“A Life of Prayer”
Psalm 85 & Luke 11: 1-13 ~ Northwood UC ~ July 24, 2022 ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook
You are a regular who attends church; you are someone who is in leadership at your church; or you might be in ordered ministry…you have likely experienced people’s general expectation that you pray. Here’s a scenario that I know you have experienced: You have gathered with friends for a backyard BBQ. People are mingling with shorts and t-shirts, music is playing, merriment is in the air, perhaps even Christian beverages are flowing. The smell wafting from the BBQ is intoxicating and everyone’s taste buds are salivating. Everyone is getting hungry. The host announces: “OK everyone…dinner’s ready, plates are over there, salads and chips are over there. But, before we eat, we have Bob and Sue with us here from Northwood United Church…so we should probably say a little prayer before we eat. Bob or Sue, could we ask you to say a little prayer?
Has anyone ever experienced that before? Society has this expectation that, as practicing Christians: we pray, that we know how to pray, and that prayer is a distinct and brief moment in time that can be summed up in a few words. As this Sunday’s gospel lesson focuses this morning’s topic, I would like for us to take apart this spiritual practice and consider the dynamics of prayer.
At the outset, we are reminded that there are certain ways that we can pray. Many of us learned melodic prayers as children. “O the Lord is good to me. And so I thank the Lord, For giving me the things I need: The sun and the rain and the apple seed. The Lord is good to me, Johnny Appleseed!” Or, you will recall learning prayers designed to comfort: “As I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. And if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take”. And in the first four verses of the text, Jesus teaches our beloved Lord’s Prayer.
And what we discover is that there is not one correct way to pray, but rather there are many! It is comforting for us to have prayers to come back to, time and time again through life’s journey. We recite the Lord’s Prayer, learning it in our childhood; we continue to offer it through our youth and our adult and our senior years. And these prayers become like a touchstone drawing us nearer and nearer to God. Praying the 23rd Psalm at graveside comforts, praying the Johnny Appleseed grace expresses gratitude…and the many varied prayers that have found their way into our spiritual vernacular draw us ever closer into an awareness of God’s presence that is within, beyond, and forever with us.
But, here is the question…after the prayer is offered. After the “amen” is spoken. Is the prayer over? The answer, of course, may seem somewhat obvious. By definition, “amen” is the conclusion of the prayer. Amen means ‘so be it’…prayer over…and we dig into the sumptuous BBQ. Yet, what we learn in Jesus’ teaching on prayer is that persistent, ongoing, continuous prayer is how we are called to pray. A quick review of Jesus’ life reveals that prayer was an enduring thread of his living. Jesus’ life was a life of prayer. Jesus wandered in to the deserted and prayed, he found quiet places to pray; he climbed mountains and prayed; he prayed before choosing his apostles; he prays before feeding the 5,000; he prays the night before his death. And even on the cross, prayer is one of his final actions before taking his last breath. For Jesus, prayer was a consistent thread throughout his life. Jesus prays for strength, for discernment, for wisdom. Jesus prays throughout each and every chapter of his recorded life. Persistent, constant prayer was the way Jesus prayed.
The gospel text teaches the value of persistent prayer with the parable of the locked door. By telling the parable, Jesus teaches that prayer is not merely an isolated moment with a few words offered before bed or before a meal. Prayer must be an interconnected part of all facets of life. Following the friend’s request that was initially denied by the locked door, Jesus teaches the parable of persistence. To persist in our prayer life. “at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. “So I say to you, ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you”. How many times have we heard this text used as description of God coming to do our bidding with the mere requirements of searching, asking and knocking? While this is not the subject of this morning’s sermon, it is important to note that this is NOT what Jesus is teaching here. What Jesus is teaching is that persistent prayer must be the consistent thread running through one’s rich and meaningful life. Persistent prayer means that each and every aspect of our lives are intertwined with the presence of prayer. Jesus is teaching a life of prayer…for persistent prayer means that all aspects of life are lived in prayer. Prayer is life and life is prayer.
So, contrasting from the story of the short prayer offered at a summer BBQ, we shift to a life of prayer where each moment lived draws us into a deeper awareness of God’s presence and unfolding grace. Imagine what a life of prayer might look like: You awaken in the morning and gain an awareness that you are actually awake and inhabiting this wonderful creation of your body. You can breathe; you can move; you take in your surroundings. Your first prayer is awareness that you are here…God’s child, loved into being, called to be a light in the world. You give thanks for your mind that holds memories of the past and hopes for the day ahead: your second prayer. You go through the day which is anything but mundane. Interacting with all of God’s majestic Creation: you take in the sights, sounds, smells and all that unfolds…your third prayer. You venture out into God’s amazing world communing with that Creation. Surrounded by the sights and sounds of God’s presence; by other people; by communities; in solitude. Your day of prayer continues as a growing awareness of God around you; God inside you; God being the rhythmic heartbeat of all life. You are living a life of prayer.
Now, you might be saying: ‘That is quite a fantasy. A life of prayer. But no one can live that kind of life.’ And in many ways, you are correct. There is no one that I know that fully lives this way. That is why (I think) Jesus told this parable on persistence. This is our goal to work towards; it is our Mt. Everest to climb; it is our ideal to strive for. To shift from a life with brief, fleeting moments of prayer towards a life that IS prayer. Prayer is a practice, and this is a call to practice more fully living a life of prayer.
A brief example that many may relate to. I left the office for a medical appointment. I left extra early to be on time, and…you guessed it…I was stuck behind a horrible traffic jam. It was a hot day; everyone on the highway had somewhere to be; you could feel the tempers flaring…and to be honest I was very frustrated, and my anger was growing as the clock ticked closer and closer to my appointment. Yet, as the time ticked on, and it became readily apparent that I wouldn’t be making my appointment. What does a life of prayer call us to try to do? I tried to make this an opportunity pray for patience. Can my patience be further deepened in this situation? Can I pray for those in the accident? For the first responders who are attending? Can this be a moment to practice growing closer to a God whose way is patient, caring and compassionate? Or, will these moments of frustration just be moments that raise our blood pressure and infuriate us. In actuality, I did a bit of both. It was incredibly frustrating and angering; BUT, it was also a time to practice prayer. These challenging moments in life are prayer opportunities to further deepen our walk with God. To be sure, they will never be easy! But they are opportunities to be persistent in all aspects of our life as prayer.
Some of you know Thomas Merton, an American Trappist monk who wrote extensively in this area in the last century. In his book entitled Contemplative Prayer, Merton put it this way: “the aim of meditation is not to arrive at an objective and apparently 'scientific' knowledge of God, but to come to know him through the realization that our very being is penetrated with his knowledge and love for us. Our knowledge of God is paradoxically a knowledge not of him as the object of our scrutiny, but of ourselves as utterly dependent on his saving and merciful knowledge of us.”
A life of prayer draws us ever and ever deeper into the reality of God above us; God around us; God within us. What might it look like if we were to practice persistent prayer and live each moment as a prayer? What if we strived towards living a life of prayer today? What if we imagined each breath to be a prayer? A deeper walk with God as we breathe each Spirit-breath in, and release each Spirit-breath out. What might happen if you were to practice persistence? Living a life of prayer in your days ahead?