Sermon for Sunday, May 17, 2020 || Easter 6A || John 14:15-21
Today, I’d like to talk about prayer: what prayer is, where it comes from, and why several people have told me recently how much more praying they are currently doing in these days of pandemic. As you listen to me speaking, listen also to yourself. If I mention a particular form of prayer that excites you or interests you or calms you, that might be the type of prayer the Holy Spirit is inviting you to try on right now.
We’ll start off with the fundamental question: what is prayer? The Book of Common Prayer tells us that prayer is responding to God in thought and deed, with or without words. That’s a pretty broad definition, so broad that we could really classify anything as prayer given that the action is motivated by God’s movement in our life. And that’s the key concept when trying to understand the nature of prayer.
Prayer never begins with us. We are never the initiators of prayers. We are always the respondents. Prayer is our response to God, which means prayer begins as a God-given impulse. (I’ll get into that a bit more in a few minutes.) Realigning our expectations when it comes to prayer is difficult, especially for those of us who have grown up in a me-first culture that prizes individualism to such a degree that we learn to disregard all the work other people put in us over the years. Seeing ourselves as responders rather than initiators runs counter to what our market-driven culture wants us to believe. Advertisers make a lot of money getting us to think that we came up with ideas that they planted in us. They make us believe we are initiators because we’re more likely to buy their products if we think it was our idea to do so in the first place. However, all we ever do is respond to the desires they concoct.
This is true for every stimulus in our environment. We are hardwired to respond to changes happening around us: a crying baby, dangers on the road, new patterns of life due to crisis. When we begin to understand that our default position is one of responder, not initiator, we are ready to accept that same position in our life of prayer. You can think of prayer like this: we never dial God’s number; we only ever pick up the phone when God calls.
I’ll circle back to some forms of prayer in a bit, but first let’s talk about where prayer comes from. If all our prayers are responses to God, how is the impulse to pray delivered from God to us? Praying is the way we participate in our relationships with God, and the desire to pray is one of God’s constant gifts to us. This desire comes from the enlivening presence of the Holy Spirit. In our Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus is speaking to his disciples during the Last Supper. He knows his time is short, so he is talking to them about reality once he is no longer physically present. Jesus says this: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”
Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit will abide with us and be in us and be with us forever. The Holy Spirit motivates us from within ourselves to reach out to the God who is already reaching out to us. I encourage you to be attentive to the small yearnings of your own hearts that propel you towards openness, compassion, creativity, and love – for yourself and for others. When you start paying attention to such a yearning, how does it feel in your body? A glow? A tiny fire? A vibration of possibility? A sense of peace and rightness? These impulses come from the Holy Spirit abiding within – advocating for us to us. When we embrace these God-given impulses we will find ourselves praying.
Here’s an example. You may have noticed if you participated in the last two Sunday Morning Prayer Live Streams that I sang new original songs that I had written for those services. And you might be wondering why I did that or how I had the time to write them. Here’s the simple reason. I needed to pray.
I met God and learned to play the guitar at roughly the same time – a little before my 18th birthday. For many, many years, my main way of praying was writing songs. I wrote dozens of songs in high school and college (none of which will ever see the light of day). They were my nascent responses to God in prayer. I wrote more in seminary and my first few years as a priest. My songwriting ended around the time I moved to Mystic. I lost the calluses on my fingers. My guitar lay forgotten in the closet. And while I still prayed to some extent, I did not pray through writing songs.
But in the last few weeks, I found myself floundering – anxious, listless, gritting my teeth to get done what I needed to get done. When the urge to write a song hit me, it had to be the Holy Spirit inviting me to return to my old prayer practice as a way to bring me back to my foundation in God. The “time” I made to write the songs was time spent in prayer, without which my anxiety would have surely overwhelmed me. Writing the songs meant listening for the voice of God speaking through me. In the first song, I cried out to God to pick me up and carry me like the lost sheep. In the second song, I heard the voice of Jesus saying, “Please take a faithful leap into my love.” With these sung prayers, I understood what my heart needed – to remember I am always located in the midst of God’s love. (See below to here these songs.)
During this pandemic, not only are we physically isolated from one another, but the ambient level of danger in society has risen. Essential workers live in this danger all the time, and the rest of us seek to mitigate it by staying home. Right now, we are oscillating between tedium and terror, and with each swing the unreality of the crisis grows. I think this is why so many people have told me they are praying more – because they realize that prayer grounds them in the reality of God, which is a foundation much deeper than the day’s events. One parishioner who works in healthcare told me they are praying the rosary all the time. The words of the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary are constantly running through their mind. This tethers them to their relationship with God and reminds them that their work of caring for the sick is a response to God too. Another parishioner is reading daily morning and evening prayer. Another is spending extra time in silence. Another is taking prayer walks and trying to notice creation blooming even in the midst of crisis. Others are taking deep breaths and realizing that even a deep breath is a prayer.
This week, listen within yourself for those small yearnings from the Holy Spirit. In what way might the Holy Spirit be inviting you to respond to God’s foundational presence in your life? What impulse towards connection draws you deeper into your relationship with God? Perhaps it will be the traditional picture of bedtime prayers. Or an urge to serve. Or a walk. Or a song. Or silence. Or a breath when there doesn’t seem to be any more oxygen in the room. In whatever impulse wells up from within, know that God creates that impulse through the presence of the Holy Spirit. So even before we respond in prayer, God is there.
New Songs (recorded live during YouTube Morning Prayer services)