Monday, May 4, 2015

On Being Pruned

sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler

Compline at JYC, May 1, 2015
It has been quite a weekend. I have slept on the floor for two nights—something I don’t recommend for the faint of back. Many of you may think I’m young, but I’m not as young as I used to be!

This weekend at St. Paul’s, we have welcomed sixth to ninth graders from Episcopal churches all over Western Washington. This is the twice-annual JYC (Junior High Youth Conference), which rotates from one congregation to another and has been going on in our diocese for decades. (You may also have heard of the high school equivalent, HYC. A little trivia, to show you how long this has been going on: before HYC stood for “High School Youth Conference,” it stood for “House of Young Churchmen.” Yes, times have changed!)

Our theme for the weekend was this: “Are You There, God? It’s Me, ________.” If you have ever been able to put your own name into that blank, you know the longing that comes with a life of prayer. We wanted to impart that longing to the young people who have spent the weekend here at St. Paul’s. And we wanted to give them tools to engage that longing as fully as possible, in many different ways.

We also wanted to get across to the youth that prayer should never be a matter of guilt or shame. This is important, since I know that I myself have often fallen into bemoaning, “Ah, God! Forgive me for not praying enough.” But berating ourselves is never the point of prayer. God wants a relationship with us, and every time we drift away, that’s a fresh opportunity to return. In other words, there is no such thing as a bad prayer session.

Furthermore, we wouldn’t pray if God weren’t already calling us. Prayer isn’t about going to the divine vending machine and inserting a holy quarter. And it isn’t about going to a divine Santa Claus and asking for what we want. God is our creator—not just in the past tense, but in the present. God is creating us. And a vital part of that process is God seeking us out, chasing us down, sometimes having to shout, “Hey! What does it take to show you I love you?” Once we understand this love, then we can truly ask for what we want, knowing that it comes from a deeper place than our own selfishness. And Jesus assures us that our wishes, coming from a place of union with God, will indeed be granted.

But in prayer, as in so many things, it helps to have a teacher, and so we have been teaching methods of prayer this weekend. Like the Ethiopian eunuch in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, any one of us might ask, “How can I know how to pray without someone to guide me?” We have tried to be guides to our middle school youth this weekend. And of course, as it predictably turns out yet never fails to surprise us, the youth have been teaching the adults how to pray as well.

I have staffed a lot of these diocesan conferences—probably 60 or 70 of them over the past 20 years. Our gospel reading today reminds me of a high school event many years ago in which we gave the youth various gospel readings and invited them to present skits about them. One group performed a skit on the gospel reading we just heard. Unfortunately, the end result went something like this:

Girl pretends to be a tree. Another girl comes up behind her, pretends to chop off her branches. Narrator: “If you go far away from God, you’ll get pruned. If you stay close to God, you won’t get pruned. So always stay close to God. Don’t get pruned!”

I remember wincing and wishing there were some discreet way, in that moment, to set these kids straight without shaming them. Oh, well—we learn by our mistakes and misinterpretations. I learned from this skit that we can’t assume that all young people, or even all adults, know what pruning is. But pruning is not punishment! And according to Jesus, not only is pruning inevitable, but we can also look forward to the growth that will come from it. Pruning may even be one of the ways God shouts at us to get our attention.

I’ve been pruned many times in my life, and it has usually come through someone calling me up short. A painful breakup shortly after college gave me space to meet and fall in love with my wife. When I was laid off from my dream job, I found my way into church employment and eventually, through the pruning of seminary, into ordination as a priest. And in lots of little ways, even since my ordination last summer, I have had humbling experiences, and gratifying experiences, too—all sorts of experiences that have helped deepen my understanding that God loves me, is always with me, and wants me to keep becoming more like the man I was made to be.

Yesterday afternoon, through the wonder of the internet, Bishop Greg met with us on the big screen in the Great Hall. Traffic had prevented him from coming to see us in person, but he was just as warm and receptive as always, despite the distance. He talked about his own prayer life, and the youth peppered him with questions: What prayers have been especially helpful to you? Are there prayers that just haven’t worked for you at all? What do you pray when you feel down and depressed? Is singing a form of prayer? There were many more fabulous questions like these, and I greatly enjoyed watching the transfer of wisdom from one generation to another, from one order of ministry to another.

We also split into various workshops to explore different methods of prayer: the labyrinth, journaling, prayer beads, active prayer with our bodies, musical prayer, prayer through art, and centering prayer. I hope every youth with us this weekend learned some new prayer practice to take home and … well, practice. (Of course, we also found lots of time as well just to play games and enjoy each other’s company.)

Pruning vines -- image from
When I take the experiences of prayer that I witnessed this weekend and set them alongside this gospel reading about pruning, what jumps out at me most of all is that adolescence is a distinct form of pruning. We all have to go through it—losing the branches of our childhood so that adult branches can grow. There’s no avoiding it, even when it hurts. God will cut off all of our branches that do not bear fruit, and those that do, God will prune to make them even more fruitful—but God will never destroy us. And most of the time, a habit of prayer makes the pruning easier.

God prunes all sorts of things from our lives: not just unhealthy relationships and dead-end jobs, but also things inside us, like selfishness, insensitivity, coldness of heart, and meanness. Most often, pruning means finding out we were wrong and living with the consequences. This is true not just in adolescence, but at other stages of life, too, and perhaps most of all in old age. The pruning that happens in our final years means letting go not just of unhealthy branches, but of literally all our branches, trusting nevertheless that God will graft us onto the eternal vine and preserve us forever.

When we abide in Jesus, we can rest easy. And what does it mean to abide in Jesus? To be. That’s it: just to be. No agenda. No expectations. No guilt, no pressure. Just presence. In the method called centering prayer, the only goal is to show up and be still. Although you can keep getting better at it, you can never do it wrong.
But Christianity, by definition, can never be a mere individual exercise, as if Jesus and I were the only people in the universe. To abide in Jesus also means to love our neighbors. We don’t love out of fear of pruning, but out of the experience of having been pruned to bear good fruit. We reach out to people who are in pain because they are going through their own pruning experience. We can’t rush them through it, but we can love them through it.

On Friday night, the youth having just assembled, we shared a modified service of Compline by candlelight. One by one, seven youth came to the altar and lit candles as a prayer for friendship. They prayed for friendship with people who are different from us in age, in wealth, in color, in ability, in the ways they pray, and in the ways they love. Finally, one youth prayed in the spirit of uniqueness, since each of us is an individual in need of prayer and friendship.

Because Jesus has taught us how to love, whenever we come to God in prayer, we bring others with us. We bring our concerns for the world. We’re about to do that now: to stand up and share ancient words defining our faith, and then to pray.

And whenever we ask, “Are you there, God? It’s me, Josh,” we must know that we can also expect to hear, from time to time, “Are you there, Josh? It’s me, God.” Amen.