NO! When You Don’t Want To Pray (Maundy Thursday)

No; When You don’t Want to Pray
I was finally on vacation, up to see friends in Boston. It had been a long stretch and I was delighting in some time away. On the second day, I got a call early in the morning. The sun was still peeking over the trees in a sleepy suburban town in June. We were going to pick blueberries that day. Friends and children picking blueberries outside of Boston, you can hardly get more picturesque. About 6 am, my phone rang; Steve who was working called me to tell me I needed to call a parishioner right away. Now, yes, I had another pastor covering pastoral needs, but this one needed me and now.
I had been at the table with Cheryl and her daughter earlier that week. Cheryl had just returned to the church after a long absence and her college aged daughter, Tracy, was so delighted to tell me about the fellowship she had found at school. She felt like she had just met Jesus for the first time, even though she heard about him in Sunday School. We shared lemonade and stories over the kitchen table. We shared connections with Jesus and one another. As I walked home from that time, I gave thanks to God for them both.
NO! was all I wanted to say to God when I got the call early that morning that Tracy had been killed returning to school when a tractor trailer driver lost control from the opposing lane of traffic and smashed into her vehicle head first. NO! was all I wanted to say to her mother, her stepdad, who had raised her, and her sister who was a graduating senior (the next week). NO! was all I wanted to say to the 400 young people, teachers, friends, community members, and church members who gathered to tell stories about her light and life – especially over the last 6 months when she met Jesus.
It was her mom’s words that stopped me in my tracks. Her mom was distraught and sobbing, but she was not lost. She was not needing NO! She said, “I lost one daughter, but I am not losing my family – so help me lean on God to have hope that God will redeem even this.” There was no doubt in her mind that Tracy’s death would be with her everyday of her life (and it is still is 6 years later), but that was not the only story that would be with her. She needed in the midst of her own NO! to be reminded of God’s YES! Her strength (and grief) was the bedrock of her family and her community. God granted her incredible strength to surround herself with those who could remind her of God’s YES! every single day.
She gathered this strength and this example from Jesus. Jesus, who walked with disciples and friends and Jesus who walks with us. As we listen to the gospel stories and act them out through the sharing of communion, the lifting of our prayers, and the stripping of the altar, we walk with Jesus on this day. Jesus gathered with his disciples and friends. He ate with them and taught them. The time together changed into a time of prayer. Prayer that Jesus knew would not change the plan, the way, the story. And yet, Jesus went to pray. He went to pray not because he was hoping to change the outcome, although he floated that idea, too. He went to pray because he needed to be near to God. He went to pray because he needed God. He needed to know God’s YES in the middle of the NO!
We know this kind of prayer. We too know the feeling of wondering if God has left us. We too know the feeling of thinking that radio silence must be our disappointment of God. Our thinking that we must be guilty and wrong, we must be not enough and something must be our fault.
This is the kind of prayer you and I know when we hear the diagnosis of malignant. This is the kind of prayer that you and I know when we sign the final paperwork on a decision we did not want to have to make. This is the kind of prayer you and I know when the when the final end is rushing towards us and we wanted it to be so different from this. This is the kind of prayer when the bottom is falling out and we have no idea what to hold onto, except God. We know the agony of prayers that are not about changing the mind and heart of God. These prayers – the NO! are about changing the our minds and our hearts. These prayers are about shaping us so that we can be prepared for what is coming. These prayers are about shaping us and molding us.
As I reflect on Jesus this Holy week, I am not startled by the plot twists – I remember those from year to year; I am not devastated by the depth of sadness – that feels to me to be just right, if I am most honest. I am overwhelmed by his focus on the path of God’s love through Jesus, even when his deep sacrifice is required. I am moved by the profound and simple words, “Not my will, but your will be done.” I am refilled with hope and conviction that the love of God is so wide as to redeem even the most painful and devastating, life-shattering and crushing places of our lives. Jesus modeled this for us. There is room for every one of our NO! prayers. There is open space to question and doubt, to seek and to wonder. But this is not the end! In the most incredible way, our NO! prayers take us to the place where God can redeem and repurpose our deepest hurts, our scariest nightmares, our closest held fears. When we don’t want to pray or turn to God is when God can resurrect our very selves. When we say NO!, God can say YES! This is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, thanks be to God, Amen.