- Published: 25 April 2016
So Why Do we Pray Prayers of Intention and Longing as well as Pray the Prayer that Jesus Taught in our Prayers as a People.
Luke 11: 1-6
Jesus was in a place praying, and when Jesus had finished one of his followers said, “Lord teach us to pray just as John taught his followers”. Jesus said, “say this when you pray. Abba, may your name be held holy, may your kingdom come, give us each day our daily bread and forgive us our sins as we ourselves forgive each one who is in debt to us. And do not put us to the test.
Luke 11: 9-13
Later Jesus taught, “so I say to you, ask and it will be given to you, search and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you. For the one who asks always receives, the one who searches always finds, the one who knocks will always have the door opened for what parent among you would hand a child a stone when the child asks for bread, or give the child a snake instead of a fish, or hand a child a scorpion when the child asks for an egg. If you then, who are evil, know how to give your children what is good, how much more will Abba in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask.
Stories from our ancestors in the faith.
So why, when we gather as a faith community on Sundays, why do we pray prayers of intention and longing and include in our prayers as a people, “the prayer that Jesus taught.”
I have to admit that I am both loving and being stretched by this series of reflections that we are embarking on each Sunday. So first, I have to apologize for my exuberance at times. I know I can get a little carried away, and have purposefully been a bit provocative, and will likely do so again. My intention is to engage and not offend, be respectful yet clear and maybe memorable.
However, I have been delighted by the way in which so many of you have followed up and deepened the conversation. I also appreciate the feedback on how these reflections have resonated. I have been stretched to put into language somewhat concisely though longer than desired, and through this have been discovering, along with many of you, that these questions are touching a deep place in our spirits, they matter to us.
So our discussions about spirit practices have been invigorating while also fraught with wonder and danger, a “terrible beauty” if you will. We all know the ecstasy of being awakened by sacred mystery and know the weight of religious baggage that can crush us.
These dynamics are again present as we come to talk about our practices of prayer.
Once again, I will take three steps in reflecting on the question before us. Like our previous discussions, these steps are baby steps into big topics. Our three steps involve first, a deliberate language choice, second, a theological affirmation, and third, pondering the question, “why pray at all and why practice prayer in our Sunday gatherings?”
When we gather as a community, we do liturgy. While I don’t want to do a long etymological discussion of the word liturgy because it is kind of weird, liturgy has at its root the notion of “service” as well as a notion of paying attention to one’s allegiances. Liturgy is about the practice of our allegiance and therefore we need to understand why we do what we do. Over time though, the meaning has been limited to the order for conducting ceremonies and rituals, especially within Christian circles.
In the United Church of Canada, we have books like “A Sunday Liturgy for optional use in The United Church of Canada”. We United Church people like options whereas our partner Anglican congregation have a more prescribed liturgy. Other churches, like the Pentecostalism I grew up in, shun the word liturgy, but they have weekly practices nonetheless which follow a somewhat predictable order.
Liturgy well done, regardless of form, is a good thing because it awakens and deepens one’s allegiances.
The United Church “optional” liturgy is similar to Anglican and Catholic services and includes two particular prayers: there are the “prayers of the people” near the end of the service which includes praying the prayer Jesus taught and earlier in the service, usually near the beginning, is a prayer of confession followed by an assurance of forgiveness. All the latest editions of resources for United Church leaders, include prayers of “confession and forgiveness”.
At First United we make a language choice. We “opt” to have both prayers but we “opt” to call the first prayer a “prayer of intention and longing” followed by an “assurance of God’s presence” rather than a “prayer of confession” followed by an “assurance of forgiveness”. This is deliberate, and was embraced by our worship committee in our annual retreat where we meet every year to review our liturgical practice or our spirit allegiance.
Why this language choice?
It is not because we don’t acknowledge the cathartic and spirit benefit of confession and the profound depth experience of forgiveness. We know these are critical elements to our spiritual journey, but we make this choice because we want to emphasize a different starting point for our relationship with the sacred that reflects our spirit allegiance.
For me, and for many of us, in the past, we were introduced to the sacred mystery as unrelenting, never giving up in reminding us of our failings and thus ever insistence on our confession of failings in order to “regain favour” and while reminded of a loving forgiveness, we found ourselves living life from a place of guilt rather than love in a rather one way power relationship with the sacred.
This was not satisfying so we sought another starting point, a starting point where the sacred mystery focuses on nurturing our essential goodness and awakening us to our sacred essence as co-creators. In this co-creative process, we are not alone. There is the promise of a sacred energy as we come to claim our own sacred truth more deeply, an energy that journeys with us in our “intentions and longing”, in our learnings and struggles as well as in our joys and creativity.
Do you feel the difference? Our language choice is paying attention to that difference. Let me explain a little more.
I want you to know that I am really good at “screwing up”. I do it with a regular consistency. Negotiating our way through the complexities of our lives and our relationships is tough. And sometimes, when I move through the week, I get bruised by others, feel the impacts of their "screw ups". Often we are buffeted by life. So when I come to ground myself in sacred mystery, when I come to exercise my spirit with my community of faith on Sunday, I don’t find it all that encouraging if my spirit practice begins by hammering me with how much I have "screwed up". While there is a genuine freedom that comes from admitting "screw ups" as well as receiving acceptance and forgiveness of another, that is more to me than my “screw ups”. I also come with a “good heartedness” with longings about possibility, I come with creativity and imagination.
I believe, and this is my belief, that the practice of confession and forgiveness has lost its original intention and evolved so that it readily is experienced as a desire to control behaviour through guilt rather than to awaken imagination, and if I can be blunt, I find that experience rather demeaning. While often not the intention, one hears words of confession as demeaning of one’s essential being rather than inviting one away from unhelpful behaviours. It is easy to do, it even happens in Scripture. Listen to our Scripture reading today where we are called “evil”, where an illustrative purpose uses language that can be easily misheard. I do invite you to reflect on my comments about the Bible last week that allow for an engagement that can disagree with the Bible and thus take exception to how "evil" is used in our text. In a few weeks, we will reflect on this further when we talk about our embrace of “original goodness” rather than “original sin”.
For now, let me note that I have experienced the practice of confession and forgiveness as a form of shaming, and while I recognize there is damage done when we have no consciousness of how we hurt others and stomp through life with an appalling arrogance, there are other ways to nurture a healthy humility than constantly “harping” on failures.
The purpose of "our prayer of intention and longing" is to awaken awareness, to be evocative and even provocative. Our prayer is not about being syrupy, but our prayer awakens our learning edges through an awareness rooted in gentleness and humility. These prayers can and often invite confession, but our intentions and longings are larger than confession as we seek to invite “God presence” into our lives.
This is why, with deliberation, we couple our prayers of intention and longing with the phrase “Assurance of God’s Presence”.
This leads us to our second step, a theological affirmation of God’s presence that grounds our practice of prayer.
So let me in a minute or two talk about “God presence” and “God”. I am sure you recognize the ridiculousness of that statement, for we can only begin to explore this mystery, but for me, a starting point when talking about “God” is the language used in “A Song of Faith” adopted by the United Church in 2006 which begins with these words…
God is Holy Mystery, beyond complete knowledge, above perfect description. Yet, in love…seeks relationship...So we witness to that Holy Mystery that is Wholly Love.
When I use the word “God” I mean “Holy Mystery”. That encompasses a lot, a lot I don’t understand or can find language for. But while it means much more than I can comprehend, I do know what I don’t mean by “Holy Mystery”. I don’t believe in God as a supernatural being, some guy up in the sky who I have to please because ultimately this guy judges me, hence why I have to constantly be confessing to keep on that guy’s good side.
Rather I use the word God as sacred mystery, as life-energy, as ultimate reality, as that “God-ness” that permeates life, as that "something more". One theological word used for understanding God this way was popularized by Marcus Borg when he describes “panentheism”. Sorry for the long word, but you can handle it.
“Panentheism” understands “God” as encompassing spirit where our universe, our world, and our lives are not separate from God but in God and that God is in everything. They key word is “in”. Panentheism does not understand that God is everything, which is pantheism, but that God’s presence can be experienced in everything, a subtle yet significant difference.
Prayer is about connecting with the God “in” everything.
This brings us to our final and third step, why pray at all?. Why have practices of prayer?
As "A Song of Faith" says, we witness to Holy Mystery which is Wholly love and so prayer is foundationally a relationship. Jesus was often in prayer as a way of being in relationship with Holy Mystery, a Holy Mystery which Jesus often identified as “Abba” as a personification of the Holy Mystery.
Unfortunately, common understandings of prayer have too often been reduced to asking God to do things.
When I was a child, the prayers of the church I grew up in often used phrases like, “we are praying so that we can storm the gates of heaven to move the hand of God”. We had all night prayer meetings to try to make God do things because we believed our prayers would unleash a transformative impact on the world, and mind you, we knew exactly the way we thought the world needed to be transformed. This practice was actually rooted in our Scripture reading today where we claimed that if one asks one will always get, if one searches one will always receive, if one knocks one will always get. Just before this story is a story of persistence. Sometimes prayer was described as convincing a stubborn God to act. I could never fully understand why God needed me to tell God what needed doing, especially if God was "all-knowing".
After trying this practice of prayer for many years, I concluded the evidence for specific outcomes were rather flimsy. I had to rethink things.
It was at this time when I read a ground breaking book by a Jewish rabbi by the name of Harold Kushner. Kushner wrote “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” in response to his experience of a son suffering and dying of a terminal disease, a son for whom he offered many prayers that God would heal his son. His son died, a painful struggle that many of us can relate.
Kushner wrestled with prayer in this book, and named a rather obvious conclusion that God cannot be both all loving and all powerful and leave us with the world we have. To believe in a God who has all power to fix everything but chooses not too, is a God not worthy of respect and might even be understood, and I deliberately using strong language, as a despot.
Kushner named that we must let go of a theology of God as all-powerful. Instead, Kushner names an all-loving God, an all-loving God present in life, a presence that inspires energies of healing and synergy that doesn’t “fix” life but “graces” life, an energy that can be experienced personally and in a very transformative way as we encounter and experience “God” at work “in” the givenness of our lives.
In my reading of Kushner, I came to understand the purpose of prayer is not to move the hand of God, but to open my spirit so that I would be moving in concert with God’s hand. And I actually use the word “hand” purposefully. You see, while I recognize the ways personifications are misused, I am okay with the judicial use of personifications for God because I am a person and so I experience “God presence” personally. Though I understand that God is mystery that goes way beyond person, God is still in “personhood”. While I recognize that God is mystery that goes way beyond God as “a being”, God is still in being.
This is heady stuff, which I always like to bring down to everyday life. When Logan was about six, we were playing a game, Pokemon I think it was, when Logan surprised me. To win the game he needed to throw an “8” with two di. He shook the dice, and before throwing looked heavenward and whispered, “please God, give me an eight”. He threw the dice and got a “six”. He was disappointed, but untroubled; however, he had a father, who could not resist commenting. Rather bluntly I noted that either God didn’t hear Logan or God didn’t want to help Logan. I don’t remember how Logan handled it, but I do know he doesn’t pray for eights when we play games now.
When prayer is reduced to getting eights in life, then the depth of prayer as fundamentally relationship is diminished. When prayer is understood as opening our heart to enter deeply into the sacred that “graces” life rather than “fixes” life, sacred energy is unleashed in a myriad of ways that I don’t even pretend to fully understand.
The always of our Scripture story actually names the Holy Spirit, names the' always of God’s presence', even presence in emptiness. Something mysterious happens in prayer, because we are opened to change and transformation which in turns opens up pathways of transformation and healing in a myriad of ways.
I, along with many of you, can only testify to moments of guidance and wisdom that comes from beyond through engaging with the all-loving presence of the sacred. I can witness to how that loving presence brings balance between spirit and body that has physical impact. I can witness to great dignity in the face of life’s suffering and limitations that I name as another form of healing. I can witness to an "active love" that comes from Holy Mystery.
Prayer is primarily an "attuning" to God’s presence and God's active love, a practice that deepens goodness even "godness", the goodness deep within our intentions and longings. Prayer is a relationship with the sacred, and this relationship provides both strength and healing energies in life that opens to heart to the joy and pain of living. Prayer is about having a right heart not saying the right words. Prayer ultimately, silences us in the face of the Holy Mystery since prayer has much more to do with listening than with talking.
This is why we practice prayer when we gather as a faith community. Prayer is foundational to our relationship with the sacred.
In our Scripture story, the disciples ask Jesus to give them words to help them in their prayer? Why? They were looking for help in how to nurture their relationship with the sacred. Just as there are techniques for communications, there are techniques of prayer. Email is not communications in itself but a tool for communicating. Meditation, for example, is not prayer in itself but a technique to engage the heart in prayer. All of us need practices to engage us in our relationship with the holy.
So when the disciples asked how to relate to Holy Mystery, Jesus responded with words that enhance our understanding of that relationship since these words intend to awaken the consciousness of Holy Mystery. So while we recognize the power of silence, we can also use words as a means to deepen our relationship, words as a tool.
This is why, each Sunday, we join in prayers as a people of God. This prayer is not a prayer to ask God to fix things, but to name in words our deepening of relationship with the sacred and to energetically and lovingly and synergetically connect with those needing sacred love which can work in mysterious ways as we connect with the active love of God. We hold in our hearts those we know who need are care and concern and we name those places in our world that also need care and concern.
And within this prayer we opt to connect with our spirit tradition by ending with the words that Jesus taught, not because these are the best words or have a particular magic, in fact sometimes I fret that the actual words don’t actually capture the relational depth undergirding the words, we still opt to say these words with their limits because of the spirit connect that happens when we are drawn into the cadence and energy of this prayer through a connection with generations before us and with a tradition around us. For me, there is a “terrible beauty” in these words.
So we end our reflection on why we pray by praying. Allow your spirit to commune with the sacred as the choir comes to sing an anthem inspired by the “terrible beauty” experienced in the Northern lights. We will then open our hearts in silence, name our prayers of concern and celebration, and join in praying the prayer Jesus taught…