Snake sandwich with a side of scorpion
SEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST JULY 28th, 2019 LUKE 11:1-13
A while ago I came across someone’s heart. I wasn’t looking for a human heart. I was only seeking advice and understanding. That is why I bought that psychology book from Amazon Marketplace. But like all secondhand books, it told a story – not just the one the author wrote, but the one the first owner wrote. And that is what I mean by finding someone’s heart. It was there, on page 74, donated with passion and feeling.
When I buy a secondhand book, I turn to the inside cover to see if the previous owner has written their name. In this case, they had not, but whoever they were, it was clear they had handled this book with respect. I respect people who respect books. I flicked through it. Each page made that satisfying sound as it slid past my thumb and flopped onto its neighbor. But as I flicked my eye was caught by some writing in the margins on one page, and only one page – number 74. The message was enshrined for all time – in blue ink – quite unusual for scribblings in the margin, which in my experience are usually in pencil. As befitting this neat owner, the words were beautifully legible and thoughtfully penned. They bore the elegance of a female hand. The care taken and the permanence of the writing led me to think this was a message not just to herself, but to the world. The author wanted her heart to be discovered by future readers, to be pondered, absorbed in the soul. If that was her motive, it worked, because her words have stayed with me. They tell a story. And not one with a happy ending. A story of pain, of lost love, of yearning, of regret. “Chris Chris Chris. I miss him like crazy. Like mad. I wish it would have been different. I wish it would have been real.”
Who is Chris? Who is the author? Don’t you want to know? What was the ‘it’ she grieved the loss of – a one-night stand? A summer fling. Surely not, surely something more serious, longer lasting, something she had invested her heart in. Was this a life-time union that had devastatingly ended? We know nothing, which makes the story of Chris and the author, frozen in time on page 74 of a psychology book, even more compelling and tragic. As I read this tale of love cut short, I felt the urge to pray for the last owner of the book, the careful, thoughtful woman who left her heart on page 74. I prayed that she is now experiencing healing, no longer nursing regrets. I asked that instead of clinging to Chris, she was embracing the Christ who gives second chances, mends broken hearts, and gently leads his beloved on from page 74 to the next hopeful chapter. And I prayed for Chris too. Call me a romantic fool, but I prayed that they have found their way back to each other and to love, this time real.
Now, the reason I’m telling you this is that this is a rare event for me – being moved to pray for people out of empathy. But when you find a heart on page 74 it touches your own. Many of my prayers are not motivated by heart, but by duty, sometimes by guilt, even by fear. But what better motive is there for prayer (or anything for that matter) than love? Love for the people we are praying for, love for God, even love for ourselves because when we are truly connected to God we become more complete human beings. So, if you truly love yourself you will do all in your power to live connected to God. When we are urged on by love, we are entering a mysterious conversation with the author of love. “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
Jesus tells the story of a friend who goes next door at midnight to ask his neighbor for some bread. But Mr. Grumpy next door says “no”. The friend in need keeps asking, though, and eventually he gives in just to get rid of him and return to bed. Who wants to pray to a grumpy god who hangs a ‘do not disturb sign’ on his door? A God who will tell you to go away and leave him alone? Many people misread this story and see the grumpy neighbor as God. And if it is, then what we have is a god who cares nothing for us but regards us irritants. Who wants to pray to a self-absorbed parent who angrily snaps at their child to be quiet and stop bothering them? No wonder we can find prayer unappealing. But the point of the parable is that this is NOT a picture of God. Jesus creates this farcical neighbor as the anti-God. This is who we are NOT praying to, he says.
The grumpy neighbor gives in not because he is a good man, but because his friend is going to bang on the door until he gets what he wants. God is the opposite. God answers us, not because of what we do, but because of who he is. Hear the good news. It is God’s nature to bless. God gives and gives because that is just who he is and what he does. When we receive an answer to prayer it is not because we have twisted God’s arm and he’s grudgingly giving in. God will bless because that is God’s nature, and our lack of faith cannot change that. God will not be controlled by what we do or fail to do. God is free to love us, bless us, meet our deepest needs, and answer our urgent prayers even when we don’t deserve it. He won’t be forced against his will to treat us as our sins deserve, we can’t manipulate God into treating us harshly.
Often we religious types think we can control God. If I do my religious duty, if I follow the Ten Commandments, if I read my Bible regularly, then God will treat me well. I’ll be blessed. If, however, I neglect prayer, never go to church, fail to live the Christian life adequately, then God will punish me; he won’t bless me, and he won’t answer my prayers. Now if those conclusions were correct then it would mean that we control God. God must respond in a certain way according to what I do. So, I’m in charge. I take the initiative and God merely responds. I make the decisions (to pray or not to pray, to be holy or not to be holy) and God must act accordingly. But the Good News is better than that. It is God’s nature to bless and there is nothing you can do to change that. Nothing.
God is not the grumpy neighbor who will only give in to our requests because he wants a quiet life. God, says Jesus, is “Our Father, who art in heaven” – hard though that can be for many of us – God is the perfect parent who will never let us down, who knows what we need, who sees your broken heart on page 74, but turns the page to the happiest of happy ever afters. What parent, if their child asks for a fish, will give a snake? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If we human parents know how to get it right, how much more does our Father in heaven.
But just in case we are tempted to stop with the conclusion that God loves us and wants to bless us, let’s go back to the parable and remind ourselves just why the friend in need goes next door to borrow some food. It’s not for his own sake, but so that he can give hospitality to a visitor. God blesses us because it is his nature to do so. But he calls us to pass it on. Life depends on flow. The flow of oxygen through your nose to your lungs and into your blood stream. The flow of blood from your heart to your brain and around your body. The flow of nutrition from your mouth to your stomach and then your muscles. It’s true throughout creation. Flow is necessary for life. Cut off the flow of water in a stream and before long you have a stagnant pool unable to sustain life. It’s true of love. You receive love in order to give it away. That flow keeps you healthy, happy, thriving – you receive love, you pass it on, you keep the flow going. To stop the flow, to receive the love and keep it for yourself will result in narcissism. It’s also true of physical resources, like money. There needs to be that flow if we are to be grateful receivers and happy givers. Receive it and give it. Receive it and give it. Build a dam, stop the flow, keep it all for yourself, and we’ll fester as fatally as the stagnant pond.
Back to the flow of oxygen. When we are stressed or anxious our breathing becomes shallow, fast, and irregular. We may even hold our breath for a few seconds, without even realizing it, which makes the anxiety worse. Breath in the Bible is a powerful metaphor for the Holy Spirit. In fact, the biblical Hebrew and Greek words for Spirit are the same as for breath. So, here’s an invitation and a challenge. Be conscious of your breathing, keep it regular, uninterrupted, let the flow occur, and as you do, imagine breathing in the Holy Spirit, and then breathing out blessing and compassion for others.
I wonder where Chris is today. I wonder what the first owner of that psychology book is doing this morning. How are their hearts? How’s yours? Are you in the flow? The Father, our Father who art in heaven, longs to give us good things. His motive is love. He’s crazy about us. And there’s nothing you can do about it. Come. Receive eggs and fish, not snakes and scorpions. Breathe in his love and then let it flow.