Feb. 18, 2018 – Lent 1: How to Pray – Simple Prayer

Do you remember the first prayer you were taught?

Church of England, Common in British and Australian religious schools. For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful/grateful. Amen.

Hanging on my bedroom wall was this prayer:

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.[1]
(If I should live another day. I pray the Lord to guide my way.)[2]

It was the bedtime prayer for a long time, likely long before I knew what death was.  I think it was the first prayer I learned, because of the simple language, the rhyme, and pattern, taught long before the Lord’s prayer.  But I remember a time that we stopped praying it – I remember the age when I started to question – What do you mean I can die in my sleep?  That’s possible?!

Those first prayers shape how we pray later in life – as they’re the ones we go to, in times of distress, when we’re seeking comfort, or familiarity.  (You’ll find when we sing the Doxology after our offering, that though the words have been changed since when we learned it, we will still sing the words that we learned so many years ago).  And that’s ok.  Because when an individual asked for a sermon on how to pray, I worried about creating a “definitive statement on prayer.”  That’s why we’re looking at prayer throughout Lent, to explore different ways to pray, and understand prayer.  And I’ll say it every week … but there is no ‘right’ way to pray.  It doesn’t matter if you sing Creator, Word, and Spirit, One …or… Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. It doesn’t matter if you get on your knees to pray, or if the very thought of it makes your joints creak and moan.

Anne, from Lucy Maude Montgomery’s book, Anne of Green Gables asks this very question, on one of the first nights with her adopted family Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert:

“You must say your prayers while you are under my roof, Anne.”  [Marilla says]

“Why, of course, if you want me to,” assented Anne cheerfully. “I’d do anything to oblige you. But you’ll have to tell me what to say for this once. After I get into bed I’ll imagine out a real nice prayer to say always. I believe that it will be quite interesting, now that I come to think of it.”

“You must kneel down,” said Marilla in embarrassment.

Anne knelt at Marilla’s knee and looked up gravely.

“Why must people kneel down to pray?” [3]

The question goes unanswered in the book, but what matters is that you pray, not how you do it.  But how we pray can be complicated by our past.  We could be praying in ways, with words, that no longer have meaning.  We could be going through the motions of prayer: closing our eyes, taking a deep breath, looking for words in our hearts that aren’t coming, or listening for guidance that sounds suspiciously silent.  And so in this Lenten season – I hope to fill your prayer toolbox – to give you different ways how to pray, just in case what you’re doing isn’t working.

But before we begin, we need to talk about what prayer is.

Unfortunately in church services, needing to denote what happens next, we give our prayers a title Opening Prayer, Prayer of Confession, Prayers of the People…and when we do this, we make the first mistake of prayer.  Prayer isn’t something we do.

While we teach our children to stay still while we pray before a meal, or say their prayers before bed, and we force everyone into prayer in church services, prayer is more of an awareness.

When you walk into a room, and feel the temperature, the warmth or the cold, or when you walked in today and smelled the soups cooking away for lunch – that awareness is closer to what prayer is.  Prayer is a tuning our hearts to that awareness, of opening ourselves to what surrounds us, what’s within us, what makes up the air we breathe, and the warmth we feel.  In Anne of Green Gables, L.M.M. includes such a beautiful description of prayer:  (Anne says)

If I really wanted to pray I’ll tell you what I’d do. I’d go out into a great big field all alone or into the deep, deep, woods, and I’d look up into the sky–up–up–up–into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness. And then I’d just feel a prayer. [4]

That’s it!  To just feel a prayer, Anne understands prayer far deeper than any of us.  To going into the deep woods, or find yourself under an infinite sky, and contemplate oneness with creation – all alone but not, knowing, feeling, that sense of closeness in the depth of it all.  This is the awareness we are called to move into when praying.  While folding your hands, or getting on your kness might help you, they’re merely the starts to prayer.  It’s too bad that Marilla didn’t take this profound profession of Anne’s as enough, because as Anne asks,

Well, I’m ready. What am I to say? [5]

 

Marilla thinks she doesn’t get it.  She says:

“You’re old enough to pray for yourself, Anne,” [Marilla] said finally. “Just thank God for your blessings and ask Him humbly for the things you want.” [6]

Why isn’t silence enough?  (Or…I hope silence is enough, because during our Prayers of the People today, we will pray in silence.  I had the opportunity to spend some time at the Taizé community in France, and there – they use chant, short repetitive musical pieces to lead into prayer and out, and pray in silence for often up to ten minutes. It’s difficult for us to stay focussed in prayer for that long, to quiet our ‘monkey minds[7]’ and avoid the distractions of the day as they come to us.  But I found that breathing helps – the second something pops into your mind that is unrelated to your prayer, take a deep breath and breathe through – breathe out those worries/distractions.

Instead Anne prays with words, not a simple prayer, but overly complicated using words that she’d heard before:

“Gracious heavenly Father–that’s the way the ministers say it in church, so I suppose it’s all right in private prayer, isn’t it?” she interjected, lifting her head for a moment.

“Gracious heavenly Father, I thank Thee for the White Way of Delight and the Lake of Shining Waters and Bonny and the Snow Queen. I’m really extremely grateful for them. And that’s all the blessings I can think of just now to thank Thee for. As for the things I want, they’re so numerous that it would take a great deal of time to name them all so I will only mention the two most important. Please let me stay at Green Gables; and please let me be good-looking when I grow up. I remain,  yours respectfully, Anne Shirley.”[8]

For Anne – prayer in words is more of a letter, with a beginning, middle, and end.
And that’s not wrong…as long as it makes sense to Anne.  If we were to share our prayers with each other, they may seem comical, as what makes sense to us doesn’t always makes sense to another.  Reading that story from 1st Samuel,

12 As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. 13 Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. 14 So Eli said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.” 15 But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. 16 Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.”

Prayer is a language all our own – Hannah’s prayer was her own, unique to her upbringing, and ours are the same, in church or out, shaped by first prayers, or the awareness of our world and what lays heavy on our hearts.

And this week, as we heard in the news, the same rhetoric, of thoughts and prayers being the only response to the brokenness of the world, sometimes it’s not enough.  As truly, prayer is the starts of our actions and response to the world.  It begins with an awareness, but grows into action.  And so for the next few weeks, we’ll try to understand how we pray, is as important as what change those prayers cause in us, as Pope Francis once said:

“Prayer that doesn’t lead to concrete action toward our brothers is a fruitless and incomplete prayer,” …. “But at the same time, when ecclesial service only attends to work, not reserving time for dialogue with God in prayer, it risks serving itself rather than God who is present in the [sister and] brother in need.”.. .“Prayer and action must always be profoundly united.”[9]

If we just talk of thoughts and prayers
And don’t live out a faith that dares,
And don’t take on the ways of death,
Our thoughts and prayers are fleeting breath.

 If we just dream of what could be
And do not build community,
And do not seek to change our ways,
Our dreams of change are false displays.

 If we just sing of doing good
And don’t walk through our neighborhood
To learn its hope, to ease its pain,
Our talk of good is simply vain.

 

God, may our prayers and dreams and songs
Lead to a faith that takes on wrongs —
That works for peace and justice, too.
Then will our prayers bring joy to you.

Carolyn Gillette[10]

[1]1750, New England Primer http://cdlrsandbox.org/neprimer/versiontwopages/028.html

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_child%27s_prayer

[3] https://www.cs.cmu.edu/~rgs/anne-VII.html

[4] https://www.cs.cmu.edu/~rgs/anne-VII.html

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mind_monkey

[8] https://www.cs.cmu.edu/~rgs/anne-VII.html

[9] https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/always-unite-prayer-and-action-pope-francis-says

[10] http://www.carolynshymns.com/if_we_just_talk_of_thoughts_and_prayers.html

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