A Pathway for Our Steps
October 31, 2010
Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.
Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.
Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.
The Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps.
He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, 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. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
Oh, great. A biblical text that is actually comprehensible, and it’s Jesus singing “When You Wish Upon A Star.” Telling them just to visualize the reality they want, and it will manifest.
Have you received all you’ve asked for? Found all you’ve ever sought? Gotten to open doors number one, two, and three just by knocking?
But can any of us say that after trying to know God, trying to pray and meditate, trying to connect with sacredness, that absolutely nothing in our inner or outer lives has changed at all?
It’s not news that we seek one thing, but God all too often gives us something else, often something that doesn’t seem like the Good News at all. One country music number (and country music songs are really just modern-day psalms) points out that “God’s Greatest Gifts Are Unanswered Prayers.” Thank God I’m not stuck with a reality I visualized when I was twenty.
Prayer doesn’t necessarily work the way we’d like it to, but it sure is powerful. This story from Luke comes when Jesus has healed physical and mental illness, brought a couple of dead people back to life, and stopped a big storm with His command. But what do the disciples want? “Teach us to pray,” they beg. Not “teach us how to heal, how to raise the dead,” but “teach us to pray.” And we look eagerly to this passage for just that direction. Teach us to pray, Lord. Teach us to participate meaningfully and deliberately in the mystery. Teach us to dance in your dream.
Jesus says God will give us what we ask for, but our lives tell us that we don’t get what we want. We don’t want what we need. And God only knows what we’re going to get. Books and tapes and seminars and workshops and classes about prayer proliferate as modern life gets scarier and scarier and feels more and more out of control—certainly out of our own control, and seemingly out of the control of a benevolent, healing, merciful God of peace. Love and hard work don’t seem to be doing it anymore. Prayer seems more urgent than ever.
Well, I’m up here in a pulpit, so I guess you’re all looking to me to tell you how to pray—or to pray with some enlightened, now-fully-ordained power that you don’t have. Or to at least offer up some wisdom that will make the snakes and scorpions OK.
Well, forget it. I got ordained, but I didn’t get any special prayer mojo. I could explain all I learned in seminary about different theories of prayer, and maybe bore you into a prayerful state. I don’t have a special prayer technique. I just have this calling to persist at prayer like the guy bugging his friend for bread. I’m a hospice chaplain. I bug God like a pesky kid. I may not pray well, but I sure pray often—and in many, many different ways.
So I’m not going to explain prayer, because that would take away its mystery. And if I could tell everyone how to pray so that Jesus’ promise did ring true in our lives and it was OK when it didn’t, that would take the power of God’s dream out of the whole equation. Let me just share some of my experiences— some of the things I see.
1. Prayer appears in infinitely different forms. One of my most profound prayer times was reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses with a man in his 80s who had loved those poems as a child. A day or two before his death, we read the poem in which the child who sails his boats in the river that “flows along forever with trees on either hand” realizes that “other little children will bring my boats ashore.” We remembered the simple joy of going up in a swing, up in the air so blue. There’s a poem, “My Bed is a Boat,” in which the child narrator says, “At night I go on board and say/good night to all my friends in shore;/I shut my eyes and sail away,/and see and hear no more.” As we sat, musing together about when he might die—Today? Tomorrow? Before the solstice? After the solstice?—we saw a leaf fall off a tree, the first falling leaf of the year. The silence we shared, that was a profound prayer that I almost didn’t recognize. It was a moment of openness, of surrender.
2. God is present at the depths of our despair. I visit with the husband of a patient who is debilitated with Alzheimer’s. Nice Methodist fellow from Texas. He lives upstairs in the nursing home, she lives downstairs on the locked dementia unit, and he visits her at night to tuck her in and say their prayers together. We had talked about God, we had prayed, but one day I happened to visit him just after he had fallen and begun to decline, and he was unable to go downstairs and check on his wife. And he was really scared—and sad beyond words. And he took my hands, and poured forth a prayer that God would make the weekend staff take better care of his wife, and that God would make him strong enough to get downstairs again, and he thanked God for their life and for her, and I thanked God for the both of them, and he asked God to give her comfort, and I asked God to bless them and be fully present, and we both emptied it all out. And he got some comfort, praise be to God! And he felt some peace, praise the Lord! I realized, you can rationalize in your mind, you can make your body act any way you want, but you can’t fool your heart. You can’t fool your heart, and this is where prayer starts.
3. Prayer is relational. I think prayer is such a comfort because it reminds us that we are not alone. Jesus gives us these beautiful relational images of a Father and child, friends, people we spend time with even when we aren’t asking for anything. Swedenborg notes that the Lord’s Prayer unites Heaven and Earth, line by line – The Hallowed Name, Thy Kingdom Come, give us this day our daily bread, let go of sins, keep us from evil – heaven to hell in five lines. Steadfast love and faithfulness. Righteousness and peace. The Lord’s gift and the yield of our literal and spiritual ground. A path for our steps.
So there are some images of how we pray, what we pray, when we pray, who prays and who listens. But why do we pray? Someone told me a story, secondhand (the best kind of story, really), of a couple whose four- or five-year-old desperately wanted to go into the room of their newborn and talk with the baby. They could not imagine what for, but let the kid go into the baby’s room. The baby monitor was on. They heard the kid say to the baby, “You gotta tell me what God looks like. I forgot.”
We’re trying to remember the face of God. So, let us…
Sing our prayers
Dance our prayers
Dream our prayers
Work our prayers
Cry out our prayers
Recite our prayers
Whisper our prayers
Imagine our prayers
Paint our prayers
Moan and groan our prayers
Hope our prayers
Believe our prayers
Live our prayers
May each one of us remember what God looks like. And as we remember, may we share the beauty of God’s face with the world. Amen.
Rev. Kathy Speas