“I lift up my eyes to the hills * from where is my help to come?”
This is about prayer, this verse from Psalm 121. So is our reading from Genesis and from St. Luke’s Gospel. This sermon is about prayer. Where do we focus our hopes, our needs, our fears, our joys, our concerns? As a faithful person we are called to focus all of that, our very hearts and minds and souls and strengths on God, and the primary means that we do that, how we describe doing that, is prayer.
The story of Jacob wrestling with the unnamed man on the banks of the Jabbock is one of the key stories in the Hebrew Bible. One of the commentators I use maintains that you can’t understand Jewish scriptures, hence, Christian scriptures, hence Jesus Christ, if you don’t understand this story. This is the genesis of Israel. Jacob becomes Israel, the father of the nation, achieves his identity in this story: “…for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” That’s the story of the Hebrew people, and of us, their spiritual descendants. And it is a story about prayer.
The parable of the Unjust Judge is a little more confusing, but as the opening verse says, the parable’s purpose was to encourage the disciples to “pray always and not to lose heart.” Now the message is not “if you nag God persistently enough that God will relent and grant your wish like the judge did.” No. It is a reminder that in times of crisis and seasons of despair: pray. Even if you don’t seem to get results: pray. It is a reminder not only to not lose heart in the midst of adversity, but that prayer was not just a last resort when all other help was lost (although it may be true that there are no atheists in fox holes, or right before the SATs start). Rather prayer, engagement with God, was the primary task of Christians. The widow’s unrelenting pursuit of justice, her faithful call for God’s will to be realized is an expression of the kind of faith Jesus requires of us. And like Israel’s striving with God, this happens in the context of prayer.
When you hear the word prayer, what comes to mind? ____ I’ve been at this in a pretty serious way for a long time and I still can get stuck on the idea of prayer as simply asking God for something. Hands folding, asking God for this, that and the other… that’s the image that often pops up. And I do do that. I don’t fold my hands or kneel that often, but if I say I’ll keep you in my prayers, I do. It might be at a stoplight, that is actually a fantastic place to pray, as I am opening the cattle gate at the ranch. Using those little micro-pauses throughout the day to address God is a great practice. It is all about the intention.
But that is where most of us stop: petitioning God for our own needs, intercession (asking something for someone else) or thanksgiving, or maybe one of the other primary forms of prayer (adoration, praise, penitence, and oblation). These are discursive forms of prayer; they put our consciousness, our spirit in conversation with God. That is where most of us go with prayer, which is a lot like the widow’s persistence with the Unjust Judge. Great. So how does that work?
Do you all know Garth Brooks’ great song “Unanswered Prayers?” The chorus goes, “And just because he doesn’t answer doesn’t mean he don’t care/Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.” It is a story about a man who goes home after many years and runs into an old flame, one for whom he had prayed so hard would be with him forever. But she wasn’t, and he looked at her; and then his wife, and he was grateful that those prayers hadn’t been answered. It is kind of a nice story. But is that how prayer works?
My very Anglican answer is: who am I to say? Maybe a more generous answer is to say: sometimes. Or, that has been many, many people’s experience over the millennia, answered (or thankfully unanswered) prayers. Because the efficacy of prayer is some slippery territory theologically. Bad things happen to good people. You can pray and pray for x to happen, or for y to stop happening, or z to recover. Sometimes it happens. Sometimes it doesn’t. Jesus is not actually saying that what you want will happen, that your specific prayers will be answered. (He is talking about God’s justice and from our finite, temporal vantage point what constitutes God’s justice is very hard to pin down). What he unmistakably is saying is that we need to keep at it.
Prayer doesn’t necessarily change the world – or doesn’t need to – but it doesn’t need to change the world out there for us to keep at it. Faith says keep at it, and faith is a legitimate source of knowledge. But there are also evidence-based reasons to pray. That’s the secular buzz word, right? Evidenced-based. We had some folks from the Spread Kindness campaign come to a clergy gathering to pitch spreading kindness. Shouldn’t take a pitch to clergy, we should take it as our holy duty, but we got an earful of evidence based reasons to be kind. People who are kind, like those who pray (specifically those who go to church) live longer. But that’s not what I am talking about.
I’m also not talking about the blind study some years ago where a group of American folks prayed for a group of women in Korea getting fertility treatment which resulted in statistically significant more pregnancies than the un-prayed-for control group. That might be true, but that is not what I am talking about.
What I am talking about is not that the world out there changes, that other people or their lots change, but that prayer changes us. Pope Francis says it best: First we pray for the poor, then we feed them. That is how prayer works.
What prayer can do is focus human attention and intention. We are what we eat. What we fill ourselves with, our bodies as well as our minds and spirits, that is what constitutes us. If you are always living in some future fantasy world, or are mired in nostalgia for a bygone era or bygone self, you become less and less what you actually are, what is actually happening. Being in a posture of prayer, proper prayer, where the attention of our beings and the intentions of our activity in the world converge, things can change. “I have a Dream” said Dr. King. That was a prayer.
So praying that the Ducks win is maybe not a proper prayer. But maybe if we pray that the spirit of athletic competition prepares these young people to be upright citizens and decent human beings we’ll be in better alignment with God and God’s will.
That example is really prayer working, prayer changing us. Because truly God doesn’t care about the Ducks winning. I know, sacrilege, but I heard a Canon, in Boston, preach on not praying for the Red Sox to beat the Yankees in 2004, but to pray for good officiating. Prayer, developing our practice of prayer, is in part developing a practice of seeing the world through God’s eyes. “I pray that I get this job!” A common prayer. But the woman also in consideration for the job is praying for exactly the same thing. A God’s eye view might point our prayer, “I pray that the right person for the job is hired. (And I hope that is me)!”
That’s a change, isn’t it? Seeing the world in a different way, from a different perspective. Because it is serious stuff to ask God for things. Being in a posture of begging from God, even if we never get what we are asking for, is good for most of us. For the high and mighty, being in a position of powerlessness is good for us. Prostrating ourselves before God reminds us that we are not in fact in control over much. For the lowly, the disenfranchised, oppressed, the powerless, our needs get the attention of God! We matter! To God! Enough to have an audience with the Almighty! That is change. That is prayer changing us.
But how? That is the theological modality of prayer, working on our intention and attention can change our relationship to God the world and everything. But how do we actually do it? How do we pray?
Well, who here has a prayer practice? ___ That is actually a trick question… if you are here, gathered together in at the mass, and you do this with some regularity, you have a prayer practice. Engaging in Common Prayer is the primary form of the primary work of Christians. As the BCP puts it, corporate prayer “…unites ourselves with others to acknowledge the holiness of God, to hear God’s word, to offer prayer and, and to celebrate the sacraments.” Because in the end, prayer is simply engaging with God: that is how we do it, that is what we call it. Be it the persistence of the widow with the Unjust Judge or Jacob wrestling with the nameless man who strikes him, and blesses him, and names him Israel.
So who has a prayer practice? What is it? ______ There are so many. There is also praying the Daily Office. It disciplines us, focuses our minds and immerses us in scripture and the language of our faith. Reading scripture. Meditating on it in a formal way like Lectio Divina, or just by reading it, letting your mind be carried by the Word. Study of other religious literature: theology, the church fathers, church history… study is a classic form of practice.
There is the realm of apophatic prayer, apo- (other than) -phania (to speak) – silence. Centering prayer, a proper noun for a form of Christian meditation, gazing at Icons, walking the labyrinth. In silence we are not acting with or speaking to God, we are being with the Divine, we are listening to the voice of God. Keating, Merton, St. Denis. Silence is a deep well.
Prayer can mark the course of our days. The Office does that, as does the Ignatian practice of the Examen, a practice of stopping at mid-day and evening to reflect on where God was in your life in the past hours. So does praying before meals. (Or be an advanced practitioner, pray when you are done and give thanks for having hunger satisfied). Prayer before bedtime. As the coffee perks. Check out the prayer tapes to the wall next to the coffee maker. Waiting for the train to pass, the light to turn, the grass to grow. A threshold prayer before you enter or leave somewhere. As the work day begins or ends. Paul tells us to pray ceaselessly. That is not as ridiculous (or as difficult) as you might think.
But prayer can take as many forms as there are pray-ers. As I’ve said before, my first experience of prayer was distance running. I pray a lot now on the rowing machine at the Y. In A River Runs Through It Norman Maclean makes a pretty convincing case for fly fishing as a form of prayer. Folk who bake the communion bread pray while kneading it. Thomas Merton has the wonderful poem about the brothers working in the forest, the swinging axes keeping time and there is the cutting board of Br. Lawrence’s kitchen. Ora et Labora, Pray and Work as St. Benedict taught.
Whatever you do that opens you up to God, that opens you to what de Caussaude called the “sacrament of the present moment,” the pulls you away from the cares and concerns for your life, and towards the cares and concerns of God: that is prayer. The complete connection to another human being… have you ever seen a woman nurse a child (or done it yourself) and there is just no gap between her and her baby, that complete presence… that will change you, and changed, you change the world.
In the strongest possible terms, I implore you, exhort you even, to consider developing a practice of prayer. I encourage you to find a place to be intentional with your attention. Where do you already pause? What opportunity is already in the path you walk each day. Start there.
Life is complicated. It is hard sometimes, and we can become overwhelmed with blessings and curses alike. We don’t have a lot of say in much of what happens in our lives. Putting ourselves in a posture of prayer maybe won’t change what happens in our lives or in the lives of those we share this existence with, but it can profoundly change how we relate to all of it. “Pray always, and do not lose heart.” AMEN