Many years ago, I happened to bump into one of my pastors at a local park. I was out for a walk, and he was sitting at a picnic table with his lunch and a book. I sat down for a moment’s chat and he said, “You know, I’m reading Paul’s letters, and I’m reading his words, ‘Pray without ceasing.’ That seems like a tall order to me. I don’t even know where to begin. What do you think that means, ‘Pray without ceasing?’”
“Me?” I said. “Hey, you’re the pastor! How would I know?”
How would I know? Even though Jesus is always going aside to pray, as he does in today’s gospel passage, before embarking upon a full day of ministry. Even though I’m now a pastor, too, and a spiritual director, which means that I have some specialized training and experience in helping people with their lives of prayer, and with giving retreats on prayer – I still find that the same questions arise constantly – for myself, for other pastors, for people in all walks of life: What does it mean to pray without ceasing? Or, as today’s Message translation invites us to do, to pray “all the time?” What does it mean to pray at all? Why do we pray? How do we pray? Do we pray?
Some of us pray only in church, if even here. Prayer means the words which we say out loud, or to which we listen, as written in the bulletin or as led by the pastor or liturgist. Sometimes those words are a bit ponderous, like the title of this sermon – “Let. Us. Pray.” Solemn words, often with many syllables – the kinds of prayers that result in jokes because we don’t understand them and they make us uncomfortable. (I’m thinking of jokes like the one about the little kid who asks why prayers always include vegetables – “Lettuce pray.”) If the prayers contain enough big words and are said with enough seriousness – well, then, prayer must be something formal and incomprehensible, something for the experts. Something we couldn’t possibly do ourselves, and certainly not all the time.
For many of us, prayer means asking for something. We have been taught, and indeed Jesus himself tells us, “Ask and it will be given you. Seek and you shall find” (Matthew 7:7). Thousands of such prayers are directed heavenward every minute. Prayers of small children: “Please don’t let my dog die.” Prayers of students: “Please let me pass this test for which I have not studied one bit.” (Don’t let anyone tell you there is no prayer in school!) Prayers of parents: “Please keep my child safe.” Prayers of children: “Please heal my mom.” Prayers of the sick, the injured, the broke, the homeless, the lonely, the angry, the divorced, the defendant, the cold, the tired: “Please help me.” And, of course, prayers of the frustrated: “Please, let me find my keys.” Or, as a friend put it this past week when I confessed to the prayer for keys being one of my most frequent, “Open my eyes that I may see!”
All good prayers. All important prayers. (Even the one for keys!) All prayers which God encourages us to speak, whether in worship in community or in small groups or in the quiet of our own homes. And, in fact, when we are faced with a great desire, such as a hope for a new job offer, or when life is going badly, such as when someone is dying, we may find that, at least for that period of life, we do know what it means to pray without ceasing, to pray all the time.
But all of this prayer, all of this formality, all of this asking and hoping and longing, all of this pleading – it’s all just a beginning, just a scratching of the surface of what prayer is about. It’s a grand beginning – grand because through these prayers we acknowledge that we are tethered to someone beyond ourselves, grand because we understand that we need help and solace, grand because these prayers are expressions of hope, and hope in this world is always a grand thing – but still only a beginning.
And that’s ok, because, as the great masters of prayer have been reminding us for centuries, “We are all always beginners. We are all always beginners.”
How can it be that we are always beginners? Surely we can improve if we but set our minds to it? I remember taking swimming lessons as a little girl at summer camp, and making my way through the Red Cross gradations of swimming levels. It took me a loooong time to get the hang of swimming, and I remember how much I wanted to acquire that stack of little white cards indicating that I had passed the tests for each level. I remember that I especially wanted to move from Beginner to Advanced Beginner. Advanced Beginner! That meant that I was no longer a mere tadpole in the shallow end of swimming. That meant that I had moved beyond the simplest of strokes and the shortest of distances to something a bit more complicated. Deep water and diving board, here I come!
Prayer is not quite like that. Oh, there are lots of people and lots of books that will suggest advanced levels of prayer. There are people who write exquisite prayers, people who write prayer that is, quite literally, poetry of the highest order – people like George Herbert, the 17th century Welsh poet and Anglican priest, whose language can sometimes take hours to disentangle, or like Mary Oliver, the contemporary poet who lives on Cape Cod and writes in phrases seemingly easy to understand that yet give us pause and ask questions that we ponder for days. Are George Herbert and Mary Oliver “advanced pray-ers?”
There are people who spend hours each day in prayer – monks and nuns whose task is to pray for the world and for all of us, most of us people with concerns about whom they have never heard. Theirs is a calling often little understood – wouldn’t their time be better spent teaching, or caring for the sick, or dishing up food to the poor? Would it? Or all we all much better served because there are those whose task is to pray deeply – and unceasingly – for us? But are they “advanced pray-ers?”
And then there are people whose prayer has moved from words to silence, people who spend almost all of their prayer time in quiet solitude, people who have left behind prayer as we are accustomed to thinking of it for something still and dense and free. Are they “advanced pray-ers?”
Or are we, indeed, all always beginners? I think we are. Certainly there are those who pray with more sophisticated words than we do, or for longer periods of time, or with greater degrees of attentiveness. But in the end, we are all always at the beginning – because prayer is, first and foremost, encounter. Prayer is relationship with God. And what do we know about encounter and relationship? That we are always beginning.
Think of a long-term marriage, or of a lifetime friendship, or of parenting of decades of duration. Sure – the length of time and breadth of experiences give depth to such relationships that shorter ones lack. But aren’t we always beginning? Aren’t we always encountering one another in new ways? Aren’t we often faced with situations and challenges that reveal something about both the other person and ourselves that we did not know? I remember attending a play with my grandmother, a play made up of vignettes in a married couple’s life which spanned fifty or sixty years. “You have to be old to understand this play!” – that was my grandmother’s review at the end of the evening. The couple was always starting anew, always at the beginning. Always encountering one another differently.
Prayer, like all relationships, is not so much a matter of hierarchical progress, not so much a matter of moving from Beginner to Advanced Beginner to Intermediate to Swimmer, not so much a matter of achievement, as it is a matter of expansion. Of growth. Of movement, of response, in all directions, some of them seemingly backward. One minute, you’re on the edge of the pool ready to dive into the deep-water end, that Advanced Swimmer certificate within your grasp. The next, you’re sitting in the three inches of water in the baby pool, knowing that for a time your life is all about splashing your feet and turning your face to the sun. Different times, different demands, different invitations. An expanding world of experience, of relationship. An expanding, changing, surprising world of grace – a world in which encounter with God grows and deepens and is found in all things – and then somehow, becomes confused and tortured and murky – and we begin again.
For the next several weeks, we’re going to make our way through the summer by considering prayer together. We’re going to focus on different sorts of prayer, on different ways of praying, on learning more about how to pray all the time. I’m hoping that you will respond in an active way to this series of sermons. You’ve already begun, with the bit of praying with the psalms which we started earlier this month and will be continuing in various forms. For this week, I have a simple assignment for you:
On the back of your bulletin is an invitation to settle on a prayer journal. It can be as simple as an empty spiral-bound notebook of lined paper already lying around the house. Or as elaborate as a beautifully bound leather or cloth journal for which you make a special trip to a bookstore. But whatever it is, I want you to have a place in which to record something of your prayer life this summer. I’ll make suggestions each week. Prayers already written by others, in the Bible or in other sources. Drawings or pictures or photographs you may find or want to make yourself. Prayer for yourself, at whatever stage of life you find yourself. Prayer with family and friends, in solidarity with whatever’s going on in their lives. Prayer for our church, as we prepare for a Visioning Day in September by gathering and absorbing information about where we have been and where we are now.
You don’t have to do this, of course. But I can safely promise you that if you keep some form of record of the weeks ahead, your prayer life will be deeply enriched, both now and years from now, when you want to look back and re-consider what people and concerns and questions and encounters with God filled your life this summer.
Have you prayed lately? Have you prayed even at all – or all the time?You have, you know – because all of life is, in one way or another, prayer. All of life is encounter and relationship with God. So – next week, and the week after, and the rest of the summer – Come and see!