Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Spirit In Prayer

In a way, people pray to each other. The way I say “you” to another, respectfully, hopefully, intimately, in desperation, or expectantly: all this is a way of praying. Could it be that praying to God grew out of this human experience of speaking to and communicating with one another?

It’s hard to pinpoint the origins of what we call prayer. Praying is simply there in the holy books of all the religions of humankind. The Bible takes prayer for granted. So much so, that the Hebrews really had no technical phrase for “to pray”. They used words like entreat, rejoice, pour out one’s heart, cry aloud, praise, bless, according to however a person felt in relation to the Divine. The Hebrews prayed to their own God, Yahweh, the only One who could help. Other gods -- and the people of Israel were surrounded by many -- were helpless. Psalm 115:5 proclaims: “Our God is in heaven, and whatever God wills to do comes to pass. Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands... Those who make them are like them, and so are all who put their trust in them... 

The Holy God revealed God’s presence, Godself, to Israel. The Hebrew word for God = Yahweh means something like “I am who I am”, but with the added idea of presence, of being with. The unique thing about the God of the Hebrews is that what God says God also does.

God’s covenant with Israel through Abraham is renewed down through history. Each time God remakes the Covenant, God is revealed to the people as a Father with two qualities: 1) lovingkindness, mercy (hesed), and 2) faithfulness, reliability, loyalty, dependability (emeth). Implicit in Hebrew prayer to such a God was a request for life, i.e., total blessing, a filling of all of one’s needs, personal, earthly and spiritual, both for the individual and for the nation, the community.

Everything was allowable for the people of God in prayer. No word was too bold or too spontaneous to be used before God. This was, after all, the same God who walked through the garden with Adam and Eve in the cool of the evening (Genesis 3:8); the God whom Abraham, father of the chosen people, tried to “fast-talk” in today’s first reading (Genesis 18:20-32); the God whom Jacob wrestled in fierce competition so as to claim God’s blessing. (Genesis 32:24; 26-28) It’s against this background and within this understanding of prayer that Jesus of Nazareth was formed and lived and taught.

Luke’s Gospel reading (11:1-13) today reminds us of our need to turn back again and again to the words and actions of Jesus in order to learn how to pray. Jesus’ disciples, feeling that their own prayer lacked something, approached him and asked, “Teach us to pray.” They’d seen Jesus pray many times, and knew that it was something important to him. They also noticed that John the Baptizer taught his followers to pray, as rabbis often did. Jesus, a master teacher, offers them a simple and direct way of praying. Only one other text, Matthew 6:9-13, records this prayer. Luke’s form seems to be the original one in Greek. Translated literally, Jesus says something like this: “When you express your wish toward God, say this: ‘Father, may your name be held holy. May your reign come. Give us continually, every day, the bread sufficient to sustain us through tomorrow. And let go, don’t keep any longer, forgive our going wrong. For even we ourselves pass over the dues owed to us by others. And do not bring us to the test, the proving.’

What Jesus hands on to us here is far more than a mere formula: much more than a treasured “Lord’s Prayer” to pass on to posterity, to record in our books of worship and to preserve like some ancient museum piece. What Jesus gives us in these six short lines is a way of touching God’s very Presence. For Jesus, praying means bringing to a personal, loving Father our deepest needs, and then letting go, yielding ourselves to God so that those needs might be in harmony with God’s purpose.

Praying means asking God, as Jacob did, “What is your name?”, i.e., “Tell me who you really are.” To pray is to turn that little word “God” into a name which means something to you and me. Biblically, the name stands for the person. It’s never just a word or a label. A person’s name is full of personal history. Biblical names, especially, speak of the person’s mission or purpose: Abraham, father of a multitude; Isaac, he laughs; Jacob, God protects; David, beloved; Jeshua or Jesus, God is salvation. 

Speaking someone’s name reminds us of all that we share in common and of our whole relationship with that person. Calling someone by name enables the person to be him/herself. It shows that we take them seriously as a person. When a loved one dies, the name spoken recalls his/her presence. By deliberately not using someone’s name, never addressing a person by their first name or always making do with a surname or a nickname, or simply by calling out to someone “Hey, you”, in some way lessens that one’s status as a person. In praying to God by name as “Father” or “Mother”, since God is beyond human designations or categories, and the precedent for which many saints have historically set, we let God be Godself: the Holy One who is with us, the faithful and lovingly merciful God. We show that we take God seriously.

In the Gospel Jesus uses an illustration to make two points about prayer:

  1. To pray takes persistence, work, and trust. Jesus uses the parable of the persistent friend. His point is that we approach God on God’s terms, without giving up, and, above all, with faith. There’s no need to plead with God as with a hostile judge or an insensitive neighbor. God inevitably recognizes our need. Jesus‘ advice is to ask, to search, to knock. The Greek text gives the idea of a continuing action. We’re to pray continually, in all situations of our life, not only on selected occasions of crisis or depression.
  2. A parent listens to the “prayer” of a child. Jesus speaks of a child asking the father for basic food (bread, fish, egg). He tells us that if we can trust a human parent to respond, how much more God. “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!

In Chapter 8 of his letter to the Romans, and elsewhere, Paul speaks of  “the Spirit of Christ”, the presence or closeness of God personified in the Holy Spirit. It’s that Spirit, active in the life of Jesus, he says, which brings you and me freedom, life and peace. “ are not of the flesh; you are of the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you...” That contrasts vividly with what Paul calls, in today’s Epistle, “the elemental spirits of the universe... not according to Christ”. For Paul, the Holy Spirit is intrinsic to prayer: “...the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (Romans 8:26-27) Julian of Norwich records a delightful dialogue with Jesus in her Revelations which always greatly reassures my own personal prayer: “And all this brought our Lord suddenly to my mind and He showed these words and said: ‘I am the ground of your praying -- first, it is my will that you have something, and next I make you to want it, and afterwards I cause you to pray for it. If you pray for it, how, then, could it be that you would not get what you ask for?” This, in essence, is what Paul means in referring to the Spirit’s intercession.

What can we conclude from all this?
  • Prayer requires discipline. It’s an art developed through intention, effort and practice. One learns to pray by praying: not merely by reciting prayers or repeating words. There’s a “holy monotony” in prayer. And there are inescapable distractions. But if your prayer life only repeats someone else’s words, where is the “closeness of the Lord”, the communication, the presence?
  • Addressing God as “Father”, as Jesus taught us, involves an awesome responsibility, viz., addressing one another as “sister” and “brother”. There’s no such thing as “just me and Jesus”. In Baptism, where we become part of the Communion of Saints, we accept the whole Christ. We’re one with him and with one another.
  • Prayer isn’t an application for spiritual welfare assistance! The prayer which Jesus taught us first and foremost asks that God be honored and that God’s reign, God’s presence, be shared universally. Only then do we ask for ourselves, and even then, only for what God knows we need most.
  • In a “Ziggy” cartoon I once saw, Ziggy is standing all alone in darkness on a high hill. Looking up into the clouds he wonders, “Have I been put on hold for the rest of my life?!” We’ve all felt that way. God always answers prayer, but it’s on God’s terms and in God’s time. And in this God is always full of surprises! There’s no way to barter with God, or to try to be a wheeler-dealer or con-artist, as Abraham attempts to do in today’s first reading. Notice the last line of that story: “And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham.
  • The best pray-ers are the man, the woman, the child or the congregation who is willing to trust. “...don’t be anxious about your life...Instead, set your hearts first on God’s reign, and these things will be given you as well.” (Luke 12:22; 31) In prayer we seek not the consolations of God, but the God of consolation.
  • Finally, the fundamental place where you and I meet the Father, Jesus and the Spirit in prayer is here in the breaking of the Bread and the sharing of the Cup. The Book of Common Prayer calls this word and action “the principal act of Christian worship”. We, the praying community, ask for the revelation of God’s name, the revelation of who God is, so that we may come to know who we are. Artist Corita Kent says that “to celebrate is to explain who we are and to say ‘yes’ ceremonially...” 
There’s an old Hasidic story about an ignorant villager who, having heard that it’s a good religious deed to eat and drink on the day before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, drank himself into a stupor. He awakes late at night, too late for the opening service. Not knowing the prayers by heart, he devises a plan. He repeats the letters of the alphabet over and over, asking the Almighty to rearrange them into the appropriate words of the prayers. The following day, after the closing service, the rabbi asks him about his absence the previous evening. The villager confesses his failing and asks whether his way of reciting the prayers can be pardoned. The rabbi replies: “Your prayer was more acceptable than mine because you uttered it with the entire devotion of your heart. 

Our praying together is like gathering up all the scrambled letters of our lives in the week just past; our hopes, mistakes, good intentions, heroic moments and our failures. Together we hold them in our outstretched hands, particularly when we receive Christ’s Body and Blood in Communion, and repeat them over and over to our Father, with and through Jesus, in the closeness of God’s Holy Spirit...with the entire devotion of our hearts.  

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