October 27, 2013
Jesus contrasts the Pharisees faux prayer with the tax collector who, stood at a distance, would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I believe that God loves each of us and desires an honest conversation with us. And I believe that God loves us more as a loving parent than a harsh judge. However the tax collector viewed God, he was ready to pray. He looked at himself honestly and opened himself to God for forgiveness and healing. It is as if God asked, “How is it with your soul?” and the tax collector said, “I am not who I want to be. Have mercy on me.” Jesus says the tax collector is the one who went home justified or made right with God because God had something to work with. Prayer that transforms and heals begins with honest reflection on our failures, wounds, questions, and longings.
Let me tell you how I see God working transformation and healing in a class that I teach for the School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University. The class is Ministerial and Theological Integration. It is the supervision class for seminary students who are engaged in their first internship; their first experience of being seen in a new place as a minister. The class focuses on their growing understanding of themselves as ministers. For these adult learners who feel the seriousness of their call to ministry and who want to learn how to live effectively into their call, the temptation is to want to be competent. They naturally want to celebrate their successes and gloss over their difficulties. They want to excel. Unfortunately, we learn more from our difficulties and failures than we do from our successes. My challenge to them is to write about their failures and questions so that they can learn, in conversation with their peers and with me, what they bring to ministry that is not helpful, what gets in their way, what prevents them from seeing and hearing clearly. I have to tell you that the students who jump in and lay their failures on the table with open hearts, ready to learn, experience “aha” moments that lead to amazing transformation and healing in their lives. Each paper that they write, and there are many, is followed by a one page integration paper in which they distill what they have learned from the incident in question, the feedback of their peers and their continued reflection and prayer. I encourage the students to close each of their papers with a prayer—and what prayers they write, laying bare their shortcomings and longing for wholeness and beauty in their lives and in their work. As the year goes by, their work becomes holy ground as they wrestle with questions of faith, with messages from their past that do not serve them well, and images of God that are always going deeper as they listen in their ministries to stories of pain and heartbreak. They are not the same people at the end of the year. I have the privilege of watching God’s stunning transformation and healing as these ministers become more than they ever imagined. It is their honest examination of themselves and reflection on what wholeness means in the grace of God that changes them.
That is the kind of prayer that Jesus invites us to. Of course God wants to hear what our hearts desire and many times what we long for is a change in some situation. It may be healing from an illness or injury for ourselves or for a loved one. We need to bring the fullness of our anguish to God with total honesty. I heard one woman say that in a dark time she prayed and prayed for a resolution to her difficulty and finally added the plea, “Could one thing change?” Her prayer created an openness that allowed for that one thing to be in her.
We begin our worship service with praise for God’s goodness and move immediately to confession. It has become more and more common in churches to leave out the confession because people don’t like it. I used to be one of those people. If the words didn’t speak to my situation, or didn’t address my difficulties during the past week, I didn’t like speaking them. But it’s too easy for me to pray like the Pharisee by not acknowledging my shortcomings and human frailty. Just learning the language of confession helps us remember that it is the beginning of real prayer, and eventually the words will pierce my heart.
The real truth is that transformative prayer does not change others, and it does not change God, it changes us. I love this quote from Clarissa Goeckner, OSB:
In our seeking we know that it is prayer that will awaken our
imaginations; prayer will open our hearts; prayer will keep
us faithful; prayer will sustain our efforts; prayer will give us
courage; prayer will bring us to freedom; and prayer will lead
us to the unknown future where many possibilities await us.
Prayer brings us alive!
So let me ask you, “How is it with your soul?”