“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit.”
– 1 Thessalonians 5:16-19
“O Lord, hear my prayer, O Lord, hear my prayer: when I call, answer me. … come and listen to me.”
– a Taize chant adapted from Psalm 102:1-2
We have just journeyed again through Lent and Easter, a time that is intended to be one of reflection and growth, of highs and lows. On Maundy Thursday I was gathered with our Martha’s Circle continuing our study on prayer and we were reminded of the nature of church bells: in a day gone by the church bells ringing out the hours of the day would be an invitation to all of the people of the community, but especially the monks and nuns, to pause and pray. What a wonderful reminder that we generally overlook. Paul gives us that wonderful challenge to pray without ceasing, always giving thanks, and not getting in the way of the Spirit. They’re great words but hard to live out. Sometimes those prayers are rejoicing, certainly in the shadow of Easter those prayers deserve to contain a thanksgiving for the love that God continually reveals to us. But sometimes those prayers are hard to offer. The Psalms do an extraordinary job of lifting up not only the celebrations and praise, but also the woes. Certainly the prayer that is offered in Psalm 102 is a cry for God to hear us in the midst of despair and suffering. Our journey of faith is just such a crazy mix of joy and sorrow, elation and exhaustion… and to pray without ceasing means that God is going to hear a good measure of all of those things from each of us.
Pastors typically emerge from Lent and Easter exhausted, that is certainly my story again. But at the same time I find myself encountering God’s love in a unique way this year. Many of you have heard that a group from the church nominated me for the Academy of Parish Clergy’s “Parish Pastor of the Year.” I received a call a month ago letting me know that they had chosen me for this honor. It was a week when I wasn’t looking for any surprises, and this one caught me off guard. My first reaction was one of shock, and a deep sense that I know lots of other clergy who would be more deserving than I. It was a crazy week, and by that evening I was mostly feeling amused that anyone would think that I should be nominated for an award in ministry… But here’s the feeling that I arose with the next day, and the one which has not only remained with me but continued to grow: the feeling of the extraordinary love with which this congregation has steadily wrapped me for all of the years of my ministry here. I am always humbled by that gift, and now I am grateful that another group of colleagues has affirmed that support and love. Of course my mother’s comment when I told her of all of this to-do was simply to state that as far as she was concerned I had always been the parish pastor of every year… aren’t moms great!
In this unexpected journey I have once again encountered the proclamation of God’s resurrection love. You see God’s response to each of us is closest to that of my mother’s – that God looks at each and every one of us and claims us as the beloved child of the year. God takes all of those prayers, rejoicing and cries and woe and gathers them in a parent’s embrace, holding and honoring the fullness of our journey. And even when we aren’t really sure that we believe in ourselves, or that we are worthy of anything, God keeps trying to remind us that we are loved beyond measure.
Every year the Easter story speaks to me with new life and intensity. What comes through increasingly is the proclamation that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Not death, not sorrow or grief, not our denials or turning and running from God, not even the violence of our world… nothing. It’s a message that is terribly hard for us to hear let alone accept. Sometimes I think that this may be the most important part of journeying in community. We have others around us on a regular basis who may be able to tell us that we are beloved children of God even when we doubt it. It may only be the shaking of a hand during the passing of the peace, or a willingness to add another person’s friend or loved one to the prayer list… or it may be a group saying thank you or we believe in you. All of it is the gift that God would offer us. I don’t believe that God is done with any one of us. And I believe that God’s expectations of us are always way beyond even where we would strive to go… and we ought to try to reach for them. But at the same time, I hope that each and every one of you can hear the proclamation of God as a loving parent who looks at each of you and knows that you have been the “parish pastor of the year,” God’s beloved servant, every year.
Let God’s light shine in all you do!