Sunday Night Worship – Palm Sunday, 4/5/09

Christian Discipline: Prayer
Mark 11: 1-11 and Mark 14: 32-36

The first time I visited the women’s prison in Fluvanna I learned a lot about prayer. Maybe that comes as a surprise and maybe it doesn’t. People have all kinds of perceptions and misperceptions about prisons and the people in them. The chaplain there once told me that the worst worship services are when folks from the outside, like us, come with a mind to “convert” the inmates. The chaplain pointed out that most of the women there are already Christians. What they need is food for their souls, not elementary evangelistic three-point sermons on how to meet Jesus.

Anyway, if you haven’t yet had the opportunity to worship with us there, consider that for next year because you truly never know what you’ll discover about the place, the people, and yourself.

As I said, the first time I visited there I learned a lot about prayer. It was a simple moment and not one that was particularly spotlighted or dwelt upon. We were praying as a community and the chaplain was receiving prayers of joy and concern from the women. There were prayers for women being released or up for parole, for families – especially children – back at home, for perseverance. Maybe these are things you’d expect, maybe not. Then one woman offered a prayer for the prison guards.

When we worship there we gather in the gym and there are guards all around the perimeter of the room and at the doorways. You can’t miss them. And for someone like me who isn’t used to being under guard like that, on my first trip there, I was very aware of the guards for most of the service. So to hear this woman who was under guard 24 hours a day offer a genuine prayer for the ones in authority over her was touching, unsettling, and eye-opening. The faith and the grace that it takes to pray for someone who is automatically and systemically pitted against you – and the choice to do this rather than making that person an enemy – was such a beautiful, courageous, and bold act of faith.

I didn’t have any guards in my own life, but I immediately thought of politicians I didn’t agree with and realized I couldn’t remember the last time I’d prayed for any of them. I was more content to argue about them or despise them silently. That woman’s prayer was a witness to me and a reminder of how Christians act.

It also reminded me of what happens during Holy Week. We start here on Palm Sunday, exuberant and ready to welcome a powerful king, and by only Thursday Jesus is left completely alone in the Garden of Gethsemane praying that heart-wrenching prayer while his most faithful snore nearby.

It’s a heart-wrenching prayer and one that thwarts those earlier “palmy” expectations of power and might. Jesus, with the ear of God, pleads for another way. Jesus, the Son of God, is in the midst of real suffering and about to endure much more. This is the week when we can not wiggle our way around the incarnation. This week, this Great Story, is ultimately about resurrection, but first you have to have a body to resurrect.

If we haven’t gotten it already, this is the week to let it finally sink in: There is no way to be a Christian without your body. Think about it this week as we eat and worship together on Thursday, as we walk the Stations of the Cross and remember that pounding crucifixion on Friday, as we wake ourselves and our muscles hiking up Humpback on Sunday. After we make it through this long week to the joy of Easter we’ll be reminded of the times when Jesus meets his disciples after his death and resurrection. He’s recognized by the wounds his resurrected body stills bears (John 20: 24-29) and in sharing a meal on the beach (John 21: 1-15). No one just gets a floaty ephemeral feeling that Jesus is nearby. They see him and touch him – touch his wounds – and eat with him, wet sand sticking to them where their skin touches the beach.

What does this have to do with prayer? We’ve been talking about and exploring prayer for a few days now, starting with Thursday’s forum and continuing through our spiritual retreat in Richmond this weekend. We started with Barbara Brown Taylor’s premise that “prayer is more than [our] idea of prayer and that some of what [we] actually do in [our] lives may constitute genuine prayer” (An Altar in the World, p. 176).

Sitting in class? Cleaning your apartment? Studying? Running up O-Hill? Lying on the Lawn to watch the clouds pass over? Holding hands? Digging a foundation in South Carolina? Calling home? Are these things in included? And, if they’re not, why not? Perhaps it’s the way we are doing them now that keeps them from being part of our prayer.

Barbara Brown Taylor also writes that prayer “is waking up to the presence of God no matter where I am or what I am doing” (p. 178). How can we wake ourselves up when we are not sitting down with a devotional book or mouthing a list of worries to God?

This question has been with us for a long time. Paul may have been getting at this when he recommended to the Christians in Thessalonica that they “[r]ejoice always, pray without ceasing, [and] give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1Thessalonians 5: 16-18).

The early Christian monastic communities in the Egyptian desert were working on this and passed down to the rest of us some of the wisdom they gleaned. The Sayings of the Fathers is a great collection from the desert of stories and advice on living faithfully. The sayings often have the sound of a Zen koan, a puzzling parable that you’re meant to go and meditate on. Here’s one for a life of embodied prayer:
“Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can, I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.””

This hasn’t happened to anyone I know yet. At least not when I was looking. At least not that I know of. But it could. We can live lives of yielding to God. We can live lives that clear out clutter and the competition for God’s attention. We can live life so that we become vessels for God’s presence and God’s action in every moment we are here. We can become all flame.

Back to the Garden. Several of us said on Thursday night that we pray prayers like this one: Here’s what I really want, but your will be done, God. Ernie was honest enough to add that he often reiterates that first part: Here’s what I really want, but your will be done God. But I really do want what I want and it would be nice if your will is what I want.

It’s interesting that Jesus, who is God, was strong enough to appear weak, strong enough to yield. “Remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want” (Mark 14: 36). Strong enough to embody his prayer. It’s interesting that we, who are mostly asleep like the apostles, want to appear stronger than we are. If God knew what we knew, God’s will would be what we wanted in the first place, right?

Becca is another brave Christian I heard talk about prayer this week. She said that after last weekend’s Restless Hearts retreat in Williamsburg she’s had trouble praying. You see, God stirred her up during that retreat and got her to thinking about some new directions in her life. I think she’s pretty excited about that but it’s still new and definitely unknown. She told us during forum that she’s had trouble praying after that great experience because she wants to ask God what she’s meant to do and she thinks she knows what God will say. And she’s afraid to hear it.

The thing about a life of prayer is that, even when your fingers turn into lamps of flame, so that you’re wearing your prayer on your sleeve, so to speak, it’s still something that is hard to capture in words. Prayer is how we live and who we live with and where we go and what we do and what we say and – a lot of the time – what we leave unsaid. Prayer is recognizing where God’s Spirit is flowing in the world and getting ourselves into that flow. Prayer is, as Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “to take what is as God’s ongoing answer to me” (p. 185). Prayer is the vulnerability and the strength of an inmate praying for her guard. A life of prayer is one spent yielding and making way for God until what we want is no longer any different from what God wants for us and for the world.

Thanks be to God!

© 2009 Deborah E. Lewis