Even Now… Week 2

Rabbi, it is good that we are here!
– Mark 9:5

My Dear Friends in Christ,

These words of Peter are in response to the miraculous transfiguration of Jesus. Jesus has taken His closest friends up the mountain and then, all of a sudden, He is transfigured. The glory of the Lord is bursting forth from Him, he is different, glorious and His clothes are even better than bleachiest bleached white.  And then, on top of all that, He is talking to Moses and Elijah, the ROCK STARS of the Old Testament, God’s biggest and most important helpers, perhaps better to say that they are talking to HIM. They’re struck with fear, thrown down to the ground, amazed, confused, impressed and petrified. They know it’s Jesus, their good friend, but they have never seen nothin’ like this before. While they are scared, there is also something comforting about it, a sense of calm and control, a sense of God’s awesome power, a hint of God’s “mighty hand and outstretched arm” that saved Israel from slavery, led them across the Red Sea as if on dry land, brought them through the desert feeding and watering them all of the time, plopping them gently and purposefully in the promised land after clearing it of their enemies. God had reached into human history and acted for the good of Israel.

God bless Peter, because, like me, he speaks when there ain’t nothing to say. He babbles, diarrhea of the mouth, not knowing what to say. He is frightened and yet he knows this is something important, something good, the tangible Presence of God, a reminder that God is powerful and close even if he (Peter) doesn’t get it, let alone understand fully and completely. It’s not just visible but audible as well.  The voice of God thunders over the whole scene. So, somewhat naturally (at least for me), Peter seeks to prolong the moment, he wants to build three tents (with what materials) so that this meeting of the minds, so to speak, can continue and he, along with James and John can continue their exclusive and immediate access at this historic moment. Rabbi, it is good that we are here.

Even now, says the LORD, return to me with your whole heart… return to the LORD, your God… [who is] gracious and merciful… slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment. (See Joel 12:1-2) These very first words of Lent remind us what Lent is truly all about: that God loves us, that God is willing to accept us no matter where we are or where we’ve been, no matter how distant or separated we’ve felt, no matter how tired or angry. And in Jesus Christ, we see that God not only accepts us coming back to HIM. Much more, God comes out to us and offers us this sacred season of Lent to get to know one another better, for God to show me that I am a beloved daughter, a beloved son, a delight, that I am cared for, supported, cherished… LOVED.

Recognizing that God loves us, that God wants us closer no matter where we are or where we’ve been, that God comes to us is not enough. It’s like the perfect gift that remains unopened, untouched, unused. It looks pretty; it sounds nice (if you shake it). But it doesn’t do anything and certainly can’t make a difference in my life, let alone my daily routine. These facts need to reside more fully in the heart than in the mind. Intellectual ideas cannot sustain us. We need prayer.

But prayer can get complicated and I, for one, often get distracted by the vehicle rather than the destination. I get distracted, antsy, impatient. I can’t just sit down and pray the way I can play another game of solitaire on my computer or look at Facebook. To be honest, prayer intimidates me.  Nothing I do is more important and yet everything else I do seem easier and most everything else seems to have more impact. That’s why we’re focusing on quiet, personal, meditative prayer this Lent.

Prayer is what allows us to unpack the Gift of God’s love and make it not only accessible but useful, even essential in our lives.  Prayer is what allows us to be in contact with God, to establish and open channels of grace, or as Jesus put it more succinctly, to be friends of God. Like any friendship, our relationship with Jesus Christ is not magic nor does it happen overnight. Even a friendship that flowers quickly needs to be nurtured and attended to, cared for, worked on, appreciated and served. Prayer is time with our beloved friend, Jesus Christ and, through Christ, our heavenly Father. All of this made possible only in and by the Holy Spirit. Prayer is what allows us to welcome Christ into our hearts and allows God not only to love us but also to make that love fruitful for us and, through us, for the world.

And this is ultimately the purpose of Lent, that God wants us close, that God wants to love us, to share the Divine Self with us and to make our sharing fruitful: comforting for us, strengthening us, consoling us, guiding us but also fruitful for others in sharing the same love with them, in bring them God’s love, in helping them to encounter Christ.

Knowing that, all of that, I still struggle with prayer. As I said last week, people think I am kidding or being humble when I say that prayer is usually the most difficult thing I do on any given day. I have to prepare myself both physically and mentally to set the stage. I have to fight the temptations to skip it, or rush it or look for an immediate high, a strong recognition that God is somehow present and in charge. I’m amazed at the work I have to do internally; how active I have to be to spend any time passively before the Lord in prayer. If prayer is spending time with a beloved and dear friend, then I also need to let God do some of the talking. But God is with us, even in the struggles as we saw last week with the temptation of Jesus.  Even Jesus was tempted. The encounter with Satan in the desert was not some staged fight like a professional wrestling match or some spectacle Celebrity Death Match put on by God who simply moves the little Claymation figures around. No. temptation was real for Jesus and it is certainly real for us. Ultimately all of the temptations (the works of the Devil, not the singing group from the 50’s!) boil down to one: getting Jesus question His identity as the Son of God. It’s about distracting Jesus, focusing Him on earthly needs and wants, on what He can’t do in His earthly weakness or can’t have in His human frame. It’s about separating Jesus from God, getting Jesus to push God off to the side even a little bit, sowing seeds of distrust, looking for comfort, security, for calm contentedness rather than the failure fraught, mission driven laser focus Jesus needs. Jesus puts each temptation down with a quote from Scripture and, ultimately a trust that God will not only be present but active and save Him.

Our temptations are no different. We don’t necessarily have the Devil poking at us.  I think sometimes that’s far too easy a copout: I didn’t do it. The Devil made me do it. We don’t need some pitchfork-carrying, horned half man, half goat to distract us.  I don’t know about you but I have gotten pretty good about allowing distraction to take over, on focusing on my needs and wants, rather than God’s will, on seeking the easy way out, or comfortable path, or the path that doesn’t take me too much out of my way and inconvenience me, the safe way (Not the Safeway in Middletown but you get the idea) the safe way that doesn’t put me too far out there, doesn’t call attention to me, or let me oppose the angry guy I’m facing or the nasty girl who’s yelling at me. No, I don’t need a devil to make me do any of those things.  I’ve become proficient if not an expert. And yet, God still calls me, still wants me, still loves me.

Perhaps the greatest challenge we face is prayer is our understanding of it. Most people pray only when they realize a need for something. This is great. It’s natural surely human for us to ask for help. The challenge though is that when we pray only in this way, often times it seems God has no answer or, worse, that God refused to hear us, souring us on prayer, and ultimately when it keeps happening on God. After all, why pray if it doesn’t “do anything.” The challenge, I think, though, is not in prayer itself but in our understanding of it. Prayer is not about changing God’s mind or making something happen. To do that would imply that we can manipulate God, that we can control God.  Prayer is not about that.

Prayer, very simply, is about spending time with my beloved friend and the “rules” of any friendship apply. Do you have that friend who has no time for you? That you call or text repeatedly, looking for an answer let alone some quality time? Do you have that friend that is always looking beyond your time together to the next thing he or she has planned, as if you were some interruption or a distraction from their planned day? Do you have that friend that is always “doing something” while you are with them and, while it may not be a distraction for that person, it is kind of distracting to you? Do you have that friend whose head is always elsewhere, always needing to be asked if he or she heard you? And do you have that friend that is always in need, only stops by to ask for something? Sure, each of us does this occasionally but some do it on a regular basis? Do you remember how much these people, when their usual modus operandi is to act in one of these ways, do you remember how much these people annoy you?  Well, you and I are these friends to God, but God still calls us back. God always has time for us, always has full attention on us, always listens, always responds.

Well… you’re thinking, “I was with you, Fr. Rob, until that last one. I have often prayed, and God did nothing. Nothing changed. God obviously did not respond.” I was speaking with a friend just recently who shared with me a great quote.  “God,” he said, “God always answers prayer.  Every time, every prayer, no matter how brief or confusing the prayer, no matter how it’s offered, no matter how weak the faith or imperfect the intention of the one offering the prayer. God always answers.  Sometimes the answer is “Yes.” Sometimes the answer is “Not now.” And sometimes the answer is “I have a bigger and better plan for you than what you are asking for.  Be patient with Me and with yourself. Allow me to be at work. Allow me to unfold that plan in you and for you. Trust me. I’ve got your six, and, in fact, I have your twelve, your three and your nine as well. I know it is difficult to wait, especially when you or someone you love is suffering. I did not cause the suffering, I am not punishing you, but I AM with you, I AM with in the suffering, close and present and I hear you. And remember what my friend Saint Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans: all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. (Rom 8:28) I have called you, drawn you close, and I will not let you down.

“Rabbi, it is good that we are here…” In all of his babbling, Peter makes a very important point. “It is good that we are here…” It’s a very simple statement but it shows, despite his fear, that Peter understands, at least in part, what is happening. This simple sentence also offers great insight for us when we seek God in prayer. Like Peter, we can take for granted the way God is usually present but then become terrified when God reveals Himself in a more profound (and/ or glorious) way. “It is good that we are here…” is a great phrase for us to remember as we continue our message series on prayer. Let’s pull it apart.

The first word is “IT.” It is a pronoun but not ambiguous. In fact, the antecedent is clear, both from the context of the passage and from the statement itself. For Peter, “It” recognizes that he, along with James and John, are in God’s Presence. The Transfiguration makes it obvious as the Glory of God shines through not just the clothes of Jesus which are caught up in the transformation becoming dazzlingly white. No, the Glory of God shines from Him, from His skin, from His Body, from His very being. And if you missed that, well then you’ve got Moses and Elijah, again, Rock Stars of salvation history, talking to Him. And if you missed both of those, well then there’s still the voice of God booming from the heavens. This is my Beloved Son. Listen to Him. (Mark 9:8).

All of these leave Peter, James and John in no doubt that they are in the Presence of God. Which is why they are struck with fear. They have and will continue to struggle with the way God is present in Jesus. We take for granted that God becomes one of us and walked among us. Peter, James, John would not have done so. As good Jews, they thought of God as great, too great even to mention or to write the name of God, too holy (and too wholly other!) to think intimacy such as friendship or the relationship of a child with his or her beloved Daddy (Abba) or as Jesus would speak later, as friends with God (I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father (John 15:15).

Even you and I struggle with the reality of God’s Presence. Even understanding the reality of God as one of us, knowing the Son of God came down from heaven, took flesh and was born. He grew in grace and age and wisdom. He worked miracles, taught the Father’s love and died on the Cross. Further, we can add to that over 2,000 years of salvation history, unpacking the words and reality of Jesus Christ. Whether it’s from our private prayer, Church doctrine, biblical exegesis, sacramental celebration, or even simply trusting in God’s grace, you and I – well, I shouldn’t generalize – even with all of that, I, still struggle with intimacy with God.  Yes, I talk a great deal about God’s love for us, and I believe it with all of my heart. But the reason I so often reference it is because I so often struggle with it.  I don’t know about you, but I struggle with the God who doesn’t answer prayers as I want Him to do. I struggle with the God who makes me wait. I struggle with the God who is silent and distant.

The experience of the Transfiguration offers an insight though, by proclaiming in a way that is unambiguous, that God is present with me. Ohhh, while God does not transform the clothes I wear, or glow from the humanity of Jesus anymore, while I do not see Moses or Elijah (or Peter, James and John who also became salvation history rock stars in their own right), while do not I hear the voice of the Father booming over my internal sound system or even coming through Alexa, I know God is profoundly present, unambiguously, even as I struggle with the mundane and ordinary ways God is present. No, it may not be as immediate or as dramatic as the Transfiguration, but they are the words of God Himself: “See, I am with you always, even until the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) God is not a liar. God does not abandon me, nor leave me to my own devices. God has promised and God remains. And that tells me unambiguously that God is present even if I struggle with how. That is what “It” means.

“It is good that we are here.” Secondly, notice the verbs are in the present tense. Now, in this moment, God is present. God’s glory shines through. No matter what happened before this and no matter what happens next, God is present with me, ready to do all of the things God promised in the Old Testament, and then directly from Jesus, and then after the Resurrection and Pentecost, through the Church. God seeks to heal and to comfort and to console, to strengthen and to guide, to form and help. In other words, right back to God seeks to love us. Think about it for a moment, God draws close, God comes near, with all of His power, in all gentleness, with his mighty hand and outstretched arm. God reveals Himself to us in this moment, not making us wait, not challenging us to be better, to get our act together before He comes.

But God’s undeniable Presence in the given moment also present a challenge for us. It’s something that Peter realizes as he asks Jesus if they should construct three tents. Peter wants to keep this great thing going, this assurance of God’s presence, this tangible, visible sign of God’s presence.  Peter knows that he struggles, knows that he questions and lacks faith at times. So, he wants to keep this ace in the hole. But even before He’s finished asking the question, the moment has passed. Everything is back to normal and they are even told to tell no one. This is the challenge of faith. Often, God lacks tangible reminders. Often, God is quiet and not apparent. It doesn’t mean that God is apparent but there are no strong reminders like the Transfiguration. Rather, as God meets with us, we are reminded that God is always present. We need only believe that: “It is good that we are here.”

Now, let’s move on to the next word: “good.” I don’t think I need to spend a great deal of time here but I think first it is necessary to point out that Peter doesn’t say it is “nice” that we are here. It is GOOD.Masks, social distancing, medicine in general and certainly, for me, exercise are all GOOD but not nice, not comfortable, not pleasant. Sometimes we chafe and what is good for us, struggle to accept it, and seek to return to what is comfortable, or NICE. Further, “good” always involves sacrifice, sometimes a little but sometimes a great deal. That’s why it’s important to remember that prayer, being together with God, is GOOD even if it is not nice, even if it is a pain in the botox, even if it is inconvenient or challenging, when it is long and dull and dry, when it seems that God is at least distant if not wholly absent. This is why we cannot think of prayer as time spent to get something out of it, an activity that will “provide a reward” of increased calm, stronger faith, or better results. No. we need to recognize that prayer is GOOD, it involves our sacrifice of time and will. It is important to remember that prayer is gift I give to God, rather than something that will result in God giving me whatever I want. “It is GOOD that we are here.”

Next, let look at “we.” “It is good that WE are here.” Peter indicates the plural recognize that it is not just he who is present, not even just he and James and John that are present. No. He recognize that he is with God, that God has come to him, that, despite the glory of God that terrifies and throws him down to the ground, he, Peter, is in the God’s presence. Peter directed the phrase to Jesus by speaking a title: “Rabbi” Rabbi means teacher or master an honored title given to one who teaches and directs a way of life. When Peter speaks to Jesus, it’s clear that the plural involves the two of them together. That’s “we:” a God willing to empty everything and come to us and of our willingness to be with God.

“It is good that we are HERE.” Lastly in the phrase, is the word “here.” Again, we know from context that this has a host of meanings, most of which we have already covered: here, meaning together, here meaning with each other, here in the Presence of God, here as God works a miracle. But there is also a specificity that is important to understand for our prayer. “Here” recognizes that we have a body, that we can only be in one place at a time, that we must operate from that one place.

For us, though, “here,” is about more than physical location. “Here” is about the space, both literally and figuratively, that allow us to encounter God in prayer. First think practically and literally about your “here.” Where is a good location for you to spend time in prayer? My sister used to say that when her kids were young, the only time she had to herself was in the shower. Makes for high water bills but you get the idea.  Your “here” should be a place that minimizes distractions and maximizes your ability to concentrate. Perhaps it’s a space in your home, or, when the weather’s nicer, in your garden or yard. Can you be alone there, even if only briefly. How comfortable is the chair? It needs to be comfortable enough so that it’s not a distraction but not so comfortable that you will fall asleep. What’s the temperature in the room? If it’s too warm, I fall asleep. What’s around you? A candle helps me to focus and I like to have some pictures of the saints but too many things can be a distraction for me. Is the space quiet enough? Do you have some music playing in the background?

Next think figuratively about your “here.” What is the best time of day for you to pray? When is your head most clear and you are able to concentrate on offering God your time? For me, if I don’t pray in the morning, then all God gets is me snoring at night. I try to pray first thing, usually sitting in the chapel at the rectory with a cup of coffee.  The chapel is a luxury that I have come really to appreciate. When I arrived, I dedicated some space to a chapel.  It has moved since then but has settled in what was the formal dining room of the house.  Since I rarely used that room for meals (there is an eat in part of the kitchen that is just like a dining room), I took the dining room furniture out. A friend of mine, a carpenter, made an altar and a tabernacle. I’ve got my rocking chair in there. A rocking chair is perfect for me: it’s comfortable but doesn’t allow me to fall asleep (most days!). In the chapel the only visible clock is behind me, added only when we started broadcasting from there during the pandemic. If I can see a clock, then I am wholly consumed by how slowly the second hand seems to move. It’s even worse if there is no second hand and I have to stare at the even more slowly moving minute hand. I put Alexa in there and tell her to set a time for however long I have to spend. It’s a small thing, and I should be better at just not looking at the clock, but I know myself and what works: no clock!

Ultimately, your “here” should reflect whatever will help you know and be comfortable in the presence of God, with allowing God to come to you, in accepting what God wants to give you and in following God’s will. Peter, James, and John were caught unawares and had to respond on the fly. You and I, however, we can be prepared. Jesus is always prepared to meet us as we will see next week.

Our special guest stars, our saints that can help unpack all of this a little bit more are two of the characters prominently involved: James and John. James and John are brothers, sons of Zebedee, fishermen called by Jesus. sons of thunder. They are attracted to Jesus and follow Him eagerly. They leave their nets and their father behind to do so. But, even as the some of the closest and best friends of Jesus, they don’t always get it. They are distracted by ambition and a desire for earthly power, asking Jesus for places in the Kingdom at His right and His left (Mark 10:35-45). Matthew, in his gospel, tries to soften their ambition and puts this request in the mouths of their mother. After all, who doesn’t want the best for their children. But they also want to use power to force the good. When a Samaritan village rejects Jesus, James and John want to call down fire from heave and destroy the town. (You can understand why Mark calls them “sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17)). Certainly, this would be easier and would make the rest of the towns fall in line. Jesus will not stoop to force, to overwhelming anyone through might and rebukes James and John. Then Jesus leads them toward Jerusalem where He will suffer and die on the Cross. But James and John will learn, especially through their repeated encounters with Jesus, to put ambition and earthly power aside. John, the youngest of the Apostles, will be the only Apostles to stand at the foot of the Cross, remaining with Jesus and receiving from Jesus Mary as his mother and ours. Traditionally, John was the only Apostle not to die a martyr’s death and lived on the island of Patmos (current day Greece). There he became very old and very frail, speaking only and always of the gentle love of Jesus. Tradition also holds that James preached the gospel in Spain, as well as in the Holy Land. He would become head of the Christian community in Jerusalem. After his martyrdom at the hands of Herod Agrippa, his disciples carried his body by sea to Iberia, where they landed at Padrón on the coast of Galicia, then took it inland for burial at Santiago de Compostela.

And all of that is why there is no wrong way to pray. In fact, there are many ways one can pray, even in the same day, moved by mood or situation or challenge, guided by Peter, It is good that we are here.” Whatever allows you to sacrifice time and effort, energy and will to pray, is a help. Whatever doesn’t, let it go. Don’t let yourself (or worse yet, God!) be boxed into one way of praying. Allow God to fill your heart and your time, however much you offer, with the love and delight God takes in you.

Take time to figure out literally what’s a good place for your “here” the physical location where you can encounter God. Then, take time to figure out figuratively what your “here” is. What’s the best time of day? How will you minimize distractions and maximize concentration? How do you set your mind and your heart at ease? How do you best focus on the ultimate goal of placing yourself in God’s presence and remembering that God wants to spend time with you. Jesus is always prepared to meet us as we will see next week.

Take some time this week, to reflect on our Gospel. Seek the presence of God. Remember that any time, all time you give to prayer is good, a gift to God. The distractions will be there to put something else first, to get distracted, to move God to a secondary place, to focus on the immediate challenge and our fear, to demand a certain outcome, to questions God’s presence. Don’t be stymied by distraction but keep bringing your mind and heart back to God, back to the duty of prayer. All of these were distractions for Jesus even as for us. Take some time this week to try to pray, thinking not of what you need to do or what you will get out of it. Rather, concentrate on offering something to God. Even now.

Use what I call the 7/7 rule: Take 7 minutes each day over the next 7 days to pray. Objectively, it’s not a long time and surely you can find it. Spend the first minute telling God where you are, and the last-minute asking God for what you need. But leave the 5 minutes in between for God. Allow God to delight in you, strengthen you. I guarantee you that God will make use of the time you offer if you can focus on your offer rather than the reward. Together, let us pray for one another and for all those who will come to encounter Christ during this Lent. Pray that, through the intercession of Saint Joseph they might be cared for and watched over by the God who loves us and draws us close.

Peace,

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