Meditating on prayer
Pieter Bruegel, “The Battle Between Carnival and Lent” (1559)
(Update: bizarre duplication of text now fixed!)
A few weeks ago, I was going to post here that I was giving up not-blogging for Lent. Instead, I continued to not-blog. Such is my Lenten discipline. But a few folks have encouraged me to post a sermon I recently gave at my home congregation, and after much hemming and hawing, I’ve decided to do so. I’ve given a handful of sermons at my church over the last few years, but haven’t felt comfortable circulating them much further than the 20 or so who heard them in church. Now that I’ve let the Left at the Altar audience shrink to a similar size, it feels safe enough. ;-) But my hemming and hawing was also due to a couple of things that were different about this sermon, compared to my previous efforts: first, it’s a lot more “autobiographical” than any other I’ve done, and second, it had nothing to do with the lectionary for the week (well, nothing, and yet everything!). I won’t make a habit of the autobiographical component. For that matter, I won’t make a habit of writing sermons! (Although, every time I say I won’t do another, I find myself doing another.) I’ll post a few others on my “Publications” page. For now, here’s the last sermon I plan to write for awhile. To my dad, uncle, and many dear friends who wrote or write sermons every week, my hat is off to you! I don’t know how you do it! And to the Left at the Altar friends who have stuck around, hey!, nice to see you again!
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Meditating on prayer – a sermon by Marilyn Matevia (Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Vallejo, CA, 3/16/14)
I have a confession to make. I’m not very good about praying. Now, I should qualify this: when people ask me to remember them, or their loved ones, in prayer, I certainly do that. On the whole, however, my prayer practice is haphazard, random, and distracted. I have friends and acquaintances – more devout than I – who make a habit of rising early in the morning to focus their attention and pray… to simply pray, only, with a list before them of the people and causes they wish to hold up in prayer. Others participate in “centering prayer” and “contemplative prayer,” practices to help focus the mind, and turn one’s attention solely to God or to the word of God. These practices also take real time; they require scheduling. They require an attention span.
I’m more apt to pray on the go, in my head, usually while doing other things. When I think of something that I believe is best directed to God, I address God. Then I resume my regularly scheduled programming. I go about this as if there’s a Bat Phone in my head – an exclusive phone line to God, like Commissioner Gordon’s dedicated line to Bat Man. Remember that phone? Fire engine red, with no rotary dial; just a light that blinked when the Commissioner was calling. That’s how I treat prayer: a dedicated line that I pick up when I need to, relatively certain there will always be a listener at the other end, no matter what hour of what day, and no matter what else I’m doing. Or – to stretch this analogy – I treat it as if, in my head, there’s a private intercom system: when I press the button, my thoughts are broadcast to God – until I let go of the button and my thoughts go back to being private. This is a comforting, if delusional image, and spares me the embarrassment of having to explain the rest of those thoughts.
I am not belittling this opportunistic variety of prayer. I’ll bet it’s familiar to many of you, too. And there are, as the poet/philosopher Rumi says, “a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground” – a hundred ways to pray. But I have always aspired to cultivate a “deeper” and more intentional prayer life. In fact, throughout grad school, every year at precisely this Lenten time – this time of self-examination and reflection – I would select a devotional guide from my personal library, or I would purchase a promising new one – like this one, 40-Day Journey with Dietrich Bonhoeffer – and open a journal, because (for me) writing can be a kind of meditation… and I would once again commit myself to this new, deeper prayer discipline. And every year, the plan would fail within a week. I’ve been using the same journal for eight years.
There is much to be said for a more methodical practice: praying in a quiet room or a quiet place – striving to be centered, simplified, undistracted, perhaps focusing one’s vision on a cross, a rosary, a stone, or a dirt smudge that looks like the Shroud of Turin or the Virgin Mary. But prayer “counts” no matter how or where we do it. As Mary Oliver writes in her poem “Praying” (from her book, Thirst):
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.
There’s the rub, of course: maintaining a silence in which another voice may speak; truly opening one’s heart and mind to God. Theologian Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki says “Prayer is the act of bringing our moment-by-moment connectedness to God into our consciousness. … Prayer opens us to God’s presence and/or guidance, and thus shifts our ability to receive whatever guidance is appropriate for ourselves and the communities of which we are a part” (In God’s Presence: Theological Reflections on Prayer, 33).
I think about prayer a lot. Like flossing regularly and taking vitamins and eating dark green leafy vegetables, I probably think about it more than I actually do it – at least the intentional “I’m going to pray about this” variety of prayer. If we count the spontaneous Bat Phone calls, it happens more than I realize. Mary Oliver said, in an interview on NPR, that her prayer was often “involuntary,” and I think I knew what she meant! In any case, lately I’ve been thinking about prayer even more. Many of you now know that I was recently diagnosed with a very early, very, very treatable breast cancer. That was a bit of a surprise to me, but before the surprise came the regular mammogram, and then the call back to re-image a suspicious looking area; I still was not alarmed, because that has all happened several times before. So on the day of my re-imaging, I sat at the health center awaiting my turn and what I thought would be a certain dismissal. Across from me was a young man who was splitting his attention between his text messages and a very young infant in a stroller he occasionally jostled. At one point, an equally young, worried-looking woman came out of one of the exam rooms – wearing the dressing gown we have to put on for these tortures – and she spoke quietly to the man, then hustled down the hall to one of the diagnostic rooms. I put two and two together: new parents, new baby. (I didn’t go to school all those years for nothing.) And the mother appeared to be at the center for some kind of follow-up exam.
Now, I know prayer doesn’t really work this way – life doesn’t really work this way – but for someone reason, I half-prayed, half-thought to myself, “if one of the two of us is going to get some bad news this week, I hope it’s not her.” (I’d like to go back and confirm that it was indeed just one of us who got some bad news! I’d hate to think this turned out to be a two-fer.) Entertaining that thought made me start thinking about the nature of prayer: what changes a thought from a wish to a prayer? Is it that intercom button I was talking about? And what is appropriate to pray for? World peace, sure. Rain, probably. Healing? A job? A football game?
Marjorie Suchocki again, says that what we do becomes prayer as soon as we address it to God. She writes “Some think of prayer as little more than a meditation that quiets us down, something like a good nap, in the midst of our busyness. Too easily we think of prayer as really talking to ourselves, just thinking things over. But prayer is not to ourselves, it is to God, and we must take that seriously” (In God’s Presence, 34).
Back to the mammogram center for a moment. I emailed (our worship coordinator) that very week to say that my sermon topic for today might be on prayer. I had no idea, of course, that within a couple weeks of that email, I would myself be turning up on the prayer lists of various friends and family, and even the barest of acquaintances – a few of whom found out what was going on when I had to suddenly renege on some commitments. My dad, a prostate cancer survivor, said, “people will be praying for you, and you’ll feel it.” I wasn’t sure what he meant, but there IS a sort of shift in the force field, a warm, fuzzy feeling that comes over you when you hear that perfect strangers are pulling for you. (A good friend who is, like me, on the liberal spectrum of politics and theology, told me that her brother – a very conservative Christian – put me on the prayer list at his church. She emailed gleefully, “just thought you’d want to know that even THE BAPTISTS are praying for you.”)
All of these people – and many of you – were praying for a good outcome to surgery, for coping, for strength and patience for me and my partner. All of which are coming along very nicely, by the way. And knowing these prayers were being sent was a great help to me, because I felt funny about praying for myself. It’s an awesome power that we invoke when we call upon God in prayer, and it seems to me that such an awesome power should be directed outside, to the people, creatures, and situations where it’s most needed. Also, it hardly seems worth mentioning – when the needle biopsy has already been sent off for analysis – that we would really prefer not to have cancer. Duh… Of all the things we think we need to spell out to God, you’d think that one would be a given. Maybe we need to expand Anne Lamott’s list of essential one-word prayers – “help,” “thanks,” and “wow” – to include, “duh.” And perhaps, “really?” And a personal favorite, “whatever.” Years ago, when I was praying fervently for a terminally ill friend, I reached a point where I just stopped asking for specifics. As far as I could tell, it never “worked.” I got to the point where I simply prayed, “whatever.” “Holy God… Whatever. Amen.” My ways are not your ways. Clearly. If they were even remotely similar, then some of life might be a little more comprehensible.
So, “help!, thanks!, wow!, duh, really?, whatever…” Six one-word prayers that cover the gamut of human experience. :-) But the gamut of human experience – however vast it may seem to us – is but a blip on the cosmic radar. We truly have no idea what in the world is going on, or what in the world needs to happen – however much we may think we do. And this is one of the points where we go badly astray – trying to make God in our image, to domesticate God, as (our former pastor) would say, and to find in God’s response to prayer the answers we want to hear, and the outcomes we want to see. There is an amusing passage in Annie Dillard’s book, Holy the Firm, where she writes:
“On Sunday mornings I quit the house and wander down the hill to the white frame church in the firs. On a big Sunday there might be twenty of us there; often I am the only person under sixty, and feel as though I’m on an archaeological tour of Soviet Russia. The members are of mixed denominations; the minister is a Congregationalist, and wears a white shirt. The man knows God. Once, in the middle of the long pastoral prayer of intercession for the whole world – for the gift of wisdom to its leaders, for hope and mercy to the grieving, and God’s grace to all – in the middle of this he stopped, and burst out, ‘Lord, we bring you these same petitions every week.’ After a shocked pause, he continued reading the prayer. Because of this, I like him very much” (Holy the Firm, 57).
We often pray for specific things, specific outcomes. And when we don’t see exactly what we ask for, we get impatient. But, as my dad likes to say, “God is not Santa Claus.” And as Marjorie Suchocki puts it, in what she describes as a relational theology of prayer, “Prayer is a partnership with God, not a manipulation of God.” “…(P)rayer is God’s invitation to us to be willing partners in the great dance of bringing a world into being that reflects something of God’s character.” We may not see what we wish to see, as quickly as we wish to see it – but in praying for it, we change something: ourselves. We open ourselves, we become attentive to the situation. And when we pray together, we become attentive en masse. This gives God a lot to work with. In fact, it may be that God puts us all to work. “We risk being used by God as answers to our own prayers,” writes Marjorie Suchocki (In God’s Presence, 50). Be careful what you pray for!
In the Adult Class, we are reading Marcus Borg’s Evolution of the Word, which arranges the books of the New Testament in the order they are believed to have been written, and gives some historical context for each one. We’ve just gone through the letters of Paul, and I found myself attending better to something a friend pointed out to me years ago, in a friendly theological exchange about whether and how prayer “works.” She called attention to how consistently Paul uses prayer to care for the body of Christ. He begins each letter with an assurance that he remembers the community constantly in prayer, and he thanks them for their prayers for him; he closes the letters with specific prayer requests. As my friend put it, “Prayer is part of the work of the communion of saints for the common good.”
Prayer is work. It is not passive. It may feel passive when we pray from a distance, about distant events, but we are – in essence – putting ourselves on call. We may pray for forgiveness of our individual and collective sins, in thanksgiving for our individual and collective blessings, in individual or collective frustration at the way things are, but we are placing ourselves in communication with God, and communication is a two-way street. We open our hearts and minds to the will of God.
It seems fitting to close this reflection with the Prayer of St. Francis. Please join me:
Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let us sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master, grant that we may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.