You think when something happens frequently in a short period of time, perhaps I should pay attention to it? A sign? A reflection of something happening on a deeper level?
In the last couple of weeks I’ve attended a couple of administrative church meetings reviewing minutes taken at their annual meetings. One was the Christian Council of the Capital Area (CCCA) and the other was our very own monthly council meeting. And, in both cases, I sat around a large table while members studiously reviewed the draft minutes. In the silence, you could hear the crickets.
“Fine!” “Good job!” “Everything looks great!” “Thank you!” “Yup!” — the responses came rapid fire. And then — in both cases — someone caught it. “Ahh, it says at the top ‘Annual Meeting 2013’. Wrong year. Minor detail. Yet significant. It was worse at the CCCA where there were two different incorrect years on the front page highlighting different text!
I mention this not to slight our very capable secretaries, because it is the responsibility of the entire council to ensure the final copy is in order. But, I say this to emphasize how easy it is to see, but not to see. How very human it is — natural — to stare something straight in its face, and not have it register.
In the Liquor Store the other day I was looking for Jessica’s favourite white wine from Chile. So I went to the South America section, where it always is. And I couldn’t find it! I stood there for an entire minute rubbing my chin and scanning the shelves. Finally I went to the desk somewhat frustrated. The attendant smiled and said, gently, “We have it.” I said, “No, you don’t.” He calmly led me to the exact same shelf where I stood staring at — I don’t know what. But there it was!
Psychologists might point to the need for us to be more ‘mindful’, in each and every moment of our lives. People of faith might consider how we are present to God’s presence always in our lives. There is often a disconnect, is there not, between my perception and reality? Some have called it ‘the elephant in the room’ that everyone feels is there but for whatever reason refuses to name it, address it.
The Gospel text for this last Sunday of Easter, is about Jesus’ prayer to God (John 17). It is, what liturgists call ‘intercessory prayer’ — that is the genre, or form, that this scripture takes. Prayer is the context. Jesus prays for his disciples, as they take over the mantel of responsibility for Jesus’ mission on earth, after Jesus ascends to heaven.
Since the time Jesus gave this ‘high priestly prayer’ over two thousand years ago, the church — the Body of Christ, the people of God — has continued to pray. I like that. Because no where that I can find in the Gospels does Jesus command his disciples to ‘worship’ him, to ‘praise’ him, to engage in the act of worship to which we contemporary Christians have come to narrowly define our Christian lives ‘on Sunday morning’. But Jesus does say, very often, ‘follow me’ and ‘pray’ and ‘do this in remembrance of me’ (referring to the Holy Communion), and ‘love your neighbour’.
What we are talking about here, is a lifestyle of following Jesus. And with this understanding, I believe, we can get a better handle on what Paul means when he says to “pray always” or “without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). This phrase makes no sense if we see prayer merely as ‘asking God for things we want’ — how is it physically possible to do this?
Prayer is not about trying to get God to change, according to our grocery list of desires and wants. Rather, when we pray what we are doing is asking God to change us. Prayer is about allowing God to change us. Always be open in your connection with God in Christ to being changed, transformed, grown in your own life into the image of God and the person God created you to be — regardless of what or for whom we are praying.
Problem is, some of us may be thinking: why would I want to change my life? There isn’t anything that needs changing. I am happy the way things are. Why would I want that?
We may not able to be always ‘mindful’. But at least, could we not confess our sin in not hearing the voice of God calling us, not seeing and accepting the answer to prayer already right in front of our eyes? I think it was Meister Eckhart who defined sin as simply refusing — by our actions and thoughts — to see ourselves as God sees us. What is the elephant in our room? What are we doing that is disconnected from what God is doing and what God sees in our lives?
We come to church with our pains, sufferings, hurts. But we also come to be Christ’s hands, heart and mind to those around us. We don’t come just to see ‘what’s in it for me?’ ‘What can I get out of this experience?’, like a consumer. We don’t come just to have my selfish needs, social or otherwise, met. Rather, we come to pay attention to those others who are hurting in any way.
What does God see? How are we paying attention to those in our midst with mental illness? Are we giving any time or effort of love to these people? How are we paying attention to those who come with marital or relational problems? Are we attending, with compassion, to this need at all? How are we paying attention to those who come, who are financially poor or new-comers to Canada, or students with all their complex needs? Talk about the elephant in the room when all we do when we come to church is notice the elephant poop in the corner and complain about that. Talk about the elephant in the room when all we do is talk about what colour paint we should apply to the walls of the room.
After eighteen years of pastoral ministry and leadership, one of the top-rated questions that has come my way, is: How do I know the voice of God? How do I know that it is God’s voice speaking? How is that in prayer, God communicates to us? How do we know it’s God and not just my ego?
I wonder whether it’s the elephant in the room syndrome that so much defines or characterizes church life today. Perhaps the answer is staring us in the face. And we just don’t want to see it. We don’t want to see it or confess it because we are afraid. And we are addicted. Addicted to a lifestyle that is all about consumption. Getting more. And more. And more. For me.
The Executive Director of the Mennonite Church in Canada, Rev. Dr. Willard Metzger, said during the “Justice Tour 2015” stop in Ottawa last week, that those of us who are older are addicted. And it is much harder for us in the second half of life to divest of our material addictions, compared to most young people today who will never earn the kind of pensions that, in general, retired folks today are enjoying; young people whose starting incomes will likely not increase to the same degree that was the case a generation or two ago; young people, more of whom will be working at full time jobs but barely making enough to enjoy the kinds of lifestyles most of us older people are enjoying today. Yes, we are addicted. And we don’t want to let go of this. And we don’t want to make sacrifices along these lines. Not easily, anyway.
National Bishop Susan Johnson (ELCIC) said at the same meeting that ‘the cries of the poor, this is the voice of God in our time. Are we listening?’
In v.18 of the Gospel text, Jesus’ prayed, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” While Jesus also says the disciples “do not belong to the world” (v.14), this does not mean escape from the world. While we affirm values and beliefs that do not correspond with the world’s values, we are not called to abandon the world, disengage nor hide from it, however bad it is. Because, Jesus prays that his disciples “may have Christ’s joy made complete in themselves/among themselves” (v.13). The joy that Christ gives is not found in escaping the world’s reality, but on the ground, in community engaging the world with all of its distorted powers, pressures and conflict.
God’s voice calls us into the world, not away from it. At the same time, God does answer our prayers, in a sense, because God already knows what we need (Matthew 6:7). And it’s a consistent answer, that we will read and hear about more in the coming season of Pentecost. God’s answer is the gift of the Holy Spirit (Luke 11:13). And the Holy Spirit is all about power. So, God’s answer to all our praying, is the power of God to do what is right, even if it means a sacrifice of part, or all, of our lifestyle and our privilege. God gives power more than answers (1) to change ourselves for the better, and for the sake of the world that God so loves (John 3:16).
May we be faithful in listening to God’s voice, and responding in the power of the Holy Spirit, God’s answer to prayer. We’ve prayed, in this morning’s service. Now, we are called to follow Jesus into our lives, away from this place.
(1) read especially chapter seven in Richard Rohr’s, “Breathing Under Water”