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.
Sermon for Sunday, August 28, 2016 || Proper 17C || Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
I hope it hasn’t escaped your notice that the gardens here at St. Mark’s look fantastic right now. Over the course of the summer, a group of dedicated parishioners came together to restore every one of the gardens here at the church — and there are about a dozen. Now that the weeds are plucked and the mulch is poured, the hard work of maintaining the gardens has begun. I don’t know much about gardening myself, but I watched the gardeners work and I listened to them strategize. And I learned a horticultural word unknown to me: deadheading; that is, the process of removing dead flower heads to encourage further growth and blossoming.Continue reading “Spiritual Deadheading”→
(Sermon for Sunday, October 20, 2013 || Proper 24C || Luke 18:1-8 )
“Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” So Luke tells us before sharing the story of a woman whose primary attribute is her unflagging persistence. But I wonder how many of us might like to tiptoe past Jesus’ reason for telling the story in the first place – his desire for his followers (then and now) to pray with dogged persistence, to pray always.
We might like to tiptoe past this notion because it seems so unrealistic. How could we possibly pray all the time? Surely Jesus is engaging in hyperbole. Perhaps he’s thinking that if he starts as high as “always,” then when we bargain him down, we’ll still be praying sometimes.
Or perhaps not. After all, Jesus doesn’t seem to be one for haggling. Perhaps he really does yearn for us to pray always, to pray with the same unflagging persistence as the widow in the parable demonstrates in her quest for justice. If that’s the case, then the popular understanding of prayer isn’t going to cut it; that is, an understanding of prayer as simple wish fulfillment. We need a bigger definition of prayer.
And so I submit as Exhibit A my yearly dive into C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. This time around, the beginning of Book Four, The Silver Chair.
Eustace Scrubb and Jill Pole are trying to escape a mob of bullies at the Experiment House, their ghastly boarding school. Jill has been crying, and the bullies can smell tears from hundreds of yards away. From their hiding spot, the two targets hear the angry shouts of the searchers. Eustace looks at Jill and wonders aloud if they might be able to escape to That Place. He begins calling out, “Aslan, Aslan, Aslan!” Even though she doesn’t know what he’s saying, Jill follows his example: “Aslan, Aslan, Aslan!” The bullies draw near, and Eustace and Jill scramble through the laurels and up a steep slope. The weathered old door in the wall is always locked, but this time – miraculously – the knob turns. And the two children step into Aslan’s country.
Immediately after they arrive, Eustace falls off a cliff, but a lion arrives just in time and blows him to safely to Narnia. The lion – naturally – frightens Jill Pole. She tries to slip away, but the lion begins questioning her. Her showing off caused Eustace’s fall, she confesses. For that display of pride, the lion gives her a task to perform. “Please, what task, Sir?” asks Jill.
“The task for which I called you and him here out of your own world,” says the lion. This response puzzles Jill. Nobody called them. They called out to – Somebody – a name she wouldn’t know. Wasn’t it she and Eustace who asked to come?
“You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you,” says the lion, Aslan, the Christ-like figure of Lewis’s fiction.
This exchange between Aslan and Jill Pole illustrates most vibrantly the foundational principle of our bigger definition of prayer. You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you.
The Catechism in the back of the Book of Common Prayer states the same thought like this: “Prayer is responding to God, by thoughts and by deeds, with or without words.” Years ago, when I first read this definition, I was flabbergasted. I had never thought of prayer as anything more than asking God for stuff. God, please give me a kitty that doesn’t scratch me. God, please help us win our soccer game. God, please make Grammy not sick anymore. Now, please don’t misunderstand, I’m in no way condemning these prayers of intercession and petition. Rather, every kind of prayer fits into a larger framework. Petition and intercession, which popular culture misunderstands as “wish-fulfillment,” are several bricks up from the foundation of prayer.
That foundation is, of course, God. More precisely, the foundation of prayer is God’s presence in our lives and God’s call upon our hearts. “Prayer,” says the Catechism, “is responding to God.” We never initiate a prayer. Our prayer is always a response because God has always been active, has always been breathing our lives into being.
Think of prayer as a phone call. You and I never dial the number: we only have the option to answer the phone when it rings. You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you. When we choose to answer, we affirm our desire to participate in our relationships with God. Prayer, then, is the inclination of our lives towards God, our response to what God is already doing in our lives.
How full of light and love would those lives be if we took seriously Jesus’ desire for his followers to pray always? How much light and love would we bring to those around us if we strove with unflagging persistence to respond to God in every situation?
If prayer is everything we do in response to God, then Jesus’ call to “pray always” seems a little more realistic – still challenging, still demanding discipline and rigor, but more realistic just the same.
Monastics down through the ages have practiced this bigger definition of prayer. Even the lowliest jobs at the monastery – peeling potatoes or weeding fields – were prayer. Monks prayed many times a day in their chapels, but the labor they performed in the meantime was prayer, as well. They “prayed always,” because they saw everything they did in their lives as a response to God’s presence. While we don’t have strict priors delegating our labors, we can still import the monastic example into our lives.
Look at your day, your week, your year. How do your engagements and actions display your response to God’s movement in your life? As a member of a family, God calls you to love and enjoy and forgive your spouses, children, parents, and siblings. As a person made in God’s image, God calls you to discover your authentic self, the version of yourself that God sees and celebrates. As a servant of God, God calls you to perform that one way in which you can bring light and love to the lives of those around you. When we respond to God in all these areas of our lives, we pray. We affirm our relationships with God. We live the abundant lives that Christ offers to all.
The prayers we pray this morning in our worship service, the lessons we hear, the music we sing, the meal we share, all nourish us for a life of prayer between now and next Sunday. Jesus yearns for us his followers to pray always, to respond to God’s movement at all times. This brand of unflagging persistence surely is challenging. But the good news is this: even attempting to pray always is a response to God. Even realizing that we aren’t praying always is a response to God. Every impulse towards generosity, welcome, hope, joy, love, and service is a response to God. As are the cries of our hearts when all is dark. Each day of our lives, we are met with myriad opportunities to pray, to be responsive to God’s movement. And this same movement gives us the grace to respond.
“You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you,” says Aslan to Jill Pole. “We love because he first loved us,” says the writer of the First Letter of John. Likewise, we pray because God first called us – called us into expansive, abundant relationship with God. What will our response be?