Text: Luke 18:9-14 (a parable about prayer)
Anne Lamott in her 1999 bestselling book “Travelling Mercies” wrote the following about prayer: “the two best prayers I know are ‘Help me, help me, help me’ and ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’”
In the parable from today’s Gospel reading, Jesus refers to both: a prayer of thanks offered by a religious leader and a prayer for mercy offered by a tax-collector who works for the Empire.
Today I wonder why Jesus preferred the prayer for mercy over the prayer of thanks. To tackle this question, I start by discussing my time last weekend in Canmore at the United Church Men’s Conference.
I enjoyed the Conference. I loved being in the mountains. I liked being with the other men and participating in two workshops: one on martial arts as a spiritual path and the other on masculinity and sexuality. I appreciated the poetic and thought-provoking words of the keynote speaker, the Very Rev. Gary Paterson, who is the immediate past Moderator of the United Church. I liked the worship experiences that were part of our three days in Canmore. And I loved the singing.
It was easy for me to feel gratitude there. I was thankful for the mountains, for the clarity of the air, for the warm autumn sun, and for the United Church of Canada, which for 62 years has brought men of faith to the mountains to share stories and to encourage and inspire one another.
All of these things — natural beauty, the joy of companionship, and the legacy of the church — came to us as a gift. We didn’t create or earn them.
At the same time, there were sad threads in our gathering. One of the first things we heard was news that the Conference had almost been cancelled this year. By Labour Day, only 35 men had registered, which was too few to make it a viable event. In the end 75 came, but this was a pale shadow of former years.
I first went to Banff for the Men’s Conference in 2009 when I was student minister in Didsbury, and there were about 140 in attendance that year. At its heyday in the early 1960s, 600 or more men came each year. So at 75, the number of attendees was 80 percent less than 50 years ago even though the Canadian population has doubled in those same 50 years.
Beyond the small numbers was our average age, which must have been well over 70. Like the rest of the church, the Men’s Conference is both shrinking and aging.
Gary Paterson put the decline of the Conference against the backdrop of other developments. For the past few decades, the United Church has closed about one church a week. Paterson thinks this pace will increase to four a week over the next five years leading to another 1,000 closed churches. He also reminded us that next month the United Church’s Five Oaks Centre in Ontario will close, the last of four such retreat centres across the country still operating.
Accepting such realities can be painful. But I see no way to wake up to our blessings without also being aware of things we don’t like. Reality is the only place we can accept grace, and reality, as you know, has many painful moments.
But just as we can’t take credit for our many blessings, nor can we blame ourselves for many of the things we don’t want, like the decline of the church. Radical decline is a reality for most Christian denominations in rich countries, and it is connected to huge cultural shifts that no one seems to understand very well.
I believe that decline is about to become more evident in right-wing, evangelical and Pentecostal churches. While such churches are growing in the Global South, they have been slowly declining in Canada and the United States over the last decade. This is not yet evident in neighbourhoods like Mill Woods that have large numbers of immigrants. But among people whose families have lived in North America for more than two generations, decline has begun.
I think this trend is about to accelerate. On the Thursday before we left for Canmore, I attended a meeting of Mill Woods area pastors organized by the Mustard Seed, the Christian outreach ministry that has been serving the inner city in the former Central Baptist Church on 96 Street for 30 years now.
I appreciated the meeting. Pastors and ministers from Millwoods Pentecostal Assembly, Calvary Community Church, South Edmonton Alliance Church, Millwoods Community Moravian, Mill Woods Presbyterian, Grace Point Church of God, Sunrise Community Church, Lord of Life Lutheran and myself spent two hours sharing about our community outreach initiatives. We discussed the changing needs of the neighbourhood; and we brainstormed about how we could better work together. I was happy to report on the many initiatives we undertake here at Mill Woods United and I was impressed by what I heard from the others.
I also sensed anxiety around the table. Our churches do a lot to meet the needs of our neighbours for things like food and clothing. But I wonder if we still know how to meet our spiritual needs in a context that is intercultural and rapidly changing.
I wondered if the anxiety I felt reflected the crisis unfolding in the church in the United States, a crisis related to the U.S. Presidential race. The campaign of Donald Trump for President is fanning flames of racism, sexism, and fear of immigrants. It is tearing apart the Republican Party. And now it is also sowing division and dissension in the church.
Many prominent white evangelical leaders in the United States — people like Pat Robertson of the Christian Broadcasting Network, James Dobson of Focus on the Family, Ralph Reed of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, and Jerry Falwell Jr. of Liberty University — support Trump’s campaign, even after the release two weeks ago of a tape in which Trump boasted about sexual assault. Their support for Trump is based on hope that as President he would nominate Supreme Court justices who would overturn gay marriage and roll back abortion rights in the United States.
But cracks are now appearing in the institutions these men lead. The editor of “Christianity Today,” a conservative evangelical magazine, wrote an editorial this month denouncing Trump and the leaders that back him. Evangelical students at Liberty University rebelled against their President, Jerry Falwell Jr., for supporting Trump. Several prominent women in evangelical churches have called out their church leaders for supporting Trump.
Supporting Trump exposes church leaders who do so as being are more concerned about maintaining male dominance and white supremacy than about compassion, equality, or love.
Because of the church crisis around Trump, I suspect that statistics for 2017 will show large drops in support for right-wing evangelical churches in the U.S. and Canada and that this decline will continue indefinitely.
In the face of decline, whether of liberal churches like Anglican, Presbyterian and United, or conservative ones like Pentecostal or Alliance, what are we to do?
One good option, I believe, is to remember Anne Lamott’s thoughts on prayer: to give thanks and to ask for mercy. Both these moves — giving thanks and asking for mercy — can put us in touch with our humble reality.
The Pharisee in today’s parable gives thanks, but unfortunately he removes himself from the truth because of his judgements. He falsely distinguishes himself from people he labels as greedy, crooked or adulterous, and he esteems himself as a person who follows the religious rules of fasting and tithing.
The tax-collector in the parable also judges himself when he says he is a sinner. But unlike the Pharisee, he is not putting others down or puffing himself up.
Giving thanks does not require judging ourselves or others. At its best, thanksgiving helps us to realize that life is a gift. It can help us wake up to what is happening right now, on what we most value, and on our dependence on the source of being, life and love we call God.
Giving thanks in this way can remind us of our humble status. In the face of those things we call blessings, we give thanks. Then in the face of things we call curses, we pray for strength, courage and support. Neither type of prayer need puff up our sense of ourselves. Both types of prayer can remind us our humble status.
In humility, sometimes we find more space to feel our feelings — grief as well as hope, fear as well as confidence, and hurt as well as joy. By focusing on the reality of the moment and expressing feelings that fit it, we might then accept the grace to accept what is happening. In the light of reality, we become free of illusions and allow the Spirit of Love to flow more easily through our hearts and actions.
When we give thanks for reality as we best understand it — whether for things we enjoy like sunshine, mountains, and fellow pilgrims, or for things we don’t enjoy like religious leaders who support racism and sexism and churches that are aging and shrinking — we can wake up and act in ways that align best with our sacred values.
Giving thanks in the manner of the Pharisee puffs up one’s ego in a dishonest way. But giving thanks in humility and asking for help remind us that we are not personally responsible for our blessings and curses. Both come to us unbidden as gifts, whether we like them or not.
For these reasons, I try to remember to be grateful, to ask for help, and to accept the truth of this moment in all its pain and glory.
I loved last weekend’s Men’s Conference despite its small size. If the Conference decides to hold a final gathering in Banff or Canmore in a year or two, I think it could be a moving and powerful affair.
We are not the church of 50 years ago. We are the church of today — smaller than we once were and sometimes unsure of what our mission or theology should be — but made up of people of good will who try to act with kindness and compassion.
When we gather to give thanks, to ask for help, to feel our feelings, and to accept reality as best we can, we wake up to the Spirit of God’s Love flowing within us and between us.
And for this gracious truth I say again, “Thanks be to God.”