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For Everyone Who Knocks

Jennifer Stuart, Discernment and Formation Student
Sun, Jul 28

The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Text: Luke 11: 5– 10

Last night, I had the honor of driving my 15-year-old daughter and her friend to Gillette Stadium in Foxboro to see, the country singer turned pop star, Taylor Swift. (An adventure, for us that has been a year in the making.) Admittedly, a part of me was not excited about the traffic, the drive, the hours involved, or screaming fans – but in the end it was exhilarating, magical even.

In the parking lot, where we parents waited, Swift’s familiar lyrics traveled towards us. “We are never, ever, ever, getting back together.” Many of you have also heard this song, perhaps (like me) several times a day, on the radio in the midst of carpools, or at other times.

I admit, I rather like this song, and the other parents were definitely humming along. Taylor sings this refrain to a former boyfriend, and at this concert, it marks the wrap up of her final set. At one point in this song/anthem, she comments truthfully about her tumultuous relationship, “this is exhausting.” We parents look at one another after three hours in the Gillette Stadium parking lot, we feel her pain, but at the same time, we understand that “this whole experience” holds more than we know. In this context, even a “break-up song” becomes inspiring.

Clearly, in her words that “we are never getting back together”, Taylor was done knocking, and probably for good reason! “Knock and the door will be opened for you,” it says in Luke. Haven’t we all sometimes just had it with all the searching, seeking and waiting? And what does all this mean in regard to “persistence,” and “intention”? Let’s read that verse again: I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs (Luke 11:8).

I don’t know about you, but my faith and understanding of this scripture is sometimes, pretty literal. I’ll take world peace on a platter, thank you very much or even a clean escape out of Gillette Stadium. Of course, this is not what Jesus means…. But it is so hard not to respond to these words in Luke in a petitionary way. Ask and you shall receive. Receive what exactly? For Taylor Swift, moving on and away from an unhappy situation was her answer, what she needed, – a response that took assertiveness. Seeking, then, also involves knowing when it is time to close a door. Parker Palmer maintains that we, Americans, tend to NOT take no for an answer. While there is hope in this, Palmer says, we “miss vital clues to our identities that arise when a way closes; and that in doing so we exceed our own limits and sometimes do harm to others in the process.”

In my own Chaplaincy training, the work, though deeply sacred, is precarious in regard to asking, receiving, seeking and finding. “Hope shifts” constantly and salvation changes form. A tragic death becomes sacred; the hand holding of loved ones previously in conflict blessed, and doctors and nurses, humble servants in the face of all that is bigger than us. One patient on the Intensive Care Unit, said to me, during a visit; that she thought God’s gaze had shifted from her and was focused somewhere else. God was somewhere, but not with her, she explained. It is not easy to seek or find God in our suffering, particularly when the knocking rings hollow.

These themes surface in the novel, and movie, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. In this 2012 film, a young boy literally knocks on many doors, until he finds. After losing his father in the 9/11 attacks, he finds a key in his father’s closet in an envelope marked with the surname “Black.” Wanting to keep his father alive for as long as he can, he makes it his mission to find the lock that fits the key. Breaking down the NYC phonebook, he begins to knock on all the doors of apartments, condos and homes, ALL those who carry the last name of Black. During this journey, he meets prayer, kindness, loss, grief, joy, hardship, poverty, betrayal and anger. One woman turns him away refusing to open the door; another takes his hand and guides him. Eventually, he finds the lock that fits the key, and helps another in the process. But with this resolution, his own knocking and seeking goes seemingly unanswered. He weeps as he travels alone on the subway at night, vulnerable and shaken.

I can tell you that my teenage children have learned the art of careful asking, understanding fully that “you can’t always get what you want.” Both my husband and I empathize with our children to a point when complexity arises. However, we have been known to tell them to simply cope with the reality of any given situation. “This happens,” we say. “It is a part of life.” How many times have we asked and NOT received, searched and found nothing? Not long ago, I wondered if God really was there with me. It was not a completely whiny moment; I truly questioned God’s ways, and more to the point, my own self. After all, I did ask, pursue, work hard; I knew where I was headed and what I thought should be the “right” outcome.

Yet, God said differently, and, so did those around me. My own running self-narrative took a dive to fairly low ground, – Where was God? Ask and you shall receive? But there were those steadfast witnesses that would not let go and a growing sense that salvation might look differently from what I had initially, so confidently, envisioned. John Caputo asserts that salvation is inherent in time itself, and that it is Messianic hope that opens up a future with new possibility. “Salvation,” he writes, “always means a new time, a new beginning, a fresh start, new life, rebirth, the continuation and multiplication of the original work of creation…,” looked upon by God and declared good.

One of my greatest teachers is my client, Sarah who I have seen in counseling for about 5 years. The mental health and spirituality group here at First Church has also prayed for her, which has helped both me, and her. Sarah spends Thanksgiving and Christmas alone. She is steps from homelessness, and lives in fear of other people. Her anger is ignited quickly. On her first appointment with me, she became very agitated, having become lost on the way to see me. Her verbal barrage of words left the receptionist at our office very wary; her behavior suggesting to my clinic that she might be more than we could safely handle. Sarah understood our hesitation, but said to me, “Jennifer, I know that this is right. I only have five dollars to give you, but this is the only thing I have going for me right now. I truly believe this is where I am supposed to be.” Over time her volatility has diminished and her inner life has deepened. She surprises me with her insight. “I know that you do not do well with my anger, Jennifer.” Talk about nailing “it” on the head and then some. Knocking, persistence, asking and receiving becomes a two-way movement into the Spirit—full of complexity, difficult turns, and grace. For me, it felt like God was knocking on our clinic doors, inspiring and informing our work together; work that is still in process. Elyn Saks, a law professor in California, writes of her similar struggles with schizophrenia in her memoir, “The Center Cannot Hold.”

Paradoxically, for Ms. Saks, after fighting her diagnosis, medication and hospitalizations for years, she finally comes to accept the fact she has a thought disorder that when untreated results in acute psychosis. She notes it was only after coming to terms with her diagnosis, that it no longer occupied center stage. Still, she contends, the battle is not always won and she puts forth, do we even always want to win? The reality is, she says, that we exist in the complex real world with complex real human beings. There are forces of nature and circumstances beyond our control and understanding. Prof. Saks continues to do research, she has married, and friendships mean the world to her. God’s work continues, forming us anew.

“Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul,” says Gandhi. Perhaps this seeking, this asking, this knocking is simply a movement towards God, a movement into mystery and uncertainty, as we begin to glimpse God’s profound love for us.

“If you are a person with mental illness, says Prof. Saks, “the challenge is to find the life that’s right for you. But in truth, isn’t that the challenge for all of us, mentally ill or not? My good fortune, writes Saks, is NOT that I’ve recovered from mental illness. I have not, nor will I ever. My good fortune lies in having found my life.” Search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds.

In the story of the young boy who lost his father, he explains in a letter to all those he visited throughout the city, “I have finally come to accept that my father is dead and he is not coming back.” With this new insight, the boy grabs hold of the park swing he once feared. In the past, he had always refused his father’s attempts to get him to do what all children do, like swing at the park. On this day, though, he climbs on the swing, pumping his legs, gaining momentum.

My client, Sarah, also seeks bravely. Despite her frequent assertion that her life sucks, she has an incredible desire to get back up. She wakes up earlier these days, instead of sleeping until sunset. She finds meaning in her cat, takes walks and tries to form new connections with others despite the rawness this raises for her. Sarah feels profoundly alone, and yet believes that God offers her a life worth living. “I call myself a Christian,” she says, “I believe in God.” Like Prof. Saks, Sarah teaches us that our faith in this humble life guides us onward to deeper meaning, even in those dark moments when we travel the subway alone. “Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness (says Paul Tillich). It strikes when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life…Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted.”

What stops me from knocking is my own tendency to go numb in the face of God’s deep love. Like the ICU patient who felt God’s gaze had left her, there are times when things feel solitary. What keeps me searching is the understanding that there is no pain that Jesus does not understand, no amount of aloneness, or fear. One dear friend once said to me when I felt confused and lost. “Jenny, I love you to pieces.” It felt so extraordinary to me at that moment; a very present grace.

God is with us, “loving us all to pieces,” inviting us into grace, and into deeper relationship with God and community. Ask, search, knock and the mystery of the Holy will be given: a found life in all its complexity, love and faith. Amen.

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