I am going to zero in on something
I almost never talk about.
See if you can figure out what it is before I get there.
When I read that poem, “Hitchhiker”
a dozen contradictory voices
immediately echoed in my brain.
Don’t pick up the hitchhiker!
Okay, but don’t stop feeling badly about not picking up the hitchhiker.
Okay, but don’t live your life based upon feelings.
And the same thing happened
when I thought about Jesus’ parable
pitting the Pharisee against the Tax Collector.
Even though he is the foil in the story,
I think most of us would prefer
to FEEL like the Pharisee, who after all,
was quite pleased and at peace with himself –
even grateful for his well-being.
Isn’t that what we seek on some basic level:
to feel right with the world
and grateful for our blessings?
And yet, we need a good, loud tax collector inside
to rend us from within
and beg for mercy
because we also know
that our lives have tipped the scales of justice
and in ways we do not even recognize.
We want to feel like the Pharisee
but we need the agitation of the tax collector.
There are all these competing voices
inside our heads
and rummaging around in our poor little hearts,
and there are also plenty of live voices
filling the air around us
with ideas, accusations, admonitions, and cautions.
For many of us,
the hard part is not hearing voices,
rather, the hardest part
is not reactingto the voices.
Each voice wants us to react,
to respond and conform
to whatever he or she is espousing.
And yet, the wisest response
is not to react
to any voice.
…So many voices.
We hear the mom and dad voices
that live on in echoes
decades after mom and dad are dead and gone.
We hear the various voices of authority
that have steered us wrong in the past,
and we know it,
but still our knee-jerk reaction
is to follow them, at least at first.
We hear the voices of our professional training
that tell us the way the world is
and ought to be,
and we follow those voices
like a horse led with blinders
and so miss all kinds of other ways of seeing.
We get fitted with that professional training
and even long after we stopped doing that work,
we first and foremost we are
the professor or teacher
the social worker
the cop…and that is the way
we are trained to see the world.
We hear political voices,
ethnic and racial identity voices,
gender and sexuality voices –
all kinds of voices.
And often, perhaps most of the time,
we react to those voices
and our reactions lead our action
instead of our wisdom leading the way.
Having quick and precise reaction-time
is a good thing
when we are driving along
and another car runs a stop sign.
and automatic response
is a good thing
in an emergency
when immediate action save lives.
But in the everyday,
standing amid the myriad voices,
being reactionary will kill us –
maybe not immediately but slowly, over time
it will take us down
and fragment us.
At the very least, being reactionary
to all those voices
will repress our wisdom
and quite literally, depress us.
From where is wisdom to come?
What is the wisdom
that is the more trusted guide
to the voices?
While I am just another voice to you,
the voice that I want to guide me
is God’s best dream for us.
Surrounded by the swirl of many voices,
each with its own neediness
and each with its own great ideas,
we need a filter:
one through which we can empty all those voices,
and in the end hear the voice
in which we recognize
God’s best dream for us.
It is in that voice we can be led by wisdom
instead of reaction.
At least, that’s been my experience.
When I am fortunate enough to be on top of my game
and the voices are coming at me fast and furious
and my reactions to them
swirling with chaos within me
and causing great turbulence,
I somehow find a way to step back
with a kind of gentle detachment
and allow wisdom
to filter all those voices.
Then – when I am at the top of my game –
I can let go of all my internal reactions
and be led by wisdom.
So, that is how I describe prayer.
And that, by the way,
is what this sermon is about – prayer.
In the last two weeks the Gospel of Luke
has supplied us with three models of prayer.
Last week was the feisty,
even aggressive pray-er
who grabs hold of God
and won’t let go.
This week there is the supremely self-confident
Pharisee who approaches God
with the mindset of a well-trained professional
who believes that spiritual wellness
is an equation:
break it down into the right parts
and the sum of the whole will follow.
In contrast to the Pharisee,
there is the Tax-collector.
His strategy is to throw himself
on the mercy of the court –
believing and hoping
that even more than justice
God loves mercy.
Each of these is of course a caricature,
a kind of cartoon exaggeration
of different personalities
and what we are like when standing on the cliff
of our common brokenness
and looking down.
Personally, I do not look at prayer
as some pristine form into which we can slip
and suddenly all become of one nature –
a perfect little Jesus
or Catherine of Sienna.
We come as we are
and pray as we are.
We drag our rumpled old personality
with us into prayer,
and that shapes our praying –
and that is as it should be.
What is most important
is not how we pray
but that we do pray.
Prayer is what distills the voices
so that we can follow our wisdom
instead of our reactions.
Prayer is the process of discernment
in which we listen
for God’s best dream for us.
We think that prayer is about telling God
what we want
and what we think
and what we wish.
There is nothing wrong with telling God what to do,
but petitionary prayer
represents our reactionary self.
Our petitions are frequently our reactions
to things that are happening all around us.
There is nothing wrong with sending them up
like helium balloons
in hopes that God will hear them –
and do something about them.
But then…it is time to listen.
The kind of prayer I’m urging here,
is the process of listening
if we listen well enough,
hearing the wisdom that can lead us
through our reactionary-ness.
If we listen well enough
we will discern God’s best dream for us
for this time,
and in this place,
and for this particular circumstance.
Wisdom is never for-ever and all time;
it doesn’t store or keep.
It is renewed in each new dawn.
So whether we are the tough and belligerent widow
from last week’s story,
or the Pharisee
or the Tax Collector –
and in truth we are all three –
the act of prayer
allows us to distill those voices
and be led by wisdom
instead of reaction.
Having a sense or inkling about
God’s best dream for us,
means that we don’t have to be led
by what the person sitting across from us
happens to like or not like,
or by what some other voice
thinks are good or bad.
Rather, we will have a sense
of God’s best dream for us
in that particular situation or concern
and we can be led by that instead.
Prayer it is not about the voices,
of our desires,
or our reaction to all the voices,
whether within or among us.
Prayer is the act of listening
and figuring out God’s best dream for us
and in this place.
It is how we become led by wisdom
instead of reaction.
If that sounds good to you,
then you may want to know how to pray like that?
I really don’t know.
There is no gimmick.
There is no how-to.
There is no one-size fits all formula.
The form is not the prayer, the process is.
THE FORM IS NOT THE PRAYER.
It is a listening process
and whatever helps us to listen
is the best form.
And the prayer is not completed
until we hear
or somehow apprehend
a sense, or even an inkling,
of God’s best dream for us.
That means our prayer
may last hours, days, months
or even years.
Whatever sustains our ability to listen
is the best form for us,
and then doing it.
Just doing it.
So next time those voices are raging inside,
or coming at you fast
from all around,
it is time to pray.
That may mean getting quiet
and still – if
that is how you listen best –
it may mean going and getting a milkshake.
Hey, there are weirder things.
But whatever, doing what helps you listen
and then listening
is what prayer is.
I commend it to you.