These are excerpts from a sermon preached at Trinity Church, Newport. I’ll continue this series on prayer both in these writings and in the pulpit.
Today I would like to talk to you about prayer.
How we pray to God depends a great deal on our image of God. When we pray, with whom do we imagine are we communicating? Our experiences–or lack–of God come into play. So does our sense of wonder and gratitude. We must factor in how we are affected by suffering, and what we believe about God in relationship to suffering. Finally, how we pray depends upon what we imagine is possible as a result of prayer.
In the Episcopal Church, we say a lot of prayers. Most we read from the Book of Common Prayer, a book designed to be the repository of prayers we pray in common, as one people, and also a collection of prayers for various occasions.
I love our prayers–to pray them in worship and on my own. But because we pray them from a book, we risk mimicking words without considering what we hope for in relationship to God. This can leave us with the impression that we can only pray with a book in our hand. That’s not true, of course, but we can understand how anyone of us could get that impression.
Jesus prayed “by the book,” or more accurately, by the scroll. We have his prayer book, so to speak, embedded in our own, for Jesus prayed with the psalms of ancient Judaism. The psalms are an astonishing collection of prayers, giving expression to the full range of human emotions. In praying with them ourselves, we’re encouraged to speak with equal candor before God, without censuring our emotions and thoughts.
Jesus also prayed on his own. He would go away for stretches of time on his own and pray late into the night or early in the morning. He prayed with and for other people. And he prayed with his actions. The great Jewish leader, Abraham Joshua Heschel, said of the time he walked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the now famous March to Selma, “I felt as if my feet were praying.” Jesus prayed a lot with his feet.
My hope is simply to encourage you in prayer, and remind you to think of prayer in the broadest possible terms. You don’t need a book to pray or think of prayer as something you only do in church.
The Apostle Paul, in one his letters, writes this: Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4: 6-7)
When Jesus prayed, he addressed God using an intimate familial word for parent–Abba–that could be translated as “pappa” or even “daddy.” He encouraged his disciples to do the same, giving an image for God of unconditional parental love. Think of the father in Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son, the one waiting anxiously to welcome his wayward son home, running to meet and embrace him on the road.
At his last supper with his disciples, Jesus said to them, “I do not call you servants any longer…but I call you friends. You are my friends.” (John 15:1)
So whenever you approach God in prayer, imagine yourself before a spiritual parent who loves you unconditionally, or a friend who has only your best interest at heart and wants to know all that both burdens and delights you.
You needn’t ever worry that you’re not good enough, or can’t find the words, or the image of God you carry isn’t the right one. St. Paul assures us that even when we don’t know how to pray, the Spirit of God dwelling within us prays on our behalf “with sighs too deep for words.”
In an introductory course on the Christian faith known as Alpha, pastor Nicky Gumbel makes three suggestions for prayer.
Keep it real. Be honest with yourself and with God. Remember the prayer with which we begin nearly every Sunday worship service: “O God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.” Acknowledging that God knows our secrets signals that we know they are there, too, and that we’re open to divine presence and mercy.
Keep it simple. When Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them to pray, he gave them the words we now know as the Lord’s Prayer. It’s a short and simple prayer. The writer Anne Lamott suggests that we can live most of our lives on three prayers alone: help, thanks, wow.
Keep it up. We can pray anywhere, anytime–as we walk, commute to work, when we can’t fall asleep at night, in conversation with loved ones and those we struggle to love. I relish even a few minutes a day of what Bill Hybels calls “chair time,” sitting in silence, a candle lit beside me, reflecting on a word from Scripture or offering what’s on my heart and mind, and listening for whatever God might choose to say to me.
Next week I will focus on why and how we pray for others, and what we can expect to change as a result of our praying.