Sunday, August 4, 2013

Sweeping at the Wall

"What happens to them once you put them in the wall?"  A friend asked this question in reference to the prayers people stuff into the cracks and crevices of the Western Wall in Jerusalem each day.

"I don't know," I replied.

This morning after a 29-hour journey between Chicago and here, I arrived in Jerusalem, just as the skies were starting to get light.  I immediately crawled into bed and neither the growing street noise outside of the convent guesthouse nor the brightening light kept me from sleeping soundly for a few blissful hours.  When I woke, I had a few priorities: 1) bathe; 2) visit St. Anne's Church, my favorite church in Jerusalem, conveniently located just down the road from where I'm staying; 3) get something to eat; and 4) visit the Western Wall.

After the long journey, including a 14-hour layover in Amsterdam where I spent some time with a friend, bathing was a necessity.  I got myself cleaned up and headed for St. Anne's.  It was closed.  I walked through the Old City in search of food.  Because of Ramadan fasting, many restaurants were either closed or only served food to be carried home for the evening meal.  I got a container of hummus and some bread. Ah, to be in the land of fresh hummus again! I sat myself down on some steps near the security entrance to the Western Wall and scarfed down some of my food. I watched as tour groups passed through security, waited until the line was short, and entered myself.

So many people, perhaps even you reading this, gave me prayers to carry to the wall.  Because I'd received so many, I had decided I'd make multiple trips to the wall, to ensure that I give proper attention to each prayer.  Before approaching the women's section of the wall, I sat down on a plastic chair in the glorious shade, and pulled a few prayers from the box.  When I was ready, I covered my head, walked to the wall and found an open space to stand.  Conveniently, at that spot I'd chosen there was a hole so large I could reach my arm in to about mid-forearm.  The hole wasn't full.  I began my ritual: with my hand on the wall, I read a prayer slowly, folded it, and placed it in the hole.  I had placed several in when there was an interruption to my left.  I looked over and saw a man brushing the wall's crevices and pulling prayers out of a hole similar to the one in front of me.  Then he swept whatever fell to the ground.  This jarred me at first - he was headed my way! Would the prayers I had just put in the wall be removed so quickly?

Even more jarring was the plastic trash bag behind him, the ready receptacle for the hopes, dreams, and gratitude of so many people.  Were these prayers worthless?

I moved out of the way as the sweeper reached into "my" hole, pulled the prayers out and swept them away.  "There they go..."

The sweeper's matter-of-fact way seemed quite mundane and thoroughly unacceptable in this sacred space.

Then I thought some more.  Maybe it was OK that the man was sweeping away the prayers, cleaning up the "mess" in such an ordinary way in this holy place.

What are our prayers anyway? We invite the holy into the ordinary (messes) of life.  God, why are things such a mess?  God, please clean up the mess.  God, please don't let that turn into a mess.  God, if it is a mess, please help me clean up after it.  God, help me to be less of a mess.  God, help me to be one of your mess cleaner-uppers.

We thank God for the holiness of the ordinary.  God, thank you for cleaning up that mess.  God thank you for my life not being a mess right now.  And sometimes, God, thank you for this blessed messy thing we call life.

Messiness is the stuff of life.  We can count on its constant entry into and exit from our lives.  Sometimes we ourselves create it; sometimes we don't.  However, it is precisely because of the messes that we have the opportunity to become closer to God, to ask God to come and sweep things up. The  sacred and the mundane, as it turns out, are one and the same. Every mess and every clean-up are at once both, if we choose to recognize them as such.  

When we deal with our ordinary breaks, spills, and leaks, sometimes someone cleans up for us.  Sometimes we are the cleaner-uppers.  Thank goodness God's got some cleaner-uppers to do some of the work.  Thank goodness the cleaner-uppers take (some of) the mess away.  Thank goodness they (sometimes) work quickly.  What would we do without them?

Thank God for being with us in the mundane, for showing us that sweeping, or washing, or fixing things is sacred work and ordinary work for ordinary people.  I pray that we all become better at cleaning and carrying away the messes of our world.

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