Written by Gradye Parsons
Each month the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Moderator or Vice Moderator of the 220th General Assembly write a column of general interest for the church-at-large.
Question 129 from the Heidelberg Catechism (revised version) says the little word “Amen” means: “This shall truly and surely be! It is even more sure that God listens to my prayer than that I really desire what I pray for.”
The image this brings to me is of a patient parent listening to a child who is asking for something that is exactly not what the child needs. Listening is a spiritual gift. Most of us hear but fewer of us actually listen.
In the church we often don’t know what to do with a lack of noise. Silent prayer, times of reflection and centering, and pauses of words can seem like little eternities. We become aware of our own breathing, the ticking of our watch, and the beating of our heart. Then eventually you start to realize you can hear others breathing, the building creaking, and maybe even the birds outside.
Presbyterians are not Quakers. We believe in the power of words and thought. We place a high value on a good sermon. Receiving all of those syllables should make us good listeners. But how well do we listen to the little words, the small stories? We live out this faith in the communities we call church. In a community listening, really listening, is a path to a deeper relationship.
In the Gospels we have the actions and words of Jesus. In Mark 9 we have another story of the disciples arguing about who was the greatest. They won’t tell Jesus this. He hears it in their silence. He responds by taking a child into his arms and saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (Mk. 9:37).
Let us say “Amen” to a God who listens. Let us learn to listen as a way of welcoming each other and creating a community of people who say “Amen.” Let us say “Amen” to stories great and small.
The lectionary gospel text for Ash Wednesday this year is Matthew 6:1–6. The first verse of which is: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”
This is an interesting verse to think about when you leave a worship space with ashes smeared on your head. What does the ash cross on our forehead say to others? I suppose that people who are Christians have some idea what it is about. Many times we forget that it is there and wonder why people are looking at our heads.
Cold creates community. I drive past a bus stop every day. It is where two routes cross so there are usually several people gathered. Normally they are pretty good about respecting each other’s space. The polar vortex has changed that. They have packed themselves into the little bus shelter like sardines for warmth and to avoid the wind.
You could probably make the same case for warm weather that sends us to the beach in droves, for opening day in baseball, and for fall foliage drives that become bumper-to-bumper. There is common interest like a stream heading in one direction, and before you know it the stream has created all kinds of communities of floating things.
Abraham Lincoln said “The best thing about the future is that it comes only one day at a time.” I wonder if Abe would say that today with our high-speed high-definition world. To review the speed at which the first home computer became today’s tablet does seem to reflect a future that shows up faster and faster. I also wonder if the president had the same patience for the news of the American Civil War ending. Everything I have read says he did not.
We need to start planning now. We have only 10 years till it is the 800th anniversary of the Nativity Scene. Tradition has it that Saint Francis started the custom upon returning from Bethlehem in 1223. He staged a Nativity Scene in a cave with live animals and people. It went viral and became the thing to do at your cathedral, chapel or palace. At some point statues were substituted for the characters. Then people made smaller versions and the crèche industry was born.