A Prayer for Letting Go
As you move into prayer, I invite you to begin with your fists clenched, or if you can’t clench your fists, you might scrunch up your shoulders or your face. Do whatever feels right for you, but I want you to intentionally bring a little tension into your body. Don’t worry, we won’t stay there for too long.
The grass on the lawn is still mostly green and might need to be mowed one more time, but the trees have decided it is autumn.
The poet Robert Frost wrote that nature’s first green is gold, but I would argue, based on the display outside my window, that its last green is gold as well.
The leaves turn yellow and orange and red and flutter to the ground,
a testament to how beautiful it is to let go.
And so, we pray, help us to let go.
In this moment, we open up our fingers, soften our faces, and relax our shoulders away from our ears. But that’s just practice. Even as we stretch our hands, we know that there are still areas of our lives where we are gripping so tightly we’ve cramped up.
We cling so tightly to what we are certain is right and good:
Our traditions, our viewpoints, our lives just as they are, or were.
But the writer of Ecclesiastes tells us there is “a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away.”
As we witness the cycle of the seasons are reminded of the cycles within our own lives,
Help us to see clearly what it is time to seek and what it is time to lose, what it is time to keep, and what it is time to let go off.
Make us a people who walk through the world with open hands rather than closed fists,
who let go of what no longer serves us and you rather than clinging to it,
and may it be so beautiful that others see it as gold and let go a little bit too. Amen.
In the winter of 1224 and 1225, at the relatively young age of 43, Giovanni Bernadone was, it is safe to assume, miserable. He was almost entirely blind due to an eye disease and could bare endure daylight. And although there is some debate about his exact diagnosis—whether it was tuberculosis or leprosy or some combination of the two—he was very ill. For over a year, he had been in constant pain. Poverty, fasting, and extensive travel had taken their toll on his body. If his personal illnesses and trials were not enough to discourage him, his ministry seemed to be teetering on the brink of collapse. The followers in his ascetic movement had initially been known for their consistent cheerfulness, their songs, and their earnest message, but they had fallen into divisiveness and quarreling. By 1219, they had become so fractious that he had to ask the Pope to step in and help them. He was dying, and it seemed that his movement might be dying with him.
This is not typically how we remember Giovanni Bernadone, or as we call him, St. Francis. When we picture St. Francis, we typically picture him in the spring, birds alighting on his hands, his bare feet cushioned by soft green grass, and a beatific smile playing on his lips as he takes in all the beauty of creation. We’ve immortalized his love for animals by making him into a common subject for birdbaths, but they never depict him blind and sick in bed, with the wind howling at the windows and his church brothers bickering outside the door.
Certainly, it’s not where Francis would have pictured himself winding up. He was born the son of a wealthy silk merchant. As a youth, he was known for being handsome and witty, and he had an eye for fine clothes. He was an extravagant spender but also an extravagant giver. The story is told that one day when Francis was selling his father’s wares in the marketplace, he encountered a beggar whom he felt compelled to help. When his business was concluded, he abandoned his wares and ran after the beggar. When he found him, Francis gave the man everything he had in his pockets. His well-to-do friends mocked him for his generosity, and when he got home, his father was enraged. Despite his father’s disapproval, it was not the last time Francis would give away all he had.
He went on to serve as a soldier, and although he spent a year as a captive, he planned to return to war when he received a vision of Christ that would change his life. He made his way back to Assisi where he exchanged his fine clothes for rough garments and bare feet and devoted himself to a life of poverty and to caring for the sick and poor. And yes, as all the birdbaths indicate, Francis was well known for his care of animals as well. His enthusiasm for preaching the gospel and his love for animals occasionally drove him to go so far as to preach sermons to flocks of birds. Less than twenty years after his life-altering vision though, he was physically spent and emotionally drained. Considering all that he endured, we might expect him to be spiritually depleted as well, but Francis had reserves that would carry him through that last long winter.
In the final year of his life, he penned words of praise that would resonate long after his death. Almost 800 years later, and over 5,000 miles away from Assisi, we read an adaption of Francis’s word together just a moment ago. “Most high, all-powerful, all-good God! All praise, all glory, all honor, and all blessing belong to you! May you be praised by all your creatures! Be praised by Brother Sun…. Be praised by Sister Moon and all the stars…. Be praised by Brothers Wind and Air…. Be praised by Sister Water and by Brother Fire and by our sister, Mother Earth….” Inspired by a creation he could no longer see, St. Francis drew strength and renewed his faith by joining in their ceaseless song of praise. Francis was likely inspired by the psalm we read this morning, Psalm 148. Certainly, it seems clear that both he and the psalmist heard the same testimony of creation all around them and understood how vital it is to offer up praise.
When we hear the word praise, we might think of praise and worship, our minds turning to Sunday gatherings, lifted hands, and voices raised in song. Or perhaps we think of the phrase, “Praise the Lord!” It’s a phrase some of us offer frequently, even for minor things, but we do tend to limit it to moments of joy. We say “praise the Lord” when the doctor’s report aligns with what we’d hoped or our plans work out or we get the parking space by the door. But we are not called to praise only when things are going our way. The psalmist did not suggest it was only the pleasant parts of creation that offer up a song of praise to God, but also sea monsters, ocean depths, fire and hail, snow and smoke, and stormy wind. St. Francis acknowledged that it is not only the sun and stars who are our siblings but also Death, who comes to us like a sister. And even she has a vital role to play in God’s good creation.
When we read the psalms of praise, like this one, we should also hear the psalms of lament in the background. At least forty-two of the psalms in our canon are lament psalms, which is double the number of praise psalms. But rather than think of them in opposition to one another, we should understand them as being linked. Praise stems out of the lament. We don’t praise God because everything is going perfectly or even because we have put on rose-tinted glasses to color and distort the truth. Instead, we praise God for the world just as it is. In her book Getting Involved with God, scholar Ellen Davis suggests that praise is not for the blindly optimistic or the hopelessly out of touch. Instead, she writes, “Praise looks good on the straightforward, on those who aspire to look at the world realistically, unsentimentally—that is, those who aspire not to view the world through the distorting lens of their own fantastic desires. In other words, praise suits those who want to see the world as it really is. This is a crucial insight about the essential function of praise. Praising God is not concocted flattery, but the most earnest human business we can undertake. Ultimately, it is for the sake of the world: we praise God in order to see the world as God does.”
Praise is not a quid pro quo arrangement. We don’t offer it as a reward to God when things go our way or as a down payment to ensure that God will do our bidding. Instead, we offer it because it reorients us. It doesn’t change the world, but it shifts how we understand the world. We praise God, who is beyond our control, who we cannot manipulate or pack away tidily in a box that God will fit just so in our lives. And nature, which is also ultimately beyond our regulation, points us toward awe. That’s why St. Francis, even in that miserable winter, found himself drawn to the words of Psalm 148. It’s why 400 years later, William H. Draper, even after he had lost two wives, one daughter, and three sons to early deaths, found himself drawn to St. Francis’s words, paraphrasing them into the hymn we know as “All Creatures of Our God and King.” Praise is not contingent on our personal circumstances, which was why Draper could find it within himself to sing the words:
“Ye who long pain and sorrow bear,
Praise God and on Him cast your care,
O praise Him, O praise Him,
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!”
We offer praise because we were made to offer praise. We tend to think that this a rational choice we make, but the ancient psalmist and the medieval saint and the Victorian-era hymn-writer knew that if we let it, it can be more instinctive than that. In Luke chapter 19, when an attempt is made to silence the people’s praise, Jesus tells the authorities, “I tell you, if they were silent, the stones would shout.” Creation will praise even when we fall quiet. Our siblings the stones and sun and stars and storms and sea creatures are already shouting out, if only we have the ears to hear them. Praise is inherent in the world’s structure. It’s already all around us, and all we have to do is choose to take our part in it.
Perhaps that sounds difficult for you today. Perhaps you are in the middle of lament. Certainly, there is much to lament in our world right now. Perhaps it even feels like there is twice as much to lament over as to offer up praise for. And if we feel that way, well, the psalmist thought so too, so we’re in good company. In the face of all the world’s lament, praise can naïve. What can praise possibly fix? Maybe it can’t fix the world, but it might help fix us. If we join in the song of all creation, surely we will find reasons to sing. If we understand the dog on the sofa and the cattle in the field and the grass under our feet as our siblings, how much more obvious it will be that our fellow humans are also part of the family?
One of my favorite trails in Colorado is just outside the tiny town of Silverton. It’s practically unmarked and out of the way, so we’re usually the only ones on it. And in the fall when the wind picks up, the yellow aspen leaves flutter around you like brightly colored confetti. And every time, as they catch in my hair and scatter across the trail before me, I laugh with joy, which is its own kind of praise song. You see, beloveds, the party is already happening out there in the woods—where the aspen are throwing confetti—and the fields and the seas. The question is whether or not we’ll join in the family gathering, whether we’ll add our own alleluias to the chorus. I hope we will.