Sunday, April 21, 2013

Through Death's Dark Vale: Sermon, April 21, 2013

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies : thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
- Psalm 23, Authorized Version

The 23rd Psalm has been memorized and said many, many times by folks here. Anne Howard of the Beatitudes Society said that this is one of the few passages of Scripture that she knows by heart, and when you say “23rd Psalm,” her mind jumps right to the green pastures and still waters.

But if we keep saying that psalm, between the verse about green pastures and still waters, and the verses with our cups running over and goodness and mercy following us all the days of our lives, there’s another verse. A bleak verse: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.”

This week we felt like we were walking through that valley, what the hymn The Lord’s My Shepherd calls “death’s dark vale.” Bombings tearing apart lives at the Boston Marathon and in Somalia and Iraq. Two children dead in a house fire in Thurso, Quebec. A fertilizer plant blowing apart a town in Texas. An earthquake in China. Suicides of teenagers after sexual assaults and bullying. The families of 20 children gunned down in Newtown, Connecticut, in December, crying and angry after the US Senate voted down any controls on guns. The funeral of Margaret Thatcher, and the deaths of well-loved figures like George Beverly Shea, who introduced the hymn How Great Thou Art at Billy Graham crusades, and Rita McNeill. The bloody conflict in Syria, and the threat of war in Korea.

This is only what was in the news. We know that in the background behind these events is the ongoing death toll around the world from starvation and disease. We also know painful personal news, of car accidents and falls and diagnoses of life-threatening cancers and other illnesses, so many heartbreaking circumstances that bring the shadow of death to family members and friends and ourselves. And when we try to escape real-life death, we are to entertain ourselves by watching fictional deaths on TV and movies and video games.

So much pain. So much tragedy. So much sadness. We just try to cope. We just keep walking through the valley of the shadow of death.

Yet this verse of the psalm does not end with the word “death.” It continues. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” I will not fear. You are with me, God. You comfort me.

God is with us. We are especially reminded of this in the season of Easter, when we retell the ending of the story of Jesus, the ending that is really a beginning, for God is with us in Jesus Christ who was born as one of us, lived as one of us, knew fear and pain and grief as one of us, went through that valley of the shadow of death as one of us – and was raised from the dead so that death will not have the last word, so that we too will be raised as he was. Nothing, not even death, will ever be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

What can we do as we walk with God through this valley? We can love each other, and this broken world. We can live God’s way of peace, struggling against the culture of death and working to overcome evil with good. And we can pray.

This week on my blog I reviewed a book called 10 Prayers You Can’t Live Without. The author, Rick Hamlin, has a chapter on praying in a crisis, and he tells about his prayers during the September 11 attacks. He says, “at times of crisis, anger, fear and shock hit you hard. You don’t think you can even move forward. You’re trapped, numbed. You cry out to God, ‘Noooo!’ It seems a futile outburst, but that’s all you could possibly say. And it’s the prayer that keeps you connected.”

As we stay connected with God who is with us in the valley of the shadow, we may not have words. But we pray anyway. Perhaps ‘Noooo!’ is the only prayer we have. Perhaps weeping is our prayer. And perhaps words come to us and we find language that lifts up people and places in agony.

The United Church of Canada sent out a prayer, by Alydia Smith, for congregations to use today. So let’s pray to God, who is with us at this time and all times, this prayer for a violent week.

Holy Mystery, who is Wholly Love,

you, our shepherd, speak to us words of challenge and comfort,

in the companionship and support of others, and

in the gentle movements of the Holy Spirit.

All of us have heard a call to take a moment from news broadcasts to join together in prayer:
Help us to ponder your message amidst the overwhelming words around us.
Help us to see moments of resurrection and new life amidst devastation and death.

Help us to discern your path of compassionate love and care amidst hatred and fear.

Help us to understand, Wholly Love,
how we can begin to imagine peace on earth when on one day bombs explode in Boston and across Iraq.

Wholly Love,
how do we help those among us who are mourning the death and injuries of loved ones due to manufactured violence feel your comfort when grief, sadness, and loss seem to overshadow all other emotions?

With the help and support of our kin,

and by your grace, Wholly Love,

we take comfort in your words and trust in the promise that you, our shepherd, will lead us beside still waters and restore our souls.

With this assurance, we pray for

all those affected by the bombings on Monday,

those who mourn the death of loved ones,

and those in our global and local communities who are suffering and who mourn….

And we give thanks for

the first responders and support workers who continually and faithfully care for all affected by violence.

With the assurance of the prayer that you taught us,

we hold tight to your promise that the city of God will come to earth as it is in heaven,
knowing that we are needed to make this a reality.

And so we ask that you prepare us physically, emotionally, and mentally for this new reality.

Prepare us to be the children of God in the world.

Prepare us to be peacemakers.

Prepare us to be compassionate voices in an often harsh world.

Help us to be good stewards of our unique and individual gifts by responding to the needs around us with your vision, so that one day

the poor in spirit may know the kingdom of God,

those who mourn may be comforted,

the meek may inherit what is theirs,

no one will hunger or thirst,

and we will no longer have such days of violence and fear.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

10 Prayers You Can't Live Without

10 Prayers You Can't Live Without:
How to Talk to God About Anything

By Rick Hamlin
Guideposts, New York, 2013
246 pages

The promotional material for this new book asks, "A richer prayer life. A stronger connection to God. A more vibrant faith. Deep in our soul, every Christian longs for these, but how do we get there when our attempts at prayer seem so frustrating and so flawed?"

Guideposts Magazine editor Rick Hamlin takes on our prayer life in his down-to-earth and very readable 10 Prayers You Can't Live Without. He begins by telling the reader,

To try to pray is to pray. You can't fail at it. Nobody can. Open your heart, open your mouth, say something, say nothing. Shout if you must. Raise your hands, clasp them in your lap. Sing if you please. You can start with a "Dear Lord" and end with an "Amen," or you can dive right in. You can close your eyes, get on your knees, use whatever language you like or no language at all. You can pray when you're walking, running, driving to work, setting the table for dinner, lying in bed before you turn the light out.

From there Hamlin goes on to guide the new or seasoned person of prayer through 10 prayers: at mealtime, as conversation, for others, the Lord's Prayer, for forgiveness, through a crisis, in song, to focus thoughts, and in thanksgiving. Each of these chapters includes numerous, and often candid, examples from his own life and those of people he has come across in his magazine writing.

I was preparing this review on Monday, April 15, 2013, surrounded by broadcast and social media coverage of the bombings at the Boston Marathon. It was poignant to read Hamlin's words in his chapter on praying through a crisis, and his reflections on prayer during the September 11 attacks and the Virginia Tech shootings. He says:

At times of crisis anger, fear and shock hit you hard. You don't think you can even move forward. You're trapped, numbed. You cry out to God, "Nooooooo!" It seems a futile outburst, but that's all you could possibly say. And it's the prayer that keeps you connected.

The Apostle Paul tells us, "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you" (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, NRSV). Many Christians find it difficult to pray without ceasing - people have told me how hard it is to get into a routine of prayer, and others have become convinced that somehow they aren't praying "properly." This inspiring book will be valuable in deepening and enriching prayer lives.