Gracious God, we thank you for your ever-present love in our lives and for your faithfulness through all things. In this time of worship, prayer, and reflection, may we settle our minds, open our hearts, and listen for your word to us this day. Amen.
Today, we are wrapping up our Glad You Asked worship series based on the topics of interest that many of you submitted back in the spring. And today’s topic is prayer. And I’m using the word prayer to encompass all forms of spiritual practice that connect us with God – whether it be prayer for and with others, prayer for ourselves, meditation and centering prayer that focuses on silence and listening, and so on.
This is a great topic for us to reflect on because the practice of prayer in its various forms, both in our individual lives and in community with each other, is central to the practice of our faith. And prayer is embedded in the historical development of our faith tradition, as it is in many of the world’s religious traditions.
He taught his disciples and followers to pray. He knew intuitively how to pray. But he also learned to pray in certain ways by growing up in the Jewish tradition, by going to the synagogue, and by being surrounded by a community that prayed their way through life.
Today we turn to one of the texts of that historic praying community that continues to inform our own community, the book of Psalms. The book of Psalms is the Bible’s book of prayers (prayers that were intended to be song, in fact, and have been sung through the centuries). In the book of Psalms, we find all sorts of prayers conveying the breadth of human emotion and our collective longing to connect with God. There are psalms of praise, psalms of wonder, and psalms of thanksgiving. There are also psalms of grief, psalms of bewilderment, and even psalms of anger.
This diversity we find in the psalms offers us an important first lesson on prayer. And that is that we can take anything to God in prayer – our joy, our thanksgiving, our anger, our worry, our frustration… anything we have in us. Nothing is off limits or out of bounds. God can receive it all, hold it all, and responds to it all with grace, peace, and compassionate presence.
That’s good news and an important lesson to remember! But we may also wonder, how do we pray well? Are there right ways to pray? Are we praying enough? What if we go through a whole day, a few days, a week, and feel like we haven’t prayed at all or very little?
The first psalm proclaims that those who delight in and meditate on the law of God day and night will thrive. They will be like trees planted near streams of water – their roots soaking up that liquid nourishment, full of fresh green leaves, yielding fruit in its season. Do this and you will prosper, says the psalmist. Don’t do this and you might wither and wilt.
In his first letter to the Thessalonians, the Apostle Paul told their church community to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)
Meditate day and night. Pray without ceasing.
I don’t know about you, but at first pass, this feels like a lot of pressure and an unrealistic expectation. What do you mean, meditate day and night? I need to sleep too. Pray without ceasing? How do we do that? How are we supposed to get anything else done?
After all, there are plenty of other tasks that can sometimes feel ceaseless and constant… working, parenting, life maintenance tasks like cooking, cleaning, laundry. A busy, active life can be fulfilling, but it can also be exhausting. Sometimes we’re lucky to carve out even a few brief minutes of quiet time in a busy day.
So how are we supposed to pray all the time? I don’t think the Apostle Paul is going to do my laundry for me.
But here’s the thing… I think that both the psalmist and Paul are really trying to get us to think about prayer differently. I think both the psalmist and Paul frame prayer in a way that can actually release some of life’s pressure rather than adding to it.
Prayer is not just another task to add to the to do list.
Prayer is a way of life. Prayer is an attitude. Prayer is not only something we do in addition to all of our other activities. Instead, prayer can also weave its way through all of those other activities.
Just as the tree in Psalm 1 is planted in rich soil near flowing water, so too can we be planted in prayer. So too can we let our roots dig down into the deep, rich soil and soak up the living water of God’s grace, love, and compassionate presence – which is there for us, there to nourish us, fill us, and give us what we need to thrive.
I love this image of a tree planted in prayer and planted in God’s love, because it gives us permission to think about prayer in many ways and many forms. All we need to ask ourselves is what helps me remember where I am planted, in whom I am rooted? What helps me connect with the life-giving presence of God that is both within me and all around me? What are the things that help me to dig in a little deeper?
There are many and varied answers to these questions. And if you take nothing else from this sermon, please hear this: there is no one right way to pray. There are infinite possibilities, infinite prayer forms. Anything can become prayer if we are simply open… open to God, open to the possibility that the Holy Spirit will show up in that moment; open to being changed, challenged, inspired, renewed; open to what nourishment, strength, and grace we might soak up.
The success-driven tendency in our culture can sometimes complicate things and make us think that everything has to be a competition. But you can’t win at prayer. And you can’t fail either. Prayer doesn’t have to be fancy, complicated, or greatly time-consuming. All you have to do is be open. All you have to do is try.
And God shows up. God receives our prayerful intention. And God responds with love.
Hopefully thinking about prayer as an attitude of openness to God, and as something that weaves its way through our daily life, can actually help relieve some of this pressure to succeed and achieve all the time. Maybe it can free us to find some moments to just be.
And so, yes, there is also value in setting aside some intentional time for prayer. Not because it’s another thing to add to the to do list, but because it helps us find our center and our grounding in God, the right balance and the right rhythm that works for us, so we may approach all of life prayerfully.
That is part of the reason we pray together as a church in every worship service. There is great value in praying with and for each other because it helps bring us together. There is great value in praying the Lord’s prayer together every week because it helps us remember, pray for, and live into those priorities of God’s Kingdom that have not yet become a reality on earth.
Maybe you like to take some time out during your day for some quality time with God (whether at a particular time and place or just spontaneously). You don’t need particular words to just chat with God. And if you don’t have any words sometimes, just listening works too.
Perhaps you have already integrated a regular prayer practice of some form into your life that works for you. If so, great! If not, perhaps now is as good a time as any to try.
If you’re looking for some ideas on how to pray, here are a few places to start:
One, make some time for silence.
It doesn’t have to be a long stretch of time if that doesn’t work for you. Perhaps you want to try a form of meditation or centering prayer. Maybe you simply need to create a little time to be alone in a peaceful place and see what happens.
Two, get outside.
Nature is alive with God’s Spirit. The power and beauty of the ocean, the awe-inspiring cycles of life that are always unfolding around us… we don’t have to go too far to find some wondrous glimpse of God in the natural world.
Three, get moving.
A walk, a run, a yoga class, a trip to the gym, a living room dance party… all of these can be prayer. Remember prayer doesn’t always have to be quiet and still. It can also be loud and active.
Four, create some visual art.
Draw, paint, color, take photos, sculpt some clay or playdough. Any medium works. It doesn’t have to be fancy. When we approach any kind of creative expression with prayerful intention, it can teach us how to look at the world a little more deeply. Perfection is not the goal. Your artwork may or may not end up gallery-worthy. You may or may not choose to share it with anyone. That isn’t the point. The point is a meaningful connection with the divine.
Five, make music or listen deeply to someone else’s music.
You can sing in the shower if you want to. Or listen to your favorite artists. I hope you like to sing at church too. It’s not about being an accomplished musician; it’s about making a joyful noise to the Lord (as Psalm 100 says).
Journal, write a prayer, write poetry, write a letter to God. In today’s bulletin I included an insert with a journal prompt. Try it out. It might give you some clues as to where and how you have found God’s presence in your life recently.
Anything you do can become prayer if you let it.
So, find what works for you. Find what you can stick with for a time. Find what feels right, is life-giving, and helps you connect with God. And if what you are doing isn’t working for you, try something else.
I can’t claim to know how prayer works exactly. But I do know that prayer helps us connect with God. And I trust that God is present with us in all things, listens to us, and responds in love.
I know that prayer changes me. Prayer can bring me peace when I’m feeling worried, hope when I’m down, rest and renewal when I’m worn out. Prayer helps me carry on through many circumstances. Prayer helps me slow down and refocus when I’m stressed.
Prayer also doesn’t necessarily fix all that is broken, but it absolutely helps me remember that God is with us in the brokenness (and that itself is a form of healing). Sometimes we may long for a particular outcome, a particular response to our prayers, and something else happens. Our loved one dies. The war rages on. The relationship falls apart.
Sometimes things don’t work out the way we want them to. And we question why they didn’t. But that doesn’t mean our prayer wasn’t received. Perhaps especially in our prayers of grief, and lament, and rage, and bewilderment, God meets us with love, compassion, and even deep peace beyond our understanding.
Even when there are no easy answers, God meets us where we are.
Particularly when praying with and for others, I have also had moments where I have felt very powerfully the presence of the Holy Spirit. I have felt God both very close in my own heart and, at the same time, encompassing and holding all that is. Perhaps you have had similar experiences.
And it’s not that prayer somehow magically made that happen. Rather, prayer allows me to be more aware, tuned in, and open to God. In prayer, I also become less distracted, less worried about other things, and less guarded.
“Meditate on the law of the Lord day and night,” said the Psalmist. “Pray without ceasing,” said the Apostle Paul. Those aren’t pressure-filled words to make us feel like we aren’t praying enough. They are words of encouragement to remind us that all of life can be filled with prayer and that we can approach all things with a prayerful attitude.
And so that is my prayer for you this week. May you approach your daily life and everything that comes your way with an attitude of prayer. May you be like a tree planted by streams of living water. May your spiritual roots dig down deep and soak up the abundant grace of God. And may you may thrive.