Rev. Susan B. W. Johnson is Senior Minister at Hyde Park Union Church. This is an excerpt from a sermon she preached on Sunday, May 27.
A mission inspired by faith and tempered by realism has sustainability. Fr. Dave Kelly, who works in restorative justice with young people in the Back of the Yards neighborhood here in Chicago prefers to speak about “sustainable urgency.” He wants to ask how we stay in the game – with hope, by faith – when little is known and yet nothing will be learned by doing nothing.
So, if the easier prayer is gratitude when things are going well, and the harder prayer is decision-making when the evidence is mixed, prayer is hardest of all when we hope despite a lack of evidence, when we are immersed in struggle. Here Paul reminds us that the gifts of the Spirit are not only joy in success and discernment in activity, but intercession when language – even articulate thought and identifiable emotion – fail. “The Spirit helps us in our weakness,” Paul says, “for we do not know how to pray…and the Spirit intercedes [Paul writes] with sighs too deep for words.”
Here again, I have a small but important quibble with Paul’s translators. Because the Spirit does not only intercede for us when our thinking and feeling is too profound for words; in fact, the Spirit intercedes on our behalf when we are weak – when we are frustrated and sputtering, even angry and upset, devastated or just exhausted – when we may well groan but we no longer utter. The Spirit intercedes when there are no words. For this understanding of prayer and the role of the Holy Spirit in our coping and our life, I turn to the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, who had at one point in his life had abandoned his Christian faith, but then came back to it. His poem, “On Prayer,” expresses best what remains unknown and yet upheld in a life of prayer – that is, how it is we hope for what we do not see.
He begins with his reader’s presumed question: “You ask me how to pray to someone who is not.” Though some critics have read this as Milosz’s atheism, this poem was written after his return to Catholicism and to God, later in life, through a kind of “via negativa,” the path of negatives. If God is not the grantor of wishes, or a fixer with whom one may bargain or a parent with whom to negotiate; if God is not the kind of companion who converses in sentences the way a wife or a husband or a friend might, then I pray to someone who is none of those things.
You ask me how to pray to someone who is not.
All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge
And walking it we are aloft, as on a springboard,
Above landscapes the color of ripe gold
Transformed by a magic stopping of the sun.
That bridge leads to the shore of Reversal
Where everything is just the opposite and the word ‘is’
Unveils a meaning we hardly envisioned.
Notice: I say we; there, every one, separately,
Feels compassion for others entangled in the flesh
And knows that if there is no other shore
We will walk that aerial bridge all the same.
I chose Milosz’ poem “On Prayer” for our celebration of Pentecost because for most of us these times – a protracted economic downturn, a protracted foreign war, the warming of our fragile planet, the impoverishment, displacement and unhealth of so many people in the world – these are not times of ecstatic revelation. And the temptation, then, is to think of the Holy Spirit as some kind of holy anachronism, an historical phenomenon to be celebrated as the anniversary or birthday of the Church, but not so much as part of who we are today. And yet what if – and I think this is in the spirit of Paul’s writing here – what if what we once had we still receive as a kind of “sustainable urgency” in our Christian work?
What if the Spirit’s intercession is our way of groaning in travail without losing hope, a way that – even as we sputter without words – we remain confident that through the gift of God’s Spirit with us God works in us and in everything for the good? Then we struggle for justice, we work toward mercy, we practice forgiveness, we long for peace, and when God searches our imperfect hearts and our mortal lives, God – who is the very force of every good thing in the world – sees us as we truly are. And in this vindication, this affirmation, we discover hope in things unseen. Paul is telling us that indeed God is with us in every thought and action and beyond all thought, that as Dr. King liked to say “the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice” no matter where we are on it. And it is not we ourselves but God’s Spirit with us that makes it possible – and even joyful – to hold fast to the roller coaster which is in fact that arc in our lives. Amen.