May 16, 2021

"I Happen to be Standing"

Pastor Scott Landis

John 17: 6-19

Mary Oliver is one of my very favorite poets. Now deceased, she lived most of her life in Provincetown on the tip of Cape Cod before making her way to the warmer climes of Florida following the death of her partner. While Mary eventually left New England, New England never left her. A poet of the land – and of its inhabitants – she had the unique ability to see holiness in everyday things and in everyday life. Even though she was a skeptic of religion, she was a person of deep faith. As one of the “spiritual but not religious” folks, she had no fear of questioning Christianity’s central tenets and practices – including prayer.

I’ve often turned to Mary’s poetry as I’ve discovered in her writing the ability to put my own struggles into her words. So, I’d like to begin my meditation today with one of my favorite poems of Oliver’s entitled, “I Happen to be Standing.” In it she expresses, in part, her understanding of prayer. [Read Poem]

When you think of prayer – what comes to mind? Do you pray? If so, does your practice involve words? Petitions? Desires for yourself or others? Are they rote prayers like the “Our Father,” or “The Serenity Prayer,” or are they devoid of words – allowing silence to be the message and the messenger? Are they deeply personal and offered on your knees? Or perhaps, like Oliver, wherever you, “happen to be standing,” and sometimes communicated through the enthusiasm of the wren’s song? [Pause]

We often forget that Jesus was rather mysterious in his teaching on prayer. Unlike many of his contemporaries who gave their disciples detailed instructions on prayer, Jesus was much more vague. His tactic involved modeling how to pray rather than insisting on a specific formula.

In John 17 we read what has often been referred to as the “High Priestly Prayer” – where Jesus prays for his disciples at the point when he is nearing the conclusion of his time on earth with them.

In the portion we read today, Jesus prayed for the safety of his disciples during his absence, their ability to handle rejection from “the world” whom Jesus said would not understand them, and for their unity – “that they may all be one.” His language is that of specific need – as he expressed his desire for them so they could do the work of spreading the gospel. Interestingly, his prayer for them is for things they didn’t even know they needed – at least not at the time. These needs would only become obvious after his departure. [Pause]

If you listen to his words very carefully – and especially in light of his imminent departure – Jesus really prayed that the disciples would stay intimately connected to God – the source of their entire welfare and being.

We’ve explored this theme repeatedly over the last few weeks in John’s gospel. First in the metaphor of the “vine and the branches,” then in the language of “abiding in God’s love.” And now today with words like, “so that they may be one, as we are one.”

It is very clear that Jesus was fully dependent on his relationship with the one he called “abba” often translated “daddy.” This was a relationship of intimacy, close and constant, and one where he could be completely himself as he offered his gratitude and his fears.  I believe this is precisely the kind of relationship Jesus invites us to consider as we draw near to God in our own prayer – no matter the words or techniques we use, or the specific needs expressed. [Pause]

What always troubles me in prayer is my struggle over how to enter in – what to say – particularly when I am praying in behalf of others. Allow me to explain.

As a pastor, I am often called upon to pray in many different situations. To begin or end a meeting. A blessing over a meal. In worship during our joys and concerns. At the bedside of one who is sick or dying – just to name a few. Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE to pray. I feel closer to God when I pray than at any other time. I sense a deeper union with that which I know is Holy – especially when I am alone and when I drop into silence. The problem for me arises during what I call these “professional prayers” that always leave me wondering if I am really praying to God or is my focus on others “overhearing my prayer.” In short, my ego gets in the way. It’s a constant tension that, I suppose, comes with the job.

I spoke about this dilemma the other day on our Zoom call where our topic was prayer. Many shared their experiences and how they approach prayer. As I listened, it dawned on me once again, that prayer is as varied as the number of people engaging in this vital aspect of our faith. Such that, how you pray and how I pray might be very different – and that’s as it should be. But, as I focused on what folks were saying, it became clear that “how we pray and what we say” really doesn’t matter all that much because that’s merely the starting point of something much more important.

Perhaps this short poem of Mary Oliver on Praying might help. [Read Prayer]

If we couple Mary Oliver’s thoughts and the guidance offered by Jesus, it is pretty clear that prayer is not so much about what we say. That’s only the starting point. It’s not that our words are irrelevant, but it’s what happens when we pray that is so much more important.

Just as Jesus said and modeled all along – when we pray – we draw near to the heart of God – and God draws near to our own. In the process of our prayer, regardless of or despite our words – God welcomes us into a kind of holy union – a noticing of the holy often missed in the mundane – a wren’s song, a turtle swimming alongside, a child’s hand, the mountains. In a beloved hymn, a much-needed hug, a kind word, or gracious deed. In a sense all of life becomes prayer as we avail ourselves to transformation and deepen in our realization of God’s presence and love.

So, I invite you into a time of prayer right now. Just listen. It’s a beautiful prayer that has special meaning to those of us in Hawai`i. As you listen – see if you don’t feel the presence of Holiness as heart is offered and love is realized.

The Queen’s Prayer

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