The summer season has long been a time for people to relax, to take time away from our work and daily routines and enjoy the beauty of the outdoors. The warmer temperatures beckon us to come out of our homes and to step away from the chores and worries of life. So often, we find ourselves in the midst of beautiful moments, watching the evening sky or hearing the birdsong at dawn. Perhaps we arise earlier when the sun rises and enjoy the daylight hours until the sun sets at a much later time. There is much to savor in the summer and it is certainly a wonderful time to quiet ourselves, to be at peace in the presence of God, and to give thanks. Let us pray,
Earlier this summer, Rich and I went to a movie in a theater for the first time in more than 3 years. We went to see the film, Are you there God, which is based upon a novel by the author Judy Blume. It was a wonderful retelling of the book and took me back to when I was a pre-teen and how the world looked at that age. The title of the film is one I imagine that many of us may have put out into the world at some time or another in our lives, perhaps in a time of great need or pain…Are you there God? Is anyone out there listening to my prayers? Can you hear my voice calling to you?
When we think about prayer, we likely think about the words we use to communicate with God. Perhaps we remember some of the simple prayers we were taught as a child and can still recite from memory. As we grow, we may expand our understanding of what prayer is and the many forms it can take in our lives. As life becomes more serious, we may begin to question if God is listening or if God really answers our prayers. What does it mean to pray for others? Does God show preferential treatment to those for whom we pray? Doesn’t God worry about each of us, despite our fervent prayers?
What are we really doing when we pray? What does it say about us and what do our prayers say about how we think about God? About who God is and how God works in our lives? These are important and complex questions, and I must admit as a minister, that I ponder them myself fairly often. And yet, I still believe deeply in the power of prayer and what it means to us and what it means to the God who yearns to be in conversation with us.
Louis Pasteur and Prayer
A story is told of a young businessman sharing a compartment on a train with an elderly gentleman. When he noticed that the old fellow was quietly and intently praying with his rosary, the young man chided him for his ‘superstition’ and told him that science had rendered the beliefs of religion irrelevant.
“How did you come to discover that?” the old gentleman asked. His companion didn’t really know how to answer the question fully right then and there, so he offered to send him a few articles and public lecture notes on the subject for his enlightenment. “What’s your address?’ he asked, “I’ll send you the material via the Post Office.” The old man rummaged in his coat pocket and produced a tattered business card that read, Louis Pasteur, Paris Institute of Scientific Research.
I imagine many of you recall that Louis Pasteur was the 19th century giant of microbiology who proved the germ-theory of disease and invented the rabies vaccine. His humility certainly didn’t hinder his greatness and his commitment to science did not preclude his belief in God.
A study from the Barna Research Institute found that prayer is the most common faith practice among American adults (79% have prayed at least once in the past three months). As we have seen in our country, as church attendance has greatly declined, the study says that “personal” faith focus plays out most explicitly in the practice of prayer: almost all American adults (94%) who have prayed at least once in the last three months most often choose to pray by themselves. Not only are most prayers a solo practice, but the vast majority are also most often silent (82% compared to 13% audible and solo prayers). Affirming this shift is the fact that only a very small percentage most often pray audibly with another person or group (2%), or collectively with a church (2%).
Black (27%), Hispanic (16%) and all non-white Americans (20%) are much more likely than white Americans (8%) to be outwardly expressive by praying audibly when alone. This is also true of those in the South where charismatic traditions are more common (17% compared to 9% in the Northeast), and especially true of evangelicals (25%), a quarter of whom pray out loud when they are alone.
We know that there are many types of prayer, including Devotional, Thanksgiving, Praise, Intercessory and Lament. Ultimately, prayer is about spending time with God, making connections, and being in conversation with our Creator. Prayer is our attempt to connect with something much greater than ourselves. Over the course of our lives, our images of God may change, but we continue to yearn for a deeper connection to the Source of our Being. It’s all about relationships and when we really care about our relationships, we feel we may be our most authentic selves with another and no subject is off the table.
Philip Yancy wrote a book on prayer, entitled, Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? In the book, he describes the different types of communication and conversations that he has with his friends.
When he’s golfing with his buddies, the conversations are all over the map, and they tend to be brief, ongoing conversations as they walk 18 holes of golf.
Then he has other friends with whom he has longer conversations, usually over coffee or lunch. They talk about larger issues, questions of faith, politics, business & ethical decisions and so on, talking about things they mutually care about. Then he has 2 or 3 best friends, people that he with whom he would share anything and everything – the first phone calls he’d make in a crisis. And these friends would come and have come at the drop of a hat to stay with him as long as it takes to weather the storm. And often in those moments of crisis, there can be long periods of silence, just sitting together in an intimate bond of friendship and loving support.
Yancy says, “Friendship with God encompasses each of these levels of communication.” God cares about the ordinary, everyday routine things of life, and God wants to walk the fairways of life with us. God also cares about the larger issues of life and of our lives, and those issues call for longer times of prayer and reflection. But God is also One we can sit in silence with and receive strength, comfort and hope. Prayer is keeping company with God. It’s connection.
Richard Foster, a Quaker who’s written about prayer for many years, has said “Prayer is a loving attentiveness to God. We are attending to the One who loves us, who is near to us, and who draw us to Godself.” Mother Teresa of Calcutta – Now St. Teresa of Calcutta, once wrote: “Prayer is not asking. Prayer is putting oneself in the hands of God.”
What is your favorite type of prayer? Do you like to sit in silence and just ‘Be still” as the Psalmist writes? Do you feel most close to God when singing a favorite song at the top of your lungs? Do you have beloved prayers you recite that bring you comfort when worries threaten to overwhelm or do you offer words of gratitude when you look out upon a beautiful day? When do you make time to be present and just listen? When do you feel the spirit of the Holy One moving through you and lifting you up?
Next Sunday, I will return to the topic of prayer and invite us into a few different types of prayer together. I hope you may spend some time this week pondering what prayer has been to you or what you would like prayer to be in your life?