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True When Whispered
hearing God's voice in a noisy world
By Paul L. Escamilla
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2010 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
The precariousness of praying
They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, "Where are you?" He said, "I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself."
When it comes to relating to God, things have never been altogether straightforward. If our own lives are not proof enough, the Bible, from beginning to end, gives us plenty of evidence of crossed signals, missed cues, mixed motives, and misconstrued meanings in the relationship between creature and Creator. If we are looking for examples, Genesis makes a good beginning. You know the story: God walks through the garden of Eden calling for the missing pair: "Where are you?" It turns out the man and woman are among the trees, hiding "from the presence of the LORD God." Once they are summoned, however, they instantly emerge from the shadows and rejoin the relationship, explaining themselves with remarkable forthrightness. "I heard the sound of you in the garden," Adam confesses, "and I was afraid" (Genesis 3:8-10).
With that brief narrative we learn something very important about the spiritual life, namely, that the presence of God is a thing we want and ward off in just about equal measure. Adam and Eve are forerunners of the rest of us, darting beneath the dark cover of trees at the first sign of the divine, then answering immediately when they are summoned, as though relieved to have been discovered. Still dusty behind the ears, they have learned early that the experience of encountering their Creator is a complicated mixture of worry and welcome, judgment and joy.
Picture the three—Adam, Eve, and God—talking in the shadows of the garden grove, their serpentine conversation twisting from confusion to confession.
God: Where are you?
Adam: I hid myself.
God: Who told you?
Adam: The woman.
God: What is this?
Woman: The serpent.
We can spend a good deal of time placing blame on those who place blame. I would rather we notice the fact that, in the moment of encounter with the God of the garden, the two slowly but surely emerge from their lost-and-hiding place, cease their shuffling, and come clean. "I ate," they each acknowledge in turn. Call their confessions convoluted if you like, but call them courageous too. If they spit and sputter their way to truth and responsibility, at least they get there. 12
I remember a family outing to an amusement park years ago during which overcast skies suddenly opened up in an afternoon thunderstorm. Everyone in the park sought shelter from the downpour wherever it could be found—in restaurants, under awnings, beneath pavilions. A gift shop is where our family found harbor—along with what seemed like the entire population of the park. Inside the little store, we crowded into aisles of trinkets and postcards, peering out at the rain the way a hidden mouse studies a cat walking through the room. At the counter, the clerk did a brisk business in overpriced umbrellas and ponchos, selling out of both within minutes. Those so equipped bravely ventured back into the park while the rest of us, jealous of their good fortune, waited for the skies to clear. Later in the afternoon, the storm long past and the sun shining, the park was once again bustling as before. A long line snaked from the entrance to one of the most popular amusements in the park, a ride along a "river" canal in a dug-out "log" canoe. The ride's greatest attraction, as you may already know, is the expectation that on the canoe's final descent an enormous splash of water leaves the rider thoroughly soaked.
If God is the water of our entry into the spiritual life, we will take extra precautions to be certain we don't get wet, and also to ensure that we do. Adam and Eve's initial instinct is much like our own—to head for the gift shop at the first sign of a downpour. The question God asks, "Where are you?" allows that the two are both lost and hiding, which turns out to be precisely true. For some strange reason, lost and hiding go together like axle grease and road grime, one attracting the other. This couple wastes no time in pairing the two. Having become lost through the lure of the serpent, they choose to hide rather than seek to be found.
God's first call is a question, and a searching one at that: "Where are you?" Humanity's first response is a halfhearted smokescreen, followed by transparency. And so begins the Bible's montage of the practice of prayer. Scripture will eventually give us wonderful illustrations of direct, declaratory encounters between Caller and called, clear invitation followed by ready assent. We will see fishing boats left rocking in the shallows, abandoned coins rolling across the tax table and falling into the dirt, a blind man's only cloak cast off as of no worth by a mere summons. Yet if it is a sober dose of more often-than-not we are after, we will never do better than this first encounter. For prayer is voluntary, employing neither leashes nor lockstep marches to accomplish its aim of securing us in a relationship with God. From the first syllable of prayer and even before, we are free, like Adam and Eve, to dart or drift from the holy conversation, able at any instant to hide from the presence or feel ourselves to be lost from it. There are plenty of leafed-out trees to serve the purpose, not to mention umbrellas and ponchos. All for a price, of course.
Two words you would never expect to have any relationship to each other are actually kissing cousins. Those words are "pray" and "precarious." Both come from a root word meaning "to ask." "Precarious" describes the shaky experience of coming hat in hand to another with a concern of real importance, which is essentially also what happens in prayer. We are uncertain, unassured; there are no formulas regarding the disposition of our request, or even that our prayer will fairly represent our actual need. It is a precarious moment of absolute dependence and trust; in other words, it is a moment for divine intervention, a reality for which we have reserved the word "grace."
If you have ever wondered if you were alone in your ambivalence about putting in the time and effort to seek God's presence, wonder no more—ambivalence is a biblical tradition that runs deep and ranges wide. If you are in line for a poncho one minute and the log ride the next, you can expect a crowd at both locations. For all sorts of reasons, we are prone to resist most vehemently the very things we long for most deeply. Even when we do choose to give God the time of day, when practicing prayer in a personal way becomes an ordinary reality in our daily lives, holy encounter continues to be a tenuous arrangement. We are the newborn calf with its mother, never more content than when it is nestled at her side, yet tottering like the dickens as she works it over with her sandpaper tongue. Sometimes we seek that cleansing, caressing contact with the mother cow; other times, it seeks us. Either way, we totter; either way, we pray.CHAPTER 2
Praying before we know it
[Jesus] was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples." He said to them, "When you pray ..."
Listening for God, speaking to God—these are precarious things --and yet they matter profoundly to us. Consider how many articles you have read, sermons you have heard, conversations you have had, and, of course, jokes you have listened to on the simple yet deeply mysterious subject of relating to God in prayer. Consider the ways your own prayer life has maneuvered over the years from shallows to depths and back again. No wonder Thomas Merton described the spiritual life as "starting over." It seems that when it comes to encountering God in prayer we are always beginning again, always starting over. The crumpled-up sheets of paper have long since overflowed the wastebasket as we begin the nth draft of our letter. So far, they all begin the same way: "Dear God ..."
"Teach us to pray," the beginner-disciples once asked Jesus. And he answered, "When you pray, say ..." (Luke 11:1). This is one of those occasions in the Gospels when we don't know whom to thank—the disciples for being honest enough to ask a question we might be afraid was too dim-witted to ask ourselves, or Jesus for treating the question with such accommodation. Imagine the disciples' conversations leading up to this question: "How can we ask him to teach us to pray? He'll think we're fools. We might as well ask, 'Teach us to lace our sandals.' The newborn knows how to draw the mother's milk, yet we don't know how to pray?" Then there are the answers Jesus might have given after the request had been made: "Teach you to pray? Are you not Israelites as I am? From the womb we have prayed—table prayers, threshold prayers, sabbath prayers, morning prayers, night prayers, wedding prayers, graveside prayers—these are our bread and drink, the very air we breathe. They are our hopes by day and our dreams in the darkness of night. Teach you to pray?"
"Yes, teach us to pray." Their request—dim-witted or not—rises like a surrender flag from the landscape of Luke's Gospel to capture the attention of every generation of Jesus' beginner followers since, including ours. Maybe we should know better. Maybe we should have been paying better attention in Sunday school or morning worship or Bible school or summer camp, so that as grown-ups we would have no reason to ask such a seemingly elementary question. Maybe this and maybe that, but whatever the reasons, neither and none. The disciples' question is our question too.
There may be some comfort to be found in discovering that Paul the apostle is in the same boat with the rest of us. In one of his letters he writes, "We do not know how to pray as we ought" (Romans 8:26). This from someone who is known for knowing a great deal about a great number of things, and not hesitating to say so. He knows the law of Moses backward and forward. He talks about grace like it's his middle name. He knows about heaven as if he's been there—and claims he has. He holds forth with relative ease on complex theological questions such as the nature of sin, the meaning of the Cross, the hope of resurrection, the relationship of faith and works, and the mystery of becoming a new creation in Christ. He is certain about marriage, table etiquette, ritual diplomacy, and the finer points of dealing with food that has been sacrificed to idols. Paul knows a great deal about a great number of things. But in a letter to a young church that is probably asking the same question the disciples raised with Jesus and looking to Paul for answers, he acknowledges in that one very specific area his own uncertainty: "We do not know how to pray ..."
With these simple words of confession Paul borrows the disciples' surrender flag and raises it for himself, at once revealing his own humanness and allowing for ours. And yet with the insight that surrounds those helpless words, Paul proves the extraordinary power of divine inspiration to steady even the most precariously hoisted flag: "Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words" (Romans 8:26, italics mine). If there is deep uncertainty about prayer in the middle of the sentence, there is equally sure assistance provided by the Spirit to the left and right. In other words, in our moment of surrender, the Holy Spirit has us surrounded.
An educator at heart, Paul has created a visual aid to illustrate his point, showing us the answer to our dilemma by the very way he crafts his sentence on the parchment: the Holy Spirit goes before and behind us in prayer, giving heft to flimsy words, buoyancy to bottomed-out words, strength to tired words, and deep sighs where there are no words at all. Put another way, the Spirit makes a silk purse out of a sow's ear, redeeming our feeble and frustrated efforts to move our prayers out of our own rickety frames and into the presence of God, changing our sense of God's location from heaven to here. The moment we seek the presence of God, we are already in the presence of God. The moment we want to pray, we are already at prayer. Our very sighs of exasperation, yearning, or surrender are themselves the coupling of the human and the divine.
Some years ago in a congregation I served, young Kristine and her mother, Barbara, played a piano duet in Sunday morning worship. Somewhat tentatively, the child began a rudimentary version of "Amazing Grace." Soon her mother, seated at her daughter's side with one arm reaching around her, began to add light accompaniment to the left and right; as she did, Kristine's own simple melody took wing. By the end of the piece, four hands had crafted a sublime rendering of the beloved folk hymn. The simple offering of a young worshiper was infused with beauty beyond its own by the gentle, enfolding presence of a mother's light touch. The two not only performed "Amazing Grace"; in that moment they demonstrated it.
As we struggle to pick out even the most basic notes of prayer, the Spirit, near as our own breath, begins to fill in lightly, intuitively on every side in what truly is an amazing grace. Going back now across the pages of the New Testament to Luke, we come again to that moment the disciples ask their question of Jesus about learning to pray. Notice that theirs is not really a question—it's a statement: "Teach us to pray." Look closer, and you will see that it is not really a statement, either, but a petition. Petition, an earnest request of some sort, is merely another word for prayer. Theirs is an expeditionary prayer, to be sure—a pair of hikers that do not know, upon entering the canyon, when or where the exit will be found. But then, isn't all prayer expeditionary? To speak the name of God or hear the voice of God is to create the path as we walk it together, never altogether certain where the next step of either traveler will come to rest.
Prayer is sometimes presented as a prescribed set of techniques, the mastery of which leads the spiritual seeker into special realms of awareness and resourcefulness. Other times we hear that prayer is an act of speaking and listening as clear and bold as trumpets on a rooftop, clarion calls to and from God that leave not an ounce of doubt or second-guessing. These models certainly have their place along the spectrum of spiritual theory and practice. But the prayer I have come to know better than these is the prayer that stands on wobbly knees, the sort that, at any moment, could buckle into the tall grass under the gritty grace of the mother's grooming tongue. It is then, as Paul and the disciples have shown us, that we have encountered the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, gentle to love us, strong to uphold. What would topple us, moreover, sustains.
If you think of yourself as unable to break through to God in any meaningful way, remember this: when we seek to find God in prayer—even think about doing so—we are already finding. When we ask, we are already being given. The door upon which we would knock opens before our knuckles can even reach it. The prayer room into which we then enter may be less than opulent. In fact, it may be plain, ordinary, and unadorned. But I can assure you of this: it will shelter, and it will shade. Ask God in the most provisional terms to teach you to pray, and I will show you one prayer that is already both offered and answered. Lift a finger to play the first tentative note, and there will surely be, seated on the bench beside you, a grace so present, so instrumental in the music you are making, it is often called amazing.CHAPTER 3
Embrace and surrender
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.
When Paul says the Spirit helps us to pray, he doesn't mean this as an abstraction, a fuzzy description of some metaphysical mingling of the divine with the human. True to his Jewish roots, he understands the spiritual and the physical as integral to each other, and not in the way of carrots and peas in mixed vegetables but rather of flour and yeast in Grandmother's finest homemade rolls. The spiritual is intrinsic to the physical, just as the physical is inherent in all things spiritual. Together the two make for some heavenly Sunday dinners.
So when Paul says the Spirit helps us to pray, we should not be surprised by the fact that he describes this spiritual reality in a very physical way. The Spirit, he writes, helps us to pray by sighing through us. (Some versions translate the Greek word as "moaning.") Paul could not have identified a human gesture reflecting a wider range of physical and emotional expression. As we know, a sigh can represent a thousand different feelings. In one instance, it is a gesture of despair; in another, exhilaration. One sigh is yielded up as the weary response to the long-expected news of a loved one's death; another by a person gazing into the eyes of their beloved across the table. One sigh means joy unspeakable; another, sadness beyond words. To sigh is to lament, to languish, to lean against our own weary frame or the next nearest for steadiness against some gathering anguish that is best expressed by the Spanish word, insoportable, unsupportable. Yet to sigh is also to be stirred by the marvel of a setting sun or a rising moon, to sanctify a holy moment in worship, to pause before any wonder small or great that the eye has beheld, the ear heard, or the human heart conceived.
Excerpted from True When Whispered by Paul L. Escamilla. Copyright © 2010 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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