“The Quiet Center”
March 16, 2014
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
Romans 8:14-16, 26-27; Luke 11:1-4
How can we live a devotional life? That is really the question behind our theme of Holy Habits. In seventeenth chapter of Acts Paul tells the Romans that it is in God that we live and move and have our being. But the truth is, most of the time, we’re not fully aware of that. Maybe sometimes God seems vaguely there, but often feels remote, somewhere else, far off, removed from everyday life. How often do we think that we are really in God, having our being I God, when we’re brushing our teeth, or are stuck in traffic; or are fidgeting impatiently in the checkout line? My guess is rarely. We come here on Sundays to find God. We take time out of our weekday life to spend some “quality” time with the Creator of the Universe, and then at noon, and it’s back out into the fray until this time next week.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Our primary purpose in life really isn’t to amass a great retirement account, or to be hugely successful in whatever line of work we enter. And as wonderful as family life is, our purpose is not to worship the family as the single most important entity in our lives. We were created to worship and to praise God, and to partner with God in the work of God’s kingdom. But we struggle with that constantly. Other things, more pressing things, more urgent things move to the top of the list, and “God-time” gets relegated to maybe reading a devotion from time to time, shooting up a quick one or two word prayer in a moment of distress, and, as I said last week, dusting that nice big coffee table Bible in the living room.
But we’re made for better than that. We’re made for a devotional life, not just brief, sporadic moments of devotional time. Our lives are meant to be continual expressions of our love for God and one another. Holy Habits, or what John Wesley called “means of Grace,” are intended to create a spirit of devotion within us continually throughout our days. They are a means of spiritual formation, so that we can see and feel every moment as a God-moment; so that it can be as Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote,
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.
For Wesley, the two central acts of Christian devotion that lead to a devotional life are reading scripture and praying daily. These two activities are “for our lives,” he said. These activities are meant to condition us in ways that enable God’s presence to be felt and experienced always and everywhere. As such, they are not simply dreary duties, obligations that must be or ought to be performed – they are our part in the development of a relationship between ourselves and God.[i]
Maybe reading scripture and praying can be seen as the two sides of that relationship – reading scripture gives God a chance to speak to us; and praying gives us a chance to speak to God. Both are exercises in receiving and responding, both necessary to developing an ongoing relationship.
There are all kinds of ways to pray – privately, corporately, out loud, silently, extemporaneously, or using a book of written prayers, or praying the scriptures. We have a whole book of prayers in the Bible – Psalms – 150 prayers ready to be prayed. There are various times to pray, both spur-of-the moment times and fixed times. Psalm 119 says “seven times a day I will rise to praise your name.” And these hours are still observed today in some monastic settings, but rarely among those outside that cloistered life. However, over the years the daily office, as it was called, was abbreviated and set into a set of four offices or offerings –morning, noon, evening, and night prayer.[ii] Wesley would have known these and prayed these daily.
Maybe you have fixed times to pray each day – in the morning when you wake up – to thank God for the day about to begin, to ask God to give you strength and purpose for the day, to pray for the events of the day and that God’s will be done. Praying in the morning first thing starts the day in relationship.
Praying as the last thing before bedtime is another fixed time for many of us. It is a time to recall andt o thank God for the day’s blessings; some days there don’t seem to be many, but with some reflection the memories return. It is a time to turn over the cares and worries of the day to God and to ask for sleep. I remember after my husband died, I couldn’t sleep. I’d toss and turn, worry about things, and wonder what was going to happen to us. I dreaded the night time. But then one night, after many sleepless ones, I prayed very simply and directly to God: “They tell me you never sleep. But I have to sleep. So I going to turn all of these problems and worries over to you to keep for me overnight. I’ll take them back in the morning, but for now, God, I need to sleep. Thank you. Amen.” And I had my first good night’s sleep in weeks. So I can recommend from personal experience, the efficacy of bedtime prayer.
Of course in addition to fixed times, there are those extemporaneous prayers that simply bubble up depending on the situation, prayers my friend Faye Hudnall used to call “rocket prayers.” “Help,” “Thanks,” “Wow” are Anne Lamott’s favorites and she’s written a book about them.
There are various places to pray – Wesley made his own prayer closet just off of his bedroom. He had a kneeler in it, and there was only room for him. Of course, if I had to use a kneeler, I wouldn’t stay there very long! The important thing is to have a place – whether it’s at the kitchen table, beside your bed, in a chair, or a special room or area in your home, have a place that when you go there, prayer is the first thing that comes to your mind. Our call to worship encourages us to find the quiet center, a place where “we can see all the things that really matter, be a peace, and simply be.”
There are various postures for prayer too. We are most familiar with sitting and kneeling. Kneeling was a traditional posture for requesting favors from a king, but is now is a sign of humility. Sitting, which we think of as the “normal” posture for prayer, is the newest, having only become prevalent after the invention of pews during the middle ages. The oldest posture is to stand with eyes open and hands lifted with palms up. This position is traditionally associated with thanksgiving, praise, blessing, and benediction. You can also stand looking down with eyes closed and your hands clasped at your waist, a sign of submission and penitence. Lying down prostrate on the floor with eyes closed is a position of submission and of petition.
Now, I am telling you all this first, because it’s kind of interesting, but mostly because I’d like to you try new things during this time of developing Holy Habits. Pray in different places, at different times of the day, with different postures, and a variety of kinds of prayers. Shake it up a little bit; make it intentional; focus; don’t put your prayers on automatic pilot!
I don’t know if praying comes naturally or not, even if the old military maxim is that there are no atheists in foxholes! Scripture seems to indicate that prayer is learned. The disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray. Maybe they’d watched him and wondered if he was doing something different from what they’d been doing. It’s not that they were ignorant about prayer. They had grown up in the synagogue, the house of prayer, and they’d learned the many prayers of their faith. They had sung the psalms in worship, and every psalm is a prayer. So it is not like prayer was unknown territory.
But Jesus often went aside to pray and maybe it’s there that they saw something new; he’d invite the disciples, at least some of them to go along with him, but most of the time, they got bored; they took naps; they twiddled their thumbs until he was through. But according to our gospel reading for today, one time after Jesus had spent some time alone in prayer, the disciples finally asked him to teach them how to pray his way. Maybe they saw the way prayer seemed to allow him to focus clearly and be at peace with what he had to do; maybe they saw the power and energy he seemed to derive from prayer; maybe they sensed the closeness, the intimacy, he seemed to feel with God and the love and support he seemed to receive from God. Whatever it was, they wanted some of it for themselves as well.
Wesley called the Lord’s Prayer the model and standard for all of our prayers. And all over the world, in Christian churches of various denominations and practices, some form of this prayer is probably said almost every Sunday. It contains both praise and petition. It offers praise to God asks God for the basics in life – food, forgiveness, and freedom from fear. And in that, it is a comforting prayer. But it also petitions that God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven; and that’s a prayer about the future, a future where we do not make, shape or control what happens; a future where God’s justice is realized, and our power, security, and control are things of the past. And so it is also a prayer of submission, which is perhaps the most difficult prayer we’ll ever pray. – Not our will, but God’s be done.
You might think that this kind of prayer, the submission of your will to God’s will – the kind of prayer Jesus prayed in the garden at Gethsemane, is too difficult, beyond your ability, beyond the limits of your faith and trust. But that’s OK. God’s spirit is with us, communing with us when we pray in our developing relationship with God. Paul reminds us in the passage Chris read earlier, even though we may feel ignorant in our prayers; the spirit does not. Though we may feel lacking in faith, or feel exhausted or confused, the spirit does not.[iii] So, we don’t really need to say anything at all because “the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”
I hope that you will pray this week – pray in ways you never have before – and notice and be mindful of what happens. Maybe, amid your daily labor washing dishes, driving to work, grocery shopping, or even, picking blackberries, you’ll begin to realize too that earth is crammed with heaven and every common bush is afire with God.
May it be so for you and for me as well. Amen.