A Presbyterian minister, a Priest and a Rabbi were talking over lunch about prayer in general and the most appropriate posture and effective position for prayer in particular. As they were talking, a telephone repairman, working on the phone system in the restaurant, was sort of eavesdropping on their conversation.
The Presbyterian clergyman said that he felt the key was in the hands; he always held his hands together and pointed them upward as a form of symbolic worship. The Priest suggested that real prayer must be conducted upon one’s knees. The Rabbi insisted that that they both had it wrong—the only proper posture for prayer was to prostrate one’s self before God with one’s face in the ground.
Finally, the phone man, who had been listening to this debate, couldn’t hold his tongue any longer, “I found that the most powerful prayer I ever made,” he said, “was while I was dangling upside down by my heels from a power pole, suspended forty feet above the ground.”
What is the best way to pray? What’s the best posture, the best time, the best formula for prayer? That’s another subject that came up in our confirmation class last month. “How do I know, when I pray, that I’m not just talking to myself?” “Does prayer really work?” “Is it okay to pray about whatever is on your mind or are there some things that you should just never talk to God about?” “What should I say? What should I ask for? How should I approach God? Should I stand, sit, or kneel in prayer.”
In other words, what is the best practice for us to stay connected to and in communication with God?
It was a blistering hot Fourth of July, the house was full of guests for a cookout, and things were not going very well. When the hostess finally got everyone seated for dinner, she asked her seven-year-old daughter to say grace, “But mommy,” the little girl said, “I don’t know what to say.” “Oh, yes you do,” replied her mother, “just say the last prayer you heard me use.” Obediently, the child bowed her head and began somewhat hesitantly: “Oh, Lord, why did I invite these people over on such miserably hot day!”
“We don’t know how to pray as we ought,” said the Apostle Paul.
“God is complete holiness and goodness and we are a bundle of inconsistencies and doubts, sins and errors. I say that I am humbly approaching God with my needs in prayer, but maybe I’m just arrogantly dropping my wish-list on God. How do I know?” (W. Willimon)
We have those kinds concerns because we sense this great distance between ourselves and God.
Our Muslim brothers and sisters just celebrated the conclusion of Ramadan, the 9th month of the Islamic calendar, observed by Muslims around the world as a time of prayer and fasting to commemorate the first revelation of the Quran to the prophet Muhammad. And I have to say I’ve always kind of admired the dedication and the discipline of my Muslim friends regarding their personal, communal practice of prayer. The second Pillar of the Muslim faith is known as the Salat, which obliges its adherents to pray at least five times a day: before sunrise, at the height of midday, in the late afternoon, just after sunset, and between sunset and midnight. This prayer timetable gives Muslims the very pattern – the rhythm – of their lives.
It’s a practice that has been faithfully carried out by Muslims believers for over fourteen hundred years.
When a Muslim prays, they do so as if they were standing in the very presence of Allah. They pray, as we do, sometimes by themselves and sometimes in community.
Muslims do not pray for the benefit of Allah, because they believe that Allah has no need of our prayers. They pray for solely for the benefit of themselves and others.
We Christian-types – particularly here in America – seem to be somewhat less disciplined, more individualistic and definitely more gabby with regard to our prayer life.
Somebody told me that they saw me driving through the village the other day; I was in the car alone and apparently (my friend observed) was talking to myself. Of course, as a pastor that’s a teaching moment. I had to inform my friend that I was no doubt deep in conversation with God; as I frequently am while driving my car. Sometimes I even pray for other drivers around me.
But, beyond that, I am not so sure that God has no need of our prayers. As Billy Graham once famously said, “Heaven is full of answers to prayers that were never prayed.”
I believe that our own existential loneliness is part of the spiritual character we inherited from this Creator who brooded long over the waters of chaos and darkness, yearning to fill that void. A Being who then filled that void with those who were – as the crown of creation – created in the Creator’s own image; and maybe just so the Creator could have someone to talk to; talk with.
“Where two or three are gathered,” Jesus said, “there I will be in your midst.”
Father, Son and Holy Spirit; our Triune God is One who gravitates, always, toward intimacy in relationship.
William Willimon observed that, as modern Christians we like to know what works and what doesn’t work. And, of course, prayer does work. It’s been scientifically proven. Clinical studies have shown that prayer releases certain chemicals and activates hormones and launches endorphins into the body that help lower blood pressure, relieve depression and enhance the healing process.
And all that’s become a real selling point for the Christian faith in our self-actualizing culture: You tried alcohol and drugs and that didn’t work. You tried Pilates and Yoga that didn’t work. You tried fame and fortune and that didn’t work. So, now try Jesus. Jesus works.
But what if saying `I pray and prayer works’ is not the greatest testimonial one can say about prayer. What if praying in Jesus’ name is about something more than just `what works’. (ibid.)
Rev. Arthur Cribbs suggests, “…prayer is more than mere conversation with God. Whether contemplative, meditative, spontaneous, rehearsed, open or private, prayer is what joins us to a cosmic symphony of Universal Force beyond the realm of our singular place in life.”
Now that’s heavy stuff: but maybe we can break it down like this: Prayer is the way “we lay ourselves open to the presence of God, a way in which we think with God, in which we seek to attune our wants and needs with God’s.” (ibid.)
I’ve heard it said that we don’t pray to try to change the mind of God; we pray that God may transform us; to get us into the kind of spiritual shape God wants us to be.
“Prayer is the sacred gift of communion with every life form,” Arthur Cribbs goes on to say. “In silence, we listen attentively to the sounds of Creation. We hear the chorus of celestial voices singing praises. We hear our own breath moving rhythmically in and out in concert with the constant flow of our bio-system. More than that, we become one in mental, spiritual, emotional and human awareness of the grandeur that is God.
“Prayer goes past the dimensions of time and space. And, yet, prayer is even more than the poetic imagery that congers a minute appreciation of its special qualities. Prayer possesses the power to create new realities and perceptions. Prayer changes the course of life and death. The Scriptures are filled with episodes where prayer transformed incredible situations into unbelievable opportunities.”
And yet, even the most “sterile prayer pierces heaven,” Teresa of Avilla once remarked. That is to say even the most routine, emotionally devoid, personally detached prayer is accepted by a God who loves us beyond all merit or well-rehearsed efficacy.
Prolific author Dr. Richard Foster (a Quaker who began his career as theologian in residence at Friends University in Wichita, Kansas in the early 1980s), has written many books on prayer, tells a story about a prayer group he was part of during that tenure. Foster and several other fellow devotees would get together one evening each week to do a little reflective bible study, discuss matters of personal faith and spiritual discipline, and then conclude with extended time of prayer.
Foster remembers one particularly hot summer evening that the group met at a friend’s house. And in order to allow a little cross-breeze to flow through the house, they had left the front and back doors open. Well, it so happened that, right in the middle of their quiet prayer time together, the homeowner’s cat decided it wanted in, and started scratching on the back screen door. Not wanting to have their prayer time interrupted, the group did their best to ignore the cat. But the cat was persistent. And, along with its scratching, it began to mew. Finally, with a bit of exasperation, Forster’s friend got up from the circle, and went to let the cat into the house. Of course, the cat then sauntered right into the living room like he owned the place, and curled up comfortably into a chair.
Later, over coffee and crumb-cake, Foster noticed one of the others of the group, standing a bit aloft by himself, apparently deep in thought. So Richard went over to chat with him, and asked what he was so introspective about.
“I was just wondering,” said his friend, “what God was trying to tell us through that cat.”
Theologian Matthew Fox called prayer “a radical response to the mysteries of life,” (From, On Becoming a Musical Mystical Bear, as retold by Scott Peck, A World Waiting to be Born, 1994, Bantam). Whether those mysteries be cosmic or feline.
Maybe appropriate prayer has much less to do with what we do in prayer, than it does with what God can do in prayer.
Perhaps prayer, at its essence, is more about listening than talking. More about exposure of the soul than soulful expression. More about deferring our own desires and needs, our own authority and insights, to that of God.
So that, when we pray for ourselves, we don’t necessarily have to know the right words. Because the innate Spirit intercedes with groans deeper than our words. Our very yearning to pray is the spiritually innate response to a God who is already scratching at the closed doors of our soul.
And, perhaps by simply basking in the glow and the warmth of that same Spirit, we open our hearts, and minds, and souls to the very presence and power of God.
And when we pray for others, neither do we have to guess at their needs or perhaps, pray for specific outcomes. Simply lifting those we are concerned about into the presence of God will surely be sufficient.
Indeed, just by “thinking of someone in the presence of God” we are making apt intercession. (Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams).
Summer is that season when we seek respite from the busyness of life; a time when we, too, long to “come away to a lonely place, and rest a while.” It’s the season in which we make more time to reconnect with those essential elements of life: family, friends, nature, peace, rest, relaxation, re-creation.
The summer solstice is the longest day of year; that time when we have the greatest exposure to the sun, the most time in the light. I entitled this sermon “Summer Soulstice,” because prayer is all about giving ourselves the greatest exposure possible to the light of God’s presence that God might do what God alone can do: heal and nourish, refresh and renew, re-center, re-create and reconnect with the majesty of God, the grandeur of creation and the gift of this glorious life.