Commemoration of Dag Hammar­skjöld – Br. Curtis Almquist

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 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.

iv Ibid.

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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  1. Jaan on July 12, 2017 at 12:43

    My prayers Admittedly are selfish at times borne out of pain looking for an escape route. I guess what helps me get out of my self is praying morning and evening prayer and more importantly is the Psalter. The emotions of sadness anger and joy can all be found in the Psalms but more importantly is the fact that they are rooted in God. The readings express The progressive story that culminates in Christ. sometimes reading the scriptures is painful because of the human frailties expressed by the writers and the times they lived in. Praying them has given me personal insight and opportunity to see glimpses of Christ even in those stories. Ultimately Prayer remains for me a selfish endeavor with glimpses of God peering through the cracks.
    This article expresses this ideal and understanding that prayer is about and should be rooted in Christ. CS Lewis wrote: I do not pray to change God’s mind I pray because Prayer changes me. It is a paraphrase but something that has stuck with me for many years.

  2. David Duncan on July 12, 2017 at 09:37

    It is only recently that I signed up for “a Word.” You have a satisfied customer. The Words are substantial and wonderfully brief. I especially like today’s (July 12th). David Duncan

  3. Susan McLeod on July 12, 2017 at 07:10

    Although submitted in 2006, how timely is this sermon today in 2017. Thank you, Br. Curtis, for reminding us that God is behind us, within us, and always ahead of us, guiding us through this remarkable journey of life.

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  5. Michael on November 2, 2015 at 08:30

    There is a reason God designed us with one mouth and two ears

  6. Cindy Curry on March 16, 2015 at 19:40

    YES!!!… a college freshman (1963) I picked up ‘Markings’ in a bookstore & stood riveted as Hammarskjold’s YES resonated through body, mind, soul, & spirit….. Indeed, over the years I have marked & re-marked his words — & rejoiced in his life — as investigation into his death re-opens, I pray his words & spirit will be renewed in our time. Thank you — & Laus DEO!!!!

  7. Carole Gilman on December 2, 2014 at 11:48

    Thank you so much for this . You all helped me get back on track last year at this time and now I am reminded clearly that I am in great need of you all once again. I tend to feel great frustration in accepting this as I want to be a better more evolved human after trying so hard to be a better Christian. The quiet time is what I seek with God. I see that now. Thank you for being here for us.

  8. Darryl on December 1, 2014 at 20:44

    Thank you for these insightful comments. As someone who might be classified as “evangelical” I find your comments to be refreshing. Blessings.

  9. Jenny Therkelsen on December 1, 2014 at 19:01

    Rev. Ned Bowersox used say after every sermon he spoke duiring his time at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, San Antonio, “remember who you are and remember whose you are”

  10. Heather on December 1, 2014 at 11:13

    A truly beautiful reminder about prayer! (pun intend)

  11. Lorna Harris on December 1, 2014 at 09:51

    Thank you for this: puts my life into a wonderful perspective!

  12. Maureen from New Hampshire on August 27, 2013 at 19:01

    Now, I understand. Thank you Brother Curtis

  13. John (Jack) A, Roney on August 26, 2013 at 16:57

    Thanks for your appeal to us to listen. Fr. John Main of the Benedictine order taught a simple lesson of using a mantra and being still, physically and open to God who helps us to be our true selves. Our group has gathered every Tuesday to hear a brief address and to spend 25 minutes in this quiet. We are Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Quakers and others. Our leader encourages us to come back if and when we stop our daily practice of periods of silence twice daily. Still we hear God Who is waiting. Jack

  14. Selina from Maine on August 26, 2013 at 09:37

    Thank you brother “Elmbranch”.You lead us so lovingly into the heart of God where we meet the whole world and re-member them and ourselves in that sacred heart.

    • Christina on December 1, 2014 at 09:10

      Thank you, too, Selina. My ‘knowing’ so beautifully expressed. Today – Advent 1 – December 1st 2014. I remember the day the world heard of the tragic death of Dag Hammarskold.

  15. Ladypamelalady on August 26, 2013 at 07:30

    TOTAL SURRENDER , how magnificently explained. Thank you Brother Curtis.

  16. Ruth West on December 10, 2012 at 12:34

    Thank you, Br. Curtis, for this helpful sermon. It was one of those I needed
    to read twice, which I did. How we need diplomats today such as Dag Hammarskold, who was a “servant of peace.”
    I agree that prayer is all about God. We are so prone to limit our prayers to our own individual space. It is, perhaps, because we know more about that space, because we live in it. That is the reason we need a guide which pushes us, invites us beyond it. Such a guide I find in The Book of Common Prayer. It encompasses the needs of the whole world as well as individual ones.
    God knows our every need. A week ago I was anointed, and prayed for.The healing was almost instantaneous. I do not understand it. Just as the blind one in the gospels said, “I only know that now I see.” The same with me. I just know that it happened. Prayer is powerful. To God be the
    praise! REW

  17. Anders on December 8, 2012 at 09:14

    Thank you, Brother Curtis, for we are all Almquists or elm branches, and it is a recent modern invention for family names to serve a demographic or value inflating purpose. We are elm branches, for it is the elm trees other parts of God’s creation that spoke to our ancestors and speak to us and defines us as family. It is in the re-membering you speak of which makes us whole, sometimes between just God and ourselves. I am learning that God is typically more stealth in all this that I realize, how other people and things unexpectedly teach me to say that Yes to become certain that existence is meaningful. Perhaps the bigger challenge for me is not to learn how I can become a bridge to others, but to accept how the world can become an elm branch to me.

  18. Polly Chatfield on December 7, 2012 at 08:59

    Dear Curtis, thank you. The first time i heard you ask that we say “yes” to God and to the life we have been given you were sitting next to a woman who could barely walk. Yet she smiled and nodded at your words and her gentle bravery was an inspiration and an acknowledgment of the deep truth of your words. Even if we feel we have very little, it is much, so much because God is at its heart.

  19. Jan Kuykendall on December 6, 2012 at 22:56

    Thank you for the reminder that it is all about God as He wills and works in every person, place, time and thing. That seems to be the hardest part of living in the mystery of in-between. It is so much easier to live in our intentions and just check in with God. Oh, but to live His presence!

  20. Pamela P. on December 6, 2012 at 11:21

    Thank you Brother Curtis. I feel a little closer to understanding what saying yes to God means; what self surrender might mean.
    Listening more is a great help! Your writing is so beautiful and clear and seems to gather all my attention.


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