Tag Archive | prayer

Unholy Holiness: a Pastoral Memory


          I had heard the stories:  “N” barking on the telephone; “N” making outrageous demands on those who tried to help her; “N” lashing out at the clergy.  A very feisty, very angry woman.  “N” had good reason to be angry at life and the world, reason to be angry at God.  She had been widowed, left to cope alone with adult children who had physical and mental issues.  Added to this burden were her own physical problems that confined her to her home in a wheelchair.  Her mind, however, and her often acid tongue, were clearly not confined.  They continued to function quite, quite well!

          Sigh.  Serving as a new pastor at “N’s” church, I was scheduled to take the sacrament of holy communion to her.  “Be careful,” I was told, but all the warnings I had been given hardly prepared me for the shrill voice I heard screaming for someone to “answer the damn door” when I rang “N’s” doorbell.

          Heart pounding, I entered that “damn door” when one of her adult children opened it and then waited as he wheeled “N” into the living room.  She was disheveled and clearly in pain, her face distorted as she said her “hello”, which sounded much more like “what the hell are you doing here?”, even though I had made the appointment with her just a few days earlier.

          I introduced myself and made some comments inviting her to tell me of her illness and her pain.  She did.  With very few pauses to catch her breath.  She had a story to tell, and she would tell it, and I knew simply to sit and listen. 

          “We’re off to a good start,” I thought, and I was becoming more relaxed, when suddenly a second adult child exploded through the front door and virtually collapsed on the sofa.  Needless to say, I was very concerned and wondered what needed to be done for her.  But clearly “N” was not the least bit concerned, and the shouting match that ensued between mother and daughter quickly assured me that the daughter was quite okay, physically at least.  More okay, in fact, than I was at the moment.  I cannot deny that I was relieved when she slammed back out the door.  “N” simply shrugged.

          I opened the way for her to talk about the distressing episode, but no, she wasn’t at all interested.  She looked instead at my small communion kit, and I knew it was time to proceed to the business at hand.  I carefully opened my kit, filled our two cups with wine, and placed the cups and the paten with the wafers on a clean napkin spread on the table.  I read a passage of Scripture, we shared a few thoughts about it, and then I began the liturgy:  “In the night in which he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus took bread and gave thanks…” 

          Again, I wasn’t prepared for what happened next.  Very solemnly.  Very thoughtfully.  Very reverently, “N,” who moments before had been cursing her fate and screaming at her children, brought her gnarled hands together and quietly bowed her head.  And with that simple gesture, I could feel “N” stepping into another sphere, into a holy space.  And the room, which moments before had been filled with such unholy venom, was transformed by that simple gesture into a hallowed, sacred place. 

          Amazing.  I had never before encountered such reverence in all the many home communion visits I had made as a pastor.  I had entered “N’s” home praying simply to be able to survive the visit.  But I left that day humbled by what I had learned.  For what I had seen and what I had experienced was the reality that the simple gesture of folding the hands and bowing the head could open up a sense of the holy, even in the midst of all the messiness of life.   

          All this was far away and many long years ago, but I still think of “N” now and then, resting as she is now in the nearer Presence of God.  And when I think of her, I often find myself bowing my head, folding my hands, and stepping into that sacred space that hovers just beneath, just above, just beyond all the scarred and fractured hours of our days and of our nights. 

          I really must think of “N” more often.  

Cursing Fig Trees, Moving Mountains, and Praying: A Lenten Reflection on St. Mark 12:12-24

dead tree

On the following day, when they came from Bethany, [Jesus] was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.

Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.  He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”

And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.

In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. Then Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”

St. Mark 12:12-24


I really wish Jesus hadn’t said what he said in the last paragraph of the passage above. Or, at least I wish the gospel writer had given us something of the conversation that must have immediately followed this, so we could have a better sense of what Jesus might have had in mind in this rather enigmatic statement.

Could Jesus possibly have meant, when he used that word “whatever,” that if I asked for a luxury car or a condo in Switzerland, or for my friend to be healed of his terminal cancer, that God would certainly provide that, if only my faith were strong enough? If only I prayed my prayer just right, with all the right words? If only I thought more positively about God and what God can do? A casual reading certainly suggests this, and as a result, thousands of Christians down through time have either given up on God or beat up on themselves, thinking they simply did not have sufficient faith.

Such a shame, as I believe this passage can deeply enrich our prayer lives, but only if it is understood in the context of the whole of Jesus’ life and teachings. So I like to imagine that a conversation something like this might have followed Jesus’ words to his disciples that day.


Peter: Wow! That is really something, Rabbi. I love that kind of power! I’d love to zap some people the way you zapped that fig tree! And I’d love to move a few mountains in my life!

Jesus: But Peter, I “zapped” that fig tree to underscore what I just did in Jerusalem when I went through the temple and denounced the flagrant abuse of that holy space. My “zapping” of that fig tree was simply to show you God’s power when it comes in judgment on those who abuse their faith to enhance themselves and make life more difficult for others.  

Peter: Oh! So you mean it wouldn’t work if I was just angry at my wife or at my friend John here and uttered a curse on them? Rats! But maybe just as well. I know I’m hot-tempered, and I’d probably feel so sorry for what I did the very next day. But I’d still be interested in just how I could muster enough faith to move some of the mountains in my life.

Jesus: Well, Peter, as to removing mountains, that takes a little more explaining. It’s true.  Sometimes God does remove mountain-like obstacles in our lives.  Sometimes God doesn’t.  Sometimes God simply asks us to live with these obstacles and to grow an inner, mountain-solid  strength as we struggle with them day after day after day.  But there is one mountain–the Mount of Olives, visible just just over your shoulder, which God, in God’s time, is most definitely planning to move.  I wonder if you might recall the passage from Zechariah where the prophet uses highly symbolic language and predicts that the Mount of Olives will be split in two at the time of God’s final coming to earth to rescue his people.

Peter: Well, I was never really good, Jesus, at remembering all the promises I was taught as a child, but I think I do remember that passage, as the image is so startling. Isn’t that the one where the prophet is talking about God’s coming judgment and God’s coming reign, a wonderful time when there will be no more night and when living waters will flow out of Jerusalem and spread across all the earth? And yes, the prophet does say that “on that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives, which lies before Jerusalem on the east; and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley; so that one half of the Mount shall withdraw northward, and the other half southward”? (Zechariah 14)

Jesus: Yes, that’s it Peter. And my rather cryptic statement to you was really a reminder of that promise. Some terrible things are going to happen in the days ahead, but I wanted to reassure you that if you pray for God’s coming kingdom, you can trust wholeheartedly that it will someday come. So whenever you see the Mount of Olives, Peter, Friend, remember the poetic imagery of Zechariah’s prophecy, and let your prayer be for God to come and establish God’s reign. God will indeed answer that prayer! You will then see walls and mountains shattered all around!

Peter: Okay, okay. I think I’m beginning to understand what you meant about moving mountains. Sometimes your words are so mysterious, Rabbi ! I guess you do want us to think more carefully and deeply about the things you say. And I promise to try. But what about that last bit of what you said, when you said that whatever I ask for in prayer, if I believe, I will surely receive it? That sounds pretty straightforward to me!

Jesus: Well, Peter, let’s look at this a little more closely too. I do want you to ask for whatever your heart longs for. But I also want you to be aware that as you pray, believing that with God nothing is impossible, believing that God will respond to your faith, you may discover, as you draw closer into God’s orbit, that some of your desires may change. Right now you would love to zap or remove some of the troublesome people and situations in your life. Tell this to God. Believe that God is understanding and responding to you. But also be prepared to be in dialogue with God, to listen to God as well as to speak to God. And be prepared to grow and change in your innermost desires.  

Peter: Well, that’s a bummer. I guess I should have known that you had something like that up your sleeve. I know you spend hours and hours alone with God, and you always come away with a renewed determination and strength, a new confidence in your mission and purpose in life, even in those times when everything seems to be going against you.   Okay. So maybe I have a bit to learn. Maybe I have to really open up to God, learn to trust that phrase from Psalm 56: “this I know, that God is for me,” even when things and people aren’t going just the way I’d like them to go in my life.

Jesus: Now I think you’re beginning to get it, Peter. It is something like that. My own dreams for the kingdom have had to be “revised” as I’ve gone along. But I keep going back to God in prayer, and even when I’m shaking my fist at God because things are happening so slowly and so haphazardly, I still have a deep sense that God is with me, that God is for me, that God is shaping me and my desires, even as I bring myself more fully to trust in the mystery of the working out of God’s purposes. I’ve told you that I believe that I am going to be put to death before too much longer. Do I want this? No, I do not. And when the time comes, don’t be surprised if you hear me begging God to “let this cup pass from me.” I will be praying then exactly what my heart longs for, to be spared a vicious and violent death. But I hope you will then also hear me pray, “Your will be done,” because I think that’s where all our deepest prayers must culminate. Not with an “okay, God, I give up” sense, but rather with a deep trust that, no matter what happens, God is there for me, for us, bringing us and our world a little closer to what God has in mind for each of us and for our world.

Peter: Whew! That’s a lot to digest. Think I’ll ever be able to learn all of that, Rabbi? Ever really be able to pray like that? I sort of preferred my simplistic understanding of your zapping that fig tree and your promising us whatever we ask for in faith.

Jesus: Just keep working at it, Peter. I can assure you. Growing a meaningful faith is truly the task of a lifetime, but it is a most worthwhile task. As you work at this, there will be the joy of knowing God and knowing yourself more intimately, more fully. And yes, there will be struggles as well. There will be questions. There will be sorrows. But you will not be alone, even when it will sometimes feel as though you have been abandoned by the very God to whom you pray. Somewhere, somehow, in the depths of your soul, even when you are crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? why have you forgotten me?” I can assure you that you will experience an Unnamable Calm, and you will be enabled to say—and really mean it—“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”


The Art of Prayer

LaTour still life

Henri Fantin-Latour (1836 –1904)


Jackson Pollock (1912-1956)

My prayer at times is calm, a

still life, fruits and flowers

carefully arranged, pastel

petals of gratitude shaping

trust and dropping peace;

quiet listening for that

whisper from beyond, elusive

though it be.


At other times, I pray a

Jackson Pollock kind of

prayer; jagged lines of grief

and questions slashed across

the canvas of my life; daubs

of anger, neediness, and greed

flung onto the walls that shape

the contours of my soul.


A mystery, this business of prayer;

I do not understand, but yet I pray;

not as a master artist; more like a child

offering crayoned sketches to her mother’s

love; yet pray I do; paint my longings

and my needs, my tangled fears,

my angers, and my joys; and like that child,

simply trust that kindly, grace-filled eyes

will see and treasure all my brush strokes,

all my reaching—for a presence,

for a wholeness, for a beauty,

in my life and in my world.

After the Earthquake: An Old Woman Prays in Nepal

nepal praying

(in a ruined temple the day after the April earthquake)

Life smashed to ruins around her,

shards of centuries piled high to

bury treasured icons, chairs, and roofs,

arms and legs, as well as hopes

of mountain sunshine, it buried, too,

in all the dust that every footstep

stirs into the fragile air, scented now

with death and stunned to silence as the

earth continues to rumble and spit

black ashes over all the lifeless eyes

of both the living and the dead.


Yet the old woman clasps her withered

hands; bows her ancient head; accepts that

there are ways unknown to her, that

there is mystery in and beyond this strange,

strange thing called life; that powers

outside her grasp determine much of her

tomorrows and todays; she nods to them,

both reverent and perplexed.


A sparrow hops and chirps across the

waste in which the woman stands; she,

too, in time may sing again, but not today;

today her voice is only arid wind, a

wind scraped raw across the jagged

rubble of her soul; the sparrow cheeps and

chirps again; the woman bows again;

and I bow too—to her, to mystery, to

sparrow song of a God whose eyes hold

loving fast each tiny creature sifting through

the wonders and the terrors of our world

when mountains quake and shred the

patterns of our lives to dust.


Daily Prayer for Those of Us Who Live with Chronic Illness/Disabilities

praying hands

“Live the questions,” urges Rilke.

Let me live my questions, and

Let me live my weakness, too.

Let me find my value, not so much in doing, but rather simply in deeply being.

Let me be attentive to my body’s needs and not dismiss them as annoying and disruptive of my hopes and dreams to see my name writ large and so prove my worthiness.

Let me soak up healing rest and shun my restlessness.

Let me listen in and listen to the sometimes awful stillness that can settle over my life.

Let me nurture openness to the One who sits and stands beside me in the often hushedness of my days.

No easy task. Sometimes painful. Always hard.

But it is Real, and it is my Reality.

So let me live it. Fully. Honestly. And thankfully.

Yes, thankfully. Hands joined with friends who help to ease the sometimes endless hours. With all who share my lot of chronic illness/disability.


Winter Sunset Prayer

sunset2 - Copy

Pastel fingers close another winter day;

night wraps its cold around the trees,

the rocks, the tiny lives that move

across the fragile surface of our world;

trees reach up hungry for the light, as

darkness swallows branches, twigs and

bark, the timid chattering of feathered,

furried creatures, hushed and hidden now in

shadowed crannies of the earth.


The darkness hints of other nights;

farewells past, those yet to come;

laughter silenced, light withdrawn;

shadows in a valley that awaits.

Lady of Day, Lady of Night, pray for us

now and in the hour of our death.


Pray for us as pastels shimmer just

beyond our earth-bound sight,

whispering soft against the night,

against the loss, against our fear and dread.

God of beginnings, of endings—all One,

hear our tremblings, hold our sighs;

paint our coming nights with palette soft,

in sunset hues that limn for us tomorrow’s

hope—a morning-shine, a painting bright,

a day that ever will begin.


Holy Ground


egeriaRecently as I was rummaging through some of the early centuries of the history of the Christian church, I chanced upon a fascinating character, a woman named Egeria (sometimes Aetheria), who lived in the late 4th century. Egeria did something quite extraordinary for a woman of her time. Between 381-384, she took an extended trip to the “Holy Land” and visited many of the sites mentioned in the Bible. As she traveled, she sent letters back home, describing the beauty she saw and the holiness she experienced in her travels.

I sometimes envy Egeria this wondrous 3-year journey, taken on foot or on the back of a mule or a camel. How wonderful to stand where Moses had stood, to sit where Elijah had hidden himself in a cave, to walk the hills of Galilee where Christ himself had walked. Wonderful to breathe in a sense of holiness lingering in the air and waters, in the hills and valleys that had witnessed such bigger-than-life people and such miraculous events.

But reading about Egeria’s visit to the “Holy Land” has prompted some questions for me about the whole notion of holy places and holy ground. To be sure, it is no doubt wonder-filled to walk on the ground trod by saints of old through whom God revealed some of the mystery of God’s self and of God’s interactions with our world. But I think it’s also important—really far more important, as a matter of fact(!)—to recognize and to remember that all of life, no matter where it’s lived, is to be seen and understood as holy. That all the ground on which we walk, wherever we may be, is truly holy ground. I often pray this morning prayer adapted by Phyllis Tickle from The Book of Common Prayer:

Most gracious God and Father,

you are with me as I make my journey throughout this day.

Help me to look lovingly upon all people and events

that come into my life today and

to walk gently upon this land.

Grant this through Jesus who lives and walks among us

ever present at each moment.

God “with me” throughout the day.  Jesus, “ ever present at each moment.”  Doesn’t this reality assure me that I walk on holy ground, unholy as my life may be? That my steps down the front walk to pick up the morning newspaper are steps on holy ground? That my feet are on holy ground as I stand on the sidelines and watch my grandchildren play baseball and soccer? That even my steps through the supermarket, crowded with its earthy smells and human noise, are steps on holy ground? True, neither Moses nor Elijah ever walked the places of my life, and I do not breathe the aura of their close encounters with the Divine. Nevertheless, God is here with me, and a holy presence whispers in the breezes that brush across my skin. Shelters in the branches of the aged oaks in my back yard. Fills the spaces that define my life. Calls me day by day and night by night to taste the sanctity of life in every breath.

As for miracles, well…it’s true, alas, that no water has ever been turned into wine here in my home. But, nonetheless, there are miraculous wonders in my small world. The wonder of a summer bowl of bright red cherries on my kitchen table. The wonder of friendship and trust in a long marriage. The wonder of the butterfly that sips from my sedum. The wonder of the quiet dark that fills my room when I turn out the lights at night. The wonder of the deep awareness that I belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to the One who walked this holy earth so long ago to let me know I am beloved.*

In his poem “Walking Meditation,” Thich Nhat Hanh says:

Our walk is a peace walk.
Our walk is a happiness walk.


Walk and touch peace every moment.
Walk and touch happiness every moment.

I would like to add:

Our walk is a holy walk.

Walk and touch holiness every moment.


*adapted from Question 1 of The Heidelberg Catechism (1563)