Lord, Teach Us to Pray

It’s easy for me to empathize with Jesus Christ’s disciples in the Gospel according to Luke when they beg their master and teacher, “Teach us to pray! John taught his disciples how to pray, can you teach us please?”

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This article also appeared in the January 2018 edition of Faith’s Foundations, the newsletter of Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.

I’ve said it before, but I grew up with a terrible prayer life. In my house, saying prayers in the morning or at night just wasn’t a thing. We said grace around the dinner table, but eventually that faded as well.

I attended a Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod grade school from Kindergarten through eighth grade where we had chapel every Wednesday. Combined with my regular Sunday attendance at my own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregation, I was praying a few times a week. But it wasn’t personal, one-on-one time with God. I was afraid of praying to God that way because I remember being taught that if one didn’t pray to God in the correct way, God would be upset (I distinctly remember the example of praying for a new bike being a prayer that would upset God). Or maybe that was just an excuse for my already poor prayer life.

Over the years I’ve tried different ways to improve my personal prayer life. I bought devotional books and would get two or three weeks in before giving up because I didn’t like them or they were too cheesy. I tried Lectio Divina (which I really liked) and other contemplative prayer practices, structured Morning and Evening Prayer, but I was never able to find something that held my focus and attention. So for the most part, I simply gave up on personal prayer outside of the random “God I could really use your help” or “Thank you God, that was awesome” prayers at appropriate times.

It’s easy for me to empathize with Jesus Christ’s disciples in the Gospel according to Luke when they beg their master and teacher, “Teach us to pray! John taught his disciples how to pray, can you teach us please?” Prayer isn’t something that always comes easily—not for disciples or even for pastors. Learning how to pray happens in two ways: it happens out of necessity, as in the case of the beloved spirituals of the African American community; or it happens because one is taught. What I needed was someone to teach me how to pray.

How ironic that in the 21st century, it was the ancient monastics who ultimately taught me how to pray. I used them in a sermon a few weeks ago, but I recently came into possession of a set of Anglican Prayer Beads (sometimes also called Protestant Prayer Beads). They were made by one of our lay school students who learned how to make and use them in a class on Spirituality.

Prayer beads have a long history in Christianity. By the 200s CE the desert monastics were using first pebbles and then ropes with knots tied in them to help them count and keep track of their prayers—most often repetitions of the Lord’s Prayer or the Jesus Prayer (not to be confused with the Sinner’s Prayer). Prayer ropes are still popular in Eastern Christianity today. By the 600s in Western Christianity these prayer ropes evolved into strings of beads serving the same purpose. The most recognizable form of prayer beads is the Rosary of the Roman Catholic Church, a beloved item by many of the faithful. (Fun fact: in the early 2000s the ELCA experimented with a Lutheran Rosary for the season of Lent. You can still find information on it if you look!)

In the 1980s the Episcopal Diocese of Texas developed a set of 33 prayer beads to use as an aid in prayer. Unlike the complicated and specific uses of the Roman Catholic Rosary, Anglican prayer beads are meant to be used in a variety of ways, leaving it up to the individual to decide what works for them. As it turns out, that’s what works for me.

For the last few weeks I’ve been using my prayer beads and Bread for the Day, a prayer book based on the Daily Lectionary and published by our own Augsburg Fortress to guide my daily prayer. I use either the Full Circle Prayer that came with the beads or the popular Trisagion and Jesus Prayer. It is the first time I can remember, in 31 years of life, that I have an actual, solid prayer life. It’s a liberating, exciting feeling; I often cry my way through Evening Prayer, though I’m not exactly sure why yet. It’s made for one heck of an early New Year’s Resolution.

Like the disciples, I had to be taught how to pray. It took a long time. But I’m glad I’ve finally found something that works for me. If you’re looking for something to help you pray, maybe prayer beads can help. Maybe they can’t. Maybe something else will help. But never stop looking, never stop seeking ways to connect with the Holy Spirit. It may be one of the most important things you do in your life as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

That’s Christmas to Me

If this were just an isolated incident, I’d think God might have made a miscalculation. But it’s a pattern that’s repeated over and over and over in the Biblical narrative—who matters to God is largely seperate from who matters to human beings.

Nativity of Our Lord – Christmas Eve
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-20

Any Pentatonix fans out there?

For those of you who don’t know—and because I love their music and want you to love it too—Pentatonix is an a capella group of four (formerly five) members. They shot to stardom when they won season 3 of The Sing-Off and became incredibly popular through your YouTube music videos. But they’re best known for their Christmas albums. Their Christmas albums have been the best-selling Christmas albums every year since 2014. You can actually hear their music on holiday radio stations!

One of their songs, and the name of their second Christmas album, is titled “That’s Christmas to Me”. It’s a beautiful, perhaps sappy tune about what Christmas means to the group: a warm fireplace, presents under the tree, mistletoe kisses, the joy of family, candles in the dark. You know, Christmas-y stuff.

Every time I hear that song I stop and listen, and not necessarily because of the lyrics–I really like the harmony too. But it does beg the question: what does Christmas mean to me?

It’s not an easy question for me to answer. There’s so much we associate with Christmas, how can I decide what it means to me? So tonight, I want to take my cue from one of the most overlooked characters in the Christmas story: Mary.

It may surprise you, but Martin Luther, the accidental founder of the Lutheran tradition of Christianity, adored Mary. Because she is so very, very popular in the Roman Catholic Church (not to mention the Eastern Orthodox Churches), we often assume that Luther threw out any sort of devotion or love of Mary. But that’s simply not true. Luther, being a Roman Catholic until his excommunication, upheld many of the traditions around this remarkable woman.

There is perhaps no mere mortal who receives as much praise and adoration as Mary, the Mother of Jesus does in Christianity. She is called Theotokos, the “Mother of God”; and the “Queen of Heaven”. Ancient church traditions assert that she was born without original sin and that she was taken up to heaven without dying at the end of her life. The Roman Catholic Church has a fervent devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and prayers to her are an integral part of that devotion. Five of the Twelve Great Feasts in the Eastern Orthodox Churches are devoted to Mary. She is considered superior to all other created beings, and thus prays to God on behalf of all human beings.

While Martin Luther rejected the more extreme practices of Marian devotion, it cannot be denied that he held her in the highest esteem, as Christians have done for 2000 years. It would do us Lutherans good to reclaim some of that esteem and devotion to Mary that is at the root of our theological tradition.

With all of this devotion to Mary, one wouldn’t be out of line to assume that Mary was someone who was already important when the angel Gabriel visited her to deliver the stunning news of Jesus’s birth. One wouldn’t be out of line to assume that she was rich and powerful and beautiful; and indeed, many of our images and icons of Mary depict her this way.

But to do so misses much of the point of the story. Because before her visit from Gabriel, Mary wasn’t important. She wasn’t powerful. She wasn’t rich. We have no idea if she was beautiful or not. She was insignificant. She was a nobody.

What we do know about Mary was that she was a poor girl engaged to a low-class construction worker, a carpenter. We know that she lived in the sparsely-inhabited, rural town of Nazareth. We know… well, that’s about all we know. While there are other, later, traditions surrounding Mary’s life, the fact that she’s barely mentioned at all in the New Testament shows just how much of a nobody she was for her entire life. There’s very little evidence-based, trustworthy knowledge about her. She just wasn’t important enough.

She is not someone people would have looked at and said, “You see that Mary? One day, she’s going to make it. One day, she’s going to be important. One day, the whole world is going to know her name. One day, God is going to make her special.” Because she wasn’t special.

And I can sympathize with Mary. I’m not special. Most of us, I believe, can sympathize with Mary. We live in a town of just 2000 people according to the last census, and that’s stretching it. The logging industry that gave birth to our town is greatly reduced from what it used to be. The farms that were supposed to take its place in the economy are largely gone. Our livelihood mostly relies on the generosity and wealth of others who can choose to come and spend their vacations here; and when they don’t—when the rains of summer keep people away or poor winters ruin the snowmobile season—it hits our town hard, and people struggle. We have a pretty decent median income, and great houses on the lakes, but 19% of our town lives in poverty, and 9% don’t have health insurance (source: United States Census Bureau: Three Lakes, Wisconsin).

We do have a few notable sports figures who came from our town. But most of us will never achieve any sort of fame or notoriety. We are important to each other. But Three Lakes, like Nazareth, is a town that maybe only 1/10,000,000th of the world’s population will ever care about. We are, in the grand scheme, pretty insignificant people. Could God really be interested in us?

What about the 22% of our county that reports binge or heavy drinking of alcohol? Or the 20% of mothers in our county who reported smoking while pregnant? Or the 14% of us who report depression, and yes, that includes myself? Could God really be interested in us? (source: Oneida County Public Health Department)

And that’s why Mary matters tonight. That’s why this story matters. It matters because the incarnation, this event of God becoming a human being wasn’t some big grand affair. Nothing about God’s choices makes any sense. They challenge every assumption about who and what matters.

God, ruler of the universe, could have been born in an upper class family living off the entitlement they receive because they are wealthy. Instead, Jesus was born among the poor.

God could have been born in a kingly palace, Herod’s palace, perhaps, surrounded by slaves ready to bow to every whim. Instead, Jesus was born in a dirty, smelly cave, surrounded by animals.

God could have sent messengers to announce the coming of the Messiah to all of the kings and emperors and nobility of the world. Instead, Jesus’s birth was announced to a group of shepherds—the lowest of the low class, the dirty, crass, crude, scorned folks out in a field somewhere. Jesus’s birth was announced to the lowly, the despised, the forgotten.

God could have been born in a way that drew honor and praise from the Chosen People and their king. Instead, Jesus is given honor by foreign dignitaries who give him gifts his own people could never dream of giving him.

God could have been born a citizen of the Roman Empire, or the Han Dynasty, or the Mayan civilization, civilizations of great power and influence. Instead, Jesus was born a Galilean, an oppressed people with no influence at all in the wider world as a people oppressed by the Roman Empire.

If this were just an isolated incident, I’d think God might have made a miscalculation. But it’s a pattern that’s repeated over and over and over in the Biblical narrative—who matters to God is largely separate from who matters to human beings. Whether it’s old geezers like Abraham, or lying scumbags like Jacob, or all-around terrible human beings like Samson, or murderers like Moses or poor fisherman like Peter and Andrew, or overzealous church police like Paul, or empowered, persistent women like Phoebe, Lydia, Priscilla, or confused people like Nicodemus, or sexual minorities like the Ethiopian eunuch, or poor country girls with no future like Mary, God goes out of the way to go to the diversity of people no one else thinks matter.

At every turn, God eschews power and honor and prestige and specifically takes on people that live with daily fear and pain and worry and doubt and insecurity and vulnerability and weakness: people like Mary; people like us.

And that’s what Christmas means to me. It means God no longer being treated as just as an idea or a cause or an abstraction, but going through that messy process of growing as a fetus and being born in the dump, in a cave. It means God not living a life of luxury, but sharing in the hard life the vast majority of human beings go through.

It means a God who is all-too-well acquainted with depression and sleep-anxiety and hunger and thirst and boo-boos and uh-ohs.

It means a God who understands exactly what it looks and feels like to live the way we live, right here in Three Lakes, right here in Wisconsin, right here on this planet.

And that matters. It matters to me.

It matters to everyone like me who suffers from mental illness and struggles with it who needs to know that God is acquainted with sorrow and grief.

It matters to every part-time seasonal service worker who has ever had to wonder whether the weather was going to provide a good tourist season who needs to know that God knows what it’s like to be poor.

It matters to the 25 transgender people who were murdered this year because of hatred who needed to know that God knew what it felt like to be murdered.

It matters to the minimum-wage workers who can’t make enough money to support themselves even though they work more than 40 hours a week who need to know that God knows what oppression feels like.

It matters to the new mothers wondering how in the heck they are supposed to cope with this new burden when they are so far away from their support systems to who need to know that God understands being unprepared for motherhood.

It matters to the people wondering if their taxes are going to go up or down and can’t make heads or tails out of anything because the whole process is a joke who need to know that God knows what it feels like to live under economic uncertainty.

It matters to the people wondering if their lives will ever mean anything to anyone, and if maybe the world would just be a better place if they removed themselves from it, permanently, by completing suicide, who need to know that God knows what it’s like to want to die.

It matters because when God told the poor nobody Mary through Gabriel that she was blessed among all people, that message was for all of us just like her.

It matters because when the angel told the shepherds, “I am bringing YOU good tidings,” and “to YOU this day is born a savior,” and “this will be a sign for YOU,” that message was for everyone who’s ever felt like a shepherd, left out in the night, forgotten, ignored.

It matters because the birth of Jesus was God’s messy, bloody entry into our crap, into our lives, to take care of us.

It matters because Mary’s acceptance of this whole ridiculous plan ushered in a new era of hope that simply wasn’t possible before. Now, we know that God is with us. Now, we know that the world will never be the same—that it is about to turn. Now, we know that the Good News of Jesus Christ is for us, every last one of us, no matter what our lives look like, no matter who we are, no matter what we’re going through.

That is why tonight matters. That is what Christmas means to me: hope, life, advocacy, accompaniment, redemption, salvation, healing, wholeness, for you, for me, for us.

For us.

Featured Image: This photo of a mosaic of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the child Jesus in the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, Israel, donated by the Catholic Church in Japan, taken by Adriatikus, is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

A Tale of Two Vineyards

Even God’s plans don’t go according to plan.

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80:7-15
Philippians 3:1b-16
Matthew 21:33-46

Things don’t always go according to plan.

I grew up on the far southeast side of Chicago, in the neighborhood of Hegewisch. Hegewisch is named for its founder, Adolph Hegewisch, who envisioned a town just like the town of Pullman to the north. Pullman was founded by George Pullman, a railroad car tycoon, who built the town as a company town for his workers in order to provide them the best lifestyle, keep them happy, and therefore keep production high—as well as making quite a bit of money.

Hegewisch had a similar idea, and in 1883, he bought the area on which he would build his town. As president of the United States Rolling Stock Company, he too planned to build railroad cars there. By building two canals, one to connect to the Calumet River and one to connect nearby Wolf Lake to Lake Michigan, Hegewisch expected to be just as, if not more successful, than Pullman was with his company town.

Alas, Hegewisch’s plan wasn’t meant to be. The canals connecting all of those bodies of water were never built. The USRS Company did build railroad cars, but it was never as successful as the Pullman company and was sold in the early 1900s. The community was cut off from the rest of Chicago by railroad lines and much of the land around it simply went undeveloped. Hegewisch himself died around the time his company was sold off, and his vision of the perfect company town was dead.

The little community, now annexed into the city of Chicago, struggled along for a few more decades, its future uncertain. Still isolated and surrounded by undeveloped or industrial land, it managed to eek out a living. It wasn’t until the housing boom in the 1950s and 1960s that the neighborhood experienced an infusion of new life as blue collar workers and city workers, especially police officers and fire fighters, moved into the neighborhood.

But Adolph Hegewisch’s vision of the perfect company town of his own workers building his company railroad cars and making him rich never happened. It didn’t go according to plan.

Thankfully, the little neighborhood of Hegewisch survived and is still there today, but that’s not always the case. I used to do backpacking trips in Zaleski State Forest in Ohio, and along the trail are the remains of a ghost town that once existed there, a mining town that was deserted when the mine went under. There are dozens of ghost towns in Wisconsin and hundreds across the United States. No, things don’t always go according to plan.

Even God’s plans don’t go according to plan, according to our stories this morning. Both the prophet Isaiah and Jesus Christ have something to say about the way their countries have acted in response to God’s ideas, and they both use the image of a vineyard to do so.

Isaiah speaks of God lovingly planting a vineyard, clearing the land of stones, planting the vest vines available, building a wall to keep wild animals out, building a watch tower to protect it from vandals, and building a wine vat to press the grapes; there’s every justified expectation that this vineyard of God’s—which we later find out is the kingdom of Judah—will produce good fruit and great wine just as God planned.

But things didn’t go according to plan. The vineyard produced wild grapes unsuitable for wine. The land refused to yield good fruit in stubborn opposition to God’s plan. And the consequences are dire: the walls, hedges, tower, and vat are all torn down, allowing anyone and anything to ravage the land. Even the rains will stop falling on it, ensuring nothing good can ever grow there again.

Isaiah, like the other biblical prophets, looks at everything that’s happened to Israel and Judah and sees God’s hand in it—but it’s their own fault, not God’s. Things didn’t go according to plan.

When Jesus tells a parable about a vineyard and its tenants, he draws on Isaiah’s story. In his parable a landowner plants a vineyard, puts a wall around it, builds a watchtower, digs the wine press, just like God does in Isaiah’s story. But this time it’s not the land itself, but the people working on it, the tenants, who refuse to yield “good fruit” as it were.

When the landowner sends slaves to collect what is owed to him, the tenants beat the slaves and kill them. This happens twice, until the landowner sends his son and heir, assuming that, in an honor and shame culture, the tenants would treat the heir better than the slaves because of who he is. The landowner is wrong.

And when Jesus asks the chief priests and the Pharisees what should happen to the tenants, they give a self-condemning answer: put those wretches to death, and give the vineyard to other tenants.

It’s quite the pair of stories, isn’t it? Stark, violent, condemning. There’s not a lot of good news to be found in them. But they speak to a reality that we all know, even if we don’t always know why: things don’t always go according to plan. We see it every day.

We know things don’t go according to plan because people like Stephen Paddock can load 23 guns into 10 suitcases, carry them to a 32nd floor hotel room, set them up like a professional, and unload a hail of bullets into a crowd of 22,000 concert-goers, killing almost 60 people and wounding another 500.

We know things don’t go according to plan because gun violence is an epidemic in our land that has been allowed to grow and thrive under the auspices of “rights” that place property and killing above the lives of others, an epidemic we have created for ourselves and that we are responsible for.

We know things don’t go according to plan because Rohingya refugees persecuted by the Myanmar army have endured brutal beatings, gang-rapes, murders, whole villages burned to the ground, while the Myanmar government does little to stop it.

We know things don’t go according to plan because we see it around us every day in the faces of our neighbors and friends who are hungry, who are homeless, who are cold, who are frightened; but have no way of relieving their own suffering.

And neither of the options presented in our stories this morning seem to bring any comfort; in Isaiah, the vineyard is destroyed, and in Jesus’s parable, presumably, it will be handed over to new tenants.

And that’s why the plan has to change and had to change.

A colloquial definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. How many times will the vineyard produce sour grapes and be torn down before a different approach is taken? How many groups of tenants will seize the landowner’s slaves, beat and kill them, before a different approach is taken?

How many more mass shootings must take place before we do something, anything at all, to curb them? How many more refugees must die before the world does something to rescue them? How many poor people are enough to open our community’s eyes to their plight and take action?

Something has to change, and something did change.

Jesus alludes to it in the explanation of his parable: “the stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes”.

Our stories this morning, and the realities of the world around us, speak to a never-ending cycle of violence. Violence begets violence. Violence is not a cure for violence. Violence does not solve the problem of violence. Violence only perpetuates more violence, and more violence, and more violence, and more violence. And so God stopped responding with violence.

Instead, God responded with sacrifice. God responded by sending Jesus Christ, the son of God, into the midst of violent people, and letting that violence be played out on him. To their violence, Christ responded with forgiveness. To their hate, Christ responded with love. And through his death and resurrection, Christ proved once and for all that violence and death do not have the last word; not over this world, not over us, and not over God.

I know it’s not much. Sadly, I have no illusions that last week’s mass shooting in Las Vegas will be the last. Nor will the Rohingya refugee crisis be the last one. Nor will the reality of hunger and homelessness in our town be solved overnight.

But in the midst of all of this violence and sadness, we cling to the hope that there is something more. We cling to the promise of God that violence isn’t the way things were planned to be; that things haven’t gone according to plan; but that a new plan, one based on sacrifice, love, and hope is in place. Even if we can’t always see it.

Featured Image: “Vineyard” by Henry Hemming is licensed under CC BY 2.0.