Monday, October 28, 2019

Prayer as a Stream of Living Grace

In a culture obsessed with body image you will not be surprised by the content of this prayer offered by a person depressed by the effects of middle age:

Now I lay me
down to sleep.
I pray the Lord
my shape to keep.
Please no wrinkles.
Please no bags.
And please lift my backside
before it sags.
Please no age spots.
Please no gray.
And as for my belly,
please take it away.
Please keep me healthy.
Please keep me young.
And thank you, dear Lord,
for all that you’ve done.  Amen.

The heart has only a few windows through which one can glimpse a person’s soul – the true and unfiltered self.  Prayer is one of these portals.  The content of a person’s prayers conveys much about who he or she is “on the inside.”

That a lawyer got down on her knees to pray every night before going to bed might surprise you.  The beginning of her prayer may not: 

To all Parties Concerned: This message contains confidential and/or legally privileged information.  Unintended recipients may not use, copy, or disclose any portion of this transmission.

The content of a person’s prayer is a window into his or her soul. 

This morning we hear another one of Jesus’ parables.  This one is a story about two people who are praying in the temple.  “Standing by himself”, one thanks God he is not like other people: “thieves, rogues, adulterers” and especially the other person praying at the time – a tax collector.  The tax collector, in his prayer, begs for God for mercy, knowing he deserves anything but.  The content of each prayer reveals much about the status of each person’s soul.  One is marked by self-pride and contemptuousness and the other by honest self-assessment and remorse.

I grew up in a church tradition valuing “prayer from the heart” – unprepared words emanating from a place of personal depth rather than a rote and repetitive reciting of ritualistic prayers.  We all know how liturgy can become a dry exercise of merely going through the motions, but prayers from the heart are not without their pitfalls.  I sat through many a service where the “spontaneous” prayers of the people offered by various church leaders sounded an awful lot like the headlines of the morning paper:

God, we just thank you for today’s sunny weather.  And we know we should remember the family who lost their house to a fire.  And we are worried about the war in Southeast Asia, but grateful the cost of a gallon of gasoline has declined in recent weeks.  And we know we should care more about people starving in Africa.  And we just pray that our kids won’t join a cult.

Shallow and disengaged souls offer shallow and disengaged prayers.  Then there is this… the Narcissist’s Prayer:

That didn’t happen.
And if it did, it wasn’t that bad.
And if it was, it’s not a big deal.
And if it is, it’s not my fault.
And if it was, I didn’t mean it.
And if I did, you deserve it.

Do you see my point?  Prayers from the heart are a reflection of the heart praying them and they tend to reinforce the heart’s nature, for good and for ill.

On a hike in Ohio this past week I paused for a moment to enjoy the sights and sounds of a small trickle of a stream as it made its way through a deep ravine and cascaded over a series of thin shale ledges.  The ravine was carved out by the water over time, removing obstacles in its path by its incessant movement toward lower ground.  I noted one place where the water fell only about a foot or two from a ledge to a flat rock surface below.  The water has smoothed out a shallow, bowl-like basin in the shale on which it falls.  At the edge of this rock it has worn out a V-shaped notch allowing the water in the basin to fall on to a lower level.  Completely natural, it struck me as more beautiful than any fountain feature I could imagine.

Liturgical prayer, in my experience, works like this on the heart.  It carves out and cleans what should not be there.  It makes a place receptive to all the goodness God intends.  If prayers offered from the heart are a window into the heart, then liturgical prayer is a stream of living grace flowing over and through the heart, ever creating a new and more godly space.

I may struggle to forgive, but there is something about saying the Lord’s Prayer on a daily basis that keeps it as a goal toward which I strive.  If I prayed from the heart, most likely I would say, “Help me to be nicer and more accepting of those who annoy me” but my perception of the people around me is being changed and shaped by these words from a collect for giving thanks for the Social Order: “Enrich our lives by ever-widening circles of fellowship, and show us your presence in those who differ most from us” (BCP p. 840).  The way I confront the presence of death is informed by the words of the burial rite: “Even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”   Over time, the liturgical prayers I offer are shaping who I am becoming.  What prayers have been shaping who you are becoming?

How might the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable have benefited from attending a Rite I Eucharist every Sunday and hearing these words?

And although we are unworthy, through our manifold sins, to offer unto any sacrifice, yet we beseech thee to accept this our bounden duty and service, not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offenses.

When Thomas Cranmer put together the first English prayer book (introduced in1549) he began with a foundational belief if people recited week after week the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Nicene Creed in their native tongue then most likely they would do the right thing most of the time.  Many Episcopal Churches built on this by having the three written out on large tablets, which were displayed in a prominent place in the worship space.  Our historic tablets in the chapel, carried with us to this site from our 1846 building, are an example of this.

People wonder if prayer changes the world.  Sometimes it is difficult to see to be sure.  Theologians debate if prayer changes God.  There are a few examples in the bible of God’s mind being changed by a person’s petitions, but it raises a host theological questions.  But this much I know with certainty: your prayers can change you. 

On Friday evening the AA group that meets in our church celebrated their 50th anniversary.  The parish hall with filled to overflowing and the food rivaled our best potluck dinners!  I was truly honored to be asked to say a few words and offer a blessing and I can tell you the group deeply appreciates the hospitality our parish extends to them.  I was very touched at the beginning of the meeting when the group recited from memory the Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change; 
courage to change the things I can; 
and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time; 
enjoying one moment at a time; 
accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; 
taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is,
not as I would have it; 
trusting that God will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will; 
that I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
forever in the next.  Amen.

This invitation to God to work miracles in your life sustains millions of people every day.  It counters the worst in a person’s heart by naming the best God has to offer.  And every day living into this best is a victory for those who offer the prayer.

Yes, spontaneous, extemporary prayer has its place.  The heart that knows God ought to be able to speak to God anytime, anywhere, about anything.  But liturgical prayer has a way of strengthening the heart, of stretching the heart, of challenging the heart, and changing the heart in a way nothing else can.  It is a stream of living grace flowing over and through the heart, ever creating a new and more godly space.