Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ And Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’
1 Samuel 3:10
Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated.Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’
2 Corinthians 12:7-8
He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’
Welcome to the fourth episode in this series, The Way of Love: Practices for a Jesus-Focused Life. The Way of Love is a rule of life that Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has encouraged all members of the Episcopal Church to adopt. In the Way of Love there are seven spiritual practices; faithfully engaging them can help us draw closer to Jesus and to grow in love as he loves. There are the seven practices: to turn, to learn and to pray; to worship; to bless and to go, and to rest.
My focus today is the third practice: to pray, which is closely related to the first two: to turn toward Jesus, and to learn more about him through a daily practice of reading and meditating on his life and teachings. What follows is based on a sermon that I preached at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Gaithersburg on September 30, 2018.
Let me begin with a question: On a scale of one to ten, how would you rate your prayer life, with one being not at all satisfactory and ten as the best it could be?
If you’re like most people, including parish clergy and bishops, your prayer assessment number is on the lower end of the scale. Now that may not be true for you; for some people, prayer comes as easily as breathing, which is a gift, or the result of sustained practice. If that is true for you, you are an inspiration and spiritual guide for the rest of us.
But if prayer is a challenge for you, rest assured that you’re not alone. For many of us–and this particularly true for clergy–prayer can be source of performance anxiety, feelings of inadequacy, not to mention skepticism and doubt. If you’ve been in church all your life, it can be hard to acknowledge how anemic your own prayers seem to you. Or if you’re new to church, and you hear everyone reciting strange and beautiful words all around you, it might feel as if you’re the only one who struggles with what the words mean and what difference it makes for you to say them. Don’t worry. Many of us are right there with you.
If you were to ask me rate my life of prayer, in full honesty, I’d have to say that it depends on the day. There are days when I feel close to God in prayer; other days I feel as if I’m just going through the motions. I deeply value the practice of private prayer, yet I don’t always make time for it. I’ve been a Christian leader for over half my life, and there still are times when I feel like I’m starting over in prayer. But maybe “a beginner’s mind,” as the Buddhists say, and a posture of humility, is a good place to start, or start again, in prayer.
At the same time, I do believe that we can make real strides in prayer, that we can become more confident in our relationship with God, and with Jesus. Through the practice of prayer, we can learn tap into the divine source of strength and renewal that is the presence of God in our lives. Through prayer, we can know ourselves to be unconditionally loved. In prayer, we can find guidance as we strive to live meaningful lives. I believe that it’s God’s desire for us to experience prayer, not as a weighty obligation, but rather a source of refreshment and clarity, where we can know ourselves to be forgiven and loved, and where we hand over the reigns of our lives to God. Your will be done, we can say, as Jesus taught his disciples to pray. Your will; not mine.
Maybe this is a good time to ask what we mean by prayer?
As you might imagine, there are many definitions, though most point in a common direction.
If you were to consult a dictionary, prayer is defined as “a solemn request for help or expression of thanks addressed to God or other object of worship,” and also as “a fervent desire or wish.”
The Episcopal Book of Common Prayer defines prayer as “responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words,” a lovely reminder that God initiates and we respond.
A beloved saint of the Roman Catholic Church, St. Therese Lisieux, wrote this: “For me, prayer is an aspiration of the heart, a simple glance directed to heaven. It is a cry of gratitude and love in the midst of trial as well as joy.”
And another definition that I like, “Prayer, at root, is simply paying attention to God.” (Attributed to Ralph Martin in his book, The Fulfillment of All Desire.)
But in the end, for me, the most straightforward definition of prayer is simply, “a conversation with God.” (Found in a number of sources; most recently in James Martin’s book, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.)
Sometimes we’re aware of the conversation and sometimes we’re not. For we pray most naturally when we aren’t conscious of what we’re doing: when we close our eyes, stare off into the distance, or get lost in our thoughts. We pray in that luminous space at the edge of the day, when we’re waking up in the morning, and just as we’re falling asleep at night. We pray when we feel most vulnerable. Of this kind of prayer, St. Paul writes: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not pray as ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (Romans 8:26-27) It’s astonishing and comforting to realize that the Spirit of God within us is helping our spirit to pray, and that God searches and knows our hearts, as one of our Sunday morning prayers reminds us: “O God to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.”
Prayer is also what we do when we gather in church and say the beautiful words that others have crafted. This can be a powerful experience, evoking deep emotions and a sense of connection to something beyond ourselves. We can lean on others’ strength, others’ faith when ours seems distant.
But reciting prayers can feel rote and meaningless, and sometimes they are. They can make us feel inadequate about our own words of prayer.
It’s often said that if you want to make Episcopalians anxious, ask them to pray without a book. I can relate. Years ago, members of the congregation I served had purchased a new home, and they asked me to offer a house blessing. There are lovely house blessing prayers in one of our prayer books, and I was happy to go and offer those prayers at their house. But when I arrived, I realized that I had forgotten the book, and I panicked. Even though the family had gathered inside and was waiting for me, I turned around and drove back to church for my forgotten prayer book. As I drove, I thought to myself, “Well, this is embarrassing. You can’t come up with a house blessing of your own?” After that, I resolved to practice and become more comfortable praying out loud without a text.
We pray with more than our words, of course. We pray through artistic expression, such as music. St. Augustine famously said, “Those who sing pray twice.”
We pray with our actions. The 20th century rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was among the many people of faith who answered Dr. Martin Luther King’s call to the join the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. Of that experience he later said, “I felt as if I was praying with my feet.” I often feel as if I’m praying when I’m absorbed in an endeavor that involves creativity or sacrificial love.
So there are many ways we are in conversation with God, and not all involve direct speech. But in the time that remains, I’d like to focus on the form of prayer that is an actual conversation with God. It’s what the Quaker author Richard Foster calls “Simple Prayer,” a daily practice of intentional one-to-one conversation with God. (Richard J. Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (HarperCollins, 1992; 10th Anniversary Edition, 2002.))
Let me ask another question: Do you have a daily practice of prayer? If you do, consider all that I am about to say as affirmation and encouragement in your practice.
If you don’t, I urge you to try. If you’ve tried in the past, and stopped for whatever reason, please consider trying again. If you’re like me and periodically realize that weeks have gone by without my taking time to sit down to pray, don’t be afraid to start again. It’s worth the effort, and here’s why.
Setting aside a small amount of time for daily prayer has the power to change the course of your life for the better. Daily prayer can guide you through the most perplexing times, sustain you with strength when you need it most, validate your gifts and encourage you to take them seriously, give you assurance that you are not alone in this world, and challenge you to be all that God created you to be.
Daily prayer doesn’t require you to step out of your life. If you forget or stop for whatever reason, you can simply start again, without a lot of guilt or concern that you’re a bad person, because you’re not. You don’t have to be an expert at daily prayer. There are few such experts, and I am not among them. Given all its benefits, incredibly enough, daily prayer doesn’t take a lot of time. In fact, it’s good to start small. Prayer’s fruitfulness comes not in the length of our prayers, but in our faithfulness to them.
So here’s a suggested way to begin, or to begin again:
Find a small bit of time each day to sit, or walk, or ride your bike, or drive in your car in silence. No ear buds. No radio or TV. No video games. No texting. No Facebook. Start with 10 minutes if you can. After a while, you’ll want more than 10, but 10 is a good place to start.
And in that 10 minutes do two things.
First–empty your mind by saying out loud all the things that you’re thinking about, are worried about, all that you want to have happen, wish were true, or are grateful for. Ask, specifically, for what you want or need. Ask for help. Ask for guidance. Remember Jesus’ story of the man who banged on his friend’s door late a night. Be persistent in prayer, like that man. Jesus said. “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. (Luke 11:5-11)
This is the first step in an honest, open relationship with God. And it’s important to be completely honest–there’s absolutely nothing to gained in trying to be more religious than you are. Nothing you can say or do will be shocking to God. There is no inappropriate topic in prayer. You don’t have to clean up your language or to pretend to be someone you’re not.
Nor does it matter if you aren’t sure on a given day that anyone is listening as you’re talking. You needn’t worry about the doubts that seem their strongest as you sit down to pray. We all have doubts sometimes. Or if you wonder, as we all do, if God exists, or if you don’t know how to imagine God as you pray.
Jesus has helpful advice on that last point. Throughout the gospels he offers many images of God to keep in mind as we pray. The image he himself used most frequently when he prayed was that of a loving parent. Jesus addressed God using the word “Abba,” which is an intimate, affectionate word for father in his language. Jesus wants us to think of God as a heavenly parent who always loves us, no matter what.
I don’t think this means that God is a man, as your biological father is a man. So if “father” is troublesome for you, you can imagine God as a really kind and generous and unconditionally loving mother. Jesus used feminine images of God too. Male or female, the image is simply one of someone who truly loves you, and like the father in Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son, is always willing to meet you way more than half way.
The second image Jesus offers to us we pray is of himself, as the one who gave his life for us. He spoke of himself as the good shepherd, one who calls us each by name, and as our way, our truth, and our light. As he shared his last meal with his disciples and was preparing them for his death, he said to them “You are my friends.” Think of me, he says to us, as you would a really good friend, one who always has your back and your best interest at heart. After the resurrection he told his disciples, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” He is with us, too.
So to summarize, in the first part of your quiet time, put to words what is on your heart and mind. If you’re feeling great about something, let God know, and offer thanks. If you’ve got a big decision to make and need guidance, ask for help. If you’re feeling embarrassed or ashamed or foolish or worried, give voice to those feelings as well. If you’re concerned for someone else, or saddened by whatever’s happening in the world, bring those concerns to God.
Of course, we’re not telling God anything God doesn’t already know. But what’s important in prayer is that we speak our truth and invite God into our lives. And you already know, as do I, that prayer isn’t magic. More often than not, the answer to our prayer isn’t granting us what we want, but giving us the grace to accept what we cannot change. St. Paul describes that experience of prayer when he prayed for God to remove what he famously called “a thorn in his side.” “Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’” (2 Corinthians 12:7-8) In a similar vein, C.S. Lewis once wrote: “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time. It doesn’t change God. It changes me.”
After we’ve gotten everything out, laying before God, it’s helpful to make a shift in the conversation by saying aloud some some version of what the wise old priest Eli told young Samuel to say the next time he heard a voice in the dark call him by name: “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.” Then wait.
If your experience is anything like mine, waiting in silence takes some getting used to. You may not “hear” anything at all. Most likely you won’t receive an immediate response, although it can happen. It rarely happens to me, but whenever it does, I pay attention. Once when I was in way over my head in both work and life, I took a walk one afternoon. I didn’t realize at the time that I was praying, but at some point I heard myself say “Is it always going to be this hard?” The answer was immediate: Yes.
Then I heard, “But I will be with you.”
That was enough to keep me going through one of the most challenging seasons of my life. When hard times return, I remember the time when God told me to expect things to be hard sometimes, even most of the time. But that God also promised to be with me, and that God’s power is most fully revealed in my human weakness.
More often, however, what we hear from God comes to us slowly, over time. “Hearing” may not be the right word for the experience. It can be more like a sensation, a feeling, even a source of tension. Whatever you feel or hear, pay attention. Pay attention, and if you can, act according to what’s come to you. While I never know if what I’m hearing is truly of God, I have far fewer regrets from acting on what comes to me in prayer than I do from not acting.
Equally important to remember is that the response to prayer may not come to you during the 10-20 minutes you’ve set aside, but later, sometimes much later, when you are doing something else.
The “speak Lord, for your servant is listening” part of the conversation can also be challenging, because in my experience at least, when I allow myself to be quiet, several voices in my head suddenly get very loud. Many of those voices are harsh and judgmental; some are self-justifying, others are the fruit of anxiety. So I need help when it comes to determining which, if any, of those voices are from God. I’ve learned that it’s good to talk with someone wise and experienced in these matters. You might seek out the priest or pastor of your congregation, a trusted spiritual mentor, or a good friend.
But remember what Presiding Bishop Curry has said about God, something I mentioned in an earlier episode. If the voice you hear, or the sensation you feel, is not one of love; it’s not of God. That doesn’t mean God is a pushover, or fooled by your self-deceptions or mine. But God’s voice, and Jesus’ presence, will always be one of love. It will call forth the best from us and gently chastise us whenever we settle for a lesser version of ourselves.
That happened to me awhile ago, when I heard myself, in conversation with someone, say something unkind about another person that we both knew. What I said happens to be true, in my opinion, but when I said it, I heard a voice inside me say, “Was that kind? Was it necessary? How would you feel if that person heard what you said and the way you said it?” And I resolved to be more careful with my speech.
One more thing: in this quiet time you may also hear what in religious language is known as a call. In other words, you hear, or sense, some claim on your life. It feels a bit like a summons. The gift of this experience in prayer is that it provides clarity, often about something that you need to do. It could be anything, large or small: Call your mother or sister or next-door neighbor, now. Take the next step toward an unspoken dream or emerging potential–apply for a new job; explore graduate school; invite the person you admire out for coffee. While it’s easy to talk yourself out of listening to them, there’s nothing abstract or ambiguous about the bits of clarity that can come to you in prayer. As you grow accustomed to the experience, you will grow more confident in answering the call, following where it takes you, and allowing what you receive in prayer to be one of the guiding lights of your life.
As I mentioned earlier, this practice of sitting quietly, speaking and listening to God with your heart doesn’t take a lot of time. But like most things of importance, what matters is consistency over time. It’s not that different from other practices to sustain health in your life. You can skip those practices, one day or two, even for a week or month. But skip a year, and you’re putting your health at risk. Personal prayer is like that.
That said, there will be times, whole seasons even, when it will feel impossible to find even 10 minutes a day for prayer. Or when you have the time but can’t bring yourself to sit still. That’s certainly true for me. Here’s what I know: God understands. God does not judge, and will gladly meet us on the run. Some of my most powerful experiences in prayer have been in those times when I simply couldn’t do my part, and Jesus showed up for me, wherever I was. One thing to do in those times–take what you’re already doing and make it your prayer time: while you’re walking the dog; driving to school; practicing a sport or instrument. Offer that time as your prayer. Then when life settles a bit, find a chair, sit down, and start again.
Prayer is not the only practice that informs a life with God, but it’s pretty important, and it’s one we have some control over. It’s never too late to start or begin again. It will help you understand why a life of faith matters, why we do and say all that we do and say in church. Because you will have your own relationship with God, with Jesus, one that will grow and deepen over time. You will learn to recognize Jesus’ voice.
In the Way of Love, this third practice, to pray, goes along with the first two: to turn, and to learn. In my daily prayers, I try to begin each day by turning my attention to Jesus before I turn it toward anything else–and in particular, before I check my phone or computer. I also strive to set aside time before leaving the house or tending to the tasks of the day to sit in a chair that I’ve designated as my prayer chair. I set a timer for 10-20 minutes, depending on the day, and begin my prayer time. Often in that time, I will read from the Bible, although sometimes I listen to the Bible on an app before sitting down to pray. Then I say, or write, all that’s on my heart. And I listen, as best I can.
I didn’t always have these particular practices of Scripture reflection and prayer, and it’s important for each one of us to discover the rhythm or patterns that best suit us and work for us in our lives as they are. There’s no formula that works for everyone, although we needn’t start completely from scratch, either. The reason certain practices always come up in descriptions of the spiritual life is that they are tested and true.
A few final words of encouragement.
This comes from Richard Foster, and his now classic book, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home:
“The truth of the matter is we all come to prayer with a tangled mass of motives–altruistic and selfish, merciful and hateful, loving and bitter. Frankly, this side of eternity we will never unravel the good from the bad, the pure from the impure. But what I have come to see is that God is big enough to receive us with all our mixture. We do not have to be bright, or pure, or filled with faith, or anything.”
And this from Adam Weber, a young pastor of a growing midwestern church, in his book, Talking to God: What to Say When You Don’t Know How to Pray: “Keep it simple, honest, and short.”
In fact, why don’t we practice praying right now? I will be guide and time keeper, inviting us all to pray in silence for one minute–the first 30 seconds talking to God in our hearts; the last 30 seconds listening. I’ll invite you at the 30 second mark to say with me, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
Let’s begin. (30 seconds)
Now say with me, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening. (30 seconds)
Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve: Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Savior; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.