A sermon based on Psalm 40 and Romans 8:26-39 preached July 10th, 2016
O You who are supreme! Most secret and most present, most beautiful and strong! What shall I say, my God, my Life, my Holy Joy? What shall anyone say when we speak of You? – St. Augustine, 4th Century
Isn’t that the question. What shall we say when we speak of or to God? Whenever we pray, we join our hearts and minds, our voices loud as thunder or as silent as light, with centuries’ of prayer-makers. What shall we say?
Think of some of the prayers you’ve heard in movies. Let’s begin there. There’s crazy Aunt Bethany’s prayer said around the dinner table in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. The table is long and filled with food. Her prayer begins with bowed heads and ends with Clark and Cousin Eddie standing up with their hands over their heart, because Aunt Bethany prayed the only words that came to her lips: the Pledge of Alliance.
Or the prayer Tevye (Tev-yay) prays in Fiddler On the Roof as he’s feeding his horse:
O dear Lord, you’ve made many, many poor people. I realize, of course, it’s no shame to be poor. But it’s no great honor, either. So, what would have been so terrible if I had a small fortune.
Then he breaks into song.
If I were a rich man. Yubba, dibby, dibby, dibby, dibby, dibby, dibby dum.
It’s a prayer full of sounds a small child might make before she’s able to speak any words at all. Jesus used the Aramaic word Abba at the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer, calling God Daddy—an unfathomable thing to call God in His culture, if not also in ours. Abba, Yubba, and Dibby, are meaningless words, but their use in prayer tell us loads about how we come to God in our prayers. We come as beloved children of God, and the words we use don’t have to make much sense for God to understand them.
Or how about in Patch Adams? Robin Williams’ character who, in a moment of agony, drives out to a ledge overlooking the Blue Ridge mountains and steps way too close to the precipice—his toes hang off the edge of a rock. He sees how far down he would fall if he went any further, and he prays aloud an angry, defiant prayer:
So, what now, huh? What do you want from me? Yeah, I could do it. We both know You wouldn’t stop me. So, answer please! Tell me what you’re doing…okay!
Let’s look at the logic: You create man. Man suffers enormous amounts of pain. Man dies. Maybe You should have had a few more brainstorming sessions prior to creation. You rested on the 7th day. Maybe You should have spent that day on compassion.
The greatest prayers are the ones that tell the truth. That are as honest and raw as life sometimes is.
In his book Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis imagines an ongoing dialogue between a Senior Demon named Screwtape and his new protégé, Wormwood, about how to disrupt a man from living a spiritual life. This is the junior demon’s first lesson, and Screwtape is walking him through it. In one letter about prayer, Screwtape warns Wormwood about the dangers of prayer from a demon’s perspective. Screwtape writes,
The best thing, where it is possible, is to keep your patient from the serious intention of praying altogether. Whenever he is attending to God, we are defeated, but there are ways of preventing him from praying. The simplest is to turn his gaze away from God and toward himself. Keep him watching his own mind and trying to produce feelings there by the action of his own will.
In other words, make sure he feels like he needs to do this all on his own.
Prayer is a declaration of dependence on God. With prayer, we say No to the attractive idea of trying to live life all on our own. In this and many other ways, prayer is an act of defiance. With prayer, we refuse to live without God’s help.
A life of prayer is defiant in another way: prayer gives us the strength we need to turn our backs on all the evil in the world—not in the sense of ignoring it or pretending it’s not real, but actively rejecting any trace of evil in the world. Warring against it. By living our lives in the power of prayer, we refuse to give death and war and violence, and anything else that can destroy us the last word!
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?
No, No, No! None of it will!
With our lives steeped in prayer, we stand in defiance of all of these things. They will have no power over us! It is in that way that prayer is a sort of spiritual warfare. When all the rest of the world says it will solve its problems with violence—fighting fire with fire, bullet with bullet, eye for eye, we prayerfully and disobediently take a different stance, because we serve a Lord who says that those who live by the sword will die by it, too. Saint Francis of Assisi understood that. In his most well-known prayer, he prays in holy defiance:
Lord make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled, as to console,
To be understood, as to understand,
To be loved, as to love,
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And, with the last line of his prayer, he even defies death itself:
It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
We have lived through a week marked by death. This week was enough to knock the breath out of anyone. I woke up yesterday morning and this morning too, and prepared myself to find another devastating story. What horrid loss of life do we have to wrap our minds around today? Life is hard enough as it is, do we have to live it heartbroken, too?! Every day is another chance to feel more disappointed than the one before it. What do we do in a world like that? Do we collapse into ourselves, take care of our own, go into bunker-mode, and retreat from it all? Or do we dare what Paul and so many other Christians after him have dared to do: to step forward into a broken world—one filled with war and destruction—and be witnesses to a different way?
Will we be separated by trouble, our distress, or harassment, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?
No, No, No! We refuse to let any of that defeat us!
Jesus prayed, “Deliver us from evil.” We pray those words every Sunday, but we forget what they mean. They don’t mean, “O God, please make sure evil never happens again, especially not to me!” They mean, “Even though evil is always waiting for me around the next corner, even though it’s a reality that forever surrounds us, even though it seeks to unravel us and undo the world, may I never be conquered, crushed, or altogether undone by it!”
British author John Baillie knew about defiant prayer when he prayed,
Let me use disappointment as material for patience.
Let me use success as material for thankfulness.
Let me use trouble as material for perseverance.
Let me use danger as material for courage.
Let me use criticism as material for tolerance.
Let me use praise as material for humility.
Let me use pleasures as material for self-restraint.
Let me use pain as material for endurance.
Onto other adventures in prayer.
My best days begin when I start by listening to the first song off of James Taylor’s latest album. It’s called Today, Today, Today. There are plenty of ways to pray, and singing along to a James Taylor song isn’t a bad way to go. I’ve made a mantra out of Today, Today, Today. It’s become my early morning pep rally.
Today, today, today
I’m finally on my way…
The way ahead is clear.
My heart is free from fear.
I’ll plant my flag right here.
Today, today, today
In my best morning prayer, along with James Taylor, I declare to the new day that my heart is free from fear, and every day I plan on declaring those words until they’re true.
What’s your early morning prayer like?
It also occurs to me that exercise or yoga is a kind of prayer, or at least it helps me discern the treasure inside of prayer. If you exercise or practice yoga, what would it be like to think of it as the prayer your body makes? God hears those prayers, too! Whenever I hold a yoga pose for more than 3 or 4 minutes, I begin to feel those muscles relax, warm up, and extend. They open up after all that coaxing, and I can slide deeper and deeper into that stretch. A life lived in prayer is like that. It’s a moving deeper and deeper into relationship with God. Our mind, heart, body, and soul relaxed in the presence of God. Letting Him hold us there.
There’s an ecumenical monastic community in France called Taize. The music the Taize community makes is beautiful. Their songs are very simple and repetitive, and just like a good yoga stretch, the longer you give yourself to it, the deeper and deeper you relax into it.
Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom. Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.
After 4 minutes of singing that one line over and over, listening to the entire community immerse itself into that tiny prayer, the one that was first given voice by the scoundrel crucified next to Jesus, its word fall deeper inside of us until we know its truth way down within us—that it really is only by the grace of God that we are offered new life. And like a blood transfusion that brings healing into poisoned bodies, the repetition of those prayerful words begins to cleanse. The rhythm of that chant becomes like a new heartbeat. It’s a prayer that takes us over and sinks deep inside, which is the best kind of prayer there is!
Thomas Merton writes:
Prayer is not just a formula of words, or a series of desires springing up in the heart—it is the orientation of our whole body, mind, and spirit to God in silence, attention, and adoration. All good prayer is a conversion of our entire self to God.
It’s not the content of our prayers that matters. It’s not even the substance of them that God cares about. The words we use are the least important part of prayer. It’s really the orientation of them that’s most important. That is to say, prayer well-practiced moves us into place. A place where God can work on us. Where we sit with God just as we are, and like a mound of clay in the hands of a potter, yield ourselves to his reforming of us. For it is when our lives are prayerfully placed into our Creator’s hands that we are given shape and purpose.
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!