A Prayer of Life
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Once again we come together on this solemn day known as Ash Wednesday. As many of us have done so often through the years, we come to worship on a Winter Wednesday, prepared to receive ashes on our forehead and expecting to hear the same gospel story from Matthew, chapter 6.
If you have worshiped on Ash Wednesday before, you’ve likely picked up on the ironic juxtaposition of the worship service and the assigned gospel text. The gospel warns us of the dangers of making public displays of our piety. But each one of us will leave here with a large cross of ashes smeared on our foreheads; which is, I dare say, a public display of our piety! Perhaps some of you get around this by going straight home after worship and trying your best to avoid letting others see your ashen forehead. But that’s certainly not the point, either.
Jesus does not want us to use our faith to make public spectacles of ourselves, nor does he want us to so privatize our faith that it becomes imperceptible to others. As is usually the case, the truth of scripture lies somewhere between the two extreme interpretations. The core message of this gospel text is that our faith should always be evident but in a way that deflects attention from ourselves and back to God. There are, after all, hidden blessings of the private part of our faith.
To illustrate this idea, allow me to set a scene. You are in an unlit, damp, concrete room measuring roughly 6’ x 7’. “There are no windows, no ventilation. You've got nothing, you don't get outside, maybe see the sun 20 seconds a day if you're lucky; you've got an overflowing bucket for a toilet, you've got a mat that you sleep on, and you're subject to very harsh treatment."* You are alone in this room. You’ve been alone in this room for 3 ½ years.
You know there are others….others in rooms the same as yours. You yearn to communicate; but you dare not speak to them. So, you tap on the wall using a system of communication designed for such an occasion. You form thoughts and expressions silently in your head and you quietly tap them out in code on the wall that separates you from someone else who is suffering.
This horrible reality is the one described by Retired Major General of the US Air Force John Borling – a fighter pilot who was shot down over North Vietnam in 1966 and imprisoned in the infamous Hanoi Hilton for over 6 1/2 years.
Monday marked the 45th anniversary of the release of more than 140 American prisoners of war from Vietnam. Among them was John Borling.
Major General Boling spent his 6 ½ years in the Hanoi Hilton trying to stay alive. One way that he sustained life was by composing poetry. He would create the poems in his head and tap them out on the walls in what is known as “tap code” in order to share them with his fellow POWs. He said,
In his attempts to stay alive and keep others alive, he was, for all intents and purposes, praying.
Perhaps this image can help you reframe Jesus’ instruction to go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father in secret. Imagine prayer as an exercise in which you are stripped of all your possessions and illusions of security. All you have are the thoughts in your head. You are unable to write the thoughts down, so you write them on your heart. Your prayer becomes the most authentic and honest part about you. And this fills you with a burning desire to share your prayer with others in any way you can. You think maybe, just maybe, the thing you have to share with others could help keep them alive and encouraged also.
It may not be prudent to shout these poems and prayers for all the world to hear. After all, you don’t want to draw attention to yourself. But you cannot keep your poems and prayers inside…especially knowing that they could help keep others alive. So, you tap them out on the walls. It’s a long and laborious process. But it’s the only thing you can possibly do, so you tap out the poem and the prayer letter by letter.
At great personal risk, every night before you go to sleep you tap out the same letters the POWs used to sign off each night: G–B–U. The message spreads from one concrete cell to another until everyone has heard the message “G–B–U” (“God Bless You”).
The poems from the Hanoi Hilton have much to teach us about our prayers in Hancock County. Pray in private, pray in public, pray in the church, on the street corners, in restaurants. Wherever you are called to pray, pray not to bring attention to yourself, but rather, pray because God has filled you with something authentic and honest that you have to share…especially knowing that it could help keep others alive.
We pray, not in a secret code, but rather in the way that honors our unique faith, emotions, personality, and experiences.
To rephrase the words of Major General Borling, “May the prayers on our hearts become our lifeline – how we keep a chain of connection, how we pass thoughts and insights that will keep us all going, spiritually. Here's a bunch of sinners, but a fragment of prayer — some remembered lines, however abbreviated — would be useful."
That’s the message we embrace on this solemn Ash Wednesday. There is life in death. There is freedom in our imprisonment. There is beauty born in our suffering. There are prayers in our pain.
To conclude, I invite you to listen now to two poems composed by John Borling in his prison cell and secretly shared by taps on the wall.