For Sunday October 16, 2016
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)
Jeremiah 31:27–34 or Genesis 32:22–31
Psalm 119:97–104 or Psalm 121
2 Timothy 3:14–4:5
Six weeks ago my wife and I became rookie grandparents to a baby girl. To be present at her birth was to participate in a sacred mystery — I still watch the five-second video on my cell phone when, still attached to the umbilical cord, she shakes her tiny fists and howls for air with her little lungs.
Those next few days I kept thinking of our Christian confession of "the Lord and Giver of life."
And of the weekly prayer in our church liturgy: "We thank you for the gift of life, with all its blessings and sorrows, for those who will be born today, and those who will die today."
I kept thinking of Isaiah, "I have called you by name, you are mine." And of Jeremiah, "Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, before you were born, I set you apart." And of Psalm 139, "You created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb."
A few hours after her birth, when she was wrapped tightly like what my wife calls a burrito baby, and wearing a tiny beany cap knitted by her maternal grandmother, I cuddled her to my chest and made the sign of the cross on her forehead — a precursor to her baptism, if you will. It was a sort of spontaneous and irresistible act.
As I did so, I recalled the powerful words of Vicki Flippin of The Church of the Village in New York City: "I tell folks that baptism is the church declaring what has always been true, that each of us belongs to God and only to God. The child is claimed by God above all other claims. No one determines our worth in this world or in the next other than God."
But life moves on, and we soon had to leave. Before we drove 475 miles back home, my wife, my son, his wife and I huddled together around the newborn baby. I blubbered a short prayer, but that was hard when we were all crying.
And, what could I pray in good conscience? I know what I wanted to pray. "Keep her from all harm. Give her a happy and healthy life. Spare her the pain and sorrow that's all around us. May she be successful, marry well, and get a good job. May she be a joy to her parents."
However understandable, my pious wishes don't make for very good prayers — they don't square with the brutal realities of our violent world. Not in a world where Syrian children like Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old whose lifeless body washed ashore in Turkey, and Omran Daqneesh, a shell-shocked five-year-old covered in blood and dirt, become global symbols of our suffering world.
Nobody gets a free pass in life, my grand daughter included. In his book Searching for Home (2003), Craig Barnes observes that sooner or later hell and heartbreak "find every address and come for a visit."
So, as I prayed in the hospital room, I opted for the ancient prayer of Aaron: "May God bless you and keep you, may his face shine on you."
After my hospital prayer, I later thought of a favorite Celtic prayer that has the ring of truth:
The love and affection of the angels be to you,
The love and affection of the saints be to you,
The love and affection of heaven be to you,
To guard you and to cherish you.
I can't pray or expect that my grand daughter will be spared the brokenness of life, but I can pray that our creator and heavenly father will guard her, keep her, protect her, and watch over her in the midst of it all. In the words of the Lord's Prayer, I pray not that God will save her "from" the times of trial, but that he will keep her "in the midst of" those trials.
And that's the sentiment of this week's psalm, which for good reasons is one of the most famous and favorite passages in all of Scripture. I'll quote the New American Standard Version because its literal rendition of the original Hebrew, however linguistically awkward, retains the word about God "keeping" us — six times!
I will lift up my eyes to the mountains;
From where shall my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
Who made heaven and earth.
He will not allow your foot to slip;
He who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, He who keeps Israel
Will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord is your keeper;
The Lord is your shade on your right hand.
The sun will not smite you by day,
Nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all evil;
He will keep your soul.
The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in
From this time forth and forever.
In Genesis 32 for this week, Jacob "struggles" all night with God by the River Jabbok. I thought of this story when at dinner last week our neighbor said something that stuck with me: "I believe in the struggle." And indeed, God blessed Jacob in his struggle.
In the epistle this week, Paul recounts his "way of life" and his many "sufferings."
In Luke 18, Jesus acknowledges that quitting the journey is a real possibility. He was, after all, a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. His own cry of dereliction expressed the specter of defeat. Even he was tempted to pray, "save me from this hour."
Jesus encourages us "always to pray and not give up." He tells a story about a persistent widow who importuned a corrupt judge. She never gave up, despite the many injustices she experienced at the hands of the judge who "neither feared God nor cared about men."
There's no mysterious meaning here. The parable is straightforward. Despite our feelings of futility in our violent and broken world, don't give up. Keep praying. "Keep marching to the end," writes Bernanos in Diary of a Country Priest, "and try to end up quietly at the roadside without shedding your equipment."
So that's my prayer for my grand daughter, that God would keep her in the struggle, and that she would keep on to the end in the light of his promise.