Want to pray?
Reflection by Bill Lewellis
Do not be afraid, Jesus said to his disciples, for your Father will give you the kingdom.
One phrase and one word – both common throughout the bible.
Do not be afraid. Write it on a small piece of paper. Put it in your wallet, in your pocket or purse. Retrieve it when needed. “Do not be afraid,” Jesus said.
That phrase, in itself, could be a prayer. If you want to expand on it, here's my paraphrase from the Book Isaiah: “Be not afraid, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name, you are mine. Should you pass through the sea, I will be there with you; or through rivers, you will not drown… For you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you… Be not afraid, for I am with you.”
Then, Kingdom. So much might be said about that word, as used in the bible, sometimes heard as kingdom of God, kingdom of heaven or the coming of the kingdom.
The late Bishop Mark Dyer, with whom I once worked, provided the best explanation I’ve ever heard of kingdom, the kingdom we try to build here and the kingdom to come: where everybody is somebody.
When we pray in the Our Father, Your Kingdom come, we pray that we might do our part, with God's help, to make our environment one where everybody is somebody.
My most controversial opinion on prayer is that prayers are hardly ever answered. But, of course, ‘never say never.’ And, as Pope Francis has uttered, “Who am I to say?”
My theological understanding is that God speaks first. Take that to the bank. At times, we hear. At times, we do not. Prayer, then, is our response, our answer to God. Be our prayer one of praise, petition, contrition or thanksgiving. Strange as this may seem, I think that even our genuinely prayerful petitions are somehow a response to God, not our initiative.
As in one of my favorite stories about a young child watching a master sculptor work with hammer and chisel on a large piece of marble. Marble chips flew in all directions. Months later she returned. To her surprise, where once stood only a large block of marble, there now stood a majestic and powerful Aslan-like lion. "How did you know," she asked the sculptor, “there was a lion in the marble?" "I knew," the sculptor replied, "because before I saw the lion in the marble, I saw him in my heart. The real secret, though, is that it was the lion in my heart who recognized the lion in the marble."
Two summers ago, during my annual two-week stay as presider and preacher at an oceanside church in New Jersey, a young woman, mid 40s, came to church wearing the recognizable bandanna of people who are fighting cancer with chemo.
Her surname was Himmelreich – yes, German for kingdom of heaven, where everybody is somebody. We spoke. I was drawn to open up a conversation by text message. She died this past January, about six weeks after her last note to me.
I mention this because she came out of the blue. It was as though God was saying to me, “Keep her in your mind and on your heart. It’ll be good for you.” God took the initiative, and prayers of petition were my response to God.
Simone Weil has described prayer as "absolutely unmixed attention." I like that.
On the other hand, Bishop Mark used to advise folks to pray through their distractions. “Perhaps the distraction is the focus the prayer needs,” he would say. I like that, too.
Then, there is contemplation, not inviting because we think it’s just for mystics. Simply stated, contemplation is focusing and listening … to God. People who contemplate usually choose a word to repeat, to bring them back from their distractions. My word is “breathe.” It’s not copyrighted.
Right after the words of institution during our Eucharist – “Take and eat … Take and drink” – is a wonderful prayer of remembrance. It’s called the Anamnesis, literally in Greek, “beyond forgetting.” – “We celebrate the memorial of our redemption, O Father, in this sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. Recalling his death, resurrection and ascension, we offer you these gifts.” Listen for it. Pray it.
Anne Lamott wrote a book titled, Help Thanks Wow: the three essential prayers. Sometimes it is that simple.
[I borrow the next few paragraphs from a recent sermon by Archdeacon Rick Cluett]
If truth be told, when it comes to prayer, each one of us is probably just like the rest of us. And “the rest of us” includes the disciples of Jesus, too, who once asked Jesus to teach them to pray. These disciples were Galilean Jews who had been raised knowing how to pray, how to bow their head, how to raise their hands, how to recite the Shema Israel: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”
The disciples of Jesus had seen him at prayer. They could see the deep, intimate relationship that Jesus had with God. I expect the disciples wanted a relationship with God like his, and that is why they asked him to teach them to pray. They were not seeking a better form or a better technique; they were seeking a way deeper into relationship with God.
Don’t we want that too? It has to do with the longings of our hearts and the pains and tribulations and joys of our lives…
Jesus offered them what we now know as the “Lord’s Prayer,” the “Our Father.”
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.Your kingdom come, your will be done,
On earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.
Save us from the time of trial, and deliver us from evil.
Finally, might I suggest a prayer journal? Not necessarily a diary, but a notebook you can hold or a file on your computer where you keep items thoughts, etc., that bring you to prayer. Let's call them prayer starters.
Here, from my notebook, are a few of my prayer starters:
1. I'm already in the presence of God. What's absent is awareness.
2. God me, gracious God. May I be attentive to my experience, to the voices and hearts of those around me. Intelligent in my interpretation of that to which I have been attentive. Reasonable in my judgments about what I have understood. Responsible in my decisions about how I will act on my judgments. And always open to inner conversion, to transformation in your truth and your love.
3. A Prayer attributed to St. Francis. (Page 833 in the Book of Common Prayer)
4. Thanksgivings. (Pages 836 to 841 in the Book of Common Prayer)
We might think of prayer as a going in … into our center … as we do when walking the first half of a labyrinth – then a moving out in the second half. In other words, what am I going to do about what I have prayed?