As I mentioned earlier, on the third Sunday of each month we try
often to go a little further, a little deeper, in contemplating and
practicing prayer. This third Sunday in Lent is a good time to do this.
I begin with hymn text from the fifteenth century by Bianco de
Siena. It's old fashioned, but it speaks to me as an overture to
Come down O Love, divine,
seek thou this soul of mine,
and visit it with thine own ardor glowing.
O Comforter draw near,
within my heart appear,
and kindle it thy holy flame bestowing.
The best way to engage prayer is to pray, but I want to explore
three ideas as a starting point for our journey. They're all
inspirations to pray. First is the notion that prayer is wanting God.
Second is the assertion that God is near. And third is the affirmation
that God wants us. I hope that these help us.
William McNamara is the person who wrote this short, rich summary of
our topic: he says "Prayer is wanting God, not wanting to want
God." Prayer is wanting God. It's not something endlessly
mysterious, although it certainly contains mystery. It's not
inconceivably complex, although it deals with the most complicated of
concerns. But whether our prayer is silent, spoken, expressed in
action, individual or collective, it is defined by wanting God, which
is simple and also revolutionary and amazing.
On some level, all of us came into this room this morning because we
want God. Not because we know everything or trust everything or accept
everything, but because we want something that is, indeed, beyond
things. We want God. So in some way the mere act of our entering this
room is a prayer.
Now we all want God, indeed we each want God, in many
different ways. Sometimes we want God in silence, or supplication,
which means something about our times of need. But sometimes we want
God amidst experiences of ecstasy, joy, irrational exuberance, and that
can mean almost the opposite of silence. But it's all about wanting
God, which makes the implicit claim that God's presence is more
important than God's distance.
I do not want to live in a world without God's presence. I really
don't. As strong as is my ego, and as much my distaste for
powerlessness of sorts, as much as I disdain so much of the history of
God's people in crusade and inquisition and discrimination and
exclusion and just plain old mean-spirited stupidity, and as much as I
want to live in a world without all of that, I don't want to live in
one without God.
There is almost nothing that I know about love, about justice, about
inclusiveness, hope, respect, health, intellect, about global politics,
hunger programs, social progress, illness, evil, relationships, and my
own ability to sleep soundly at peace with myself that is not touched
by God. That's a whole bunch of other sermons, but it all comes down to
the truth that I want God. I'm not saying that my whole life is a
prayer. I am saying that I value prayer and even need prayer, always.
The Biblical scholar Gunther Bornkamm says that the essence of
Jesus' prayers, all Jesus' prayers, has one simple message: God is
near. It all comes down to that. God is near. Consider the prayer that
Jesus taught his disciples that we repeat today. God, thy Kingdom come.
Thy will be done. Give us daily bread. Immerse us in the economy of
interpersonal forgiveness. Let the cup to pass from us. Have you
forsaken us? We believe that you are near, that you hear, that the time
that we are in and the time that we are entering are times touched by
you. As close as our heart, our breast, our body, the body of Christ.
God, you are near.
We heard two Biblical witnesses about the voice of God and the
proximity of God in the readings this morning. First we heard about
Elijah in that dramatic, astounding moment of anxiousness and fear and
purpose climaxing in his run from Jezebel and perhaps from God, but God
keeps feeding him and finally says, get out of your cave Elijah, and
I'll be right there. And then we witness the litany of explosive,
almost supernatural events where there arrives a rock-crushing wind,
but God is not in the wind, and an earth-shaking tremor, but God is not
in the earthquake, and a holy, searing, consuming fire, but God is not
in the fire. It makes me wonder why insurance companies still call
these "acts of God," when the scriptures say they aren't.
Because after all those comes God's act. God's voice, actually. The RSV
names it as a "still, small voice." The NRSV says it is the
"sound of sheer silence." No one translates it sufficiently:
God's voice is bath qo* (pronounced bat cole), which as I said a
few weeks ago comes through quite simply as "the daughter of a
Have you ever heard the daughter of a sound? It's not always helpful
to ask if people hear voices. But have you heard the daughter of a
sound, sensing God's presence? I have. Because sometimes I realize that
God is near.
In Kings we learn about what it sounds like when God is near. The
Apostle Paul talks about what we sound like when we draw near to God.
Here in Romans he's talking about when life is hard. He's addressing
when we're under duress, persecution even, and waiting in body and soul
just to get better. He pleads for "the redemption of our
bodies," and we can all sense what that means. Then he introduces
to our language both the essence and the idiom of how we sound,
sometimes, when we're talking to God about our deepest concerns. Listen
to these two phrases, the first of which says "The Spirit helps us
in our weakness," and then "the Spirit intercedes for us,
with sighs too deep for words." Sighs too deep for words.
If these two phrases are translated awkwardly but literally, the
first says that "the Spirit takes a share in the weakness of
us," and the second one says "the Spirit supplicates on our
behalf with groans unutterable." Is that how we pray in God's
presence? With sighs too deep for words and groans unutterable, beside
someone with a share in us?
Prayer is wanting God. God is near.
But there is one more thing, too. God wants us. What I learn from
the scriptures, from community, from history, and from simply paying
attention in church, if you will, is that God wants me, too. God wants
each of us and all of us.
Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki is a theologian who writes about prayer.
This is kind of a long passage, but it doesn't take a lot of
explaining, so it worthily supplants my words. And it is completely
worth the time. Suchocki writes "Suppose it is valid to say that
recognition of God can enhance our ability to live lives of peace,
justice, and beauty. Suppose that prayer … constitutes this
recognition, and that the recognition is not necessarily limited to our
intellects but goes beyond the depths of ourselves. Suppose that prayer
is our openness to God who pervades this universe and therefore
ourselves and that prayer is also this God's openness to us." Now
listen to this: "In such a case, prayer is not only for our sakes
but for God's sake. This would make prayer essential to God as well as
to ourselves. What if prayer increases the effectiveness of God's work
with the world? …our prayers make a difference to God… (which)
brings us to the basic (claim): God works with the world as it is in
order to bring it where it can be.
Prayer changes the way the
world is, and therefore changes the way the world can be. Prayer opens
the world to its own transformation." Or in my words, God wants us
for new creation.
Isn't that the essential story from Genesis to Amos to Romans to us?
God wants and calls and asks us to be involved not only with the divine
in our midst but with the creation of the divine that we are in the
midst of. Faith and prayer and church and theology aren't only about
something that we discover or practice or assemble or deploy. They are
about the need of the world, the need of ourselves, the need of God. It
is fine and good to pray when airplanes take off or when automobiles
crash. It is right to pray on Sundays and at dinnertimes, thankful for
Sabbath and food and inherited faith. We do that because we want God,
because God is near, but also because God wants us, and our existence
changes when we enter it and endow it with our prayers for more.
Indeed, the issues of love and justice, inclusiveness and hope, health,
politics, hunger programs, and all the others are different because of
our prayer. They need our prayer.
I have preached before on scientific studies about prayer and
different reflections on its difficulty: prayer is hard, even for
Jesus' disciples. I've preached on the similarity between Eastern
practices and Zen and ancient Christian discipline and on some simple
devices for prayer. But today I make those three assertions for one
reason: our whole creation needs our prayer. As quiet as the daughter
of a sound. As difficult as groans unutterable. As essential as
divinity. God's creation needs us.
"Wait a while and watch and pray," says Jesus. Three
ingredients there, too. Perhaps we can be with each other, learn from
each other, and speak with each other words to transform the world to
where it can be by changing where it is with our prayers beyond the
mind we have. There's a revolutionary grace of God and act of true
Copyright © 2008
Kenneth F. Baily. Used by permission.
*Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, from In God's Presence, Theological
Reflections on Prayer, © Chalice Press, St. Louis, Missouri, 1996.
This bit if from page 18 - 19, but the whole book is wonderful.