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Chicken and Barley Soup

July 29, 2007

Clay Nelson

Ordindary Sunday 17     Genesis 18:20-32     Luke 11:1-15


As much as I would like to avoid preaching on prayer, it can’t be avoided this week. Certainly not with Abraham negotiating with God to save Sodom and Gomorrah or with Jesus teaching his disciples to pray. All the same, I’d much prefer reflecting on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows for which I sacrificed considerable sleep this week to finish before someone could spoil the ending for me.


My reticence to preach on prayer should not suggest that I am reticent to pray. My avoidance behaviour is similar to how I feel about the American flag. Years ago it was hijacked by political and religious conservatives. They used it to package themselves and their often-hateful ideals. The result is I feel too self-conscious and embarrassed to display it, even at appropriate times.


Thanks to poets, Gospel singers and televangelists, the popular understanding of prayer makes me embarrassed to talk about my prayer life. I particularly cringe when it is spoken of in sentimental terms. One thing prayer isn’t is sentimental. Spare me the violins swelling to tug at my heartstrings. One phrase that rolls my eyeballs is the “power of prayer.” It suggests that prayer is a thing, like an amulet or perhaps one of Harry’s Hallows that protects us from life’s more unpleasant aspects. Prayer is not a flotation device thrown to a drowning man. It is not an incantation that bends God to our will.


For me prayer is chicken and barley soup.


When I was preparing to leave seminary my primary task was to find a cure. That’s church-speak for an entry-level job. In the US, someone had to want you to be their priest before you could be ordained, even if you were at the top of your class. So, even if an undistinguished parish in a suburb of Buffalo in the heart of the snow belt wanted to interview you in the middle of winter, you accepted the invitation. As luck would have it, the oldest parish in the US offered me an impressive position two days before the interview, but I deferred accepting until I had met my obligation to talk to the Buffalo parish. I don’t remember much about the visit except my shock at hearing myself accept the position while walking on water. The lake near the church was frozen solid. The reason I accepted was Kathleen Riley O’Grady.


I first saw her at a reception with parish leaders during my interview weekend. She was sitting in a corner with a foot elevated and with what I mistook as a dour look on her face. Putting her off to last, I finally ran out of excuses not to sit and speak with her. I learned the dour look was in truth discomfort. She had “the gout.” She was in her seventies she informed me. A former teacher of Latin turned social worker. She had six kids and countless grandchildren and was now widowed. She grew up in South Buffalo, one of two children of Irish immigrants. Her sibling was a Jesuit missionary in the Philippines. She left the Catholic Church because the Latin pronunciation of the priests during the Mass was painful to her ears. “Enough about me,” she finally said. “We are avoiding the issue dear. Why don’t you want to come here?” I tried to politely demure, but she interrupted saying she had been reading people a long time and I was doing a lovely job interviewing but just going through the motions. I confessed to having the other position in my pocket. She smiled broadly revealing her bad teeth. She admitted the other position was a great career move, but if I wanted to become a priest come to Buffalo for her chicken and barley soup.


To my astonishment, I did. I found out later I wasn’t the only one who found it impossible to say no to Kathy. If you look up “matriarch” in the dictionary, it is her picture you will see.


For the next two years, once a week, at least, I had her chicken and barley soup, on occasion followed up with a wee dram of whiskey. I later came to understand these lunches as prayer meetings, even though little formal praying was done except over the soup. Sometime her agenda included some gentle correcting of my stuff ups committed in the past week. She regretted that one of the gifts God gave her was pulling clergy up short when required, but since it was God-given she was obliged to use it. I took comfort in knowing that the Vicar and, on several occasions, the Bishop were also summoned to her modest home for correction over soup.


But, I was more than just another ordained person to be sorted out. I was her prayer partner. Most of our lunches were spent reflecting on what life was handing us at the moment and how we were dealing with it. The language was plain speaking and sometimes earthy. It was never sentimental or remotely “religious” or pious. We would question God’s judgment as well as our own. Dark humour and silly laughter punctuated the conversations. Sadness, joy, fears, doubts, and confidence were expressed and shared. The more soup we shared over time, the more vulnerable we became, not just to one another, but to something more. In sharing the ordinary aspects of life we kept encountering the sacred. When I made that observation on one occasion, she pronounced me a priest. She confessed that the secret to making chicken and barley soup was simmering a chicken carcass and barley long enough so it becomes divine. That is also the secret of prayer.


So contrary to what I think is common belief, prayer is not about being consoled or finding relief from life’s difficulties for others or ourselves. Prayer doesn’t give us security and assurance. It is not a tool for climbing the ladder of success or escaping life’s trials and tribulations by appeasing God. It is not about having our heart’s desire answered, no matter how selfless and well meaning. If prayer was about answers every little girl in New Zealand would have a pony and every little boy would become an All Black and every grown-up would win the lotto. If prayer was magic, hospitals would be empty, undertakers would be unemployed, and relief workers would have no hungry to feed or refugees to house.


In today’s Gospel Jesus appears to disagree with me. It sounds like it when he says, “So I say to you, ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Luke 11:9-10)


Notice he didn’t say, "Ask and you will get what you ask for." What he said was something more like, "Ask and you will receive something good." The second thing is harder to notice, because it gets lost in translation. In Greek he doesn’t say " Ask, and it will be given you," he says "ask and keep on and keep on searching...knock and keep on knocking." The Greek verb implies ongoing action. Jesus is saying prayer is about simmering.


Prayer isn’t something we do. Prayer is about a way of being. It is about seeking. Looking for the sacred in life and willing to be transformed by it. Now, that may sound cool, but if it is, why isn’t prayer more popular? Why do all the ways we are offered to escape life consume so much of our time and resources?


Abraham gives us some insight as to why. Prayer, seeking the sacred, leads to faith – faith the verb, not the noun. Faith isn’t about having right beliefs. Abraham, worshipped the pagan God he found in Canaan, Elohim (which literally means many Gods), but was still judged as righteous. Being righteous doesn’t mean being morally superior. Abraham passed off his wife as his sister to the King of Egypt to both save his skin and for personal gain; sent his firstborn son and his mother, into the desert to die when they became inconvenient, and when God told him to kill his heir, was willing to do so without whimper or objection. Abraham’s story instead, defines faith as being willing to cut ourself off from the past and move towards God even if the destination is unclear and the promise unlikely. It is about being willing to be shaped by the sacred. The result for Abram of Ur was becoming Abraham, the patriarch of the Hebrews. That faith didn’t make his life any easier or more secure; in fact, it was quite the opposite. It did, however, bring him closer to the sacred. So close, that he felt no reluctance to do what he should’ve done for Isaac, negotiate with God to save innocent lives in Sodom and Gomorrah.


Karen Armstrong suggests that faith requires imagination. [1] I agree. Imagination leads to overcoming fear to engage the sacred which we sometimes call love. Finding love leads to losing self in service to others. Service leads to justice. Justice leads to finding our oneness with the divine, what Scripture calls the Kingdom of God. Beware! It all begins with prayer. It’s not our easiest option, but can you smell the soup?


[1] Armstrong, Karen, In the Beginning: A new reading of the Book of Genesis. HarperCollinsPublishers: 1996. P. 58.

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