Pray Beyond Knowing
Transcribed from this sermon at the Metropolitan Community Church of Washington DC on September 26, 2021.
God, you make a way! Now, more than ever, we need you to make a way. Right now, God, it seems that there is so much noise and violence and fear. We look around and we don’t even see how it would be possible for things to work out right now. It seems like everybody is screaming about something. There is so much hurt. God, how do we make a way through that?
Help us to remember that you are our God. That you hold it all. That you contain it all. And you invite us to work through it with you. Show us our part in all of it. That we can be a part of the way you’re seeking to make.
Calm us today and quiet us. Meet us. Help us to hear your love words for us today. Help us know that you care, you listen, you understand. Open our hearts and our lives and our minds to you. I pray that the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart will be in alignment with what you seek to do in the world. Amen.
I believe in the power of prayer. You’ve probably, if you’ve been to church at different times throughout your life, heard preachers say that: “I believe in the power of prayer!”
And I also need to admit: sometimes I get confused about the power of prayer and I think it’s my power. I admit that sometimes when I’m praying, I forget that God is God and I’m not. I can count more than one time when I have noticed that my prayers have slipped away from being open to God, to me trying to control God. Tell God what to do. Telling God what I think. Telling God what I think needs to happen in the world. And I especially get confused when it comes to the people around me. I’ll look around and I’ll see things that I’d like to see changed in somebody. And the ego part of me starts praying for people to change in this way or that way.
I believe in the power of prayer and I believe that we are called to learn that prayer is not about control. Prayer is really about who we are and who we are becoming. Prayer is about a way of being in the world.
The first call of prayer is for us to open ourselves to God and what God is trying to do in us and through us. Who we are matters. I believe that who we are changes things around us. And what we carry into our public lives can either make a positive difference or a negative difference.
Have you ever been in a room where there’s a certain feel in the room and somebody comes in and the atmosphere is suddenly lifted? Because there’s something they carry in their presence. Most likely, you’ve experienced the opposite: where there’s some wonderful things going on, there’s an energy in the room, and someone walks in and it’s like wow. It’s just lowered.
I believe that our presence in the world is not neutral. And that prayer is about God’s presence beginning to move through us and radiate through us in a way that begins to change the world. Part of what this means is less and less am I coming to God with a list and agenda, saying “do this or do that.” More and more, I’m learning that prayer is coming to God with open hands and an open heart and just being. Inviting the radiating presence of God to begin to radiate through and around.
There’s a spiritual practice I’ve started that reminds me of this. I live in an apartment building not far from here. Like many in this impersonal city, I don’t know my neighbors. I know a few of them, but for the most part, people around me are moving in and moving out and we don’t really get to know each other. When I walk down the hallway, most of the times it’s silent. Other times, I’ll hear banging or screaming coming from one of the apartments and it’s clear there’s something going on in there. Other times, it’s loud music. There are things going on.
A practice that I’ve started is simply walking down the hall of my apartment building and praying for each of the apartments that I pass by. Again, not with a list, but just with a sense of asking for God’s presence and blessing to be present in that apartment and that home. For God to be in their hearts. For God to let them know they’re loved. Even when they’re fighting with each other, may God’s love be present there.
I’ve started doing that same thing when I walk down the street. Praying for people I don’t know. Simply praying for God’s presence and blessing. Praying that somehow what’s coming for me will be about prayer and love. As I walk past my neighbors’ doors, as I walk through my neighborhood, there’s no way to know what people are going through. Yet God knows. And my call is to pray beyond my knowing, knowing that God knows. Only God can see into the hearts of the people around us. God knows the depths. And so I pray for God’s love to reach and radiate.
Public interactions are strained these days, with COVID-19, with economic uncertainty, with the intense suffering of our siblings from Haiti to Afghanistan to other locations. How do we pray for this stuff that’s so big and so overwhelming? We’re called to a compassionate response in the midst of the overwhelmed. The collective context is suffering and our collective call is compassion.
Which brings us to our scripture today from James 5:13–16. The writer of James is addressing all of these incredible human complexities: from the stuff next door to the stuff around the world. In quick succession, the writer of James asks three questions: “Are any among you suffering? Are any cheerful Are any among you sick?”
What this speaks is that we have a God who really cares about our questions: a God who is present at our questions.
Are any among you suffering? cheerful? sick? Are any of you depressed? overwhelmed? down? Are any of your afraid? Are any of you bold and courageous? Wherever you are, ask your questions to God.
In fact, the whole context of the book of James is people asking questions. This was the early Christian church: it was trying to find its way, it was trying to figure things out. The book of James was written to some people who had been forced from their homes in Jerusalem and living in exile. And many of them were probably asking “How did we end up here? This hurts. I don’t like not being home. What’s my future going to be like?” They were refugees, much like the refugees who we see today.
They were dispersed under the rule of the Roman Empire and every day they felt taxed and they felt like they were under the control of someone else and it hurt. Their resources were also stretched. Many of them were wondering where they were going to get their next meal. The difficulties were weighing them down. So in the midst of this, as they were asking all of these questions, James is reminding them how absolutely important it is for them to pray for each other. Recognizing that everything they do individually or in community, for good or ill, touches everyone.
So I believe that we are called to be a part of what God is doing in the world by what we bring into the world. Kathryn Haueisen talks about how she helps to do that in the world. She writes, “Sometimes I sit in public places to watch strangers interact. When persons go out of their way to be kind to others through actions or words, I see an immediate transformation in attitude and demeanor. Smiles replace frowns, and people look at one another rather than past one another.”
How we are in the world makes a difference. Our interactions make a difference. One of our members, Tim Helm, shared a testimony some time ago about going to Safeway. He was in a bad mood because the Safeway over here can be a very stressful place. Oftentimes, the staff can be a little rude and the customers are often rude, and so he was kind of in a mood as he was walking to Safeway. And then an inner voice whispered to him, “Just try saying something kind to the people you see. Try saying something kind to the workers there, to the people around you.” And so he tried that. And he saw people who were just doing their job and feeling down and overwhelmed and depressed lift a little.
He went to the bakery section; he loves sesame bagels. He got there, knowing that sometimes they don’t have sesame bagels, but they had sesame bagels, so he reached and he said “Sesame bagels! Thank you for having sesame bagels!” The woman behind the counter, with a sour look on her face, suddenly just got into the joy of the spirit. He continued to do it throughout the store, as he got to the checkout line. By the time he left, he was feeling much better. In fact, he was feeling great. Not to mention the people he had talked with. In a sense, he had transformed Safeway.
We can bring that difference in our world, and our world desperately needs us to radiate this joy and this presence and this life. So many people are beaten down. How we present ourselves will help lift people up. What we do in public matters and what we do in private matters.
The insights from James are a call to action, prayer, and — even more so, I believe — a deep call to our awareness of interconnectedness. Our prayers can be powerful. They can be effective. And they can be connective. To us, to our community, and beyond.
Earlier in the book of James, he talks about infusing all of our communication with prayer. And he offers this simple thought. He says “My dear siblings, take note of this,” pay attention here, he says, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” Now this all sounds pretty simple: quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.
Then it occurred to me: hardly anybody does that. I don’t even do it half the time! We’re so ready to speak, we’re so slow to listen. We’re like the exact opposite of what James is saying here. So no wonder our world is such a mess. So this becomes a spiritual invitation, a spiritual practice. In the next conversation you’re in, take a moment to just really listen. Maybe ask yourself on the inside “What’s this person really saying?” Take a moment to look at their body language. Maybe you’ll observe something that can be helpful to the interaction. Maybe even ask a clarifying question before you make your point.
Be slow to speak and be thoughtful about what you share. And then be slow to become angry. How many people today go from zero to 60 like that? I notice it again in myself. I’ll get centered, I’ll get calm, and then something will trigger me and zero to 60, I’m angry.
It’s a spiritual practice. It’s a learning process. When I become distracted or irritated in my interactions, the spirit is calling me back to this connective prayer. Some call it intercessory prayer.
So how are we called to pray for each other? The New Testament offers another example of this in several places where both Jesus and Paul teach about how to pray for each other. Jesus said “Pray this way, that those around us may be completely one with others. Pray for Oneness.” Paul offers a few thoughts: “Pray that those around us may be strengthened in their inner being with power. Then, later, pray that they may be rooted and grounded in love. And then, that they may overflow, radiated with God’s love and be full of discernment or wisdom.”
Notice how these prayers from Jesus or Paul are not about changing circumstances. It’s not about changing someone’s behavior. It’s more about asking God to be infused in people’s character and in their integrity. So I’m learning to pray these prayers for myself, because I need help. I pray that I may be one with those around me. That I may understand, listen and care: praying that God will strengthen my inner being with this power. Praying that I may be rooted and grounded in love in a world that tries to always pull me away from being grounded. That I’ve learned to overflow with God’s love, to be filled with discernment, to know the next right action.
This is a way to pray not only for individuals around us, it’s also a way to pray for groups. So I’ll give an example of how we can pray this prayer for our Board of Directors. We have a wonderful Board of Directors. And let’s infuse them with prayers like this: “Oh God, may the Board of Directors of MCCDC be completely one with the congregation and neighborhood and you and beyond. May the Board of Directors be strengthened in their inner being with power. May our Board of Directors be rooted and grounded in love and may every decision be directed by love. May they overflow with God’s love and be full of discernment and widsom.”
Imagine how the world would change if this became who all of us are! Percy C. Ainsworth lived during World War I and offered this prayer: “The end of prayer is not to win concessions from Almighty Power, but to have communion with Almighty Love… Communion with God is unceasing prayer. Prayer without ceasing is not a to-do list, but a mindset. Prayer without ceasing is not something that we just check off. It’s a way of life; it’s a way of being. The word we speak is the word we are. And the word we are is the word we live.”
So our invitation to pray is to begin to take on the character of God, to be infused with the presence of God, all the while remembering that God is God and we are not. And yet God invites us to participate and to radiate and to lift the atmosphere everywhere we go: in our workplaces, in our families, in our homes, in social media. May be we a living and moving prayer of hope and transformation for our world.
Amen and amen.