Learning How to Pray

Sermon Preached on July 28, 2019 – Pentecost +7
By The Rev. Dr. Nina R. Pooley
St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Yarmouth, ME

Hosea 1:2-10
Psalm 85
Colossians 2:6-15
Luke 11:1-13

Learning How to Pray

In this strange week of waiting, I had a meeting on Wednesday with our new bishop, +Thomas Brown, and members of the finance team. We met to give our new bishop some background on the finance and congregational development work that has happened in our diocese over the last 12 years. Of course, Friday’s election in Montana was also on everyone’s minds. Bishop Thomas has been amazingly supportive of me, and Wednesday was no exception. He opened the meeting in prayer for our diocese, but he closed with a prayer for me and my family, for the election in Montana, and for us here at St. Bart’s. The small group gathered around and laid hands on me as Bishop Thomas prayed: It was deeply pastoral – and I wasn’t the only one who was sniffling back tears.

Prayer is personal, poignant and intimate. Having someone pray for you, out loud, changes you – breaks your heart open, reminds you that you are loved and cherished. Prayer can calm and reassure, empower and uphold, heal and comfort…. But I’m getting way ahead of myself here.

First – it’s good to be back home, having survived the endurance event that is the walk-about process. I am honestly still reeling a bit from the election on Friday, a long day of waiting and wondering, after such a long process of discernment and vulnerability. I think that’s the most difficult part of the whole experience, being fully myself and open with people I don’t know. Exposed before those who will vote to choose me or to choose another, and the tally of their choice is public across the Church. Thankfully – I had amazing company, Ken and the girls, all of you, colleagues across the diocese and the Church, and mentors for the journey who guided me along the way.

One shared a story with me that is relevant to our text this morning. A little background – Bishop Bennett Sims was one of the great bishops of The Episcopal Church, former bishop of Atlanta, he founded the Institute of Servant Leadership, reframing of our understanding of leadership – from being a position of power over, to one of caring for, and serving alongside. He once told a new bishop that he would share the keys to being a good bishop. She could hardly believe her good fortune, as they began to walk together around the lake at Kanuga. They walked all the way around the lake, and he didn’t say anything. They were almost back to where they had started, and she was worried, was she supposed to have said something? He finally stopped and put his hand on her shoulder and said, “It’s simple, to be a good bishop, do four things:

1. Love them.
2. Build community.
3. Say your prayers.
4. Have fun.”¹

Say your prayers – tend to your relationship with God, and PRAY, yes, you Bishop. Say your prayers – is an essential element to being a good bishop, or priest, or deacon. Essential to being a good rector, or associate, or chaplain. Say your prayers – because you have to start with YOU. Before you can care for anyone else, you have to tend to your own relationship with God first.

Say your prayers – brings us to our Gospel. A disciple asks Jesus to teach them to pray, and Jesus replies with the words that we now call The Lord’s Prayer. I suspect he wasn’t intending to institute a prayer that everyone would memorize and use by rote, but rather Jesus was trying to tell people something about God.

When the disciple asked, ‘teach us to pray,’ he was really asking, ‘show us your heart,’ or ‘tell us what it’s like to be in communion with God.’ Because Jesus isn’t one to instruct in exacting, disciplined ways, with regulated ‘best practices’ and all that. Instead, Jesus shows us what love looks like – love in action, love for neighbor and for God.² Jesus lived his prayer – his passion for God and conviction in God’s coming kingdom. Declaring by word and deed God’s saving love for us, what God has already done, is doing, and will continue to do for us, and all of God’s beloved people. That’s steadfast, enduring, abiding
love; that’s what Jesus shows us when he lives and moves and has his being – that’s his prayer, spoken and unspoken.

That’s what makes prayer so powerful – it’s a declaration of theology, of what we believe to be true God, and our relationship with God.

Praying aloud reveals what we believe about God – is God merciful? Is God forgetful? Is God too busy to notice, or way ahead of you? (Is God so small-minded that God would reorder the entire universe just to please you?)

Praying aloud is risky because it reveals our theology. Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, in St. Paul, Minnesota, Dr. Matt Skinner describes it this way:

Prayer is similar to buying a blank card at the Hallmark store and then coming home and wondering, “Now what in the world am I going to say? Why didn’t I just buy the card with the flowers on the front and the generic poem inside?” It’s easier to cue up another psalm or let some author from a liturgical clearinghouse compose our prayers than to try to do it ourselves. It’s safer if we don’t have to scrutinize the ways we put our theology into a lived, felt context. Let’s just borrow someone else’s theology and hope for the best.³

When Jesus prays these words in our Gospel this morning, and adds the short parable that follows, he is doing more than giving us a single prayer to memorize. Jesus is presenting us with a sketch of how to imagine who God is, and how God operates. Jesus is declaring his theology with confidence: God hears. God provides. God forgives. God protects. God expects us to be generous to one another.⁴

The core question is – do we believe these statements of Jesus? Enough to trust that God hears, provides, forgives, protects… and expects us to be generous to one another. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we affirm our belief in this gracious and justice-loving God. Though Jesus is trying to teach us more than that – he is showing us how to pray in our own words, and voice, expressing what we want our lives to look like in God’s hands.⁵

Easier said than done! When we are trying to figure out the “how to’s” of faith lived out in real life, I tend to turn to Anne Lamott. In her book Help, Thanks, Wow, she make is a little easier. Qualifying the three essential prayers: asking for help, giving thanks, and being in awe. The book is small, and worth reading – I love her voice.

Towards the end of her last chapter, “Amen,” Lamott writes:

Amazing things appear in our lives, almost out of nowhere – landscapes, seascapes, forgiveness – and they keep happening: so many vistas and so much healing to give thanks for. Even when we don’t cooperate, blessings return to our lives, even in the aftermath of tragedy. Things get a little better when we ask for help. People help us. Most astonishingly of all, people forgive us, and we eventually forgive them. Talk about miracles. … If you are like me, you ask your higher power for help, and then cause further need for help by procrastinating, or refusing to cooperate with simple instructions that follow sincere petition. And yet even so, progress, blessings continue to be given to you, because God gives. It’s God’s job. How can that be?⁶

Lamott continues:

More than anything, prayer helps me get my sense of humor back. It brings me back to my heart, from the treacherous swamp of my mind. It brings me back to the now, to the holy moment, whether that means watching candles float on the Ganges or bending down in my front yard to study a lavish dandelion, delicate as a Spirograph drawing, that looks like its very own galaxy. Amen amen amen!

So I pray constantly between bouts of trying to live life on life’s terms. Help. Thanks. Wow. I end most prayers with Amen, before my inevitable reentry into regular old so-called real life, because for thousands of years believers and prophets have said to.

So I do. It’s that simple.

You’ve heard it said that when all else fails, follow instructions. So we breathe, try to slow down and pay attention, try to love and help God’s other children, and – hardest of all, at least to me – learn to love our depressing, hilarious, mostly decent selves. We get thirsty people water, read to the very young and old, and listen to the sad. We pick up litter and try to leave the world a slightly better place for our stay here.⁷

Last story from the adventure of the bishop’s election in Montana. I spent Friday’s long waiting with Ken at his office, and I knew it was going to be a really tough day for me. So I asked for help (surprised me too!), and asked several clergy friends if they would pray with me. I set up a schedule with a phone call every half hour, and my friends filled every spot. It was such a gift to be surrounded by friends all day long, and to receive their prayers. My friend Lael was at a group spiritual direction retreat – the group
sang a Hebrew chant for me; Kerry read a piece by Henri Nouwen about new beginnings, and then prayed for me and us; as did Kit, Calvin, and others.

Right at 1pm, as the election got underway, Edie and Gil called on speakerphone. Edie read the 121st psalm, and then Gil led us in saying the Lord’s Prayer together, and we did, slowly and deliberately. In this moment of care and friendship. Sometimes we need to pray in our own words, and sometimes it’s good to be able to pray in Jesus’ words in our own voices, together. So today, I’m wondering if we might end this sermon together, praying the prayer that Jesus taught us? (Using whatever language/words are comfortable for you.)

Let us pray:

Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy Name,
thy kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those
who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
and the power, and the glory,
for ever and ever. Amen.

1 Bishop Chilton Knudsen, story recounted June 23, 2019, St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Yarmouth.
2 Matt Skinner, Dear Working Preacher, Who Taught You How to Pray?
Workingpreacher.org Sunday, July 21, 2019 12:03 PM.
3 Matt Skinner, Dear Working Preacher, Who Taught You How to Pray?
Workingpreacher.org Sunday, July 21, 2019 12:03 PM.
4 Matt Skinner, Dear Working Preacher, Who Taught You How to Pray?
Workingpreacher.org Sunday, July 21, 2019 12:03 PM.
5 Based on Matt Skinner, Dear Working Preacher, Who Taught You How to Pray?
Workingpreacher.org Sunday, July 21, 2019 12:03 PM.
6 Anne Lamott, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers (New York: Riverhead, 2012), 99-101.
7 Anne Lamott, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers (New York: Riverhead, 2012), 99-101.