Luke 7: 11-17
In the calendar of the church we remember today Dag Hammarskjöld, the much beloved Swedish diplomat who was elected Secretary General of the United Nations in 1953. In the church calendar he is called “Servant of Peace,” having been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1961. (I’ll say as an aside that Dag Hammarskjöld looms large in my own memory, not only because of his extraordinary international leadership, but because of his Swedish heritage, his mother being Agnes Almquist. “Almquist” means elm branch… and surely, somewhere way back on the family tree, thus must be some shared kinship!) Dag Hammarskjöld saw much of his work, as he called it, “preventive diplomacy.” He also led the United Nations in negotiating the release U.S. soldiers captured by the Chinese in the Korean War; in addressing tensions in the Middle East, particularly on behalf of Palestinians; in disarming the conflict around the custody of the Suez Canal; in establishing the first U.N. Observation Group in Lebanon; and in negotiating the horrific conflicts in Southeast Asia which began looming large in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Dag Hammarskjöld died on September 17 or 18, 1961, in a plane crash in central Africa with fifteen other U.N. delegates while trying to negotiate a peace accord in the warring Congo. Many of us will know of his journal entitled “Markings,” published posthumously. He described his entries in this very personal diary as “negotiations with myself… and with God.”i “At some moment,” he writes, “I did answer Yes to [God] and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.”ii
On this day of the church’s remembrance of Dag Hammarskjöld, I’d like to say a word about the role of memory in our prayer and worship. It is a necessary thing to intentionally remember what is ultimately important, not just because we’re prone to forget but, in the forgetting, we’re prone to get lost: lost from where we belong and to whom we belong. How many times do we hear, ringing in our ears from the Hebrew Scriptures: “Remember, O Israel.” “Remember, O Israel,” a people so often prone to be lost and wandering in a wilderness of confusion and hopelessness and forgetfulness.
What we’re doing here, now this evening, is also a memory piece. We gather in remembrance of Christ. The Greek word for this remembering is “<“µ<,F4H, which is a kind of remembering, not so much like an intellectual reminding, like flipping on a light in the past; no, “<“µ<,F4H is more a remembering like a surgeon re-members. Like a surgeon taking some limb, some extremity of the body that has been severed and suturing it back to where it belongs. It’s that sense of re-membering that we do here as we worship. It’s collecting and re-attaching some lost, amputated part of the body to where it belongs, putting it in its place, so that the body be whole. It’s to re-member our place in God, or rather, it’s to be re-membered by God, this Great Physician.
Without this kind of memory piece, without this kind of intentional re-membering, we could get seduced into thinking that the little part that we are is at the center of things: that who we are as individuals, who we are as a church, as a nation, as a world, is of centermost importance. And I would say it’s not. None of it is. All of it, every one and every thing is simply a part, a created appendage, of what is the center, which is God. In the beginning is God. And in the end is God. Which is why we say that our beginning and our end is in God, because we have been created by God. It’s all about God. All of life is about God. And so, I would say, that all of prayer is about God. It’s not about us. In our prayer – our corporate prayer (such as now) or our individual prayer – we are being re-membered by God, we are being re-attached, we are being “put in our place” in the heart of God, something which runs quite counter to the culture in which most of us live and move and have our being.
If we were to take the cues of the U.S. culture and, without further reflection, to presume that the Bill of Rights is like a primer for prayer, that is, to tacitly presume that what God is most up to, most concerned about, most active in is focused on us – about your and my individual, earthly “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” – we would have a very small god created in a very large image of ourselves. If we presumed that what God is most up to, what God is most concerned about, what God is most active in is focused on us, then our prayer would likely turn into a rather petty occasion of spiritual narcissism rather than a participation in the transcendent life of God.
I’ll be even more brash. It seems to me that if we find that our prayer has a tendency or a pattern to focus chiefly on the concerns of our own life, if our prayer is mostly centered on our own stuff or on those who matter most to us – about growing up and developing, on financial well being, on safety, on health, on clinching deals and winning contests, on having everything in our church come round right if we just pray hard enough, if that be so, I think we’re missing the mark in what we call “the life of prayer.” I don’t think it works that way. Because I think that we are not the focal point for prayer; God is at the center of it all. The straight line of our own life, from birth to death, circles around this center, which is God.iii God is at the center of it all, and God has no circumference. Inside this circle, here we gather this evening, and terrorized refugees flee from Darfur, and mothers of starving children in the African Sahara belt and in Haiti search for food, and homeless people in Lebanon and New Orleans cry out with indignation, and prisoners pace, and persons with AIDS and cancer lay… all within this mysterious circle of life in God, who is its center and author and sustainer.
When we pray, we are always the responder and never the initiator. It’s not that God is up to something with us; God is up to everything. In our prayer – which is God’s relationship with us – it is God who has gotten our attention. Whether God has wooed us by our own sense of God’s real presence or by our sense of God’s real absence, it is God who is behind us and in front of us and above us and below us, attracting us, reminding us. If our only sense of God is anger or frustration or desperation or fear, God is behind that, using that to draw our attention. If our only sense of God is in the form of questions – “why” about so many things in life, you ask? – the questions “turn out to be answers to questions God has already put to us. The groping of our prayer turns out to be our fumbling response to God’s initiative, to being touched by God.iv If all that we can do some days is to sit down and weep, our very tears are God’s Spirit within us, sighing with words too deep to be heard.v We simply cannot move or remove ourselves from the circle of God’s love and God’s life; and God, with all the time in the world, waits for each of us to realize this and acknowledge this. God desires you.
It seems to me that the real quest for our prayer is not to learn certain spiritual calisthenics so that we can have, say, a focused morning meditation or a satisfying spiritual retreat. The real quest for our prayer is to learn to pray our lives. It’s to practice the presence of God in every moment, every place that we move, every person whom we touch, every word that we speak or hear. The real quest for our prayer, I would say, is to learn to pray our lives, and that kind of praying both begins and ends in an acknowledgment: an acknowledgment to God that we know our life is not our own but belongs to God; it’s not in our control and it’s not on our own time. It’s God’s. And what God creates, God loves and God desires (which includes you). But it’s all about God.
Perhaps for some of us, we need to be saying much more to God: more words, like a conversation you’re dying to have with a long-lost friend. For some of us, we need to be far more attentive to God’s intercessions. I mean God’s bringing to our attention those who have God’s attention already and whom God wants to share with us. Some of us may well be being invited to share more in God’s intercessions, abiding with God and with others in our own heart. For some of us, perhaps our most profound articulation is simply to say to “Yes” to God, which was Dag Hammarskjöld’s posture of prayer. To simply say “Yes,” to the life that God has given us. For some of us, all those ways we were trying to get God’s attention, were actually ways God was trying to get our attention, so late have we loved God.vi For some of us, I suspect we need to be far more silent before God, and let our supple posture and bent knees, and teary eyes, and open hands offer a way to simply be with God. Dag Hammarskjöld says that “the best and most wonderful thing that can happen to you in this life, is that you should be silent and let God work and speak.” Hammarskjöld speaks of the importance “to preserve the silence within, amid all the noise. To remain open and quiet, a moist humus in the fertile darkness where the rain falls and the grain ripens, no matter how many tramp across the parade ground in whirling dust under an arid sky. …If only I may grow: firmer, simpler, quieter, warmer.” We remember and realize our identity, according to Hammarskjöld, “by becoming a bridge for others” – in our prayer, in our actions, in our essence.vii
The Church is a living memory. We remember that God remembers us. And we remember God’s provision down through history: that there have been people in the past who have been beacons of light, and whose life still shines into the present… and we remember them because we need them to help us find our way and know our place in life, which is otherwise so terribly uncharted. We remember Dag Hammarskjöld as one of these beacons. May he be blessed.
i The entries in the manuscript, Hammarskjöld wrote in a covering letter to his literary executor, constitute “a sort of White Book concerning my negotiations with myself – and with God.”
ii Hammarskjöld writes “…At some moment I did answer Yes to Someone – or Something – and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal. To say Yes to life is at one and the same time to say Yes to oneself. Yes – even to that element in one which is most unwilling to let itself be transformed from a temptation into a strength.”
iii Excerpted from Primary Speech; A Psychology of Prayer, by Ann & Barry Ulanov.
v Romans 8:26-27.
vi A prayer of St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430): “Late have I loved thee, O Beauty so ancient and so new; late have I loved thee! For behold Thou wert within me, and I outside; and I sought thee outside and in my perversity fell upon those lovely tings that thou has made. Thou wert with me and I was not with thee. I was kept from Thee from those things, yet had they not been in Thee, they would not have been at all. Thou didst call and cry to me and break open my deafness: and Thou didst send forth thy beams and shine upon me and chase away my blindness: Thou didst breathe fragrance upon me, and I drew in my breath and do now pant for Thee; I tasted Thee and now hunger and thirst for Thee: Thou didst touch me, and I have burned for Thy peace.” Confessions X.xxvii
vii Quoted from Markings, by Dag Hammarskjöld. He says further, “Only life can satisfy the demands of life. And this hunger of mine can be satisfied for the simple reason that the nature of life is such that I can realized my individuality by becoming a bridge for others, a stone in the temple of righteousness.”
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