Whenever You Pray–Sermon on the Mount Bible Study

This evening, we’ll be looking at Matthew 6, especially vss 1-14. I’m always struck when I encounter texts in different contexts and the liturgical uses of these verses are powerful and foundational for the Christian life. The Lord’s Prayer is also our prayer, recited in the Daily Office and at every Eucharistic celebration. Its familiarity is both blessing and problematic. When said consciously and meditated upon regularly, it offers the possibility of helping us shape our discipleship and faith. It helps to create a relationship with God that stresses our dependence on God for the necessities of life as well as our purpose and end (“Your kingdom come, Your will be done). But it’s also easy to allow the words to roll off our tongue unthinkingly. Sometimes that’s OK; for example when we need to pray but can’t find words of our own. Sometimes it may be an example of the sort of external piety that Jesus criticizes in the first verses of the chapter.

Those verses are always the gospel reading on Ash Wednesday. In that context they are problematic and challenging, especially of the piety we display on Ash Wednesday. It’s hard not to think about how our actions look to others, whether we’re walking around on Ash Wednesday with ashes on our forehead or attending church on Sunday morning when our friends and neighbors are drinking coffee and reading the paper or out on a bike ride or run. But hiding our piety for the wrong reasons is also a problem. Jesus criticizes “hypocrites” for wanting others to know about their donations and fasting. He isn’t addressing those of us who hide our actions or faith because we are slightly embarrassed of our quaint habits.

Perhaps most important is something implied rather than directly stated here: that our prayers and other practices should be sincere and come from the heart. Prayer is not about others or about ourselves; it is about God. Bonhoeffer has this to say:

Prayer is the supreme instance of the hidden character of the Christian life. It is the antithesis of self-display. When men pray, they have ceased to know themselves and know only God whom they call upon. Prayer does not aim at any direct effect on the world; it is addressed to God alone, and is therefore the perfect example of undemonstrative action


On My Reading List: Flannery O’Connor’s Prayer Journal

Marilynne Robinson’s review in The New York Times Book Review:

It is the religious sensibility reflected in this journal that makes it as eloquent on the subject of creativity as it is on the subject of prayer. O’Connor’s awareness of her gifts gives her a special kind of interest in them. Having concluded one early entry by asking the Lord to help her “with this life that seems so treacherous, so disappointing,” she begins the next entry: “Dear God, tonight it is not disappointing because you have given me a story. Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story — just like the typewriter was mine.”

Casey N. Cep writes about it for The New Yorker:

The journal reflects a single year in the life of a believer—it includes just under fifty pages of prayers from a lifetime filled with them. It is the attempt of a young writer to reconcile her worldly ambitions with her heavenly understanding. The task she set for herself, to invigorate her dulling faith, was accomplished by the deliberate, contemplative practice of praying in her own words. By refashioning the prayers she inherited and practiced every day at Mass, O’Connor was able to find new language for belief.

Paul Harvey explores it as well:

Flannery O’Connor’s prayer journals provide a beautiful glimpse into a vulnerable soul open to the rigor of life, confident that God would use trials to shape and press her into something more. Those prayers were answered through O’Connor’s life of fighting disease and practicing her craft of writing. Her strong irony did not lead her to doubt that God was with her.

The model of Flannery O’Connor challenges the prevailing ideas of modern life and challenges us to personally assess how we reconcile our own beliefs with our scholarship and use of irony. O’Connor wielded irony as an effective weapon in her writings. Her prayer journals demonstrate her ability to harness the power of irony without allowing it to define her soul. Such an approach today would be threatening to the culture of cheap irony that surrounds us.

James Parker also reflects on her use of irony and her life of prayer:

Where the Word was operational, for O’Connor, it was always disruptive: in its presence, one’s head was supposed to explode. Her short stories, especially, reengineered the Joycean epiphany, the quiet moment of transcendence, as a kind of blunt-force baptismal intervention: her characters are KO’d, dismantled, with a violence that would be absurdist, if the universe were absurd. But the universe is not absurd. “There is an interaction between man and God which to disregard is an act of insolence,” wrote the rabbi and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, her contemporary, in The Prophets. “Isolation is a fairy tale.” The upended moment, the breaking-in or breaking-through of a vagrant, unbiddable reality: this is the grace of God and the sign of his love.

Benedict of Nursia, 547, on prayer

Today is the feast day of St. Benedict of Nursia, the author of the Rule that has shaped Western monasticism for nearly fifteen hundred years (to call him the “founder” of the Benedictine order is somewhat misleading). While looking for something from the Rule to read for our mid-week Eucharist, I came across the following (from ch. 20, “On Reverence in Prayer”):

Whenever we want to ask some favor of a powerful man, we do it humbly and respectfully, for fear of presumption. How much more important, then, to lay our petitions before the Lord God of all things with the utmost humility and sincere devotion. We must know that God regards our purity of heart and tears of compunction, not our many words. Prayer should therefore be short and pure, unless perhaps it is prolonged under the inspiration of divine grace.


For West, Texas

For everyone in Boston

For all of us

Psalm 23

1 The LORD is my shepherd; *
I shall not be in want.

2 He makes me lie down in green pastures *
and leads me beside still waters.

3 He revives my soul *
and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.

4 Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil; *
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

5 You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; *
you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup is running over.

6 Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, *
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.


A Prayer for Victims of Terrorism

Loving God, Welcome into your arms the victims of violence and terrorism. Comfort their families and all who grieve for them. Help us in our fear and uncertainty, And bless us with the knowledge that we are secure in your love. Strengthen all those who work for peace, And may the peace the world cannot give reign in our hearts. Amen.

A Prayer for First Responders

Blessed are you, Lord, God of mercy, who through your Son gave us a marvelous example of charity and the great commandment of love for one another. Send down your blessings on these your servants, who so generously devote themselves to helping others. Grant them courage when they are afraid, wisdom when they must make quick decisions, strength when they are weary, and compassion in all their work. When the alarm sounds and they are called to aid both friend and stranger, let them faithfully serve you in their neighbor. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.- adapted from the Book of Blessings, #587, by Diana Macalintal

For the President of the United States and all in Civil Authority

O Lord our Governor, whose glory is in all the world: We commend this nation to your merciful care, that, being guided by your Providence, we may dwell secure in your peace. Grant to the President of the United States, the Governor of this state, and to all in authority, wisdom and strength to know and to do your will. Fill them with the love of truth and righteousness, and make them ever mindful of their calling to serve this people in your fear; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

For Peace

Eternal God, in whose perfect kingdom no sword is drawn but the sword of righteousness, no strength known but the strength of love: So mightily spread abroad your Spirit, that all peoples may be gathered under the banner of the Prince of Peace, as children of one Father; to whom be dominion and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

A Prayer Attributed to St. Francis

Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.

For the Human Family

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

For Quiet Confidence

O God of peace, who has taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and confidence shall be our strength: By the might of your Spirit lift us, we pray you, to your presence, where we may be still and know that you are God; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Jesus, you knew pain, you knew the loneliness, the weakness and the degradation it brings; you knew the agony.
Jesus, your suffering is the only hope, the only reconciliation for those who suffer.
Be with those in West, Texas and in Boston as they grapple with the pain they suffer now.
Be a promise to them, and to us, that this present suffering will cease; be the hand that they can hold; be present, Savior, for we need you now. –From A New Zealand Prayer Book




Some links on prayer

I mentioned that I read Anne LaMott’s Help, Thanks, Wow. It’s a quick read about her life of prayer. LaMott writes with humor, honesty, and insight.

The Other Journal has been focusing on prayer, including this interview with Sarah Coakley.  There are two parts, both of them worth reading. She talks about asceticism, silent prayer, and the erotic (among a number of other things). Part I is here. Part II.

A very different take from Cathy Warner, who writes about her life of prayer:

When I was ten and composed my first prayer, I wasn’t trained or qualified. I didn’t know the right words. Once I joined a church, I tried to replace my primitive prayer with a better one. I thought if I invoked the precise and proper words, suffering would pass me by. I was wrong.

From Everyday Liturgy, five spiritual practices to cultivate in 2013.

Ann Hood writes poignantly about her search for a church with open doors in which to pray: A Prayer at Christmas – NYTimes.com. It’s one of those things I hate myself, that we can’t keep Grace open to the public as a place of prayer. Occasionally I’ll encounter someone who asks if they might come in to pray. I always invite them in to the church.

A weekend of prayers

We prayed last weekend. It was a roller coaster of prayer, medical information, emotions, and prayer. On Friday, we prayed in the emergency room for a friend, then continued to pray in the ICU. When we were told he wouldn’t last the night, that there was nothing that could be done, we prayed: in anger, fear, hopelessness, and grief.

On Saturday, as they began weaning him off medications and his condition seemed to stabilize and improve, we prayed. We celebrated the Eucharist around his bed in the ICU, giving thanks for his faithful witness, a fierce and abiding love, for long and deep friendships, for a life well-lived. We prayed in tears, with faith and hope. We shared Christ’s body and blood around the bed. The altar was the bedside table.

On Sunday, after our 10:00 service, we gathered at the altar rail to pray. Were there forty, fifty of us? I didn’t count. Again we prayed. We prayed our emotions: anger, shock, fear, deep and abiding love, and faith. We prayed at Grace while a few blocks away we thought a conversation about hospice care was taking place in the room where we had been praying for two days. We gave thanks for a life committed to beautiful music and to Jesus Christ, we prayed for someone who had done so much to help the needy, here on Capitol Square and in Haiti. We prayed for strength for ourselves, for understanding.

Did we pray for healing? I don’t know. I do remember that in the face of the dire assessment of medical professionals, praying for health and recovery seemed pointless, the words a meaningless gesture. But later in the day, we learned that what the doctors had said seemed to have been incorrect; that the cancer was treatable, that there was hope for the future.  Was it a miracle? I’ll let others decide.

I do know that our prayers were “desperate prayers.” Tom Long writes in the Christian Century about such desperate prayers:

Resurrection and prayer are not violations of the so-called laws of nature but are woven into God’s ongoing act of creation, as fully as gravity or the tides. Our intercessions, then, far from being naive, are a participation in the very life of the ever-creating God. God, as the psalmist says, is “enthroned on the praises of Israel” and sustains the world in part through the prayers of the faithful.

But what about foolish prayers, trivial prayers and selfish prayers? Karl Barth is comforting here. “We do not know what proper prayer is,” he admits, and it is actually a sign of our faith that we run to God in prayer with “haste and restlessness.” To do so reveals a trust that we are in communion with God, who intercedes for us with sighing too deep for words, who hears and answers prayers “quite apart from our weakness or strength, our ability or inability to pray.” In prayer, said Barth, we stand beside God as friends.

Foolish, trivial prayers? We prayed some of those this weekend as well. As I was leaving for the hospital to celebrate the Eucharist on Saturday, my wife was speaking on the phone with our vet, pleading with them to remain open long enough to see Margery, our 18-year old cat. There was some blood on her chin and we feared the worst. In the examination room a few minutes later, as the vet looked at her and did a few things, I thought about what was happening in the ICU a few blocks away, about the little group of people waiting for me, and anticipating a final Eucharist with a husband and friend. I felt guilt for sitting with a sick cat, for praying for a sick cat in the face of that other suffering, pain, and grief. But Margery is a creature of God, a beloved companion and friend. She has been a comfort in affliction. And so we prayed.

Anne Lamott writes about praying for a dying cat in a selection from her new book:

When I pray, which I do many times a day, I pray for a lot of things. I ask for health and happiness for my friends, and for their children. This is okay to do, to ask God to help them have a sense of peace, and for them to feel the love of God. I pray for our leaders to act in the common good, or at least the common slightly better. I pray that aid and comfort be rushed to people after catastrophes, natural and man-made. It is also okay to ask that my cat have an easy death. Some of my friends’ kids are broken and their parents are living in that, and other friends’ marriages are broken, and every family I love has serious problems involving someone’s health or finances. But we can be big in prayer, and trust that God won’t mind if we pray about the cat and Jax’s tender heart.


Communion on Chemo < Killing the Buddha

A powerful essay on living with a diagnosis of incurable esophageal cancer and prayer: Communion on Chemo < Killing the Buddha.

I don’t think I believe my prayers will do a thing to help Sudanese refugees get home, through conflict zones and rainy seasons. I don’t think I believe my prayers for psychiatric patients will diminish their post-traumatic stress, their paranoid psychosis, their fears of life inside and outside locked wards.

But I believe in the healing power of prayer. I can feel the anonymous prayers of strangers in the shawls around my shoulders. I can feel the morning prayers of my friend’s mother, also living with cancer, buoying me up to embrace each day and celebrate life. I can already feel the unction of last rites—the repose that lets you rest, and die, when you need to.