This is the message I preached on Sunday, June 10, at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC, for our Homecoming Service. I hope it blesses you! If you find yourself in or near Pittsboro, please join us! Hanks Chapel has Sunday school at 9 AM, with worship beginning at 10 AM, and is located at 190 Hanks Chapel Loop, Pittsboro, NC.
12 Once, when he was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” 13 Then Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, “I do choose. Be made clean.” Immediately the leprosy left him. 14 And he ordered him to tell no one. “Go,” he said, “and show yourself to the priest, and, as Moses commanded, make an offering for your cleansing, for a testimony to them.” 15 But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. 16 But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
Let us pray.
Oh still-speaking God, Open the eyes of our minds and ears of our hearts so we might see and know what you have for us in these words of Holy Scripture. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Last week we began a series called “Drinking Deep the Waters of Life”. We are looking each week at specific practices which can help us connect with and drink deep of the living waters of God’s Spirit, to sustain us through times of change and trial, when we cannot keep going on our own power.
Our Scripture readings today point to a key way we can drink deep of the water of life: prayer.
Jesus’ example in Luke reminds us of our need to regularly stop in the midst of our busy lives, burdened as they often are with our worries for the future, desires for more, or
1 Thessalonians goes a step further, reminding us that prayer is not just something we are to only do at a set point in the day, when we have time to pull away from our busy lives and the crowds, but can also be a way of living our life all the time. We are to rejoice always, and to pray without ceasing.
What does it mean to pray without ceasing? For me this call to pray without ceasing is beautifully pictured by the life of Nicholas Herman. Moved by the sight of a tree in mid-winter that was barren, without blossom or leaf, just waiting to become vibrant and alive again come spring-time, Herman decides to learn how to have a relationship with God. He goes to a local French monastery, hoping to follow their example of doing as Jesus did and regularly pulling away from the busyness of the the world to focus on prayer. There the monks re-name him “Brother Lawrence”. Sadly, Brother Lawrence quickly becomes overwhelmed by the formal language of their prayers which are so far removed from his usual way of talking he has trouble relating and joining in. He has trouble understanding them and at first feels awful. Surely he can’t grow at all as a Christian, at least not like these life-time monks he meets and looks up to there. In fact, Lawrence has such a hard time following the traditional prayers and tasks of a monk he changes his mind and chooses not to actually become a monk himself like he hoped, but instead only to join the monastery in what he feels is the most menial, humble and unspiritual of jobs: as the monastery’s combination cook, handiman, and janitor.
Despite his initial discouragement, Lawrence soon discovers that those seemingly menial tasks can became prayer for him. Though he has trouble experiencing God in the formal Latin prayers of the monastery he joins in every day, in each of these seemingly everyday tasks Lawrence found he could encounter God easily. He learns as he sweeps the floor, as he repairs walls and doors, as he gathers vegetables, chops carrots, and makes stews, how to turn each of those activities into opportunities to see God’s presence, thank God, listen for God, and talk with God about his day like a friend with whom is doing chores side by side. In the end, by learning to see these everyday occurences of his life as moments to encounter God, Brother Lawrence cultivates a life of quiet ongoing prayer, a peace of mind, a love of others, and a compassion, which ends up making the way he lives out his faith the envy of the long time monks he had looked up to as so far beyond him in their faith. Much to his surprise, these very same monks end up seeking him out for his advice in how they can build a closer relationship with God. After his death, they gather up his advice into a book, Practicing the Presence of God, which still inspires and teaches people today about how to have a close, intimate relationship with God.
You see, what Brother Lawrence discovered is that these times when we pull away from the busy-ness of life for a special moment to look for, listen for, and speak with God, ultimately are not just about what happens in those private, quiet times themselves. Instead, those moments we pull away from the busyness of life are about training ourselves how to do as Lawrence did: to learn to encounter God throughout the day in each moment we are in, each person we meet, and in all we do. When we take time out every day to pray one on one alone with God like Jesus did or pray together with others as the monks did, we are training ourselves to open up to God in prayer throughout our lives, turning our lives themselves into prayer.
Because of this, I want to spend some time looking at a number of different ways of praying, focusing both on how to pray in that way, and also how such kinds of prayer can help wake us up to God’s presence in all our lives.
Before I do, are there kinds of prayer that are particularly helpful to you?
The first kind of prayer I think is worth noticing is listening prayer. Often we think of prayer as talking to God by saying: God would you do this, God would you do that, like God is a giant Santa Claus to whom we are writing a Christmas list. The purpose of prayer, however, is not to just get what we want, but for you and me to cultivate a real relationship with God, which involves listening as well as talking. Listening prayer involves putting aside the noise and busy-ness of our day, in order to look and listen for God to speak. It starts with noticing and letting go of distractions. As you give your distractions over to God, bit by bit other thoughts, feelings, images, and ideas often enter your mind which can seem like answers to questions you have been asking in prayer, or concerns you are facing. Not always, but often, as you pray about these thoughts, feelings, images, and ideas, it will become clear that those are not just your own ideas, but moments where God is leading and inspiring you. As we say in the United Church of Christ, “God is still speaking” in our lives and in our world. In listening prayer, we practice listening for God’s still-speaking voice.
Centering / Contemplative Prayer
Related to listening prayer is centering or contemplative prayer. When we put aside the noise and busyness of life, not only can we hear more clearly what God is saying in our lives, but also we can sense God’s presence. In centering and contemplative prayer, we don’t just sit with God to listen for direction but also simply pay attention to God’s presence all around us. Contemplative or centering prayer is like a child crawling up into his or her mother’s arms — not to get advice, not to ask for more things, but just to be held close to her. Contemplative or centering prayer reminds us to be aware of God’s presence all day long, looking throughout our day for how God walks beside us or goes ahead of us. It also reminds us folks we care for don’t always need us to serve them or give advice. Sometimes our just being together with another person, offering our company and appreciating theirs, is the greatest gift we can give.
You may notice I have not yet talked about speaking to God as a form of prayer. There is a reason for that. Often we focus just on talking to God, forgetting prayer can be listening for God or being aware of God’s presence. No relationship with anyone, even God, where one person does all the talking or asking, without ever listening, is much of a relationship at all.
Yet talking to God is still an important part of prayer. Prayer is a relationship with God, a give and take. Hebrews 4 invites us to come boldly before God with what is happening in our lives — our fears, our needs, our concerns. And just as we might ask a friend or loved one for a hand with tough situations we or folks we care about are facing, so God wants, even longs, to hear about our needs and respond. In fact, the Scriptures make it is pretty clear there are some things God longs to do for us and others but will wait to reach out to do until we and others ask.
I would challenge you to practice talking to God as a friend, opening up about your feelings and concerns.
Praying the Scriptures
Sometimes, it can be hard to figure out what to say when we pray, which is one reason praying the Scriptures can be helpful. The Bible is full of prayers others have prayed, which are included in the Bible to inspire us to learn how to pray by following their example. The Lord’s Prayer, which we pray each Sunday, is an example of such a prayer which Jesus himself taught. The book of Psalms is chocked full of such example prayers, but such prayers are found throughout the whole Bible. In the Gospels, there are a number of times Jesus prays the words of Scripture, such as when he prays Psalm 22, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” on the cross as he is dying. One way to pray the Scripture is to recite a prayer from Scripture one line at a time, paying attention to what God brings to mind in that Scripture, and sharing with God whatever thoughts, needs, and concerns it makes you think about.
Another form of praying the Scripture is “breath prayer”. In breath prayer, you take a short section of Scripture like “Be still and know that I am holy” and slowly say it, one word at a time, over and over again, paying attention to what feelings, thoughts, and ideas enter your mind, both looking for what God is saying to you through that Scripture and sharing with God what feelings and needs of your own it brings up.
“Popcorn prayer”, is allowing prayer to pop up in the moment, like popcorn popping left and right. What this means is, when you see something that makes you think of God, to quietly in the moment say a word to God. You might see something beautiful like a bird singing or a sunrise and quietly say “thank you God”. You might see or think of someone who is sick or in need and say “God help them”. Adding popcorn prayer throughout your day allows you to pepper your day full of short, quiet prayers.
Prayer walking is just what it sounds like: you praying as you walk around an area outside. You can pray any type of prayer while you do this, but often it can be meaningful to pray about what is around you during your walk: thanking God for peaceful or beautiful things you experience in your walk, asking God to bless people or parts of nature you see, asking God to bless the school, home, workplace you pass, asking God to bless your neighborhood, and asking God to help you see how you can be a servant right where you are living, working, or visiting.
I want to challenge you to pick one or more of these practices of prayer to engage in a little each day in the next week. Remember what counts is not which practice of prayer you use, but that it works for you, that it opens you up to notice, experience, God throughout your day, wherever you go, and to have back and forth conversation with God throughout the day.
Rather than me saying a prayer of my own to close, I invite you to take a few minutes and quietly engage in one of these kinds of prayer right where you are. (Afterward): Amen & Amen.