Nourishing Faith: Prayer

Come and fill our hearts with your peace.  You alone, O Lord, are holy.  Come and fill our hearts with your peace.  Al-le-lu—ia!  Come and fill our hearts with your peace.  You alone, O Lord, are holy.  Come and fill our hearts with your peace.  Al-le-lu—-ia!

Prayer is . . . . a song, a conversation, fresh-baked bread, a fountain bubbling in the distance. . . . prayer is deep listening, honest talk, vulnerability, union, communion. . . . prayer is the touch of a friend, the sound of a symphony, the serenity of a pure blue mountain lake. Prayer is . . . . a star-strewn sky, a question, laughter, tears, coming home.

The gospels speak often of Jesus’ prayer.  Sometimes with others; often alone.  Certainly he would have offered the ritual prayers of his Jewish faith. Baruch atah Adonai. . . . Yet he also seems to have used his own words, or no words at all, in the glimpses we get from the wilderness temptations at the beginning to the agonized cry from the cross My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

The morning text suggests that Jesus’ prayer practice was compelling and prompted the curiosity of his followers.  Teach us to pray.  Jesus’ response echoes across the millennia in words we know by heart and can rattle off by rote.  But let us not imagine for a moment that the words themselves contain the entirety of prayer.  What is written is fixed; static; immutable.  There are vital petitions for the Kindom to come on earth, for daily sustenance, for mutual forgiveness and strength in struggle.  Yet there is no explicit thanksgiving; no praise for the love surrounding us from birth.

The examples Jesus tells to urge perseverance in prayer are perilously close to reducing prayer to a wish list we present to the Almighty.  So as we consider prayer as a practice that nourishes faith, let us hear these words anew.  Let us listen between the lines for meaning beyond the plain text into the context.  See Jesus rising from prayer and receiving the request from disciples—was he proud of them for noticing? Glad for their desire to learn? Did he respond immediately with the prayer, or did he take time to compose his thoughts?

The term of address for God is surprising—not in its maleness—but in its utter familiarity with the Divine.  Abba is not strictly translated Father, but is a form used within a family—an affectionate name more akin to “Daddy” or “Papa.”   Could Jesus be inviting us to draw closer to God through prayer that asks questions, seeks truth, and opens us to deeper understanding — in other words, prayer beyond words that nourishes faith in a context of love?

A reading from the good news according to Luke, in the eleventh chapter, verses one through thirteen.   Listen, beloved community, for an invitation to prayer that connects us to the Source of life and love.   [Luke 11:1-13]  The Word of the Lord.  Thanks be to God.

One of the things I love about Presbyterians is the priority we give to learning, the cultivation of knowledge and intellect. But it has a shadow side, which is we’re hesitant sometimes to experience that learning on a gut level.  We prefer mind over heart and for heaven’s sake over body.  But as I thought about prayer as a practice that can nourish our lives and faith, I concluded that we needed less thinking about prayer, and more praying.

So we began worship by praying a Psalm in call and response style.  Rob offering words of praise to God, and we responding with particular intercessions.  More than half the 150 Psalms are addressed to God directly, and reflect a whole range of human emotion:  from joy and gratitude, sarcasm and humor, to lament and anger and despair.  If anyone imagines that we must use only religious jargon to address the Creator, you only have to nose around in the Psalms to realize there’s no one “right” way to pray; human language describing the full range of human realities is acceptable.

Or no words at all.   I heard David Brooks cite a long-ago interview he remembered in which Dan Rather was conversing with Mother Teresa about her relationship with God.  How do you pray, he queried. What words do you use?  Mother Teresa quickly fired back, Oh I don’t use words at all. I just listen.  Then Rather followed up with just a little hint of skepticism, Well, then, what does God say to you?  I can imagine a little smile tugging at the saints lips as she responded, Oh, he doesn’t use words at all.  He just listens.  [from the Scoper Lecture in Christian Thought and Q&A with David Brooks at the University of Virginia, 2024]

In a world full of sound and fury, constantly barraged with messaging, distracted by shiny things, and fearful that we are missing out when faced with unoccupied moments, could silence be a game changer?  To quiet our monkey-mind, to still our internal editor, and simply to be.  To be in the presence of Mystery we cannot explain.  To find in the silence the very voice of God?

PRACTICE:  Silent prayer.  Breathing in and out; trying not to form words or express ideas. Listening.  Being. Amen.

Can you imagine building five minutes of silence into your daily routine?  Sitting at your desk….just before logging on to your computer. . . . right before turning on the TV. . . . .before you get out of bed. . . . just after you get into bed. . . .    I’m preaching to myself here as much as anyone.

Sometimes words can become a bridge between ourselves and God.   We use words to pray spontaneously, or as one (such as the unison prayer of confession and the Lord’s Prayer).  I’m trying to send up a quick prayer spontaneously when I hear a siren or get stuck in the I-25 parking lot, or those times when a person’s face suddenly pops into my brain.  I don’t know what’s up with them, but you do, O God. 

Words set to music carry an additional benefit –more about that next week when we specifically think of the power of song to nourish faith and life.  I began the sermon by singing one of the simple two-line melodies from the Taize community in France.  Clearly this kind of sung prayer is not about performance.   Words –often from Scripture— sung repeatedly, to clear the mind and come into a space of openness to the Divine.

PRACTICE:  Let’s pray through singing.  Live in charity, and steadfast love.  Live in charity; God will dwell with you.

Like any discipline, prayer takes time and intention to cultivate.   The way it takes time and intention to brew coffee or make wine.  The way it takes time and intention to build a friendship.  How might giving some time and intention to prayer spark something good in us?  Something that may deepen our experience of Divine love and our ability to share it?  Something that taps into a power with which to live our busy lives more purposively, more abundantly, more joyously?

Friends, the goal isn’t longer prayers, or more prayers, but prayer integrated into our lives continuously.   We can use Jesus’ prayer to help us do that.

PRACTICE:  We’ll offer the Lord’s Prayer together following the Prayers of the Church.  As we do so, consider the truth of its language and petitions.

Abba.   Its very opening disarms our resistance.  We are opening ourselves to One who already knows and loves us, who takes delight in our conversation and in giving us good gifts, described not as “things” but Spirit, the very essence of Love which is our essence too.   Jesus placed himself—body and soul—into God’s hands, and even when he felt abandoned, it was to God he cried out.  He entrusted himself to God, even when he didn’t know the outcome or the reason or the hope.  Jesus’ prayer was grounded in his trust that God would provide all that was needed; from plain old daily provision to more challenging gifts of forgiveness and healing and under it all, a realm of love and light and peace here on earth, right now and yet still to arrive.

Little wonder that this is the prayer we offer every time we worship together!

The Prayers of the Church are ones in which the pastor seeks to gather joys and concerns into a single prayer that offers thanks to God for abundant blessings both spiritual and physical, and prays for the needs of the community and world.  I love Central’s prayer practice of writing concerns on cards that are read during the prayers, and I encourage you to write those now (you can put them in the comment section if you’re participating online).

I’ll read them in the concluding part of these prayers.  But we’re also going to make explicit what sometimes gets forgotten.  That is, not only the pastor but also the people pray.  Today’s practice (which I’ll explain in a moment) allows multiple voices to express our needs and thanks, our yearnings and questions, our sorrows and hopes.  Don’t be afraid to speak out loud when prompted.

And finally, a reminder that prayer begins with gratitude.   Sometimes it’s important to articulate those blessings, to be mindful of what we too often take for granted.  And sometimes, our feelings are too strong to be expressed in “mere” words.  A prayer practice I’ve increasingly used at meal times, in interfaith gatherings, and those times when the joy runs deep and tears flow is a simple “thank you.”   I invite others to join hands, and to look into each person’s eyes and say “Thank you.”   “Thank you.”  “Thank you.”  And after each person has been thanked to lift one’s hands and complete the prayer:   And thank you, God.

PRACTICE:   Please join hands, and look at a few of those around you.  Thank you.  Thank you.  Thank you.

Thank you God.