The Inner Music of Prayer – Pentecost (Winton Boyd) 5.20.18

There is a story about someone who gazes through a window at people jumping and moving and thinks they are mad. Then he goes inside and hears the music: they are dancing. From the outside prayer and religious observance are difficult to understand. Only when the inner music is perceived can the religious expression begin to have meaning.  (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel)


Religious practices, at times, can be weird. Maybe not to us who are familiar with them, but to outsiders they can seem strange. This past January, Tammy and I reconnected with a refugee friend from Ethiopia that we’d hosted in our home 28 years ago. At the time of his arrival, we were told that Gezahegn was a Coptic Christian. We didn’t really know what that meant, but we thought at least we had something in common.

Little did we know that other than the name “Christian” – Coptic worship and American Progressive Protestant worship have little in common. In fact, he and his wife told us how important their church was to their life – and believe it or not Minneapolis has an Ethiopian Coptic or Orthodox Church. You’ll see in the pictures that their worship is quite different from ours:

It’s hard to tell, but all those dressed in white on the right are women. In the middle, is an aisle. Most pictures they have on their website have worshippers standing up.

Children process with palms on Palm Sunday. Personal space needs seem different.

As is the attire of those reading Scripture and the way they present the scripture. Notice the recorder, and that everyone is behind the reader.

When Gezahegn showed us these pictures, I found myself wondering what he must have thought when he came to our UCC church so long ago. Did it even look like church to him?

As Heschel notes, from the outside prayer and religious observance are hard to understand!

Sometimes, the confusion exists within our own ‘dance’ here at ORUCC.

What the heck, really, is a labyrinth?

What actually goes on at family camp at Moon Beach?

When I look in through the window at a Java and Jesus discussion group, I wonder how that all works?

How can this prayer be called ‘The Lord’s Prayer?’ Since when?


Or, how many of us have been to worship in an historic black church – finding ourselves both amazed and confused?

Or for those of us not used to the highly liturgical worship of the Roman Catholic or Episcopalian church? All those rituals, that standing up and down?

I remember taking our youth group to African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in Philadelphia – the oldest black Episcopal Church in America – that combined historic black worship and high liturgy – talk about mind blowingJ

The same theme runs through our own story of Pentecost. Awe, skepticism, multiple languages, accusations of drunkenness?

In all cases, the key to understanding what is happening is what Heschel calls ‘the inner music of prayer’. Only when the inner music is perceived can the religious expression begin to have meaning.   Only when we begin to get in touch with the motivation of that new group, or someone we love explains the whole process, do we begin to realize why it has power and purpose in another’s life. Thich Nhat Hanh, whose words guided my sermon last week, notes that the bread and wine becoming the body of Christ is not about magic, but mindfulness. Only when the liturgist brings a full heart, and their own ‘inner music,’ does the ritual come alive!

For Rabbi Heschel, the avenue for finding that inner music is prayer, or a prayerful life, – broadly defined.

“To pray is to take notice of the wonder, to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all beings, the divine margin in all attainments. Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living. It is all we can offer in return for the mystery by which we live…Only one response can maintain us: gratefulness for witnessing the wonder, for the gift of the unearned right to serve, to adore, and to fulfill.” (Essential Writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel, P.140)

I love this stance of gratitude as the doorway to finding our own inner music. To finding the rhythm to finding our prayerful life. It is more than a light before us leading the way, it is a light within us. It’s no substitute for action, but without it, action is soulless, and easily consumed with anger, despair, bitterness or self-righteousness.

Pentecost for Christians is a celebration of the day a group of Jesus followers and their ‘inner music’ of faith met a waiting world. In that meeting was the birth of the church! As people heard their own language being spoken, they began to connect the powerful movement of God’s spirit with their own lives. As ‘outsiders’ criticized them or became confused – they sought to put into words something words cannot describe. Pentecost was and is a celebration of inner knowing, a profound personal connection that resulted in a life changing expression of community.

How do we nurture our own ‘inner music of prayer?’

What are the ways we get back in touch with the deep streams of knowing and being within us?

If we haven’t ever listened to them, how do we develop that practice?

Diana Butler Bass, who’s written several books on Progressive Christianity, including “Christianity for the Rest of Us” and “The Church after Christianity,” published her latest book, Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks in mid 2017.

She tells the story in a recent video that she signed a contract to write the book in early 2016, due to the publisher in March 2017. As 2016 wore on, she says, she just couldn’t’ bring herself to write about gratitude. The Presidential campaign was so ugly and so upsetting, she put the writing on the back burner. After the election of Donald Trump, she says she first cried for 6 weeks; and then tried to get out of the contract. But she couldn’t. With the deadline looming, she literally wrote the book during the first 100 days of this administration’s chaos. Every day, when shocking things were emerging – anger, confusion, uncertainty on both sides – she got up and asked, ‘what am I thankful for” and worked on a book on gratitude.

I haven’t read the book, but I love this story and it’s reminder that Gratitude is a choice. And if prayer is steeped in gratitude, it means that prayer is also a choice. Maybe it is easier to say that ‘prayerful living in a time of chaos’ is a choice. Finding our inner music is both possible and critical in a time of uncertainty, anger, confusion or despair. As we draw on ancient understandings of prayer, we are reminded it is that humble awareness of the power we have, the truth of our circumstance, the access we have to beauty.

It certainly was true at Pentecost. Joy, gratitude, sharing, engaging in community arose in the face of an empire’s increasingly harsh tactics towards people of faith. What we have to surmise in the story – what isn’t spelled out specifically – is that maintaining such gratitude and joy was difficult. We can imagine that the people of Pentecost were constantly fighting the tensions of pridefullness, arrogance, and greed. We can imagine they helped each other, and at times, challenged each other, to remember the source of their joy – the Holy Spirit of God moving in and among them. And the power their communal connections had to resist the power of empire.

So, once again, we ask the questions –

How do we nurture our own ‘inner music of prayer?’

What are the ways we get back in touch with the deep streams of knowing and being within us?

If we haven’t ever listened to them, how do we develop that practice?

Sustained action – in whatever form in takes in our lives – will only emerge from an inner life . It is always more than must a light before us, but a light within us.

Pentecost is a reminder that such a light is nurtured by the choice to be humble, the choice to be grateful, and the choice to live in community. Where we need anger and passion, it must come from a profound and pervasive sense of gratitude and the experience of community. It needs people with grateful hearts that do not underestimate the power of empire; whose resistance arises from the joy of knowing love, the awe emerging from remembering how others have held fast to their inner music. People like the now unknown authors of Negro Spirituals – who in the midst of their own oppression and longing could sing – Up Above My Head, I Hear Music In the Air.   While we can never romanticize the horrible conditions that birthed this powerful genre of music; neither can we underestimate the degree to which their inner strength and commitment to community sustained them in their time of great need.

What our time needs is prayerful people who stand on the shoulders of “pentecostal people” from every culture, church, and ethnic group of every era.

In these moments that follow this sermon, while the spiritual is being offered, I invite you to sit with yourself as you seek to reclaim, rename or give gratitude for that which allows YOU to be surprised by life’s beauty and moved by mysteries greater than words can describe. Amen.


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