Matthew 6:5-8; 7:7-11 Aug. 23, 2015
Have you ever unpacked a suitcase when you came home from a trip and realized you had not worn some of the items you packed? Sometimes we take more than we need and all we have done is carry around extra weight. Unfortunately, we all carry around weight that we do not need. I don’t mean any extra pounds on our body, but the weight of a troubled past or conflicts that we can’t seem to let go of, sadness or grief that doesn’t go away, fears of the future, even the argument from yesterday. Indeed, we carry things that are not necessary, things that only weigh us down, slow us down, keep us from being and doing what God intends for us. What would our lives be like if we only packed what we are going to use? I hope that instead of carrying unnecessary weight that we will focus on putting the right things in our backpack as we journey through life.
We have been exploring what does belong in our backpack, and each item is something that we need to access on a daily basis. So far we have talked about carrying the Word of God as found in the Scriptures. If you got to see the dramas presented by some of our young people a couple of weeks ago, you know that it is the message of the Scriptures which you need to keep with you. The Bible is more than a bestselling book to read when you go on vacation. It is one way God has been speaking and continues to speak to us. Actually, you may not constantly have a physical Bible with you as you go through your day. I think it is more that you read it enough– on your own or with a group– so that the message of God actually becomes a part of who you are. When the message of the Bible becomes a part of you, you develop a reliance on God’s guidance, direction, comfort, challenge and encouragement. Then you carry the Word of God in your backpack.
Last week, we looked at putting love in our backpacks. The kind of love that God showed us in Christ, unconditional love, agape. The apostle Paul uses the analogy of putting on love like an overcoat when you head out the door each day. Wearing love, so that it too becomes a part of us, love which is exhibited in words and acts of compassion, kindness, forgiveness and gentleness. Love gets carried in our backpacks.
The Word of God. Love. Now let’s add prayer. If you are going to pack prayer, you have lots of options. Praying for others. Praying for ourselves. Praying to say thank you. Praying to say, “help!” Praying for guidance, praying for wisdom. Praying for forgiveness. All are needed at various times, some more often than others.
Let’s consider the where, when, how and why of prayer. If you are carrying prayer with you, where do you pray? Lots of people will answer– in church. And certainly corporate worship is one place where we pray. But for most of us, that only happens one hour a week. Think of all the other places you can pray when you are praying privately. At the dinner table or the bedside. In the car. In your office. On your walk or run or bike ride. I like to pray in the swimming pool as I swim my laps. As he preaches about prayer in what we call “the sermon on the mount”, Jesus lifts up private prayer not because of the location, but because of the motive. When you pray alone, you are not praying because someone expects you to pray or someone will think of you as particularly pious. You are simply communicating with God. He bashes those who make a big deal out of praying in public. Jesus is not against prayer in public– he prays with others watching on more than one occasion– but he has a real problem with people who use public prayer to look good in front of others. Basically, the location for prayer is not as important as the integrity of the prayer, the desire to connect directly with God regarding your concerns, your hopes, your joys, your sorrows.
If you are carrying prayer in your backpack– when do you pull it out? When is the best time? Jesus’ neighbors and friends were accustomed to praying morning, afternoon and evening each day, perhaps at home with the family, perhaps in the synagogue with others, or even stopping wherever they were in the afternoon to pray. Prayer can be at any time! It is always a good time for God! Many of us have the practice of prayer at mealtimes or bedtime. Some are morning people and some are night owls, finding time at the beginning or the end of the day to spend a quiet time in conversation with God. You may be in a rush in the mornings, or your house is kind of hectic, so maybe that is not the time. You may be exhausted at night, unable to keep your eyes open, much less your thoughts clear, so maybe that is not the time. The actual time of day is not important. What is important is that prayer be regular, that it become a pattern for your life. Be persistent. Ask. Seek. Knock. When is the best time for you to pray? Maybe it is not a particular time, but you carry on an ongoing conversation with God throughout the day….it doesn’t always have to be formulated in words– words thought, words spoken, or words written. Dorothy Day, a 20th century social activist who founded the Catholic Worker movement, once asked: “Does God have a set way of prayer, a way that He expects each of us to follow? I doubt it. I believe some people – lots of people – pray through the witness of their lives, through the work they do, the friendships they have, the love they offer people and receive from people. Since when are words the only acceptable form of prayer?”
That brings me to the how of prayer. Words certainly are one way to pray. We can also pray through art or through music– art created or appreciated, music played, sung or heard. Many quote Augustine, the African Catholic theologian and bishop and saint, as saying, “he who sings well prays twice”– the words of a song can be a way to communicate with God, and heartfelt singing of the words is another way to communicate with God. It is the way the words are sung (I don’t mean in tune or in harmony, but with love and an honest desire to sing for God) that make a song a prayer. You can pray with your eyes open, with your eyes closed. With your hands clasped together or open in a receiving position. Jesus teaches that heaping up lots of pretty words just to sound good is not the way to pray. Quantity is not what God is after, but quality. Not empty words, but sharing our heart’s concerns, hopes, thanks or grief. I think that goes for praying aloud or praying on your own. We need to be clear, not erudite. We need to share what is on our heart, and it doesn’t have to be long. Again, it is the attitude, the motive for prayer which Jesus cares about. Praying long prayers would not be a problem if the person praying did not assume that the sheer volume of words used would get them what they want from God. What Jesus has a problem with is a misunderstanding of what prayer is really all about. Prayer is not tool for manipulating God. Prayer is really more of a relationship between us and God. There are some who say, your whole life should be a prayer– absorbing the Word of God, wearing love, in ongoing conversation with the one who not only created and redeemed us, but who sustains us day in and day out.
Why do we carry prayer with us? Why bother to communicate with a God you can’t see, with Jesus who lived so very long ago and a Spirit called Holy? Maybe it is because, the more we read the scriptures, the more we try to wear love every day, we realize we really can not do it on our own. We need help from an outside source, and that outside source is God. Prayer is used for many reasons in Scripture… remember Moses and King Solomon going to God for wisdom and guidance on leadership decisions? the words of the psalmists crying for help in dire circumstances and the words of the psalmists praising God for the ways God has worked in the world? The prophets prayed for the people of Israel and Judah, praying with words and praying by symbolic actions. Abraham interceded for the people of Sodom pleading to God about whether the innocent ones in the city could possibly be spared. David prayed to God seeking forgiveness, confessing his wrongdoings. The leper came back to thank Jesus after he was cleansed of a socially isolating disease. We carry prayer for many reasons, indeed.
Anne Lamott narrows the essential prayers to three in her book, Help! Thanks! Wow! The title tells it all. Prayers to God can be categorized in three simple types: the Help me God prayer, the Thank you God prayer and the Wow, God you are amazing prayer. The fancy theological words are: supplication, thanksgiving, adoration. She does miss our reformed emphasis on the need to confess our sins before God– a Presbyterian would likely add a fourth essential prayer to the list: Sorry! If you think about it, you could see a prayer for help as an admission of human limitations or ethical error or just plain stupidity. Sometimes the reason we need help from God stems from our own sin. All the time when we have sinned—we need help!
Why pray? Why carry prayer around with us wherever we go, for all times of the day, in a multitude of formats? Because we can’t do it all alone. We need help from God. We find that there is nothing we can do to “fix” the problems or needs of a friend– she needs help from God.
And we carry prayer with us because we recognize that the gifts around us– like the sun coming up in the morning on a clear, low humidity day like today, like the parent who loves us unconditionally, like the good news from the doctor–are not due to us but to God. Gratitude is a reason for prayer. I like the prayer of John O’Donahue for the start of the day:
I give thanks for arriving
Safely in a new dawn
For the gift of eyes
To see the world,
The gift of mind
To feel at home
In my life.
You could extend the morning prayer for your own life, adding people, places, and circumstances for which you are grateful as you begin a new day. Saying thanks is so important, that Meister Eckhart, a 13th c. German theologian/philosopher/mystic once said: “If the only prayer you said was “thank you”, that would be enough.”
And we carry prayer in our backpacks because God wows us with God’s timing, God’s power, God’s creative abilities, God’s love, God’s forgiveness. God is amazing. Let me share with you a little experience of mine which has elicited a wow, God! prayer from me. If you drive, you know that the light at Glen Allen and Edmondson is short because the traffic on Edmondson is much heavier. I had been accustomed to waiting at the light, hoping I could make a right on red at some point. Well, recently, maybe in the last several months, almost every single time I pull out of the HRPC parking lot, with the “May Christ’s peace be with you” in my mind, the light is green! I don’t pray for green lights, although some people probably do. But time and time again I am just saying, Wow, God! Again! This is totally amazing. How can I be leaving the parking lot at just the right time again? Here is a much bigger Wow prayer– holding baby Charlie Leonard, just 2 days old, a baby at rest, comfortable in my arms, a bundle of amazing joy and excitement for his new parents and grandparents. That is a Wow, God!
We use all these kinds of prayer on a weekly basis when we gather to worship. Take a bulletin home and jot down in the margin the type of prayer you see being used– help! thanks! or wow!
You know the prayer life you live. You know the quality and the quantity of your prayers. You know the type of prayers you pray, when and where you pray them. If you are anything like me, you are not completely satisfied with your prayer life. You know there are ways to strengthen it. You know God is waiting to hear from you more often or about more parts of your life or from locations other than 4640 Edmondson Ave. Or maybe God is just waiting for you to be quiet, so God can get a word in. No one else can dictate your prayer life. Prayer can happen whenever and wherever. People like to complain that God is not allowed in school anymore. Just because “school prayer” is no longer required does not in anyway mean that YOU can not pray in school. And, please, please, remember that it does not in any way mean that God is not at school. God is at school like God is here in this sanctuary or out on the lawn. No human law can restrict God! So put prayer in your backpack. Take it to school, to work, to the park, to church.
Your backpack may seem like it is getting full. Full of items that you need in your daily life. They are not heavy. The Scriptures, Love, Prayer. Leave the other heavy, unnecessary items out. Travel light. Travel with God. Amen.