University Congregational Church
March 15, 2015
“Places and Prayers; Prayer is Life Itself”
Wisdom of Solomon 18:14-15a
They say that Lent is a time for confession. So, I want to share one of my dirty little secrets with you today: I actually like teenagers! Well, most of the time. Some of the most terrifying and tremendous years at our house was when it was full of teenagers. The teenagers I’m talking about are the ones …
- full of life
- have great expectations for the future
- express deep emotions and beliefs
- are developing personal values
- are learning about love and being loved
- are passionate about many things
One thing many teenagers do is talk on the phone. I find this a particularly fascinating phenomenon – two friends who have been together during the day come home only to call one another on the phone and talk for hours. “What on earth is left for you to talk about?” That’s what I want to ask.
Even though it is hard to imagine, I remember a few things from the last century when I was a teenager. And I remember that what we talked about wasn’t the point. I had a phone buddy. We could talk for hours every night. About nothing… and about everything. We talked because we could.
“What are you doing?”
“Talking to you, of course!”
“Can you believe my parents …. My mom is in the kitchen mad at my dad because he went bowling again and she’s left to do the dishes.”
“Yeah, my parents are kind of in a weird mood tonight too.”
“Did you see what Shelly wore today?
“Could you believe it? I wouldn’t be caught dead in that!”
“What is she trying to prove?”
“How did you do on the chemistry test?”
And on it would go. We talked for the shear sake of sharing.
It occurs to me that this is what prayer is supposed to be. Praying for the shear sake of sharing the innermost thoughts of our hearts. If we evaluate our personal praying according to teenage phone talk, we may see how much of our praying is anemic, consisting primarily of requests. Friendships seldom survive if their conversations are focused on one side continually wanting things.
In other words, a mature Christian’s prayer must become more of a sharing with God for the shear sake of sharing. Brother Lawrence expands this idea of prayer as a dialogue, making his whole life an invitation to God to keep emotional company with him. Such friendship he expands literally to sharing the smell of lilacs and the taste of soup.
The Protestant Reformers added the dimension of contention to the concept of prayer. Since the test of friendship is its ability to survive anger, their prayers often involved a vigorous effort to change God’s mind. For Luther, Calvin, and Wesley, prayer as a vigorous conversation often involved three to five hours each day. While that may be daunting to us, the point is that prayer as a dialogue with God means setting aside specific periods of time for scheduled or formal conversation. Just as a teenager may not be able to live without ongoing conversations (just take away their phone to find out how important this is!), so people of faith may crave this Divine-human sharing. In this way, our living is slowly converted into “praying without ceasing”.
Having this kind of consciousness means to groan inwardly as we “hope for what we do not see.” Alfred North Whitehead calls this discerning a “prehending”: – experiencing imaginative feeling as God lures each unique situation to fullness. Others compare it to “midwiving” – standing on the edge of the future as the imagination falls in love with the not-yet.
Then, there are the quiet times of prayer. Imagine yourself sitting in silence in front of the fireplace, content to say nothing and do nothing, but sharing everything. It’s like pulling the electrical plug, and interrupting the ceaseless flow of chatter and freeing us to sink into the peaceful silence. This, too, is prayer.
It can happen naturally too – when we find ourselves sitting by the restless repetition of the ocean, or savoring the deep serenity of a pine forest, or watching a bird soar high in the air. This natural mode of consciousness can also be a form of prayer. And that free conversation is prayer if, in hearing a rustle in the leaves, we not only feel a sense of wonder and peace, but if we know that we are touching the depths of God. Our traditional word for today speaks of this kind of prayer. It is from the Apocryphal book of Wisdom of Solomon 18:14-15a:
For while gentle silence
Enveloped all things,
And night in its swift course was
Now half gone,
Your all-powerful word leaped
From heaven, from the royal throne.
An atheist wrote to an advice columnist for feedback on how to convince his grieving family that prayer is “mumbo jumbo” after the man’s brother was diagnosed with cancer a week earlier. The atheist never expected the response he received. The non-believer, who goes by the pen name “Not gonna pray” asked Andrew W.K of the Village Voice:
“My older brother was diagnosed with cancer last week. My whole family is freaking out and trying to deal with the news,” the individual wrote Andrew W.K. “Everyone is trying to find different ways to help, but something my grandmother said has really got me angry. She said we should all just ‘pray for my brother,’ like prayer would actually save his life.”
W.K. responded by saying he was “deeply sorry” about the brother’s diagnosis, but explained that the “idea of ‘praying’ is a lot less complicated, a lot more powerful, and a little different than you may realize.” The columnist continued with the most inspirational advice and explanation even a believer may have never considered — until now:
Prayer is a type of thought. It’s a lot like meditation — a type of very concentrated mental focus with passionate emotion directed towards a concept or situation, or the lack thereof. But there’s a special X-factor ingredient that makes “prayer” different than meditation or other types of thought. That X-factor is humility. This is the most seemingly contradictory aspect of prayer and what many people dislike about the feeling of praying. “Getting down on your knees” is not about lowering your power or being a weakling, it’s about showing respect for the size and grandeur of what we call existence — it’s about being humble in the presence of the vastness of life, space, and sensation, and acknowledging our extremely limited understanding of what it all really means.
I want you to pray for your brother right now. As a gesture to your grandmother — who, if she didn’t exist, neither would you. I want you to pray right now, just for the sake of challenging yourself. I want you to find a place alone, and kneel down — against all your stubborn tendencies telling you not to — and close your eyes and think of one concentrated thought: your brother.
I want you to think of your love for him. Your fear of him dying. Your feeling of powerlessness. Your feelings of anger and frustration. Your feelings of confusion. You don’t need to ask to get anything. You don’t need to try and fix anything. You don’t need to get any answers. Just focus on every moment you’ve ever had with your brother. Reflect on every memory, from years ago, and even from just earlier today. Let the feelings wash over you. Let the feelings take you away from yourself. Let them bring you closer to him. Let yourself be overwhelmed by the unyielding and uncompromising emotion of him until you lose yourself in it.
Think about him more than you’ve ever thought about anyone before. Think about him more deeply and with more detail than you’ve ever thought about anything. Think about how incredible it is that you have a brother — that he exists at all. Focus on him until you feel like your soul is going to burst. Tell him in your heart and soul that you love him. Feel that love pouring out of you from all sides. Then get up and go be with him and your family. And you can tell your grandmother that you prayed for your brother.
All religions of the world that believe in a divine being teach the importance of listening to God. When we talk, all we hear is our own voice. And sometimes, when we listen, all we are thinking about is what we’re going to say after the other finally quits talking! But when we listen – really listen – we may hear something that can inform our lives or enhance our souls. We hear God when that voice inside our mind says, “Have you really thought about this?” or “Take time to cool off before you say that.” Or “This opportunity is one you should really consider.” This is God’s Spirit. It is not hard to hear; it’s just hard to do the mental gymnastics so that we can believe what we’re hearing. You see, prayer is not so much learning to talk to God as it is becoming aware of a conversation already taking place deep inside.
Mystic Simone Weill says we dread being alone because silence requires great attention and that the cultivation of attention is an arduous, painful task.
It has been said that it is not difficult to hear God – it’s just hard to believe that what we are hearing is God. Prayer is like breathing out and breathing in. Prayer is life itself. It is opening our eyes and our hearts to the world around us – and talking with God just for the sake of sharing. It’s not so much what we say – or how we say it – it’s opening our lives up to include God.
Create in me, O God, a teenaged heart… that I might joyfully open my life and my ears for a relationship with you.