The first time I was asked about my prayer life was at a session meeting, where I was asking my home church to start the process of becoming a minster. It was the first time I really thought about prayer and I didn’t want to say, “what?” So, I have vague memories about saying something about that I prayed while I was on the move and in all I did. I didn’t really know what to say because I’d never really thought about prayer before.
I think that Frances poem sums up so well the questions I was asking at the time and still ask about prayer.
how do I pray?
in hours of darkness
my heart cries out
please, please dear God
crying in my hour of need
sighing with my heart of greed
is this prayer?
how do I pray?
as a child
even before I understood words
I knelt for an hour by my bedside
trying not to fall asleep
trying not to dream
trying to summon words deep in my heart
reaching in the void, the coldness and the dark
was this payer?
How do I pray?
how do I speak to the almighty God
weak and childish as I am
how can I find the right words
when my heart needs so much
how can I be a child of God
when I don't even know the answer
to the question
How do I pray?
The bible is full of directions on prayer. The disciples were confused about how they should pray so Jesus gave them what we now call the Lord’s prayer. When the Israelites were held captive in Babylon, they didn’t know how to pray anymore because they’d always gone to the temple in Jerusalem. How should they pray in this foreign land? In this foreign land – Friday prayers in the home began. The book of Psalms is the prayer book of the bible. We read one this morning and there are 149 others. Each of the Psalms are unique but as a collection can find words of praise, emotional pleas for help and songs of heartbreak and prayers for life to be better or to be sheltered in the palm of God’s hands.
In our reading from Philippians, Paul writes these instructions, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4: 4 – 9)
Prayer is a fundamental part of a living faith. Yet so many of us struggle with it. I’m guessing that there are many reasons. Perhaps we worry about doing it right. Perhaps we think we don’t know how. Perhaps we worry about what we should and shouldn’t be praying for. Should I pray for that new shinny toy? I think sometimes we make it more complex that it really is. So we start with a definition. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines prayer this way:
Definition of prayer
1a(1): an address (such as a petition) to God or a god in word or thought
(2): a set order of words used in praying
b: an earnest request or wish
2: the act or practice of praying to God or a god kneeling in prayer
3: a religious service consisting chiefly of prayers —often used in plural
4: something prayed for
5: a slight chance haven't got a prayer
At its heart prayer is a conversation between our hearts and God’s. A good conversation requires someone talking and someone listening and then changing roles. That conversation with God can take as many forms as there are people. When I first started praying, I could only pray while my body was in motion – mostly when I was going for a walk by myself. I would look at my day, if there were hard tasks or conversations, I’d practice what I’d do or say. Passersby must have smiled because they thought I was talking to myself. For a lot of years, I was better at the talking than the listening – and that’s okay. I still pray this way today.
After practicing with the talking I moved to simply reading the bible and journaling about the reading, about my joys, about my struggles and sometimes what I did that day. I’m not alone in wanting my prayer to have action. The ancient labyrinth is a form of walking prayer or walking meditation. There is not starting point and no end but you move through a time of reflection. I realized this year when I started doing yoga that I felt the same way after doing yoga as I did after I prayed. There is no right or wrong way to pray. For some that feeling of connection comes through community, for others it is when they hear beautiful music that their soul soars to the divine and for others it can be through dance or running or writing.
Several years ago, at a retreat, the leader invited us to simply focus on our breath. The first time I did it, it was hard. I was wrestless and self-conscious. But I also liked it. So I started practicing. It took me a long time to come to a place where I could sit and just breath. Not getting distracted by thoughts – simply open to God and God’s direction for me. Part of our weekly prayer group is simply open our hearts to God and listening in silence. It is holy time.
The beautiful thing about prayer is that there is no right or wrong way to do it. The question for you to think about is what works for you connect with God? I think that Mary and Martha are both great examples of different ways of doing that. I know Jesus told Martha that Mary chose the better part, but what did Jesus mean by that? Maybe he couldn’t see that Martha was offering a prayer in service and with the food she brought.
Chapter 10 in the gospel of Luke in many ways presents many ways of approaching faith. It begins with the sending out of the 70 in pairs to every town to proclaim the kingdom of God, followed by what means to be a good neighbour in the parable of the Good Samaritan. As they travelled, Jesus and the disciples were invited to Mary and Martha’s home. Martha provided hospitality to weary travels and a much needed meal. Mary captivated by Jesus’ teaching sat and listened. For too long we’ve dismissed women’s work because or given women the choice between learning and serving.
That’s not what’s a work here. Jesus time is short. Already in chapter Luke 9, it says that “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” (Luke 9:51) Jesu knows what is coming next and it is not going to be easy. After this, everything Jesus does is pointing him to the cross. On that particular day and in that particular context, Mary chose the better part. Maybe Martha was distracted and worried because she’d already started to hear what a trouble maker her good friend Jesus. She couldn’t imagine life without him so keeping busy helped her cope with the road ahead. And Jesus, is inviting her to spend the time left with him – listening and learning. There is a wonderful legend that Martha slayed the beast at Tarascon by sprinkling him with holy water, thus taming the best and then spent the rest of her days in prayer and fasting.
Jesus invites us, to live our faith in prayer and in service. Mary and Marth help us to know that there is a time for each and that we need both. If we can’t reflect on our faith, listen for how God is calling us to live, and offer to God all our cares and concerns our service will fall flat. If all we do is serve, then we will grow weary and loose our way.
This week take some time to think about how you pray – how do you engage in that holy conversation with God whose grace is with us always. Thanks be to God Amen.