Based on the Scripture readings:
2013 March 10
At least once a year, maybe quarterly (or even more often), my prayer life needs attention. It's ironic because I have a Honda that can go back and forth to Maine ten times a year for ten years before it needs fluids; but I can't go back and forth to work without my prayer life drying up sometimes.
Maybe you are not like that.
Maybe you are.
Personally I think this comes from being human, which is not a bad thing, yet the idea that our prayer life could use some attention can make some of us feel awkward or uncomfortable, almost Lenten, but it doesn't have to do that. Instead it can be the simple recognition that a lot of us were never taught how to pray, never caught the prayer-habit-bug, and are understandably, regularly quite busy or even a little wary of some of the claims about prayer that don't stand up to a mature, progressive faith, and there's nothing to condemn in any of that. Except, perhaps, for the part about being too busy, but that's another issue.
The fact that we might need a bit more prayer can be daunting, but it puts us in good company. Indeed, many of the most devout figures in the history of our faith, including some of Jesus' disciples, had a tough time with prayer. They had a hard time with focus, a hard time staying awake, and -- for example -- Mother Teresa of Calcutta had a hard time believing that God was listening or responding or present to her for the great majority of her life.
So we're in good company as a starting place but not a stopping place.
Because prayer involves the most direct, democratic, powerful, vulnerable, spiritual, political, passionate, intelligent dimensions of our faith, which are Biblical, historical, personal, and eternal, and before all of that sounds too daunting, ponder one short definition of prayer, even if we add others later on:
Here it is. Prayer is waking up to God. Plain and simple. No matter who you are, no matter where you are, no matter what you do, no matter what you are doing, prayer means being aware, awake, to God's presence and God's promise.
Suddenly Lent is invited to Easter. Suddenly prayer invites us not to anguish but awe: To be awake.
Now, how do you do this? How do you pray awake? Well, there are many ways. Some of them are well-charted, and others are yours to discover. But Jesus literally asks his disciples to keep awake, almost the same process that Desert Fathers and mystics call illumination, that Zen Buddhists call enlightenment, and Jews and Christians call liberation. Waking up to God is the heart of prayer.
Listen to this:
Barbara Brown Taylor says that "prayer is not a contest." It's a posture for life with more.
Julian of Norwich says that "prayer ones the soul to God." It's the connection to more.
Thomas Merton says that "to breathe is to pray." It's the affirmation that more is here.
But what about the details?
We read the shorter version of the Lord's Prayer today in Luke. The longer version -- most of our current version -- comes from Matthew and from the first century teaching, the Didache. Luke's version is different from ours in worship: for example, he never mentions trespasses. And unlike Matthew, who never mentions trespasses either, Luke includes both sins and debts. Luke never says God is in heaven, never asks for God's will to be done, and never asks to be delivered from evil. But what he does say reveals the essence of waking up to God. He yearns for God's kingdom, for daily bread and not only for a new society but for debt forgiveness, just the same as Matthew and the Didache do. He addresses survival issues, social issues, and the power of temptation that haunts us all. If we take Jesus at his word in Luke, then the call to wake up is about this world, this body, this promise, even while all of this rests in the bosom of eternity and practical hope.
In a way, practical hope is where Paul begins. Romans eight is about a dozen things, and it has some dramatically distracting language, so we have to focus our attention or we'll be drawn in many directions. Bracket all of the suffering and groaning for a moment, and pay attention to three things Paul says about prayer. The first thing Paul says is that if you are praying to God the Father, or Abba, it's not about Abba's identity. It's not about whether God is male. It's about how we are God's children. Abba was the first sound of an infant, the intimate Aramaic word for a loving papa, and of course Abbas were male. But that's not what Paul emphasizes. He says, right out of the gate, when we pray to Abba it means we know we are children and heirs, and he avoids a thousand dead-end discussions to draw attention to the role we play not only in our relationship with God but in God's world, and he says, wake up, you are God's hands and feet as you pray. But there's more. So much more even our sermon feedback won't complete it, but this is it in a nutshell: when we open ourselves to God by waking up, by engaging practical hope for our life and time, we don't suddenly know everything. We don't necessarily like everything. We don't easily accept everything. We sigh and groan and travail, in English, yet the word we meet as "sigh" comes from the Greek "to make firm;" our prayers are building something, making something firm. And we don't sigh alone but together with each other and with God's Spirit. For Paul, for Luke, we're surviving, in society and eternity, as we wake up and get strong together.
Now, I didn't answer how to do this. Here are three short ways. The first comes from the Didache, that first century teaching. It says this explicitly there. It says pray the Lord's Prayer three times each day. Just do it, it says. In a way this is pretty simple. But remember everything that you know about Jesus' social/spiritual connections, and notice his words when you pray, and see if that wakes you up.
Or second, don't mess with words. Take a few minutes every day for absolute quiet. Some old wag once said "if you haven't got enough time to pray you haven't got enough time period." It's a bit judgmental, but take a few minutes somewhere, sometime, and leave the words behind. Just ponder the idea that this is time to wake up. Listen for God. Listening is prayer, for sure.
There are dozens of other practices, but here is one more. Memorize three words. Lately they've been associated with Ann Lamott, but they pre-date her by almost four thousand years. The words are help, thanks, and wow. Think of the Psalms, the Magnificat, or the Transfiguration. Help, thanks, wow. Take time to put something in each group, and let these groups wake you up.
There is lots more to say; let me leave you with the words of the process theologian Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, sounding like the union of chaos theory and Christian theology; "God works with the world as it is, in order to bring it to where it can be. Prayer changes the way that the world is and therefore changes what the world can be. Prayer opens the world to its own transformation."
Thy Kingdom come. Give us enough bread day by day. Deliver us from evil. Wake us up. Help. Thanks. Amen.