October 20, 2013
We saw the new Tom Hanks movie, Captain Phillips, which is the true story of what happened in April of 2009 when four Somali pirates take control of the freighter Maersk Alabama. It is a dramatic story not for the faint of heart, yet, early on you laugh as you watch an 18 foot fishing boat with a 50 horsepower outboard engine, chasing a 508 foot container ship.
Surely this is a fool’s errand!
Yet, on its second attempt, the four pirates board the ship and commandeer the crew of 21.
It’s a sign of their desperation that such a thing would even be attempted. These pirates are not rich thieves but poor fisherman who have run out of fish. At one point Captain Phillips asks the head pirate: “Surely there is something to do between being a fisherman and being a pirate”. The Somali replies: “Maybe in America, maybe in America.”
For me it’s a metaphor for the human ego’s search for happiness, whether in wealth, a relationship, a job, a house, kids, on and on.
And even though for a time it may seem our efforts have succeeded sooner or later we will find that life defeats us. Life always wins and the ego always, always loses, because everything it desires are taken from it—wealth, relationships, job, house, children, will one day, tomorrow or 50 years from now, turn to dust and like the Antebellum South be gone with the wind.
Those pirates didn’t have long to wait for this to happen to them, because it turns out the U.S. Navy was determined to save Captain Phillips.
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus, a century before Plato, told us, “No one ever steps in the same river twice.” Everything changes because everything is impermanent.
Or as one famous hymn puts it: “time like an ever-rolling stream bears all our years away.”
The paradox is this: there are moments of exquisite happiness in this life: some are huge: a child is born, a love is found, a purpose fulfilled. Others are small: a meal with friends, singing with a granddaughter, reading a good book.
Life is filled with so many joys, yet the moment we try to hold on to them, to make them last and never change, suffering arises.
I think about the mother who goes into a depression when her daughter goes off to school for the first time or the father whose heart breaks when his son graduates from college and moves to Colorado.
Jesus tells us a story today about how to live in such a world where everything changes, everything passes away.
Luke tells us that it is a story about prayer, but that word has been ruined for me. For most of us prayer is seen as a superficial monologue in which we whine to God to circumvent the physical laws of the universe to suit us so we don’t have to suffer.
This image of prayer then teaches us that prayer is no different than talking into the drive through box to order a Big Mac and fries. Did you get my order God?
Serious people are right to run from egocentric prayer in which we try to enlist God in our project to control the future and make us happy.
Some of us can remember Janis Joplin singing: “O Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz.”
I have a friend (the Reverend Gray Temple) who says this is a perfectly good prayer as long as it is the opening gambit in a long conversation with God that ends with us content with our Chevy.
And some think the lesson we are to learn from the widow in Jesus’ story is to tell God what we want and never give up demanding it.
This would mean as Eugene Peterson says, “persistent prayer soon becomes a cover for nothing other than stubborn willfulness.” Tell It Slant, page 132. We all know there is nothing attractive about a three year old’s tantrum demanding candy.
But Jesus is not telling us how to throw a tantrum to get what we want. Three verses back Jesus says, “Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.” Luke 17:33
Jesus is telling us that prayer is the practice of living with our broken hearts open to God and trusting God to heal us in God’s time and in God’s way.
This kind of prayer is not a tossed off thought, but what Richard Rohr calls “changing your operating system”, from ego based to God based.
The first three of AA’s 12 steps describe this widow:
1. She “admitted she was powerless”- that her life “had become unmanageable.”
2. She “came to believe that a Power greater than herself could restore her to sanity.”
3. She “made a decision to turn her will and her life over to the care of God….”
Of course the only reason we would ever admit we were powerless and throw ourselves onto God is because we already see that God is coming to us in Jesus, coming to set us free, working for our salvation and healing in ways so far beyond our imagination.
This is the beginning of true prayer. It starts in the recognition that without God the ego will continue to mount its crazy schemes for happiness that will end the same way it ended for the Somali pirates—in death and destruction.
When we pay attention to our inner life we see a gaping hole in the bottom of our souls. Most of the time we run from its pain, covering it up with busyness and with whatever promises to make us feel better.
Until recently I thought religion was supposed to be the thing that would finally heal the hole.
But it now occurs to me that instead of closing the hole, God allows the hole to stay open, because it is God’s point of access into our lives.
The ego views it like a sailor views a hole in his boat—as an existential threat, which must be patched at all costs.
Jesus sees the inner wound as a pearl of great price, a treasure hidden in a field. Jesus on the cross reminds us of this truth.
That inner wound wakes us up to the God who is with us and for us, not to tape the wound, but to transform it.
For, remembering Rohr’s most famous saying: “if we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.”
Only God knows how to transform pain.
Faith is the willingness to trust God to do this.
Prayer then becomes our practice of faith: sitting in silent stillness while God acts in the cave of the heart.
Again AA understands this. Step 11 of the 12 Steps says: we seek “through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.”
This is what we persist in: living moment by moment in alert presence as God’s kingdom manifests through us into the world.
At the end Captain Phillips could only wait on the Navy Seals to do their grim work.
We wait as the Crucified and Risen One enters our wound so even our brokenness manifests the love of God.
T. S. Eliot puts it this way:
“I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love, for love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith, but the faith and the love are all in the waiting. Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought: So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.” East Coker, Four Quartets