10 C Pentecost24
July 22, 2016
I grew up in a household that was clearly Christian but religion was understated. Most Sundays we would go to church: mom, dad, and my-self. I would be all dressed up, down to the patent leather shoes and crinoline. For Easter there would even be a bonnet. However, the house was not full of religious icons and there was not a lot of God talk from my parents. For that I am thankful. I can remember learning two prayers; I probably had them memorized before I could even read or write. One was the Lord’s prayer, King James version, just as we recite it most Sundays. The other was the bedtime prayer that countless kids have been taught; “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
Neither one of these prayers is a good choice for a four-year-old. The first is full of archaic language; almost foreign, for someone that age. The second is just plain scary!!! However, the biggest fault lies not with the prayers themselves, but with the fact I was taught that prayer is something someone composes and you recite; it is not your own thoughts and words, even though many times it does reflect what we feel or think or believe. Look at these prayers from the perspective of a four-year-old, or at least me as a four-year-old. The Lord’s prayer uses the word father, which to my very literal mind, told me God is a male person, someone who looks like a human. God lives in heaven and does not come to earth. Hallowed was taken by my ear to mean hollow, or empty on the inside. Kingdom come was associated with explosions, as in “blew them to kingdom come”. I think I took thy will be done to mean God is in charge like a dictator, or perhaps my father when he was angry with me. Not a good analogy. The bread part I think I got in a good way; God will help feed us. Trespasses meant going in the neighbor’s yard when you weren’t supposed to, another literal take. Forgive me for going in the Jone’s backyard when we were playing hide and go seek. Tempta-tion, well that is usually wanting an extra chocolate chip cookie but I think the point is reasonably the same. Evil: that probably came close to the right idea. The last part, about the kingdom, the power, and the glory, struck me as meaning God is God and I am not, so I think that one may be headed the right way as well. The other prayer, which talked about dying and taking my soul, is just plain too scary. This is not a prayer for a preschooler.
There are the table graces we often learn from friends or family or even at summer camp. Here is one from Scotland that always catches me up short: An old Scottish blessing: Some hae meat and cannae eat. Some nae meat but want it. We hae meat and we can eat and sae the Lord be thankit. Translated: Some have meat and cannot eat. Some no meat but want it. We have meat and we can eat and [so the Lord be thanked].It is simple and to the point. Are you thinking I am condemning all formal prayer? By no means. The words of the Our Father and so many of the psalms often are exactly what I need to say. They take us in the wrong direction when we teach them to those for whom they may be frightening or badly misunderstood, like my four-year-old self, or when we feel that only formal prayers are what God wants to hear. Why do we usually ask the pastor to pray over a meal? Do we feel we can’t say anything or don’t know how to say it?
Yet I stand before you as an ardent lover of the Book of Common Prayer. It has not stood the test of time for almost 500 years for no reason. It contains some of the most beautiful prayers and often says what we cannot seem to say on our own. It was written in a good measure to makes sure people had access to prayers they could say in common worship and in their own homes. I read Morning Prayer almost every day and try to read evening prayer as well. Our young people grav-itate to compline. Formal prayer, corporate prayer, common prayer is essential to the life of the community and as an aid to the individual. But it misses the point of our need for intimate and unique conversation with God. Maybe the operative word is conversation? It means at the very least two parties in dialogue with one another. We can enter that dialogue in many ways. For me prayer is something that runs through my head all the time. I feel like I am in constant con-tact with God. Prayer for me exists by seeing beauty all around, but engaging in work and pleasure, by being allowed to journey with people when they need or want me. Being able to serve the sacramental functions of a priest is one long prayer of thanks.
Anne Lamott authored a book several years ago entitled Help, Thanks, Wow. These are the three prayers we need to say and I agree whole-heartedly. Sometimes it is no more than those simple words. When I am called to be with a family or person who is losing or has lost a family member or friend or even a well loved pet, I don’t try to bring words. I think the prayer is in being with the those who need us; that is often how God answers prayers. What we can say is, “help us God.”We can pray. And we may be the answer to someone’s prayer for help, in our own dysfunctional ways. We do little things for one another and in some inexplicable way we become more like the people God intends us to be. We give thanks. Maybe that is all we need to say is just that one word. We can name the things for which we are thankful. Gratitude for the tangible and intangible things that come from God, often coming through us to one another. Finally we say, “Wow.” Anne Lamott says that when we say the word we know we have not lost our ability to experience awe and wonder. It can be the everyday things that we need to stop and pay attention to or the once in a lifetime experience. It can, she says, run the gamut from clean sheets to the Northern lights. Little wows and uppercase wows.
And so we come to the passage from Luke. This is, of course, the prayer we call the Our Father or Pater Noster, but it is much different than the one we usually recite. Simpler in some ways. Help for our wrong behavior and help to forgive; thanks for the good things of life, our daily bread, and wow for the vision of the kingdom of god. But mostly he says pray. Prayers are heard and prayers are answered. Ask, search, knock. The Holy Spirit will come. So my friends, prayer is crucial to our life as Christians. If you are not used to praying, start with help, thanks, wow and close with amen. Take time to listen. In this time, as it seems in so many times, we fail to stop and listen to God. We rant and rave and cast blame in all directions but our own. Maybe if we spent a little more time listening to what Jesus told us to do when we pray, we would leave the world a bit better and, surprise, ourselves a bit better as well.
Mary Oliver, one of those poets I love, has a poem called Praying
It doesn't have to be the blue iris,
it could be weeds in a vacant lot,
or a few small stones;
just pay attention,
then patch a few words together
and don't try to make them elaborate,
this isn't a contest but the doorway into thanks,
and a silence in which
another voice may speak.
Mary Oliver. Thirst: