“Are we weak and heavy laden,
Cumbered with a load of care?
Precious savior still our refuge,
Take it to the Lord in Prayer!”
Thomas Merton wrote, “Prayer is best learned in the hour when prayer has become impossible and your heart has turned to stone.” I want to suggest that for many folks, even those sitting inside the walls of a church, Merton’s words are right on target. For some, prayer is close to impossible. When I was younger, and a little bit naïve, I thought everyone prayed all the time. I now know that is not true. I am happy to announce we have some folks in this congregation with an incredible prayer life, but I suspect they are the exception and not the rule. Think about it. How often do we say to someone, “I will pray for you.” How often do follow up on our promise? How many of us have a scheduled moment in our day when we stop, become still, and listen. How many of us take a holy, often dark moment, to dare to let God crowd into our busy schedules and heads.
Prayer is hard. If you pray often you probably already know that. Kathleen Norris suggests that “Prayer stumbles over our modern self-consciousness and our self-reliance.” I think she is right. The world we live in pushes, shoves and demands us to move toward goals and objectives. The world we live in is ego-centered rather than God-centered. Even when we choose to pray, too often our prayers center on our needs, our desires, our hurts, our pains, our laundry list of life. So often our prayer evolves from doubt, despair, guilt and even anger. We pray out of desperation rather than habit. Believe it or not, I am here to tell you that is OK. Look at the Psalms. They are demanding, crude, and often seem impetuous. Few are as serene as the Shepherd’s poem. All originate from the episodes of life that drove the Psalmist to his knees, and toward God.
When I went through seminary over 30 years ago prayers were broken into four categories: adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication. I suspect my instructor had worship more in mind than my personal growth. Even so, that formula remained my prayer guide for many years. But the more hospital rooms visited, the more time I spent in cemeteries and living rooms, the more time I surrendered to the lives of others, the more I felt I needed to move away from teachings of the past. My prayers became personal, even demanding. My prayers began to leave the stylistic formulae found in the Book of Common Worship and were closer to ragged pieces of driftwood that had somehow made it to shore. I found myself more in tune with the writer of James who encouraged his folks to pray for the sick, pray for the elders, pray for sinners and even pray for the righteous. No one is excluded from his prayer list, especially not me. James had one rule. We are to pray as if nothing else we do is more important..
How do we do that? James states that the prayers of the righteous are powerful and effective. He uses Elijah as his primary example. I am not sure any of us can meet that standard. Elijah prayed every day for three years that it would not rain in order that Jezebel might be punished. During that three years Israel was as dry as a bone. Then when Elijah prayed for rain, the heavens instantly opened. If you are expecting that kind of results from me you will be sorely disappointed. But that does not mean I do not believe in the power of prayer. I have witnessed the prayer life of individuals who have shaped themselves into becoming more attune with Christ. Likewise I have witnessed the power of a praying community as it becomes more attune to the body of Christ. Prayer changes relationships. Prayer changes lives. Prayer is something each of us can do, if we are willing to take the time.
You see, that is the key. Prayer, like any other discipline, takes time. For years I have wanted to play the guitar. I own a gorgeous instrument which in the hands of someone else makes beautiful music. A friend once told me I had the ear to play, the ability to play, all I needed was the time to play. And then he added, “Time and desire need to be synonymous.”
If one has the desire to pray, then one will discover the time. And once one discovers the time, the next thing they will discover is the beauty of silence. Words are not the key to prayer. Holy Prayer is dependent on the presence of God. In order to invite God into our lives we must be willing to slip away from the noise that bombards us. A number of years ago my congregation was having its semi-annual youth service. One young woman asked if she could have the pastoral prayer. I was delighted by her eagerness. When it came time for her to pray she said, “Let us pray.” And then there was silent. She said nothing for two or three minutes. I, along with the congregation grew restless. After five minutes of silence I glanced at the young woman. Her arms were slightly extended, her head looked upward and her face was aglow. I don’t know how long the silence continued but the restlessness ceased and the heartbeat of the congregation became one. At the right time, she said, “Enable us to carry from this place the peace and strength we have gained from talking with you. Amen.”
Prayer is the courage to bare our lives to the scrutiny, the judgment, and the love of God. Prayer is having the audacity to yield to our confusions, yield to our limitations, yield to our joys, yield to our desires and then, with full humility and total confidence, hand them over to God. Prayer is the realization that not only are we seeking God but God is seeking us. Therefore prayer is about being still; prayer is about discovering a quiet moment; and prayer is about preparing to be discovered by God.
Then, only if you dare…….. speak.
To God be the glory, Amen.