Prayer – it’s a central element of many religious traditions. So as followers of Jesus, how do we approach prayer? Think about it as communal, connecting and contemplative.
Those of you who had a chance to see some of the many stops Pope Francis has made during his visit to the United States may have noticed a recurring line he spoke, both in public and in more private settings.
“Please, pray for me,” he said over and over.
He said it to Speaker of the House John Boehner as he grasped his arm inside the Capitol building. He said it to a man in a crowd who was using his iPhone to capture a brief moment with the Pope. He assigned it as homework to the students at Our Lady Queen of Angels School in East Harlem. Over and over, he asked anyone he met to pray for him.
You’d almost think the pope had read that letter from James, the brother of Jesus, that we heard today. Perhaps he has read the New Testament now and again.
For us, who try to figure out what it means to be a follower of Jesus, prayer is a term that keep coming up over and over again. So I thought that given the letter from James that we heard this morning, it might be worth taking a few moments to reflect on prayer.
Prayer has so many different meanings to people. Sometimes it’s done in public, like what we do when we gather here for worship. Sometimes it is very private. Sometimes it uses words from a book. Sometimes it is simply a sigh too deep for human words. Sometimes it is held within total silence.
And here’s some context for where prayer fits in our nation in our current decade. More than half – 55% – of Americans said they pray every day, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey. Another 23% said they pray weekly or monthly. So for nearly four in every five Americans, prayer is a part of their lives. Even among those who are religiously unaffiliated, 21% said they pray daily.
I grew up thinking about prayer as having four different dimensions – petition – asking God for something – that’s the dominant theme in the letter from James; thanksgiving – giving thanks to God for something good that has happened in my life; forgiveness – asking for God’s mercy after I had done something wrong; and adoration – reflection on the wonder and power of God.
That’s fine, but for today, let me offer a little different construct. I call it Prayer in the Key of C. Jeff, could you please play a C chord.
I think of prayer as communal, connecting and contemplative. All of them involve in some way reaching beyond ourselves to the divine spirit that inhabits our lives and our universe.
Communal prayer can be dull, repetitive, pretentious – or it can be a moment that binds us together and helps us feel part of that vast and diverse collection of humanity created in God’s image.
I hope that when we are here on Sundays, somewhere in the course of our service you get that sense of communal prayer that stretches you beyond yourself. Our worship at its best should give you a chance to feel connected to God.
There are sometimes special moments of communal prayer.
It may be at a wedding or a funeral. It may be following a tragedy when people come together seeking the kind of spiritual healing that James was writing about – “if any of you are suffering, you should pray.”
It may be at a time of great rejoicing – the dedication of a place of worship, the installation of a religious leader. As James wrote, “If any of you are happy, you should sing.”
I experienced one of those special moments this week when I watched the interfaith service Friday morning at the Sept. 11 memorial.
This was notable because the prayers here were not simply Christian prayers. For other religious traditions, prayer is important as well. And the prayers that day were not simply put in a blender to mix them into some indefinable blob.
The pope prayed, of course, asking for healing for the world, comfort and consolation, wisdom and courage, light and guidance in the search for peace.
There was a Hindu prayer for peace followed by a Buddhist prayer for peace.
A Sikh prayed that we understand that God would judge us according to our deeds, not by the coat that we wear.
A Greek Orthodox bishop prayed with the Beatitudes (in Greek) and Muslims offered a prayer that we may be led to God’s abode of peace.
A Jewish cantor sang a powerful hymn for the fallen from Sept. 11.
And then children of many races and ethnicities and beliefs sang “Let There Be Peace on Earth.” (Here’s a 45-minute video of the whole service.)
This was communal prayer in its richest form.
Connecting prayer is the kind of prayer that the pope was talking about when he asked people over and over, “Please pray for me.”
Connecting prayer is the kind of prayer we experience here during our service when people raise up joys and concerns they have concerning family and friends.
Connecting prayer is one of the ways I understand the words in the letter from James this morning.
“If any of you are sick,” James wrote, “they should call the elders of the church and the elders should pray over the, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.”
There is a suggestion here that prayer and anointing may somehow bring magical or miraculous healing. I never want to get in the way of the unexpected. But I think that when we hold one another in prayer, we are doing something far more powerful than simply asking God to work a miracle, to intervene in the natural world.
I think we are reaching outside ourselves, connecting to one another through that spirit of divine love and in the process, releasing the divine energy within us and within the one we are praying for.
We are opening the way to a spiritual healing that lets the one prayed for know, feel, understand that they are not alone, that God’s love is with them and that the love and care of their fellow human beings is with them as well.
We, of course, don’t need to stop at prayer. Folks here are good about sending notes, cards, emails to those facing struggles.
We keep a supply of cards and photos out in the gathering space by the quilt that you can use to write to someone who might need to know they are held in prayer.
Our membership committee and our in-reach care team regularly send out cards of joy and of concern to people in our congregation.
This, it seems to me, is an extension of our prayer of connection. And that prayer not only affects those we pray for. It is a reminder to each of us to be attentive to the people among us. One of our members here keeps a list of those in need of prayer and each day, prays for them for 15 or 20 minutes. What a wonderful extension of our community that is.
A speaking of spending time in prayer, let’s take some time to consider contemplative prayer as well – the third part of this chord in the key of C .
This is the kind of prayer we do on our own. It often does not involve a lot of words. It is time when we simply find ways to feel that we are in the presence of God. It may be a walk in the woods. In may be sitting in a sacred space. It may be washing dishes and using that as time to remember the refreshing waters of baptism or making dinner and remembering the meals Jesus ate with his followers.
It’s a time both of reaching out to God and of looking inward at our lives.
I’ve talked before about the path of Ignatian spirituality, developed by Ignatius of Loyola, the Spanish priest who started the religious community we now know as Jesuits.
One of those Jesuits, Mark Link, developed a three-minute version of the spiritual practice Ignatius developed for the end of the day.
“During the first minute,” he writes, “I pick out a high point in my day, something good, like going out of my way to help someone.” And then he gives thanks for that.
“The second minute, I pick out a low point in my day, something bad, like speaking ill of someone.” For that, he asks forgiveness.
Then there is the third minute: “I look ahead to a critical point I will face tomorrow.” He asks that God’s Spirit will give him guidance.
This is just one of many, many ways to pray. Contemplative prayer does not mean locking yourself away in a monastery and praying for days on end. It means taking some time to connect with God. In the process, you may find you will connect a bit more with yourself.
Eric Elnes is a United Church of Christ pastor at a congregation in Omaha. He led a retreat at for UCC folks from around Wisconsin back in June. Here’s a thought from Eric:
“St. Augustine (a great Christian theologian of the fourth century) once observed that the path to knowing God and the path to knowing yourself are the same path. In my experience, one of the main benefits of prayer and meditation is that it helps me discover myself, and the particular ways I may engage my energies with the world most effectively and vitally.”
Here’s something I learned from Eric at that retreat that I find to be a helpful way of thinking about contemplative prayer. I don’t know about you, but I often find when I try to enter into a quiet time of prayer, it only takes an instant or two for my mind to start to wander. That’s pretty natural.
So Eric asked those of us at the retreat to balance a peacock feather on our hands. Would a few of you be willing to try that?
Here’s the point he was trying to make. As we enter into a time of contemplative, personal prayer, we need to be both focused and flexible. (Balance the feather.) We won’t always stay in one spot, but if we focus on something and we are willing to be flexible as the experience unfolds, we will do okay.
I’m pretty good at communal prayer. It’s what I do as a pastor and I love the process of creating opportunities for people to pray together or to join in opportunities that others have created.
I’m not bad at connecting prayer either. It’s not just that it’s part of my job as your pastor. I really appreciated the depth in relationships that grows out of praying for one another.
Contemplative prayer – I keep wishing I were better at that. I can do it in spurts and then I slack off. I know some people for whom this is a really rich part of their lives. I heard Archbishop Desmond Tutu say that he would start his day with three hours of prayer. I understand that Pope Francis gets up at 4:30 so he can start his prayer with quiet prayer before joining with others at an early Mass.
But here’s the thing. We all have the opportunity to grow in the way we pray because we all have the opportunity to grow in our understanding of and our relationship with God.
There is no one right way. There are many paths. What Jesus invited his followers to do, what James invites the early Christians to do is to keep seeking a path that will connect them with God.
What I’d invite you to do is to think about the role that prayer plays in your life. Think about ways you might make that role even better.
If praying together is what serves you best, then pray on.
If praying for others is where you find God’s love, then pray on.
If taking time to pray alone lets you experience God’s Spirit, then pray on.
So together this day, let’s pray in song that God’s grace will fill our lives and will transform our world. Let’s sing #292, “Breathe on Me, Breath of God.”