Monday, September 20, 2010

Prayer is waiting, not conjuring

This morning's assigned Prayer Book lessons remind me of the Jewish idea of "the hidden hand of God."

Psalm 80's plaintive refrain begs God to come out of hiding,

Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

The Old Testament lessons right now are from Esther, the story of Jewish survival in which God is never really mentioned. Chapter 4 comes about the closest to any kind of connection to God:

"Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do."

Communal fasting from food, drink, other needs and pleasures is a means to seek God by penitence, supplication and preparation. It is a method of emptying the self to make room for God. Yet the name of God is never invoked in this intriguing little book - God remains hidden even as the people are rescued.

What strikes me in these lessons is that prayer and fasting are not conjuring. We do not presume that our efforts, however heartfelt or strenuous, will place God at our disposal on our terms. On the contrary, these spiritual disciplnes are how we wait on God, putting ourselves at God's disposal on God's terms. This is one of the great spiritual treasures in the Prayer Books' "Daily Offices."

Today's Gospel lesson is from Luke 3, in which John the Baptist receives and delivers the word of God. It is set up by the preceding chapter's tributes to waiting,

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night...

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah...

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day...

But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.

The "hidden hand of God" cannot be forced. Our spiritual disciplines are not magical conjuring. They are our patient treasuring and waiting.

While sometimes hard, it is not a grim work. It is hopeful, as Luke records for us in Jesus' teaching on prayer,

"So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to 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."

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