Toward Praying Unceasingly
I begin this morning, by telling you the title of this sermon. The title is: "Toward Praying Unceasingly." And the biblical verse I have taken as my text is one of the shortest verses in the Bible, from Paul's First Letter to the Thessalonians, Chapter 5, Verse 17, which contains three words: "Pray without ceasing" or "pray unceasingly."
But about the title: "Toward Praying Unceasingly" - you should be immediately suspicious. I mean, first of all, it's a tad trendy, don't you think? And any book that has a title or subtitle beginning with the word "toward" (you know, like "Toward a New Way of Playing Golf" or "Toward Becoming a Millionaire") immediately tells you two things: 1 - that you're not "there" yet, "there" being wherever it is you want to go; and 2 - that you're not going to get there simply by reading the book. The book is going to, at best, point you in the appropriate direction and maybe move you along a little in that direction. So I want you all to know those two things at the outset of this sermon, "Toward Praying Unceasingly." 1 - that we're not "there" yet; and 2 - that we're not going to get "there" simply by listening to this sermon. However, there is much that we can learn about prayer, even by doing it sporadically, which will point us in the appropriate direction - which is to say, toward living lives of unceasing prayer. And there is much we can learn through sharing the wisdom of others, and our own collective wisdom in the Christian Community about prayer. So, let's begin.
To know what prayer is, we must be sure we know what prayer is not. Prayer is not a blank check on which God's signature appears, guaranteeing us anything on which we may set out hearts. Prayer is not a rabbit's foot or other charm, warranted to preserve us from misfortune. Prayer is not a "parachute project" to bail us out in some extreme emergency. Prayer is not a child's letter to Santa Claus. It is not just an appeal devoted to securing "things." While the saints and mystics regard petition for material things as legitimate, they unfailingly relegate it to second place. In my own prayer life, when I find myself asking God for particular favors, the way a child would ask a parent for a toy or some candy, what I am really in need of is some assurance that I am cared for and sustained. God knows that.
Prayer is never an attempt to change God's mind, or to bring God around to our way of thinking. It is not directed toward overcoming divine reluctance.
So what is prayer then? In my reading this week, I came across an interesting piece of information concerning prayer. The verb used in the Epistle to the Hebrews to describe the prayer of the ascended Jesus is a word that means "to be with" or "to encounter" - rather than to plead or speak or make petitions. Jesus is ever with God, with the world upon his heart. May we think of our own prayer as being for a while consciously with God? not more and no less than that? If we think of prayer like this we may find that the many aspects of prayer are embraced within the act of being in God's Presence.
Imagine then, that you have a great friend and you plan to spend time with her and you are careful not to miss it. The use of the time is unlikely to be planned, but within the time news may be shared, requests may be made, regrets or gratitude may be spoken, and minds may be exchanged sometimes by talking and listening and sometimes with very little word or gesture. The use of the time is not organized, but the time itself may be protected with care and trouble. May not our prayer be somewhat like that? It is the keeping of a little time in conscious awareness of the One who is Friend as well as Creator and Savior.
To be with God for a space. Within this may be included every aspect of prayer which any of the textbooks describe. To be with God wondering - that is adoration. To be with God gratefully - that is thanksgiving. To be with God ashamed - that is confession. To be with God with others on the heart - that is intercession. The secret is the quest for God's Presence: "Your face, O Lord, will I seek." (Psalm 27:11b) We may, indeed, give forethought to the ways in which the time will be spent; but the outcome will be determined not only by our designs but also by God's act in shaping both the time and ourselves.
So what keeps us from prayer? I used to think it was laziness that kept most of us from prayer. But laziness, with its underlying fear of action, is not the danger which threatens our spiritual lives nowadays - busyness is. We are too busy to pray. We live in a frenetic society in which it seems hardly acceptable to pause and take some of one's precious work time for meditation, for deep prayer reflection, to be with God, consciously, even for a brief while.
It is easy to live shallowly in modern America. Television and computers continually distract us. Casual conversations and endless email consume us and make us feel important, make us feel that we're really in the "thick of it." We have glorified being busy to such an extreme that one of the most embarrassing moments in the life of a relevant American would be to be caught thinking - doing "nothing" - just thinking - or perhaps even, just feeling!
We are a pre - occupied people. And look at that word! "Pre - occupy." With respect to prayer and why we don't do it - it is because the space in our lives that we want or even need for prayer is already occupied by something else! We are preoccupied.
We need space for prayer and we need time. Christian prayer has always been conscious of time - that something has to be done about it to make it supportable. Time has always been seen as a spiritual and psychological commodity. It is as if some hidden truth in time itself can provide an answer to our questions. Yet many of us view time as an excuse for things. There isn't enough time. There's too much time. It's never the right time.
James Thurber wrote a wonderful parable/fairy tale entitled The Thirteen Clocks, in which he gives us an insight about time and life. The evil character in Thurber's story is a cold Duke who states, "We all have flaws; and mine is being wicked." He lives in a gloomy castle where time lies frozen - the hands of all thirteen clocks in the castle are stuck at ten minutes to five. And the way Thurber describes the situation at the gloomy castle is like this: "Time lies frozen there. It's always Then. It's never Now. The cold Duke was afraid of Now, for Now has warmth and urgency, and Then is dead and buried." [James Thurber, The Thirteen Clocks. New York: Simon and Schuster. 1950, pp. 18-19.]
In our busyness, we lose sight of the Now in which we live - that precious moment in which life takes place. God calls us to be stewards of creation, and creation includes time. Are we good stewards of the time God has given us?
With respect to prayer, to spending time with God consciously, to moving toward praying unceasingly, there are two things I want to say to us all on this Third Sunday of Advent, 2017 - and I can say those two things in four words: SLOW DOWN; and THERE'S TIME.
"SLOW DOWN" I say to us all, because we're killing ourselves with busyness. We are blotting out the possibilities of a deeper awareness of life, of the things that are truly important, to be found only in stillness and quiet - what the world might call "wasting time." Whether you are the kind of person who requires a highly-structured, daily, regular discipline of putting aside time for prayer - or the kind of person for whom structure only further precludes prayer, and you need, simply, to sit in silence from time to time and let your mind and heart unravel as a way to begin spending time with God - we all need to slow down. We could each begin by refusing to overwork and instead trying to discover the natural rhythm in life, since only a certain obedience to this makes deep awareness possible. The rhythm of the earth is much slower than the frenetic pace of most of the lives we lead. We've got to feel that slower rhythm. Each of us has to slow down, to quiet the soul, to surrender to silence - because eventually we have to face the fact that we are not God and we cannot control every aspect of our lives - which is what busyness pretends to do.
The second message: THERE'S TIME, is a message I can only offer as a member of the Christian Community. In fact, it is a message that the Christian Community needs to give both to individuals and to the whole world: There's time. There is time for each of us to be and become the persons God intends for us to be. Part of God's gift of life to us is the gift of time. God exists and operates in and through and beyond time. Time is part of the goodness of creation, and it has been given a special holiness by the coming of Jesus as a child of time. The way of life Jesus commended is a way of personally experiencing the sanctification of time. Jesus was in touch with the rhythm of the earth, the rhythm of all of life. He never commended busyness. In fact, he commended those who were not busy. Jesus, it is clear, prayed at many different times in his life. In fact, one can be reasonably sure that prayer was a daily activity for Jesus. But more important, the life of Jesus was, and is, itself a Prayer. Jesus does what he sees God do and speaks what he hears God say. Jesus' will is to do God's Will - and so his life is an offering - a prayer to God. That is what we mean by unceasing prayer. And we are called to follow.
So - SLOW DOWN.
In the Name of the Coming Christ - Amen.
The Rt. Rev. Mary D. Glasspool