I am going to be preaching for a few weeks on the nature of prayer as well as looking at different ways of praying. To begin with, it is important to understand that my ideas about prayer are not unique but they are different than what many of us grew up with. As I have studied and practiced prayer, my understanding has evolved. As I mentioned in my blog post, I grew up understanding prayer as a collection of words that were spoken to God. Sometimes those words were official and approved prayers like the Lord’s Prayer or various table graces. Sometimes those were the words of a personal conversation with God.
Those are not bad models of prayer. I would encourage you to say the Lord’s Prayer mindfully a couple of times during the day or Psalm 23 or Psalm 121. Psalm 1 is also a good one to start your day, “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; …They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and leaves do not wither.” These are ancient words that might put you in the mindset of walking the path for a day.
Yet sometimes we get caught up in the words. Are we saying the right words? Are we saying impressive words? Often I find people who are nervous about praying with others because they are afraid of saying the wrong thing or that their words are not smart enough or flowery enough or holy enough, as though prayers were magic incantations (a la Harry Potter) that only work if chanted the right way.
In the readings today, we have three takes on relationships. In Genesis 2 we have the story of God making all the animals for the man’s companionship and then finally forming a partner out of his own self because it is not good to be alone. We are made for relationship. We have Jesus commenting on divorce, a practice that in 1st century Palestine was simply unfair to women. It was easy for men to leave a relationship and dismiss a wife. Not so easy for women to end relationships in a fair way that didn’t leave them unsupported and alone. Marriage and divorce have changed quite a bit since the 1st century, and there is plenty here for us to debate and discuss, but still the theme of being in relationship abides.
This theme also encompasses Jesus’ interaction with the children. Others want to send them away as an unwelcome distraction. He embraces and invites them into relationship.
Finally we have the reading from Hebrews, the beautiful image of God being in relationship with us. The author describes royal imagery, Christ sitting at the right hand of God. He describes everything subject to Christ, even if we don’t see it now. “We do not see everything subject to them but we do see Jesus.” In Jesus God calls us into relationship. In Jesus, God shows us that we are already in relationship.
When I talk about prayer, I am normally talking about practices that continue, strengthen and remind us of God’s relationship to us. Prayer is more about cultivating an attitude of paying attention, being aware of God present with us, than it is finding the words to say.
When I began learning of the early church, the hermits who would go into the desert for solitude and prayer, I wondered about the stories. I’m sure some of them have a mythic flavor; Saint Anthony in the wilderness having wrestling matches with the demons. Yet all of them would speak of these saints praying for hours, putting into practice Paul’s instruction to “Pray without ceasing.” When I was focused on prayer as words, I wondered what all they had to say. I would go and pray, try to talk to God, and as one not drawn to small talk, I felt pretty much done in 10-15 minutes.
Then I learned that these early Christians were engaged in something else. Sometimes I am certain they had conversations with God out there by themselves, but often their prayers were either very simple or silent. They were not prayers that asked for things to happen or things to change. They were prayers that sought God in the present moment. They were prayers meant to focus solely on the relationship between the one praying and God.
Two weeks ago I talked about worship as a centering moment and had you stand seeking a sense of the solidity of God’s presence, the ground on which we walk, the constant support we forget. Today I want to invite you to experience another image, an image shaped by the idea of being children before Jesus.
I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that when the gospels talk about children it is not about cuteness or innocence but a lack of status. In the honor/shame culture of 1st century Palestine, children were dependent on the honor of their parents but had no status of their own. This is why people are often dismissive of them, these distracting children who are keeping Jesus from the important people. Yet Jesus himself says that these are the most worthy of his attention.
So for our prayers today, instead of the prayers of the church, I am going to invite you into a time of meditative prayer. So find a position where you feel solid but relaxed. Sit so you have both feet on the floor. Try to straighten your spine as much as you can. Rest your hands on your thighs or lap, palms up. Palms up has been a traditional pose for prayer, as sign of being open and accepting.
For this prayer, I invite you to close your eyes and listen. Take a few deep breathes, paying attention to the gift of breath, the gift of the Holy Spirit in this place.
Guided Meditation – Children before Jesus.
Imagine the scene. You are a child in the house of a friend. There is a boring grownup party going on, lots of adults talking about boring adult things: sports scores, job headaches and politics. The grownups tell you to stay out of the living room so you don’t bother the man, Jesus, who is the center of this party. So you do what children do at boring adult parties. You play with your friends. You play with other children.
Hide and seek. If you can just find a good hiding spot, and you realize there is a little space behind the chair that Jesus is sitting in there in the living room. You walk in quietly. Everyone is listening to Jesus so they don’t notice. You sneak into the little space behind the chair. He talks about love. He talks about welcome. He talks about belonging. He talks about God. The words warm you, speaking to a place deep inside you. Take a moment to listen…
“Caught you, ” a friend yells as he grabs your foot which was sticking out from the chair. Suddenly, the crowd’s attention turn from Jesus to the children who are gathered there. You come out of your hiding place to see disapproving glares from parents and strangers whom you have interrupted. You stand embarrassed and speechless, ready to slink away. Some grownups are already coming forward to usher you and your friends.
“No,” says Jesus, “Let these children come to me. The kingdom of God belongs to them. If you want to understand the kingdom of God, you need to pay more attention to the people you ignore; the people who annoy you; the little children who distract you.” Then Jesus reaches out and places his hand on the top of each child, one after another, saying words of blessing and God’s love. He reaches out and places his hand on your head. You feel energy and warmth in the contact. He speaks to you a word of blessing and God’s love. Take a moment to listen…
This Jesus who blesses you as a child is always with you. His words of God’s love are a constant message to you. As you go about your day and your week, take the time to listen to them.
Now I invite you take a final, deep breath, open your eyes, and let’s sing “Just As I Am” together.