Two views of prayer – from the blimp over the playing field and from the side of the road.
“Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy. These words might well sum up the mystery of the Christian faith.” These sentences open Pope Francis’ declaration of a “Holy year of Mercy” (December 2015- November 2016). Over my lifetime, my hunger has focused on Jesus, his face, his hands, his conversations, his sacrificial love, even his angry exchanges with those who didn’t get it.
Stories Shape our Lives
MERCY IS THE CENTRAL, LIBERATING WORD
Come with me to a couple of moments in Jesus life when he opens the windows of heaven and lets us see what he and the Father are up to and what they invite us into as well. The tension points for our exploration are a parable told at the expense of his listeners and the merciful conduct of Jesus toward a loud and insistent beggar. Mercy is the central, liberating word.
Over the centuries of Church history there is a phrase that has been the prayer of millions. Jesus have mercy. Lord have mercy. Kyrie Eleison. Christ have mercy. In many variations and iterations, in music and in chant, in private and in public these phrases have been on our hearts and tongues.
It is easy to forget that they didn’t come out of thin air or from a liturgist writing for gatherings of the faithful. They come from stories told by Jesus and from stories of Jesus in action. The gospel writer Luke provides two very different settings for the cry for mercy. We look for the face of God ‘s mercy in Jesus. These stories can shape our praying and worship.
Here’s the first one: Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted… (Luke 18: 9-14 ESV)
In this story Jesus invites us to step above the fray and observe two people at prayer. It is his imaginative way of helping us see how the Father sees us when we are at prayer – we are in the blimp looking down on the playing field. Jesus takes a run at those of us who sometimes get full of ourselves and feel entitled and superior to others.
Jesus made this story up. But even though it is imaginative, most of us recognize the inner voice of the first character in the story.
ONE OF THE DEADLIEST AND SINISTER SPIRITUAL INFECTIONS IS THE NEED TO COMPARE OURSELVES WITH OTHERS
The Pharisee represents the worst of formal and structured religion – religion that misses the point of mercy and justice, as Jesus often said.
The man stands by himself. He is in the temple, a community gathering place, and yet doesn’t mix with the rest of the crowd. Pride can create distance from our own inner reality and even worse isolation from those around us who can help us.
The prayer of the Pharisee begins as a prayer of thanksgiving, but it is a competitive and comparative thanksgiving. Gratitude that the Pharisee was not like other men is a hilarious but tragic reality for many of us. One of the deadliest and sinister spiritual infections is the need to compare ourselves with others.
Instead of focusing on the God who loves us as revealed in Jesus, too often we can do a spiritual inventory of our accomplishments and failures. The Pharisee’s inventory is self-indulgent and self-congratulatory – and self-created.
Jesus’ knowledge of how our minds work is sometimes astonishing. We also recognize how quickly we can see others at a distance through a very critical lens of judgment. The Pharisee is not like the rest of humanity (in his opinion) who are crooks and thieves and compromisers of integrity. His confident spirituality is based on rigorous attention to religious practices – fasting and tithing. Not surprisingly, these are areas that Jesus has challenged regularly with his audience. So Jesus puts them centre stage into this character and story.
As the plot develops, Jesus offers a polar opposite approach, a man who is standing alone for very different reasons. He’s a reject from the religious community. He may have lots of friends, but not in the religious world. He obviously has a deep faith as Jesus’ sparse portrait indicates but he only can sputter apologetically “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”
Both of these characters are cartoons carefully crafted by Jesus. He’s making a point in LOUD UPPER CASE LETTERS. Instead of seeing the face of a merciful and loving Father, both men have challenges in their understanding of prayer. Their faulty understanding has been shaped by centuries of accumulated tradition that created a blind confidence in some and a shamed reticence in others.
But at least the one man knew he could count on mercy – and mercy was one of Jesus’ consistent messages. He gets at the heart of our human condition because Jesus paints a picture of freedom in humility for the second character. The man who has his nose in the air will fall flat on his face. The other man discovers his freedom in mercy and forgiveness. He was whole while the other was fractured, or at best, a superficial facsimile of humanity.
As we laugh or cringe along with Jesus as he tells this story we travel into our own inner journey. When I begin a morning reflection with anger, envy, judgement, or one of those related emotions and attitudes, I need help. It means I am doing comparative religious inventory. I am not just presenting myself to the gaze of the loving Father.
Jesus invites us to relax and get off our high horse of insecurity or sadness and be embraced by the mercy of the Father.
“WHAT DO YOU WANT ME TO DO FOR YOU?”
Luke the Gospel writer, now gets at the “have mercy” prayer in a story that follows quickly after. We are now at ground level on the dusty roads of Palestine. Jesus is surrounded by a scrum of friends, enemies, the curious, the critics and those who thought they knew his agenda for the day.
Here's Luke’s story: As he drew near to Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. And hearing a crowd going by, he inquired what this meant. They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” And he cried out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And those who were in front rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” And Jesus stopped and commanded him to be brought to him. And when he came near, he asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” He said, “Lord, let me recover my sight.” And Jesus said to him, “Recover your sight; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he recovered his sight and followed him, glorifying God. And all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God”. (Luke 18:35-43 ESV)
This story has a certain comedic feel to it because so many people are working at cross-purposes and missing the point Jesus has been making for three years. We are outside a town and the crowd is moving at whatever pace Jesus walked. Lots of chatter is happening and perhaps even some are listening to what Jesus is saying as he walks.
By the side of the road another conversation is happening. A blind beggar asks those near him what the commotion is all about. Informed that it is Jesus, he engages in another less dignified form of prayer.
“Have mercy on me!” he yells at Jesus. It is a cry of desperation, suffering and hope. His cry triggers a series of brief exchanges that offers us insights into our own conversations with Jesus.
The scrum tells the guy to pipe down. He cries for help even louder. This leads to two great words in the story – “Jesus stopped.” All sorts of things happen as the scrum comes to a halt and several levels of transformation begin.
THOSE OF US IN THE HELPING OR TRANSFORMATIVE SIDE OF SOCIETY CAN LEARN MUCH AT THIS JUNCTURE
Jesus, hears, stops, and issues instructions to the very people who had told the beggar to be quiet. “Bring him to me,” Jesus says. Perhaps incredulous looks are exchanged by those who now clear the way for the man to have a direct conversation with Jesus.
Our assumptions about what Jesus is interested in get challenged all the time. His openness to being interrupted in what seems a tight program is remarkable. What emerges next is an amazing exchange between a supplicant and a giver.
“What do you want me to do for you?” is Jesus’ question. Those of us in the helping or supportive side of society can learn much at this juncture. Jesus treats the man with dignity and even a sort of equality.
The beggar has no doubts about his position in life. He’s been lodged at the side of the road for years and is dependent on others for everything. Likely, his only income is what he gains by begging – and he’s probably pretty good and aggressive at it.
He hears Jesus say: “What do you want me to do for you?” He’s been pushed away, told not to intrude and now he is being invited to speak his deepest longing. He asks for restoration of his sight – this seems obvious enough to us. Jesus, however, lets him speak his mind and responds positively to the beggar’s need and his expression of faith.
As my brother often says “Jesus’ miracles were only temporary.” All the people who received a miracle are now dead – even the ones who were raised from the dead. There is something deeper going on that transforms many people in one sweeping blow.
In this account, the people who shushed the beggar had their view of Jesus transformed. Jesus wanted to engage real people who wanted to engage him. His followers went from building barriers to Jesus to welcoming the outsider to his presence. The man himself received sight but perhaps the greater miracle was his life after, when he followed Jesus with faith and intention.
HE INVITES US TO SERVE THE BROKENNESS OF CREATION, NOT JUST NURTURE OUR SELF-INTEREST OR SELF-ABSORPTION
Some monastic traditions encourage imagining Jesus asking us the same question he asked the blind man – “What do you want me to do for you?” I have done this with many retreat groups and it sparks many varied responses.
Some say, “I don’t think I am worthy to even respond to the question.” On one occasion a friend was just plain frustrated. He had lost a friend to a tragic car accident, saw the hunger and need of the world and just said, “My world isn’t like this.”
I journey with many whose depression doesn’t end, their disease leads to death, conflicts lead to family or community breakup. The list goes on. The addicted still struggle, the broken stay broken, poverty and hunger is everywhere. This story is not a formula for getting what we want all the time. It challenges us to explore what we really want. Jesus asking individuals, communities of faith and corporate structures “what do you want me to do for you?” can lead to deeper obedience and sacrifice. After all, it is Jesus who is asking the question.
The question “what do you want me to do for you?” comes from the Jesus who has wounded hands and side, has lived, died and risen from the grave to invite us to share his love, life but also his sacrificial living. He invites us to serve the brokenness of creation, not just nurture our self-interest or self-absorption. I love these lines from Augustine :
Grant us purity of heart and strength of purpose,
that no selfish passion may hinder us from knowing your will,
no weakness from doing it;
but that in your light we may see light clearly,
and in your service find our perfect freedom.
We have read about two stories and two phrases for praying: “Lord have mercy” and “What do you want me to do for you?” The Eastern Church encouraged the use of what they call the Jesus Prayer for centuries. When you want to pray, just begin to say “Jesus have mercy.” Repeat it slowly and quietly until you have moved into a sense of Jesus’ presence, right where you are.
The most common form of this prayer combines both phrases – “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” When I am distracted by my own preoccupations and can’t focus on scripture or even my own thoughts, this is a very helpful entry way to prayer.
These prayers can help us move from the distractions of self-righteousness and self-indulgence, like the Pharisee. When we hear judgement, resentment, envy or unhealthy competition for attention or recognition in ourselves, this prayer can settle us on a healthier path.
WE ARE GRANTED THE FREEDOM TO RECEIVE THE SMILE OF THE FATHER, KNOW THAT WE ARE LOVED AND BE CAPABLE TO LOVE OTHERS
This prayer can be a quiet cry for help, or a loud shout for God’s attention, if that is how we are feeling. A friend who was facing a terminal illness once burst out with, “God give me a break!” That prayer isn’t a path to escape from the challenges we face. It is a path to the One who promises to never leave us alone in our pain.
When we sense who we are addressing – Jesus – and recognize his reception of the blind man, this prayer can lead us to hearing the question: “What do you want me to do for you?” This leads us to a deep conversation about what we are facing, what help we really need and his accompanying presence through it.
When I am feeling like the Pharisee and full of comparative and pejorative thoughts about myself and others, the words “have mercy” allow me to be open to the help I need. In one conversation with my spiritual director I was expressing regret for some failures of attitude and inner moral compass. She asked “Did you thank God for this?”
I questioned her sanity. She responded: “You are thankful for this reminder that you still need God’s help.” That’s where this prayer can move us from shame, which immobilizes us, to a healthy acceptance of our need for divine forgiveness and empowerment.
Jesus gives the tax collector the prayer: “God be merciful to me a sinner.” Jesus knows that this liberates us to be fully human. We know who we are. In the story the man headed home justified – made right in his relationship with God. We are granted the freedom to receive the smile of the Father, know we are loved, and be capable of loving others. It is a far cry from the arrogance of the self-righteous.
Jesus’ interaction with the blind man shows us that the cry for mercy isn’t about groveling. It is about being invited to truly engage in truth and intensity with the one who loves us completely.
Take these images and stories. Take the simple phrases and in a quiet moment or on a walk down the busiest street, or in company with a friend or friends, begin the simple prayer. It could be the whole phrase of the Eastern Church: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” Or take one part of it, even just the name of Jesus, and begin repeating it.
As you meditate with the phrase, imagine Jesus stopping and inviting you to respond to his question: “What do you want me to do for you?” Be honest in what you think and what you say. You can fearlessly express your frustrations and fears, your own blindness, your hopes and dreams and whatever help you need.
This centering type of prayer came alive for me in boat on a Muskoka lake with six other men. One of our friends led us in twenty minutes of silence – the only thing we were to do was repeat the word “Maranatha” silently. There is not a man who was in that boat who doesn’t remember the power of the subsequent conversations we had and the connection we felt with our loving God – and that’s more than twenty years ago.
Close your eyes and imagine Jesus sitting on the adjacent chair.
LISTEN FOR WHAT THE SPIRIT MAY NUDGE YOU TOWARDS IN YOUR FEELINGS, THOUGHTS AND ASPIRATIONS
Let me invite you to find a quiet spot, or even as you walk down a busy roadway, or by a rippling lake to say this simple “Jesus” prayer.
Say it slowly and gently if that is how you feel, or desperately and emotionally if that is more appropriate. Stay with it for several minutes, and listen for what the spirit may nudge you towards in your feelings, thoughts and aspirations.
Perhaps on another day you can take your morning tea or coffee to a quiet spot. Sit comfortably and relax your body and your breathing. Close your eyes and imagine Jesus sitting on the adjacent chair. Let that picture settle and then let him ask you “What do you want me to do for you?”
Don’t force it, let the Spirit guide your thoughts and responses to Jesus. When you feel you are done make a few notes in a journal about your responses and feelings. Discuss them with a trusted friend.
May you experience God’s peace and presence as you allow these simple phrases to become part of your natural conversation with the God who loves us with infinite kindness.
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