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star of bethlehemFeast of the Epiphany    Isaiah 60:1-6          Matthew 2:1-12

What it is like in the world

It is a time of turmoil and darkness in the world. A puppet holds political power. He was not born to rule, yet somehow he has ended up in charge. Everyone fears his temper, his capricious nature, his cruelty. Hope has been born in a baby on the borders of society, yet the one who rules sits alone: in the dark, without hope. He knows. He knows he does not really belong on a throne. His crown sits uneasily on his head. It would not take much to topple his power.

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Mission Impossible?

December 7, 2018

mission impossibleYears ago, one of my favorite TV shows was “Mission Impossible.” This show always began with a recording (a tiny reel to reel tape machine!) that outlined a possible mission. Somewhere in that message, the unknown voice said, “Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is. . . .” and named that mission. At the end, that same voice always told Peter Graves that if he or his team got caught, the officials would disavow knowing anything about the mission. Then the voice said, “This tape will self-destruct in five seconds.” So I got to watch this tiny reel to reel machine go up in smoke every week.

As Christians, we have no record of God telling Jesus about his particular mission. There is no disembodied voice. There is no tape recorder going up in smoke. At times, I have wondered just how-and exactly when-Jesus knew who he was and what he was destined to do. We have four gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry, yet each one has its own perspective, none are what we would term “biographies” and the gospels certainly are not live news accounts like we would see on television. Instead, these accounts were about Love-the kind of unconditional, amazing Love that poured out of, and through, this humble carpenter from Nazareth. He had come to show human beings a better way to live. A way that did not put the emperor first. A way that did not put money first. A way that did not put education first. A way that did not put anything first, except God who created us and sustains us, from our first breath to our final one. Jesus came to show us that our main “mission” is to love God first, and then out of that great love, we are to love our neighbors as ourselves.

bush funeralOn Tuesday, as I watched President George H.W. Bush’s funeral at our own Washington National Cathedral, I was struck by an image shared by the Rev. Dr. Russell Levinson (the Bush’s priest and pastor at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston.) For the last hour of the President’s life, Levinson noted that Bush’s dear friend, James Baker, had stood at the foot of the bed and rubbed President Bush’s feet-a gesture that was symbolic of a servant’s gesture, and that of a good friend. When your friend is dying, you want to make him or her as comfortable as you can. You do acts of love, and you don’t do them because someone is likely to mention them at the funeral. You do them because you love. Simple as that.

footwashing1This kind of love, best shown to us by Jesus of Nazareth, is amazing love, isn’t it? Such love is lived out in many ways, yet I think that every time we gather together as a faith community to worship, we get a glimpse of God’s realm. We re-member the Body of Christ, just by coming together to worship. We remember what Jesus did the night before he died, as he broke bread and poured wine and told his disciples “whenever you do this, remember me.” And so we do. We still do.

This is good news. It is, in fact, great news, and it is news worth sharing. This brings me to challenge you, to see if you might have a particular mission.

In the next few weeks, we will gather at St. Philip’s for special Advent or Christmas services. On December 23, we’ll enjoy an old tradition: the service of Advent Lessons & Carols, which is based on a liturgy first done at Kings College, Cambridge, England. Then, as our tradition has become, you have the chance to come with a group of people downstairs to the Wyatt Hall basement, where we will tie long “ropes” of greens together in garlands. Later, those beautiful garlands will be hung in our worship space to make it more beautiful for Christmas.

Chalres Allen Christmas 2015On Christmas Eve, we’ll offer two wonderful experiences of worship. The earlier service is very child and family friendly, and we celebrate the fact that any child-whether long-time parishioner or total stranger-can show up at 4:00 and get a costume to be in the Christmas pageant. Then one of the clergy will narrate the Christmas story while the shepherds and sheep and animals and angels and Mary and Joseph and Baby Jesus appear in their proper order. Thus will we tell “the greatest story ever told.” There will be chaos and noise and maybe crying and unexpected things. One never knows. But at the end of that service, we will get to spend a few reflective moments with candles and the singing of “Silent Night.”

The later service will begin with a series of special anthems and seasonal carols at 7:30, and the service will begin at 8:00 p.m. Our adult choir and bell choir will both offer beautiful music, and again, at the end, we’ll get to sing “Silent Night” with candles before we burst out with “Joy to the World.”

CandlelightRobert and I would like to challenge you. To what? We challenge (and invite you) to invite someone to Christmas service worship services. This is the perfect time of year to do that. Yes, we have a lot of introverts in this congregation. Yes, we are Episcopalians. We don’t do that “invite” thing so well in the Episcopal Church. Yet in the past year, our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and others have elevated the profile of our wonderful Anglican tradition-first by his preaching at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding, then by the Episcopal funeral service for former First Lady Barbara Bush, and this week, by the State Funeral of President George H.W. Bush at our own Washington National Cathedral.

All you have to do is say “You should come to St. Philip’s with me for ______. We’ll sing special music, and your kids can be in the pageant. What? Yes, it was our own Michael Curry who preached the wedding sermon. Yes, it was at the Episcopal Cathedral where President Bush was celebrated recently. St. Philip’s is a great place. Why don’t you come with me and see for yourself?” Then offer to pick those folks up or to meet them here in the worship space. Tell them you’ll save them a seat, or offer to meet them at the front door, or in the parking lot.

Cards ChristmasIf you need a physical “prop,” we’ll have a stack of cards ready for you this coming Sunday. On this card are pictures from last Christmas Eve services, plus the schedule for this year’s special services. You can hand it to someone and invite them to come with you.

We have an amazing place of worship. Our space is historic. Our family of faith is not so large that people will feel like a number. They will have a name, and we will welcome them. Yet if you don’t invite them, they may never find these things out.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to invite someone to come to church with you in the next three weeks. And this tape will not self-destruct in five seconds.

Tell someone about God’s good news in this place. It is worth telling. It is worth sharing. It is worth celebrating. Blessings, Sheila+

Christmas Worship Services

Jim Rogers and greens

Sunday, December 23

9:00 a.m. (One Service Only):  Advent Lessons & Carols

Service of Advent Lessons & Carols, based on ancient service in Church of England

10:30 a.m. Greening of the Church & Soup luncheon

Bring some homemade soup in a crockpot or sandwiches to share after we are done!

Monday, December 24  Christmas Eve

Lily and Anna Christmas 2015.jpg4:00 p.m.  Children show up in Wyatt Hall to get Christmas pageant costumes

4:30 p.m. Family Friendly Christmas Eve service with Christmas Pageant

7:30 p.m. Seasonal hymns and special choir anthems with Adult & Bell Choirs

8:00 p.m. Choral Festival Candlelight Christmas Eve Service

Front Door Wreaths.jpg

Sunday, December 30

8:00 a.m. Holy Eucharist Rite I

10:15 a.m. Holy Eucharist Rite II

Note: No Sunday School on Dec. 30

Important Note:

Have you ever invited someone to come to church with you? If not, why not do that for some or all of these special Christmas services? No one is ever offended to be asked, and special Christmas services is a perfect time to invite a friend, an office-mate, a work colleague, a neighbor, to join you and your family here at St. Philip’s. Think about what you love most about this faith community, and then extend the chance for someone else to experience, then love it, too.

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The Gratitude Challenge

November 30, 2018Gratitude Challenge 2018Recently, many people on my Facebook feed have been doing 30 Days of Gratitude.  From expressing gratitude for grandchildren to music to animals to nature, I have enjoyed seeing what my friends are grateful for.

It is easy to get out of the habit of being grateful. There is much that is lacking in our various worlds. It might be as “small” as driving on the Beltway and being passed by a very swift-moving motorcycle rider who startled you as he swerved around you and passed–then you look down and realize he had to be going 80 mph or so, as quickly as he disappeared in front of you. Okay, so maybe that seemed small, but had he wrecked? Not so small a thing.

Or there’s that car driving along the Beltway (sorry, I’ve had to go into DC three times in as many nights this week!) at dusk WITH NO HEADLIGHTS ON.  This results in my grumbling and growling, not gratitude. (P.S. Don’t be like this driver. Keep your headlights on all the time, then you never have to worry!)

ducks.jpgThen there are the typical days that we all have–those days when it seems that we’re getting nibbled to death by ducks and interruptions.

Yet I hope that as we all speed along in this holiday season, we will remember to slow down. To think, with some intention, about the things and people for whom we are grateful.

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November 15, 2018

Tastee Diner 2Unexpected Holy Encounters

This is a time of year when it is easy to feel overwhelmed. In Church work, as in every other kind of vocation, there seems to be no lack of something left undone, many things to do. Yet even calendars to be filled with important tasks can, in themselves, become reminders of God’s grace and providence.

The other morning, Robert and I joined two clergy colleagues at breakfast at a diner. At some point, I excused myself, and as I passed two people at a table, the man stopped me. “Excuse me. But is that a Franklin Planner you have there?” (It lay on the table next to my breakfast.) Surprised, I said “Yes.” He said, “I didn’t think they made those anymore.” I replied, “Oh yes, they still sell them. It’s just that you can only get them online now. Franklin Covey closed all of their stores.”

Practical Conversation changes to a God One

Somehow, this conversation turned into a God conversation. I told them I am a pastor, and before long, we three were exchanging our concerns, our hopes, our ideas, for how we might tell and show the Gospel to people who have never come to church, or people who have been wounded by the Church, or young adults whose parents “checked out” of Church years ago, so they have had no faith formation at all. As it turns out, the woman at that table is from New York City. She said she attends First Corinthian Baptist Church there.

Cup of CoffeeSo in the midst of a breakfast with colleagues, I got to talk with two colleagues in Christ whom I have never met before, and who I may never see again–all over a very secular symbol of a Day Planner that helps me to organize my days, weeks, and months.

Of course I had to come home and google the First Corinthian Baptist Church.  This is a church in Harlem. Their leaders are dedicated “to making disciples that transform the world.” I like that. It’s very clear what that community of faith is about. It is about making new disciples for Jesus Christ. It is about transforming the world. Big goals. Goals that begin locally and then ripple outward.

Would anyone miss St. Philip’s if it were gone?

Study in Snow (more…)

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whats-your-story-chalkboard-620316_1280
We all have stories to share and to live. In the past several years, I have become interested in my own family stories. Because my mother died young (at 56) and was notably quiet about sharing some of her own stories, and because my dad had Altzheimers the last seven years of his life, there are many family stories that I simply never heard. I am left to re-construct as best as I can.
Of course now we have the “magic” of websites like Ancestry or Family Search–and in truth, these sites have connected me to second cousins I have never actually met in person, plus I have accessed some pictures of some ancestors. Going down the “rabbit hole” of Ancestry, I have learned that I am 52% English, Welsh, and Northwestern European, and 39% Irish and Scottish. That tiny trace of Native American is vastly overwhelmed! Yet I know where that tiny trace is, and it was somewhat comforting to know that all those years Daddy told me we had Cherokee Indian blood in us, he was not telling a tall tale (he had a wicked sense of humor, so he could do that), but telling us the truth.
On some level, when we research our DNA and go backwards in our family lines, we go more “granular.” Yet the other way is part of our stories as well. In other words, as we look outward, we can see ways in which we are connected to each other–sometimes in ways we never expected.
In the past five weeks, a group of folks have gathered in Wyatt Hall (at St. Philip’s) on Wednesday evenings to discuss various aspects of “The Way of Love.” So far, we have had conversations about Turn, Learn, Pray, Bless, and Worship. What have people learned? I’m sure folks have learned a lot of things. However, I think that from what I have overheard, people are sharing pieces of their own stories with each other: for example, how they ended up in the Episcopal Church, or at St. Philip’s . . .what their previous practices of faith included (and how those were unsatisfactory in some way or another.(. . .how we are blessed, and how we think we might bless another human being.  . .how we begin, even tentatively, to pray together or read scripture together as a couple.. . .what, in our worship liturgy, speaks most deeply to us (i.e. for at least two people at one table, that is the Confession, where they actually think of some concrete things they have done that they should not have done, or of some things they have not done that they should have done). . .what forms us as God’s people in our prayers and corporate worship.
what is your story
Those kinds of stories have been powerful, and frankly, I am in awe of the amazing stories, as well as the willingness for folks to be vulnerable enough with their brothers and sisters at the table, to share.
My story matters to you, and your story matters to you. Perhaps when we tell each other our stories of faith, we get stronger, and we learn more what Jesus means about “my burden is light” because we helped to shoulder each other’s heavy burdens.
Think about your own story. How does it fit in the larger context of God’s story? Maybe you can’t see that at first, but it truly does–which means that your story is so important, especially where it connects with mine.
Sheila

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Special Sermon Series: BLESS: To Bless the Space Between Us & To be People of Blessing (from The Way of Love)

Readings:  Genesis 32:22-30     Ps 23     Romans 12:9-21       Matthew 25:31-40

Jacob and EsauJacob is nervous. Recently, he has had a vision, in which God told him to go back to the place of his birth. Jacob weighs the options. The truth is that he has realized that his father-in-law, Laban,has cheated him over the years.

Jacob: The Backstory

First, there was the bridal deception. Jacob had worked for seven years for the chance to marry Rachel, the love of his life. Yet the morning after the wedding, he wakes up to find that Laban had deceived him. Jacob has actually married Leah, the older sister. Scripture tells us that Leah has “weak eyes” and likely isn’t as beautiful as Rachel. Her chances of marriage are slim to none. Daddy will have to support her. So Laban tricks Jacob.

This is poetic justice, of course, since Jacob himself has been a veritable trickster since he was young. In fact, the reason he had to flee his home was because he deceived Isaac, his own father, in Isaac’s old age. Aided by his cunning mother Rebecca, Jacob stole the firstborn’s birthright, and Esau’s firstborn blessing as well. Having been cheated of all that was due him, Esau threatened to kill his brother, so Jacob escaped.

Jacob: New Chapter Begins

Now, after years of learning some humility, Jacob is returning home. Yet he remembers Esau’s threat, so he sends a group of messengers to Esau to prepare the way. They return with the message that Esau is coming to meet Jacob—with four hundred of his closest friends. Jacob thinks fast. Esau may be coming to exact revenge after all these years. Jacob divides his company in half, so if Esau kills one company, the other company will still be safe. Jacob plans to send at least three separate groups ahead of him, with goats, sheep, camels, cows, and donkeys—all gifts for Esau. He hopes that Esau will receive all these gifts as blessing, and Esau’s anger will be mollified. Finally, Jacob takes his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crosses a river. He wants to keep his family safe, even if he dies.

Foster_Bible_Pictures_0047-2_Jacob_Wrestled_with_an_AngelThe Divine Wrestler

After sending everyone ahead of him, Jacob tries to sleep. Yet his sleep is restless. Full of dreams. A man shows up, and throughout the night, this man wrestles Jacob. They wrestle all night long. As dawn breaks, Jacob seems to be winning this match, and the stranger has not bested him. Finally, the stranger reaches out, touches Jacob’s hip, and throws the hip out of joint—thus winning the match. Still, stubborn Jacob will not give in. He refuses to let the stranger go until the stranger blesses him.

“What is your name?” the stranger asks. Jacob tells him. The stranger tells him he now has a new name. No longer will he be Jacob. Now, he is to be known as Israel, “for you have striven with God, and with humans, and have prevailed.”

Jacob asks, “Please tell me your name,” but the stranger refuses. Instead, the stranger blesses him and leaves. Of course in the ancient world, when you know someone’s name, that gives you power over that person. So the stranger’s refusal to reveal his name tells Jacob that he has not been wrestling with a human being. Rather it has been a divine being who has blessed Jacob, so Jacob names the place Peniel, which means “the face of God.”

Jacob has received God’s blessing. God’s blessing has left a mark—a crippling mark. Jacob may have God’s blessing—and one of those blessings is that he does reconcile with his brother Esau—yet he will never walk straight again.He will limp for the rest of his life. Jacob has received the blessing that leaves its mark.

Question markBlessing in the Past Several Weeks: Yes? No? Maybe? No Way?

I have been wondering a lot about blessing the past several weeks—maybe because there seems to have been very little of it. We have experienced political turmoil in our country over the Dr. Ford/Judge Kavanaugh hearings, and the emotional fallout and triggers that have assaulted people over those hearings. (I have heard a lot of stories from people who have suffered abuse.)  Then in an entirely separate realm, some folks have struggled with personal health challenges.

These things have piled on top of the usual stressful issues most people face every day with work and families. Personally, there have been times when I have wondered if the center will hold. “Is the whole world going to pieces?” I asked God one day. No answer.

I don’t know about you, but there have been times when I have had to be very conscious about breathing deeply, by notreading the news or being on social media. Instead, I have paid deliberate attention to people or places of beauty, and I have been intentional about my daily morning routine of lighting some candles, focusing on reading scripture, saying my prayers, and breathing deeply.

Blessing Space Between Us

I have wondered about how you can bless the spaces between us if the person on the other side of the space has no desire for blessing—or does not seem to want that. If you are going to bless someone or something, do you need permission to do that? Or do you wrestle blindly with someone or something, determined to win a battle, and not know until you are wounded that you have been blessed? I don’t know. I wish I did, but I don’t know.  I keep going back to a quote by theologian Pierre Tielhard de Chardin that I quoted, in late August, at Clif Collin’s memorial service:  “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”

We are spiritual beings having a human experience. This means that we have been born into this world as blessed people, we live our lives as blessed people, we go Home to God as blessed people. We may not always feel blessed. We may not always feel like blessing others, yet I am not sure that feelings have anything to do with God’s reality, God’s truth. Sometimes I think we have to be like Jacob. We keep wrestling.  We hold on to the thing or divine presence that might bless us after a long, dark, difficult, pain-filled night. We may demand to know its name. We may weep, or struggle, or rant and rave. We may end up being wounded. Yet at the end, we know it was blessing, and we re-name places or people. We say “Now that, right there, was God, even if I didn’t know it at the time.”

images-8How to Bless People in Real Ways

Jesus taught us how to bless. The really good news is that Jesus said we should bless others in concrete ways—ways outlined in today’s gospel. Feed hungry people. When they are thirsty, give them something to drink.  Welcome the stranger who shows up in your midst. If someone needs clothing or a warm pair of shoes for the winter or a sleeping bag or a tent, then we are to provide those things. Jesus says to visit the sick, maybe take them Holy Communion. Jesus knows there are a lot of people incarcerated.  So go visit them, or if you can’t visit them, you can write them letters or put money in their commissary accounts.  Or we can send cards and prayer shawls to people who are sick or dying.

These are many ways in which we can bless people. Yet what we must remember is that every time we do things that bless others, we may as well be doing those things to Jesus. Yes, that kind of blessing is that important.  If that kind of blessing doesn’t wound us, at least we should be in awe and wonder that we follow that kind of leader. A leader who taught us about servant ministry. A leader who taught us about real ways to live into our fullest selves as spiritual human beings in human bodies.

Today, I want you to do something. (Note: Audience Participation is needed!)  I want you to turn to the person next to you, look in their eyes and say, “I bless you.”  If no one is beside you, go find someone to bless. Then let that person bless you. Receive their blessing. And think about this: blessing someone else means that the space between you is also blessed.  This is holy space. Blessed space.

Paul’s Letter to the Romans: Written for us today

I would like to close today by re-reading what Paul wrote to the church in Rome—because sometimes we think a piece of scripture could have been written today: “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.

“Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.

a09a7ff1545f5da42a434f91d925d24e--my-live-nail“If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

You are God’s person of blessing. This day, bless someone. Be a blessing. Carve out blessed space in this world. Live into God’s reality for you as you bless someone, and as you are a blessing. Name that and claim that. Because in God’s world, it is already true. Amen.

© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton

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A Life of Prayer

Special Sermon Series:     PRAY: Dwell Intentionally with God Each Day

Readings:  1 Sam 3:1-10    Psalm 25:1-9      2 Cor 12:7-10      Luke 11:1-13

“Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples. . .”

umit-bulut-143016.jpgIt is very easy for us to think that there was no “real” prayer until Jesus of Nazareth came onto the historical scene.  Yet the truth is that Jesus of Nazareth was simply living out of his own Jewish tradition in his discipline of prayer. Even today, observant Jews pray three times a day during the week, four times a day on Shabbat, and on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement that just recently occurred, five times.

So the practice of prayer was not alien to Jesus. It was as natural to him as breathing. We seldom get to eavesdrop on Jesus AS he prays. Clearly, Jesus knows that his cousin John the Baptist has taught HIS disciples how to pray, and it is likely he has some sense of what the Baptist taught. In fact, some scholars believe that earlier in his life, Jesus may have been a disciple of John’s before he was baptized and began his own ministry. So Jesus knows John’s teachings.

We are told, in various accounts in the gospels, that Jesus goes off alone on mountains to pray. In other words, a lot of his prayer is done in quiet and solitude. Yet sometimes even that didn’t work, because his disciples call him away from his prayer time on more than one occasion, for him to teach or heal.The only significant time we eavesdrop on Jesus’ prayers is the night before he dies—in the Garden of Gethsemene.

Albrecht_Dürer_-_Praying_Hands,_1508_-_Google_Art_Projec BWtThere, under a full moon that casts dark shadows among ancient olive trees, Jesus begs God to “take this cup from me.” At the same time, Jesus prays, “Not my will, but yours be done.” The next day, we hear him cry out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” At the point of death, we hear an agonizing cry: WHY? No answer. Then Jesus gives up his life, and dies. The answer does not come until three days later, at the moment of resurrection.

What we often fail to notice is that in Jesus’ prayers, is that prayer is not a business transaction. Jesus doesn’t pray, “Give me this, or give me that.” He doesn’t say, “I’ll do this, God, if you do that.” More than requests or pleas, my sense of prayer from the rabbi from Nazareth is that prayer was more about relationship than transactions. Jesus knows that in order to learn how to pray, you have to practice prayer. That means you draw apart from the craziness and division of the world to spend a little time with God.

Now we just sang an old gospel hymn entitled “Have a Little Talk with Jesus.” It’s catchy. You may remember the Oak Ridge Boys singing it with fabulous harmony:

“I once was lost in sin but Jesus took me in

And then a little light from heaven filled my soul.

It filled my soul with love and wrote my name above

And just a little talk with Jesus made me whole.

 

Now let us have a little talk with Jesus

Let us tell him all about our troubles.

He will hear our faintest cry

And he will answer by and by.

 

Now when you feel a little prayer wheel turning

And you know a little fire is burning

You will find a little talk with Jesus

Makes it right.” (Want to hear this? Click here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4fbuQvoKH9U )

 

Now we do not really have time this morning to address the theology of this gospel hymn. Clearly it is meant to give people hope and comfort. However, the idea that some people are “lost” and some people are “saved” is problematic in itself—at least it is for this preacher (who grew up with this kind of theology in the Baptist Church.)

hans-urs-von-balthasar-251x300Instead, I would like to point you to Hans Urs von Balthasar, who was a Swiss theologian and Catholic priest who died in 1988. Considered to be one of the most important Roman Catholic theologians of the 20th century, von Balthasar said this: “There will never be beings unloved by God, since God is absolute love.” Perhaps being “saved” happens when a human being realizes the need to enter an unconditional, complete universe of love, turns from the broken constructs of our humanity, including the limited human perception of love, repents of that small perspective, and chooses to follow God’s way of unconditional, self-emptying love. This kind of salvation can make us whole, but I am not sure it happens with “just a little talk with Jesus.” Furthermore, that kind of salvation can easily take a whole lifetime. Yet I think salvation also only only happens in the context of relationship, which I believe is really what prayer is.

For example, if I want to have a relationship with you, and you want to have a relationship with me, what has to happen? Well, I don’t stand way across a room and yell at you, do I? I don’t tell someone else to go and tell you I want a relationship with you—well, not unless I’m in the third grade. I don’t hide from you. No. First, I come close to you. I commit to spending some time with you. I need to get to know you, to see if you and I have enough in common to have a deeper relationship. If I find that we do, then we spend even more time together. Easy example: dating, getting engaged, getting married. Deciding that this person is the one I want to spend my life with. That doesn’t happen when you merely talk about dating or engagement or marriage. It happens when you experience relationship, friendship, love, commitment.

Such is the life of prayer. You can’t just talk about prayer, or its merits. You can’t just get into the mindset of asking God for stuff and then being mad when you don’t get your wish granted. God is not a cosmic vending machine.

Please note that I do not make light of this. Someone we love is very ill and we beg God for healing mercy. We are in chronic pain, and beg God to take that pain away. Our child lies in a hospital bed and the scary word leukemia is uttered softly as a possibility. If you are a parent, you start bargaining with God immediately. Or if we are really brave, we challenge God: “Don’t you dare let this child die.”

man prayingl-769319-unsplashOr if you are African American, or any mother or father of color, and your son goes out for the evening. I am going to bet your prayer life is strong that night as you intercede for that son’s safety. Please God, don’t let him get stopped by the police. Please God, don’t let him mouth off like the belligerent normal teenager he is. Please God, don’t let that phone ring. Please God. Please. Or if you are a woman who gets beaten or raped or sexually assaulted in any way. Where is God in the midst of such abuse? Your prayers may seem to fall on divine deaf ears.

I do not have answers about all these things. Like you, I am human, and my own understanding is limited. Why do people abuse each other and force their victims to cry out, to pray for help, to get no help or to have their pain ignored or dismissed? Why does the racism in our country and in the world become an ongoing unanswered prayer? Why do human beings get sick, and why do some die from diseases that take them too soon?

I wish I had answers for those questions. I do not. All I know is that God is. God is. God is love. Abuse and racism has never been God’s idea. God is always in the midst of us in challenging times. God means for us to be the hands, feet, face, arms of God to each other, And I believe that God intends for you and me to participate in bringing God’s realm to earth just as it is in heaven.

I do not think we are supposed to wait until we die, and maybe heaven really is not “up there” (wherever “up there” means.) Maybe heaven is already here, with eternity inside us, and God waits for us to realize that, to make God’s love come to reality in the fullness with which God knows it already.

Back to actual prayer. You may say, I want to pray, but I don’t know how, or I am scared that I won’t do it “right.” Well, think about this. You may want to have a friendship with someone, whether that is a business relationship or a personal relationship. You may not know exactly how to go about connecting. But you make an attempt. And assuming that the relationship you desire is a healthy one that honors people’s boundaries, you initiate a conversation. The same is true for prayer.

handNow today, I want to give you some practical guidelines. First, a disclaimer. I did not come up with this idea. I read about it years ago in a church magazine. But I love the idea. It’s called the “Five-Finger Prayer.” You can use it yourself. You can use it to teach your children or grandchildren how to pray. Here is how this goes.

  1. Hold your hand up and look at your thumb. Your thumb is closest to you. So pray for those who are closest to your heart—your family, your dearest friends.
  1. Touch your index finger. Your “pointer” finger. Now pray for people who point you in the right direction: teachers, doctors, nurses, therapists or counselors, coaches. Maybe even clergy or spiritual directors. People who teach, guide, heal, direct.
  1. Now touch your tallest finger, your middle finger. Pray for those who lead. Pray for leaders in this nation, leaders in this state, leaders in your local community, leaders in the Church, the lay and clergy leaders in this parish. We all need God’s guidance, God’s wisdom, God’s direction. Sometimes we need God’s strength and stamina—especially right now. Pray for that.
  1. Touch your ring finger. If you ask any piano teacher, he or she will say that this is physically your weakest finger. So here, pray for those who are weak: those who are sick, abused, troubled in any way, in pain, or dying.
  1. Touch your smallest finger, your pinky. Here is where you put yourself. Not one of us is to be the greatest. We are to be servants of all. The least, not the most elevated. So here, we are to put ourselves in perspective, but we also need prayer. So touch your little finger and pray for the one you see in the mirror every morning.[1] As you use this “Five-Finger Prayer,” remember that we are not just about asking God for stuff. We pray so that we might get closer to God. By getting closer to God, we might just get a glimpse of what God wants for us and our lives, not just what we think we need or want.

help thanks wowLastly, this. In 2012, the writer Anne Lamott wrote a best-selling book entitled Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. If you want a simple guide to how to pray, get this book. It’s edgy, funny, direct, and true. Lamotte says there really are only three kinds of prayer. 1. You ask God for help. 2. You say thanks to God. 3. You say “Wow.” You look at stunning sunrises or mountains or sunsets, beautiful flowers or birds, or watch as your baby takes his first breath. What else is there to say but one word? Wow.

So if you want to have a little talk with Someone greater than yourself, or you want to connect with some divine energy and light, just take a step and begin what may seem like a stumbling walk into prayer. Use your fingers. Ask God for help. Say thank you to God and cultivate what Oprah has called “an attitude of gratitude.” ­Look around you and be amazed at the beauty and wonder of someone or something. Say “Wow.”

Try it. Before you know it, you’ll be in a real relationship with God. Suddenly, you’ll find yourself talking to God—and more importantly, listening to God—in some unexpected times and places. See? You’re praying. Now wasn’t that easy?  Amen.

[1] Kathy Stefferman, “Five-Finger Prayer,” in The Living Church, Vol. 221, No. 13, (Milwaukee: The Living Church Foundation, Inc., Sept. 24, 2000), 8.

© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton

[1]Kathy Stefferman, “Five-Finger Prayer,” in The Living Church, Vol. 221, No. 13, (Milwaukee: The Living Church Foundation, Inc., Sept. 24, 2000), 8.

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