Saturday, July 27, 2013

"A Pesky Friend" - July 28, 2013

Luke 11:1-13

            Barry Levinson’s classic movie, “Diner”, includes a scene where four friends are sitting together in the booth of a diner late at night.  In the middle of their discussion, one of them finishes up his sandwich and pushes his plate back a little and one of the others says,

“Are you going to finish your fries?” 
“Do you want a fry?”
“I’m just asking if you’re done.”
“No, if you want a fry, go ahead and take one.”
“I didn’t say that.  I just asked if you’re going to finish them.”
“So do you or don’t you?”
“Do you or don’t you want some fries?”
“Well, if you’re not going to eat them… but that’s not what
        I was saying.”
“That’s exactly what you were saying.”
“Did I say that?”
“You didn’t say that, but you said that.”
“I just wanted to know if you were finished.”
“Have some gravy, too.”

Those may not be the exact words, because I tried to recreate the scene from memory, but that was clearly the conversation.  I don’t know about you, but some of my old friends and I have had it many times.

            Maybe you have someone like that in your life.  Maybe there’s someone you have known forever who isn’t shy at all about asking something that nobody else would.  It might be couched in coded terms, but it is there.  “Are you going to finish those fries?”  “What are you doing next Saturday?”  “About your chainsaw…”

            Has it ever occurred to you that when you or I pray we may be exactly like that annoying friend?  Jesus told a parable about that.

“Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’” [Luke 11:5-6] 
(It’s interesting that the pesky friend apparently has another friend who does the same thing to him.) 

And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. [Luke 11:7-8]
            When Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray, he teaches them to be direct and open.

“He said to them, ‘When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.’” [Luke 11:2-4]
He even mentions the need for bread that this parable centers on.  It’s as if he were saying, that God is the sort of friend you can bother at midnight, then he’s the sort of friend you don’t have to beat around the bush with.  If God can handle having dysfunctional friends like us, surely he can handle us when we act maturely and reasonably and approach him directly and without manipulation.

            Of course, that means being ready for a mature response from God. 
“Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish?  Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion?” [Luke 11:11-12]
A mature response might not, if we’re honest, always be the one we ask for.  There’s a country group named “Jaron and the Long Road to Love” that has a song called, “I Pray for You”.  It says:

“I haven’t been to church since I don’t remember when.
Things were going great ’til they fell apart again.
So I listened to the preacher as he told me what to do:
He said you can’t go hatin’ others who have done wrong to you;
Sometimes we get angry but we must not condemn.
Let the good Lord do his job.  You just pray for them.

I pray your brakes go out runnin’ down a hill.
I pray a flower pot falls from a window sill
And knocks you in the head like I’d like to.
I pray your birthday comes and nobody calls.
I pray you’re flyin’ high when your engine stalls.
I pray all your dreams never come true.
Just know wherever you are, honey, I pray for you.”

You can be pretty sure that God is not going to answer that sort of prayer favorably. 

The thing is that sometimes we pray for something that really would not be good for us, if only we realized it.  To use the same idea of friendship that Jesus used, it would be as if you had a friend who was drunk and who had left his keys in a coat that you had hung up for him.  He would be welcome to his coat, or to a place on the couch, or to a ride home, but not to his keys.  The answer is, “No.”  That’s not because you don’t care, but because you do.  If God does not agree to everything we propose, it does not mean he is uncaring.  It may mean that he does care, and (again, should be stating the obvious) simply knows better than we do.

Ultimately, prayer should be about conforming ourselves to God’s will, not trying to convince God that we know best.  It’s a matter of learning to say, “Your kingdom come,” [Luke 11:2] and not mean, “My kingdom come.”  It’s a matter of learning to say, with the hymn writer,

“I ask no dream, no prophet ecstasies,
No sudden rending of the veil of clay,
No angel visitant, no opening skies;
But take the dimness of my soul away.
Teach me to feel that Thou art always nigh;
Teach me the struggles of the soul to bear.
To check the rising doubt, the rebel sigh,
Teach me the patience of unanswered prayer.”[1]

            Having said all that, God’s desire is always to bless, and he will surely do that, in his own way, the best way. 
“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” [Luke 11:9-10] 

[1] from George Croly, “Spirit of God, Descend upon My Heart”.

"A Tale of Two Sisters" - July 21, 2013

Luke 10:38-42

            This story about two sisters could easily be taken to talk what happens at the end of Thanksgiving dinner when one person is in the kitchen doing the dishes and another is on the sofa watching a football game.  Martha saw it that way.  She complained to Jesus,
“Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”  [Luke 10:40]
I know a lot of people who feel that way from time to time.  I can see it at church events, when the same group of people set up and clean up.  The exasperation that comes through in Martha’s words is palpable.  It wasn’t, “Mary, could you come here for a second?” or, “Could you give me a hand?” or, “I need you.  Now.”  No, Martha has to go and ask Jesus to tell Mary to get out there – and she adds a barb to it with, “Lord, do you not care?”
            Jesus, as a man in that time and place, would not be expected to get out there himself.  Even so, he doesn’t help out the situation very much in the way that he tries to soothe her. 
“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” [Luke 10:41-42]
Martha is so busy making preparations for their visitor that she is going to miss the time they have together.  Mary is spending the time with him, and getting something out of it.  I can imagine the aftermath.  Martha is exhausted and still worried whether Jesus had had enough to eat.  Mary closes the door and says what a great time they all had.  That grates on Martha’s last nerve and she gives her “lazy” sister a piece of her mind.
            Let me reframe this drama in terms of the two sisters, though, in a way that might be more helpful, because when you look at the whole situation, you can see Martha and Mary as typifying two different ways of relating to Jesus, probably to life in general, that psychologists call “extroverted” or “introverted”.  All too often, they misunderstand one another.  There are lots of tests that you can take that point you toward where you yourself might stand in one of those groupings.  I’m going to throw part of one of those at you in a moment. 
First, though, I ask you to remember a couple of important points.  One is that these are descriptive categories.  They simply describe broad categories of human experience.  They do not mean that you have to fit neatly into any box.  Another point is that it isn’t a good idea to characterize anyone else, or decide for them where they fit.  About 75% of people in our culture are considered “extroverts”,[1]  so a lot of people who are more introverted have learned to function in that way as a matter of adapting to the world they live in.  In fact, Martha’s demand that Jesus make her sister behave more like her, and Mary’s resistance to the demand, are classic in that respect. 
            So, with those comments, let me toss out two groups of generalized statements.  See which sounds more like you.
“I am seen as ‘outgoing’ or as a ‘people person.’
I feel comfortable in groups and like working in them.
I have a wide range of friends and know lots of people.
I sometimes jump too quickly into an activity and don’t allow enough time to think it over.
Before I start a project, I sometimes forget to stop and get clear on what I want to do and why.”

Ready for the next round?  Here goes.
“I am seen as ‘reflective’ or ‘reserved.’
I feel comfortable being alone and like things I can do on my own.
I prefer to know just a few people well.
I sometimes spend too much time reflecting and don’t move into action quickly enough.
I sometimes forget to check with the outside world to see if my ideas really fit the experience.”[2]
If you lean more toward the first group of statements, you are more likely an extrovert, a “Martha”.  If you lean more toward the second group of statements, you are more likely an introvert, a “Mary”.
            The needs and characteristics of both are legitimate, but sometimes they clash.  I see it on Sunday mornings right before church starts.  Some people arrive, take a bulletin, find a seat, and close their eyes or stare at the colors in the windows.  They may read over the prayer for the day or look ahead at the hymns.  Then somebody else arrives, sits down in front of them, and turns around to say hello.  “How did the week go?  That’s a good color you’re wearing.  Your procedure is on Thursday, isn’t it?  Do you need a ride?”  Then comes the start of the service.  Things calm down.  Then we pass the peace, which for some people is the least peaceful part of the morning, and for others is a highlight.

            Remember, though, that Jesus was friends with both Mary and Martha.  He was there to see both of them, and both of them were there to be with him.  A Catholic priest named Father Ron Rolheiser has thought about this a bit.  He writes,
“An emphasis on silence and solitude alone tends to penalize extroverts, just as an emphasis on community and church alone tends to penalize introverts. Too rarely have we struck a healthy balance on this.
Both are necessary and both are necessary within the life of the same person. Simply put, there is a certain inner work that can only be done alone, in silence, just as there is a certain growth and maturity that can be only be reached through long faithful interaction within a family and community.  There is a time to be alone, away from others, and there is a time to be with others, away from the private fantasies within our own minds. Being silent and being social do different things for us. If I am alone and silent too much, I will probably develop a certain depth, but I also stand the chance of living too much inside my own fantasies. Conversely, if I am a social-butterfly who shuns silence and aloneness, the danger is that I will end up rather shallow and superficial, uninterested in anything beyond the gossip of the day, but I may well possess a balance, sanity, and resiliency that is less evident in the person more given to silence and solitude.
We need both, silence and socializing, in our lives and pitting one against the other is a false dichotomy. They aren’t in opposition to each other but are both vital components of the same journey towards a community of life with God and each other.”[3]
            That’s why I’ve included a sort of statement of understanding between the two groups, and the two sides of ourselves, in the bulletin this morning.  I’m going to ask you to take a look at yourself and choose which part fits you best.  If you are more of a Martha than a Mary, please read the PLAIN PRINT.  If you are more of a Mary than a Martha, please read the ITALICS.  Everyone is asked to read the BOLD PRINT.  (I’ll read both parts, just so that there’s a leading voice.  Yes, that is a very “Martha” thing to do.)

We are the doers who think we are fewer.
We are the learners who feel like discerners.
We need one another.  We need to discover:
Our need to be doing,            
Our need to keep learning,     
Our common Redeemer, who keeps it all turning,                                    
Who makes us sit down,
Who makes us stand up,
We need one another. We need to discover:
Who has promised a crown,
And who fills up our cup.

[2]  The passage quoted is cited as adapted from Charles R. Martin, Looking at Type: The Fundamentals (CAPT 1997).

[3] Father Ron Rolheiser, “Introverts, Extroverts, and the Spiritual Journey” in the Catholic Star Herald (November 20, 2008).