March 11, 2018

cantus firmus : A Fixed Prayer for All Occasions, Part 4”

Rev. Dr. David A. Kaden

>>O God, lead us not into….deliver us from….Help us. Amen.<<

Four years before his untimely death, Christopher Hitchens wrote a series of humorous essays for Vanity Fair magazine, titled “On the Limits of Self-Improvement.”[1] In those essays, he described his experience with “sin” and “temptation,” as he called it. Hitchens was to get a total makeover paid for by his magazine: skin, hair, teeth, diet, the works. “Step one” in the self-improvement regimen, writes Hitchens, “was for me to be dispatched to a spa. [The Vanity Fair editors] chose one of the very best: the Four Seasons Biltmore resort, in Santa Barbara, California. Air like wine, gorgeous beaches, lush vegetation, and a legendary hotel with the nicest staff imaginable. The friendly people at the fitness clinic took one look at me and decided, first, on the ‘Executive Distress Treatment.’ At least, that’s what my disordered senses told me they had recommended. However, it turned out to be the Executive De-Stress Treatment, during which I was massaged with hot stones all along my neck and back … . I can’t give you a very comprehensive account of this,” says Hitchens, “because it had the effect of making me fall into a refreshing sleep. I woke briefly from blissful repose to … the second shift, which was a Gentlemen’s Facial, involving hot towels enveloping the features, followed by a treatment with ‘non-perfumed and non-greasy lotions.’ Off I went again to sleep, and came round to find myself alone, like a pink salmon on a slab, with ‘Greensleeves’ playing softly on the stereo.

“[The next day I was] back at the spa,” Hitchens continues, “this time for a more rigorous detoxifying experience. [I was] painted … a shade of green … , and then slowly wrapped … in foil and linen. This was less like being a salmon on a slab, more like being a steamed Chilean sea bass in the hands of a capable sous chef. … [As the toxins were drawn] out of my system … [I] suppressed the feeling that I was about to be garnished, or served on a bed of arugula with a lemon wedge in my mouth, … . A greatly daring session on the treadmill and with the weights was to follow, and by the time that was over I felt that I had really earned my lunch, into which I tucked with … gusto. … I then punished myself by booking an eighty-minute Fitness Scrub and Massage, … where I was pitilessly raked with almond meal and subsequently endured a serious pummeling … that identified my sloped and hunched shoulders as the main source of my generally sorry posture. …

“I soon evolved a routine at the Biltmore,” Hitchens concludes. “A facial, followed by a cocktail and a well-chosen lunch, succeeded by a nap, followed by a brief workout, followed by a massage or wrap, some reading and writing, and then a thoughtfully selected dinner. … I felt that I could be very content to go on leading this life, but that each detox only sharpened my appetite for further treats … . It [was] like going to confession in between an exhausting program of sins.”

…Today we continue our series in The Lord’s Prayer with the phrase “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” Were Hitchens a praying man, perhaps this phrase would have been on his lips as he was massaged and raked and wrapped, and….prepared, like a salmon or a sea bass on a slab, while pondering his next indulgence. The phrase “lead us not into temptation” is for many of us the one part of The Lord’s Prayer we’re least comfortable with. For one thing, the theology seems twisted. God seems like a controlling puppet-master with the power and the will to lure us into temptation. It’s an age-old problem in Christian theology: does God decree bad things to happen (like temptations or evil) in order to bring about good; does God merely permit bad things to happen, so good can emerge; is God incapable of preventing bad things to happen, and so needs us as allies? It’s a problem that reaches back to the letters of St. Paul. Heretics were condemned, blood was spilled, and many synods convened in Christian history in an attempt to grope for an answer. Back in December, Pope Francis weighed in, pointing out that God doesn’t “ lead us” into “temptation.” “We fall into temptation, God doesn’t push us,” said the Pope, in words reminiscent of those ancient words written in the New Testament Letter of James, which we heard a moment ago: “No one, when tempted,” wrote James, “should say, ‘I am being tempted by God … .’ [Rather,]” he goes on, “one is tempted by one’s own desire.” Catholic scholar James Martin explained the difference between God leading us into temptation, and us falling into temptation, saying that it’s like a parent holding their child’s hand while crossing a street. Said Martin, a child might say, “protect me from the … oncoming traffic,” not “do not lead me into the traffic.”[2] I’ll return to this analogy in a moment.

Another reason, I suspect, why the phrase “lead us not into temptation” doesn’t sit well is because we sometimes think of temptation as a “senses thing” – seeing, tasting, touching – an immediate-gratification-type-of-thing, like Adam and Eve and the apple in the garden, or like Christopher Hitchens craving his next cocktail or massage in between pummeling bouts of exercise – temptation as bait that appeals to the senses, and threatens to torpedo our hopes for dieting or exercising or breaking the addiction. But in many circles in the ancient world of Jesus, temptation was about something deeper than just seeing, tasting, or touching. Stoic philosophers likened temptation to a long, drawn-out war we wage within ourselves – a psychological war against, what Stoic philosopher Epictetus called “the passions,” or the “impulses.” In the New Testament Letter of James, the writer borrows these Stoic ideas, observing in ch. 4 of that letter that our “passions” wage a war within. Passions in antiquity could be anything from excessive worrying to excessive sorrow, jealousy, envy, fear, hate, lust, wrath, rejoicing at another’s misfortunes – all passions. These drives, these impulses pull us this way and that – they make our souls or minds “flutter,” to use Stoic wording; they destabilize us. Money is a good example. By itself, money is what the Stoics would call “adiaphoron,” in Greek – indifferent, neither good nor bad. But the craving for or lusting after or singular focus on money is driven by, they would say, uncontrolled passions.

When Jesus teaches his followers to pray, “lead us not into temptation,” I think he, like the Stoics, wants us to drill deeper than merely don’t look or taste or touch. This is the psychology-part-of-the-prayer, inviting us to examine our motives our drives our impulses. It’s a bit like when he teaches in the Sermon on the Mount: “you have heard it said, you shall not murder, but I say to you, don’t even be angry enough to kill.” He’s trying to prevent that first impulse, that first passion from igniting – that first domino of hate from falling – to cut off the chain reaction that leads to the final, physical act of violence.

The Lord’s Prayer is a way to arm ourselves in the war against the passions within, not to make us more stoic about life, but to learn to trust the One who, like a Shepherd, leads us through life’s darkest valleys – as we all said today in the Call to Worship. This part of The Lord’s Prayer – “the lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil,” part of the prayer – is a cry for help. A cry for help and for rescue. A cry for protection, like when a child reaches for her parent’s hand before crossing a busy street.

Praying for help is one of the purest prayers we can offer. It’s a prayer of humility, prayed when we feel in over our head; or, overwhelmed by inner turmoil or tragedy or illness or darkness. It’s the prayer of the desperate; the prayer that says, “I can’t do this alone. Help me.” …One day the fourth century monk St. Macarius was asked by a fellow monk, “How should one pray?” Macarius replied, “it is enough to stretch out one’s hands and say, … ‘Lord, help!’” It’s such a pure prayer – the prayer of a child to a parent. And it’s one of the most common prayers in what some have called the “prayerbook of the church,” the Psalms. “Preserve me,” prayed the writer of Psalm 16. “In my distress,” said the writer of Psalm 18, “I cried out to God for help.” “O Lord,” prayed the writer of Psalm 30, “be my helper!” “When we cry for help,” said the writer of Psalm 34, “the LORD hears.” “God is my helper,” said the writer of Psalm 54. “Help me, O LORD my God,” prayed the writer of Psalm 109, “save me in your mercy.” “My help comes from the LORD … my keeper … , my shade,” says the writer of Psalm 121 – the text we heard a moment ago. “Lead us not into… ,” prayed Jesus. “Deliver us….,” prayed Jesus. Help and rescue. The purest prayers of faith. The simplest prayers.

……Prayers like those of acclaimed poet and writer Christian Wiman. Wiman has written dozens of poems about faith and doubt and struggle in the wake of his cancer diagnosis. Said one reviewer of Wiman’s work, he “writes with the gravity, awe, and humility of one who has been riven but lived to tell the tale, as well as ask the questions and pray the prayers that follow the experience of being broken.” Another reviewer of Wiman’s work wrote that his poems “are a study in torque, full of twisting force, words and lines pushing and pulling each other into forms of astonishing solidity and grace.” “I do not know how to come closer to God,” writes Wiman in a poem titled “Grace Street,” “except by standing where a world is ending for one man. It is still dark, and for an hour I have listened to the breathing of the woman I love beyond my ability to love. Praise to the pain scalding us toward each other, the grief beyond which, please God, she will live and thrive.”

In an essay titled “Love Bade Me Welcome,” Wiman writes about his cry for help – like the Psalmists’ cries for help, like in the prayer Jesus taught us – in the midst of life’s wars against the passions of fear and uncertainty.[3] Wiman writes, “I got the news that I was sick on the afternoon of my thirty-ninth birthday. It took a bit of time, travel, and a series of wretched tests to get the specific diagnosis, but by then the main blow had been delivered and that main blow is what matters. I have an incurable cancer in my blood. The disease is as rare as it is mysterious, killing some people quickly and sparing others for decades, afflicting some with all manner of miseries and disabilities and leaving others relatively healthy until the end. Of all the doctors I have seen, not one has been willing to venture even a vague prognosis.”

Wiman goes on to describe the moment he shared this news with his wife – the woman he loves beyond his ability to love, as he says in his poems. “In those early days after the diagnosis,” he writes, “we mostly just sat on the couch and cried, I alone was dying, but we were mourning very much together. And what we were mourning was not my death, exactly, but the death of the life we had imagined with each other.” Wiman concludes by describing the moment of his reaching out in faith – reaching out for help – like a child reaching for a parent’s hand before crossing a dangerous street. “Then one morning [my wife and I] found ourselves going to church. [I hadn’t been to church in years, but we] found ourselves [going there.] That’s exactly what it felt like [ found…..ourselves ] in both senses of the phrase, as if some impulse in each of us had finally been catalyzed into action, so that we were casting aside the Sunday paper and moving toward the door with barely a word between us; and as if, once inside the church, we were discovering exactly where and who we were meant to be. That first service was excruciating, in that it seemed to tear all wounds wide open, and it was profoundly comforting, in that it seemed to offer the only possible balm.”

…I think the “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil” part of the prayer is the most internal – the most psychological – of the many requests in this prayer Jesus taught his followers. It’s not asking for a kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven, as we find in the prayer’s earlier phrases. It’s not asking for the simplicity of “daily bread” to fill our bodies and souls with abundance. It’s not asking for forgiveness for our sins, or the strength to forgive others who’ve wronged us, as in the previous request in the prayer. The prayer for “leading us not” and “delivering us from” is much rawer. It’s a prayer for help. A reaching out in faith, like a child reaching for a parent before wading into a busy street. Help me, O God, to endure this trial. Help me, O God, to make it through. Guide me, O God, through this shadowy valley. Deliver me, O God, so I can find light at the tunnel’s end. Help me, O God, not to slip and fall on the way, as the Psalmist says in Psalm 121. Be my “keeper.” Be my “shade,” prays that Psalmist. And the One who has tattooed our names on the divine hands, as scripture says, will answer. Amen.

1 Part I: ; Part II: ; Part III: