February 14, 2016 Luke 4: 1-13
The Temptation of Jesus
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” ’
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written,
“Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” ’
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you”, and
“On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’
Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’ When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
Years ago my thirteen year old niece asked me a simple, but upon further reflection, a rather profound question. “How do you pray to God?” She was unchurched, and searching. She described to me an evening with one of her girlfriends. “We couldn’t get to sleep. It was dark and we thought we could see a hole in the ceiling, and we thought maybe we could talk to God through the hole, so we did, for hours. We told him all about ourselves and what we wanted to happen in our lives. And the next day everything we talked about happened, so we thought God was listening.” Oh, if it were all that simple!
Despite all of her naivete, my niece put in a nutshell what Christians have been trying to do since the time of Christ; find that passageway bridging this world and the one beyond, and learn how to communicate with God. Jesus instructed his followers to “Pray always.” Throughout the centuries, we have been experimenting with ‘all’ different ‘ways’ to pray: through words and silence, songs and tears, using sight and smell, our feet and hands, bells and candles. You name it, we’ve tried it.
But in this post-modern world, the questions keep arising: Why pray? What good does it do? Why take time out of our busy, already over scheduled lives to pray? Is anyone listening, or are we just talking to ourselves? As my two year old nephew once asked very loudly in church: “Were is God? I don’t see him!” Not an easy question to answer for a two year old, or an 80 year old, for that matter.
Before we can answer the question “Why pray?” we need to think about who we’re praying to. How does one describe God? In pre-enlightenment times we didn’t have to think about it. We were told, by the authority of the the church, and the bible: “This is who God is.” But during the enlightenment, at the end of the 17th Century, with the advancement of science, rational thought, and the application of scientific methods to all philosophical speculation, rational proofs were demanded for the existence of God.
We all know that doesn’t work! So far, no one has come up with a scientific method to prove the existence of God. And I’m not here to convince you of anything. I believe God can only be known experientially and that is different for each one of us. And God can only be described through metaphors. My favorite comes from the Process Theologian Marjorie Suchocki in her book “In God’s Presence: Theological Reflections on Prayer.” She asks us to think of water as a metaphor for God”
“Water rushes to fill all the nooks and crannies available to it; water swirls around every stone, sweeps into every crevice, touches all things in its path - and changes all things in its path. The changes are subtle, often slow, and happen through a continuous interaction with the water that affects both the water and that which it touches…. The water doesn’t exert its power by being “single-minded” over and above all these things, but simply by being pervasively present to all things. It does not evoke the “command” of power over its creation. Its power is a power of presence.”
What if God is like that? Then prayer makes sense, because God is always present. “And perhaps this divine presence invites us into communion.”
Scientists tell us that energy waves regularly go through us. Suchocki asks: “Why can’t the higher life form that is God also co-occupy us, flowing through and around and in us, even while remaining God, and while we remain ourselves? What if such a God affects us at the deepest levels of our being — our most subconscious psyches — as well as at our “edges” in our interaction with the rest of the world? A God of pervasive presence would be no stranger to our psyches; perhaps our access to this God is in and through this deeper intimacy of ourselves in and through prayer.”
Can you get your head around that? There are those in the fundamentalist branches of all faith traditions who believe everyone should know God and practice their faith in the same way. That is impossible! If you go back to the water metaphor — if a stone or fish were able to “know” the water they were interacting with, then they would know water in different ways because it would affect them in different ways. But the stone and fish and water would each maintain their own identity.
In such a way, the Hindu and Jew, and Christian and Muslim know God in different ways. Our knowledge of God reflects our own personal and cultural histories, our traditions, and most important I believe, our own, individual life experiences. As Paul says in 1st Corinthians, “now we see in a mirror dimly,” and “now I know only in part.” How do we grow to know God more fully? — I believe it’s through prayer. And here I’m not talking about just a set of words written down for us to recite. Prayer is more than that.
Jesus headed out into the desert alone after he was baptized — to pray — to get closer to God — to listen to what God wanted him to do next —to align himself with God’s will — to gain the strength needed to begin his ministry.
And anyone who has spent days in solitude meditating knows it is not easy. You are brought face to face with your own demons - your own temptations. You discover on a deeper level “whose” you really are. Are you aligning yourself with the will of God, or consumed and ruled by your own ego and what our culture has taught us is important.
Jesus left that desert, and his life became a prayer. Whether he was casting out a demon, healing a leper, or having dinner with friends, a Pharisee, or a woman of ill repute, God was informing his every action. Throughout the gospels we see him trying to balance his solitary time of prayer with his work among the people.
The Indian yogi Paramahansa Yogananda, who combines Hinduism and Christianity, says: “When you work for God, not self, it is just as good as meditation. Then work helps your meditation and meditation helps your work. You need the balance. With meditation only, you become lazy. With activity only, the mind becomes worldly and you forget God.” Jesus never forgot God.
Two others in our contemporary world, who never forgot God, were Thomas Merton, the contemplative Cistercian monk, and Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement. Each of their lives exemplifies these two prayer forms Jesus modeled for us. Their lives of prayer set an example for Christians today.
Merton finds prayer everywhere, in all of his experiences. “Let me seek then the gift of silence, and poverty, and solitude, where everything I touch is turned into prayer: where the sky is my prayer, the birds are my prayer, the wind in the trees is my prayer, for God is all in all.”
He speaks of three important elements in the development of our interior prayer lives. The first is the “ability to respond to reality, to see the value and the beauty in ordinary things, to come alive to the splendor that is all around us in the creatures of God.” (Merton 33) He points out the difficulty of this in our world with the constant bombardment of outside stimulation in our lives.
The second element, art, “introduces the soul into a higher spiritual order. Music and art and poetry attune the soul to God because they induce a kind of contact with the Creator and Ruler of the Universe.” (Merton 36)
The third and most important element is silence. We find God in silence. “There we communicate with Him alone, without words, without discursive thoughts, in the silence of our whole being.” (Merton 254) “Prayer is then not just a formula of words, or a series of desires springing up in the heart - it is the orientation of our whole body, mind and spirit to God in silence, attention, and adoration. All good meditative prayer is a conversion of our entire self to God.”
For Merton “One of the most important functions of the life of prayer is to deepen and strengthen and develop our moral conscience.” (Merton 31) He believed prayer would lead to restoration of right order and peace in the world. (Nouwen)
Merton’s life of contemplative prayer lead him to an awareness and understanding of the oppressed of this earth, and great compassion for them, as well as a concern for the pollution and defilement of God’s creation. (Nouwen) From the monastery he wrote letters to another person of prayer, social activist Dorothy Day, and wrote articles for her paper.
In his biography of Dorothy, Jim Forest , who knew her as a co-worker and friend, speaks of her prayer life. “It was obvious to anyone who was in sight of Dorothy for more than a few hours that she was a woman of prayer...Dorothy would spend a good deal of time everyday on her knees praying.” He discovered lists of names of people, living and dead, that she had written in her prayer book to pray for. (Forest 154)
Dorothy’s prayer life went beyond the spoken word and ritual. She lived her life as a prayer. She was inspired by the little way of Theresa of Lisieux, which consisted of doing all the small tasks of everyday life with the knowledge that each one is a part of the total harmony of the universe. They were done with love and with total concentration and the attitude that this task was the most important thing to be doing at that moment.
Can any of you think of doing the dishes or laundry with that attitude?
Dorothy spoke of this in relation to her own life. “Paper work, cleaning the house, dealing with the innumerable visitors who come all through the day, answering the phone, keeping patience and acting intelligently, which is to find some meaning in all that happens - these things, too, are the works of peace.” (Forest 150)
Her life and actions were guided by constant prayer. “We feed the hungry. We try to shelter the homeless and give them clothes, but there is strong faith at work; we pray. If an outsider who comes to visit us doesn’t pay attention to our praying and what that means, then he’ll miss the whole point.” (Forest 154)
I find it interesting to compare and contrast the prayer lives of Merton and Day. Merton was drawn to solitude and found God in silence, through contemplation. Day lived and prayed immersed in humanity. Both of their lives were ones of constant prayer, which took on very different forms. But through their prayer practices they both came to a deep and abiding love of God, and compassion for all of God’s creations.
This is why we pray, to live into Jesus’ command to love God with our whole heart and soul and mind, and our neighbor as ourselves.
In answer to my niece’s question: “How do you pray to God?” I would have to answer “All ways.” There is no one way that works for all people. We have been trying many different practices over the past two thousand plus years, each of us trying to converse in our own way and listen for God’s reply. Today, I would try to introduce her to many of the different prayer forms used over the years in hopes that some of them would lead her to a clearer understanding and love of God and a deeper communion with the Spirit and creation. Above all I would encourage her to find quiet time alone and just talk to God and quiet her mind to listen, and then to include God throughout the day, like a friend, in the little joys and sorrows and the mundane activities of life. I would explain to her that God is her best friend and is there with her always. How will you pray this Lenten Season? How will you deepen your relationship to God?