WHAT A PRIVILEGE SPIRITUAL PRACTICES: PRAYER
February 22, 2015 by Ken Dale
Today we begin a sermon series on spiritual practices as found in Marjorie Thompson?s book Soul Feast ? An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life. In the coming weeks we will consider the practices of our common worship, keeping Sabbath, fasting and ceasing, self-examination and confession, and hospitality. Today we begin with communication and communion with God ? or prayer.
Prayer ? I think back to a systematic theology class when I was in seminary. Dr. Leslie Zeigler was the professor and we all took her classes with great fear and trembling! But there was one class when discussion broke out and while I can?t remember the topic of the discussion one student raised his hand and asked, ?What about prayer?? Dr. Zeigler responded with her usual ?gotcha grin? and said, ?Prayer is a way of life.? I never forgot it and as my journey in life and faith went on I discovered what she was talking about. Fred Buechner writes that we all pray whether we think of it as prayer or not: the odd silence we fall into when something very beautiful is happening, the ahhhh that sometimes floats up in response to something very good or very bad happening, the stammer of pain or joy at someone else?s stammer of pain or joy.
Marjorie Thompson opens her chapter on prayer stating that prayer is the essential expression of the relationship between us and God. She understands ?God?s desire for us ignites the spark of our desire for God? and then mentions Paul?s great 8th chapter of his letter to Rome that we just heard in part where he says that the Spirit prays in us. How powerful to know that when we don?t know what to say in our prayers, that ?the Holy Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for human words.? In the second paragraph of that chapter in her book she writes: ?Perhaps our real task in prayer is to attune ourselves to the conversation already going on deep in our hearts.? I don?t know about you but I think that?s a pretty awesome thought ? that there is already a conversation going on within us with God. What a privilege to be part of that!
Prayer as communication. Prayer as conversation. We just need to be attuned to that conversation. Communication, I tell couples in pre-marital counseling, is the most important aspect of your relationship because it?s the key to all aspects of your relationship. Is it any different when we think about our relationship with God? Good communication involves listening and speaking.
Listening happens before speaking in a child?s development of language skills. How do we listen for God? Do we listen for God? Marjorie Thompson shares 7 possibilities for us if we are to develop our prayer life. The challenge of course is that with God we are seeking to communicate with One who is invisible, intangible, inaudible, and inscrutable. The first is through scripture which is intentionally called God?s Word. Through scripture we hear God offering words of comfort and assurance, but also words that may challenge us to new life and new perspectives. As Christians I think it is also important for us to balance what we read in scripture with the life Jesus lived ? that example also speaks to us.
The second way God speaks to us is through creation. Thompson sees this as twofold. One is reading the characteristics of creatures and the rhythms of nature as symbols or metaphors illuminating our spiritual lives. That is touched upon with the rainbow mentioned in our reading from Genesis this morning. She also says that listening to the earth is a way of listening to God and through the earth?s distress signals and the collapse of ecosystems God is calling us for greater simplicity in life and more responsible stewardship.
God?s voice is also often heard through one another. How often are we struck with someone saying just the right thing at just the right time? Sometimes from a family member or close friend or even a complete stranger. They may be totally unaware of what they are saying to us, yet it may very well be God?s message to us that is being shared. The circumstances of our lives are yet another means by which God may be speaking. The wisdom of our bodies is important to pay attention to and a troubling relationship may invite us to attend something we are not fully facing in ourselves. Thompson suggests getting into the habit of asking ?What is God saying to me in this situation?? That listening is part of prayer.
Going a bit deeper is the potential that God speaks in our dreams. I know very often I am working hard in my dreams on the stuff of my life. In the Bible we read stories of God speaking to people in dreams. Thompson understands that it takes practice but persistent people of faith can yield a wealth of insight that moves us to spiritual truths. She shares a quote from Rubem Alves: To dream is to see love and desires transformed into symbols, words. It should not be frightening then, that God, who is love, speaks to us through dreams.
The sixth way is journaling. Spiritual autobiographies, personal diaries, a prayer journal are just some of the ways we can create a record of our spiritual questions, struggles and insights. One fascinating journaling technique is to take a character in a Bible story and just writing a dialogue with that person. Years ago I used that as a format for an evening Bible study and it was fascinating to see what came of it. Reviewing those writings may enable us to recognize larger patterns of God?s presence and guidance in our lives. And the final possibility for listening for God in our lives are in those subtle and mysterious ways. As Thompson words it ? those moments when we think ?Somehow I just knew this was what I had to do.? ?It suddenly became perfectly clear to me.? ?The words just came into my head.? This past Friday on my way into the office I think I was not paying attention. I passed the home of one of the hospice patients I am involved with and thinking of them had the thought that I need to be sure to stop on my home in the afternoon. A short time after getting in the office a hospice nurse called to me that the patient had died. Had I stopped when I thought of them it would have been perfect timing for me to arrive.
The other part of good communication is speaking. My guess is often we have no problem voicing our concerns to God. It is important to remember though that speaking honestly from the heart. It?s OK. I think I?ve shared the story of really getting furious and shouting at God at one point in my life while a seminary student in the mid 1970?s. When on sabbatical in 2010 I shared the story with a spiritual director and he said ?heart prayer.? I was floored ? I never saw that moment and especially what I shouted as prayer ? but it was exactly that. We need to speak to God the truth that is within us ? love, hope and joy for sure ? but also anger, fear, disappointment, yearning and desire, doubt, faith, failure, weakness, even hatred. We bring them to God who as we know from Psalm 139 knows and understands us completely. God sees into our hearts more clearly than we do and indeed is the one who prompts us to look at ourselves. God hears what we bring with a love that surpasses our understanding.
Speaking to God we bring our concerns for others ? intercession which Thompson describes as a combination of surrender and trust. Prayer is a struggle. We are quick to turn to God in times of need perhaps with a hope of changing God?s intended action. Yet when we pray we often find ourselves changed by the activity. We join our hearts with each other and with Christ ? with the Spirit who intercedes on our behalf. In prayer we become aware of God?s presence. Thompson raises the importance of our own attitude when we pray. Do we come to God from an ongoing and committed relationship or casually at our own convenience? Are we using God? God will not be manipulated. She likens our love for God and God?s love for us as sap referring to that wonderful image of the vine and branches shared by Jesus in John?s gospel.
Guidelines shared for speaking to God: begin with gratitude and praise offering your whole heart to God, ask boldly with as much faith as you have, wait with attention and trust for a response, if you get a clear response be sincere in your thankfulness, if you don?t ? ask again with the possibility that you?ve missed it ? ask for help, consider that the answer may be ?no,? and keep trust. Do everything in your God-given power to bring about what you pray for ? it is not a substitute for action.
Prayer ? what a privilege and what a mystery. Like so many things in the journey of life and faith ? it takes practice. I close with these thought-provoking words of Marjorie Thompson: “The prayers of committed people become part of the cosmic reality God has to work with. God can use them to ‘tip the balance’ and change the shape of distorted realities in our world. It is not stretching the truth to say that God needs our prayers. Such is the dignity and purpose we have been given in the divine scheme of things.”
I hope I?ve got you thinking??and especially praying.