The Spirit’s Outpouring in a Variety of Prayers

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Listen to sermon here: The Spirit’s Outpouring 

Readings for the Twenty Third Sunday after Pentecost (Year C):

Joel 2:23-32

Psalm 65

Luke 18:9-14

This sermon was preached at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in San Rafael CA on October 23, 2016.

Thirteen years ago, I visited the Holy Land with a group of Messianic Jews (Jews who believe in Jesus). As a Christian with Jewish background from my father’s side, I hoped that my visit would help me integrate the Judaism that I felt whispering in my blood[1] with my belief in the Messianic identity of Yeshua ha Notzri.[2] I also hoped to be inspired by visiting what felt to me like Narnia, a land that I had previously only encountered in books and could only visit in my imagination; an almost magical land, where many of my favorite stories had taken place. When I arrived, I tried to soak up the holiness of the land by touching the sandy texture of its ancient walls and basking under the same sun that stood still in the sky for Joshua (Joshua 10:13). I was expecting the Holy Land to work on my soul in ways that no other place could.

And the place where I felt my soul being worked on most profoundly was the Western Wall of the ancient Temple in the Old City of Jerusalem. Another name for this Wall, which once stood closest to the Holy of Holies in the Jewish Temple, is the “Wailing Wall,” which is appropriately named since many Jews do not pray passively or softly in its presence. Many wail at it, punch at it, scream at it and release all their inner turmoil upon it. And the wall just stands there, receiving all of it with a rock steady equanimity and yet also seeming to respond by pouring out blessings through its cracks. I remember feeling, at the time, like this was a relatively inappropriate and even slightly blasphemous way to pray. I specifically remember watching an older Jewish man, who appeared to be homeless, wail against the wall with violent desperation, moaning and striking his clenched fists against it. I kept my distance from him as I approached the wall with a piece of paper upon which I had proudly written a short prayer in Hebrew. I slid my paper into one of the wall’s many prayer-packed crevices, and then I felt a tap on my shoulder. Upon turning around, I saw the man whom I had recently seen wailing against the wall. He looked into my face and asked me my name. I was initially startled by what felt like an intrusion into my own personal prayer space, but I told him, “My name is Daniel.” And he responded, “Ben?”

“No,” I said, “My name is Daniel.”

Again, he asked, “Ben?”

At this point, I was growing confused and concerned. Having already felt uneasy about his eccentric prayer style, I did not want to upset this man who seemed to have difficulty with his hearing so I decided to enunciate more loudly and clearly one more time, “No. My name is not Ben. My name is Daniel.”

But still, he asked, “Ben?”

Worried that he might start directing his fists of rage at me if I corrected him again, I decided to start slowly walking away, but right before leaving, I realized what he was actually asking me. He was asking for my father’s name. “Ben” means “son” or “son of” in Hebrew. So I finally answered his question and told him my father’s name, “Bob.”

He then smiled and exclaimed, “Daniel Ben Bob! Shem tov!” (which means ‘good name’). And then he gently placed his hands on my head and prayed a blessing over me. (So for those of you who are wondering what to call me: you can call me Daniel, Fr. Daniel, the Rev. Dr. Daniel or Daniel Ben Bob).

My encounter with this man at the Western Wall has proven to be a significant milestone in my spiritual journey. First of all, the encounter led me to appreciate a particularly Jewish style of prayer that I initially dismissed as blasphemous. I began to realize that I had likely prejudged the man’s eccentric prayer style just as I had misinterpreted his question. What I initially interpreted as an indication of his confusion was, in fact, his sincere curiosity and generous desire to bless me. The man clearly seemed to be struggling with a great deal of suffering and turmoil in his prayers, but he was apparently able to release it to God, at the Western Wall. His prayer seemed to comfort and encourage him enough to then reach out in love and blessing to me, a random stranger who was judging him from a distance. It is this style of prayer that I referred to last week as “feisty prayer.” The Jewish people refer to it as chutzpah k’lapei shamaya (boldness against Heaven). [3] I actually ended up publishing an article in a Harvard journal about this style of prayer, if anyone is interested. I obviously love to talk about it.

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But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the encounter has led me to practice withholding judgment, especially when it comes to other people’s prayer life and to appreciate the wide variety of ways to pray. There are many wonderful ways to engage with the divine that are valid and transformative and that rouse joy among the angels in heaven, according to the Gospel of Luke (15:7). However, not all ways of praying are entirely valid. According to Jesus’s parable this morning, prayer that makes one feel close to God at the expense of putting another person down is not a valid way to pray. Prayer that puffs up by passing judgment and condemnation against someone else is ultimately ineffective prayer. In this morning’s Gospel, I hear an invitation to withhold judgment when it comes to other people’s prayer lives and to appreciate the spirit’s outpouring in a wonderfully wide variety of ways to pray.

This week I had the privilege to experience a variety of ways to pray that are offered regularly by this beautiful faith community. In each of these experiences, I felt the Spirit’s outpouring as the prophet Joel describes in our reading this morning. Last Sunday, after an evening Eucharist and a Bible Study with our youth group, I ventured out onto the Glenwood prayer labyrinth under the full moon, which was mostly hiding behind some heavy wet clouds. With umbrella in hand and Carol Ann’s headlamp securely fastened, I prayed with my body, stepping mindfully around (and sometimes into) puddles of delicious, crunchy wetness. By the time I reached the center of the labyrinth, the rain had subsided so that all I heard was the gentle dripping of rain drops from tree branches, the soothing background music provided by Paula and the sound of my own breathing. Soon after I stepped out of the labyrinth, the magnificent full moon (known as the Hunter’s Moon) dramatically parted the clouds that covered it in order to beam its beauty upon us, leaving us wonderstruck.

On Monday night, the back of the church transformed into a Zendo where a few of us and some neighbors in the community created a sangha, a sacred community of meditation. We formed a mandala of bodies around some glass votive candles and sat in meditative silence for 15 minutes. We then continued our meditation by walking up and down and around the nave, meandering outside or circumambulating the labyrinth. After concluding with another 15 minutes of silence, I felt we had each contributed to the prayerful energy and holiness of this space. Just as Moses took off his shoes on the holy ground before the burning bush, we also walked shoeless on what we felt to be and helped to make holy ground, right here.

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On Tuesday night, the Bishop’s Committee gathered for a productive and prayerful meeting and some scrumptious snacks provided by Cindy. We concluded our meeting, which is open to all, with a brief, extemporaneous prayer in which I felt the Spirit reminding me of why we are here in the first place: to serve God and to provide opportunities for people to pray and experience God in a variety of life-giving ways.

So I invite you to ask yourself, “In what ways do I pray? Do I pray through Zen-inspired meditation? Through earthy and embodied prayer on the labyrinth? Through feeding the hungry and serving the poor? Through singing? Sitting? Walking? Running? Gardening? Dancing? Through gathering on Sunday morning, as Christians have been doing for centuries, and eating the bread and wine made holy? Perhaps all of the above?”

We are Episcopalians which means we are people who pray. We are known by our Book of Common Prayer, which is jam-packed with a vast variety of wonderful prayers. Other denominations envy us because of this amazing resource.

There are indeed some important boundaries to observe as Christians and as Episcopalians, but this morning’s Gospel reminds us of, perhaps, the most important rule, which is that prayer is not to be a tool used to judge or condemn or put others down. Prayer, in all of its many manifestations, is a communal and transformative experience of the life-giving God.

And I’d like to conclude this homily by inviting us to practice one of the most tried-and-true ways to pray, which is deeply Anglican and Benedictine and has its roots in ancient Israel; and that is chanting the Psalm. In its wisdom, the lectionary provides a Psalm for us to prayerfully sing together each Sunday so I invite us to chant this Sunday’s Psalm together using a very simple tone (Psalm 65 in your bulletin insert):

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1 You are to be praised, O God, in Zion; *
to you shall vows be performed in Jerusalem.

2 To you that hear prayer shall all flesh come, *
because of their transgressions.

3 Our sins are stronger than we are, *
but you will blot them out.

4 Happy are they whom you choose
and draw to your courts to dwell there! *
they will be satisfied by the beauty of your house,
by the holiness of your temple.

5 Awesome things will you show us in your righteousness,
O God of our salvation, *
O Hope of all the ends of the earth
and of the seas that are far away.

6 You make fast the mountains by your power; *
they are girded about with might.

7 You still the roaring of the seas, *
the roaring of their waves,
and the clamor of the peoples.

8 Those who dwell at the ends of the earth will tremble at your marvelous signs; *
you make the dawn and the dusk to sing for joy.

9 You visit the earth and water it abundantly;
you make it very plenteous; *
the river of God is full of water.

10 You prepare the grain, *
for so you provide for the earth.

11 You drench the furrows and smooth out the ridges; *
with heavy rain you soften the ground and bless its increase.

12 You crown the year with your goodness, *
and your paths overflow with plenty.

13 May the fields of the wilderness be rich for grazing, *
and the hills be clothed with joy.

14 May the meadows cover themselves with flocks,
and the valleys cloak themselves with grain; *
let them shout for joy and sing.

[1] The idea of my blood whispering to me is inspired by Hermann Hesse’s novel Demian, in which the narrator Emil Sinclair writes about listening “to the teachings my blood whispers to me.” Hermann Hesse, Demian: The Story of Emil Sinclair’s Youth, trans. Michael Roloff and Michael Lebeck (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 4.

[2] Messianic Jews often prefer to refer to Jesus of Nazareth using his Hebrew name.

[3] See Claus Westermann, Lob und Klage in dem Psalmen (Göttingen: Vadenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1977); Belden Lane, “Chutzpa K’lapei Shamaya: A Christian Response to the Jewish Tradition of Arguing with God,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies Vol 23, Issue 4 (Fall 1986), 567 – 586; David Roskies, ed. The Literature of Destruction: Jewish Responses to Catastrophe (Philadelphia PA: Jewish Publication Society, 1989); Anson Laytner, Arguing with God: A Jewish Tradition (New Jersey: Jason Aronson, 1990); Walter Brueggemann, The Psalms and the Life of Faith (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1995); Scott Ellington, Risking Truth: Reshaping the World through Prayers of Lament (Eugene OR: Wipf and Stock Pub, 2008); and Daniel London, “Judging God: Learning from the Jewish Tradition of Protest Against God,” Journal of Comparative Theology Vol 6, Issue 1 (June 2016), 15 – 31.

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About deforestlondon

Episcopal priest
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