Sermon preached October 24, 2010
Texts: Proverbs 1:1-6, 20-23; Psalm 131; Luke 18:1-8
What do you think of when you think of prayer? Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. If I should live another day, I pray the Lord to guide my way. I hope I haven’t given anyone any ideas. If your neighbor looks a little drowsy, please nudge them gently.
By the way, how many of you learned that prayer as a child. Honestly, it is a rather frightening prayer – praying every night about death! Or maybe when you think about prayer you think about the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer many of us also grew up with. Or when you think about praying, perhaps you think about who is sick and what to ask for – prayer as asking, petition, supplication.
This past summer I attended a continuing education event called The School of Congregational Development. It is a significant denominational continuing education endeavor and has been held for ten years in various parts of the country. This summer it was in Nashville. One evening, the conference helped sponsor an event with the United Methodist Committee on Relief that was to be a fund-raiser for Haiti and for Nashville – Haiti recovering from the earthquake and Nashville recovering from Spring flooding. The featured speaker for the evening was Tony Campolo. That night Tony talked about a lot of things, prayer among them. He talked about his own developing understandings and practices of prayer. For a long time he understood the primary mode of prayer to be asking, but he contended that there were limits to that understanding. That hit him one night as his son was going to bed, announcing that fact. “I’m going to bed now. I’m going to pray. Anybody want anything?”
My guess is that this is sort of our default mode for understanding and practicing prayer. What do we want? What does someone else need? How much trouble are we really in, as in “O.K. God I know it has been a long time since we last spoke but I did not have time to study for this test so could you help me out?”
The parable Jesus tells in Luke 18 seems to reinforce this understanding of prayer as asking. “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” He goes on to tell a story about a judge who is not a particularly likeable character. He keeps getting petitioned for justice from a widow, a persistent widow, who nearly wears him out. It is because of this that he grants her justice. Are we to pray like the persistent widow? Is God really like an uncaring judge who only responds because he gets tired of the constant petitions? What if Jesus is using some humor here, offering a riddle? There seems to be other possibilities in this story. God isn’t really like the judge. Jesus says that God quickly grants justice. God is always listening and responding. In a surprising way God is more like the widow than the judge – God is persistent in pursuit of justice and relationship. God wants to be connected with us!
“Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance to the gate she speaks.” Wisdom is an essential characteristic of God, and in these words from Proverbs, where wisdom is a woman, wisdom is the one crying out – crying out for you and for me to pay attention, to listen to hear. Maybe the best response is something more than chattering back to wisdom and God with all our requests. Anybody want anything?
I am not dismissing prayer as asking. I pray those kinds of prayers all the time. When I am at a hospital bedside, something more than silent prayer seems required. So, too, in the face of grief, sadness, difficulty – though there are moments when some of life’s hardships also require silence. I am not dismissing prayer as asking but inviting us to other dimensions – dimensions of discernment and contemplation, two practices that Diana Butler Bass identifies as an important part of Christianity for the rest of us. I am inviting us to think about, experience, and practice prayer as listening with our hearts and with our souls – prayer as silence.
Christians believe that human beings have the capacity to hear, see, touch, and feel God – a genuine sensing of truth and beauty through which we know God and know God’s will. Christians call this discernment. (Christianity For the Rest of Us, 91) Diana Butler Bass goes on to talk about discernment as “a practice that can be developed through participation in reflection, questions, prayer, and community.” It is a practice “that involves self-criticism, questions and risk” (95). The central questions are “God-questions” (94), that is, questions about where God’s Spirit may be moving in the midst of one’s life and in the midst of a Christian community. One of the places where we continue to need the practice of discernment in our life together as First United Methodist Church is around the question, “what is the good we can do?” Phrased differently, “what is the good God might be calling us to do?” We know there is more good that needs doing in the world than we can do as this church, though we keep our hands in a lot of things. But we cannot do it all. Given who we are, where we are in our life, who we are in this community, what is the good we can do? We need practices of reflection, prayer and questions to help us continue to discern this. Some pieces of the puzzle are in place – mentoring, Ruby’s Pantry, Christian care giving within, welcoming all - and the list goes on – but what else might we need to do. Who else should we be reaching? What other hurts in the world calls to us most strongly?
And if we engage in the practices of discernment, if we ask questions about our life together, we need to leave space for answers. The same is true for our individual lives. If we ask questions of ourselves and of God, we need to leave space for answers. Some of that space should be quiet space. Bernard of Clairvaux (117): Continual silence, and removal from the noise of things of this world and forgetfulness of them, lifts the heart and asks us to think of the things of heaven and sets our heart upon them. I find that amusing when I remember that Bernard lived in the twelfth century. How noisy could it have been? Meister Eckhart (1260-1327): “Nothing in creation is so like God as silence.”
Tony Campolo shared that his understanding and experience of prayer has moved in the direction of more silence. Sometimes he simply prays, “Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me” and then is quiet.
I know for some of you the very idea of that kind of contemplation, that kind of silent prayer sends shivers. I genuinely believe we have different spiritual styles and differing levels of need for silence. But even with that, I believe we all need a little silence sometimes.
I encourage you to take some time for silence, for paying attention to what’s going on inside, and to where God might be moving in your life. Start small – two minutes even. Go from there. Perhaps begin with words from Psalm 131. “I have calmed and quieted my soul.” See if you don’t hear God a little bit more in doing this. See if you don’t hear something deep within a bit more clearly.
In Advent, the four Sundays before Christmas, I am going to invite any who wish to come early to pray. We will gather at 8:45 and have five minutes of silence as a part of that prayer time. I know it is early. I know many don’t come until 10 a.m., but if you don’t want to physically be here, I am going to invite you to take some time at home before coming for silent prayer. If it seems worthwhile, we may try it again during Lent. Maybe we will all hear something of the voice of God’s wisdom for our life together.
In her chapter on contemplation, Diana Butler Bass quotes teacher and theologian Richard Rohr. “When the church is no longer teaching the people how to pray, we could almost say it will have lost its reason for existence” (118). There is a lot of good to be done in the world, and we need to be doing some of it. While we cannot do it all, as a church part of the good we must do is help people connect more deeply with God through prayer and discernment. It is part of the very definition of being church.
As a final lesson in prayer, I offer this Mary Oliver poem – “Praying.”
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.