Jeremiah 8:18-22, 9:1-2; Romans 8:22-23; Psalm 42:6-8
June 26, 2016
For a decade or more, there was a little church group that met once a week for an hour. It was called “Prayer and Sharing Time.” Initially, it included me and Steve, Paul and Phyllis Kuestner, and retired professor, Jere Bruner.
The shattering events of 9/11 took place on a Sharing Time day. Not long after the Twin Towers fell, we met at church. I will never forget how glad I was to go to Prayer and Sharing Time that day. It seemed the best place in the world to be.
Eventually, the group moved its meetings to our house so Ruth Hastings could join us from across the street. Then, when everyone could be present, there were six of us. The other times, we were always “two or more gathered” in the name of Jesus.
While Prayer and Sharing Time involved just a fraction of the congregation, it still grounded the church’s community life in ways we will never know. Every week, midweek, this group raised up the needs and joys of the congregation in thanksgiving and petition. We remembered the state of our country and world before God. We talked and laughed. Sometimes, we cried. Occasionally, we hatched new dreams and visions. But most of the time, we were just there, shoring up those roots of the tree that we call Peace Community Church, a 150-year old tree whose fruit is literally scattered all over the world.
Two weeks ago, Steve began speaking about the difference between using the noun, “outreach,” or the active phrase, “reaching out.” Each has a different feel. Doing ‘outreach’ sounds more like engaging a program, strategy, or formula. ‘Reaching out’ evokes a lifestyle, one of connecting with our neighbors, near and far.
Today I want to reflect on other nouns and verbs. The noun is “prayer.” The verb is “praying.” What images come to you, as you ponder one compared to the other? Does anyone have any thoughts on this? [Congregational Reflection].
How many times have you heard someone say, “I need to pray more about…” or “I haven’t been praying enough lately…”? What does that really mean? That God is in the sky, counting how many times we ask for the same thing? Or that we have neglected taking enough Quiet Time with our Bibles in hand and prayer notebooks nearby?
Have you ever had someone ask you, “How is your prayer life?” My Spiritual Director sometimes asks me that question. How might you respond to that? [Congregational Reflection]. Usually, my own response is rather nuanced.
Praying is not an easily compartmentalized activity. Are moments of awe and wonder ‘praying’? How about experiences of mercy and generosity, or events which evoke deep thanksgiving or profound sorrow?
I caught myself recently in one of those compartmentalization traps. I was complaining to myself in my head, saying, “Mary, you haven’t been praying enough lately. All you have been doing is agonizing over the world’s pains.” Another voice within me spoke up, mounting a rapid defense: “It is true that you have been agonizing a lot over the world’s pains, but lament is always praying.”
In fact, lament is a deeply rooted, biblical form of praying–even a trans-biblical form of praying. What religious tradition does not recognize lament as a form of devotion and love? Feeling God’s agony over the world’s sorrows and ills, or even our own, is absolutely praying.
Consider Jeremiah’s lament in our scripture reading today (Jeremiah 8:18-12; 9:1-2) or the Apostle Paul’s words to the followers of Jesus in Rome:
“For we know that up to the present time all of creation groans with pain, like the pain of childbirth. But it is not just creation alone
which groans; we who have the Spirit as the first of God’s gifts also groan within ourselves as we wait for God to make us God’s children and set our whole being free” (Romans 8:22-23).
The soul’s deepest cry of lament, in concert with the entire creation, embodies praying. So, too, does the soul’s deepest joy of witnessing the birth of a baby, watching an emerging cicada after 17 years underground, or listening to the curiosity of a five-year old’s endless questions.
In Psalm 42, translated in Eugene Petersen’s Message Bible, the poet moves in rapid succession between both lament and praise:
“When my soul is in the dumps, I rehearse
everything I know of you,
From Jordan depths to Hermon heights,
including Mount Mizar.
Chaos calls to chaos,
to the tune of whitewater rapids.
Your breaking surf, your thundering breakers
crash and crush me.
Then God promises to love me all day,
sing songs all through the night!
My life is God’s prayer.”
Praying offers us ongoing intimacy with the Divine Heart. In his remarkable book, The Inner Voice of Love, Henri Nouwen speaks of God as saying to us, “I want you to speak with my mouth, see with my eyes, hear with my ears, touch with my hands. All that is mine is yours. Just trust me and let me be your God” (p. 113, Doubleday Books, copyright 1996). That unity, that oneness, that identification with God’s heart—this is praying.
Putting ‘feet’ to our prayers is important, but we need to avoid viewing praying as simply a utilitarian act. In taking time ‘Being’ with God, we discern how to move out into the world. Praying is active, relational, joyful, and at times very hard. We open up to the work of Divine Spirit in and around us when we turn our hearts toward God.
Jesus reminds his disciples, “…where two or three come together in my name, I am there with them” (Matthew 18:20). Each time we pray together, formally or informally, in groups of two, ten, or twenty-two, we wait and listen for God. Praying with one another can anchor and sustain us in powerful and unexpected ways as we live through these VUCA times before us. Does anyone remember what VUCA stands for? Volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.
Let’s return to the image of the tree and its roots. There is this tree at River’s Edge Retreat Center in Lakewood that leans at about a 30 degree angle. It is an old, thick tree. Every time I see it, I wonder how in the world that tree doesn’t fall down. And I am absolutely sure the reason is found in its roots. Prayer is an indispensable element of the roots of this tree that is PCC. God is inviting each of us to go deeper, in relationship with the Holy One and one another. Let’s accept that invitation! Amen.