Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’* and he said, ‘Here I am!’ and ran to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call; lie down again.’ So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, ‘Samuel!’ Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call, my son; lie down again.’ Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, ‘Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” ’ So Samuel went and lay down in his place. Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ And Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’
1 Samuel 3:1-10
Lord, you have searched me out and known me;
you know my sitting down and my rising up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You trace my journeys and my resting-places
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Indeed, there is not a word on my lips,
but you, O Lord, know it altogether.
What a gift to worship with both communities of Good Shepherd and Transfiguration. I pray that the spirit of collaboration between you will continue and deepen over time. So often in congregational life, it feels like we’re all on our own, and it needn’t be that way. There’s potential for strength and renewal in intentional partnership, and I hope you will share with others you are learning from your joint endeavor.
Let me begin by simply acknowledging the challenging times we are living through and all that has happened in the past year, and indeed, in the past two weeks: We are being asked to hold a great deal, some more than others. The meaning we will take away when we look back on this era in our lives is beyond our knowledge now, but I do believe this: that how we make it through matters, so that we and others will look back with gratitude for our actions and witness now.
Thank you for your efforts to keep the virus in check–masks, distancing, and shifting so much of your lives to screen gatherings. This is not easy. The illness has taken its toll, as have all our efforts to contain it. Thank you for persevering in hard times.
Thank you for doing your part to lend a helping hand, in ways large and small. Truth be told, we need one another, and it’s often harder to be on the receiving end in times like this, especially for those who have never needed such help before. But we humans are communal beings–in the giving and receiving of help in difficult times we draw closer to one another, building bonds between us through which God’s grace can flow. Thank you for preserving in love.
Thank you for your commitment to justice and all the ways you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.
And thank you, lastly, for your prayers, for gathering in weekly communal prayer, and for your prayers in the silence of your hearts.
A grief counsellor I met with recently said that she believes we are living now through one of the holiest times in human history. That wasn’t a word that I would use to describe 2020 and now the first weeks in 2021. But she was adamant. “We are all vulnerable in new ways. Our hearts are broken open. We are praying like never before.”
Prayer is my topic this morning: taking inspiration from two of the passages from Scripture for today–the story of the boy Samuel hearing the voice of the Lord call his name, and Psalm 139. In keeping with our remembrance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I’ll close with a story from his life that inspires me to persevere in prayer.
But first let me ask: on a scale of one to ten, how would you rate the quality of your prayer life? (You needn’t tell me or anyone else your number.)
The reason I ask is that for many people, and I find myself among them, the topic of prayer can evoke feelings of inadequacy, doubt, and skepticism. Please know that I consider myself not an expert but a learner, in prayer. In the posture of a fellow-learner, I speak to you.
For some, and perhaps this is true for you, the practice of prayer comes easily and is an established, fixed part of their lives. One of the women who helps care for my mother comes to mind for me: she rises at 5:00 a.m. every morning for a set time of prayer, and throughout the day she listens to an audio recording of Scripture. At night she meditates. I am in awe of her.
The majority of people I speak with, including clergy, find prayer to be a source of anxiety or vague guilt. It’s true for bishops, as well. A few weeks ago, I was on a video call with bishops from across the country. Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, invited the former Presiding Bishop, Frank Griswold, to speak about prayer. And the first thing he said to us–bishops all–was that we needn’t feel ashamed of our struggles in prayer.
He reminded us that we all tend to define prayer as a discipline or activity that we initiate ourselves, much as we might practice the piano or maintain an exercise routine. He encouraged us to turn that thinking around, in recognition that any effort we make in prayer is preceded by God’s initiation within us. For emphasis, he quoted a passage from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans:
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we 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)
What an overwhelming relief, Griswold said, to be told by none other than St. Paul himself that we don’t know how to pray as we ought. In fact, we pray best in weakness, for the Spirit uses those weaknesses to draw us into companionship with Christ. Even our inability to pray to our own satisfaction can be an invitation to pass beyond self-judgment and be available for grace.
In its simplest terms, Griswold encouraged us to think of prayer as availability. It’s a compelling image. Think what it feels like for you to be available to anyone, much less God. What might it take for you to be available to receive, rather than perform, in prayer?
Let’s turn back now to Scripture, beginning with Psalm 139, which is a prayer underscoring Bishop Griswold’s point that everything about us begins with God. Psalm 193, by the way, is part of an adolescent faith curriculum of the Episcopal Church known at Rite-13. It’s a good one to share with young people in that incredibly formative time of life.
Lord, you have searched me out and known me;
you know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar.
You trace my journeys and my resting-places and are acquainted with all my ways.
Indeed, there is not a word on my lips, but you, O Lord, know it altogether.
You press upon me behind and before and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is so high that I cannot attain to it.
The part we didn’t read this morning is worth holding onto:
Where can I go then from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?
If I climb up to heaven you are there; if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.
If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there your hand will lead me, and your right hand hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will cover me and the light around me turn to night,”
Darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day.
Darkness and light to you are both alike.
Then it continues as we heard read:
For you created me in my inmost parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I will thank you, because I am marvelously made;
Your works are wonderful, and I know it well.
This ancient prayer puts us in a posture before God of complete openness. It’s similar to the prayer with which we began this morning:
O God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid.
Not only can we be vulnerable before God in prayer, we already are, all the time, whether we are consciously praying or not: God has already searched us out and known us, fully and completely–and loves even the parts we struggle to love. Realizing that changes how we approach prayer and enter into whatever practices we might have to be open and available from our side.
Let’s turn now to the story of the young boy Samuel, among the most helpful passages about prayer in the entire Bible. It begins with an astonishing contextual statement: The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. This was a lean time, a hard time, when those seeking God’s will were feeling alone and adrift.
In this spiritual desert, a boy named Samuel hears a voice call his name whom he thought belonged to his teacher. His teacher, Eli, of course did not call. After being awoken three times by the boy, Eli discerns what’s happening and sends Samuel back to bed with these words which, if nothing else, I hope you take with you today:
Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.
Would you repeat them with me now?
Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.
This can be our prayer every day, as we sit quietly, take a walk, or clean the house. It’s best to turn off all your devices when praying this prayer, to cultivate that sense of availability that Bishop Griswold described. But then again, maybe sound is what you need. In the words of the Roman Catholic writer, Dom John Chapman, “Pray as you can, and do not try to pray as you can’t. Take yourself as you find yourself, and start from that.”1
As promised, I’ll end with a story that Martin Luther King, Jr. told about a pivotal moment of prayer for him, when he prayed as he could, and started where he was.
It happened near midnight, on January 27th, 1956. King was up because he couldn’t sleep for worry and fear. This was during the Montgomery Bus Boycott that he helped to organize to protest segregation in public transportation, an effort that had dragged on far longer than anyone anticipated, now over a year. He knew that as a leader he was in way over his head. Everyone was exhausted, the strategy didn’t seem to be working, and he was afraid. He had good reason to be fearful for he had received numerous abusive calls and death threats targeting him and his family. The latest call had come earlier that January evening, with a sinister voice assuring him they would be sorry if they didn’t leave Montgomery within a week.
With his head in his hands, Martin Luther King, Jr. bowed over the kitchen table and prayed. Later he would say that his prayer started like this: “Lord, I am afraid. I am taking a stand for what I believe is right. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I have come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”
In that moment, he would later say, he experienced the presence of the Divine as never before. It was as if he could hear a voice saying: “Stand firm, Martin. I am with you and will never leave you. Trust your instincts and carry on.” He rose from the kitchen table a different man, with a new sense of confidence, ready to face whatever came.2
I can’t help but believe that part of God’s word to you, and to me, is similar: “Stand firm. I will never leave you. Trust your instincts and carry on.” That’s not to say that all our instincts are accurate and should be acted upon, but that God will speak to us and guide us through our inner lives. We can trust God to speak when we are available to listen. And if we don’t hear anything–which happens to me a lot in prayer–we take the silence as God’s word: perhaps to trust our instincts, or to wait, or to ask for help, or simply to keep going.
If you don’t have a prayer practice now, I invite you to join me in this one: setting time each day to acknowledge that God already sees and knows everything about you. Give voice before God to all that’s on your mind and heart. Then, when you said all that you needed to say, to stop and in a posture of availability say: Speak Lord, for your servant is listening. You may be surprised by what you hear.
1 Much of the content of Bishop Griswold’s talk with the bishops can be found in his book, Tracking Down the Holy Ghost. Church Publishing, Inc. Kindle Edition.
2 As told in Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63, (Simone & Schuster, 1988).