Prayer and Struggle
I may have told a few of your this story when I came for adult forum but I believe it particularly appropriate to tell again in light of our readings this morning and the baptism of…Lydia Sczech
As you know, I was a brother of Taize for almost 20 years. Taize is an ecumenical monastery in southern Burgundy, France. Long before he was known as “brother Roger,” Brother Roger was a young pastor living in Geneva. The war had broken out. It was 1940. The Nazis had invaded France. Brother Roger said to himself, “I can’t remain in the neutrality, in the safety of Switzerland…” He set out. Found Taize. Starting praying and welcoming Jews, bringing them across the border to Switzerland. There were two parts to his life, even as he lived by himself, daily praying but also seeking out the neighbor, especially the neighbor in need.
1942 the Gestapo… came back in 1944. Three other young men with him, a couple more joined. And immediately they divided up. They kept the pattern that Brother Roger had started… prayer and struggle. Two-three in Taize and two-three living with the neighboring poor, at first in an depressed mining town and later at the port city of Marseille. Now, to be quite honest, if I were to start a community… Today, there are brothers in… Even though there are around 100 brothers, if you go there today, you will only ever see about 40-50 at Taize.
The life of the community was marked by the alternance between prayer and an attentiveness to places where people are suffering, abandoned or in isolation. Brother Roger defined this as contemplation and struggle. There is really no contemplation without this struggle in the world. There cannot be a prayer that would ignore or insulate itself from the neighbor. Later on Brother Roger modified his definition talking about a life immersed in God’s Word, a deep inner life nurtured by God’s Word and living in human solidarity. Prayer – our communal liturgy, our public worship, our individual prayer practices – prayer will always consist of both this contemplation and this struggle towards a communion.
The alternance, this double movement, this dynamic at the heart of prayer has characterised communal prayer since the early church. We have sparse records of what communal prayer truly looked like or how it was enacted but we have enough sources that demonstrate that the basic pattern of communal prayer was Psalmody and Intercessory Prayer. Psalmody and Prayer. Do you see? In the very pattern of prayer, there is a push towards the world. On the one hand, immersion into God’s Word, on the other, an opening to the cry from the street. This dynamic is embedded in our worship. It the character of prayer. It marks our spirituality.
Prayer marks us for a life turned, not inwards (as so many imagine) but outwards. Prayer, the language of the Holy Spirit deep within our being, prayer estabishes us, not within our own boundaries (that we’re so good at defining) but firmly in the boundaries that God has created for life, for creation. As we sang in the Psalm this morning, “God established them forever and ever; God fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.” The surprising thing here is that when God fixes our boundaries, these are never restrictive, tight, narrow, judgmental. God’s boundaries, the lot, the place that God establishes for us is always creative and good, as we read in another psalm, Psalm 16. God’s boundaries are curious boundaries. God’s boundaries are the only ones that are “good” for they break open our narrow boundaries. God’s boundaries make no distinction between them and us.
Isn’t this what Peter discovered, to his own great surprise? “God, he exclaims to those who wanted to keep boundaries between the Jewish Christians and the Gentile, the foreign-born new converts, “God gave them the same gift that God gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
“When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” When they heard this they were silenced. The boundaries we want to establish between those in the community and those on the outside fall away. The wall is broken. It crumbles down. And those inside are left amazed, at first silent, perhaps fearful, who wouldn’t be? The old self that lives in each one of us is often afraid of the neighbor, the stranger, in biblical language the “Gentile.” The old self is afraid of the one who doesn’t necessary look like me or fit in my world view. And yet, God’s boundaries are so generous, so wide, that this silence or fear finally breaks forth into praise for what God is doing! God comes to us precisely in the neighbor, precisely in the one who is so different. There is no distinction between them and us!
Our walls of resistance are broken down. Perhaps a better metaphor is this: our boundaries, our walls are washed away. In the waters of baptism, our fears, our egoisms, our self-centered concerns, are drowned. The old Eve and the old Adam are drowned in these waters but God does not leave us there, God pulls us up out of the water, God raises our heads, our lives above the waters and gives us a new identity, makes of us new creatures, establishes new boundaries for us – a people forgiven, reconciled, and now entrusted with that same ministry of reconciliation and justice in the world.
“The first things have passed away,” exclaims the visionary John in Revelation! The first things, the old things, the walls and worries, the fences and fears, the boundaries that we impose have all passed away, are all washed away. And now God establishes God’s boundaries – God’s own home among us, mortals, human beings, the visionary notes emphatically – among us human beings, here, in our midst, in the midst of life, in the midst of our neighborhood, in the stranger out in the street crying for justice, here, in that cry, God dwells and calls out to us. God has destroyed the boundaries we establish and open the gates of praise, of prayer, inviting us into an expansive place, where God is always at work, making all people God’s people!
God wipes all tears from their eyes. In baptism, God wipes away all tears, past tears and present tears, and all future tears. Today, we celebrate the baptism of Lydia Marie Szezch. Today, we celebrate her entry into this expansive space of God’s immeasureable goodness. Today, Lydia becomes part of this people who know that their lives are not lived for themselves, confined within the bounardies of our own egoisms, but are lives given to God in prayer and to the neighbor in service. Through baptism, we enter into this participation in God’s own life, into a communion with God’s own suffering. And I don’t mean just an imagined suffering… when, in baptism, we participate in God’s life we are saying that we participate, we step into, we engage all those places where God is suffering today. What you did to the least of these you did to me.
In baptism, God establishes God’s boundaries that are as wide as the world. In baptism, God makes of us, not a privileged people but a people who belong totally to the world. In baptism, God wipes away all our tears and entrusts us with that ministry of wiping away the tears. Let then all creation, all people praise the Lord! Praise the God who stoops down and dwells among us, who welcomes us and send us out in service, to love as we have been loved…