Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Prayers too deep for words

In the sermon on Sunday I introduced the congregation to the words of Chris Vais. Chris was a Presbyterian minister who was diagnosed with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease) at the age of 35. This terrible degenerative disease forced him to retire from congregational ministry a year and a half later, but Chris was determined to continue his ministry in other ways. In 1999 with much help from friends and family, he began writing a quarterly journal he called For Words.

In the opening issue Chris reflected on what his disease had helped him to learn about prayer. ALS was steadily robbing him of his ability to speak, and this led him to consider the place of words in communication both with other people and also with God:

All of this has got me thinking about prayer, which is, after all about communication with God, but not as we usually understand it. Lately I have learned that words are not a necessary ingredient in the recipe for a healthy prayer life. In fact, words can even obstruct the channel between us and God. The psalmist knew the futility of putting too much stock in words: "May the Lord silence the smooth tongue and boasting lips that say: 'Our words will triumph! With weapons like these who can master us?'" (Psalm 12:4-5) Too often we equate prayer with the articulation of what we want. As Kathleen Norris says in “Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith”, “Many Christians seem to regard prayer as a grocery list we hand to God, and when we don't get what we want, we assume that the prayers didn't 'work.''' This is the danger of limiting prayer to the verbal expression of our own narrow, selfish desires.

Prayer has more to do with listening than talking. It is more about being than doing. It is the experience of coming into the presence of One much greater than oneself. This goes far beyond mere words. It is an experience too deep for words. When we approach prayer in these terms the less we say the better...

For Words is full of such hard won spiritual insights. It is also full of Chris's personality, depth of spirit and his often mischievous sense of humour (which he used to help others deal with his illness). I only met Chris in person once very briefly when he received an honorary doctorate from Knox College at the same time my mum was graduating with her General Assembly certificate. By that time he could barely move and was extremely limited in his communication. I think I maybe said hello and something about how I had read a few issues of his journal which my parents received. He died a year later in June 2002, a little less than five years after his diagnosis.

When I graduated from Knox College in the spring of 2010 I received an award established in Chris's memory and shortly afterward I was mailed a copy of the collected issues of For Words by Chris's father Rev. Dr. George Vais. I read all of Chris's words for the first time that summer as I was preparing for my own start in ministry, and it felt like I had been given another mentor for my journey. I never had a full conversation with Chris Vais, but through the words he left behind (which ironically enough explore the limitations of words) I feel like I have met him and learned from him.

Chris's words are powerful and I would encourage others to read them. I bought two copies of For Words for the church library and if anyone is interested just let me know.


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