An Overheard Prayer

A sermon, based on John 17.6-19, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 7th Sunday of Easter, May 13, 2018

Our gospel, perhaps oddly in Eastertide, takes us back to the night before Jesus’ crucifixion. Standing at the threshold of the valley of the shadow of death, he prays to God for those he loves, his disciples then and now, us.
Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (My soul is sorrowful unto death), James Tissot (1836-1902)

In this, his solitary, private moment of prayer, out of respect, we might retreat.

(I recall how my father, I know not why, would talk to himself. I picked up his habit and I, for years, have talked to myself, and, at times, I answer myself. When Pontheolla and I first were married, at those moments she walked into a room and heard me carrying on what seemed to her a private conversation, she felt the need to withdraw so not to intrude. And, now, after thirty or more years together, I guess she picked up the habit, for she talks to herself!)

However, because Jesus prays for us, we know that he is asking, urging us to stay, inviting us to listen: “I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world…Holy Father, protect them.”

Protect? From what? The world. Why? Because the world isn’t a safe place.

The Greek kosmos, translated “world,” doesn’t mean the earth or creation. Indeed, we speak tenderly about the former in one of our Eucharistic Prayers as “this fragile earth, our island home”(1) and gratefully for the latter in the General Thanksgiving of the Daily Office, praising God “for…creation…and all the blessings of this life.”(2)

Rather “world” refers to the reality that evil inhabits this life. Yes, there is joy and love. Yet equally, sometimes seemingly overwhelmingly, there is sorrow and hatred.

At a congregation I served previously before coming amongst you, there, we marked our practice of baptism with an ancient Celtic custom: Shutting the Devil’s door. A symbolic expression of our intention to protect our loved ones from all evil that can and will bring harm. Yes, an impossible task! Yet in the face of the impossible, there are two inherent, immediate and polar responses. One, throwing up our hands in immobilized despair, saying, “We can do nothing!” The other, with the power of perseverance, saying, “We will try harder!”

So, Jesus prays that we be protected from evil. Again, an impossible task. As Rabbi Harold Kushner reminded us nearly forty years ago, bad things do happen to good people.(3) In a word, life ain’t fair.

Yet if Jesus’ prayer is only another sobering aide-mémoire that all of our wishful thinking, euphemistically called hope, expressing our desires in the face of things beyond our control, amounts to nothing…that as the universe daily runs its course with no conscious care for us…that all of our bargaining and begging with God, the fates, the powers that be will not change, cannot change a thing, then it would have been better had he not said anything at all and kept his heartfelt, but impotent intercession to himself.

But there’s more! Jesus prays that God protect us and make us holy: “(Holy Father) they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world…Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.”

Praying for our protection, Jesus reminds us that we are vulnerable to the evils in this world.

Praying for our holiness, Jesus calls us to be faithful.

Holiness. Being sanctified, consecrated, set apart by God for divine purposes. Being, as God is, other than this world. Being, as Jesus prays, in, but not of the world. As Jesus was sent into the world empowered by God’s name and truth (all that can be known about God and our life in God), so, too, we.

The kosmos, the world, in the words of Martin Luther, is “devils filled;” an unsafe place. So unsafe that there are times when I don’t want to know the latest news of natural calamity and human iniquity. Sometimes the world’s woes, paraphrasing Luther, “threaten to undo me,” o’erwhelming me with fresh awareness of my weakness and worse anesthetizing me to my pain and your pain; so benumbed that I become an unfeeling shell of my self, unable to be a real person present and engaged with you.

So, today, I pray: Jesus, by your Spirit, protect us and make us holy that we, in the face of all that can and will bring harm, by faith, will continue to do what we can, where we are, with what we have to do God’s will. And, through it all, confirm in our hearts this word of truth:

A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing…

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us…

The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth:
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.(4)

 

Footnotes:
(1) From Eucharistic Prayer C, The Book of Common Prayer, page 370.
(2) From The General Thanksgiving, BCP, page 125.
(3) Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (1981)
(4) From A Mighty Fortress Is Our God (1529); words by Martin Luther (1483-1546)

Illustration: My soul is sorrowful unto death (Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane), James Tissot (1836-1902)

 

17 thoughts on “An Overheard Prayer

  1. This is inspiring Paul and I needed inspiration! This morning prior to reading this, I prayed for God to protect my Mom, from the fear that I could see in her eyes. I want God to not heal her dementia because I’m doubtful that would happen, but I do want her to be less afraid of all the things (everything) she no longer understands about the world she lives in. Dementia must be a terrible land to live in and I think it’s her version of the devil.

    I feel the hope in this sermon that God will see us through even though we may not understand exactly how. I await the “triumph” that my prayers hopefully will bring my Mom and all others who suffer from this and other debilitating diseases which changes their personalities. And for the record, Mom talks to herself too!

    Much love

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your reference to your mother’s dementia as “her version of the devil” is a poignant, powerful word!

      Moreover, your sensitivity and awareness of “all the things (everything) she no longer understands about the world she lives in” strikes me deeply, powerfully as a loving act of your blessed daughter-ship.

      Even more, as for “God…see(ing) us through even though we may not understand exactly how”, I behold, in your words, an avenue of understanding, especially in the case of dementia. I believe, in this moment, that it is those who care for those grappling with dementia (and, truth be told, as you and I well know, those caring for those grappling with dementia grapple/struggle, too!) are the ones God sends to help those who cannot help themselves see themselves through. A hard road, but a road of deepest, self-sacrificial love.

      Thank you for this insight.

      Love

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re more than welcome Paul!!! This is definitely a hard road as you know! I think I’ve always seen dementia as kind of the devil for the 5 million unfortunate people who have this disease. It how I was able to rationalize it in my head and how I managed to deal with it on a daily basis. You’re so right too, that so many of us caregivers struggle almost as much as those who suffer, and unlike them, we are AWARE that we are suffering and how others perceive our loved ones.
        Much love!!

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    2. Loretta, I feel so deeply with your concern about the fears your mother is experiencing in the depths of her dementia. My mother experienced the same thing, and those fears and the anxiety they bring were terrible to witness. All the reassurances you can offer don’t have any effect, and you feel so helpless in the face of the demons you can’t see or imagine but that are so real to the mother you love. Yes, I think those fears are to those who experience them the devil.

      I join you in your prayers for your mother’s comfort and peace of mind, and after witnessing the 22-year journey of my mother through that deep, dark valley, I would like to offer you some hope that your mother will come out the other side in a way that will be surprising and comforting to both of you.

      In the latter years of her life, my mother was largely able to lay her fears aside. Rather than anxious fear of the people in the nursing home,both staff and residents, as well as of the delusions that plagued her for a while, my mother eventually began to be able to open up to everyone she encountered with smiles, with laughter, with handclasps, with hugs, with hand kisses, with verbal expressions of love as long as she was able to speak. She began to radiate a warmth and a welcome that I had always known was a great part of her nature but that even in the time before her dementia had been suppressed and muted by defensiveness and her reaction to some very hard life experiences. The early part of her dementia reflected so deeply the defenses she had learned to adopt to protect herself during her life, but with the gradual loss of her memory, what emerged from her was the most beautiful soul I think I have ever been acquainted with. Everyone around her felt special to her; everyone wanted to connect with her, to be near her. During the last few days of her life, as my daughter and I sat vigil with her, there were frequent knocks on her door from people simply wanting to come in and hold her hand or speak to her, to be near her. As long as she was able, she smiled and responded, even though she could no longer speak.

      On the morning after she died, the director of nursing at the nursing home said the staff had had a tearful meeting that morning and had talked about my mother. She said they all agreed that everyone wanted to be with her, that her chair was “where God sat.” After having lived through all the years of fear and pain with her, the experiences I had both with her and with people who knew and loved her were a miraculous gift. In a strange way, even her dementia became a gift, both to her and to the people who loved her. Because of the dementia, she became, I believe, in the end, the beautiful being that God had created her to be. She was, in the end, pure love. I feel so privileged to have been her daughter and to have been allowed to witness that unfolding happening.

      I pray, Loretta, that you and your mother receive a similar miraculous gift, and if I were a betting woman, I would bet that you will. From having read your book, I know a little about your mother and about you. This process, as difficult as it is, will not be without reward either to you or to your mother.

      If you ever need encouragement as you continue this journey with your mom, or just a listening ear, I would be happy to have you email me. If you’d like to talk, I’ll be happy to give you my phone number.

      Much love to you and to your mother,

      Karen

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Karen,
        You hae no idea what your post means to me. It’s AMAZING and so heart-felt… You’ve certainly been there, done that!!!! My Mom is a totally different person too. She was always mild-mannered and soft-spoken, and wasn’t much for much affection towards us. She said she loved us for sure, but wasn’t a big hugger etc. Now, she loves to hug and she always says thanks and I love you. I am so comforted when she smiles and reads out loud and genuinely is in her moment!! The few words she can still say I love to hear. I just love being in her presence. All of my presentations focus on her, and pics of us… people were astounded today that I had already added pics from yesterday (Mother’s Day) to my presentation. I wanted to share with people that I accept all aspects of this disease, not just her smiling. The pic of her holding her Happy Mother’s Day balloon and looking straight ahead with a blank stare is stunning! Everyone gasped or sighed when I showed it today because they are all familiar with it. Of course I have no idea how much longer my Mom will live, but I know God will be with us. I will continue to be honored to be in her presence, and I pray that Mom’s end will be much like your Mom’s… I can’t thank you enough for your post AND your prayers!
        much love to you Karen!! You are a special soul.

        Loretta

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  2. Karen, your compassion is boundless and amazing. Your kindness, breathtaking. I thank you for this your loving word about your mother and your experience and holding it out to our dearest friend Loretta with hopeful hands and heart.

    Aye, your description of the peace that enveloped your mother and the peace that enveloped all in her presence is precisely what we all desire with our loved ones and for ourselves.

    Bless you. Love you.

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    1. Thank you for your very kind words, Paul. The experience with my mother was such a profound discovery of deep grace where I least expected to find it that I want to pass it on to Lorettta and others. It’s so hard being the one who is watching and waiting when those we love are in pain, but when we aren’t looking for it, redemption can emerge from the darkness of even the hardest losses. I want so much for Loretta and her mother to experience that gift.

      Thank you for providing opportunities for connection with your blog, your poetry, your inspired sermons, and your own loving heart.

      Much love,

      Karen

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      1. Karen,
        I won’t forget the gift you have given me…. I will always treasure it and your willingness to share your beautiful story with your Mom. We never know when we are going to find Grace and Peace and I treasure the times it’s happened to me! Maybe you should start a blog too Karen and as you have amazingly powerful things to say that can help others!! I am fortunate enough to have received so many emails and notes from people around the country about how much I have helped them and I will continue to write and speak so I can continue to do that and help myself find some grace and peace in the process.

        My sincere thanks and love!
        Loretta

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      2. Dear Loretta,

        You are so kind. Having gotten to know you via Pontheolla’s gift of your book and now in reading your comments to Paul’s posts and sometimes communicating with you directly, I have seen what a strong, loving, faithful woman you are. Your heart is so open to others and to grace.

        Sharing my experience with my mother’s long struggle and transformation by dementia is something I think I am called to do when I know people are on that same hard path. For so long, I saw the disease only as a terrible thing, but “God works in miraculous ways….” has proven so true in my life. I’m beginning to be able to see that some of the most painful things I’ve known have blessed me in ways I could never have imagined and sometimes have allowed me to pass on some of those blessings. I’m not the woman I was in 1993 when my mother suddenly became ill. While the journey early on was devastating and had profound negative effects for a long time, by the end I could see that each step along the way ultimately increased my strength, my patience, my understanding, my faith, and finally, my belief in myself.

        Thank you for suggesting a blog. I have actually been thinking about that possibility, and I so appreciate the encouragement. I love to write, mostly poetry, but I need to make it a much more regular and substantial part of my life.

        I will keep you and your mom in my heart and in my prayers as you two move on together. As I said, if I can be of help to you or just be a friend who understands a bit anytime, just let me know. I’m there.

        Much love to you, Loretta,

        Karen

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    2. Karen’s response was truly extraordinary and I printed it out along with your original post!! You’re so right, ALL of us want that when our loved ones pass. Stunning… I pray for that peace for my Mom.
      Much love!

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  3. Yes, yes, Karen, I’m with Loretta in my wholehearted encouragement that you consider becoming…being a blogger. You have depth of spirit, breadth of love, and height of care for all, thus, in my view, with much to say, to share that will be edifying.

    As I’ve reflected on your and Loretta’s words about your mothers with dementia and your experiences of caregiving (verily, care-being, that is what you, Karen, observed and what you, Loretta, observe about your mothers and your selves), I have been thrown back on manifold thoughts and feelings of my time during my mother’s long trek into the shadows of Alzheimer’s disease. (She formally was diagnosed in 1996, the year of my father’s death, but, of course, exhibited symptoms for a time before. She died in 2015 and only, I believe, because I made a long overdue decision to stop feeding her and providing water, thus, allowing her to die. [Though there were those who believed I was committing murder.])

    The more I reflect, the more guilt I experience for not having come to the discernment sooner to allow her to die. For, by virtue of her written instructions, she did not wish to live (to exist) in the state in which she inhabited for, lo, those many years.

    Pontheolla has told me that I ought forgive myself, for I was not ready for her to die. That is true. I appreciate her enduring kindness to me. AND I finally have come to understand why I was not ready for my mother to die. AND, in comprehending my rationale, how ridiculously unreasonable it was…is!

    There was and is much in the way of motherly care that my mother was not able to give me, yet, I wanted and still desire. For as long as my mother lived – in whatever state – my hope burned bright that ONE DAY I would receive from her the grace of her blessing of me as an individual, a person, and not one who needed to be conformed into her and my father’s image of what I must be. She hadn’t given me what I wanted and needed and, of course, in her illness, she couldn’t. Nevertheless, I had hoped (a strange thing this thing called hope!)…

    After so many years, the weight of her ongoing suffering grew greater in my calculus of care for her than my need to have her be and give unto me what I wanted and needed. And, yes, in this, I confess – for I must as honesty…integrity compels – my gross selfishness.

    Now, she abides with the angels as, I pray, her soul long ago hath done e’en whilst her body was still in this world.

    Requiescat in pace, Momma. I pray, too, I one day abide in peace before I die.

    Thank you, Karen and Loretta, with love.

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  4. Karen if you start a blog I guess you can tell that both me & Paul will be following you!! We definitely all change through caregiving and other incredible things that happen to us in life….I certainly didn’t know you then but you’re an amazing person today. Happy that you’ve read some of my journey too!

    Paul,
    I was pretty sure that this thread of posts today would bring up all sorts of memories about your mom and her extraordinary journey with Alzheimer’s. Having been with you at the hospital when the doctor described what would happen if the feeding tube wasn’t put in, I agree with Pontheolla that at that time, you weren’t ready for your mom to die. I so sorry to read that you didn’t get everything you wanted and needed from your mom. Though I know the story it’s still powerful to read.
    I’m thrilled to have been part of this thread today and I’ve learned a great deal from it.. most importantly how strong I’ve become on this journey with mom.

    Much love to you both!

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  5. Thank you, Loretta, for your recollection of that moment with my mother and her doctor and the consultation regarding the feeding tube. Though I had buried that memory as too painful, your words brought it freshly to mind, and in a good way. For, in remembering, though, yes, still painful, it is not as painful. Perhaps, as I ruminate in this instant moment, our – Karen, you, and me – “conversation” has been an act of closure for me. One so serendipitous, for how could I have known aforehand the effect until it occurred, thus, so Spirit-led-and-filled. Thank you, Loretta. Thank you, Karen.

    And praise be to God for the strength you, Loretta, have discovered within yourself, indeed, your self. Praise God, verily, for the strength that YOU are.

    Love

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  6. Dear Paul,

    Your reflections about your mother and your unwillingness to let her go because of what you had needed from her are so moving. Thank you so much for being willing to share that. It reminded me of Jacob wrestling with the angel, and Jacob’s words, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” Even though you have felt guilt about your decision to keep your mother with you, I think Pontheolla is so right. You were engaged in a wrestling with yourself that needed to happen, and your mother played a necessary role in that struggle. If I know anything about mothers, they are all about giving their children what they need to the degree it is possible for them to do so. And I believe your mother on some level understood/understands how powerful was your need for recognition from her as the person you are. And my guess is she wanted to do whatever she could to help you fulfill that need, even though she had not been able to do it herself in her pre-dementia life.

    I will say that I shared some of the same need you had for my mother to “know me as I really am” rather than as a self-constructed illusion of who she thought I was supposed to be. I wonder if for a lot of people that isn’t just part of being a son or daughter of someone who had high standards for their children. It’s strange that the thing that seems to have put that painful striving to rest for me was my mother’s no longer knowing who I was, i.e, her daughter, but nevertheless, obviously loving me and caring for me beyond my comprehension just because I was a human being who came frequently into her sphere. She felt the same way about everyone, not just me, but because I was the one who spent the most one-on-one time with her, I was the recipient of much of that almost “wondrous” love she radiated. It was so healing to know she no longer harbored any expectations or criticisms of me. She just purely and simply loved me, which was all I ever wanted.

    I’m so glad that our conversation in these comments has helped to bring some closure to that very painful chapter in your life, Paul. I had forgotten, if I knew, that your mother, like mine, died in 2015. What was the date of her death? That is still a very recent loss, and I know we are both still in some sense grieving. I had a vision while I was writing the above of our mothers, both with the angels, coming together and holding hands as we children reach out to each other, both of them beaming with love for us. I think they will be there awaiting your mother too, Loretta, when she is ready to cross over.

    Once again, much love to you both. Thank you both from the bottom of my heart for this conversation. It has meant so much to me.

    Karen

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    1. Tbis has been one of the best conversations I’ve had in a while… It helped me to see and feel a lot of things I guess I’ve kept inside.. I think that’s what you described as closure Paul. The Facebook page of Alzheimer’s caregivers that I co-moderate is filled daily with guilt and love and sharing…. but as one of the moderators I share pictures of Mom and articles to help our 5,000 members, but I rarely share my deepest feelings about this damn disease. I had the opportunity to do that this week with the two of you.

      Many, many thanks and much love to you both!!

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  7. Dearest Loretta, thank you for sharing yourself, verily (as I’m wont to write/say) your self. There is a richness of human depth about you…so much to plumb…so much to know…so much to reveal, which you, in your quintessential honesty, do so wondrously well.

    Simply, profoundly, again, I thank you.

    Love always

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  8. Ah, Karen, so wondrously wise you are…

    Wrestling, as Jacob, yes, so I have been doing. Mothers playing a necessary role in that struggle, yes, I believe that. Your mother, in her dementia, being able to give unto you what you needed sans the inhibiting filters of her expectations of and for you, aye, I thank you for that…this insight. More…MOST helpful than you (and I, in this instant moment) can know!

    One thing about which I am clear. You and Loretta, in your deep and earnest sharing, have helped me…moved me to a new place in my soul. My gratitude is beyond my words – and I have loads of words! – to express.

    With thanks and love,
    Paul

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