What was your first experience of prayer? I can't remember it. My guess is that it was table grace. The table was set. Steam was rising from the food from the oven. And heads are bowed. "Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts, which we have received from thy bounty…" I know we sang the grace, too. "For health and strength, and daily food we give thee thanks, O Lord."
But what was the first experience of really praying? What was the first experience of more than just the words in the book? Perhaps your parents brought you to church and your Sunday school teacher said, "We're going to sing `Jesus loves me,' and then we're going to have a little prayer. Does anyone have anybody they would like to pray for? Yes, Cindy?"
"I'd like to pray for my daddy. He's going out of town next week to a conference, and I want him to be safe and bring me something when he comes home."
"Okay, Cindy…well, we can pray for your daddy to be safe, but let's just leave it at that. Brian, did you raise your hand?"
"My mother said that the lady next door is sick. She's got some sort of condition that makes her want to go inside when I go out to play. Mommy says that she can only stay outside to weed her garden if I stay really quiet, and I tried to stay really quiet, but you know…sometimes when my little sister comes out and tries to ride on my bicycle I get angry and I yell at her and she yells back, and mommy says that it's making the lady next door get really sick. And I don't want her to be sick, but my sister is really mean, so I guess I want to pray that the lady next door feels better and that my little sister just stays away from my stuff…"
"Okay, Brian… Patricia?"
"Yeah…I want to pray for a million dollars."
"Why do you want a million dollars, Patty?"
"I don't know. I just want it. I could buy a lot of things with it."
"And you could give some of it to the church, right?" (Pause.)
"Patty, with a million dollars you could afford to give a lot of money to the church, and to the people around you who really need help, and you'd still be able to buy toys and candy." (Pause.)
Did any of you have those kinds of conversations with your parents or teachers about prayer? The grown up tries to steer the youngster ever so gently to pray both honestly and unselfishly. And it's hard to do with children, because they know how to ask for things they want—but to think about others—to think about a big picture is new and confusing.
And prayer continues to be a mystery—how it works, what it means... When we pray the words of The Book of Common Prayer we are borrowing someone else's language, but we fill those words with our hearts so that the sentiment of those words resonates into us and out of us. For all Christians who worship together with fixed liturgy—like us—that is how we pray together. Our many temperaments find a common expression in common prayer. For some Christians of other backgrounds, the prayers in the book seem inauthentic—like they don't really come from the heart—when in fact, for people who are part of this tradition—the words in the book may be very authentic. The words in the book serve to bring out the intentions that roam around inside of us and have trouble coming out on their own.
You go into the pharmacy to buy a birthday card and you stand there reading through them—trying to find the one that says what you would write, if you could. It's an interesting exercise, because the greeting card writers try to come up with cards that really say what we want to say. And if you care about that relationship, you will stand there and really think through those words and how the person might receive them.
Near Valentine's Day I was looking through the cards for Karin, and I was interested to see how many cards used the expression, "have you by my side." I wondered if "by my side" was thought to be more masculine than "with me." Those are two prepositional phrases that mean, essentially, the same thing; but "with me," somehow sounds a little weak next to "by my side."
How often do you drive to the store or work or wherever, and in your mind you're trying to find the right greeting card to send God? Is it the one with the big red rose on the front and the big, heavy cursive lines that say, "Dear God, you have always been there for me. Through thick and thin. Through storm and calm. In the times of my distress you have brought peace. In the moments of quiet, you have been my strength. I have always been glad that you have been…by my side." Does that sound right?
Or is it the funny card? The Shoebox Greeting lady in the frumpy hat and sunglasses. "Lordy, lordy…look who is older than dirt! Literally! Love you lots God—keep it real." I personally wouldn't send that card, but I wouldn't criticize you if you did.
I'm sure God would love to get any greeting card you'd like to send. Just the prayer that says, I love you, I'm thinking about you. Even if you made it with construction paper and crayons, like children. Little G, big O, oddly shaped D, and you run out of space to write anything else.
Or maybe you'd like to write a letter to God, more like a grown up. Out comes the paper and pen, or maybe the laptop and printer.
"Dear God, Thank you for your assistance in connection with a few of the matters that have recently come before me. I'm afraid that some folks have just been commended to my prayers, several of them are very sick and, as you know, my concern is for their health and well being. Please find enclosed the list of names and their attending conditions. I am, of course, deeply grateful, and Karin joins me in sending our love to the communion of saints and the company of heaven. Yours very faithfully…"
Too formal? Yes, I agree. But sometimes formality is easier, sometimes formality is actually quite authentic to where we are.
But I have known, and I am sure you have, too, what it is to not be able to pray. To have something come up in your life or in a friend's life, and you have absolutely no idea how to pray for them. It can't be reduced to getting something, or getting rid of something. It's not as simple as that, because there are complexities to the situation where we honestly do not know what the best thing would be…or what needs to change and doesn't need to change.
I have known situations where the whole mess seemed so completely, ridiculously tangled that I was seriously in doubt as to whether anything could make it better, and then one little, tiny thing…something seemingly so insignificant in the grand total…or something that I thought could never in a million years be changed, shifted only slightly, and the whole situation resolved itself almost automatically.
How do you pray to the air traffic controller? How do you pray to someone who already knows what you need before you ask it, and who is likely going to answer your prayer with a different answer than you ever thought possible?
In situations like those, when the whole thing is just so overwhelming, it reminds me of this section from Paul's letter to the Romans. "The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God."
It is such a comfort to think that God knows… God knows.
When you're driving in your car…
When you're sitting alone…
When the doctor is having you wait…
When you're mowing the grass and your brain is darting from family to friends, from sick list to personal needs…
When you're missing a loved one…
When you need someone to say "I love you…"
When you heart breaks because you don't know how it will ever get better…
When you have felt so bad that you can't feel anything at all…
We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep…way too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows…
Prayer is such a mystery. When you consider all that we know about God, through the life and teaching of Jesus, just the thought of addressing a prayer to God in the oratory of your heart can seem overwhelming.
I think Paul would have wanted us to know that being overwhelmed is not a sin. Being overwhelmed by life, by family, by situations beyond our control is part of the deal. I'm not being anti-intellectual here, but I really don't think that our minds are supposed to handle all of it. I think we are meant to have faith, and to remain faithful in the midst of the crazy.
I think sometimes utter silence, even confused silence, may be the most authentic prayer. Because, if Paul is right, the Spirit is searching through all of that. The Spirit is seeing the pain and the anxiety alongside the love, the hope…all rolled into one.
I think what I'm trying to say, and what I think Paul is saying, is don't be afraid of the holy silence that surrounds the overwhelming problems in your life. Don't be afraid. Take heart. God knows.
I want to offer a prayer written by the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. If you are overwhelmed by difficulties and are trying to be faithful in the midst of uncertainty, I think you will find this helpful.
Y LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please You does in fact please You. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that, if I do this , You will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust You always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for You are ever with me, and You will never leave me to face my perils alone.
If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider giving to the church where you feel most at home.
The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.