Tag Archive: Prayer


Last Sunday’s sermon on 1 Kings 19:9-18 and Matthew 14:22-33 preached at Community Lutheran Church.

If you come by my office during the week, and I invite you all to swing by at any time, you will probably hear music coming from my computer. I might even be humming or singing along with something. Or, if you’re particularly lucky, you might be like poor Bob who caught me dancing and rocking out at my desk this past week to a particularly jazzy and soul-filled version of “My Life Flows On In Endless Song!” I’m sorry you had to see that, Bob!

Music is so important in my life. It gives me a means of expressing myself, and helps connect thoughts and ideas. It has moved me to tears and inspired worship, and it’s a way I find joy and peace. As an extrovert, I also find meaning and joy in conversation and socializing with others. And I admit, as a Millennial, I do use social media – in other words, I’m connected with others in real space and cyber space.

Even so, throughout my life I have found myself being drawn to silence, contemplation, and stillness, time and time again.   And as much as I love rocking out in my car or hanging out with people, I crave silence and contemplation.

Finding time to spend time with God and to listen to or for God is a theme in this week’s lessons. Even last week, as Pr. Joe pointed out, Jesus tried to take time to pray to his Father, but was interrupted by the crowds upon whom he had compassion. This morning, we hear about the prophet Elijah’s need for rest, for Jesus’ time of prayer, and for the psalmist’s desire to “listen to what the Lord God is saying.”

And yet, in these readings, particularly the Old Testament and Gospel, the followers and servants of God… well, they miss the boat. Elijah, God’s feisty prophet, has just had his incredible showdown with the 450 prophets of Baal in order to prove that the God of Israel is the Lord of all. God showed up in a big way, and following the debate, Elijah killed the prophets of Baal, which did not sit well with Ahab and Jezebel. Since they were so upset, they tried to kill Elijah and he fled into the wilderness, so worn out and distraught, he wanted to die. After being sustained for 40 days and nights by God’s angels in the wilderness, Elijah finds himself at Mt. Horeb, also known as Mt. Sinai.

Statue of Elijah killing the Prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel (From: http://tomorrowsreflection.com/wp-content/uploads/Elijah-at-Mt.-Carmel1.jpg)

Statue of Elijah killing the Prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel (From: http://tomorrowsreflection.com/wp-content/uploads/Elijah-at-Mt.-Carmel1.jpg)

Sitting in a cave, Elijah hears God’s voice, which asks him “What are you doing here, Elijah?” And he responds with a mini-rant, basically saying, “I have been super awesome and gung ho for you, God. Your people are not following your ways; they’re destroying your altars and killing all my fellow prophets. Now I’m all by myself and they’re even trying to kill me!”

Now, Elijah is blowing things out of proportion – there are other prophets and there are at least 7,000 faithful people left in Israel. And I find it interesting that God doesn’t respond directly with a speech, but tells Elijah to go and to watch because God is going to show up. There’s a great wind, and a crazy earthquake, and a blazing fire, and then, sheer silence. And it’s not just the absence of sound, it’s a stillness that’s full of anticipation and is humming with potential. And when Elijah hears that, he wraps his robe around his face and steps out of the cave. Again God asks, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

And rather than responding with awe and wonder, humility and obedience to what has just happened, Elijah repeats his previous rant word for word. Face Palm I can just imagine God’s head shaking and God saying “what do I have to do to get through to you?!”

Jump forward a few centuries. Jesus and the disciples have fed the multitudes, and Jesus puts the disciples in a boat telling them to go on ahead. He dismisses the crowds and then he goes up the mountain by himself to pray. He’s praying at night, by himself, on a mountain and during the fourth watch of the night, between 3:00 and 6:00 a.m., he sets off across the waves that are aggressively pounding the disciples’ boat.

As he approaches, the disciples are seized by fear thinking Jesus is a ghost or an apparition. He speaks to them, telling them, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid” and his words echo God’s words to Moses when he heard God say, “I AM.” Jesus is saying, “take heart, I am God; don’t be afraid.”

This answer is sufficient for the other disciples, but Peter tests his Lord by saying, “if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” So often, we praise Peter for his faith in getting out of the boat, but it’s important to realize that the other figures who ask Jesus “if it is you…” include Satan, the high priest at his trial, and those who mock him on the cross. That’s some terrible company to be in! This is not one of Peter’s shining moments. He does walk on water, but becomes frightened when he sees the strong winds and begins to sink like a rock. With lightening quick reflexes Jesus reaches out and grabs him, asking him why he began to doubt. They get back into the boat, the winds cease, and the disciples worship him as the Son of God.

 

What’s amazing is that Jesus has already calmed a terrifying storm for the disciples. He’s cured people, done miracles, fed the multitudes only hours earlier, and they still doubt who he is and what he can do. Once again, God spoke and showed up in incredible ways and the disciples missed it.

What is God trying to say to you? Are you listening? Are you making time to hear?

I don’t know about you, but I am awfully good at telling God how I think things ought to be! Sadly, I’m not always so eager to listen. I’m great at running around attempting to complete that never-ending to do list, all the while forgetting to carve out that crucial time for silence and solitude in my life. And sometimes, when God is speaking, whether in the silence of my heart, through Scripture, or through trusted mentors, colleagues, family or friends, I have a hard time listening then, too.   It’s then that I feel like Elijah, so hung up on my own stuff that I completely ignore that God has just shown up all around me and I persist in my own stubbornness. Sound familiar?

Or maybe we are blinded by our fear, failing to step back and see what God is doing and how God is trying to come through the storms and chaos to reach us. Maybe it’s just what God is up to or calling us to do that scares us, like the disciples who couldn’t believe it was really their leader on the water. Or, God reaches us and we, like Peter, don’t take heart and believe Jesus’ words that he is God and Lord of all, but rather put him to the test.

Yes, there’s a lot of fear in these readings as well. Elijah runs from Jezebel and, really, from his calling as a prophet of God. The disciples let fearful superstitions rule them instead of seeing Jesus as the God capable of taming the chaotic waters underfoot. The people of God are afraid of listening to and believing God. They let what was going on around them and inside of them dictate their interactions with God. Don’t we, too, let fear, noise, distractions, troubles, and our own insecurities sidetrack us from encountering God and God’s work in and around us?

If our Lord and Savior needed prayer time alone on a mountain to rejuvenate, what makes us think we don’t need to spend time in prayer and solitude as well? Perhaps it’s because we think it’s “unproductive.” Or maybe it’s because we are afraid of listening to or for God – afraid of hearing something we don’t want to hear. But in order to grow in our faith, we must face our fears.

On Thursday, we heard the results of the Church Assessment Tool. And one of our areas for growth is that people want to grow in their spiritual vitality. I am thrilled about this because it means that we as a community are interested in being transformed by God – that the Holy Spirit is at work here and calling us to greater discipleship. At the same time, this type of growth means that we are called to engage more deeply in prayer, study, worship, service and generosity. All of these activities are training so that we are better able to recognize God, whether on a mountain in silence, or in the midst of a storm. We spend time in prayer and solitude, but we come together in worship and community to support, encourage and challenge one another as fellow disciples. Elijah made the mistake of thinking he was the only one left who cared for God and he was plunged into despair. He missed the chance to be in community with God’s other faithful servants.

Jesus never stops coming to us in our boats when we’re quivering with fear. He never stops reaching out to us when we begin to sink because the winds are too fierce and are howling too loudly. Time and time again, he calls out, “take heart, I am God, don’t be afraid.” May we listen to God’s voice, giving us courage to face our fears in the midst of every storm. Amen.

© 2014. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

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Persevering in Prayer

This is Sunday’s sermon I preached on Luke 18:1-8 at Community Lutheran Church in Sterling, Virginia.

The Gospel reading this morning opens with this: “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”  Jesus says the disciples have a need to pray always.  It’s a necessity.  It’s not a suggestion or a tip, but it’s necessary.  That’s pretty strong language.  And maybe as good Lutherans we don’t like to hear that language of “must,” but when we think about prayer as our means of communication with God, it is pretty important stuff!

In thinking about prayer, I spent some time on that most theological of resources, YouTube, watching movie clips in which people try to pray.  While one from the end of Bruce Almighty was very touching and heartfelt, most of them were funny.  Usually, in these scenes people unaccustomed to praying are asked to pray before a meal or before a group of people.  They try to build a prayer, stringing together bits and pieces of religious language they’ve heard, along with song lyrics (a little Godspell perhaps?), and even the Pledge of Allegiance.  People look up from their prayers, eyebrows raised, concern on their faces and awkwardness and hilarity ensue.

Now watching these clips gave me a good chuckle, but these movies also pointed out another truth: many people are uncomfortable with prayer.  Maybe that’s why Jesus spends a great deal of time encouraging the disciples to pray, especially in the Gospel of Luke.  In Luke’s Gospel, we hear about Jesus praying and discussing prayer more often than in the any of the other Gospels.

Jesus’ parable about the persistent widow must have struck his listeners and the early church as pretty funny.  Here’s a vulnerable widow persistently harassing a judge who is neither objective nor impartial to give her justice.  The odds are not in her favor, and yet, she never gives up.  Finally, he gives in, figuring that it’s in his best interest to give her what she wants.  And what we miss as English speakers is that the judge actually says he’s going to act “in order that she doesn’t finally strike him in the eye.”  Yes.  That’s what it says! So Jesus is telling a parable where the powerful judge is worried about a vulnerable, powerless widow giving him a black eye.  This lady might not only physically make him look bad, but also ruin his reputation by continually seeking justice.  The image must have been quite an absurd one to Jesus’ hearers!

Jesus goes on to say that if even this terrible guy gives justice to the widow out of his own selfish interests, how much more will a good and loving God give ear and justice to God’s chosen ones who cry out day and night?

Right before this story, Jesus spoke with the Pharisees and explained that the kingdom of God was already present.  He explained that it was not completely here and that it was unlike any other kingdom they might have seen in the world.  Instead, he said that it was here already, growing in and among people.  He then spoke about how the Son of Man would come again unexpectedly.  It is in this context that we hear about the need to pray always.

In the first communities to receive and hear Luke’s Gospel, the faithful believers were eagerly waiting for Jesus to return and to bring about the fullness of God’s kingdom on earth.  But they needed encouragement to hold on and to be faithful during this period of waiting.  The Romans had destroyed the magnificent Temple in Jerusalem, and the believers were trying to figure out what it meant to follow Christ in the Roman Empire.  How long must they wait for God’s reign and justice?  How long must they hold on until Jesus returned?  And how could they hold fast in the meantime?

The answer was to be persistent in prayer.  And the same is true for us today.  Prayer is a means of communicating with God.  As Teresa of Avila, the 16th century mystic and reformer wrote, “Prayer, is nothing but friendly intercourse, and frequent solitary converse, with Him who we know loves us.”  It’s a way of not only telling God what is on our minds and in our hearts, but of being open to listening to the whispers of the Holy Spirit.  It’s also a way of connecting with one another in community.  Listening to others pray not only inspires us to pray, but also opens us to the concerns and needs of those around us.  And coming before God to intercede for others brings us closer to those for whom we are praying.  Prayer shapes our attitudes toward God and others and transforms our hearts in the process.

Prayer is an incredible gift and yet I still find that I don’t pray as often as I’d like to or as I should.  And maybe it’s the same for you.  I’d love to tell you that I pray every day for an hour, but that would be lying.  When things are difficult, perhaps it is easier to pray more, but what about when things are going pretty well? It has been my experience that God is always patiently and persistently reminding me of my need to pray.  I am reminded of this through others requesting prayer and also through others in the body of Christ reminding me of the importance of prayer.  I also experience God calling me to prayer through that still, small voice that seems to gently say, “spend time with me in prayer.”

And even then, I confess that I sometimes put it off, metaphorically sticking my fingers in my ears and saying, “la la la la – I’ve got other things to do!”  But I’ve found that once I make that time to pray, it is almost always the case that I feel a greater sense of calm and peace.  You see, God always faithfully pursues, calling us to spend time with God in spite of ourselves.  Out of amazing love, God has chosen each and every one of us.  And so, God wants to hear everything that we have to say, even if we’re angry or frustrated with God.  That’s incredible.

But then there are the other times when prayer is a struggle.  Sometimes it seems as if God isn’t listening and that things will never change.  Sometimes the prayers seem to go unanswered.  Sometimes it seems that the right words don’t come and there doesn’t seem to be any sign of that peace or calm showing up.  Sometimes even though we feel called to serve or to take action, it can seem that what we’re doing isn’t making any difference.  What then?

It is then that we are to be persistent – to continue praying and bringing our needs, hurts, hopes and dreams before God in prayer.  It is then that we can remember that Jesus continued praying in the Garden of Gethsemane before the crucifixion even though it was difficult.  It is then that we can remember that Jesus prayed for his disciples and continues to encourage us to pray.  It is then that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.  It is then that we persevere and push onward, trusting that God does hear and will act.

And it’s crucial to remember that we are a part of a community.  We’re not just praying alone or for our own needs, but with and for others and they for us.  As Martin Luther wrote in A Simple Way to Pray: “Finally, mark this, that you must always speak the Amen firmly.  Never doubt that God in his mercy will surely hear you and say ‘yes’ to your prayers.  Never think that you are kneeling or standing alone, rather think that the whole of Christendom, all devout Christians, are standing there beside you and you are standing among them in a common, united petition which God cannot disdain.  Do not leave your prayer without having said or thought, ‘Very well, God has heard my prayer; this I know as a certainty and a truth.’  That is what Amen means.”

When Jesus asks if he will find faith when he returns, I think he’s talking about this dogged, messy, stubborn, persistent faith that keeps on praying despite the odds.  It’s a faith that keeps on keeping on even though it doesn’t make any rational sense.  It’s hanging on tightly to God, even when it may seem foolish to others to do so.  It’s the faith that follows the way of the cross, believing that in death there is life.

In the words of one of my favorite singers, Audrey Assad:

My faith is not a fire
As much as it’s a glow
A little burning ember
In my weary soul
And it’s not too much
It’s just enough to give me hope
Because your love moves slow

God calls and empowers us through the Holy Spirit to persistent prayer and faith.  God invites, reminds and emboldens us to keep a steady ember aglow, waiting for God to fan us into faithful flames, capable of setting the world on fire with God’s love.

Unlike the unjust judge, God longs for us to spend time in prayer, pouring out our hearts, silently and aloud, through words and actions, individually and in community.  As Luther reminds us, “prayer is not overcoming God’s reluctance.  It is laying hold of His willingness.”  Praying to God is not wearing out a selfish and partial judge, but persistently embracing and enjoying God’s goodness and the relationship God wants to have with us.

In the week ahead, I invite and encourage you to experiment with prayer.  Pray for each member of your family – even the extended family.  Pray for your neighbors.  Pray for Community Lutheran.  Pray for the people you pass on the sidewalk.  Pray for people with whom you have a hard time interacting.  Pray for the person who cuts you off in traffic.  I know, that’s a tough one!  Request that others pray for you.  See what happens! Remember, you don’t have to be eloquent or use big theological words – you are talking to God, the One who knows you better than anyone else, even yourself.  God has given you a voice and a way of praying, so embrace it and use it!  Thanks be to God! Amen.

© 2013. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

Audrey Assad singing “Slow:”

This is the sermon I preached this morning on the fantastic story of Martha and Mary found in Luke 10:38-42:

38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ 41But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’

Martha and Mary.  Two of the Bible’s more famous siblings.  I love this story.  First of all, I have two brothers, so when Martha gets a little whiny about Mary just sitting there at Jesus’ feet, I totally hear the sibling rivalry coming through.  In my head, it always sounds like, “Jesus, tell Mary to help!”  I don’t know what Martha actually sounded like, but that’s what it sounds like in my head.

Second, this story is one that could easily fit into our day.  Let’s see… Martha and Mary are at home and they receive a knock at the door – Jesus is here!  If this story were taking place today, I’d imagine that Martha had been preparing on Pinterest, the social networking site for DIY projects, crafts, cooking, and saving and sharing all of your favorite things.  No, I’m not addicted at all! Anyway, Martha, who had been busily pinning and saving all of the most amazing Mediterranean dishes she could find, is now busily whipping them up in the kitchen while Jesus is out in the living room talking with Mary.

Running back and forth, Martha catches sight of her sister just sitting there at Jesus’ feet, listening to him.  Martha stops in her tracks thinking, “oh not she’s not!”  Her face begins to flush red and she hurries over to Jesus, eager for a righteous third party to play judge over this dispute.  But she doesn’t get what she’s looking for and Mary ends up being praised for listening to Jesus.

Now at this point, if I were Martha, I’d be frustrated and angry that my work was under-appreciated and that I wasn’t going to get any help.  I’d also be embarrassed that my esteemed guest had told me I was wrong in front of my sister.

We don’t know if Mary and Martha gave each other a hard time after this visit, but we do know a couple of things about these women.  For starters, it is crucial that we don’t look at this text as denigrating service or action, because Martha was doing exactly what was expected of her.  She opened up her home to Jesus and welcomed him in generously.  And in a culture where hospitality of the stranger was expected and treasured, Martha’s welcome of Jesus and the way in which she sought to serve him was admirable.

Besides, the story immediately preceding this one in Luke’s Gospel is the story of the Good Samaritan – a person whose loving service is lifted up as an example.  Jesus says at the end of that memorable story to “go and do likewise.”  So what’s going on here?

This is where looking at the text is really helpful in understanding a bit better what was taking place.  It’s not just that Martha was distracted by her serving and couldn’t really focus on her guest – the word used is even stronger than that.  It actually says she was being “overburdened” or “being pulled” or “being dragged from all around.”  She was being dragged away from the very one she was seeking to welcome and to graciously host in her home.

And when Jesus responds to her, he says that she’s continuing to be anxious or “unduly concerned” as well as “distracted” and “troubled.”  I don’t know about you, but none of those words or phrases has a positive connotation for me!  Martha is stressed out, overburdened, anxious, troubled, and being dragged away from Jesus.

My heart goes out to Martha.  No, even more than that – I believe I have been Martha at various points in my life.  Seeking to do all the right things and overextending myself in various activities, even “good” activities.  Running around like a chicken with my head cut off, feeling exhausted and zapped of my creativity and energy.  I hear Martha’s story and I completely get it.

And I don’t think I’m the only one.  In a 2012 New York Times Opinion Column, Tim Kreider wrote about “The Busy Trap.”  He writes: “If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are.  It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint.  It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence. Almost everyone I know is busy. They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work.”

Now, those are some harsh words, but after I read that article last year, I began paying attention to how others answered the questions “how are you?” and “what are you up to?”  More importantly, I started paying attention to my own answers to those questions, which were almost always some variation on “I’m good.  Busy, but good!”

We live in a society that preaches, “time is money.”  Our success is often gauged by overtime, productivity output, and how full our planners, Blackberries, iPhones or Google Calendars are.  It’s so easy to feel like we have to be on the move, doing something in order to know that we are worth something – that we are busy, important people.  In some ways, it feels good to be able to rattle off all of the many important tasks we have before us, or even better, that we just recently checked off of our to-do lists.

But I wonder if it’s not more than that.  Are we afraid of not being busy?  Are we afraid that sitting and resting, or reflecting or praying makes us unproductive members of society? Or are we afraid of what God might call us to do if we ever settled down enough to listen?

I sort through all of these questions and it seems like it is so hard to be still and to listen.  And it is.  But there is also amazing hope.   Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, in the role of a disciple, listening deeply, drinking in his words, and spending time with this guest to her home.  While Martha is being dragged away and overburdened by all of her tasks, Mary literally “takes her place beside” Jesus.  And Jesus says that this attentive time spent with him is the better part – the good portion.  But he goes even further.  He doesn’t just focus on Mary and leave Martha to run around, stress herself out or exhaust herself.  Instead, he tenderly calls “Martha, Martha,” urging her to leave her frantic rushing about and graciously inviting her to spend time with God.

And just as he called to Martha, he continues to call to us today.  Jesus calls us gently, “Come, sit at my feet.  Spend time in my presence, listening deeply to my voice.  Rest, learn and be refreshed.  Come to the waters and remember you are forgiven.  Come to my table and be strengthened by the food I offer.  Come and hear my word.  Come study it and let it take hold in your heart.  And I will send you into the world alive and centered in me.”

I think that’s why we come back each Sunday.  We need this every week – to be refreshed and strengthened in community.  We need to be reminded of that one thing that is necessary, that is really and truly useful – spending time dwelling in the presence of Christ and letting his love for us work in our hearts that we might better love ourselves, each other and all of creation.  We need to be reminded that God loves us and desires to spend time with us, not because we’re busy, important, or successful people, but because God is loving and faithful.

This story happens in Martha and Mary’s home.  Jesus encountered these two sisters in the middle of normal life.  And Jesus meets us in the midst of our everyday lives – breaking in and calling us to take time out of our busy schedules to spend in worship, thanksgiving and praise.  It doesn’t have to be a full-blown worship service, but how can you practice hospitality and invite Christ into your everyday life?  How could you make a space to encounter Christ and spend time in the presence of God?

Maybe you could pause for a few moments of quiet and prayer in your cubicle, office or even in the car as you commute – and please, keep your eyes open and on the road!  Or you could read a brief devotion in the morning, over your lunch break or before bed.  Maybe you love singing and hymnody, so taking time to sing a hymn that is near and dear to you could be a great way of making space.  What about the arts or crafting?  Perhaps your craft time is a place to invite God in and to listen for that still small voice?

The irony of this is that it takes some work to practice being still and listening.  I know I have felt overburdened and dragged all around like Martha, feeling like there’s no way I can possibly squeeze in prayer or devotion on top of everything else.  However, I have repeatedly been amazed at how much sitting in quiet prayer with God has refreshed me and brought things back into focus.  It’s in those quiet times that I remember that life is a gift to be enjoyed, not worried about.  I remember that it’s not about my never-ending to-do list, but about being attentive to what I am being called to do in that moment.  How might making space to listen for the voice of God and to make God the goal bring all other things into focus in your life?

It’s not that service or action is a bad thing.  Rather, it’s when that service obscures or takes the place of God that there is a problem.  When we’re distracted from God and hearing God’s call in our lives because we’re so busy serving or being active, that’s when Jesus gently calls us back, reminding us that a life lived as disciples learning at Jesus’ feet is the better part – the part that will never be taken away from us.  AMEN.

© 2013. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

A Gut-moving Experience

This was the sermon I preached on June 9 on the “Widow of Nain:” Luke 7:11-17.

Jesus has just come to Nain, a village southeast of Nazareth.  He’s traveling with his disciples and a large crowd after successfully healing a centurion’s servant.  As they come up to the gate of the village, they encounter a funeral procession.  There are crowds shuffling slowly and people weeping for the man who has died and is now being carried out of the city on a bier.   In the heart of the crowd, Jesus sees this man’s mother and tells her, “do not weep.”  And without another word, he touches the bier, halting the procession in its tracks.  The widow and the crowds are waiting, silent and tense, not knowing who this man is or what he is doing.  What might he do?  Might he actually have the power to do something?

Jesus stands next to the bier and says in a clear voice, “Young man, I say to you, rise!”  Suddenly the man sits bolt upright and begins to speak!  As Jesus hands him over to his mother, the crowds begin to glorify and praise God, calling Jesus a great prophet and saying that God has looked favorably on them.  From that small village of Nain, stories of a great prophet ripple out, eventually reaching John the Baptist.

This morning’s Gospel reading is a very short story.  There’s very little dialogue and, although a man is raised from the dead, it’s not one of the better-known stories we hear in scripture!  But as I was reading this story again, I was struck by the phrase, “When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her…”

Now, if there’s one thing you all should know about me, it’s that I am a huge language nerd.  Actually, I’m a huge nerd in general, but let’s just focus on the language part for now.  I love learning different languages.  I enjoy learning about where words come from and the ways in which languages reflect cultures.  So when I heard this phrase about having compassion on the widow, I thought back to Greek class.

You see, there’s a really fun Greek word for what gets translated in our Gospel reading as “to have compassion on.”  The verb used is splanchnizomai – if you’d like, I invite you to try saying it because it’s really fun!  Splanchnizomai.  This fun foreign word connects to the word for guts.  That’s right, Jesus saw her and his guts were moved.  Weird, right?  Well, in many cultures of the day, the guts were thought to be the place of deep, tender emotion.  Love, compassion and affection were not matters of the heart, but matters of the gut.  I think “I ❤ New York” works much better than “I gut New York,” but I digress.

Jesus is walking in the village and he sees a sight that hits him in the gut.  It stops him in his tracks and causes him to reach out and to address the people and the situation in front of him.  He sees not only the widow’s sorrow, but also her glaring need.  He knows perfectly well that in his culture a single woman without a husband or son to care for her would lose her place in society and would have to rely upon charity to survive.  He knows that she not only weeps for her son, but also for the dire straits she’s now in – for the uncertainty that lies ahead.  He sees this and it hits him hard.  And so he acts, speaking a word of hope and promise, telling her not to weep.  And then he raises her son with only a few words, restoring not only his life, but the widow’s as well.  Both of them are restored to life and also to their places in the community.

Jesus’ response to the situation – the compassion he feels upon seeing this sad sight – isn’t just a miracle story.  It helps the people of Nain, the people hearing Luke’s Gospel, and us, today, to identify Jesus with God.  Throughout the Hebrew Bible, God is described as being a God of mercy, compassion and faithfulness.  God’s character is one of love and justice – of caring for the poor, the orphan, the widow and all of those who have been marginalized.  Jesus’ compassion on the widow signals that he is connected with God.  Through Jesus’ movement of love to the very center of death and the miracle of raising this young man, the villagers identify him as a great prophet, as someone who is bringing God’s favor and mercy to them.  God has visited them and all of them have in some way experienced not only God’s favor, but new life.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Jesus’ encounter with the funeral procession.  They were on their way, participating in a difficult part of every day life, when they were stopped.  They were interrupted by God enfleshed.  But even Jesus was powerfully impacted by what he encountered.  His compassionate, divine gut told him to get involved and to act.

I know there have been times in my life when I have seen situations and felt compelled to reach out.  But I also know there are just as many times I’ve ignored these promptings.  How often do we go through life, checking off things on our “to do” lists, moving along and doing our own thing, ignoring, intentionally or not, the widows around us?  Ignoring those in need of tender care and also justice?  What does it take for something to hit us in the guts and cause us to sit up and pay attention?  Do the situations we see around us or in the larger world – the poverty, problems with bullying, lack of clean water, malaria, violence – move us with compassion to do something?  Or do we walk on by?

A few weeks ago, a photo posted online hit me in the gut and stopped me cold.  It was a picture of a couple embracing in the rubble of the garment factory that had collapsed in Bangladesh in April.  It was a shocking picture because they looked peaceful, like a couple in love with the backdrop of a horrific tragedy.   It was a picture that saddened me, but also made me upset that so many, 1,100 people, died due to unsafe working conditions.  It was also a picture that made me uncomfortable because the garments made there could easily be the ones on my back.  As I was looking at the photo of the couple buried in the rubble and now thinking about the gospel for today, I wonder, how might God be calling me to respond?  Might God be calling me to a greater awareness of the high price of my clothes? Might God be calling me to speak up for better working conditions at garment factories?

“A Final Embrace” photographed by Taslima Akhter on April 25, 2013

Like the widow and the crowds in Nain, God through the Holy Spirit interrupts us along our way, inviting us to participate in what God is up to in the world.  The difficult thing is being open to being interrupted – letting ourselves be moved by compassion to do something that maybe was never on our radar screen.  Letting ourselves be moved by the Spirit to take risks for the sake of the gospel.  Letting ourselves be moved out of our comfort zones and beyond our fears to follow Christ, the one who gives abundant life.

The young man in this story is not the only one who has died and been brought back to life for a second chance.  In some ways, we may be dead to what is going on around us in the world, hesitant to get involved because we fear we do not have the skills necessary, or because we wonder what others might say if we stepped outside of the box.  Maybe we doubt that we could even make a difference.  But just as Jesus brought the young man back to life, he stands before us, beckoning us to rise and to live in the fullness of the life he longs to give to us.

Every day we can remember that, in baptism, we too, have died with Christ and been raised to new life in him.  We have been marked with the cross and gifted with the Holy Spirit.  We have been given the incredible opportunity to go out, led by the Spirit, to participate in the work of sharing life and hope with others, especially those in need like the widow of Nain.

And one of the fantastic gifts we’ve been given is that we’re never in this alone!  We have the community of faith to help us discern how God may be leading us individually, as a congregation, and as a larger church to respond to those stirrings of mercy and compassion we feel.

With stories of violence in the news or the recent tornadoes in Oklahoma we know all too well that we will see and hear difficult or even downright awful things in the world that hit us in the gut and move us.  The question is, how is God calling us to respond? Is it with prayer? Is it with donations of clothing, food, water or money? Is it by giving of our time? Is it by learning more about the situations and discerning with the community how to respond?

Christ has given us new life through his death and resurrection.  And we have been generously invited to share that gift of life with others in his name.  What an amazing opportunity!  May the Holy Spirit continue to interrupt our lives, to shake us up and stir in us, moving us with compassion and driving us to actively participate in God’s work in the world.  Let’s just say I’ve got a good gut feeling about it.  AMEN.

© 2013. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

Since April 10, I have been learning how to write icons in the Orthodox style.  Icons are both a form of artwork and a way of praying.  I was nervous to begin painting my icon of Christ the Good Shepherd because I was unsure of my painting abilities.  I only knew that I really wanted to try my hand at this since I had heard it was a deeply prayerful and spiritual practice.  So off I went! 

Along the way, I learned quite a bit, and not just about icons.  I learned a lot about myself and my relationship with God.  I warned my teacher that I was a perfectionist going in and after a sigh, she told me that it’s not about the icon being perfect, but I do need to be happy with it because I’ll be praying with it.  If there are things that bother me enough to distract my prayer time, I better make them as I like them!  More on this later…

My icon writing sessions begin with a beautiful prayer that my teacher uses.  It’s a prayer asking God to help me focus on only this and for God to speak to me through what I’m doing.  It’s a prayer that asks God to help me to use my God-given gifts in painting for prayer and worship.  It’s a prayer asking for help not comparing my work to others, for God alone can judge the prayer.  It’s a prayer asking opening my heart to pray for others as I work. 

I’ve found that between this prayer and the practice itself, I settle into icon writing and that it becomes the thing I can focus on at that moment.  I can’t think about my future or the call process (where I’ll be serving as a pastor), or trying to solve anything else going on.  I am solely devoted to spending time working slowly and deliberately on the icon.  Focusing on individual garment folds, on wood grain in Jesus’ staff, the curls of the lamb’s wool, or on the gentle eyes of Christ.  I have to move slow and appreciate the details.  I can get overwhelmed by the overall picture, but at some point I just have to begin, one stroke at a time. 

And that’s another thing about icon writing.  Icons are painted going from dark colors to light, symbolizing our transformation from sin and death to forgiven and alive in the light of Christ.  But while I was painting this first icon, I found it awful difficult to believe that my finished icon would look as it was supposed to.  While you’re in the middle of it, you can’t possibly see that this is the right thing to do or that mistakes will somehow work out and that the icon will be beautiful – something through which you’ll be moved.  Even knowing that this is a tradition thousands of years old and with the experienced guidance and hand of my teacher, I found I was doubting that my icon painted with the same techniques and theory would even remotely resemble any icon!

Regarding my perfectionism, while I was painting, I found that I definitely had things I wanted to keep tweaking and fixing (futzing is the word that best describes this 😉 ).  Others would say it looked good, but I wasn’t completely satisfied.  Or it was really fine and I kept trying to “fix” it, each time really risking making it worse.  It was hard to let go and to trust that it would be fine.  It was hard to let go and accept the little imperfections, knowing that only God can create something perfect.  I know that I do this all the time in everyday life, seeking to control and to make things as perfect as I can, without really trusting God.  For those who haven’t tried it, it’s exhausting!  To keep messing with something rather than letting go and allowing God to work, trusting that God is acting and with our best interests in mind. 

It was also interesting to watch how the members of the class praised one another’s work, but pointed out all of the imperfections in our own icons, whether or not anyone else could see them!  What a life lesson!  Staring at the icon up close means you often miss the larger, overall effect.  It’s helpful to have others hold it up from afar so you can take it all in.  How often do we get blinded in our own little world that we miss the larger picture of what God’s doing? 

It’s also amazing the way people may use the same techniques and the same icon pattern, but that each icon turns out unique in some way, reflecting the person who made it and their prayer to God.  For example, one day I found that I was spending a ridiculous amount of time working on the lamb in my icon and I wondered how others had been able to finish so quickly.  As I meditated on this, I realized that I felt really connected to that little lamb, safe and secure around Christ’s neck.  I realized that I am that little lamb, the one for whom Christ laid down his life – the one safe in his hands.  I needed to spend time painting and reflecting about that relationship, hearing again that miraculous good news. 

I have just finished putting varnish on my icon and I have asked God that it might be a blessing to myself and others and that we may encounter God through it.  It is not perfect, and there are still things that jump out at me as “errors,” but when I look at it, it speaks to me of Christ’s love and mercy.  It invites me, beckons me, to pray and to spend time in quiet reflection with God.

I still have so much to learn about icons and painting, but I give thanks that this first one has been a great experience and I look forward to continuing!  

 
© 2013. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.
 
 
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