For the last number of years, I’ve had the amazing privilege of speaking with you most every week in this place. This is not farewell Sunday and this is not a farewell speech, but, with Pentecost Sunday next week and our tradition of hearing from anyone who wants to share about what it has meant for them to be connected with this congregation in the past year, this is something like a farewell eve by way of sermon giving. So, while the 26th will involve more storytelling and reflection on our time here as a whole, I thought that this could be something more along the lines of some final words of spiritual and biblical reflection.
Although we don’t follow it every Sunday, I have come to love the lectionary and being guided by these larger themes that so many Christian groups around the world have agreed to focus on together throughout the cycle of the year. It was serendipitous that one of last Sunday’s readings was the story of Lydia’s baptism, which fit well with our own celebration of baptism. So I’m grateful, and take it as guiding sign, that in this week’s gospel reading we catch Jesus praying. It’s a good theme.
Plus, this focus beats out the alternative that the lectionary offers, which is a separate set of readings to observe Ascension Sunday, when Jesus ascends into the clouds as he leaves the disciples after their final encounter, which traditionally occurs the Sunday before Pentecost. This is a potentially fruitful theme as well, but with our leaving soon I have no desire to give any implications that these are somehow equivalent! Although, after sending out the resignation letter by email in March, I received a text from John Bromels which read, “This is an outrage! You can’t just leave! I mean, did Jesus just leave? Vanish on his disciples without so much as a by-your-leave? Wait…never mind. Bad example ; )” winky face. To which I replied, “I go to be with my father, and mother, sisters, nephews, cousins, etc.” ; ) winky face right back at you.
That, dear friends, is about as far as I wish to go in making that connection.
Three weeks ago I mentioned that this week would be something of a continuation of that sermon. That was the passage in John when Jesus says “The Father and I are one.” I suggested that the mysticism behind this statement is a vital piece of all spirituality. The “I” to which Jesus refers in this case is not his personal finite ego, but the ultimate I, the I am, the Source of Being out of which all life flows, and with which Jesus knew himself to be one. In traditional Christian language and that used by Jesus, it is the Father, that of God which is perfect emptiness and effervescent creativity. The word effervescent should really be in the Bible somewhere, but I haven’t found it yet.
The follow up to that Sunday is this one, prayer. Prayer is the way by which we live out our union with God.
So what I’d like to do is make six fairly brief proposals or suggestions or points regarding prayer, along the way inserting some words from those who have contemplated this longer than I have.
The first is that prayer is hard.
If you haven’t discovered this already, perhaps you haven’t tried it. I don’t know why it’s hard, but it is. It’s hard to set aside time from a full schedule. It’s hard to calm down one’s thoughts, or, as a friend refers to it, the squirrel in your head.
On another level, it’s hard to know how, where, to whom or what, to direct our prayers. The right answer is God, but that only provokes the question of what that is all about, all the while trying to avoid the temptation of making God out to be someone like us, only bigger, more loving, and more in control of things. It’s hard not to make God into a thing or a person when one is directing one’s prayers toward this object that is exactly not an object or a person or thing, but beyond all those categories.
Prayer is hard because it feels like a one-way conversation. Father Thomas Keating has said, “Silence is God’s first language,” which makes prayer out to be the ultimate cross-cultural foreign language experience. We barely speak English fluently, and now this.
Prayer is hard because it involves the finite addressing the infinite, the temporal addressing the eternal, the object addressing the subject, the creature addressing the Creator.
It’s hard because injustice and hardship stretch our faith in Divine providence. The Psalmist says, “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” Psalm 10:1
Prayer is hard because God is God and we are us.
The second proposal is that prayer is easy
Prayer is as natural as breathing and just as easy. Rabbi Arthur Waskow, who is still living, encourages people to make the connection between the name of God and breath itself. Yahweh, the Hebrew name/ non-name for God, is as close to us as an inhale and exhale. You breathe in, YaH, you breathe out, WeH. Everything that has breath recites the name of God continually from infancy to death, whether waking or sleeping. It’s easy. YaH-Weh. YaH-WeH.
Prayer comes naturally for children, which is to say, it’s easy for humans before our brains get cluttered. Children want to pray and the words just flow. They want to pray for family and friends and injured birds, and endangered polar bears, and the President, and for peace. You don’t need to teach this, only make the opportunity available.
Prayer is easy because it doesn’t require anything from us. We do not need to have it together, we do not need to use the right words. If you desire to pray, then that very desire is itself a prayer, and you are on your way.
Point number 3 is prayer = speaking the words or moving the movement.
One of the most profound statements about prayer in Scripture is found in Romans 8. There Paul writes: “We do not know how to pray as we ought, but (the) Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” Just a bit before that Paul had written that the whole creation is groaning as in labor pains, and that we ourselves who have the Spirit also groan inwardly for redemption. Sounds painful, which, I hear, labor pains can be at times.
To pray, is to feel the groan of God within your body. God, crying out to God, through you. In Trinitarian language – The Spirit, to the Father, through the Son. That groan, that undifferentiated oomph longing for freedom and redemption seeks not only expression as a groan, but as language. As words. As an articulation of that which has not yet been spoken, but which can be, at this very time through you. To pray is make yourself available to that groaning, and to receive the gift of words that you will be given, which gives the groan a particular shape, which then becomes a gift to God.
I have been told, and have no reason to doubt, that women and men pray differently. Or, at least, that the feminine and the masculine have different ways of prayer. What has just been said about words can also be said about movement, which may fit better with the feminine experience. Words come from the more rational side of our being, and movement is more intuitive. Prayer also takes the form of dance, or yoga, or walking, or whatever form of movement that allows your body to be a channel of that Spirit which seeks expression through us. There’s lots more to be said about that, I’m sure, but I wanted to put that out there.
When we don’t have our own words, or our own movement, we are blessed with praying the words of others. Prayers of the Psalms, or mystics, or poets that have been preserved for us and prayed through the ages.
Here’s a prayer I have come back to multiple times in the past year. It comes from Thomas Merton, and it’s a pretty good prayer for those undergoing transitions and or pondering a new path: “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.”
When we cannot find the words, we rely on the words of others to pray through us.
Suggestion number four is that you don’t need to use very many words when you pray. Jesus said something very similar to the Pharisees.
The fifth proposal is that prayer = entering the silence.
Deeper than words, deeper than breath, is silence. When we enter into silence, we enter into the very being of God. We have already noted that God’s first language is silence. The poet Rumi says something very similar: “Silence is the language of God. All else is poor translation.”
This is Elijah on the mountain, when the rocks break around him, the wind blows fiercely, there is a great earthquake, followed by a fire. But the Lord was not in any of these things. 2 Kings 19:12 says, “And after the fire a sound of sheer silence.” Elijah wraps his face in his cloak, and encounters God.
This is Jesus all those times when the gospels say that he “would withdraw to deserted places to pray” (Luke 5:16). We are never told the words of these prayers, perhaps because there were none. The words are not the point. John 17, and Jesus’ teaching of the Lord’s prayer, are the exception to this pattern.
This is Zen, which Buddhists probably wouldn’t refer to as prayer, but which is one of the most developed techniques for dwelling in the silence.
This is Centering Prayer, which Father Thomas Keating has championed. I like to think of it as Zen plus one word. The basic technique is that you sit quietly and allow your mind to come to a rest, which it won’t do. But you allow a single word to be your center, your mediator to God. Love, grace, Christ, whatever word presents itself. When your mind wanders, you do not judge the thought or the failure to be silent. You simply acknowledge the presence of that thought, and gently bring yourself back to that centering word. Love. You notice your breath, and you let the word keep you centered. You keep coming back to it. This is Centering Prayer, which offers a path into the silence. It is a discipline, and it eventually becomes its own reward.
The silence, rather than being dead, is rich and alive, or, at least, pre-alive. The condition out of which all life springs. It will open up a space inside you whereby you will be able to receive.
Number 6 and final point
The definition of a paradox according to dictionary.com is “a statement or proposition that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth.”
Prayer is hard. Prayer is easy. Praying = finding your words and movement. Prayer = entering the silence.
You get the drift.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living” (Quest for God).
To pray is to acknowledge the paradox of being alive – absurd, but possibly true, that we are actually alive, and breathing God’s name.
The spiritual life is one of paradox, and as far as I can tell, it becomes both less absurd, and more absurd the deeper you go, which is also paradoxical.
In John 17 Jesus prays that we all might be one, just as he is one with the Father/Mother/Source of Being. This is not possible. This is possible. This is the journey of prayer. May God bless our journey, wherever it may take us.