In one of the most famous sermons ever delivered, John Donne described the challenge of retaining concentration during prayer. The year was 1626. The occasion was the funeral sermon for Sir William Cockayne.
When Jesus tells a story, he compels us to look at holy things with new eyes, and he illustrates his stories with references to ordinary, homely things. If he were operating in the 21st century, I doubt that he would need a blackboard for complex mathematical formulas, or the arcane jargon of a modern expert—whether economist, computer maven, biochemist or theologian.
It is hard for average people to muster the kind of confidence that Jesus expresses in his three-part lesson on prayer. Your kingdom come: The kingdom seems light years away. Give us each day our daily bread: People die of hunger all the time, even in affluent countries. Forgive us our sins: Forgiveness is the exception, certainly not the rule.
The church of my youth majored in a miserly view of God’s grace. Its message was grim. Life had no edge, no elegance and no joy, but was only a bitter temporal existence largely limited to preparations for the sweet hereafter. Our bleak church building reflected the theology: it was aptly situated in the Pacific Northwest with its endless days of dreary, overcast weather.
I was raised in a middle-class, suburban family for whom religion, like sex, was a taboo topic. My Uncle Paul, a monastic known as Brother Leo, would join us each year for Thanksgiving dinner, but we never offered grace for the meal. Uncle Paul was an oddity in his black suit and drab, community-owned sedan. But I sensed that spiritually he was on to something.
While making nursing home and hospital calls one day, I visited several people who were on oxygen. A slim green hose ran from a machine to each person’s nostrils, piping in pure air to make his or her breathing easier. In each instance we prayed the Lord’s Prayer together in preparation for Holy Communion, our hands joined and our voices speaking together. I was struck by the strength with which each of these people prayed. Their bodies were weakened in many ways, yet the prayer flowed vigorously from their lips, as if the prayer as well as the oxygen was helping them breathe.
We employ human terms to communicate who God is to one another. But God uses not only words, pictures and images, but Jesus, the Word become flesh and dwelling among us. We look for ways to express who God is, and here God is among us in Jesus Christ, feeding, forgiving, healing and reconciling.