Tag Archives: Presbyterian

Embarrassing Prayers

An Embarrassment

“Do you want to ask
the blessing?”

“No. If you do,
go ahead.”

He went ahead:
his prayer dressed up

in Sunday clothes
rose a few feet

and dropped with a soft

If a lonely soul
did ever cry out

in company its true
outcry to God,

it would be as though
at a sedate party

a man suddenly
removed his clothes

and took his wife
passionately into his arms.

~Wendell Berry – Leavings

Wendell Berry –  I love this Kentucky farmer and writer, with his deep affection for the land and generosity of spirit. I actually worry sometimes about his dying. He is getting older and I need him to keep going into his timber, where he observes Sabbath down by the creek. I need his passion for justice and goodness, which he keeps just under his worn jacket. I love it every time he tears off that jacket and strips down to show us the naked truth.

I used to say with the foolish assurance of someone newly in love with God, “If people knew how sexy God is, our churches would be filled.” Now I wonder if perhaps it is our churches themselves who don’t know how sexy God is, and that is why some are empty.

In the sedate worship circles I frequent, there are few passionate outbursts and everyone keeps his clothes on. If a God lover ever did rise up in some self-abandoned embarrassing expression of love, we would probably be appalled and call the police.

We have all heard those obligatory, studied prayers that rise a few feet and drop with a soft thump. I have prayed quite a few myself. I also confess I have been a perpetrator of prayers with an ax to grind: some pet notion or issue that wasn’t fully treated in the sermon or meeting, which the one praying attempts to correct. Perhaps, you have been assaulted with the prayer of someone, who is more concerned about setting you straight about some matter than entering into communion with the Lord of the Universe on your behalf. Then there are the quick and dirty nooners over lunch in a public restaurant, where you feel everyone is watching.

To the Holy One, I figure all our prayers are mostly childish babble, endearing scribbles in the sky.  I trust God loves them all, just as I still keep a box of my daughters’ childhood drawings and writing. Tell me, what are we, caged in our mortality, to do with this divine love, if not to slop it around like infants in a high chair eating our first plate of spaghetti? We are bound to be messy. More of us ought to be caught red handed in flagrante delicto with spaghetti sauce all over our faces.

Some Sundays I have an impulse to throw myself in an unseemly prostration before the altar on behalf of the people and the God I love so much that I can’t stand it.  I do not have the words to express the anguish, doubt, and fear I know some of the people carry. “Do something!” I want to scream at God. “Here take me, take my life, such as it is, ragged and tattered, and heal your people!”

Once, in a weak moment, overcome with love, I knelt in a Presbyterian church during worship. Presbyterians, as you may know, do not have kneelers in their churches or kneel as part of their worship. They express their passion by singing, something at which Roman Catholics, with their lovely genuflections and neat fold-down kneelers are generally less accomplished.

My embarrassment followed Holy Communion. After I received our Lord’s presence and love, I brazenly knelt right down in the First Presbyterian Church in Holton, Kansas. It was a little crowded between my seat and the back of my brother’s pew, but I just had to do it. Afterwards one of the elders of the church brought up my indiscretion at the session meeting, asking the pastor if what I did was “Presbyterian.” They haven ‘t kicked me out so far.

Saints, prophets, artists, and poets understand the passion of the human heart for the divine. These are persons, possessed and overcome with our Beloved, who often do and say things unseemly. Most people think they are a little kooky. Yet these same people, who hold mystics at arm’s length, regularly sing hymns with lyrics like:

Jesus, lover of my soul, let me
to thy bosom fly …

Come down, O love divine, seek thou this soul of mine,
and visit it with thine own ardor glowing…

Who do they think they are fooling? I know there are hearts aflame with God in more than one gentleman in the back row, not to mention the middle aged couple, or bored looking teenager pecking at his cell phone. Most us, including clergy, are well trained to keep our passion contained. Nobody wants to be embarrassed for heaven’s sake.

As Wendell Berry writes, there is public prayer, which can easily slide down the slippery slope into performance prayer. Then there is the Jesus-recommended private, shut up in your closet prayer. (Matthew 6:6) I suppose the closet prayers are the best kind for taking off your clothes. The only problem with hiding our passion is that people may get the idea that God is boring and that being a person of faith is only a matter of learning some doctrine and following a moral code of behavior.

Not for the faint hearted, a life of prayer is a perilous enterprise. One can pray a prayer so lame it is an embarrassment, or one can simply embarrass oneself. I believe God receives all our prayers, both the self-conscious thumpers, and the self-forgotten soarers. God, being beyond shame, is not embarrassed by either. Would we could all toss away our fig leaves and go walking in the garden with our Lover without a stitch.

I hope there is a place, where you can strip down to your naked, vulnerable, cellulite- encased, pocked-marked self and open your arms to your Beloved in a rush of desire and groping hunger for holiness, truth, justice, and mercy.

We won’t peek. Just go for it. Lame or passionate, pray an embarrassing prayer today.

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A Calm and Quiet Soul

It is a simple psalm – the shortest in the Hebrew Scriptures, only three verses, easy to miss. It is a little announcement, a tweet, a facebook status post:

 O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,C, Co 1987 002
   my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
   too great and too marvelous for me.                             
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
   like a weaned child with its mother;
   my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.
O Israel, hope in the Lord
   from this time on and for evermore. Psalm 131

The psalmist does not offer his knowledge, answers, opinions, strategies, outrage, or some new technological advance. He does not blast his enemies and ask for God’s vengeance. He does not recite a litany of his sorrows, nor does he plead for mercy. He does not even offer God praise or thanksgiving. He simply posts a calm and quiet soul and out of his serenity emerges a message to his friends, Israel: hope in God.

Here is no flashy super hero, no glamorous celebrity, no clever talking head striding up to the microphone to silence opponents with verbal repartee and inflammatory speech. Instead we find a balm for all wounds and a cool hand to smooth out the furrows in the forehead of a distracted, feverish world.

Peace is polite and unassuming. It does not force its way on others or announce itself with strobe lights and blaring headlines. With the irony, sarcasm, and impatience so endemic in our world, we may think, “Big deal. So the guy’s calmed himself down. Whatever.”

It is easy to miss the importance of this. I think some of you know how much work it takes to create and maintain inner peace. You have an idea of the courage and selflessness a calm and quiet heart requires. Such peace is won by the bloody confrontation with inner truth and the battle with all in oneself that resists or thwarts reconciliation.

D, Co 1987A calm heart is the heart of a weaned child, no longing gasping and grasping for nourishment from its mother. The psalmist has mastered his appetites and addictions. He has grown up and can return to the source of life free of the demanding temptations of ambition, restlessness, and narcissism.

The psalmist does a startling thing here. Notice that he is not blaming, or damning, or threatening to sue whatever has upset him or caused him to despair. We do not know what has set him about calming his heart. What we do know is that he has assumed responsibility for his inner peace and his outward response to the world. He does not hold others accountable for his difficulty. He is reconciled with his own experience. His soul is at rest and his desire for his friends is the hope he has found in God.

A calm and quiet soul is a great lake of strength and serenity, a pool of stillness reflecting reality where many come to drink. Yet the cacophony of the postmodern world has little appreciation for such souls. These are hidden folk with no desire for their five minutes of fame. They remain rooted and grounded in the soil of love, flexible, bending with the winds of change, and standing tall in tough times. I have known a few. I want to be someone like that more than anything. Don’t you?

For the past couple of weeks I’ve had the “eye twitch.” You know, that annoying  hysterical jerk of the eyelid? I’ve been so tired. I have not been respecting my limits. My sites have been set too high. I have been occupying myself with things too great for me.

It is a simple psalm. It is really a lullaby. Sing it to yourself this week.

 DC, Co 1987 1

If you alone find inner peace, thousands around you will be saved.
– St. Seraphim of Sarov

New issue of Holy Ground, a quarterly reflection on contemplative life, published by The Sanctuary Foundation for Prayer is out! This issue is about what happens when discernment appears to go wrong, resistance to love, and a puppy named Elijah. To request a free copy:  email info@fromholyground.org. Include your name and mailing address. We will send your copy right away.

Contact Loretta:
lross@fromholyground.org, www.fbook.me/sanctuary
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Gone Fishing

gcarpI couldn’t take my eyes off them. Thirteen years before I watched the eight grass carp slip out from the plastic bags from the fish farm and slide into the lake. Since than I had not seen them. I had heard their splashes growing louder over the years, and glimpsed an occasional fin. Some visitors spoke of the Lake Holy Ground Monster. A few saw one feeding close to shore.

 Now I stood on the shore enthralled. With no rain for weeks the lake was as clear as glass. From the shore west of the hermitage I could see through greenish yellow water to the bottom. An old lawn chair sat half submerged in the shallows. A few mossy sticks lay in the soft mud.

Then a movement caught my eye, something slowly waving. First one, then another and another – six huge grass carp swam lazily into my view. Some were over four feet in length. Moving slowly in a wide circle, their bodies shimmered with iridescent diamond scales, silver dappled in the sun.

Lifting the curve of their open pink mouths like soup ladles, they gulped the willow seeds and cottonwood fluff floatingcottonwood fluff 2 on the surface. Skimming off the white fuzz, the giants wove in and out in a dance of mesmerizing beauty. A large open mouth would break the surface and scoop the fluff. Then the mouth, water running from its corners like an overflowing pitcher, would close and sink into the lake. The fish scooped and sank, swimming silently, smooth and easy like the hawks riding the wind currents above us.

Later when I got home I cherished the memory of those fish swimming so self contained, whole in themselves, flowing through the water like cream in coffee before it is stirred. For days after I would close my eyes and see them swimming, a secret vision of grace. Here was beauty free for the seeing. And somehow the best gift was their creatureliness – that they knew nothing of me, or a world beyond the lake, that what I did or did not do mattered not to them.

I practiced floating that summer. I learned how my breath increases my buoyancy in the water and to relax the muscles in my neck and shoulders. I learned that water will hold my weight when I resist the least.

grass carpMarshall McLuhan said, “We do not know who discovered water, but we know it wasn’t the fish.” Could we overcome our ignorance of the very substance in which we live and move and find our being? Could we float in grace and swim in love, dipping our jaws and opening our throats to taste salvation?  I hope so.

A priest observed a peasant man coming daily to the church where he knelt and remained in prayer for some time. One day the priest approached the man and asked, “What do you say to our Lord on your daily visits?”

 “Oh, I don’t say anything,” the man replied. “I look at him and he looks at me.”

Such love does
the sky now pour,
that whenever I stand in a field,
I have to wring out the light
when I get home.   ~St. Francis

A lot about the spiritual life has to do with where you look, what it is you pay attention to and see. The prayer of the peasant man is sometimes called the prayer of the simple gaze or simple regard. In our time of incessant naming, describing, evaluating, where a daily deluge of words pours over us from radio, television, internet, mail and highway billboards, a prayer without words can be sweet refreshment to a word numbed soul. The wordless communion of the gaze is a potent and underrated form of prayer.

Go find something that fills you with wonder and look upon it with love for a while. Go swimming in beauty. It is your natural home, you know. Then wring out the light and pour it over the world.


Poem by St. Francis from Love Poems from God by Daniel Ladinsky

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The Beginning

I didn’t start out planning to give my life to prayer. The notion sort of snuck up on me. A series of collisions, near misses, and faltering steps toward love drew me into the lap of holiness. In the confusion there were some moments of clarity. Once driving with my friend, Wanda, through Kentucky countryside lush with the aching beauty of spring, I blurted out my passion. “I think I could just live in a hut somewhere and pray all the time, but I am married and want to have children, and besides I am a Presbyterian.” I was soon to graduate from three years of seminary preparation to be a minister. We were talking about what we planned to do with our lives. Wanda turned to me, mouth open and said, “Well my God, Loretta, if someone wanted to do something like that that bad, I think God would want them to too.”

It took me a while to figure out the logistics, but for the past twenty six years I have focused my life in prayer. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that prayer has focused my life. Prayer has clarified, refined, and made more visible for me my own being and the being of all things.

I spend a lot of my time chasing after the elusive lover of our souls, scrambling after crumbs and leavings on the path. Occasionally I kick up heart stopping showers of diamonds in the dust. Like most things we deeply desire and set out to do, it hasn’t been easy.

For example, there aren’t many models. It is not that people do not pray. Research shows that most of us do in one way or another. Research also shows that many of us do not care to talk to each other about it. The person who deliberately sets out to make a life project of prayer finds few persons outside a monastery who understand this calling. A life of prayer is such an antiquated notion that if you have heard of someone who has done this, it is quite likely they are dead.  I am not.

In fact there are more people than you may think, who have been stricken as I and are willing to live like beggars for love of God. I know quite a few who knock themselves out for the compelling beauty of the Holy One. They pine away for this Lover and feel lonely and afraid sometimes.  They wonder if anything good can come from being hidden away in prayer. They also have a marvelously good time walking on this earth. I believe they do an incredible amount of good for us all. There could be one living next door to you right now.

At this point you may be wondering – So what is prayer anyway?  Good question. We will get to that.  No rush though. We have eternity.



To read more about people who pray a lot, see a new book called Consider the Ravens – On Contemporary Hermit Life by Paul and Karen Fredette. www.ravensbreadministries.com