Prayer - Week Four: "When Do I Pray?"
When I was a kid I thought that the only way you could really pray properly was if you were kneeling with your eyes closed and had your hands folded in front of you. I guess I got this impression by watching people in the churches we went to when I was growing up. Sometimes when we would pray for things at home, my parents and I would kneel in the living room, by our bed or in front of a chair, depending on where the prayer happened to be taking place.
There's probably something to this that I am totally missing. Lots of people feel the urge to kneel when they pray, and I am totally supportive of them when they do. If keeling to pray works for you, then go for it. The problem I have when I kneel to pray is that I tend to fall asleep. I realize this probably makes me a bad Christian or something, but there you go.
It's uncanny. As soon as my knees hit the floor and I place my head upon the bed, couch, chair, pew or whatever... I start to grow weary. Before you know it whatever I am praying tends to become a mishmash of thoughts. My mind wanders in those moments and I find myself drifting away.
This plagued me to no end. In Proverbs there is a verse that describes what a lazy and feckless person would say--the kind of person who can't stay awake whilst kneeling and praying, I presume. It says, "A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep." Then there's Jesus giving the disciples what for because they couldn't stay awake in the Garden of Gethsemane. I felt like I couldn't win.
I thought that the way through my issue was to find moments throughout the day to plan for prayer. I downloaded an app for my iPhone that would remind me periodically throughout the day when it was time to read from what is called the Daily Office---daily, scheduled prayers that I could read right on my phone. I found myself struggling even to do this much. No sooner than I would start to read the prayers on my phone--I would feel my mind wandering, and would start to get drowsy.
I felt bad about this for years until I heard a sermon by one of my favorite preachers, John Ortberg. John Ortberg is the pastor of one of the largest Presbyterian churches in America, he worked at Willow Creek Church, which is one of the largest churches in America, and he's written like ten books that have become bestsellers.
And he suffers from the same malady that I suffer from: When he kneels to pray, his mind wanders and he falls asleep. When I heard this, I actually said out loud: "ThankyouJesus!" Because for the first time someone who I thought was a better Christian than me, was admitting that they weren't. Or something like that.
At this point, you are starting to wonder if I have a screw loose. Probably.
Still, there is something inside of me that has always struggled with what to do with prayer--and more specifically, when and how to pray.
There is a pesky verse that has always given me trouble in this regard. You can find it in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18.
16 Rejoice always, 17 pray continually, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
When I was a kid, I memorized verse 17 as "pray without ceasing." I looked up the Greek word that is translated "continually" and "without ceasing." It's he word adialeiptos, which literally means incessantly.
I know lots of people try to parse these words of the Apostle Paul out a bit in order to soften them. But what if the guy actually meant that we should pray incessantly? He typically chose his words with care and wisdom, so maybe he meant it. What if it was more than just having an "attitude" of prayer as my poor Sunday school teachers would try to explain to me when I asked this same question when I was a kid? What if it was more than simply "being ready to pray" all of the time.
What if, Paul actually meant that we should pray all of the time?
My main point for this sermon is actually predicated on this very idea. You see, I believe that a vibrant prayer life is possible when we learn to pray continuously. More on that in a moment.
But first... Let's spend some time talking about the Science of Breathing.
You're breathing at the moment, and chances are you didn't think about this fact until I mentioned it. From a physiological point of view, your breathing is controlled by the respiratory center of your brain, specifically the medulla, which is located closest to your spine, and even more specifically through the pons, which is a part of your medulla. You don't think about breathing--until you do. It happens automatically. You have to think to control it, to stop it, to quicken it--unless your quickening breath is a result of some automatic impulse.
Interestingly enough, the atmosphere plays a role in your breathing as well. The atmosphere exerts pressure on your lungs, which prompts a response, the kind of response that you experience automatically. The thinner the atmosphere, the harder it is for you to breathe and get enough oxygen, so your breath tends to quicken a bit if you aren't used to high altitude.
When you exercise, you experience an increase in carbon dioxide which needs to get flushed and so your body automatically begins to work to do just that through rapid breathing and other things.
The reason why it's hard to hold your breath, why you have to work at it, is because your body is not only telling you that you need to breathe, the atmosphere around you is pressuring you to breathe as well.
And here's where we start to tie in prayer with what we know about the Science of Breathing. Because in the end, everything is spiritual, my friends. Everything.
Prayer is like breathing.
It is the natural, automatic response to the atmospheric pressure of God's presence in the world, and God's very DNA inside of you.
What would it look like if we lived every waking moment in awareness that God is with us? I mean really with us. Present all around us. In us. Through us. Here. There. Everywhere. The ancient Hebrew understanding of this was the kavod the "heaviness" of God, the glory of God that is all around us, all of the time--even though we might not be fully aware of it.
So, what would it look like? What if we lived every waking moment in awareness of God's presence. What if we opened up ourselves up to the God-consciousness around us, and allowed ourselves to experience God-surrender, where we just allowed the presence of God to give us breath?
Would it look like, sound like prayer? Constant, abiding, never-ending prayer? Prayer as automatic as ubiquitous as breathing?
At this point some of you might be struggling a bit with this. I get it. I still do, to be honest.
Here's what you need to know to engage in this kind of incessant prayer.
First, Prayer isn't something I generate--it's something I join in.
Barbara Brown-Taylor, one of my favorite authors, wrote about the story of Jacob and his vision of the ladder that went to heaven. He was running from home, fearing for his life, and stopped in the middle of nowhere--in the desert, sleeping with a stone for a pillow. And he has this unbelievable vision of a ladder from heaven with heavenly beings going up and down. He woke up and said, "Surely the presence of the Lord was in this place and I didn't know it."
Brown-Taylor asked the question that almost none of us ask when we hear this fantastic story--a question that kind of burns inside of me now that I've heard it. She asked, "What if God can drop a ladder anywhere?" Isn't that the point of the story. It didn't matter where Jacob went to escape his past, or to hide from his future. God found him. Because the "conversation" that God is having with us is always happening, everywhere.
Brown-Taylor describes it like radio waves that are humming invisibly all around us, and only when we are tuned to the right frequency will we be able to hear them.
Second, Prayer changes things.
I know that this is one of those trite aphorisms that people like to share on cards, emails and Facebook posts. Despite the cheesy sort of way it's used in our culture, it happens to be true.
You see, when we begin to be more aware of the presence of God all around us and the voice of God speaking all of the time in thousands of ways every day, we start to see even the most mundane things we are doing in a different light.
Anything done in the presence of God is an act of prayer.
Now before the legalists have their way with me--I need to say that "anything" should mean "anything that is good, pure, lovely, uplifting, beautiful, creative, life-giving..." you get the picture.
But when we shift our thinking along these lines, even the simple tasks of the day, eating, showering, going to the restroom, driving, working... all of it can become an act of prayer because it's done in the presence of a God who values the material world within which we live. God has shown us through his willingness to take on human form in Jesus Christ that matter "matters."
So prayer actually does change things--from ordinary to extraordinary.
Third, Prayer changes us.
There's a great story in the book of Genesis where Abraham, the patriarch, is bargaining with God over the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. God declares that because of the cities wickedness, he has planned on destroying them. Contrary to what most people think, the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was actually a lack of hospitality and common human decency, but that's a whole other sermon.
Abraham says to God, "listen if you find 50 righteous people in those cities, will you spare it?" God says that God will. But then Abraham decides to hedge is bets a bit. "Okay, well how about ten righteous people?" God says that's cool.
The fact of the matter is that, according to the story, there weren't even ten righteous people to be found. God knew this, of course. Lots of people have used this passage to try to prove that you can change God's mind when you pray. I don't see it that way at all. God's mind never changed. What changed was Abraham's way of seeing things. It wasn't about changing God's mind, it was about changing Abraham's mind to God's.
The longer we live our lives as though the presence and voice of God are all around us, the more our prayers begin to change as well. We begin to see ourselves differently. We realize that all of the things we've been pleading God to fix, might not ever be fixed, or shouldn't be fixed at least in our way of understanding.
I've had my fair share of bargaining prayers with God. Sometimes they worked out and sometimes they didn't. The funny thing is, when they did work out I often didn't keep my end of the bargain. It's in those moments that I realize what God's grace is all about. I also realize that my ways are not God's ways, and it would be a whole lot easier for me to just try to see things as God sees them.
There's probably more to this, but I think we're on to something here. You see a vibrant prayer life is possible when we learn to pray continuously. And praying continuously is a lot like remembering to breathe.
I've taught this before, but it bears repeating. Some ancient Jewish scholars believed that the name of God was actually derived from the most elemental and fundamental thing that humans do from birth to death. Breathing. When we breathe in we say "Yah," and when we breathe out we say, "weh!" "Yahweh!" Breathe in... breathe out. You speak the name of God. Breathe in... breathe out... You pray without ceasing. Breathe in... breathe out. All of the time. Breathe in... breathe out. Because of the presence of God both within you and without out.
Breathe in... breathe out.
Remember to breathe.