There was a story on NPR about the Belgium town, Geel. Saint Dymphna, the patron saint of the mentally ill was supposedly martyred in Geel. And in the 1300s a church was built around her remains. And in time, that church became a pilgrimage site for people seeking a cure for mental ailments. Townspeople allowed those pilgrims to stay with them. The tradition stuck. The mentally ill eventually moved into houses with residents. By the 1930s, a quarter of the town was mentally ill.
Still today, Geel is full of the schizophrenic and other psychotic disorders, the cognitively impaired, and autistic. The town has become like an adult foster care program. Families have taken them in, calling them guests or boarders, not patients. The average stay in a home is 25 years. The success is of Geel is exhibited in its harmony. Walk down the street in Geel and you might not know who is mentally ill and who is sane.
Geel works because no one is trying to fix the problem. The treatment is presence. They’ve abandoned the mission to cure. Families accept their boarders exactly as they are, without trying to make them ‘normal.’ One mentally ill person in Geel twists all of the buttons off of his shirt, one by one, every day. His host does not try to stop him. It’s his way of coping with the world. So, at the end of every day she sews each button back on. Or, when a boarder hallucinates bloodthirsty lions, the family gets up to chase them away. These people are treated like human beings and they thrive. Geel is a living prayer of incarnation and how the power of presence can change lives.
Scripture: Luke 11
Five years ago I received the phone call I dreaded. A parishioner was dying and I was the pastor. I had been out of school for six months. Seminary trains us how to interpret the Bible and Christian tradition, but we don’t get much practical advice on how to order a meeting for the trustees or counsel with folks who are leaving this earth after a long fight with cancer. I had become well acquainted with the phase, ‘fake it, till you make it.’ I learned that saying less is better. If you are quiet and poised, then you’ll dupe most people into thinking you are contemplative and confident.
I inevitably found myself at the bedside of a dying parishioner. The COPD finally got the best of her. I had never seen an actively dying person. To my surprise she looked like herself, only more peaceful. Her breathing had slowed to long intervals. We pushed a wet sponge in her mouth. I thought about the sponge of wine hoisted up to Jesus he was on the cross. I was desperately looking for something to do to appear useful. I picked up the Bible and I read the sections that she had highlighted, the stories and verses that fed her for over 80 years. But I had nothing to give, except my presence.
More family members arrived until most of her relations were present. Then, the woman’s spouse grabbed my arm and said, “Say a prayer, preacher.” It caught me off guard. I don’t know why. Prayer was my only job, it is my trade, but I had no idea what to say. What do we say when we walk into a room and life is falling apart? What do we say when there is not enough oxygen to utter a word? And a part of me wondered what the family is asking for, what are they expecting God to do?
I wonder this often: What am I asking for? What do I hope will happen? Every week in worship we lift up joys and concerns. We remember those who are suffering from cancer, a member of the community who’s stricken with grief, and our own fears as we go in and out of appointments and screenings. I wonder this as I pray for my grandmother, whose dementia is so advanced she has only brief moments of lucidity. I’m not under any pretense that her memory will improve, but I pray. In Romans, Paul says, “you don’t know how to pray as you ought.” He’s probably right. We don’t even know what we need, much less the words to express it.
The Scripture I read a few minutes ago complicates this: Jesus says, “Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find.” Really, anything? How about for this dying woman? Maybe it’s possible, but it’s not probable. I resonate with Huck Finn’s experience with prayer: “Miss Watson, she took me in the closet and prayed, but nothing come of it. She told me to pray everyday and whatever I asked for, I would get it. But it warn’t so. I tried it. Once I got a fish line but no hooks. It warn’t any good to me without hooks. I tried for the hooks three or four times, but somehow I couldn’t make it work.” What’s the formula to make this thing work? Shouldn’t the Scripture should read, “Ask and it will sometimes be given, seek and you will sometimes find”?
That verse we read, the one about a magic-genie God who gives us whatever we want, is preceded by a parable and this helps us understand all of this. It goes like this: imagine that a friend comes to your house for a visit, but you’ve run out of food. It’s late at night and Bojangles closed an hour ago. So you bang on your neighbor’s door to ask for some bread. But your neighbor is a jerk and tells you to go away. If you keep knocking, he’ll eventually open the door, right, because he really wants to sleep and it’s 2 a.m. It’s like a dog that is left outside on the porch. The dog will keep yapping, driving you crazy until you open the door.
God’s like this, yes, but it’s also an argument from lesser to greater. Jesus is telling us that God is not a jerk or an annoyed pet owner who needs to be manipulated. “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?” Jesus is telling a joke; it’s supposed to be funny. I didn’t say that Jesus tells good jokes. “Ok,” Jesus says, “if a terrible father wouldn’t do that, what about God?” When we ask for a little bread, God’s not sleeping or annoyed. God is waiting with hands open. He pulls it out of the oven, cuts a slice, and slathers it with butter and gives it to you. Prayer is like that.
Here’s the key: notice that God promises bread. That’s different than a ribeye or a cafe latte. God will give you bread—what you need, not what you want. We can’t use the parable to justify a fifty thousand dollar raise or even a miracle. Keep asking to win that lottery, but it probably won’t come from God’s hands. We get bread. And God might not even give you the type of bread you want—pita instead of King’s Hawaiian. But the bread will sustain you. So what is the bread? Jesus is the bread of life. Jesus is promising his presence. That’s why Jesus calls the bread the Holy Spirit, the presence of God. Did you catch that last verse? “How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
It comes down to this: when we pray what can we expect? Jesus says to expect the Spirit. “Ask, and the Spirit will be given, seek, and the Spirit you will find.” The Spirit is the answer to our prayers.
It’s similar to what Jesus tells the disciples before he ascends to God. Listen, he says, the world will hate you and persecute you because of me. Don’t expect sunshine and flowers. It’s not the best parting gift to a group of guys who have already dropped everything to wander around homeless. But Jesus doesn’t leave them alone. In the Gospel of John, we read that Jesus promises to send the Paraclete. It’s a Greek word and can be translated many ways. Some versions say ‘Advocate,’ ‘Comforter,’ or ‘Counselor.’ The literal translation of Paraclete is ‘the one who will come alongside of you.’ The Holy Spirit comes along side in places of hurt, weakness, brokenness.
To go back to where we started, I found myself sitting by the bedside of the woman fighting for each breath, and the Paraclete was there. That was the answer to our prayers. God did just what God promised. We were given words from the advocate, solace from the comforter, and a listening ear from the counselor. God had not abandoned us and we knew that we were not alone. In that moment we had bread, which was all that we needed.
Sometimes, the best answer to a prayer is incarnation—God’s presence. It’s a simple prayer that goes like this, just three words: “be with us.” It’s the recognition that God’s entire purpose for the world is revealed in presence. And Jesus’ whole ministry reveals a God who enters into our pain. Sure, Jesus did miracles, he taught, and he died on the cross. These were all gifts. But the majority of his time was spent among the people. He walked with the broken by the sea, shared tables with the hungry, spent time in the fishing boat with the disciples. Jesus was the gift of God’s presence. His name is Immanuel, God with us. And this child’s presence changes the world.
I think about this when I sit down and pray against the disease that stole my grandmother’s brain. What do I say to God? She sits in a room, which is not her house, and must wonder if she’s been abandoned. I pray for incarnation. “God, be with her.” Presence is bread—sustenance and nourishment. And the Holy Spirit provides the presence she needs—but it’s usually through people who have given their lives to be vessels of God’s presence. Her caretakers who don’t rush to try and fix her disease, but offer God’s touch and smile even while they are having the same conversation they had ten minutes ago. That’s incarnation.
Meema was going to be alone on Christmas, but my older brother drove five hours to be with her, even though she would not remember the next day. My mom sacrifices her afternoons to visit, touch, and hug. She doesn’t receive much gratitude. Meema doesn’t remember those visits. Yet, in the moment she knows she is loved and that she’s not alone.
Incarnation is the kind of prayer that won’t let us off the hook. Sam Wells says, that if we pray for presence, then we’ve got to be wondering if there’s anyone better placed to be such a companion than the one praying. Can we pray for God’s presence and not offer our own? That’s a challenge to our complacency. I might pray for refugees and immigrants each week, but it’s conflicting to pray for God’s presence without offering my own. I pray for mothers who are considering terminating their pregnancies, but I don’t offer any resources, childcare, or presence. If I pray for the shut-ins to not feel so lonely, then I better go offer my hand. Sometimes, there’s no better prayer than presence and you can be the answer to that prayer.
We’ve gathered here to ask for a taste of bread like the neighbor who knocks on the door late at night. And the Spirit descends upon the bread to offer us God’s very presence that fills our nostrils and satiates our stomachs. God, our companion, comes to us in bread. It’s a meal and also a reminder that we are a people who are hungry. We must eat and drink to survive. But we are also hungry for incarnation—God’s presence and each other. And we gather together to share a meal that makes us family. No one sits alone as we tell the family story and taste the goodness of God. This is God incarnate, again, for you.
At the end of Communion I share the same prayer each week:
Eternal God, we give you thanks for this holy mystery
in which you have given yourself to us.
Grant that we may go into the world
in the strength of your Spirit,
to give ourselves for others.
It’s a prayer of incarnation. Let that be your prayer today, and always.