Prayer is Connection

I sometimes get asked, “Does prayer really work?” I have a stock reply.  “Prayer works.  Prayer changes me.” At root, prayer is connection, relationship.  It is self-connection: taking the time to look within, being honest, naming our own hopes and fears, griefs and joys. It is connection with others, when we pray for another person.  It is connection with the larger world, when we enjoy and give thanks for the wonders around us, and ask mercy in dealing with forces beyond our control.  Prayer is connection with the Source. 

Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
March 4, 2018

Demystifying Prayer

Mark 4:35   On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.”  36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him.  37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.  38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”  39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.  40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”  41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Praying out loud, in public.  How many of you are comfortable doing that?  It doesn’t require a seminary degree.  But it does require practice, and modeling by someone you trust other than your pastor.  I’ve served six churches as solo or senior pastor.  Five were United Church of Christ and one was Disciples of Christ, our sister denomination. At the Disciples church, which was born out of a holy roller camp meeting tradition, I could ask any of the church leaders to pray at the beginning of a church meeting, or over a meal, with a little warning on Sunday morning, and they’d happily accept.  At UCC churches, not so much. 

Growing up in my Catholic home, we said grace over dinner but no other prayers aloud outside of church, ever, though my parents were devout.  Imagine my surprise when I asked my mom about prayer and she said, “Oh, I pray all the time.  I don’t know how I’d get by without it.” You could have knocked my over.  I was over 50 when I asked her.

Thanks to those of you who have done listening interviews with me.  I intended to finish all my listening interviews with a personal prayer; it was written right on the list of questions.  I succeeded with about three quarters of you. For the rest of you: sorry.  Old habits die hard.

I have discovered that some UCC folks do have satisfying prayer life, if a quiet one. Sometimes a morning ritual, sometimes an ongoing conversation through the day, sometimes the very simple and effective prayers that Ann Lamott recommended in one of her early books: “please please please,” or “thank you, thank you, thank you,” depending on the situation.

Some people meditate.  In my book, that’s prayer, of the listening variety.  What other ways can we pray? Some people walk in nature. Or sing.  There are so many kinds of prayer.

For those whose religion is about ethics and community, and you want to avoid things that might be labeled supernatural or superstitious, personal prayer may be problematic.  If that describes you, please know you’re welcome here, and thank you for putting up with me.

Some people were told that they must pray a certain way, or must not pray a certain way.  Or they have witnessed prayer that seemed self-serving, or unfair, or even cruel. Whatever the reason, it can be hard to relax into prayer when it has all that baggage attached. Your pastor is happy to talk that through with you over coffee.

I sometimes get asked, “Does prayer really work?” I have a stock reply.  “Prayer works.  Prayer changes me.” At root, prayer is connection, relationship.  It is self-connection: taking the time to look within, being honest, naming our own hopes and fears, griefs and joys. It is connection with others, when we pray for another person.  It is connection with the larger world, when we enjoy and give thanks for the wonders around us, and ask mercy in dealing with forces beyond our control.  Prayer is connection with the Source. 

Relationship with the Source of the creative transformation of the universe.  You might think, how is that even possible?  Or how is it possible not to be in relationship with a force that is in and through everything, including us? That relationship is there whether we acknowledge it or not. But when you live in the same house with someone, it is generally considered good form to acknowledge the person, have conversation with them; not treat them like furniture. If we picture God as a force rather than a person, that could get in the way of relationship.  And that is why throughout history, people have personified God.  Jesus did it too; he called God Father, and invited us too to imagine God as a loving parent. This assures me that we don’t have to be too careful about our prayers.  Children who trust their parents are comfortable saying all kinds of outrageous things to them.  The parent can sort it out.  And if you do not know how to imagine a God you can relate to, you can also envision The Force from Star Wars.

Prayer is authentic relationship. It invites honesty, and it can transform you. Which is probably why the phrase “thoughts and prayers” as the only response to the latest gun massacre can seem like an obscenity.  No real prayer is happening there.

So what’s prayer got to do with a boat in a storm? Mark’s gospel is not a literal history.  It is a manual for discipleship, for following Jesus.  We can map any story onto our own experience, and see where it takes us.  The traditional mapping is as follows. Storm = trouble. We all get those. Deep water = the primordial chaos from which the world was created. That chaos is always there, ready to unmake.  We moderns have been good at staving off chaos.  But the second law of thermodynamics will get us all in the end. Boat = the church!  Or any other community.  We never pray in a vacuum.  Jesus = God.  The love that created the universe, and that is with us in the boat.  And the disciples’ cry: “Teacher don’t you care that we’re going to die?”  There’s an honest prayer for you. And then Jesus stills the storm. Prayer answered!

But there’s always more going on than the standard interpretation. What’s Jesus doing sleeping in the boat? What happened to the God who neither slumbers nor sleeps in Psalm 121? Jesus is having human limitations again, as Mark and only Mark allows him. Luke and Matthew don’t copy this story. Mark pictures Jesus asleep in a half-sunk boat in a stormy sea.  Hemust have been dreadfully tired.

According to Mark, Jesus was grumpy when he was woken up.  He challenged the disciples’ faith… possibly their faith in themselves; that they didn’t need to panic. And don’t we all get ourselves panicked now and then about a tempest in a teacup? We certainly notice when other people do. If we want to participate in building God’s Kingdom, we can practice praying before we panic.  Or at least shorten the lag time.  That little bit of perspective we find when we take time for prayer often right-sizes our problems, and leaves us in a calm enough state to be of service to others.

But some storms are very real.  They are beyond our power to fix, maybe beyond our power to endure.  And now we get to the crux of the matter.  Jesus stilled the storm.  Prayer answered.  What if our storm doesn’t get stilled?  Prayer unanswered?

Remember what prayer is: relationship, not problem solved.  This is where my process-relational theology is showing.  If God were all-powerful, controlling everything, then God would either decide to fix things, or not.  In an intimate relationship with one more powerful than we, we get a loving and reassuring presence in the midst of the storm. We get coaching on boat steering and boat bailing and boat repair. We get told to call the Coast Guard.  (Prayer is not a substitute for ordinary reality help!) We might even get a scold now and then, but we won’t be abandoned.  And sometimes the storm stills.  And sometimes the storm persists, but we get the strength and guidance to endure it.  And sometimes the boat sinks.  And then, as the cross shows us, the sacred will go down with us into the depths, into chaos and unmaking, and not let that unmaking have the last word.

If we make prayer about getting the outcome we want, we will continue to be mystified, and probably offended.  But if we trust that prayer is relationship with one who is powerful and loving, and wants to help us thrive but doesn’t force anybody, instead partners with us, if we allow it, to create a more just and loving and beautiful world… then prayer is nurture, challenge, reassurance, accountability, guidance, forgiveness, renewal, strength, inspiration, mercy, and hope.

And if prayer is still mystifying you, there is one way to fix that.  Just start doing it. See how it works for you. You can pray, “to whom it may concern,” and that can work surprisingly well. Try whatever form of prayer you like, and if that doesn’t work, try something else.

I have several friends who are not shy about praying in public, and it is so precious when they offer to pray for me, right on the spot, out loud.  I’ll be telling them my current struggle, asking them for advice, and they’ll say, “Have you prayed about that?” and I’ll say, “Oh right.  Good idea.” And we’ll laugh, because we’ve had that conversation before.  I keep forgetting that I don’t have to pilot the boat alone.  We don’t have to wait till it’s sinking to ask for help.  Amen. 

No comments:

Post a Comment