Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor
11024 S. Bell Avenue
Chicago, IL 60643
Reflection July 14,2019
"Knock - Knock: Who’s There?" - by Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
This past Sunday, July 7, I preached again on prayer (the topic for our summer sermons). Normally, we live-stream Sunday services but, unfortunately, something went array this past Sunday. I know there are a goodly number who watch the service live or later on Facebook. Since we had no video, I’ll place much of the sermon in this week’s Advance. I’ll leave out the two corny “Knock Knock” jokes with which I began the sermon!
Have you ever seen a fox outside of a zoo? I have, in my backyard, some years ago. It was incredibly beautiful but also decidedly dangerous. My cats would stand no chance in an encounter with a fox! I mention this long-ago fox because I’ve come to understand how God is like a fox: incredibly beautiful, decidedly dangerous, and also very elusive.
I hope to preach a full sermon soon on the idea of “naming” God even though such a prospect frightens me. In our Christian tradition, we assign three different “roles” to the Almighty, speaking of God as “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit.”
Naturally, any attempt to “name” God is absurd yet we keep trying to do so. We keep trying to “envision” God. I recently watched the movie, The Shack, based on the novel of same title. While I have some hesitation about the theology presented, what I liked most in the movie was the portrayal of the Trinity of God.
The wonderful actress Octavia Spencer played the Father. The Son was played by a young, vibrant Middle Eastern appearing man. The Spirit was cast as a young, attractive Asian woman. And while we’re speaking about the Spirit I’d like to mention that the Spirit of the Living God is not some sort of messenger for God. The Holy Spirit of the Living God IS God!
In last Sunday’s sermon, I noted that the Spirit takes up residence in our wounded hearts. I’d like to give some helps to understand HOW the Spirit of the Living God works within us. I’m afraid I don’t recall where this material comes from. Every week I page through a dozen or more books, searching for helpful hints!
Here are signs the Spirit is working within you: 1) you feel a sense of being comforted, challenged or prodded; 2) You feel a sense of being compelled to speak up for others; 3) You sense yourself becoming more balanced and less out of control.
In one sense, the Spirit reveals herself through what might be called a “holy hunch.“ This past Friday I was downtown, delivering materials to our church lawyer. As I was walking from the Metra to the lawyer’s office, I stopped for a street light. An elderly man approached me and asked for help. He said he was 69 years of age and needed $12. He was missing part of his right arm and appeared quite emaciated. His name, he told me, was Richard.
Now I lived downtown for many years. During my years as pastor of St. Peter’s Church in the Loop (the busiest church in the Midwest), I heard hundreds of pleas for financial assistance. Even though we had a staff of more than three dozen people, I was the only one who could give funds from our charity monies. Most days there would be a few people who’d come, asking for the church’s help. I didn’t give out those funds easily (except to Vietnam or other military veterans).
But on Friday, I didn’t just wave Richard away. I listened to his tale. And, yes, something prodded me to give him the needed $12. He asked me for my name. I told him and told him I was a Baptist pastor. He blessed me. I blessed him. This, I believe, was the Spirit of the Living God working in my wounded heart.
The Holy Spirit of the Living God often reveals herself in patience. When the Spirit works within us, we become more patient with people. We become more patient with our life in general. This is not always easy for me. I’ve not been given a great deal of patience. I think this might be a family trait!
We all suffer a from distractions. It’s hard for us to pay attention. It’s hard for us to listen. We all have a certain amount of ADD: attention deficit disorder. It’s not easy paying attention. It’s not easy listening.
One way of allowing the Spirit to do her work within us is to pay attention to what moves us. This past week, I was moved by “A Capitol Fourth” with its lovely music and its plethora of fireworks. I was moved by the amazing comeback of the 15-year-old USA tennis player, Coco Gauff. I watched her comeback while visiting with my older brother Friday afternoon. I was moved by two hour-long presentations on PBS regarding Black Holes.
On Friday, after arriving home, I found a wounded sparrow by my door. I placed it in some bushes and watered it a bit to cool it down. I later looked for it but it was gone. I hope it survived. I like sparrows - something found in the DNA of all Christians!
Back to prayer! The clergyperson Eugene Peterson in a book which had a big influence on me, The Contemplative Pastor, writes: “Community prayer is most important, then comes individual prayer.” What we do on Sundays is critical to our prayer life. I fear we, Baptists, place too much emphasis on individual prayer, individual salvation, to the detriment of communal prayer and communal salvation. We cannot be said to have a prayer life if we neglect praying in community. Our individual prayer life arises from and is rooted in our congregational prayer, our Sunday prayer.
As your pastor, one of my most important roles is to be a pastor who prays; prays with you and prays for you. I don’t wish to persuade you or push you into righteousness. Such an approach never works.
Peterson writes that a pastor’s work simplifies into prayer, poetry, and patience. We would do well to understand that the Bible is primarily poetry. Trust me on this!
Much of my time and effort for many many months now has been on maintaining our buildings, worrying about finances, and getting things ready so we might sell our buildings rather than locking the doors. This is not what I was ordained to do! Yet I hope I’ve done what’s necessary to salvage our worshipping community.
If all goes as expected, we’ll continue into the future without the albatross of crumbling buildings (and City of Chicago complaints). The selling of our buildings is not something we want to do. The selling of our buildings doesn’t please us. The selling of our buildings doesn’t please me. But unless this happens, we’d be forced to lock our church doors by the end of July. This is how desperate we are financially-speaking.
Yet I yearn to be a pastor focused primarily on prayer. I yearn to be a pastor who has the privilege of prayer on a daily basis. I yearn to be a pastor who prays daily for his congregants.
Prayer is ultimately defined as the longing of the human heart for God. As your pastor, I strive to help us understand what’s happening in our wounded human hearts. This is not always easy to do.
Prayer, in one sense, is God breathing in and through me. In prayer, I breathe with God. This is what we seek in prayer.
In my professional training as a counselor, one technique I learned was to “mirror” a counseling client. The counselor breathes in rhythm with the client, mirroring the client‘s actions. The counselor gets “in sync” with the other person. This creates a human connection. Something similar happens in prayer. We mirror the action within us of the Spirit of the Living God.
Two things are important in prayer: 1) honesty and 2) humility. Each of these elements is worth many more words, much more study.
Let me turn to the writer Annie Dillard’s classic work, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974). Dillard contends that the dying might pray a final prayer; a “thank you” like a guest thanks the host as one parts through the door. What a lovely image! I hope I remember to say “thank you” when I walk through that door from here to there.
Dillard notes that when she goes to her small church, “On a big Sunday, there might be 20 of us there. I feel like I’m on an archeological tour of the (former) Soviet Union.”
She continues: “Why do (we) people in churches seem like cheerful brainless tourists on a package tour of the Absolute? … It is madness to wear straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares. They should lash us to our pews.” Indeed!
The clergyman and monk, Thomas Keating, writes: “Silence is God’s first language: everything else is a poor translation.” Another way of stating this: God’s language is silence and no one has yet found a way to translate it. We could use another Rosetta Stone!
I believe silence is always pregnant with possibilities. Almost every night, before I go to bed, after I’ve placed Molly and Donny in the downstairs bathroom, where they spend the night (lest Molly start caterwauling outside my bedroom door), I sit in silence, in the darkness. I watch. I wait. I’m expectant. This is, I believe, a good way to end each day.
Let me conclude with two further thoughts on prayer. In the Jewish mystical tradition (If I were not a Christian, I believe I’d be a Jew; all of us are, faith-wise, Semitic!) prayer is understood as what happens when heaven and earth meet and kiss. What a beautiful way to envision prayer. A kiss can do wonders to the wounded human heart!
Here’s a famous prayer: These three things I pray: 1) to see Thee more clearly; 2) to love Thee more dearly; 3) to follow Thee more nearly, day by day. We know this prayer from the play and movie, Godspell. We may not know that it comes to us from the 13th Century English saint, Richard of Chichester. We have a long and beautiful tradition of deep godly prayer. May we never cease plumbing its depth! Amen!