May 21, 2023

"Thoughts and Prayers”

Rev. Scott Landis

John 17:1-11

“I’ll keep you in my thoughts and prayers.” Perhaps you have heard those words before. Maybe you have used them yourself. It’s a phrase that has gotten a lot of bad press recently – and sometimes for good reason. Too often it’s used as a throw-away when someone has gone through something devastating. While said in all sincerity, this simple phrase can feel off-putting, if you are recipient of those words. They may appear not to take your pain or situation seriously. They may even seem to get the one offering the words out of doing anything at all. Do we actually pray as we have promised?

We hear it all the time in speeches following horrendous natural disasters or the senseless tragedy of lives lost through gun violence. We may even catch ourselves saying it to acquaintances or fellow parishioners after they describe a recent devastating experience. Many times these words are used when we feel emotionally paralyzed and we simply don’t know what else to say. [Pause]

So, the criticism is often that our “thoughts and prayers” are not enough. But I want to offer a counter argument or, at least, an alternative perspective. You see, I believe, our “thoughts and prayers” are exactly what is needed – or, at least, precisely where we need to begin. I’d like for you to think with me today about this little understood but vital aspect of our faith life – prayer – through the beautiful testimony of prayer offered by Jesus in John 17.

Scholars refer to this as the High Priestly Prayer. Offered just after he completed some thoughtful teaching, Jesus continues, without pause, into this beautiful prayer as if to invite his disciples to overhear his conversation with his Heavenly Father. 

As I said to my zoom study group the other day, there are some deep and powerful theological statements offered by Jesus in his prayer that we might easily overlook. For example, in it he defines eternal life by stating that it is not something reserved for when we die. In fact, it begins – here and now! And it is predicated upon our relationship with God. Jesus prays, and I quote:

“This is real and eternal life: that they know you as the one and only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you sent.”

The basis of eternal life, Jesus explains, is in our relationship with God. But it only happens when we “KNOW” God and the one God sent. And, you can only get to “know” someone when you communicate with that person regularly — including God.  The only way I know how to communicate with God – is prayer. [Pause]

Prayer is something we must do regularly, in fact constantly. It was St. Paul who challenged the early church to “pray without ceasing.” But how do we do that? We’ve got things to do, lives to live. How can we pray all the time? If we simply sat with heads bowed and eyes closed and talked to God all day – we would be of no earthly good, right? I don’t think that is what Paul or Jesus intended.  

What they were calling for was to live our whole life as if it were … a prayer. Not just a few words offered when we awake from sleep, or the last ones uttered before we drift off for the night. Our whole LIFE must become a prayer. Let me unpack that a bit. 

It begins with the understanding that God dwells in each one of us. But we must take this idea one step further and embrace the notion that God exists in ALL things – animate and inanimate. AND if we are in relationship with all things and all beings, then we are in constant communion with God. 

I realize, it may be fairly easy for us to understand that God somehow dwells within us – human beings. So, I may welcome you, love you, respect and affirm you based on my belief that you, like me, are a vessel of the Holy. But we may have to look to our Native American ancestors, and Hawaiian forebears to appreciate that same sentiment of Holy Presence in ALL things: 

in the ‘āina (land), 
the kai (ocean), 
and ea (air we breathe). 

The Native Americans would say, we are all relations. The Hawaiians would say these are our ancestors. 

When we think about all things and all beings in this way – that they are ALL holy – then all our relations, our interaction, our communion with them becomes our prayer – as we respect and appreciate all of life — then all of life becomes our prayer as we seek to “KNOW the one and only true God.” [Pause]

I’ve been giving this a great deal of thought lately and believe it just may be the answer to many of our current problems. How different would our world be if we lived as if all of life was Holy? All of life contained a God presence. How would that change our interactions with others as well as this place we call “mother earth?” Then all of life becomes communication with God. All are our Thoughts and Prayers. And we have the opportunity to become “one heart and one mind” as Jesus prayed.

It may be a wild idea but maybe not –  if we took Jesus’ prayer seriously and began, one prayer at a time – one interaction at a time – one conversation at a time. Soon all of life becomes our prayer – a dynamic that can have a very powerful ripple effect as we actively care for one another. [Pause]

There is a story known as The Rabbi’s Gift that illustrates this beautifully, I think. 

A monastery had fallen on hard times. It was once part of a great order which, as a result of religious persecution lost all its branches. It was decimated to the extent that there were only five monks left in the mother house: the Abbot and four others, all of whom were over seventy. Clearly it was a dying order.

Deep in the woods surrounding the monastery was a little hut that the Rabbi from a nearby town occasionally used for a hermitage. One day, it occurred to the Abbot to visit the hermitage to see if the Rabbi could offer any advice that might save the monastery. The Rabbi welcomed the Abbot and commiserated. “I know how it is” he said, “the spirit has gone out of people. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore.” So, the old Rabbi and the old Abbot wept together, and spoke quietly of deep things.

The time came when the Abbot had to leave. They embraced. “It has been wonderful being with you,” said the Abbot, “but I have failed in my purpose for coming. Have you no piece of advice that might save the monastery?” “No, I am sorry,” the Rabbi responded, “I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you.”

When the other monks heard the Rabbi’s words, they wondered what possible significance they might have. “The Messiah is one of us? One of us, here, at the monastery? Do you suppose he meant the Abbot? Of course – it must be the Abbot, who has been our leader for so long. On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas, who is undoubtably a holy man. Certainly, he couldn’t have meant Brother Elrod – he’s so crotchety. But then Elrod is very wise. Surely, he could not have meant Brother Phillip – he’s too passive. But then, magically, he’s always there when you need him. Of course, he didn’t mean me – yet supposing he did? Oh Lord, not me! I couldn’t mean that much to you, could I?”

As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect, on the off chance that one of them might be the Messiah. And on the off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.

Because the forest in which the monastery was situated was beautiful, people occasionally came to visit the monastery, to picnic or to wander along the old paths, most of which led to the dilapidated chapel. They sensed the aura of extraordinary respect that surrounded the five old monks, permeating the atmosphere. They began to come more frequently, bringing their friends, and their friends brought friends. Some of the younger men who came to visit began to engage in conversation with the monks. After a while, one asked if he might join. Then another, and another. Within a few years, the monastery became once again a thriving order, and – thanks to the Rabbi’s gift – a vibrant community of light and love.

What a difference life might be if we lived in mutual respect and appreciation for one another. What a difference our world might be if we lived our lives — our whole lives — as if a gift, a prayer.  Perhaps we should give that a try. 


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