I just missed the 10:34 Metro North train at Grand Central, and had an hour until the last one. Mother nature called, and I found my way to the station’s large bathroom. There weren’t many people in there, and when I was ready to leave, I went to the sink to wash my hands. A man next to me finished at the same time, and we both headed towards the jet blower to dry our hands. Suddenly there was a voice from one of the stalls. “Oh God.” Or at least I thought that’s what I thought he said in the muffled echo of the bathroom. My washing partner and I exchanged brief glances, and then we were consumed with the noise of our respective hand dryers. He finished first and headed out the door, but even though my hands were pretty much dry I kept my machine going because I like to watch how those powerful dryers blow the skin of your hands around like a palm tree in a hurricane. I finally removed my hands, and machine stopped and the room got suddenly quiet. I was alone in the bathroom and just as I was about to leave I heard the same voice. “Oh Jesus,” again coming from a stall. I hesitated for a moment. I didn’t know what to do—I mean, it wasn’t like a scream or anything, more like a sigh—so I headed back out to the station.
Compared to the normal hustle/bustle of the place, the station was fairly empty and relatively quiet. There were a few stragglers like myself hanging around, waiting for the last trains as well. There are no benches in Grand Central, so I just sat down on the floor next to a wall near the bathroom, next to a couple of college kids who were silently and intensely staring at their cell phones.
My mind went back to the voice from the stall, and I began to think about the times I have called out to God like that: when I was at the top of the first hill of the Cyclone on Coney Island, or standing at the open door of the plane from which I was about to parachute, when my mother was taken to ICU and they asked me if I wanted a Do Not Resuscitate order, when I realized that I just sent an email to the wrong person, complaining about that very person. Oh God, Oh Jesus. How many of us here have uttered the same semi-prayer-- Oh my God, Dear Jesus—when you get word that you have lost your job, or when your boyfriend/girlfriend or husband/wife says its over between you, or when your child has gotten into some terrible trouble, or when it appears you are about to crash into another car, or when someone tells you of a tragedy that has befallen a family that you know and love. Or when you hear of how racial hatred tears a town like Charlottesville (and our nation) apart.
It’s kind of an automatic response, right? It just comes out of you, and it may be simply an expression, but it can also be a spontaneous mini-prayer. I can tell you that I very much had God on my mind when I jumped out of the airplane.
I didn’t expect an answer, but at least a hope that God was really there, and listening. Oh God, oh Jesus.
I’m pretty sure the disciples were calling out to God and Jesus when the hurricane winds were threatening to sink their boat on the angry waters of the lake. And I’m pretty sure that Peter was calling out to Jesus as he began to sink beneath the waves as his faith failed him on his watery trust walk towards his Lord. Oh God, oh Jesus.
It’s helpful to know what happened just before the walking-on-water incident with Peter and the disciples. Earlier that day, Jesus had received the devastating news that his cousin John---you know, the baptizer--had been beheaded for the amusement of Herod’s niece. Can’t you just hear Jesus reacting: “Oh dear God.” He was so upset he tried to sneak away to a silent place to deal with it, to pray about it, like Elijah in the first reading, but suddenly he was confronted with 5000 followers who were hungry for his Word. That’s when miracle of the loaves and fishes occurred, when everyone was astoundingly fed. After that happened, he still needed time to pray, so he sent his disciples across the lake in a boat, and he went off again to find some silence to listen for God’s answer to his semi-prayer about his cousin John. O God.
A few years ago I was very confused about my life, had suffered some challenging reversals, felt as though I was drowning a bit. So I went on a retreat called the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits. It’s a pretty famous method of encountering God, especially when you are trying to make a significant decision in your life, take a new road, when you are about to get out of the boat and attempt to walk on water. On such a retreat, you don’t speak to anyone all day so that you can hear God talking to you, and you alone. Oh God, oh Jesus.
You know, when you cut yourself away from all the big noise of the world, you begin to hear things that were always there but you never noticed. The sound of someone in the room next to you, resettling himself in his chair, the wood of the chair protesting the shifting weight upon it. The sound of your socks scraping softly on the carpet as you adjust your foot to keep away the pins and needles. A faint call from across the valley--one word from someone's mouth---sounded like 'excellent'---caught up in the wind and carried to your ear. A fly, dive bombing around your head over and over and over again: how could such a little thing make so much noise? At night, the long, low howl of a train whistle and its chug a chug a chug struggle to get somewhere safely in the darkness. The sound of a door slamming from the wind, the clatter of pots and pans from the kitchen after dinner, the gurgle of your spit as your swallow down, the protest of your stomach juices demanding some offering to digest. The tick tock of your clock.
You go off to a quiet place of a retreat and you hear all these things, but what you're really listening for is the sound of God answering your call, reassuring you. Oh God, oh Jesus. I got out of the boat, did everything I was supposed to. For several days I prepared myself and waited, and waited, and waited for the moment when God would come to me in the thundering wind, in some earthshaking tremors, on a ball of scorching fire. Nothing. I tried all kinds of things to get his attention. I fasted, I prayed for long hours, I got up in the middle of the night and sat before the crucifix in the chapel, I walked for hours in the hot sun, I spoke not a word to anyone, I avoided every temptation. It was like, come on, God, talk to me, yell at me, crack open the divine mouth, I'm all ears. And all I got was the silent treatment. You know, like when you have a fight with your wife or a friend and there's no yelling, there's no anything, just silence--nothing. And I began to sink fast, the waters rising all around me. Now a more desperate plea: Oh my God, oh dear Jesus. I fell asleep thinking that the retreat would never bring me the Word I so desperately needed.
The next morning I awoke to the sound of my window shade, softly bumping erratically against the window frame beside my chair, propelled by an invisible, almost unnoticeable breeze. It filled the room with peace, and I realized that it was nothing more and nothing less than God finally speaking to me in a whisper----just like he spoke to Elijah in a whisper, like he spoke to Peter drowning in the roar of a hurricane. God’s Word in the window shade in my room. I know how strange it may sound, but it was the sweetest, most consoling Word whispered to me, and I listened to it, and listened, and listened through the rest of the day and God spoke to me--inside--nonstop. Not words like you and I speak, but something much clearer and more truthful, words of reassurance, words of commitment, words of love. I rose out of the swirling waters and grabbed the hand he had extended to me.
I looked up at the magnificent celestial ceiling soaring over me in Grand Central Station. Across the vast terminal floor a dozen or so women and men wandered and waited aimlessly. A maintenance worker appeared, driving a small electric vehicle to collect trash. He looked exhausted. Another young man arrived next to me to join our small sit-in, similarly entranced by the iPhone in his hand. I wondered what moments of doubt and trial all my companions had experienced in their lives, how many had uttered a mini-prayer. It was like we were all together in this little boat of life, being tossed about, and perhaps seeking some reassuring answers.
I thought about this church, and all of you, and of the weekly petitions that you have written, over which I have prayed, sometimes weeks on end. Oh God. Oh Jesus. It suddenly dawned on me how many times your petitions have themselves been the whispering Word of God to me, reminding me: “They are your brothers and sisters, and you are all my children.” Suddenly, like a ghost, Jesus appears out of the dark, walking on water. The crown of life just below the surface, whispering words of guidance.
I got up and went back into the bathroom. It appeared to be empty, but I focused on the area with the stalls. “Hello?” My voice echoed back from the hard tiles on the floor and walls. “Do you need any help?”. There was a silent pause, and then the voice I had heard before. “No, I’m fine. But thank you very much. I’m grateful.”. “OK”, I said. “I’m just outside if you need anything.” “Thank you,” he replied again. I hesitated, and then decided to leave. I waited nearby for maybe about 10 minutes, but then it was time for my last train out of the city. I walked to the platform and got on the waiting train.
Sometimes the whispered Word comes from our own voices, when we allow ourselves to embody the Love that lives underneath all the waters of time. Sometimes it dawns on us that we can be the answer to the semi-prayer of our brothers and sisters sitting all around us, or outside this church, or in Charlottesville or anywhere in this good country where God's Word of love needs to be heard. Maybe this is the time. Let this be the time.