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What is prayer?
I think prayer is our response to God, our encounter with God. Prayer is our declaration of God’s presence in our lives. Prayer is our testimony and our longing. Our lament and our praise.
Luke’s Gospel this week offers us insight into prayer. Jesus is telling a parable that demonstrates the way we pray is important. He says, a Pharisee and a tax collector go to the Temple to pray. The Pharisee offers thanks that he is not like other people – thieves, rogues, adulterers… or even this tax collector. “I follow the rules. I tithe and I fast. It’s good to be me.”
Then Jesus says, the tax collector “would not even look to heaven…” and asked God for mercy. And Jesus explains the point of his parable – that all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.
So, Jesus is reminding us that it’s not enough to pray for others because, inherent in that, is the arrogance that we do not need God ourselves and, as a consequence, that we are not open to God’s intervention.
Jesus is reminding us to be humble in our prayers – to exhibit humility in how we encounter God, in our testimony and our declaration, our longing and our praise.
And so, we arrive at a second question – what is humility?
I think sometimes we define humility as something that is too close to the word humiliation… a demonstration of unworthiness or shame, a recognition of contemptibility and pitifulness. But that’s not humility.
Humility comes from the word humus, which means “ground or soil.” And when I think about my connection to the earth, I call to mind the story of creation from Genesis: “then the Lord God formed humanity from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living being.” (Gen 2:7)
Humility is a marker of our place, our location in the Reign of God. The word “human” comes from the same root. We come from the earth, made from the very elements of the earth. We require nutrients from the earth and oxygen from the breath of plants. Our physical being is dependent upon the ground, and soil, the humus.
We are not self-reliant, but deeply reliant on the earth, on one another, and on God.
On Ash Wednesday, when we receive ashes on our forehead, we are told:
Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality… that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life…
The priest makes the sign of the cross on your forehead and says the following words… Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
And then we recite psalm 51, asking for God’s mercy… as Jesus instructs us in today’s Gospel.
True humility is simply the honest recognition of self in relationship to God. Knowing there is a god and knowing our connection to God, our reliance on God. It’s an understanding of our belovedness and our brokenness and how they are tied together. It’s learning to see ourselves through God’s eyes, instead of our own. It’s cultivating the space to hear God’s voice instead of our own. In other words, humility is a practice of prayer.
Each week, we offer our prayers to God. We spend time asking for God to help other people. Our prayers are filled with asking God to intervene in the lives of others. We share our concerns and our hopes through prayer, wanting God to take care of those we love.
And after we offer the prayers of the people, we offer prayers for ourselves – we offer our confession. We remind ourselves and God, that we, too, are standing in the need of prayer. We, too, are in need of God’s mercy.
And this is important. The way we pray is significant. This lesson from today’s gospel is one of the most pointed messages of transformation we have. Because confession, that is, the asking of God’s mercy, is not about thinking poorly of ourselves. It’s quite the opposite.
To ask for God’s mercy demonstrates that we are ready and willing to claim our place in the Reign of God. We are worthy of God’s attention – God’s love and comfort. We are whole in our weakness and our power.
Where we get lost and lose our connection to God is when we are over-identified with either our weakness or our power. To take our place in the Reign of God, to recognize our preciousness and our brokenness, our perfection and our imperfection, is to see both in others. To see others as, not only in need, but with gifts to offer.
To see our neighbor with the eyes of God to not just recognize their full humanity, but honor it, by honoring our own. Remembering that we are all amazing, wondrous, precious children of God standing in the need of prayer.
Humility is remembering that we are dust and to dust we shall return, that we are precious and insignificant at the same time and therefore intimately reliant upon one another, connected to one another and to God, the source of all.
Last week, I talked about identity. We had a reading from Jeremiah that spoke about God writing God’s laws on our heart… because the seat of our identity is actually in our heart, not in a place or a way of life.
Our identity is not tied to preferences or a sense of nostalgia that brings to mind former glories and a desire to be great again… but our identity rests in our heart, where we connect with one another and build relationships with one another.
Our heart is where we find ourselves because others see us and where we see other people. It’s where we find our guidance to move forward, becoming what is calling us to become. It’s the seat of desire for stewardship of one another. Our heart is where we find our impulse to build the Beloved Community.
But what prevents us from truly living in our hearts, is one of 2 extremes:
1. an excess of independence, an over-emphasis on self-reliance and the refusal to acknowledge our inter-dependence
2. or the opposite – an over-reliance on others, a refusal of our own capacity and autonomy
And so, we either end up hearing only our own voice or the voices of others that we rely upon… and we never hear the voice of God.
Hearing the voice of God is something that is cultivated, over time and intention… through prayer. But it begins with silencing the other voices – the voices of others, the voices of fear, the voice of society, the voices of pride and desperation, the voices of pain, the voices of gossip, the voices of disappointment, the voices of limitation and opinion… and asking, “what else does God have to tell me?” What other story is there?
This is what confession is… standing before God and saying, “Here’s the story I tell myself. And here are the things I’ve done based on the story I tell myself.” And we say, God, free me from the tyranny of this story and tell me a new story about myself – one that is based on my true identity which is my heart and my true origin which is as a creature of this earth intimately connected with all the other creatures of this earth.
And so I end here with a single question: What is the story you tell yourself?