Sunday, October 12, 2014

Praying in the Dark (10/12/14)

Praying in the Dark
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

October 12, 2014

If Jesus was truly human as Christians insist he was, his sleep architecture was like anyone else’s.  He stayed awake awhile.  He slept awhile.  He woke awhile later, rested a few hours, then slept some more.  When he opened his eyes, he saw the night sky.  When he closed them again, the sky stayed right there.  The only witnesses to his most intimate moments with God were the moon and the stars—and it was all prayer.
--Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark

Mary Oliver

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

Mark 1:35
In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.

I remember growing up watching I Love Lucy reruns on our black and white television.   


Lucille Ball had one of the longest Hollywood careers.   In addition to film, she created a television dynasty.  She was the first woman to be head of a production company, Desilu.   In addition to her shows, this company produced Mission Impossible and Star Trek.   Desilu pioneered filming before a live studio audience and pioneered the use of multiple cameras.   

Lucille Ball got stuff done.  She is remembered to have said:

“If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it.  The more things you do, the more you can do.”

She may have been quoting Ben Franklin.   Ben Franklin said something like that, too.   Lucille Ball and Ben Franklin were the ultimate busy bodies.  

Another famous busy body, although I don’t think I ever called him a busy body before, is Jesus.    According to Mark’s gospel, Jesus was a busy boy.   He was a busy son of God.  

Mark’s gospel is the busiest of the four gospels.   Mark doesn’t spend time on description or dialogue.   Mark is all about action.   In Mark, one of the most common words is “immediately.”   Immediately, Jesus does this.  Immediately, Jesus does that.  Jesus is on the move, preaching, healing, and casting out demons.  He passes from one town to the next, from one emergency to the next.    

In the first few verses of the opening chapter of Mark, Jesus has been baptized and  tempted by Satan in the wilderness.  Then he calls disciples, teaches in the synagogue, casts out an unclean spirit, heals Simon’s mother-in-law, and for an evening nightcap the text says:

“They brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons.  And the whole city was gathered around the door.  And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons…” (1:32-33)

Our man got things done.

Finally, we read:

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.  (1:35)

We aren’t sure how long he is able to be alone.  The next verses read:

“And Simon and his companions hunted for him.  When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.”  (1:36-37)

Little rest for the righteous.    Everyone is looking for the busy person, because they know that Lucille Ball was right.  If you want something done, ask a busy son of God to do it.  

As I reflect on this passage, I think it is nice to be needed.  It is good to be able to do meaningful things that help others.  It must have felt good to do good.   I also notice that I am exhausted just reading it.    Jesus healed people all day and all night.   The text doesn’t tell us, but we might well assume that there are sick left unattended.   A healer’s work is never done.

Mark is careful to tell us that Jesus took time “while it was still very dark” to find a deserted place and pray.    You can define what it means to pray in your own way.  Personally, I walk my dogs.   

Some people meditate.  Others run.  Others practice yoga.  Some sit quietly with a sacred text or icon.  My mother would pray while she tended her garden.   Maybe there is a right way or a wrong way to pray.   I’ll leave that for others to judge.   We do need our “down time”--our deserted place in the dark time, however we practice it. 

I find myself exhausted by the news that comes at us 24/7 through our smart phones.   I get a case of compassion fatigue just from reading the latest reports and analysis from and about Isis, Ebola and Robin Williams.   Not only the news of the suffering of strangers fatigues me.   The suffering of those I know including my own worries is enough to send me to a deserted place in the dark for a long time.  

The wise tell us that we need to practice the dark ways in the deserted places, in part, so we don’t end up in them.   Also, we need the dark to keep our balance and to find what the dark has to offer us.   

We are spending time this Fall with a beautiful book by Barbara Brown Taylor called Learning to Walk in the Dark.    We have formed a couple of small study groups based on this sermon series and book.    This entire experience is an invitation to embrace the dark, both physically and metaphorically.  

It is in the dark that we find an aspect of the Holy not seen in the light.    God comes to us in the dark as well as the light.    If light is the via positiva filled with action and good works, the dark is her lover, the via negativa, whose work is emptying, receiving, and solitude.

Jesus was busy.  He was also contemplative.

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.  Mark 1:35

A few weeks ago I interviewed three ministers, who are friends and colleagues, who call themselves Two Friars and a Fool.  They wrote a book together called, Never Pray Again. Lift your chin, open youreyes, unfold your hands and get to work.   I recommend this book.    It is well done.

They make an important observation that prayer can be used to delude us into thinking we are doing something by praying, when, in fact, we are doing nothing.    Rather than pray for someone, do something for someone. 

Interestingly, in the course of the conversation about not praying, we talked quite a bit about praying.   That reminded me that this is a complicated topic.    Whenever I receive a communication from a religious person or group, almost always is a request for prayer.  “Please pray for us.   Pray for our ministry.  Pray for our country.  Pray for our church.  Pray for this person or that person.”   

This book, Never Pray Again, asks the impertinent question, “Why?”    Why pray?  What good does it do?  What is the point?   If we get beyond our initial shock that such questions are blasphemy, we can have a good discussion about prayer.   

What do we think we are doing when we pray?   

First of all, I have little patience with those who want to guilt people into praying.   If you are not a pray-er, that does not make you less of a Christian or a spiritual person or a human being or anything else.   You can have an enriching and meaningful life and never pray.   

I used a poem from Mary Oliver in the bulletin about prayer.  Then there is this is from her poem, “The Summer’s Day:”

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.

She pays attention and calls it prayer.   It works for me.  As I said earlier, I walk my dogs.    I don’t know her personally, but my guess is that Mary Oliver is probably doing all right in the “paying attention, contemplation, and prayer” department.

Second, for many of us prayer needs to be disconnected from magical thinking.   We have inherited a theology of prayer from a pre-modern world that is in need of revision.   

In my first church in upstate New York, I learned of Daniel Nash.   His gravestone was just north of the church.   This area of New York State was called the ‘burned over district” because of the revivals of the early 1800s.   The great revivalist of that time was Charles Finney.  He traveled around there and preached.  His partner was Daniel Nash.   Nash is buried there just north of Lowville, New York.  On his gravestone is written,

Laborer with Finney 
Mighty In Prayer

Finney preached and Nash prayed.   Nash was a prayer warrior.  He stormed the gates of heaven by offering long, passionate prayers.  These were energetic prayers that pleaded with and cajoled the Deity to get stuff done.   If you want to get stuff done, you ask a busy god to do it.   

It doesn’t take long to expose the problem with this theology.   God will heal Aunt Millie if enough people pray?   If Aunt Millie is not healed, is it because the prayer warriors were not mighty or because God decided not to do it?   I personally don’t find that notion of God credible or worthy of five minutes of my attention.    I think many people feel the same way but they don’t say so because they think they are supposed to pray.

Third, we have a need to offer gratitude, to lament, to express amazement, to voice our anguish, to show our love and compassion, to ask for what we need.    The various religious systems have provided a solution by offering us practices and theologies in which those needs are met by communicating them to a divine agent.   Many of us are realizing that a divine agent doesn’t work that way, yet we still have these very human needs.   

So we find ourselves in an interesting time of experimentation.   We seek to find ways to express these needs in community sometimes using traditional language, sometimes changing it, and at other times discovering and creating other ways.    

What do I think I’m doing when I pray?   I am speaking for myself, not what I think is what should be.   I called this sermon, “Praying in the Dark” because the dark is not a place in which one can be particularly busy.   Words that go with this are silence, listening, emptiness, so one can receive.    It is consciously taking time to be something other than busy.  

A English literature professor in my undergraduate studies at the very secular University of Washington had a spiritual way about him.   Because we were reading Virginia Woolf and Thomas Hardy we could engage in matters religious.  He said for him that prayer was to pause when someone comes to mind to wish them well.   

Does it do anything?   Probably not for them, but for you, yes.   Perhaps it could lead to a compassionate response to the person at some point.     Keeping people in our minds in a positive way cannot be bad.     I have to believe that the practice of kindness in thought will lead to kindness in action.

Sometimes we need poetry and music and silence and a lovely sanctuary and a community of others to remind us that there is more to this strange existence than just being busy as wonderful as busyness can be.     Sometimes we need to take time in the midst of our good works to find solitude in our deserted place, in the dark, and to pray.


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