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March 4, 2018

cantus firmus : A Fixed Prayer for All Occasions, Part 3”

Rev. Dr. David A. Kaden

>>Open our eyes that we might see wondrous things in your Word, Amen.<<

“‘When I pray,’” said Pope Francis in a recent interview, ‘“sometimes I fall asleep.’”[1] He went on to liken prayer to resting gently in the arms of God-as-a-parent; like a child does when you croon, and then kiss them off to sleep. In that interview, Pope Francis admitted that he keeps a busy schedule, rising each morning at 4:45 and turning the lights out at night by 10. He tries to squeeze in a nap in the afternoon, but most of his days are filled; and so, sometimes he nods off while praying.

The Pope likens prayer to a child sleeping in God’s loving arms, but Reform Jewish Cantor Jamie Marx likens prayer to being immersed in the pulsating sounds of a Hollywood club.[2] A friend invited him to go dancing at a Hollywood club that plays all ‘80s music. “‘You love ‘80s music,’” she insisted. And so, he reluctantly went along, despite his insecurities about having any “sense of rhythm” or “dancing ability.” “I was certain I wouldn’t have fun,” admits Jamie Marx. But, he continues, “on the dance floor, as long as there was ‘80s music pumping, I was deliriously happy. I lost myself in the blend of beat and nostalgia, the familiar strains of Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Depeche Mode that I’d only ever heard coming out of my stereo or my computer, suddenly cranked up to 100 decibels. The sheer weight and volume of the music filled the room, and all the space between the dancers,” he goes on, “wrapping each of us in a big warm blanket of sound and sweat. I lost myself in the music and found … a tiny slice of divine joy – and if it was even the tiniest fraction of what King David felt when he ‘danced with joy [in the Bible],’ it was a heartfelt prayer.”

Marx goes on to describe the Hasidic movement in Judaism. “The Hasidic movement … ,” he writes, “talks a lot about the idea of losing oneself in prayer … .” “[T]he ideal state of mind for prayer [in that tradition] is a loss of self … . One rabbi famously taught that even being able to think while praying was too much self-awareness. They call that kind of ecstatic prayerfulness [in Hebrew] hitlahavut and hitpaalut : a fiery passion in your soul and a sense of joy as gateways to the Divine. … Looking back on that night in Hollywood,” Marx concludes, “what amazes me is how little was truly required for that prayerful experience … : [all I needed were] songs in my musical ‘language [of ‘80s music],’ the company of a good friend, and the fragile bond of a community of strangers. There were none of the accoutrements I associate with prayer today: no siddur (prayer book), no cantor or rabbi, no sanctuary … . The music opened a doorway to prayer and I walked through.”

Whether nodding off like the Pope or dancing in a crowd like Jamie Marx, losing one’s sense of self in prayer is a common experience; and there’s good data from neuroscience to back this up. Prayer affects the brain. Dr. Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania, has been mapping brain activity during prayer for years. Newberg has found that our brains look different when praying. He slides people into a SPECT scanner that uses gamma rays to produce 3D images of the brain. At the precise moment when Newberg thinks a person he is studying has entered the peak of their prayer time, he injects dye into their systems to track blood flow to the brain. The frontal lobe of the brain – the area that governs focus and attention – lights up from increased activity. But the brain’s parietal lobe – the part responsible for sensing place and being aware of ourselves, goes dark. Says Newberg, the parietal lobe “is an area that normally takes our sensory information, [and] tries to create for us a sense of ourselves and orient[s] that self in the world. When people lose their sense of self, feel a sense of oneness, a blurring of the boundary between self and other [during prayer],” says Newberg, “we have found decreases of activity in [the parietal lobe].”[3] Newberg has found this same pattern across religious traditions – a lighting up of frontal lobes that deal with concentration, and a darkening of parietal lobes that sense place and space. Newberg has scanned the brains of meditating Buddhist monks, chanting Sikhs, Catholic nuns praying the Rosary, and even stodgy mainline Protestants. The results are the same: “They all [feel] the same oneness with the universe,” and a loss of the sense of self – almost like fading into something much bigger than ourselves.

Prayer is about more than just laundry-listing requests for God to answer. Prayer is more holistic, involving mind and body. It’s resting, like Pope Francis’ napping-sort-of-prayer.
It’s losing oneself on a dance floor, like Cantor Jamie Marx describes. It can be a “deep interior silence,” as monk Thomas Merton once put it.[4] Prayer ignites frontal lobes and quiets parietal lobes through meditation and concentration and relaxation, chanting and singing and controlled breathing and reciting words in cadence, like when we recite the rhythmic Lord’s Prayer. The Lord’s Prayer is our cantus firmus , said preacher William Sloane Coffin – our fixed song, our fixed chant, our fixed prayer, a prayer for all occasions – the “quintessence of prayer,” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer once called it. Reciting it pulls us out of ourselves – fades our sense of self – and blends us into a community; it “nudges [us] into community,” wrote Bishop John Shelby Spong;[5] nudges us toward a sense of oneness, like the many brains on prayer studied by Andrew Newberg. In this year’s Confirmation Class, we try to end each session by holding in our minds someone or something that needs prayerful attention; and then with that person or issue in mind, we recite The Lord’s Prayer together, focusing not so much on the words we speak as on the concern each of us is holding. Reciting the prayer lets us release our concerns together into God.

Yes, The Lord’s Prayer can be a tool to fade our sense of self and blend us into community – a chorus of voices that holds and releases concerns. But each word of this cantus firmus is significant in its own right. Today we’re focusing on the phrase “give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us.” Bread and forgiveness. This is the “Lord’s Supper” part of The Lord’s Prayer – a “dress-rehearsal of what the Kingdom [of God] looks like,” as one blogger calls it:[6] abundance and forgiveness offered freely. (I’ll return to the Lord’s Supper in just a bit).

The “daily bread” part of The Lord’s Prayer recalls the wilderness wandering of the Israelites when God’s presence went with them, and God delivered manna daily from heaven to sustain them. For centuries, Christian theologians have puzzled over the phrase “daily bread.” The Greek word translated as “daily” appears nowhere else in ancient Greek literature; it was created from scratch by the gospel writers just for The Lord’s Prayer. And we’re not sure how to translate it. Some in Christian history have suggested translating the phrase “ daily bread” as “all the bread we need.” Others have proposed, “the bread that doesn’t run out.” And still others, “the bread of abundance.” Around the year 400, St. Jerome had no idea how to render the phrase “daily bread” from Greek into Latin, and so proposed “ supersubstantial bread.” Not surprisingly, “give us this day our supersubstantial bread” never caught on in the churches. I think “daily bread” means more than just bread-and-butter – more than just physical food; it’s also spiritual sustenance – spiritual bread – that Jesus has in mind. So, when we pray “give us this day our daily bread,” we’re saying, “give us everything we need today, both material and spiritual”; “take care of us body and soul”; “sustain us completely.”

The second request in today’s phrase is for forgiveness: “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” This phrase recalls the year of Jubilee in the Book of Leviticus. “Count off seven weeks of years,” Moses instructed the people – count off 49 years. And the 50th year will be a year of Jubilee: land will be returned to the ancestral owners; all debts will be forgiven; slaves will be set free. The Lord’s Prayer is a Jubilee prayer – a prayer that claims freedom for all in bondage. Sometimes during Memorial Services in our church, we invite the people in the pews to recite The Lord’s Prayer in whatever form is familiar to them. It’s a wonderful cacophony to hear “sins and sinners” spoken alongside “debts and debtors” and “trespasses and those who trespass against us.” Since the first century, Christians have used different words when praying The Lord’s Prayer. The Gospel of Matthew has “debts and debtors.” The Gospel of Luke has “forgive us our sins as we forgive all who owe us.” The way we pray the prayer in our church – “sins and sinners” – is perfectly fine as long we understand what is meant by “sin.” In his book Sin: A History , Notre Dame theologian Gary Anderson argues that the word “sin” in the Bible does not have a single meaning.[7] In St. Paul’s letters “sin” means something like missing the mark: it’s an archery term – to sin is to miss the moral bullseye. But in the Old Testament, the primary meaning of the word “sin” is “weight” or “burden.” It’s something we lug around and carry on our conscience, like beasts of burden laden with cargo. But, at some point in early Jewish history, before Paul wrote his letters, the word “sin” took on a new meaning: it was likened to the weight or burden one feels when in “debt.” Hence, the Gospel of Matthew’s, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Sin as missing the bullseye; sin as a weight; sin as a debt. “Forgive us our sins,” we pray, “as we forgive those who sin against us.” It’s a Jubilee request – help us hit the bullseye next time, lighten the load we carry, balance the account. It’s a request that appeals to God’s grace – God’s “cooking-the-books” grace, as Gary Anderson puts it, that puts our account in the black, despite our missing the moral bullseye. But the challenge of the prayer – the challenge of The Lord’s Prayer in general – is that it’s like praying into a mirror. “Let Thy Kingdom come” is a way of saying to ourselves – as if into a mirror – go and make the kingdom come. “Give us our daily bread” is a way of saying to ourselves – as if into a mirror – go and feed the hungry and provide spiritual nourishment to the lost and desperate. And “forgive us our sin as we forgive others” is a way of saying to ourselves – as if into a mirror – that God will cook the books for us – help us hit the bullseye, lighten the burdens we carry, place a divine finger on the scale, but we need to go and do likewise to “those who might owe us.”

…What this looks like in practice, I think, can be seen in the story of Abraham Davis as reported by Sabrina Tavernise of The New York Times back in December.[8] “Abraham Davis had his mouth open, but no words were coming out,” writes Tavernise. “We were sitting together on his mother’s couch near her Christmas tree … and I had just played him a short recording of the president of Fort Smith’s Al Salam mosque. Abraham had vandalized the [Arkansas] mosque with two friends more than a year before [spray-painting swastikas and epithets on the mosque’s signs and walls]. It was an act of bigotry that he deeply regretted. [He had expressed] remorse – written in a letter from jail – and the mosque [had forgiven him and advocated for him before a judge] … [But] despite the mosque’s best efforts, Abraham ended up with a felony. He was also saddled with around $3,200 in fines and restitution. … It was one of his life’s daily stresses: if he stopped making monthly payments, he could end up in prison for six years. … The last time I had seen Abraham,” writes Tavernise, “was in the blistering heat of July, and he was dutifully showing up for his community service at a Goodwill store. But he didn’t have a paying job, and everything seemed tenuous. Five months later, that worry was wiped away, when Hisham Yasin, the mosque’s … social director, climbed the stairs of the courthouse with a cashier’s check. That was what had left Abraham speechless next to the Christmas tree. ‘There’s no words,’ he said, his hands covering his face. … [Members of the mosque] had decided to pay off Abraham’s court fines. … [There were other donations too from Americans around the country. Some] helped [Abraham and his family] pay the security deposit and first month’s rent on a new place, and get some used furniture and a bed for their 5-year-old. Someone from Texas paid off their electric bill. … Abraham was stunned [by this outpouring of forgiveness and grace]. … ‘It’s a great weight being lifted off of my shoulders,’ he said … . ‘I’m just in awe of this moment right now.’ He sat back and looked at me intently,” says Tavernise. “‘I want to say I regret what I did, but at the same time I don’t,’ he explained. ‘It’s kind of like a flower just sitting there waiting for the right drop of water to tap its petals. To open up and reveal something beautiful on the inside.’”

…Oneness, community, daily bread in the form of money to pay court fines and bills, forgiveness of sins, and amazing grace. It’s all in that story – a Lord’s Prayer story. A story that gives us a glimpse of what God’s will on earth as it is in heaven looks like. A story we reenact every time we break bread and share a cup during communion where all are equal regardless of state in life, no matter what we’ve done or left undone – a Lord’s-Prayer-table of bread and forgiveness. Amen.

1 https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/even-pope-francis-falls-asleep-sometimes-while-hes-praying_us_59fa5176e4b01b4740481c34?section=us_religion

2 https://reformjudaism.org/blog/2017/11/07/what-do-we-really-need-prayerful-experience?utm_source=TMT-Tuesday&utm_medium=email&utm_content=20171107&utm_campaign=TMT

3 https://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=104310443

4 Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer (New York: Doubleday, 1969), 42.

5 John Shelby Spong, Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 142.

6 https://pastchristian.wordpress.com/tag/lords-prayer/

7 Gary A. Anderson, Sin: A History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).

8 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/28/reader-center/mosque-vandal-arkansas.html?smid=fb-share . This story is part of a series: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/08/26/us/fort-smith-arkansas-mosque-vandalism-and-forgiveness.html?_r=0