Sermon preached March 13, 2011
Texts: I Thessalonians 5:12-17; Romans 8:26-27; Psalm 42:1-6a
This first part is just for parents. How many of you ever heard your parents say to you, “Because I said so”? And how many of you determined, when you heard that, that you would never use that phrase with your own children? And how many of you have found yourself saying to your child, “Because I said so”? Hey, there are times when it just works!
Our Lenten emphasis this year is prayer. Already I have preached on prayer as we headed into Lent – last week, and as Lent began on Wednesday, and now I begin a specific series of sermons on prayer. I invite and encourage you to read along with others Marjorie Suchocki’s book on prayer, In God’s Presence.
But we could begin all this with a simple question. Why pray? Some might answer, “Because I said so” – the “I” here being God. That seems like a pretty powerful “I.” Why pray – because God tells us to. I Thessalonians 5:17 is read as an imperative, a command, “pray without ceasing.” Pray because God tells you to, end of story.
Let me suggest that this is not a very good reading of I Thessalonians 5:17, which seems much more a word of encouragement and invitation than a commandment, nor does this response to the question “why pray?” reflect a very mature kind of faith. “Why pray?” is a legitimate question. So, too, the question “What is the essence of prayer, what is the heart of prayer?” Let me further suggest that in answering this second question about the heart of prayer, we come pretty close to answering the first.
So what is the heart of prayer? On Wednesday evening I said that prayer was our spiritual breathing, as necessary for the health of our souls as breathing is for the health of our bodies. I believe that to be true, and it gets at the question of the heart of prayer, but does not answer it as completely as it needs to be. When we say that breathing is necessary for the health of our body, we can go deeper and describe the biochemistry of the human body and its need for oxygen and how the body uses oxygen from the atmosphere that it takes in during breathing. When I say that prayer is our spiritual breathing, I have not gone quite as deep. I have not yet described what this does for the soul which keeps it alive and healthy.
So what is the heart of prayer? Two words: relationship and transformation.
As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God (Psalm 42:1-2). At its heart, prayer is about a relationship with God, an on-going relationship with God. When we neglect our relationship with the God who created us in love and for love, something is amiss in our lives. St. Augustine wrote about God, you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you. (Confessions, I.1) It is as if we have this empty place in our souls that only God can find and occupy. Prayer is an acknowledgment of this longing for God, of this place we have for God in our hearts and souls. Prayer is also to come to understand something else Augustine wrote – God thirsts to be thirsted after (quoted in Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, p. 85)
Prayer is about relationship. One of the real gifts of Marjorie Suchocki’s book on prayer, is the emphasis she places on prayer as relationship, as genuine give and take between a God whose very nature is relational and we human beings. Prayer is openness to the God who pervades the universe and therefore ourselves, and … prayer is also this God’s openness to us (18) …. Prayer is the act of bringing our moment-by-moment connectedness to God into our consciousness (33). Prayer is “a dance of the divine presence” (32).
God is in relationship with us, by God’s very nature. God desires that relationship to be more aware, conscious, intentional on our part. God thirsts to be thirsted after. For our part we need that relationship to God because of the God-shaped space in the depth of our lives. Prayer is about this relationship, and here is one more thing. God doesn’t just wait for us to wake up, God actively invites the relationship of prayer. Saint John Climacus described the dynamic in this way: When fire descends into the heart, it revives prayer. And when prayer has arisen and ascended to heaven, then the descent of the fire takes place in the cenacle of the soul. (Zaleskis, Prayer, 143) God’s grace is the fire that comes into our hearts and invites prayer, and as we respond with prayer, that fire of God moves more deeply into the soul. God is so desirous of a deepening relationship with us that God not only initiates that relationship again and again, God even helps us with the language of prayer – God’s “Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” Paul tells us.
If relationship is one chamber of the heart of prayer, transformation is the other. Again, Marjorie Suchocki writes wonderfully about this. Prayer also opens us to the possibility of change, with the direction of that change oriented by God’s wisdom relative to us (33)…. Recognition of God can enhance our ability to live lives of peace, justice and beauty (18). When we pray, we should expect to be made different by our praying. In that sense, prayer is risky business. The God who will not leave us alone, will not leave us the same, either. When we open up honestly to God, we may discover wounded places inside, the healing of which will mean change. Connecting with the heart of God may open our hearts in new ways to the hopes and hurts of the world, and we may find that God is inviting us to do something about them. Prayer may not only change us, but the God we encounter in prayer also wants to change the world through us.
Prayer changes us… it leads somewhere specific and is not just an aimless wandering with no discernable purpose in mind. Its purpose is exposure to everything that is in us and the willingness to receive the inevitable changes that come as a result (Ulanovs, Primary Speech, 116). These words about prayer from Ann and Barry Ulanov are another confirmation that transformation is at the heart of prayer. It is an adventure that shapes the adventurer. It is a journey that leaves the explorer changed by what she has met along the way.
Pray without ceasing. It is an invitation to a relationship with God. It is an invitation to be changed, transformed, but the love of God and the God of love. If you are wondering how – read and discuss Marjorie Suchocki’s book and come to worship in the coming week.
To end with, I want to offer a testimony to the heart of prayer. I wrote about it earlier this week on my blog. A couple of weeks ago now, I was meeting with our Board of Ordained Ministry as we interviewed persons for ordination. We meet at a Catholic monastery and retreat center, and our evening worship is shared in their chapel. This particular night, the following passage was read from Colossians: As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other, just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do , in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.As I listened to these words, I was looking up at a crucifix at the front of the chapel. The figure of Jesus grabbed my attention in a way that a crucifix never had before. There was Jesus, lightly clothed, yet I knew him to be fully clothed with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience and love. And there was this overwhelming feeling that I wanted to embrace this Jesus, to offer compassion. I could almost feel myself doing this, that I was helping carry Jesus. There was an oddly wonderful physical sense to all this, but there was more. As I feeling the presence of Jesus in this powerful way, it was as if that presence was becoming part of me, penetrating my being. It did not last long, but it was powerful. Theologically and spiritually I could make sense of all this – in life I want to clothe myself with this Jesus, to let his presence make a difference in who I am. I want to carry Jesus into the world – offering compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience.
This was a powerful moment of prayer. It was a moment of grace, a moment of closeness to God in Jesus. It was an important moment along a transformational journey. A relationship was deepened, and I am changed a bit. I am moved more profoundly to seek to embrace the Christ in me and to offer the Christ in me to the world. That is the Christian task for all of us, and prayer is a vital part of that – not because I said so but because you can test it out. Amen.