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.