Shaped by Prayer

Luke 11:1-13

Recently, I heard a story about Mother Teresa and a famous ethicist who visited her in Calcutta at a time when he was seeking a clear answer to how best to spend the rest of his life.

She asked him what she could do, and he asked her to pray for him.  She said, “What do you want me to pray for?”  And he said, “Pray that I will have clarity.”  She replied, “No, I will not do that – clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go of.”  The ethicist observed that Mother Teresa always seemed to have the clarity that he longed for, but she laughed and replied, “I have never had clarity; what I have always had is trust.  So I will pray that you trust God.”

I am struck by the fact that Mother Teresa prayed for trust instead of clarity.  In a world, where suffering seem to take up the first page of the newspaper, it’s hard to wrap our minds around Mother Teresa’s words.  Why didn’t she pray for clarity?  Isn’t that what we hunger for most?  More than anything don’t we want to have things figured out?

We can relate to the ethicist, who wanted clear-cut direction.

The disciples too wanted clear-cut direction, which is why they said to Jesus, “Teach us how to pray.”  The disciples were a people who knew what it was to be a conquered people with your future up in the air, to struggle to earn your daily bread, to be surrounded by a cloud of fear.

They wanted something definite to hold onto in the midst of the uncertainty and so they say to Jesus: “Teach us how to pray.”

In response, Jesus teaches this prayer:

Our Father,
Who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy Kingdom come.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation.

Or a more modern interpretation might read:

Our loving God in heaven,
Holy is your name.
May your reign come.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins,
As we forgive those who sin against us.
Save us from a time of trial.

You’ll note that the version found in Luke is shorter than the version we pray every week from Matthew.  The more important note is that at the heart of Jesus’ prayer is: trust, trust in God, trust that we will receive our daily bread, trust that through it all God’s kingdom came, comes, and is coming.

Jesus continues, saying: Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.  Even in these words, Jesus is inviting us to trust.  Traditionally, those words have been interpreted to mean: you will always get what you want when you ask God for something.  Yet, I wonder if a more accurate translation might be: No matter what experience you are going through, if you open your heart to God’s healing presence, you will receive daily bread, you will find the strength you need to get through the day, and, even though pain and suffering might triumph for a moment, love and grace, gentleness and care, justice and transformation will always see you through.

Knock and the door shall be opened.

That is a truth I was reminded of this week not only by Jesus’ teachings but by a story I heard about Martin Luther King, Jr.  Coretta Scott King tells the story of difficult day for her husband, Dr. King, who came home bone-weary from the stress that came with his leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  In the middle of that night, a threatening phone call woke Dr. King, one of a multitude that he received throughout the moment.  This call was one too many for him!  He reached his breaking point.  After the call, Dr. King got up from bed and began to worry; the burdens that came with the movement weighed heavily on his soul.  With his head in his head, Dr. King bowed over the kitchen table and prayed: “Lord, I am taking a stand for what I believe is right.  The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they will falter.  I am at the end of my powers.  I have nothing left.  I have nothing left.  I have come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”

Dr. King later reported, “At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced it before.  It seemed as though I could hear a voice saying, ‘Stand up for righteousness; stand up for truth; and God will be at our side forever.’”  Dr. King stood up from the table, imbued with a new sense of confidence.  King continued to carry the burdens and yet he had experienced transformation and courage … and that courage empowered him to transform the world.

Thy kingdom come.

It is in the praying itself, in the trusting, in the asking, seeking and knocking, that our lives are made new.

That is a truth that we are reminded of by Jesus himself.  Jesus prayed, and trusted even in the face of death itself, even when one of his good friends betrayed him, his disciples abandoned him and the beloved people who he taught each day turned on him and yelled over and over again, “Crucify him!  Crucify him!” giving over to the violence and fear that ran through their veins.  Even in the midst of the chanting crowd, Jesus trusted in the power of Divine compassion to transform all circumstances.  Even then, Jesus prayed on the cross – asking forgiveness for those who killed and lamenting in his darkest hour, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and letting out his last breath.  Three days later, when the disciples were grieving and wondering what to do, when the tears on Mary Magdalene’s face streamed down so thickly that she couldn’t even see straight, Jesus the Christ rose and came to them, saying “Peace be with you”, telling them to touch hands and sides that they might know the truth that: Christ had risen and death had been defeated and that God’s love persists above all else.

Jesus says to us today: Open your heart to God’s restorative presence and you will find the grace you need to get through the day, and, even though pain and death might triumph for a moment, truth and mercy, tenderness and care, justice and transformation will always see you through.

Knock and the door shall be opened.

This is a truth I was reminded of again this week as I heard the story of Auburn Sandstrom.

Sandstrom – a middle-aged woman with long black hair – tells the story of how twenty-four years ago she was curled up in a fetal position on a carpet in a cluttered apartment.  She was in withdraw from a drug that she had been addicted to for several years.  She had a paper in her hand with a phone number and she kept folding and unfolding it.  Filled with anxiety, she had never been in a darker place than that night.  Actually, she had been filled with anxiety for the last five years.

If she could have, Sandstrom says that she would have jumped out of her own skin and run into the streets. Except that right behind her sleeping was her baby boy.  At that point, she was not going to get mother of the year.  At age 29, Sandstrom was failing at a lot of things.

Sandstrom, in fact, had been raised in a privileged setting filled with opera lessons and unfettered access to money.  After college, she had moved to Ann Harbor Michigan where she started noticing the poverty and injustice.  In response, she decided to stomp on her privilege and rip it in half.   Right after that moment, a man came along to help her live that decision out.  The man was a revolutionary poet and he introduced her to a friend who introduced them to the drugs they were now hooked on.  They now spent their days racing down I94 at 90 miles per an hour with drugs and a baby covered in sticky chocolate because you have to take care of the baby when you need relief.

Underneath her withdraw and anxiety, was the knowledge that she was leading a life that would losing the most precious thing in her life, her baby.  And so, Sandstrom became willing to dial the numbers into the phone.   The number was from her mother, who she was not talking to but who had mailed a note saying: if you need someone to talk to, call this Christian counselor.

Sandstrom punches the number into the phone and a man picks up.  Sandstrom says nervously: Hi, my mother gave me this number, can you talk to me?

She hears the man shifting around, moving the covers, a radio playing in the background snaps off and suddenly becomes very present. “Yes,” he responds.

Sandstrom hadn’t told anyone, especially herself, the truth in a long time, and so she starts telling truths like: she wasn’t feeling so good, and she was scared, and she might have a drug problem and, don’t say anything bad about my husband, but things weren’t so good in her marriage.

The man doesn’t judge.  He stays with her, present and listening with such kindness, saying things like: tell me more and oh that must hurt.

She called at 2 a.m. and the man stays with her the whole morning until the sun rises.  Sandstrom starts feeling calm like, okay, I can splash my face with water and I can probably do this day.

Sandstrom tells him that she is grateful and adds, I know you are a Christian counselor, if you want me to read a scripture, I would.

The man laughs, saying, “I’m glad this was helpful” and they keep talking.

Sandstrom says later, no really, you are good at this, how long have you been a Christian counselor?

The man becomes quiet and replies, “Now Auburn, don’t hang up.  That number that you called, wrong number.”

Sandstrom didn’t hang up.  She never learned his named.  She never talked to him again and she didn’t take any of his advice.

But the next day, she experienced something she had heard called: peace that passes understanding.  Because she had experienced that there was random love in the universe and that some of it was unconditional and some of it was for her.  She didn’t get her life together that day but it became possible.  It also became possible for her to take that sticky, chocolate covered little bot and raise him up into a young honor scholar athlete who graduated from Princeton.

Sandstrom says this is what I know: In deepest, blackest night of despair and anxiety, it only take a pin hole of light and all of grace can come in.

I pray my friends, that you might trust, trust in God, trust in the truth that we do not journey alone, that there is unconditional love in the universe, that some of it is for you and that grace is always available.

Ask and you shall receive. Seek and you shall find.  Knock and the door shall be opened unto you.

Alleluia! Amen.

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