I am here. I am here. I am here.
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Over and over again those words were working their way through my sleeping brain for I don’t know how long until I suddenly woke up to the sound of ooohs and ahhhhhs from perfect little children who were in an amazing swoon over the ultimate Christmas tree lighting extravaganza in their TV-set house. I had fallen asleep in front of the TV watching Stephen Colbert, and hours later CBS had given itself over to these persistent infomercials about Christmas tree lights, and I mean they were so persistent and loud that I couldn’t remain in la la land anymore. I felt assaulted by the ad, which kept telling me that I could create a dazzling light show in seconds for just $39.99 plus $9.99 in shipping. I looked over at the clock. It was 3 in the morning. I watched the infomercial for way more minutes than I should have, and it completely knocked the sleep out of me. What to do? Well, escape from the TV, for sure. Maybe I’ll go work out on the elliptical machine across the campus.
So I put on my shorts and sneakers and walked out into the crisp October night. The moon was shining, almost full, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. It was mercifully quiet out there, and I stopped for a minute to register the contrast with the blaring television. The moonlight illuminated the grass and the road, and no one was around, except for… the deer that I suddenly noticed standing stock still a few feet away. I sneezed, and he went leaping into the woods nearby, and the world returned to its blue silence. I passed some houses, darkened from within, and imagined their sleeping inhabitants. What dreams were playing out under the covers of their beds? What murmurs arose, what cries of the heart pierced the silence of the night? The world asleep, but not necessarily mute. Still, it was a relief, at least to me. In a few hours with the light of day, the racket of our pleas, our yearnings, our sobs and our sales pitches would grow loud and as persistent as an infomercial.
Later, I would be bombarded with it all on my iMac, my iPad, my iPhone (Yes, it is Apple all the way with me.) On Facebook, a steady stream of voices crying out for my attention and my vote, I guess--often with great bitterness, anger and self-righteousness, certainly with respect to our ongoing political contest. Who wants to tell me how terrible, criminal, despicable this candidate is, who wants to say the exact same thing about the opponent? And in my Facebook feed, boy are those voices persistent and loud and ever more frightening! Some people seem to be obsessed with the contest, posting one message after another for their cause, trying hard to sell me and everyone else who are their friends on the Book of Face. And it’s not just politics. In this relatively new phenomenon called social media, so many people are raising their voices, sharing into cyberspace what they love, what they hate, what they wish for-- not unlike the flocks of migrating geese in the autumn skies, calling out over the earth mid-flight. Listen to me: I am here, I am here, I am here.
What are we really shouting about? Why the need to sell dazzling light shows, broken candidates, our latest rant? What is this need we have to share our fears, our hopes, our joys and our dreams? What do we really want?
And is anyone listening? Are we all just blathering away into the night, occasionally so loudly that we wake someone up and send them out into the silence of a moonlit night? Whose attention are we really trying to arouse, upon whose ears are we hoping our cries will fall?
I suggest that we hope it might be from our mouths to God’s ear, or rather God’s good heart. I suspect that most of what we really want to say is in some way meant for God. Listen to me: I am here, I am here, I am here. I need to know that I am not alone. I need to be healed. I need to believe that I matter. That I—that we—are loved.
From our hearts to God’s good heart. It’s prayer, explicitly or not that obviously. But is God responding?
There's nothing more frustrating than reaching out to someone who doesn't answer. What do you do if you leave a thousand messages and the repairman for your furnace never calls you back? What do you do if your friend never responds to your letters and E-mail? How do you feel when you pour your guts out to your husband or your wife or your best friend and it seems to be ignored or swept aside? What if no one seems to care what you say on Facebook, what if you receive no ‘likes’ for the important word you shared there? What if no one orders your Tree Dazzler for only $39.99?
And most importantly, what about the times when you call on God for something, a little advice, some small help on a job interview or a test, a desperate plea for someone's safety or your child's health, what do you do when you say and pray and pray and say, when you shout and cry and plead and it seems as though no one's really listening, when your friendly words or angry demands or pathetic pleas seem to be swallowed up somewhere, into some black hole, all the prayers, pleas, cries, wails and moans swallowed up in a grand silence? What if there is no response to the wails from bleeding children of Aleppo, the screams of the ghetto, the weeping of souls who feel abandoned? Who will hold up the outstretched arms of our brothers and sisters in endless agony? Is God screening our cries and prayers and deciding which ones to answer in the morning? Could it be that God not only doesn't hear us, but doesn't see us either when we bleed or tear or grimace or flail the air with our angry fists?
But if God does see us and hear us, then why the silence? That is a problem, a very big problem, and sometimes it's understandable when people get angry enough to give up on God and stop believing.
That's what the readings are about today, about praying to God even when you seem to get no answers, the readings are about faith and persistence even when disaster appears imminent and everything seems against you. The lovely story of Moses on top of a hill holding up his arms and hands to God to ensure victory for Israel, plea-ing to God with his arms raised in the air for so many hours that he needed two strong guys to hold them up for him.
Then the Gospel story of the widow wearing out the judge with her constant plea to him for justice. Jesus says, look at her, take a lesson here, keep on praying and don't lose heart, even if at first you don't succeed, try try again. Send a thousand messages out into the darkness, overload the answering machines, keep those arms raised high in prayer, and some One will finally answer.
Do you believe that? Even though Jesus tells us to believe, it's understandable if you don't, especially if you've prayed and prayed and prayed a whole lifetime and you think you've got nothing to show for it.
To be honest, sometimes I have trouble believing it because I pray and pray all the time for a lot of things and it doesn't seem as though anyone's listening. I pray in the morning, and I pray in the evening and I pray every day at Mass--in a few moments at that altar, I'll be praying with you all for all kinds of things...for peace and unity and the end of suffering and the end of death, for the salvation of our souls and the salvation of the world, we pray and pray and we know that all over the world and in our very own parish--today--there will be fights and deaths and people in pain, disappointments and dashed dreams. Down all the years, every day, the messages go out and nothing seems to change much. So who's listening, and who's watching, and what are we doing here, anyway?
Prayer says a lot more about us than it does about God. It says that we are helpless and that we are fragile and that we are dependent. Because we are. There's not one of us here who can make our heart take its next beat, make our lungs take the next breath. We can't will it to happen, though we can will it not to happen. When we pray, we're acknowledging that fact, we are saying, with our arms outstretched, that we are not in control of the battle.
But wasn’t that the point of the whole story of Jesus? Didn’t God take our own our outstretched arms and make them his own in Jesus on that cross, “Father, not my will, but yours.” Did God hear him? Did God hear Jesus?
Does God hear us? I think so, and I think God responds all the time. With the next heartbeat, the next breath, with the next sunrise and the next moment of love. I think God responds to us when we pray in this church, and you can feel it at times, you know, when there is that good feeling in this place, when we all feel together here, in communion. For all the good things that happen to us in the day--the warm sunshine on our face, the smile of a little baby, the laughter of friends at a good joke, the taste of homemade macaroni, the kiss of the one we love upon our cheek, the smell of fresh laundry being dried, the melody of a lovely tune come to make us want to dance, the blue shine of the full moon upon the white windowsill--for all the small, hardly noticeable good things of our every day and every night, God responds to our prayers like a parent to a child. There to console us, there to be with us, there to encourage us, and most of all there to love us, especially when the bad things come our way.
The moon was full the other night, and out there under God’s autumn sky, millions of people were sleeping quietly. In some homes, infomercials were still aimed at those few restless souls that couldn’t find peace, hawking extravagant claims for Christmas tree lights. The feeds on Facebook slowed to a crawl with only an occasional rant about Donald or Hillary. But in many dark bedrooms, blessed with the sleep of night, God’s children of all ages were still dreaming of their hearts desires, and the source and Creator of everything in this good universe listened with ahhh great tenderness and love, raising each one of them up eternally in the arms of love. Rest easy dear hearts, and know that I am your God, and you are always mine.
Does God make the bad things go away--the cancer, the divorce, the failure, the bloodshed, the broken heart? No, the world and all of us still suffers for all our prayers, but the point is, God is with us nonethless.
Prayer, in the end, is about presence. We pray ultimately to be in the presence of Love, and when we pray, Love makes itself manifest, present. That is our answer, it is always our answer. The point is, up there, on that cross, all our cries and tears and moans and wails are taken up in love into those bloody wrists and feet and forehead and chest. For all the prayers that we think go unanswered, he offers us his love. Raise your hands to his outstretched arms and feel your prayer come answered: in the love of the Father, and in the love of the Son, and in the love of the Holy Spirit, all call screening answered, AMEN.