“Life is a Prayer”
August 4, 2019 – Rev. Gabrielle Suedfeld
When I was about seven or eight, my mother took me out for a real treat. It was a restaurant called Horn and Hardart’s. Not your usual kind of place. There were no waitresses or waiters, no menus, only tables with cutlery and no plates. The walls were covered with small glass doors. We went up, and my mother gave me a bunch of coins; quarters, nickels, dimes. Each little door had a handle and underneath was a coin slot. Behind the doors was an amazing variety of food: soups, sandwiches, salads, fried chicken, roast beef, vegetables like peas and carrots, and corn, mashed potatoes scooped out into a perfect ball, and of course, several kinds of pie or cake for dessert. You put a coin in the slot and took out the little dishes with your selections. Behind the glass, you could see people filling up the slots again with another dish. To me, this was like the Heavenly Banquet! A totally different kind of eating experience.
I went to one the city colleges in New York, which did not have residences; everyone lived at home. Down in the rather dingy basements of the classroom buildings there were vending machines. You put in some coins, and out came sandwiches, chips, drinks, candy. I don’t know how I managed to survive: the tuna (which was my favourite because my mother never made that for us), was soggy, and God only knows how long it sat in there. Salmonella waiting to happen. And yet, here I am. Obviously, God had other plans for me.
So here I am today, talking about vending machines and prayer. No, they don’t belong together, and that’s just the point. Brian Stoffgren says, “Prayer is not ‘putting coins into a vending machine, pushing the right button and waiting for the machine to spit out what we have selected…’ Prayer is relationship.” (Crossmarks Christian Resource)
Prayer, in its simplest form, is just talking to God. Having a conversation, that may seem one-way, but is really the deepest contact you may ever have.
The disciples say to Jesus “Lord, teach us to pray as John taught his disciples.” Jesus gives his disciples a model prayer, one that they can use to construct other kinds of prayer. First of all, it is simple. In fact, this version is shorter than the one we are used to. Jesus walks them through the kinds of things we need to have to make a good prayer.
Call upon God, in a reverent way Use God’s name and address: Abba who lives in heaven Pray for the progress of God’s Kingdom and will on the earth Ask God for the physical necessities of life Ask God for the spiritual concerns, For forgiveness of sin, and for protection from evil.
That’s all there is to it. We can all pray, using this outline. Lord, teach us to pray. Help us to find the right words, to express our feelings, our fears, our joy, our wonder at your presence in our lives. Couldn’t we just put a coin in the machine, and out would pop the right stuff? Make it easy for us, Lord, teach us to pray. Teach us to pray, not just with the familiar words and phrases, but with all of our being, involved and interactive.
Prayer is a lifelong journey, and God is with us the whole way. Every moment can be an opportunity to connect with our loving creator, with Jesus, the one who challenges us, with the spirit, who comforts us in our times of need.
Today, I’m not going to talk much about the gospel passage. Instead, I suggest that you read it at home. Take it apart and deal with it in bits and pieces. It’s a varied selection of wonderful gifts, and you don’t have to put a coin in the slot.
Think about each part of the Lord’s Prayer, and what that means for you. Do one sentence each day. That will last you till the end of the week!
Take the parable that starts at verse 5 and think about the needs of your friends. How will you answer, when they come knocking on your heart?
Mother Teresa prayed: “May God break my heart so completely that the whole world falls in.” Think about your own needs, how God answers them. Think about what we provide for the world: is it fish or snakes, eggs or scorpions? This is serious stuff!
Prayer is a lifelong practice, and what I’d really like to share with you today is some of the ways in which I have grown in grace, as I walk along, holding hands with God.
We pray as children, just the way our parents taught us. For some, it is grace at the table, making us aware of God’s gifts and the needs of others, becoming aware of food and meals as sacred. For some, it is bedtime prayer, or a blessing as we fall asleep. Some children learn the Lord’s prayer by heart, others, the 23RD Psalm.
As I have grown, I have been exposed to many ways to pray. I learned to meditate and empty myself so that I could let God in and be part of the mystery.
In the housing coop where I lived, one of the women taught transcendental meditation, and she introduced many of us to the Hindu practice, giving each one a simple two syllable mantra, a name of God to keep repeating silently until you sink into the place where God is. One evening a week, her door was open for two hours. People would just come in quietly, join the circle, and sit, for twenty minutes at a time, then get up and leave. The silence was energizing. At VST, I belonged to a small prayer group. We met every Thursday at lunch, shared our concerns and joys, held hands and prayed for one another. It was intimate, gentle, and supportive and full of trust.
We had an assignment at school to find a prayer partner, sit far apart from one another in an empty room, and read 1 Corinthians 3:16 to ourselves over and over for 15 minutes.
”Do you not know that you are God’s temple, and that God’s spirit dwells in you?”
The silence in that room was so loud and powerful, that it bounced off the walls. God’s spirit was surely with us in those moments.
I learned to pray in the car: I read something by a Roman Catholic sister, who said she carried a prayer list with her, and whenever she stopped for a red light, she made the time constructive, by praying for one of the people on her list. I do it all the time. Try it - maybe while waiting in line at the supermarket, or in the doctor’s office.
I learned the value of repetitive prayer. We often do this with the Lord’s Prayer, and then feel strange because we are not concentrating on the words. You don’t need to; you know what they say; you don’t need to think, just be. A lot of ritual prayers are like that. They move us into another state of being.
When I was in Terrace, I worked in a joint partnership with the Anglican Church. The office administrator and I made simple Anglican rosaries: they are shorter than the Roman Catholic ones but used in the same way. The version I use now is to start with the Lord’s Prayer, then an invitation to pray, then each section of seven beads is for praise, forgiveness, concerns for others, and blessings. Sometimes the seven beads are a short prayer repeated over and over again. “Lord, break my heart so completely that the whole world falls in.”
There are numerous versions of this, and they all lead one to peacefulness through repetition. It may be something like the “runner’s high” that people experience during marathon. After a few miles, you forget about thinking how far you have to go, and you just enter into the moment.
I belong to a prayer shawl group, and each week from September through May, we meet, to knit and crochet, to share our concerns and blessings as we stitch, to pray for the people in our congregation who have special needs that week. At home, we try to begin each line of work, or sometimes each stitch, with a prayer. This is healthy, it lowers blood pressure, it creates things of beauty, it shares our love.
Sometimes, God has called me into healing prayer and I resisted. In my second or third year of ministry in Hazelton, when I was still a bit wet behind the ears, I got a call from a deacon in the Anglican church in a First Nations village about an hour away. Bob and I were well acquainted; I was his tutor in the Native Ministries programme at VST. “We need you to come on Saturday. We are having a healing prayer service, with laying on of hands. Father Lance from the Order of St Luke will be there.” I was very reluctant. I said I had never done that, and the United Church didn’t really do much laying on of hands. “Well, you have to come; there are United Church people in this village. It’s at 1 pm. Wear your alb.” After a bit more persuasive conversation, I finally agreed. On the Saturday, I got in the car, threw my alb in the back seat, and set out, mumbling all the time: “How did I get myself into this? I don’t know how to do this!” I was most ungracious about the whole thing.
The service went on for two hours, with general prayers, hymns, a sermon, the usual stuff. Then the three of us stood in a line, and Father Lance gave the call: All who were in need of prayer, should come forward and we would lay hands and heal.
I was appalled. I didn’t know what to do. Suddenly there was a woman in front of me, asking for prayers for her son, who had pains in his legs at night. Well, lots of growing kids do. I took a deep breath and took the plunge. I held her hands, and gave thanks to God for her child, and prayed that he would grow strong, and be faithful and make his family and his clan proud. She hugged me and sat down. There was a long line waiting. I realized that the important people in the village went to Father Lance, the other men went to deacon Bob, and the women and teenagers came to me. I was being asked help them to carry their burdens, to put hands on their shoulders, and offer healing support. I received hugs and tears and began to understand how powerful this could be. I was being trusted to take their pain and offer it to God. I learned a lot about humility and grace that day.
God broke my heart so completely that the whole village fell in.
Prayer can move us out of time and space. When we hear or say the great thanksgiving during communion, we are hearing Jesus who is present with us. “This is my body, broken for you. This is my blood, poured out for you.” For You. Here and now and always. Because God’s actions do not have a timeframe, they are transcendent. Perhaps the most powerful and meaningful experience I have had with prayer is the Jewish prayer for the dead, the Kaddish.
It is said during the week after a person dies, and then by close family members, usually children or siblings, every day except on the Sabbath, for eleven months less one day. Then it is repeated each year at various festivals and on the anniversary of the death.
I was twelve when my father died. I wasn’t allowed to go to the funeral. I wasn’t allowed to be in the room in my grandmother’s house where Kaddish was being said. I was too young, and besides, I was a girl. I didn’t really have closure for a long time.
I was forty-four when my mother died. Older and wiser, I told my sisters that I was saying Kaddish. “You can’t, you’re a girl. Besides, you have to say it for eleven months, less one day. You can’t do that.” Yes, I could. Women do it all the time. Traditionally, they are not obligated, but they are not forbidden.
So I got up every morning, faced the east, and said the prayer. I learned it in Hebrew. It has nothing to do with death. It is a prayer to praise the incredible wonder of God. It is a prayer for peace in the world. It lifts the broken spirit out of sorrow. And what I realized after a few months, was that it also helps to heal, by requiring a person to take five minutes a day to think about the one they have lost. And then you don’t have to worry about losing a loved one in your memory. After eleven months less one day, you are pretty well finished grieving. All because you spent a few moments each day praising God and praying for the peace of the world.
Maybe we should find a way to do this more in the United Church. Martin Luther said “Pray and let God worry.” Soren Kierkegaard wrote “Prayer does not change God, but it changes the one who prays.”
God does not need our prayers, but we need to say them. We need to reach out, first to God who has invited us into this relationship, and then to our neighbour, and then to those we have never met. Prayer is not just words, it is action. Action for the sake of God’s people. Action that will change us in so many ways.
When we pray, God listens, and answers, with more love than we can imagine or offer ourselves.
Prayer is not magic. It does not solve problems. It opens us to contact with the holy, and sets us on the path towards the Kingdom. It brings us out of ourselves to concern for others, or helps us to deal with our faults, to face our fears, to give voice to our longings and our needs. It helps us to praise, to release our selfish actions into generosity.
Prayer is a lifelong practice that brings comfort, strength and purpose to our lives. Bread, forgiveness, protection, blessing.
Lord, teach us to pray, to praise, to ask, to receive, and then to give. And may the Kingdom come closer and our hearts grow in grace.