The Common Shalom

The Common Shalom

 

By: The Rev. Dr. Patricia Lyons

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.          Jeremiah 29:4-7

In Jeremiah’s letter to the exiled Israelites, we find our mandate for evangelism and community engagement. In this passage, the Israelites are foreigners in a strange land, and a false prophet tells them to turn inward, grit their teeth and disengage with the people around them. But the Lord tells Jeremiah this is a false teaching. God says to the people, “While in exile, plant, harvest, marry, grow, invest, engage in and work for ‘the welfare (shalom in Hebrew) of the city, for in its shalom you shall find your shalom.’”

Anglican spirituality is not a separatist endeavor. Through Jeremiah, God convinces us that grace is built into and bursts out of the material world. Our great vocation and blessing is to work with God inside and outside of our churches. The Holy Spirit is restless for reconciliation in the world and pulls the baptized beyond their walls to seek and bring grace to all. Jeremiah tells us we are in exile, that we are “in but not of the world.” God tells us to turn outward and be the partners for shalom with all people.

It is inspiring to see how meaningful our churches are to us, but churches that work hard for the shalom—the common good—of their neighborhoods matter to everyone. There are not enough Episcopalians to save our buildings, and as Christians, we are not called to such a narrow mission. As God says in Jeremiah, we work for the peace of the world with everyone in our neighborhoods. Our buildings are consecrated to be wells of grace in the public square; centers to be shared, not citadels to be defended. Community engagement is working for this common shalom and recognizing that through it, we live into our baptismal vows and find joy, vocation, and transformation. Evangelism is going out to do this work confident in our own faith stories, confident in who God is and what God is doing in our lives. 

Working together for good means a renewed commitment to the common shalom—to helping the diocese move beyond its walls, embed itself in its communities, and be confident in its faith story. As we look toward the year ahead, we have a renewed commitment to evangelism, community engagement, and faith formation. 

Prayer 201

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry 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 4:4

Once more Jesus spoke to the people in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”
Matthew 22:1-14

Good morning, St. Alban’s Church!  I’m thrilled to be in worship with you today. If you are a guest among us, let me be the first to welcome you in the name of this extraordinary conversation.

We’ve been hearing a particular phrase quite a bit in public speech: Thoughts and prayers. Thoughts and prayers.

  • The people in Houston affected by the floods of Hurricane Harvey are in our thoughts and prayers.

  • The people in Florida suffering from the storms of Hurricane Irma are in our thoughts and prayers.

  • The people in Puerto Rico devastated by the ravages of Hurricane Maria are in our thoughts and prayers.

  • The people in Las Vegas gunned down while attending a country music festival are in our thoughts and prayers.

  • The people in California who have lost their homes and cannot find their loved ones due to fires raging uncontrollably are in our thoughts and prayers.

I was among those who publically said, in the wake of the Las Vegas shootings that thoughts are prayers are an insufficient response. Since then, I can’t stop thinking about prayer, and what it means to say that in certain situations prayer is insufficient. But I wonder, on further reflection, if it isn’t prayer that is insufficient, but rather our  understanding of prayer.

Thus I find myself on a quest to explore as best I can the meaning, the value, and the purpose of prayer.  

Last week, in another congregation of the diocese. I touched upon what we might call the fundamentals of prayer–basic definitions and practices. By way of definition, I suggested that prayer is the word we use to describe all ways we are in relationship and communication with God, some of them conscious, many of them unconscious.

How we pray, or communicate with God, I said, depends a great deal on our image of God. Our experiences of God–or lack of experience–loom large in prayer, as do the images of God we have internalized from others. And weren’t we reminded of that this morning in our Scripture readings? If your image of god is a golden calf, as it was for the people of Israel, how would pray to that god? If your image is of a god who changes his mind, as the Lord, we’re told, did in response to Moses’ prayer, how would that influence your prayers? If your image, going to the gospel text, is of a king who invites everyone, both good and bad, to the wedding feast for his son, how might you pray? Or, in the next verse of Jesus’ story, if your god is like a king who banishes those without the proper attire, what might your prayers consist of?

Our images of God matter.

And so last week I dwelt upon two images from Jesus’ own life and final teachings and one from St. Paul, to guide us in prayer. Let me review them here as a foundation for what I’d like explore more deeply with you.  

When Jesus prayed to God, 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. He wanted them, and us, to think of God as 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.

And at his last supper with his disciples, Jesus said to those same disciples, and by extension to those of us who strive to follow him now, “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant doesn’t know what the master is doing, but I call you friends. You are my friends.” (John 15:1)

So whenever we approach God in prayer, Jesus himself would have us imagine that we are in the presence of a wise, kind, spiritual parent who loves us unconditionally, or as friend who has only our best interest at heart and wants to know all that both burdens and delights us.    

St. Paul goes further in assuring us we needn’t worry that our prayers aren’t good enough. It doesn’t matter if  we can’t find the right words, or that the image of God we carry in our heads isn’t the right one. In addition to the wonderful words we read this morning in his letter to the Philippians, in his letter to the Romans, he writes that even when we don’t know how to pray, the Spirit of God that dwells within us actually prays on our behalf  “with sighs too deep for words.” And God searches our hearts and knows what we need or want even before we ask. (Romans 8:12-27)

With all that as foundation, today I’d like to focus on two aspects of prayer that are admittedly more challenging than everything I’ve described thus far. Call this, if you will, Prayer 201:  

One of these more challenging aspects is how we pray for other people and what we hope or imagine will happen as a result of our prayer. This is a big topic, rife with challenges. A lay leader from the diocese wrote to me this week: “The great area of struggle for me is the petitionary aspect of prayer. I understand its necessity as an element of the relationship you describe, but, taken literally, it does suggest that God’s mind can be changed by our requests and that God is ready to perform particular acts for our benefit in response to those requests. That, for me, is the rub, because we know that so many pious and innocent people suffer so greatly when their prayers go unanswered.”

Haven’t you struggled with that very issue? I know I have, and do. It is such agony to bear witness to the suffering all around us, and that which we experience ourselves, and not question everything we think is possible through prayer.

But there’s another aspect of prayer, equally challenging, that I’d like to address first. This falls into the category of the dangers of prayer. I learned first hand of one particular danger in prayer at a young age, as I learn most things–the hard way.

The summer before my freshman year in high school, I was hired by one of my father’s business associates to care for her young children at their cabin in the mountains. I would go up to the cabin on Sunday nights, watch their young children as a live-in babysitter, and then return home on Friday afternoon.    

I had a lot of anxiety that summer, those typical enough for a 15 year old girl: Would I be accepted in my new high school and able to make friends? I didn’t have many friends in junior high and I desperately wanted high school to be different. Was I pretty enough to ever have a boyfriend? In those years I struggled mightily with my weight and body image, and I wore big, unattractive glasses. We didn’t have much money and I worried incessantly about having the right clothes. Clothes, you see, were a really big deal for the girls in my junior high, and I knew that they would be even more so in high school. Believe me, I could relate then, and can relate now, to the poor man thrown out of the wedding banquet  for not wearing the right clothes. I’ve had plenty of my share of weeping and gnashing of teeth because of wardrobe.

That fateful summer, I would walk into town in the evenings, enter a particular store, and try clothes on that I could never afford. One night I slipped something I had tried on into my purse and walked out. The next night I did it again. And the next. And the next.

I knew what I was doing was wrong and I felt guilty. My family didn’t go to church, but I was thinking in religious terms and I knew that stealing was a sin. So for penance I would read a chapter from the Bible every night and pray for forgiveness. That pattern continued for some time: I would steal during the day and pray for forgiveness at night. And I felt, if not invincible, somehow invisible, as if those prayers shielded me. I had no awareness that people were watching, biding their time.

Until one night the local sheriff came knocking at my host family’s door, accompanied by the store owner. As I stood before them, my sins exposed for what they were, the heat of shame coursed through me. I was really scared. Later that night when I lay alone in my bedroom, I saw the Bible on my night table, and I felt exposed and ashamed before God. And I was scared.

Suffice to say that I paid for all the clothes I had stolen and did further restitution to pay my debt to the community. It was a long, humiliating, yet also liberating process. Imagine what might have happened to me if I hadn’t been caught. The family I lived with was very kind, and firm. So were my dad and stepmom. I learned a lot that summer.

And though I didn’t yet have the language to describe it, I learned something important about prayer: that God is not easily fooled and cannot be manipulated. There’s a line in Psalm 50 that sums up how I felt God speaking to me in that moment: “These things you have done, and I kept still and you thought I am like you.”

Years later I would encounter words like Psalm 50 in the Bible, and the same truth expressed in prophetic literature. Hear these words, spoken by God through the prophet Amos: “I hate, I despise your festivals and take no delight in your solemn assemblies.” He’s talking about our worship. “Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Take away for me the noise of your songs. I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:21-24)

While I’m not entirely sure what Jesus was trying to say in the story of the man thrown out of the wedding not wearing proper robe, I’m positive that God couldn’t care less about our having the right clothes but cares mightily about our having the right attitude. The man who refused to put on the wedding robe that the host gave to all his guests had something in common with the one who had disregarded the king’s invitation in the first place. He didn’t care.

I wonder if Jesus is saying that God is not one to be toyed with; God is not an extension of our whims and preference, and certainly cannot be contained in the boxes of our self deception. And if we persist in our self deceptions long enough, our worlds will come crashing down. They will. The consequences are not what God wants for us, but nor will we be spared them.

I wish I could say I learned my lesson once and for all as a teenager, but sadly, whenever and wherever in my life I am not yet able to face the truth about myself or a situation, I pray within the confines of my self imposed blindness. God knows that, and while God has compassion for me, as God has compassion for all of us, the process of answered prayer in those situations will always painful before it is liberating. The truth will set us free, but first it will cut like a knife through the bubbles we’ve created to maintain the illusions we’re not ready to relinquish. Our friends in 12 step groups talk about this experience as “hitting bottom,” when all our illusions are exposed for what they are.

There is no doubt in my mind that in some areas of our common life we are seeing the consequences of our collective determination to remain in our sin. We pray to be spared the consequences, and for others to be spared, but we are not yet ready to change our behavior.

As Pope Francis observes when speaking about dangers of environmental degradation and climate change, “God always forgives, but the earth does not. God will not intervene when the earth responds to our treatment of  her with destruction.” Keeping those affected by the ways human behavior is adversely affecting the planet “in our thoughts and prayers,” is fine, but we can’t ask God to work to heal the environment upon which we all depend without our active engagement.

Nor can we hold in our thoughts and prayers those killed or wounded in mass shootings and the daily assaults of gun violence while we do nothing to change the laws that have allowed the proliferation of military style weaponry throughout the civilian population. God will not be mocked when we say that guns don’t kill people when we know full well no other country in the developing world experiences the level of gun violence we do, and the only difference between those countries and us is the proliferation of increasingly lethal weapons.

We cannot blithely pray to be spared the consequences of our sin while we keep on sinning. For God is always on the side of truth, wherever truth lies. So we must seek the truth even when it hurts. And when the walls of our illusions come crashing down, as they must, God is there, working among those who offer comfort, consolation, mercy. God is with us in our suffering, even at our own hand. But God will not collude with us in self deception and self imposed blindnesses. God cannot spare us when we deliberately close our eyes and refuse to see, but God will be there to pick up the pieces.

Which leads me now to the ways we pray with and for one another.

Let me begin with an affirmation of faith–the foundation of faith for me as a Christian–that God is at work in the world, and at work in and through human beings. In the words of theologian Marjorie Suchocki, God is always at work in the world to bring about good within the context of the world’s own power, which is revealed to us through careful observation and study of science, mathematics, and more.

God is always at work within us, within the context of our own freedom and capacities.  We are free to align our creative power with God’s and we are free to resist, which we do with predictable regularity. But as Suchocki writes, we cannot eliminate God. We cannot defeat God, nor can we rid ourselves of divine presence. As St. Paul audaciously declared from his prison cell: nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ.

In our incompleteness and sin, we often distort God’s creative power. Alternatively, inspired by grace, we can open ourselves to God, become co-laborers with God, and experience our capacity for love amplified by God’s creative presence. When we do, we give God more to work with and through.

That’s why God needs us to pray, wants to us pray for ourselves and one another. It’s not because God needs to be flattered or appeased, nor because God’s needs reminding of what needs to be done. And forgive me, Moses, I have a hard time imagining God changing his mind in response to our prayers. I think we’re the ones that change, and the possibilities for God change when we choose to join our energies with divine love in order to bring a preferred future into being.

We change the equations of possibility when we pray for one another. There is more creative possibility as a result of our prayers. But along with prayer must come a willingness to act upon what we receive in prayer, whatever that may be. So our most fruitful prayers, in terms of actions, are prayers that are combined with a willingness to be proximate.  

Here I am deeply indebted to the work of Bryan Stephenson, the tireless advocate for criminal justice reform and racial reconciliation. He states emphatically that if we are to solve the greatest problems that vex us, we must get close to the people most adversely affected by them. When we pray from a distance, the distance has an impact both on our knowledge of the complexities of the situation and what needs to be done, and our ability to engage as a result of our prayer.  

It simply makes sense that the power of intercessory prayer–our prayers for others–is greater in proximity, as there are more opportunities for response and engagement in real time, and we can continually adjust both in prayer and action according to what we learn of the situation we’re in. Thus one of the most important decisions we make in praying for others is our positioning as we pray. Which means that choices we make when we’re not praying affect the efficacy of our prayers.

If we’re praying for those experiencing suffering because of racial injustice, for example, but don’t spend any time in places, among people where that suffering occurs, or if we go out of those realities as a result of our privilege, our prayers, while sincere, will be less fruitful. We’re not giving God enough to work with through us. Whether we realize it or not, the parameters of life set for us the boundaries of prayer, as do our capacities to respond.

Now there’s one more dimension of intercessory prayer that I’ll touch upon here, which comes to us from the contemplative traditions of prayer and the mystery of shared suffering. This topic is worthy of a sermon in itself, but I can’t stop without mentioning it briefly. I am indebted here to the wisdom of Richard Rohr and James Finley, leaders of the Center for Action and Contemplation.

When we choose to pray for others in their suffering, bringing ourselves into the presence of God and creating space for another’s well being to be our focus, some of the pain they are experiencing will come to us, and actually take up residence inside us. We will feel it; experience it as they do, and be changed by it. And through the mystery of divine suffering, something happens. It happen within us; it happens in others.

That’s one way, at least, to understand the experience of being sustained by each other’s prayers.

Have you ever felt the power of being sustained, held up by others? I have. It’s like you’re being carried or strengthened by a power greater than you. It comes from God but also from one another. It’s when, in their prayers, they are holding for us some of our suffering, allowing it to be absorbed in them. We do the same when we enter into that contemplative place, allow another’s pain to come into us, and allow it to remain. I think this is what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to as the power of redemptive suffering.

I need to stop now, not because the subject of prayer is exhausted but because you all have lives to tend to and so do I. Let me close simply by encouraging you in prayer. Spend time alone with God. Pray with and for one another. Remember the power of prayer; be mindful of the dangers of prayer. Pray aloud, pray in the silence of your heart, pray sometimes, as Rabbi Abraham Heschel once described his prayer while walking with Dr. King on the road to Selma, with your feet.

Hold as your image of God what Jesus offers us: that of a parent who unconditionally loves a child and a friend who wants only what’s best for you. Remember that God always wants more for you than God asks from you.

God loves us and is deeply moved whenever we respond with love of our own.

More Thoughts on Prayer

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.

October Council Highlights

Bishop’s Report

  • Tricia Lyons: Missioner for Evangelism and Community Engagement: Tricia updated council on the progress she has made in her work on diocesan staff. She is currently conducting a listening tour–visiting leaders at each congregation to hear how God is moving within our churches and communities. Tricia is currently a third of the way through her conversations and hopes to make a full report to Council once complete.

  • Diocesan Staff Changes:

    • Bishop Mariann reported she has hired the Rev. Robert Phillips to join the diocesan staff as interim associate for leadership development. In this role, Robert will help with the ordination process, lead vestry retreats, and support congregations in leadership transition. This ¾ time position will allow Robert to continue serving as chaplain for the Bishop Walker School.

    • The Church House staff will continue to evaluate how its staff structure can best serve the diocese with faith formation and discipleship following the departure of Iman Syler.

  • Strategic Financial Resources Commission: The continued interest in the commission’s work is encouraging. The SFRC received 17 applications to participate in its pilot program, far more than their capacity allowed them to accept. They will begin working with six of the congregations as part of the pilot programs and will help the 11 others on a focused basis during the coming year. The commission is also planning on hosting further workshops in the Spring on fundraising topics.

  • Cathedral Task Force Listening Sessions: The Cathedral Task Force is hosting listening sessions across the diocese to examine the role the Cathedral plays in the life of the diocese and nation. One session will be on October 30, 7-9 p.m. at Grace, Silver Spring, and the other will be on November 1, 7-9 p.m. at the Cathedral.

Congregation Growth Grants

Bishop Mariann and Tricia Lyons

  • Bishop Mariann reports that Tricia Lyons will serve as staff liaison to the congregational growth grants subcommittee of council. Together, they will work on administering the grant program, with emphasis on  reporting successes and lessons learned from past grants. There are two pending grant applications for the Fall 2017 grant cycle. The subcommittee will also look ahead to the Spring grant cycle– honing the grant guidelines to better allow churches to explore new ideas and grow their congregation.

Regional Assemblies and Convention

  • Regional assemblies will take place during October and November. Bishop Mariann reported on the programmatic content of the assemblies, which includes the financial conversation findings, updates on regional collaborative efforts and reevaluating the diocesan staff structure and presence to better serve the diocese.

  • Convention Updates: Diocesan staff are planning an optional event the evening before convention in January. The event is still tentative, but would consist of an inspiring evening with time for fellowship and learning. More information will be available closer to Convention.

Finance Committee Report

Jim Jones (Finance Committee Chair) and Paul Cooney

  • Draft Budget Narrative and presentation to Regional Assemblies: The finance committee reported to Council that it is currently working with diocesan staff to develop a budget presentation and accompanying narrative for regional assemblies. This document and draft budget will be available on the regional assembly pages of the website once ready.

  • Bishop Walker School Finance Updates:

    • The financial results for FY16-17 met expectations, and the BWS finance committee will continue to move the school towards budget neutrality.

    • The BWS board decided in June that beginning with the 18-19 school year, BWS will end with grade 5. The decision was based on educational considerations, but also will the effect of modestly reducing the school’s cost base.

    • BWS is on schedule to move to THEARC in November 2018. They have identified a potential tenant for their current space once they vacate.

Lord Teach Us to Pray

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
Romans 8: 14-17

It’s an honor to join you on the day when Michele and Anthony–mother and son–have chosen to be baptized. And I begin by saying to the two of you, and to all with ears to hear, that God, the Creator of the Universe and the source of all life, loves you completely and  unconditionally. There’s nothing you can do to keep God from loving you; nothing in this world that can separate you from the love of God. That’s true for you, for all of us gathered here, and incredibly, for all humankind.

For those in the Christian faith, Jesus is our way to God. In his lifetime, we believe, he was the human expression of God, that God came to us in Jesus to live as one of us, to show how to live and love as fully as God loves. When he died, God raised him from the dead, as a sign to us that even death cannot  stop God’s love. Through the power of resurrection, we believe that Jesus lives still, in all of us, and the Spirit of God that dwelled fully in him is also in us. Jesus is with us, always, as close as our breath, and he’s among us. Whenever two or three are gathered, he is here.

Baptism is a ritual that we go through as an expression of our desire to follow Jesus. In baptism we acknowledge Jesus–using religious language now–as Lord and Savior, which is to say that we invite him into our hearts and lives, asking him to forgive us for all the ways we fail and fall short in this life and receiving that forgiveness; asking and receiving his healing mercies in the places we are wounded; asking and receiving his strength and presence, so that we might live in this broken world, with all its suffering, as he did, with love and mercy. Deciding to follow Jesus isn’t something we do once. It’s a daily decision and a lifelong process, as we commit ourselves to know him more deeply as he’s revealed to us in the biblical stories told about him, in the lives of other faithful people, and in our own relationship to him as we live.

Following him also involves loving and serving others as he did. His Spirit lives on, but in the words of St. Teresa of Avila, Christ has no physical body on earth now but ours, no hands and feet here on earth but ours. Ours are the eyes with which he looks; ours the voices through which he speaks to the world with kindness, forgiveness, and love.  

And in following Jesus we also suffer with him–in part because in this life there is suffering from which none is immune; in part because of his great compassion, Jesus would have us be proximate, close to where other beloved children of God are suffering; and in part because his example of love, embodied in us, exposes the forces of hatred and sin that are within and around us and are not spared the consequence. But through our suffering, great healing and transformation are possible, if not for us, for others, and so we are blessed to participate in the ongoing redemption of the world. I wish suffering were not part of the equation, but that is not the case. Much of the life of faith–much of life in its broadest terms–is coming to terms with suffering and discerning how God would have us respond.

Today I would like to talk to you about prayer. By prayer I mean all the ways we are in relationship and communication with God, some of it conscious, much it unconscious. I’d like to focus on our conscious relationship to God through prayer in its many forms, but I do so with some humility, knowing that how God relates to us and we to God is largely a mystery. But that doesn’t mean we can’t know some things about prayer, and grow in that knowledge through intentional practice and growing awareness.

How we pray to God or communicate with God depends a great deal on our image of God. When we pray, with whom do we imagine are we communicating? Our experiences of God–or lack of experience–comes into play here. So does our sense of wonder at the mystery of life itself and our  gratitude for that life or lack of those things. Then we must factor in how we are affected by suffering, both our own and that of others, and what we have been taught or have to believe about God in relationship to suffering. Finally how we pray depends upon what we imagine or hope is possible as a result of prayer. What do we think we’re doing when we seek relationship and communication with God?

In churches like this one–the Episcopal Church–we sure say a lot of prayers. Most of them we read out of a book, known as the Book of Common Prayer. The book was conceived and designed to be the repository of prayers that we prayed in common, as one people, and also a collection of prayers for various occasions. In this book there are thousands of prayers, all written by intelligent, thoughtful  people.

I love our  prayers, and I love to pray them in worship and on my own. But because we pray them from a book, we run the risk of “phoning in” our prayers, mimicking words that others say without considering what we ourselves believe and hope for in relationship to God. Moreover, our prayers can leave us with the impression that we can only pray when we have a book in our hand, the book that has the “right prayers.” That’s not true, of course, and it was never the book’s intention, but we can understand how anyone of us could get that impression.  

In the early years of my priesthood, a family asked if I would do a house blessing in their new home. In one of our supplemental prayer books, there is a service for house blessings with many beautiful prayers. When I arrived at the house, however, I realized that I had left the book with those prayers at home, and I panicked. So I drove home to get the book so that I would know how to pray. Afterwards I wondered why I didn’t feel competent to offer prayers of blessing in my own words. And I realized that I needed to learn to pray without a book, and help others do the same.  

Again, I don’t meant to imply the beautifully crafted prayers and structured liturgies are not of value, for they are. They offer one way to pray, allowing us to wrap our minds and hearts around the words of others who can perhaps give voice to the deeper longings of our soul and to remind us of a larger perspective through the prayers handed down to us from previous generations. Jesus himself prayed the ancient prayers of his tradition whenever he entered a synagogue. 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.

But Jesus also prayed on his own. He would go away for stretches of time to a mountain or the desert. He would pray late into the night or get up early in the morning to pray in silence. He also 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 today 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; you don’t need to think of prayer as something you only do in church.  

In the Bible, there are countless passages to suggest that God wants us to prayer, wants to be in a  personal, even intimate relationship with us.  

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 to God, he addressed God using an intimate familial word  for parent–Abba–that could be translated as “pappa” or even “daddy.” And 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.

And 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 that you are sitting or standing before a spiritual parent who loves you unconditionally, or as a friend who has only your best interest at heart and wants to know all that both burdens and delights you.    

And you needn’t ever worry that you’re not good enough, or that you can’t find the words, or that the image of God you carry in your head isn’t the right one. Try to let go of whatever keeps you from prayer. St. Paul assures us that even when we don’t know how to pray, the Spirit of God that dwells within us actually prays on our behalf  “with sighs too deep for words.” And God searches our hearts and knows what we need or want even before we ask.  

In an introductory course on the Christian faith known as Alpha, pastor Nicky Gumbel makes three suggestions for prayer.

He says this:

Keep it real. Be honest with yourself and with God. Remember the prayer with which we begin nearly worship Sunday worship service: “O God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.” God knows our secrets already–acknowledging them before God 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. We can pray as we walk, commute to work, when we can’t fall asleep at night, as we’re in conversation with loved ones and those we struggle to love. I have taken to starting each day by falling to my knees and asking for Jesus’ grace and mercy to guide me through the day. And I relish even a few minutes a day of what Bill Hybels calls “chair time,” sitting in a chair in silence, with a candle lit beside me, reflecting on a word from Scripture or simply offering what’s on my heart and mind before God, and listening for whatever God might choose to say to me.

Finally, let me leave with some thoughts about why might matter to God. It’s interesting to consider about: why would God want us to pray? What’s in it for God when we do?

At the heart of the Christian faith is the core conviction that the Creator of all things and the source of life is a God of love and relationship, that in fact loving relationship is at the heart of God. If that’s true, then God’s desire for our prayers stems from the desire to be in relationship with us. Because of God’s love, made known to us in Jesus, we are beckoned to prayer.  

Moreover,  God may need us to pray. The theologian Marjorie Suchocki has this to say about the importance of prayer from God’s perspective:  

We are taught in our tradition that God bids us to pray, invites us to pray, inspires us to pray. God’s call to us to pray is neither whimsical nor irrelevant to God’s work in the world. It is not a manner of receiving compliments, nor is it a reminder service informing God of what needs to be done in the world. Rather prayer is God’s invitation to us to be willing partners in the great dance of bringing a world into being that reflects something of God’s character.

God is always at work in the world as it is, Suchocki suggests, to bring it toward what it can be. When we pray we offer ourselves, we give God just a bit more to work with through us. Prayer opens us to possibility of change–a change in us, perhaps, or helping to bring about change for others.

Thinking this way, God calls us to pray when God needs resources, when God needs more to work with to bring about God’s kingdom. We may respond by saying to ourselves and to God, “But I have so little to offer.” To which Jesus may respond by reminding us of the miracle of the loaves and fishes and asking, “What do you have?” Even the smallest gifts, offered to God, can be the stuff of miracles.   

“Christ has no body here but ours,” St. Teresa reminds us. “Ours are the hands with which he works; ours the feet on which he moves; ours the eyes with which looks upon this world with kindness.”

So go forth now, filled with the Spirit, into the world with kindness. Remember that in all the cares and occupations of your live, you are walking in God’s sight. God longs to be in loving relationship with you, and in prayer, you need only to keep it real; keep it simple; and keep it up.