When You Pray

Sunday, January 29, 2017

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC January 29, 2017, the fourth Sunday after Epiphany.

Texts: Psalm 139:1-18, Matthew 6:5-15



I once heard it said that the human heart “syncs” to the rhythm of a drumbeat.  That same teacher suggested that when a drum is played in community, the outcome is that the hearts of those gathered start to beat with the same rhythm.  It’s a cool concept.  When I did a little research, I discovered that the science is debatable.  But regardless, it makes sense to me based on experience.  Music and rhythm can have a powerful unifying effect among us.  A good dance beat makes the human body want to respond. And the even, slow, steady beat of a drum (used for centuries as part of tribal chants and prayers) settles the human body into a kind of centered attention.  The science may be iffy, but evidence in community makes me think there’s something to the idea that rhythm affects the human body, that the “beat” to which we walk affects our hearts. I tend to believe that it’s possible to have our hearts beat to the same rhythm.


Spiritual practices (those things we are exploring on A Disciple’s Path) are a kind of life rhythm—a way to mark time, to punctuate our days and weeks, to give shape to our lives.  One of the ways I describe my own spiritual practice is by using the language of rhythm.  I have a daily, weekly, monthly, and even annual rhythm.  That is, I engage in spiritual practices that mark time, that punctuate my days and weeks, giving shape and frame to my whole life.  Among those practices are the things on A Disciple’s Path that we are studying as a congregationprayer, presence in faith community, generous giving, sacrificial service, and joyful witness.  For me, these practices are lived out through observance of daily morning devotions, daily engagement in congregational life, weekly Sabbath, weekly corporate worship, weekly tithing to the church, weekly and monthly small covenant group engagement, and an annual week of silent retreat.  These are spiritual rhythms, practices that form habits in both body and soul. 


I don’t think I’m alone in the need to schedule this stuff—to put it on the calendar very intentionally and to make it a priority.  The goal is to make the practices habitual—what I call holy habits.  Because our habits deeply affect our lives—either for good or for ill.  There’s plenty of science to back that up though not enough time this morning to share it.  Forming a healthy habit can sometimes be a challenge, breaking a bad one almost always is.  What the science affirms is that habits are formed through repetition and, eventually, become almost unconscious because they are so deeply part of the rhythm of our lives. 


Our spiritual tradition as United Methodists is grounded in holy habits.  John and Charles Wesley were so intensely methodical in practicing the spiritual disciplines that they mockingly became known as “methodists” and the name has been with us ever since.  The Wesleys understood that methodical spiritual practices changed their lives.  This isn’t something that John Wesley dreamed up.  Religious Orders, cloistered or not, had been at this for centuries.  The practice of holy habits has been part of the Judeo-Christian tradition from the very beginning.


In our Gospel today (an excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount) Jesus begins four of the first five sentences saying “Whenever you pray,” “When you are praying,” and “Pray.”  When my friend Paul Abernathy, then Rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill, preached this text, he emphasized the fact that Jesus doesn’t say “if” you pray, but “when” you pray. He said that it’s clear that Jesus’s expectation is that prayer will be a regular part of our lives—a holy habit.  Over my years in ministry, one of the most consistent things I’ve heard is that folks struggle with prayer.  It feels intimidating; folks worry that they are doing it wrong.  Jesus helps us out.  When you pray, says Jesus, you can use the words we call “The Lord’s Prayer”—what I call our family prayer, the prayer that names our God as a loving parent who is worthy of praise, the prayer that surrenders worldly kingdoms as we entreat God’s Kin-dom to come, the prayer that acknowledges our human need for sustenance, the prayer that admits our need to forgive and be forgiven.  Jesus gives us words to pray and they are a gift and guide to us.  But they aren’t the only way to pray. 


There are a multitude of prayer practices, so many ways to pray.  We can sing or chant our prayers; we can write prayers; prayer can be communing with God as we meditate on an icon or other image; prayer can be a mantra or words repeated with the rhythm of our breath; prayer might be guided with beads.  Prayer is speaking and also listening.  Prayer can also be just resting in the presence of God, just being.  I describe prayer simply as “relationship with God.”  Jim Harnish makes a helpful clarification saying: “Let’s begin by clearing the deck of the idea that prayer is a magic trick by which we manipulate God’s power to get what we want done. In Scripture, the primary purpose of prayer is to enable us to live in an intimate relationship God so that we become the agents of God’s saving purpose in this world.”[i] 


Contemporary writer Anne Lamott has this to say:  “You may in fact be wondering what I even mean when I use the word ‘prayer.’ It’s certainly not what TV Christians mean. It’s not for display purposes, like plastic sushi or neon. Prayer…is communication from the heart to that which surpasses understanding. Let’s say it is communication from one’s heart to God.”[ii] She goes on, “Prayer is taking a chance that against all odds and past history, we are loved and chosen, and do not have to get it together before we show up… My belief is that when you’re telling the truth, you’re close to God. If you say to God, ‘I am exhausted and depressed beyond words, and I don’t like You at all right now, and I recoil from most people who believe in You,’ that might be the most honest thing you’ve ever said. If you told me you had said to God, ‘It is all hopeless, and I don’t have a clue if You exist, but I could use a hand,’ it would almost bring tears to my eyes, tears of pride in you, for the courage it takes to get real—really real.  It would make me want to sit next to you at the dinner table.  So prayer is our sometimes real selves trying to communicate with the Real, with Truth, with the Light.”[iii]


There isn’t only one way to think about prayer and certainly not only one way to pray.  But it is at the heart of our spiritual tradition TO PRAY.  It isn’t if you pray, but when you pray.  Find what form of prayer allows you to bring your most authentic self into relationship with God.  And then, as the old ad slogan goes, “Just do it.” 


Right now, many of us are preoccupied with the words and actions of the new president; we are focused on our call to sacred resistance of that which is counter to the Gospel.  We know that we are in for a long and exhausting journey.  Some of us already feel targeted by the new administration and even more vulnerable than usual.  Many feel overwhelmed and unable to discern how to respond.  When we are tired and anxious, we’re not at our best.  In this moment when we are tempted to be reactive, to be tossed to and fro by the winds of partisanship; in this moment when we can lash out or become depressed or become hateful toward those we accuse of being hateful, it is essential that we attend to the holy habit of prayer.  And I’m not talking about prayer as a cop-out for action or as Anne Lamott says, “for display purposes.”  I’m talking about prayer that shapes action, that focuses the mind and conscience, that shows us who we are and who we aren’t, that reveals our weakness as well as our strength.  I’m talking about prayer that helps us respond to what is happening around us with wisdom, intention, courage, and love. As Rev. Dr. Luke Powery reminded us a couple of weeks ago, prayer is not ancillary to the work of justice, it is right at the center; it is the fuel, the grounding, the heart of it all.  Just do it…


Look at God looking at you.  Let God’s light reveal what you need to see in your own heart and in the lives of others and in the events of our day.  Be real.  Search the scriptures and listen for God’s voice.  Be still and know that God is God and you’re not.  Confess.  Be held and remember how deeply you are loved.  Allow the love and mercy of God to fill and renew you with fresh energy and courage for the journey.



Stay close enough to God in loving relationship that the rhythm of God’s heartbeat sets the pace for your own.  As we do that, our hearts will beat as one, and we’ll find ourselves dancing together to the life-giving beat of love.


[i] James A. Harnish, A Disciple’s Path: Deepening Your Relationship Christ and the Church, Companion Reader, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2012, p. 29.

[ii] Anne Lamott, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, New York: Riverhead Books, 2012, p. 1.

[iii] Ibid., p. 5-7.