What does life look like post graduation from graduate school? I am about to find out!

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Living on a Prayer

One of the last sermons I will get to preach at my internship congregation. This was probably one of the toughest and most personal ones yet. Scripture text was Matthew 6: 5-14.

It is slightly ironic that I am standing in front of you today, preaching on this particular topic. I was a bit taken aback myself when I saw that I would be preaching on this subject. Why, you may be wondering? Well, here’s the thing. When it comes to prayer, I confess that I just have a really difficult time with it. You see, when it comes to prayer, I just can’t seem to do it. The idea of sitting there and praying just doesn’t seem to work for me. I have tried so many times to just stay focused and to pray but to no avail.
I should confess here that I have ADHD or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Thus, I think that perhaps explains why I lose focus so easily and why I therefore find praying to be a rather difficult task for me. I know I haven’t always had a hard time praying. I remember when I was a much younger person that I would pray every night before going to bed. At some point, I stopped doing that and never started again.
Here’s just some of my reservations about prayer. These reservations, at least to me, represent the main reason why I don’t pray. Why do it? Why bother praying? If God already knows all our needs and already knows what is on our hearts, then why do we have to bother articulating them? Can’t God just give us what we want without us having to ask?
We live in a broken, violent world. A world where people are savagely beaten and murdered every single day. A world where families are torn apart by war, violence, poverty, and death. A world where those with money and power have access to everything while those who lack both have access to nothing and yet we are told that this is the way it should be and that we shouldn’t expect or hope or long for anything better.
Where are our answered prayers in this world? People have been praying for peace in the Middle East for decades and yet the violence rages on. People have prayed for an end to hatred and homophobia and yet the persecutions continue. People have prayed for our children to feel safe and yet the violence in our schools and neighborhoods continues to rage on and consume entire families.
Is this what our answered prayers look like? A world shattered and broken by war and violence and poverty and hatred and abuse? This is the world that we continue to live in and grieve in and pray in. Our prayers don’t really seem to be making much, if any, difference at all.
So, again, I ask you, why pray? Why bother? Why not just give up and stop praying and just accept that the world we live in is the world we have and stop trying to pray for it to change or be better. Why, indeed?
In our scripture reading for today, we see Jesus tell his disciples how not to pray. He instructs them to pray not with boisterousness and loud voices like the hypocrites do. Instead, he instructs them to pray in secret and in quiet and not to make a big production out of it. Then, he teaches them the prayer that is perhaps the most well-known prayer in the entire Bible. The prayer that has been repeated by Christians for generations. The prayer that we now know as the Lord’s Prayer.
At first glance, it seems so simplistic and so easy. It seems almost unfinished and feels rather short. Surely, there must be more to the prayer than just these few short lines, right? I mean, how can we possibly encapsulate everything we want to say to God in just these few short verses? I mean, God has to hear about our sick grandma and our anxiety over our upcoming test and our anguish over our loss of a job and none of those things is mentioned at all in this prayer. What gives?
What Jesus is expressing here is the idea that our prayers don’t have to be these long, drawn out things. They can be simple and easy. They can be as short as one word or as simple as just saying Thank You. There is no need to attach fanciness or ornamentation to them. God sees right through all of that. God sees right to our hearts. God sees what we need to say even before we say it.
Which brings me back to my initial question: why bother praying? A few months back, I had the opportunity to attend the Companions on the Inner Way retreat down in Malibu, California. I basically signed up for this retreat as an excuse to spend a week in Malibu. I knew absolutely nothing about what I had signed up for or what I had gotten myself into. I got off the airport shuttle at the retreat center, received my schedule for the week, looked through it and thought to myself, “What in the world have I just gotten myself into?”
It was a week-long prayer and spirituality retreat. We were scheduled to do lectio divina meditations and spend time in contemplative silence and do art and journal and most importantly of all, pray. All stuff I have professed to either hate doing or to not get much out of. From the very beginning, I knew I was going to be in for a rough week. However, something inside me had told me to come on this retreat. Something inside me had told me to open myself up to this experience and to open myself up to the new ways of seeing that this might bring me. So, that next morning, I woke up and decided to be open to these things that I have been so against for so long. And, you know what? I found myself really enjoying them. I found myself actually enjoying lectio divina and enjoying time spent in contemplative silence and being able to actually, dare I say it, pray. I even, shocker, made art!
Again, let me ask the question: why pray? Let me, if I may, reframe the question and approach it from a fresh angle. Instead of asking, why pray, I’m going to ask instead, why not pray? Why not take a chance and pray for each other and for ourselves. Why not pray knowing that God will see us and hear us? Why not swallow our pride and humble ourselves just a little bit so that we can take some time to just surrender ourselves to the act of prayer? After all, sometimes all we have is prayer.
Here’s what I have come to realize about prayer: it doesn’t have to be some on your knees with your mouth open praying to God type thing. It can be found in other ways. In the beloved children’s book, Anne of Green Gables, little Anne Shirley, an ever-inquisitive and spunky young lady, has this to say about prayer: “Why must people kneel down to pray? If I really wanted to pray I’ll tell you what I'd do. I'd go out into a great big field all alone or in the deep, deep woods and I'd look up into the sky—up—up—up—into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness. And then I'd just feel a prayer.” That, is a form of prayer. Walking the labyrinth? A form of prayer. Lectio divina? A form of prayer. My personal favorite way of praying? Through singing. Whatever way you choose to express the desires of your heart to God are acceptable and worthy as prayer.
Yes, we live in a broken and fearful world. We live in a world that is full of violence and anger and hate. We live in a world that can be so crazy and topsy-turvy that it sometimes can threaten to be too much and we think that we should just give up. Clearly, God doesn’t hear our prayers or answer them because how could our world be like this if God did? So, wouldn’t it just be better to give up rather than continuing to pray without ceasing?
No, it wouldn’t. Yes, it may not always be easy. Yes, we may get distracted during our praying or feel like it isn’t making a bit of difference. Yes, it may be that we would rather God just give us what we want without having to ask for it. When your dad has been sick for five years and you pray for him to get better only to see him get worse, it can seem pointless to continue praying. When you have a loved one go to prison and you pray to God everyday for them to be paroled and come home to you only to see them denied parole again and again and again it can seem pointless to continue praying. When you are being verbally abused and bullied every single day and you just pray for it to cease and it doesn’t, it can seem pointless to continue praying. Most of all, when you realize that you prefer boys instead of girls and you know that this very fact alone will mean isolation and ostracism and you pray, night after night, for God to just take it away and make you “normal” and instead God doesn’t, it can then seem pointless to pray.
Yet, here’s the thing. Those are exactly the times when you need to pray the most. Perhaps you just need to change the request some. Instead of praying for your dad’s healing, pray instead for him to have a good and peaceful death so he can be relieved of his pain and suffering finally. Instead of praying for your loved one’s release, pray instead that they are safe and that when they do get out, they have learned something and won’t go back in. Instead of praying for the abuse to stop, pray instead for resiliency to keep on going in the face of abuse. Most importantly, instead of praying for God to change your sexuality, pray instead for the wisdom to see your sexuality as a gift, not a curse.
So, yes, continue to pray. Continue to walk labyrinths and sing and dance and meditate or whatever else you find prayerful. Continue to believe that prayer is an essential and important part of your life. Continue to believe that it can somehow make a difference, because it does. We are, all of us, living on a prayer. Sometimes that is the only thing that keeps us going. Pray without ceasing. Pray with or without words. Pray every day in every way. Pray as if your life depends on it, because it does. Pray and know that God hears those prayers and appreciates them no matter what. When you can’t think of anything else to do or anything else to say, pray.
Will we still live in a broken and fearful world even if we continue to pray? Maybe yes but that doesn’t mean we should quit. Wars will rage. Diseases will spread. People will continue to be people. Yet, we must continue to pray. Not for an end to war but for our own abilities to stop war. Not for an end to disease but for an end to the conditions that leave people vulnerable to disease. Not for an end to hatred or bigotry or prejudice but for our own abilities to start loving everyone. This is the real purpose of prayer. To reveal ourselves to God and to pray for a change in ourselves, not our world. By humbling ourselves before God, we allow ourselves to be open to the ways in which the Holy Spirit opens us up to new ways of visioning. Yes, I think it is safe to say that we ought to live on a prayer.

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