Jeremiah 17: 5-10 1 Corinthians 15:12-20
Psalm 1 Luke 6:17-26
One of the things I like most about my monastic cell is the view from its window. This week I spent a lot of time staring out the window meditating on scripture and I was struck by the beauty of the landscape, even in this austere, barren season of the year. Morning, noon and night, seven days a week, month after month the beauty of the Charles River never fails to charm, although in its unfrozen state I admit the allure is greater. When the weather is warm and the stadium lights burn all night their dazzle on the water is enchanting. There is always movement, always glitter no matter the time of day. I also love the sycamores that line the river bank along Memorial Drive. They are majestic whether in leaf or bare. Their massive trunks and branches reaching to the sky never fail to lift my spirits.
This is not my first experience of sycamores. I grew up well aware of them in Texas. In 1899, in a burst of uncommon civic enthusiasm, my town decided to create a garden cemetery in the spirit of Mount Auburn and other great 19th century landscape cemeteries in this country. And to show their seriousness they hired an English landscape designer to lay it out with scenic drives, vistas and picturesque views on a hilltop north of town. Mr. Stephenson, who drew the plan, lined its lanes with sycamores despite warnings that unlike in England sycamores have a tough time with Texas weather. Tree experts tell us that sycamores have a life expectancy of a hundred years. Most of those that survived this past century’s long periods of drought at the cemetery are now in their dotage, but even so the effect is lovely and grand. But it is nothing like the trees outside our door.
These are trees I want to hug and listen for their heartbeat. They are like the smooth bark beeches in the woods at Emery House in that respect. The sycamores along Memorial Drive, though planted at about the same time as the ones I knew in Texas, are twice their size. Because they are planted along the river their trunks are much larger than typical sycamores their age. And in addition to the beauty of their presence and the comforting shade they provide, they serve a utilitarian purpose of which most are not aware. Were it not for these trees most of the buildings along the road out front would have water in their basements.
The prophet Jeremiah likened those who trust in the Lord to a tree planted by the water sending out its roots by the stream. It will never fear when the heat comes and its leaves shall stay green. In the year of the drought it is not anxious and it does not cease to bear fruit. To be a Christian is to be in a relationship with God. For the relationship to be vibrant and healthy we put God at the center of our lives. God is our river, our living water, the source that sustains us and helps us to grow. We are not the center of our universe, God is, and it is in God that we trust, look to for help, rely on. God is the one who guides our life. God in God’s love for us blesses us and showers us with grace. It is God who makes our lives far greater than they would be otherwise. In times of tragedy and hardship it is God who suffers with us, helps us through, who strengthens us, comforts us and keeps us on course. The collect for this day reminds us that “in our weakness we can do nothing good” without God.
In the Gospel of Luke we hear Jesus trying to shock his listeners out of their self-absorption, their self centered lives. Many of them who heard him were prosperous and lived in comfort. They certainly had enough to eat and some had grown rich. These were the ones Jesus wanted to reach, the rugged individualists who had made it on their own and had no place for God in their lives, even though they might go through the motions of faith and religion. He warned them that what they had was not enough. In times of drought, of crisis and upheaval they would need more. And only God could help them.
But why am I telling you this? You already know it. I doubt there is anyone here this morning who does not recognize the critical importance of one’s relationship with God or know that to keep the friendship honest, healthy and fruitful we have to maintain contact, we need honest prayer lives. But it is one thing to know this intellectually and quite another to put it in practice each day. Robert Wicks, a leading psychotherapist and spiritual director, who has worked with literally thousands of priests, ministers, monks, religious sisters and others in Christian ministry to teach them ways to avoid stress and emotional burnout reports that a majority of those he has interviewed do not have honest prayer lives even though they are supposed to be women and men of prayer whose work is grounded in prayer. This is startling news, but is it really surprising? Look at your own life. You may desire a life grounded in prayer and a close relationship with God. You may even dedicate a space in your home for silence and solitude where you can go and pray undisturbed by domestic hubbub. And yet, in any given week how often do you go there to pray, to sit in silence, to offer up your concerns or ask God for help? When the pace and demand of daily life increases often the first casualty is one’s prayer life. Wicks discovered that even in situations where major life decisions had to be made those in ministry did not often pray for discernment and direction. Ask yourself, when you are facing those big questions and have critical decisions to make do you seek God’s help or do you forge forward as though it all depended on you? Be honest with yourself. What is you standard practice?
For those whose lives are overstressed and who want to avoid spiritual and emotional burnout, Wicks offers a six step program. The most important is developing an honest prayer life. He suggests at the beginning of the day to dedicate a minimum of two minutes to God in silence and solitude. That can be time without words, just recognizing God’s place in your life. Or you might say “Lord, this is your day, not my day.” Or add, “Align me with your will.” A pilgrim at Lourdes once told me he started each day by thinking of God and saying, Good morning, Father.
Now notice that Robert Wicks is not requiring a minimum of twenty minutes or an hour. He says two minutes will do. Everyone, no matter how late you sleep or how busy your day, has time for that. He also recommends that at intervals during the day you stop for a moment to recognize God’s presence in what you are doing. The third part of his formula for honest prayer is scripture study. Again the demand is not great. Once a week take time to pray with scripture. He recommends lectio divina, the method of reading over a passage of scripture a few times until a word or phrase seems to lift up, then “chewing on it” until a door opens for conversation with God. And remember prayer is a dialogue, not a monologue. Speak what is on your heart and listen to God’s response. Wicks guarantees that by following these easy steps we can become God centered. After a while the division between prayer and daily living disappears and God is simply with you. I am sure this is what is meant by “prayer without ceasing.”
If you feel like your current life is more like a desiccated shrub in the desert than a majestic tree on the verdant riverbank, and if you want a life that has God at its center and don’t have it now , I suggest you experiment with Robert Wicks’ easy steps for an honest prayer life.
And then may the sycamores of Memorial Drive always remind you of your friendship with God.
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