On Prayer (and the two only ways to Not-Pray)

This summer we are trying out different ways to pray.  But it occurs to me, that we might want to take a step back and ask, What is prayer?

Perhaps we think it is something only especially religious people can do – or at least, only especially religious people are good at. (Watch how many potlucks and picnics are put on hold until the pastor can get there to pray).  Most of us don’t want to do it in public, that’s for sure.  Maybe prayer is something we feel like we should do before we eat or go to bed, or we find ourselves doing it urgently when things go wrong, often feeling guilty that we don’t do it more when things are going right.

But prayer is nothing more, and nothing less, than communication between God and us.  In that way it is both utterly simple and natural, and also pretty astonishing.  We were made to be connected to our Creator, each other, the world around us.  But that God wants to communicate with us? Wants to hear from us? Wants to tell us things? Amazing!

Prayer can happen anywhere, anytime. In the dead of night when fear grips you, flat on your back on the grass gazing up at a soft, sunset sky, naked in the shower when your mind is roaming, anxiously driving in a snowstorm, sitting in a heart-soaring concert.  Martin Luther famously prayed on the toilet.  Prayer is something we’re made for. 

And it’s not just talking to God with words. It is talking. It is also listening. It is receiving, and resting, and noticing and being quiet, and yelling and crying, laughing and singing, dancing, walking, and sitting very, very still. It’s thoughts in your head or words outloud, or a feeling in your gut, or a warmth in your chest. Think of all the ways a person can communicate without even using words!  Sighing, and body language, laughing, pointing, shaking in anger, weeping in joy. Prayer uses our senses, our bodies and minds and hearts.  It is the substance of our communication with God.

Anyone can pray. Everyone does pray - even if they don’t realize that’s what they’re doing. 
The point is – there is no wrong way to pray – it’s a relationship –hanging out with God in whatever way the two of you happen to be hanging out at the moment.

There are really only two ways to not-pray.
The first is to act like God isn’t here. 
And the second is not to show up yourself. 
If you acknowledge God is here, and if you show up too, you will be praying.

This may be harder than it sounds.  
We have all sorts of handy and habitual ways to ignore God, and all sorts of practiced and thoughtless ways to be less than fully present ourselves.  
In fact, much of what we might think of as prayer is actually Not-praying - it acts as though that God is an idea, concept, or belief, rather than an actual being who encounters us. Or else it's playing a role, going through motions, checking a box, rather than being fully and honestly present.

But in the two prayers we have before us today, we see a beautiful example of both recognizing that God is here, and showing up yourself.
David didn’t hide from God or sugarcoat things.   There is a particular kind of honesty, a kind of trust, to be able to say what you are really feeling and needing, without feeling the need to make the other person think the best of you, or protect their feelings.
David didn’t say, I’ve got this God. no worries. I’m on top of it.  I don’t mean to trouble you. He didn’t keep himself out of the relationship. Make himself seem ok, even when he wasn’t. He didn’t dismiss his discomfort or need; he let it all out.
Out of the depths I cry to you Lord!  Hear my voice! Listen to me! Please!

In both of these Psalms David starts by talking honestly to God, moves into to talking honestly to himself, and ends with talking to the community about God.

God hear me!
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits…
O Israel, hope in the Lord. For with him there is steadfast love...

And then,
O Lord, my heart is not lifted up too high….
But I have calmed and quieted my soul. Like a weaned child.
O Israel hope in the Lord form this time on forevermore!

Yesterday, inside a single day, I shared joy with someone I love who was excited. 
I was unable to take pain away from someone I love who was suffering.
I felt stuck in misunderstanding and sorrow with someone I love.
I felt ashamed and vulnerable about a weakness of mine on full display, and was embraced and unconditionally seen and loved in the midst of it by someone I love.
And I also caused pain and deeply hurt, to someone I love.  All different people.  In one day.  
Lord, if you marked our transgressions, who could stand? 

There is no way to do this perfectly, this living and loving and being in the world.  We will hurt others. We will be hurt. We will wander off, and come home, and do things we regret and do things we celebrate, and the whole big mess of it is something we can bring to God, plop down before him and say, From my depths I cry to you!
Our hope is not in our own ability to love well or live right, it is in God. God’s forgiveness, God’s steadfast love, God’s Spirit working in and through us.

God is here. And God expects us to show up too. 
We are here. And we expect God to show up too.

I wait for the Lord. More than those who watch for the morning.  
More than the father by the sick child’s bedside, counting down the hours. The worker on the night shift, the clock inching slowly by.  The sailor in the terrible storm, the traveler on a long flight, the child away from home overnight for the first time.

I’ve watched for the morning.  When Owen was brand new, I had the midnight to 5 am shift.  And sometimes I was awake for the bulk of it, bouncing, feeding, burping, comforting. And Oh, did I watch for the first sign of the sun peeking over the horizon, the light in the room to begin to shift.  For the hope that would meet me like I was crawling onto shore, I made it, I made it through the night, and it was going to be ok.

To wait for the Lord more than that... With all fervent desperation and staunch commitment to see it through.  There is trust there.  That like the morning sunrise, God will come. God will answer me. I will hang on.

This is what prayer does: It waits for God.
Wait.  Don’t rush to the next distraction. Don’t cave to the easy solution. Wait for the Lord. Sit in the discomfort. Feel how frustrated you really are. Cry out from your depths.
God will show up.  Prayer trusts God to show up.

And then – the other side of it – show up yourself. 
A weaned child, David calls his soul. A weaned child is no longer nursing, completely dependent on mom.  A weaned child is one who crawled down off mom’s lap and walked off on their own, felt the world, been knocked about, done things they regret, learned things they love, and then, in his metaphor, comes back to climb into mom’s lap and rest in her arms, to find comfort and peace. My soul is like the weaned child that is with me. 
 My soul had been bruised and battered, has explored, and made mistakes, and learned some things, and tried out life, and I bring it back to myself and hold it close and calm it. Shh. It’s ok. You’re ok.

My friend Jamie taught me to put my hand on my cheek, and say, Oh honey.  It is a way of summoning my soul back to myself when I am upset or overwhelmed. I feel my eyes well up often when I do it. I feel the empathy of seeing my own soul with compassion, as God sees it, welcoming it back, battered and bruised, to the love and care that God is extending to me. I may have been hiding because I didn’t feel worthy, or fleeing because I thought I’d be found out in my shame, or too busy and distracted to pay any attention, or racing too fast to catch up.  This move, Oh honey, brings me back to myself. It brings me back to God.

Tend to your heart. Discover your need for forgiveness. Accept it with gratitude.  Lower your eyes, set down your ego, coax your wild and weary soul back into your own embrace. Let yourself feel your scattered pieces come together and hold them, right here before God. Right here, and nowhere else.

Here I am Lord.  All of me. Right here. Seeing myself clearly, reigned in and ready. Waiting for the source of hope to meet me.

Around here we call that space where we wait for God and where we tend our souls, “Sabbath,” and we keep saying, forgetting, and remembering this: When we stop, God will meet us.  When we stop, God will meet us.

After a time, waiting for God and tending your soul, it happens.  There is a kind of thing that gently overtakes you.  A wonder, or gratitude, or confidence, or peace: a recognition of transcendence – that the Holy, wholly other than you, is actually here, can be trusted, sees you and loves you. And perhaps the feeling bubbles up as it did for David, the urge to announce it, O Israel! Hope in the Lord!  God cares about us! God will not let us go! Steadfast love! The power to redeem! God can be trusted until the end of time!

So far this summer, we’ve recognized God and shown up ourselves - with journaling, with movement, and on Saturday with clay.
Sometimes our heads get in the way. We overthink things, we try to make everything into words, we analyze and justify, and find it hard to quiet our souls and wait before the Lord.  On Saturday a lump of clay helped us out with that.
We worked it with our hands and saw what happened. For some, an image came to mind and they tried to shape the clay that way, for others, the shape changed as they went and it was more about the process. The clay became things we wanted to tell God, or things God might be telling us, or just a chance to play together.

You each got some playdoh when you came in. For the next couple of minutes, I invite you to work with it.  Don’t worry about how it looks, about artistic skill or anything like that, and don’t worry about what anyone else is dong with theirs.
Maybe for you it’s just a quiet stress relief to squeeze it, a moment that helps your mind quiet and be still.  Whatever it is, for the next couple of minutes, we are going to hold the playdoh in our palm and hold our heart open to God, and see what happens.  God is here, and we will be here too.
Let us pray.

*          *          *          *          *
O Lord, our hearts are not lifted up, our eyes are not raised too high;
We do not occupy ourselves with things too great and too marvelous for us.
But we have calmed and quieted our souls, like weaned children with their mothers;
   our souls are like the weaned children that are with us. 

O children of God, hope in the Lord, from this time on and for evermore.


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