Sighs too deep for words: A Sermon for Proper 12A, July 26, 2020

Early on in the pandemic, I read a number of essays comparing our situation in lockdown with the lives of hermits who abandoned life in community to live in solitude in their search for deeper relationship with God. The tone of the essays was usually encouraging—offering the reader resources for deepening their spirituality in the face of this new situation. But the reality of life in lockdown, and even now as the limits on our movement and activity are being lifted, is rather different. For myself at least, the stresses and anxiety of the moment, the fear of pandemic, reading the news of the spread of illness, protests, and everything else, have left little space for deeper relationship with God.

With worship relegated to livestreaming, the suspension of the Eucharist, the lack of physical gathering with God’s people, the inability to sing hymns, my spiritual life has been something of a wasteland. It’s only the comfort of the daily office, morning prayer, that sustains me. Words written hundreds of years ago, updated, but still they speak to and for me. The psalms continue to inspire me and provide language with which to approach God, and language that often describes or names my feelings and desires. Cultivating a prayer life these days is both exceedingly difficult and indispensable.

In Romans 8, St. Paul has some interesting and surprising things to say about prayer:

 

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”

“We do not know how to pray as we ought.” This is Paul talking, remember. This is the guy who had an encounter with the Risen Christ that initiated a radical change in his life. He’s someone who could confront the principalities and powers, challenge Jesus’ closest followers, even Peter. He wrote letters full of brashness and invective, was absolutely certain of his faith and of the correctness of his theology. He could write about his own mystical experiences, journeys to the third heaven. But still, even for him, prayer wasn’t easy.

Prayer isn’t always easy. Finding adequate language with which to address God is a struggle common to many Christians, To grope for language to address God, to express our uncertainties and doubts about God to express them to God, none of this is unique. It is part of the experience of most Christians, at least at some point in their journeys. Even the greatest mystics experienced such times. Teresa of Avila, for example, called such times in her life when God seemed absent, as dryness. For her, the dryness could last for years.

It’s not just prayer, of course. We struggle spiritually in so many ways. We worry that we don’t do the right thing; that we’re not quite dedicated enough. Some of us may worry that we don’t believe in the right way. We struggle with the creed, the resurrection.

Especially now, with all of our anxieties and fears, with all of the new tasks and responsibilities—child care and schooling, work from home that has collapsed the boundaries from the world of work and our home lives, the challenges of connecting with friends and family. We may be largely confined to home, but our lives are busier than ever, and finding time to pray, finding the quiet to pray may be impossible. And so, the idea that the Spirit may intercede on our behalf, may pray with and for us, can be of great comfort.

But that’s not all that Paul says in this passage. As he draws this section of the letter to a close, his rhetoric and language rise to a crescendo as he asks a series of questions:

 

Who is against us?

Who brings a charge against us?

Who condemns us?

What separates us from the love of God?

The answer to each of those questions is “No one.” In fact, these verses are not just the conclusion of chapter 8. They are the culmination and summary of an argument Paul has been making since chapter 5, that we can be certain of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. And in the midst of this powerful argument, Paul introduces another idea that speaks directly to what I was talking about earlier; our struggles with prayer and with God. Earlier, Paul had assured us that the Spirit intercedes on our behalf with sighs too deep for words. Now, it is Jesus Christ himself, who died, was raised, and sits at the right hand of the Father, who intercedes for us.

We are not alone. We don’t need to try to figure everything out; we don’t even need to worry about finding the right words to express our fears or doubts, or our faith.

What we need to do is trust in God and in Jesus Christ. And in those darkest and driest moments, when we can’t even do that, we can rest in the assurance that the Spirit intercedes on our behalf, with sighs too deep for words; that Jesus Christ intercedes on our behalf and that, in the end, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Thanks be to God!

Lord, Teach us to pray: A Sermon for Proper 12C, 2019

“Lord, teach us to pray.” Over the years, I have had lots of conversations with people about prayer. Even people who have deep and intense prayer lives often struggle with prayer and seek to become more prayerful. Many others, like myself, feel wholly inadequate in our prayer lives. We struggle to find language to address God, we struggle to be authentic before God; we struggle as we seek to listen to God. It should come as no surprise that I struggle with prayer. One of the first courses I had in Divinity School was “Constructing the Concept of God.” I quickly learned that it was difficult to pray to a concept I had constructed. Continue reading

Prayers Ascending: A Sermon for the 7th Sunday of Easter, 2018

 

 Today is the 7thSunday of Easter, the season of Eastertide is drawing to a close. It will end next Sunday on the Feast of Pentecost. Today is also known as the Sunday after the Ascension because this past Thursday was the Feast of the Ascension. Although it’s a major feast day in the Church, we didn’t have a service here at Grace—if we had, almost no one would have attended. I know, because we tried it a couple of times. Continue reading

Some resources for the Daily Office, Bible Study, and the Daily Examen

I led an adult forum at Grace last Sunday during which I offered brief introductions to the Daily Office and the Daily Examen from the Ignatian tradition. I’ve collected some of those resources here, as well as links to the Bible and the lectionary.

The Book of Common Prayer online: https://www.bcponline.org 

The Daily Office (Morning and Evening Prayer, Daily Devotions)

Morning Prayer Rite I BCP 37

Morning Prayer Rite II BCP 75

Evening Prayer Rite I BCP 61

Evening Prayer Rite II BCP 115

Compline BCP 127

Daily Devotions for Families BCP 136

Daily Office online:

http://www.missionstclare.com/english/index.html

This site includes the psalms, readings, and canticles for each office, so you don’t need to look through the lectionary, or have a bible. Daily office app available on itunes or android.

The Daily Office podcast: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/audio-daily-office-the-trinity-mission/id604914110?mt=2

The Bible

For many years, I have used this site: http://bible.oremus.org. It offers a number of different versions, but defaults to the New Revised Standard Version (with British spelling), which is the version we use in worship.

The Lectionary.

If you want to know the readings for Sunday in advance, they are all available at The Lectionary Page: http://www.lectionarypage.net

A great resource for exploring each week’s Sunday readings is Textweek.com.

The Daily Examen

An alternative to the Daily Office is the daily examen. From the Jesuit tradition, meant to offer you an opportunity at the end of the day to look back over your day for signs of God’s presence and grace.

A brief overview:

  1. Become aware of God’s presence.
    2.Review the day with gratitude.
    3. Pay attention to your emotions.
    4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it.
    5. Look toward tomorrow.

From Ashes to Glory (the daily examen for Lent):

https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-examen/from-ashes-to-glory

Lord, teach us to pray: A Sermon for Proper 12, Year C

Before turning to today’s gospel reading, I’d like to say a few words about the reading from Hosea. I’m sure as you as listened and read, questions arose about this difficult and disturbing text. God commands the prophet Hosea to marry a prostitute, or a promiscuous woman; then orders him to give their children awful, offensive names: Jezreel (God sows); Lo-ruhama (not pitied), and Loammi (I am not yours). It doesn’t get any better as the book continues. There’s adultery, separation, and perhaps reconciliation. All of it to symbolize God’s relationship with Israel as that of a husband and an unfaithful wife. Throughout the book, there is very little hope of repentance, although perhaps one gets a sense of it in verse 10: “in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ it shall be said to them, ‘Children of the living God’.” Continue reading

St. Thomas Aquinas, 1225-1274

Today is the feast day of St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest and most important theologians in the History of Christianity. His biography is available here. This is the prayer he reportedly said every day before an image of Christ:

GRANT me, O merciful God, to desire eagerly, to investigate prudently, to acknowledge sincerely, and to fulfill perfectly those things that are pleasing to Thee, for the praise and glory of Thy holy Name.

 

O my God, order my life, and grant that I may know what Thou wilt have me to do; and grant that I may fulfill it as is fitting and profitable to my soul.

 

Grant me, O Lord my God, the grace that I may not falter either in prosperity or adversity. May I not be unduly lifted up by the one, nor unduly cast down by the other. Let me neither rejoice nor grieve at anything, save what either leads to Thee or leads away from Thee. Let me not desire to please anyone nor fear to displease anyone save only Thee.

 

Let all things transitory seem vile in my eyes, and all things eternal be dear to me. Let me tire of that joy which is without Thee and to desire nothing that is outside Thee. Let me find joy in the labor that is for Thee; and let all repose that is without Thee be tiresome to me.

 

Grant me, my God, the grace to direct my heart towards Thee, and with a firm purpose of amendment, to grieve continually my failures, together with a firm purpose of amendment.

 

O Lord my God, make me obedient without complaining, poor without despondency, chaste without stain, patient without grumbling, humble without pretense, cheerful without dissipation, mature without undue heaviness, quick-minded without levity, fearful of Thee without abjectness, truthful without duplicity, devoted to good works without presumption, ready to correct my neighbor without arrogance, and to edify him by word and example without hypocrisy.

 

Grant me, Lord God, a watchful heart which shall be distracted from Thee by no vain thoughts; give me a generous heart which shall not be drawn downward by any unworthy affection; give me an upright heart which shall not be led astray by any perverse intention; give me a stout heart which shall not be crushed by any hardship; give me a free heart which shall not be enslaved by passion

 

Bestow upon me, O Lord my God, an understanding that knows Thee, diligence in seeking Thee, wisdom in finding Thee, conversation pleasing to Thee, perseverance in faithfully waiting for Thee, and confidence in embracing Thee in the end. Grant that I may be chastised here by penance, that I may make good use of Thy gifts in this life by Thy grace, and that I may partake of Thy joys in the glory of heaven: Who livest and reignest, God, forever and ever. Amen.

A prayer for today

Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart [and especially the hearts of the people of this land], that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.

God in Proof, God in Prayer: A Sermon for Proper 12, Year A

Proper 12, Year A

July 27, 2014

“The Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”

Right now I’m reading a book by Nathan Schneider called God in Proof. I first encountered Schneider’s writing some years ago through the website he began with some other young writers called “Killing the Buddha.” It’s hard to describe in a few words what they’re trying to do with the site, but at its core is the quest of young people, millennials, to explore questions of faith and spirituality in our modern world. Continue reading

Rowan Williams on prayer

Some kinds of instruction in prayer used to say at the beginning, “Put yourself in the presence of God.” But I often wonder whether it would be more helpful to say, “Put yourself in the place of Jesus.” It sounds appallingly ambitious, even presumptuous, but that is actually what the New Testament suggests we do. Jesus speaks to God for us, but we speak to God in him. You may say what you want—but he is speaking to the Father, gazing into the depths of the Father’s love. And as you understand Jesus better, as you grow up a little in your faith, then what you want to say gradually shifts a bit more into alignment with what he is always saying to the Father, in his eternal love for the eternal love out of which his own life streams forth.

That, in a nutshell, is prayer—letting Jesus pray in you and beginning that lengthy and often very tough process by which our selfish thoughts and ideals and hopes are gradually aligned with his eternal action, just as, in his own earthly life, his human fears and hopes and desires and emotions are put into the context of his love for the Father, woven into his eternal relation with the Father—even in that moment of supreme pain and mental agony that he endures the night before his death.

Rowan Williams writing on Origen and prayer in the Christian Century

How to fill the faith-shaped hole in modern life

A lovely collection of essays in the New Statesman on ritual after God. It includes Rowan Williams’ description of how he begins his day in silent prayer and meditation.

Lucy Winkett has this to say:

If rituals help us navigate the thresholds of life when emotion is high and the tectonic plates of desire, fear, hope and despair collide, then the truth is that I travel a long way not just when I’m celebrating the Eucharist but while I’m walking the dog. Ordinary life is full of grief and miracles. Rituals are performed at the boundaries, on the border. What we do almost every day, sometimes without noticing, is step over the line.