Sunday, May 24, 2020
Seventh Sunday of Easter
"When I Pray . . . Prayer Changes Everything"
Rev. Dr. Scott Landis
This passage from the gospel of John comes at the conclusion of what has been called Jesus’ “Farewell Discourses.” Jesus concludes his remarks fittingly, I suppose, with a prayer. Unlike in his final discourses where Jesus is talking directly to his disciples, in the prayer Jesus turns his attention to God. In his conversation with his “Heavenly Father,” it’s as if Jesus expects his disciples to overhear what he is saying – an invitation we are also given today.
In his prayer, referred to by biblical scholars as the “High Priestly Prayer,” Jesus makes three distinct and important statements:
1. He declared that his work on earth was finished. His primary task was to introduce God to the people, and the fact that God was made manifest through him. That work was now complete.
2. He offered evidence to the fact that his work has been accomplished. “All of these people were yours and you gave them to me for a time. I taught them everything you needed me to teach and they have come to believe.”
3. Jesus prayed for his disciples’ protection. “I will pray for them. And I pray that they might be of one heart and mind as we are of one heart and mind.”
Now that all sounds well and good, and yet, as I read this prayer and reflected on it, along with others of Jesus, coupled with his teaching on prayer, I’m still left with the nagging question, “what is prayer?” What is really happening “when I pray?” What form should my prayer take? How should I pray? [Pause]
If we were together in our sanctuary, I would come out of the pulpit at this moment and kind of hit “pause” in my sermon and invite your response to any of these questions. Itʻs precisely what about 20 of us did the other day in the KCC Zoom room when I asked those present: What is prayer for you? How would you define it? What constitutes prayer in your life? Do you pray? If so, what form does your prayer take?
You might want to think about that for a while. You may even want to do a little writing later on about your understanding of prayer, because it is a critical part of our lives as people of faith. In fact, what we believe about prayer – changes everything. [Pause]
Early on, I was taught formulaic prayers. Maybe you learned them to: “Bless, O Lord, these thy gifts which we are about to receive from thy bounty.” Or the much less formal “Rub a dub dub, thanks for the grub. Yeah God!” Did anyone else ever use that one? And, of course, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. Keep me safe both day and night. Wake me with the morning light.” And then the interminable God blesses which we did to delay getting into bed. “God bless mommy, and daddy, and grammy and grandpop, and Aunt Matilda, and all the flowers, and all the birds, and all the (you get the picture). My kids did the same thing.
Later, I learned the more sophisticated acronym ACTS which stood for the four basic aspects of prayer: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication. For a while I thought my prayer was not legitimate or acceptable to God until I had all 4 of those included in my prayer. Imagine that?
It took me a long time to learn a few things about prayer, AND to realize that I am still learning. In fact, I learned some new things the other day about prayer in our Zoom chat room. But at the top of my list is that prayer is evolving practice for me. What worked for me a few years ago – or perhaps even a few months ago, I realize has now changed – it evolves depending on circumstances in my life and personal needs or longing and that’s because prayer is much more about my relationship with God than it is about method or specific practice or language. [Pause]
Think about an important relationship in your life – one that has lasted for several years. It might be your relationship with a spouse, a close friend, a sibling, or a child. It’s highly likely that your relationship to that person has changed – and probably pretty dramatically – over the years. I bet your conversations with that person has evolved over the years as well. Take, for example, a relationship with a lover or spouse, you likely evolved from the “getting to know you” phase, to limerence when you couldn’t get enough of the other, to a more mature or settled love. There were likely times of deep distress or even hatred – when you did not speak at all. And, if you love withstood all of that, you may now be at a place where words are few. Just being together is enough. Randy and I often find that we are thinking the exact same thoughts although no words are spoken. It happens, doesn’t it?
I want to suggest that that is exactly what happens in our communication with God – our prayer. At first, we may feel awkward in our prayer with God. We don’t know who God is or what God expects and so we stick with formulaic prayers, “Now I lay me down to sleep,” and “Our Father, who art in heaven.” Nothing wrong with those, but I think God invites us to go deeper.
We may experience a time of rapture, a deep intimacy with the Holy as prayer becomes a vital part of who we are. Maybe you experienced some kind of genuine religious conversion, or you sensed that God has been the source of a miracle in your life and you couldn’t be more grateful. You can’t stop talking about God or thanking God as your life has been forever changed. Saints and mystics of the church were famous for this kind of prayer life – their words often erotic in their expression of devotion.
Your prayer may take the form of anger or lament when you are frankly pissed off with God as you shake your fist or fall to your knees weeping tears of bitterness. You may sense abandonment or silence from God when you need to hear God’s voice as evidence of your relationship with God. Faith and belief in those moments are strained. I find myself marveling at those who remain steadfast when life has all but broken them – as in the case of Queen Liliʻoukalani – in her famed prayer we heard and sang just moments ago.
And then there are those moments – those prayers when words seem unnecessary – perhaps even inappropriate. What is called for is to be still – to be silent. Fr. Thomas Keating – the founder of the modern Centering Prayer movement is known for having often said, “Silence is God’s first language. Everything else is a poor translation.” The older I get, the more I come to realize just how important silence is in my life, and the invitation to “Be still” to “be silent” constitutes the greater part of my prayer time.
As I was telling the folks in our Zoom room the other day, I often take a few minutes during the days that I am down at the church to go into the sanctuary – where I can be all alone. I sit on the floor in the chancel and simply enjoy the silence. I may hear a bird or two, I hear the waves crashing, but it’s peaceful - it’s quiet – and I feel deeply the presence of God – speaking to me in the silence of those moments.
So, whether you believe that your prayer is offered in order to change situations in your life or the lives of those you love. Or whether you believe your prayer is offered to deepen your understanding of God’s will in your life. It really doesn’t matter.
What is important is that you give it the time necessary to build a relationship with God. In that case, no matter what form your prayer takes – your prayer will change you. It will speak deeply to your soul. It will soften you and open your heart to the pain, and joy, to the possibility, and challenge that God will invite you to consider as you rest in Holy Presence and get to know the one with whom you are building the most important relationship of your life.