Thursday, December 20, 2012

Help, Thanks, Wow: a Guide to Prayer for Newtown

(Photo: Laura Petrecca, USA TODAY)

Immediately the requests were sounded, “Pray for Newtown.”  But what should we pray, exactly?  I think the first prayer we pray is something we might not think of as a prayer at all: “O God.”  Although “O God” is a reflexive exclamation when we hear bad news, it’s also a form of reaching out to something more powerful than we.

At first we don’t even have words to supplement the “O God.” We sit in stunned silence, our minds reeling, imagining horrors, yearning for more detail, an explanation that will help make sense of it. “O God” hangs in the air---and ascends to God.  Romans 8 talks about the Spirit interceding for us “with sighs too deep for words” when we don’t know how to pray. Sighing with the Spirit may be as honest and gentle of a prayer as we can muster.

I found Anne Lamott’s latest book HelpThanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers to be a wonderful guide to filling in some of the content for my prayers Newtown. She gives us three simple one word prayers that enable deep prayer.

Help. Lamott claims that’s the prayer that comes from deep inside when we feel the most broken, when we know that we don’t have the solutions, that we cannot control very much in this whole world.  To pray, “Help” is to surrender any illusions of control, of security and immunity to suffering to a power greater than one’s self.

So, we pray: Help.  Help God.
  • Help the moms and dads, brothers and sisters, grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends who have lost someone precious to them, who will be haunted by this week forever. 
  • Help them as they endure the site of little caskets and hear the words “earth to earth. . .” 
  • Help them to get through, help them know your identification with their pain and sorrow. Help them to find what they need and who they need in their darkest moments.
  • Help the responders and faculty and parents who have witnessed the awful scene.
  • Help our country figure out how to better protect our children and teachers.
  • Help us when we don’t feel much like lighting the candle of joy to light it anyway.
  • Help us not to become so used to these stories that our hearts become hardened.
  • Help us to pay attention and care for all children who suffer from violence and terror and abuse.


The second great prayer is Thanks.  There is sort of the selfish-thanks. Thank you that it didn’t happen to my family, my community. But Anne says thanks also develops gratitude for what awful events can reveal–even if they are unpleasant.

  • Thanks that we are reminded of how precious and fragile life really is, and how we take should never take one moment or person in our lives for granted.
  • Thanks that we have a moment to pause and figure out how to do better and care for the most vulnerable.
  • Thanks that a window may have opened for our nation to have a more mature conversation about a culture of violence and guns and access to mental health services.
  • Thanks the opportunity to renew our commitment to be of service, to make the world less volatile by being people who follow the ways of peace, truth and justice, who do not give in to darkness.

Wow is the prayer of paying attention and seeing the good in the world. In spite of the tragic, there are still dimensions of life that take our breath away.

  • Wow–it takes our breath away to realize the heroism of the principal and teachers who sacrificed their own lives for the children.
  • I see law enforcement officers who rush into the unknown putting themselves in harm’s way. Wow. 
  • I’m blown away by the care medical examiners and others who do sign up to look at awful things so that the truth might be revealed.
  • Wow–even though our hearts are broken, we have a chance to act, to not let the darkness of the world to overwhelm and overtake us.
  • Wow–we are amazed at the children that we see at this time of year especially filled with a sense of trust, wonder, and love for life.
  • Wow–even though the worst has happened, there is still more good than evil in the world, there is still a chance to push the darkness out of our hearts and embrace the light.

If you are looking for a model to improve your prayer life and earnestly pray for Newtown, three little words feel just about right. Help. Thanks. Wow.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Dave Clark Thousands

Happy birthday to Dave Clark of the Dave Clark Five (DC5)!  

I’m not saying that our Abraham Lincoln High School football coaches weren’t bright, it’s just that they didn’t figure out that there were two Dave Clark’s on the football team until they drafted the depth chart and couldn’t figure out how one guy could simultaneously play guard and tight-end.  (No wonder we didn’t win very often).

In our little school, there were three of us, three David J. Clarks. I’m convinced that I still carry David James Clark’s ‘B’ instead of my ‘A’ on my official transcript--not that I’ve been holding a grudge all this time. But the fact that our history teacher was also a football coach does add credibility to my suspicion.

I’ve met a lot of David Clarks who are my age. Apparently the DC5 was so popular that when our parents produced male offspring they had a readily available name. I read that if you are a male child born into a Clark family during the ‘60’s you have a one-in-six chance of being named David.  The Dave Clark Five became the Dave Clark thousands. For the record, my parents say that I was named after three Davids: King David of the Bible, Dave Clark of the DC5, and David Nelson from Ozzie and Harriet (my brother was named Ricky).

People give away their ages all the time. I know this because when I meet them, people who are my parent’s age will invariably mention the DC5.  When I was the guest preacher for Dayna Kinkade at the Norwalk Christian Church, people of a certain age requested we sing “Glad All Over” as our opening hymn.  I’ve never minded carrying the same name as the famous Dave Clark because I’ve been given an easy way to begin conversations with a whole generation of folks.  As my hair grays, I worry that new people I meet will be disappointed when they learn that I’m not that Dave Clark.  I’m beginning to identify with ESPN’s commercial about people getting their hopes dashed when they get to meet Michael Jordan, who turns out to be a middle-aged pudgy white guy.

For those of you who are too young to know about the DC5, just think of a cleaner cut version of the early Beatles who never evolved much out of their 1964 style.  Yet, Dave Clark was part of a revolution that transformed music as we know it. As a way of celebrating the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Famer’s 70th birthday, may all of us who bear his name work toward transforming our little part’s of the world into better places.If one of us plays guard and another TE and another quarterback and so on, maybe we could move the ball down the field a bit and make the world a little more user friendly.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Praying with Candles

Here is an Advent reflection I wrote that the Huffington Post published today.  

Advent Reflection
Dave Clark, Ankeny Christian Church

When I stumbled across a district-wide church newsletter, I wondered if anyone appreciated the irony of an article entitled, Twenty-One Things to Do to Simplify Advent.  Great, that’s all I needed--twenty-one more things to do. Sadly, I’ve tried at least twelve of those suggestions and still find myself overwhelmed. When the frenetic pace gets too much, I slip away from the piles of stuff to do on my desk and retreat to a back room and plop down the box of individual Christmas candles we use each year.

Tending to the candles is one of those messy, pedestrian tasks that they never tell you about in seminary.  Yet, I love sitting with a wastebasket between my knees using my thumb to pry off chunks of wax encrusted to the sides of the salvageable candles.  My favorite part of Christmas is lighting those candles while singing Silent Night; my favorite part of Advent is preparing those candles for that one holy moment.

It’s an act of prayerful imagination as I wonder who may have held the candle I’m examining.  What silent prayers were offered while basking in the soft orange-glow of this candle?  What prayers went up while wax flowed down?  Was someone praying for a miracle, a healed relationship, the ability to let go? Was it held by someone hoping for a pregnancy or one hoping that she wasn’t pregnant? Was it someone who got engaged that very night or someone who knew it would be his or her last time to light a Christmas candle--ever? Was it someone deciding to give faith a chance?

I recall last year’s Christmas Eve service and remember the faces of people in our church, how they looked at peace when we lit the candles. I consider the wonders and tragedies they’ve experienced through the year and my heart aches for those with seemingly unanswered prayers. I  hope that some sense of Christmas peace may sustain them, that Immanuel, “God with us” will mean something to them in a real way, an incarnate way.

As I roll a little candle between my palms, I cannot help but wonder who will hold it this year and how the new pray-er will be connected to the person who held the candle last year.  In the community of faith all our prayers are one.  Whenever I try to make Advent more complicated than that, I lose my way and wind up feeling guilty for all that I haven’t done.  Playing, or should I say praying with the candles helps me remember that was never about my doing anyway.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Scandal of Singing Christmas Carols During Advent

If you were gauging the expressions of my clergy colleagues, you might have thought I had announced that I’d poisoned their coffee.  Eyes widened, looks of utter disgust crossed their faces as they reflexively pushed away from the table. I think they felt betrayed that one of their own, a mainline preacher, had capitulated to culture and allowed the congregation to sing Christmas carols in Advent. (O the humanity!  You’d think with all the problems of the world, we’d find more interesting things to rouse our indignation.) Not only had I allowed premature caroling, I had encouraged it and delighted in it.

I pretended to listen to their protests, but they were all too familiar. I’d learned in seminary that Advent is the season of waiting and penitential preparation. Singing carols in worship jumps the gun and we miss the spiritual benefits accrued from the discipline of waiting. It’s okay to sing the songs outside of church, but If we express too much joy so early in the season, then we will demonstrate that we are not sufficiently sorry for our sins. There are lots of other reasons that don't really have much to do with scripture, just preservation of a tradition that only goes back a few centuries.

In my first year out of seminary, I refused to select any carols until Christmas Eve. People were hurt, they felt put-out that they weren’t allowed to use these songs to accentuate as part of their worship. We waited until Christmas Eve to sing a few verses of several carols and waited until the lowest attended Sunday of the church year (the Sunday following Christmas) to sing the rest. It felt like we were all somewhat diminished by the experience. After that experience, I swore off liturgical correctness in favor helping the congregation to express its faith more exuberantly.

Hymnals are designed with a load of really great Christmas music and only a handful of singable Advent tunes. If a congregation waits until Christmas and the Sunday following Christmas to sing these songs in worship, it will only skim the surface of some of the most vital and moving verse that inspires our faith. What a waste!

There is plenty of time to focus on the discipline of waiting. There really isn’t much going on in the season after Pentecost. All we are doing is waiting for Christmas--lets call that season “Advent” from now on and I’ll promise not to sing any carols. But for now I’m going to belt out “O Holy Night in my car and Joy to the World in the sanctuary. 

I mean as they say on ESPN, “C’mmon, man.” Jesus probably wasn’t born on December 25th anyway. The church adopted that date to bring Christ into the pagan culture’s celebrations. If you haven’t noticed culture is celebrating its holiday during the Advent season, maybe we should try to introduce Christmas back into the pagan culture all over again.