
Reach into my being, give me guidance,
and thank you even for the clock radio blaring
Seahawks hype on this Sabbath.
Thank you for your gift of Oneness in meditation.
And, as this wind blows my hair
you have blessed me. I feel loved when I think about
the gifts of language
that you help us form. A feeling or a thought. With you
they can be one. Thank you,
all-knowing One, for the rusted-out wheelbarrow
in my yard. For my willingness to ask for help.
Upon waking and entering I am humbled
by reflections of sunrise. I clothe myself with you,
year after year after year, Oh Creator. You make me laugh
at myself. Right now, in the isness of things I kneel
in the shower. I praise you, praise you, praise
you, for every moment is blue shadow, a bird
calling from a above, a prelude to a miracle.