October 27, 2019 – RETHINKING PRAYER

Text:  Luke 18: 9-14

Last week while I was walking down the street to catch a bus I saw something unusual but pleasant. There was a man with a dog standing at the crosswalk. He was dancing to the music that he was listening to through the headphone. The movement he made was a phenomenon. He was dancing like no one else was watching. I couldn’t tell whether he was actually waiting for the signal to cross the road or he would continue dancing anyway. He seemed so focused on what he was doing with a great skill to maintain holding the leash. The dog didn’t seem to mind what was going on. It appeared to be calm and familiar with the situation. What stood out for me was how the man was living in the moment fully with the melody and rhythm he found. I don’t know his story, but I imagine that he found peace rising above any challenges he might have faced.

Prayer is like that. I don’t mean it as a panacea if there is any, but as a tool that can bring us to a different state of mind not based on a dualistic worldview but based on a sound, whole and unified worldview. We live in a world where we are constantly challenged by a dualistic way of thinking: black and white, male and female, good and evil, able and disable, human and nature, us and them, God and the world, spirit and matter, secular and sacred. Dualism is a lie, and it does more harm than good. It makes us believe that we are separated from one another. It works well especially in the politics.

It was interesting to see how either-or thinking was at play during the election. In order for any party to win, they had to justify their policies telling the voters why they were better than others. They all seemed to rely on the same strategy to win, putting other parties down, as if there was no shared concern or vision among Canadians. What was more interesting was the same response from all the parties right after the election. They all became self-congratulatory. No one was humble enough to take the message seriously. Canadians sent the clear message to work together despite differences because no one could afford delaying the most urgent issues facing all of us – the climate crisis, the economic pressure, and the urgency to create a more just and equal Canada especially in regard to the socioeconomic gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. The media takes advantage of the binary way of thinking in telling stories. They even use the word, ‘divided country’ with slightly different adjective ‘more divided’, ‘further divided’ or ‘deeply divided.’ We have to be careful how we interpret the world, because it is like that. Once ingrained it’s hard to change.

Jesus knew the challenge of such ingrained beliefs in those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt. So he told this parable. Two people went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. They prayed in the same temple, but only one of them prayed with true penitence. The Pharisee was praying, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people, not even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” The tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his chest saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” “This man” Jesus concluded, “went home made right with God.”

Those of us who have heard this parable hundreds times may not be surprised by the astonishing conclusion Jesus made. It is, however, meant to be a surprise causing a lot of trouble. The first audience must have been shocked to hear that it was the tax collector who was justified not the Pharisee. The Pharisee in the parable represented all the good and righteous, while the tax collector represented the exact opposite. The two people received different outcomes not “because of” but “in spite of” who they were or what they had done. This story was meant to challenge the status quo, turning the world upside down.

We may fall into the danger of either-or thinking if we think that God was on the tax collector’s side, preferring one over the other. The point is not about who is right or who is wrong. Notice why Jesus told this parable in the first place – to awaken those who believed in their righteousness based on dualistic way of thinking: good and bad, us and them, right and wrong.

No matter how religious, spiritual or faithful we may seem, if we don’t break the bond of dualism, even our most sincere prayers can be mere acts of self-satisfaction. If we truly listen to this story, we can’t help but face our own pride, the Pharisee in us. Yet, this parable doesn’t only leave us feeling confused or miserable. It also invites us to reclaim the true meaning of prayer.

When people hear the word, prayer, they often think about prayer as spoken words. Whether in public worship or private quiet time, we tend to focus on what to say in prayer. But using words is just one form of many ways to pray. We can pray to God in a thousand different ways – in silence, through music and arts, writing, walking, sitting, or even lying down, hugging, laughing, crying, mourning, cleaning the house, washing the dishes, drinking a cup of tea. Everything we do can be prayer when we let the Spirit find a way to express itself through us. That’s what Paul meant by saying ‘pray without ceasing.’ No one can pray with spoken words for 24 hours 7 days a week. However, it is possible for us to stay mindful of the connection we have with God and with everything in Creation. Staying connected in loving relationship with whatever is in front of us in the here and now is the true meaning of prayer we need to reclaim.

In the Christian tradition, we call such prayer contemplative prayer. That’s not just one form of prayer, but the ultimate goal of prayer. There are many ways to define what love is, but in the end, love is what love does. In the same way, prayer is what prayer does. Jesus modeled for us what prayer did to him, with him, and through him. He often withdrew to the wilderness to pray – not because he wanted to escape from daily struggles but because he wanted to engage the world as fully as possible in loving union with God. Ultimately prayer changed him to the point of embracing ‘thy will be done’. The disciples asked him to teach them how to pray just like John taught his disciples. We can assume that Jesus didn’t teach them verbal prayer that much. His primary concern with his prayer life was not what to say but to live in unity with God and with everything in creation. If the so called Lord’s Prayer is about spoken prayer, the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector is about contemplative prayer. Contemplation literally means staying together in the temple. It’s about seeking true friendship with God based on mutual trust and love. The one who shows what contemplation is like is the tax collector, because prayer is what prayer does; it makes him seek true friendship with God with a broken heart; it empties himself to the point that all he can do is to totally depend on God. It is through this humility that we can break the bond of dualism, and even our most unintended form of prayer like a sigh of relief can be the most profound prayer.

Let me share a worshipful experience I had out in the world. It happened 7 years ago when we were living a busy life as a young family on Vancouver Island. My family and I went shopping on Saturday morning. We were outside the mall talking about something mundane. We were loud for some reason. It was just ordinary day until we felt something extraordinary, a presence of someone. Two people who were blind were crossing the street at the crosswalk together. One person had a white cane while the other person was linking her arm in the partner’s. It was as if the world stood still. The sound of silence was deafening. We couldn’t help but watch in awe of the two beautiful human beings relying on each other. In that moment I knew I was on the holy ground.

What is sacred and what is mundane is just an inch away. Prayer is what bridges the gap, tuning us into the rhythm and melody of the Spirit.