Editorial note: I’m working on correcting spacing issues. Thank you for your patience in the meantime.
Last May, you might remember, May 2013,
a horrific tornado flattened a path through Moore, Oklahoma.
A week later I read this story
about Jeff Akin, who had travelled from his Wisconsin hometown
to the wreckage there in Oklahoma
to see what he could do to lend a hand.
He was just a part of a disaster relief group
that grew out of volunteer efforts
in the years after Hurricane Katrina
And now here he was,
walking through the suburban Moore, Oklahoma neighborhood
of twisted and flattened homes,
handing out sandwiches and bottles of water from a Styrofoam cooler.
He talked with bystanders,
and invited people he met to a local community center,
where they could find meals and clothes and tetanus shots.
And in the midst of all of this—he offered them his prayers:
“God bless you people”
he called out to the families and the workers,
clearing debris left by the tornado
that ripped through Moore
killing two dozen people
and causing more than 2 Billion dollars worth of damage.
He paused for a moment and sized up what he was looking at:
“I can’t believe this; I’m almost in tears” Akin said,
as he looked upon the unrecognizable mounds of fallen brick
and splintered wood.
“I am just so grateful that I could be here.”[i]
For just a minute, I want us to think Big Picture.
I don’t know about you,
but there is something in these moments
that take my breath away.
Right THERE: I see the loving, gentle, aching heart of God
piecing things back together.
Moments such as these lead me once again to Big Picture questions.
Theologian Paul Tillich once described Religion
as humanity’s attempt to look
at issues of what he called “Ultimate Concern:”
the questions of why all this,
where are we going,
what is the purpose,
how do I make it,
what is “the right”?
Tillich described this as a fundamentally human activity:
it is part of what we are, human beings,
to seek understanding of what is really beyond human understanding.
If you’ve ever gazed at a sunset
and pondered your place in history of the cosmos;
If you’ve ever looked into the eyes of a newborn
and marveled at the fragility of love and life;
if you’ve ever done relief work after a tornado
or hurricane or wildfire,
of if you’ve ever looked someone
who has asked you for change in the eye
or if you’ve pondered just how lucky you really are
to be born into a land
of such opportunity and prosperity
if you’ve held the hand of a loved one dying of cancer
or heart disease or something only doctors can pronounce
and cried with them without words
to describe your heartache…
then you’ve been dwelling in the land of ultimate concern.
You’re in the realm of religion, of faith.
As Tillich would put it:
Faith as Ultimate Concern is an act of the Total Personality.
It is the most centered act of the human mind.
Now Tillich was a German Theologian and an academic,
so he comes off as a bit cerebral, a bit heady,
but his point is that human beings naturally yearn
to connect with what is larger than ourselves
because we know there is something larger than just ourselves
deep in our guts, our spirits, we know…
We know from our limits, from our intuitions, from our experiences
from our failures,
and while not everyone answers the “what is out there”
“what is the point” questions in the same way,
all human beings yearn to understand,
in our mind and in our heart, what life is really all about.
As people of the Christian faith,
one way we respond to this deep human impulse is to pray.
We pray when we’re together,
we pray when we’re alone.
We pray with words lifted up, articulated
or we pray silently, often with sighs too deep for words.
In gratitude for food around a dinner table
or a day’s safety and hopes for a restful night at bedtime.
When we gather as a community together, in worship,
The central thing we do is we pray:
we talk about, we listen for,
we seek to be in communion with God,
the One who we believe created us and loves us
the One who gives life meaning and purpose,
the One who answers matters of Ultimate Concern
through the person of Jesus Christ our Lord.
The heart of Christian worship is Prayer:
where we seek after and are found by God.
where we listen and wait upon God,
call upon God by name, remember God’s gracious acts,
and offer ourselves to God.[ii]
All of this is very natural, for human beings such as we are,
to turn to God in prayer, seeking to know and be known
to be in the very presence of God.
So I got into a conversation with someone this week about prayer.
They wanted to know what I thought
about something Paul wrote elsewhere in the bible
words of encouragement and exhortation
to the fledgling Christian community in Thessalonica:
See that none of you repays evil for evil,
but always seek to do good to one another and to all.
pray without ceasing,
give thanks in all circumstances;
for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.[iii]
Similar words to today’s text in Philippians, but with this added:
Pray without ceasing.
This conversation partner wanted to know how to do THAT.
To some people perhaps,
ok, I admit, to me, too:
that can seem rather tiresome, don’t you think?
I don’t want to imagine doing ANYTHING without ceasing.
Most of the time I just want a nap.
But perhaps that misses the point:
Prayer really isn’t a technique.
Contrary to what many might suggest,
Prayer isn’t like using the telephone:
It is NOT a hotline to God.
It is NOT something that only works
when you do it a CERTAIN way—hands in prayer position
or is hands raised, or is it hands outstretched?
Head bowed, or head raised
Eyes closed, eyes wide open.
Its NOT something that works only when you do it a CERTAIN time.
There are countless guidebooks to prayer,
with prescribed words, or actions, or thoughts.
These can certainly be HELPFUL, to some people some of the time,
but they are not determinative.
Prayer, instead, as Anne Lamott puts it in her little book
Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers:
“[Prayer] is communication from the heart
to that which surpasses understanding.
Let’s say it is communication from one’s heart to God.”[iv]
Or, as Nathan Eddy might put it:
“Prayer…is relationship with God, not a technique.”[v]
Prayer is ORIENTING ourselves to the one who loves us and made us.
And if Prayer is that relationship, that orientation,
then it can be seen as the WAY we live our life
as much as it is the particular words we say
when we bow or genuflect or put our hands
in praying position.
To pray without ceasing: to live our life with prayerful hearts
perceiving and listening for God’s presence
in our lives and in the world.
There are all sorts of ways to do that, and
what works for some won’t work for others.
But Scripture offers all sorts of lessons for us about
a life lived in Prayer
what it means for those who follow God on the way of Jesus
to attend to God’s movement in our lives
so that we can be God’s movement in the world.
And we begin by considering that a life lived in Prayer
is a life of Gratitude.
You heard it echoed in Paul’s letter to the church at Thessalonica,
and Paul repeats it in our reading for today,
as we wrap up this exploration of Philippians:
“Rejoice in the Lord always!
Again I will say, Rejoice!
Let your gentleness be known to everyone.
The LORD is near!
Do not worry about anything, but in everything
by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving
let your requests be made known to God.
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding
will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
This is a somewhat ironic text.
Remember: Paul is writing to his friends at Philippi from a prison cell
where he has been deprived and hurt and suffers.
Paul is not sitting in a place of contentment,
his way has not been easy,
there is really not much to be joyful about in is circumstances.
But for Paul, Joy is more a discipline of perception than it is
an emotion dependent on the circumstances.
It is about seeing God all around us.
God as the answer to our deep yearning, our ultimate concern.
God who answers the why of life with the Love of Jesus Christ
And who suffers, along side us, in our pain and struggle.
When Paul urges the Philippians to rejoice
and to offer prayers in thanksgiving,
he is not telling them to forget their struggles
to ignore their real pain
to pretend that all is sunshine and daffodils.
The Joy of Faith is NOT an escape from the pain of life.
Instead, it is the celebration that even in life,
with all of its happiness AND pain,
death and suffering are NOT the final word.
It is a celebration that LOVE WINS.
Joy is the eye of faith that can look over a hungry, hurting world
and SEE God’s movement piecing things back together.
Joy is handing out water and sandwiches
and words of encouragement in the most desolate of places
and being THANKFUL for the chance to be there
standing in the gap and offering hope.
Joy is knowing that, despite all of the things we do to mess it all up,
God loves us, with crazy, wanton compassion.
REJOICE! Again I will say REJOICE!
And the Peace of God, which surpasses all understanding,
will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Note well: this isn’t the
“Please let us win the World Series” type of prayer.
I’ve heard LOTS of those prayers this week.
This isn’t the “thank you for giving me this Bentley while
the others over there scrape for bread…”
suggestion for Christian living.
This isn’t the kind of prayer that requires others
to pray the way I pray
with the words I say
or hands held in the same way.
The Life of Prayer, the kind that never stops,
is informed by the community that surrounds Jesus Christ
and that seeks to acknowledge God’s gifts
so we can use them to make the world better.
The Life of Prayer welcomes ALL to the table
flings opens the doors to the party
to invite all to come inside and see that God is Good
The Life of Prayer centers around the Peace of God
the one found in gentleness
the one found in the true
the pure, the pleasing
ultimate meaning found in a life of love.
How have you pondered what it means to be
grateful, truly grateful
and what it means for you and your life?
I asked some friends on twitter about gratitude and prayer.
One told me about the night he spent in Jail:
“It was my Black Friday moment,” he said.
“I’ve been moving forward ever sense.
Best night of my life in some ways.”
Another sent me a sermon where she preached about
her experience with the death of her father.
She reminded me that while there are many THINGS
for which we cannot give thanks…
“I will NEVER EVER EVER thank God for my dad’s cancer”
she said rightly….
“But I will give thanks always and forever that God was with us
in that terrible time.”[vi]
And another wrote that the most regular part of his prayer life
is his practice of pausing, each night, to list four things
he is grateful for from his day.
“It…keeps my prayer life from being [just]
“gimme gimme gimme” or “why why why”…
Paul teaches us that cultivating this sense of gratitude,
this ability to see God working lovingly, tenderly, gently
through all of our living: our good days and our awful moments
through this we are enriched and empowered
and guarded from becoming jaded or cynical.
thankful for God’s presence with us through all things.
This is the PEACE of GOD, which Passes all understanding.
And so this day, my prayer is that God may give us grateful hearts
and that our prayers always contain a measure of thanksgiving
that the God who can hear our pain
and bear our hurt
is likewise the God who gives moments of healing
and laughter and triumph
and pieces together broken places
that life and love may abound.
May it be so…
[i] “Relief Groups bring food, prayer to Oklahoma tornado victims” by Annysa Johnson, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, May 30: accessed http://www.kansascity.com/2013/05/30/4263654/relief-groups-bring-food-prayer.html
[ii] This beautiful language is from the Book of Order, W-2.1001
[iii] 1 Thess 5:15-18
[iv] Anne Lamott, Help, Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers (New York: Riverhead, 2012) p. 1
[v] Feasting on the Word, 161.
[vi] From a sermon by Camille LeBron Powell “Giving Thanks to God at All Times” August 16, 2009
Image credit: Tibetan Prayer flags brighten up C1 on the SW Ridge of Ama Dablam, Nepal. Photo accessed here.