01 July 2018

Prayer in the Silence of God

Matthew 26:36-46

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

My mother’s father died the day after Christmas, 1963, three months before I was born.  He had surgery for a brain tumor and never woke up.  He was 57.  I entered the world in a family overwhelmed by grief, a grief that devastated my mother.  My earliest memory of prayer is from around age three or four.  I am on the hard-wood floor of my parents’ bedroom, beside the bed, flat on my stomach, hands-folded, eyes closed, fervently praying, “Please God, please God, please God, bring PopPop back to life.”  I knew my mother missed him terribly.  I knew how sad she was, and I thought I could do something about it by praying.  Nothing happened, of course.  God was silent.  And I felt terrible.

There was another time, in seventh grade, when my Uncle Manny (short for Mandeville), was very sick in Clara Maas Hospital in Belleville, New Jersey, the same hospital where I was born.  I loved my Uncle Manny and I didn’t want to lose him.  I remember going to sleep that night in February 1977, praying and praying with all my strength that God would make him better, that he would come home from the hospital. In the morning I learned that during the night, he died. Again, my prayer was ineffective.  I felt like I let my uncle down (and everyone else) because I hadn’t prayed hard enough.  God was silent and distant, indifferent to my sorrow and sadness.

You could say these stories illustrate a childish notion of prayer, and you’d be correct. But there are plenty of people in the church and outside it who think prayer is simply make-a-wish. That God is like a genie hanging around with nothing to do but attend to our wishes, our requests, and petitions (even petty petitions).  Some use prayer as a tool or technique to get whatever we want from the universe—what we want, not what we really need.  The comedian Flip Wilson pierced the shallowness of this utilitarian attitude when he said, “I’m gonna pray now; anyone want anything?”

Still, this childish attitude toward prayer resides in most of us, no matter our age or spiritual maturity.  When we’re scared or anxious or tired or feel insecure we turn to God to calm our fears, to rescue us, comfort us, protect us.  We might even find ourselves bargaining with God, saying, “Just answer this one prayer, this one request, and I promise to do more good in the world or be a kinder person or go to church every week or read my Bible every day or tithe my income, before taxes.”

Yes, I know we are invited to make our desires known to God (Philippians 4:6).  I’m still not convinced, though, we should be asking God for a parking space near the entrance of the mall two days before Christmas.  Some of God’s children will have to walk, far, to get to Macy’s and most of God’s children could probably use the exercise.

That said, years ago, I was in Washington, DC, driving around the busy neighborhood of Adams Morgan looking for a parking space.  It was a Friday night, traffic was horrible, and I was tired.  Now, I don’t usually do this, but I prayed, thoughtlessly, “Please God, let me find a parking space.”  And then to my utter amazement, several feet in front of me was a parking space!  No, I thought, that was too easy.  So I drove past it and then drove around the block, and it was gone.  Serves me right.  So, I said, “I’m sorry.”  Then another space opened further down the block, which I took.

Does prayer help?  Does it work?  How does it work?  Is it effective?  Is it little more than make-a-wish?  There are plenty of people who have turned on God, rejected God, stopped praying, and left the church altogether because of unanswered prayer.  I certainly understand this. I’ve found, though, that God’s love is sometimes evident in unanswered prayer; not getting what we want or thought we needed for ourselves or others or the world could be an expression of grace. And there are plenty of people I know whose lives, churches, families, and communities were changed or healed or transformed through the power of prayer—prayer in the moment and sustained prayer over a lifetime. I have experienced the power of people praying for me during challenging moments in my life; I felt as if I was being carried along. You might have experienced that feeling too.  I felt it after my mother died; when I came out to the congregation several years ago; and when I walked on the Camino two years ago.  I don’t claim to understand it.  I just know it’s true.

After all these years as a Christian and as a minister, I’m still learning how to pray, and discovering the kind of prayer that resonates most with my personality and outlook and experience.  Paul charged the church in Thessalonika, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17).  But he never told them—or us—how to pray.  All we know is that he believed in it.  He knows its power.  And perhaps that’s all we need to know.  Jesus told us how to pray.  He said go away to a secret or deserted place and pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be your name…” (Matt. 6:1-13). 

We pray, because Jesus prayed—because he wanted to pray and because he needed to pray to be fully human. And his humanity was on full display in his prayer of anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he prayed for hours asking God to remove the cup of suffering from him, only to encounter the silence of God.  In Luke’s account we learn that, “In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like drops of blood falling down on the ground” (Luke 22:4). Then, eventually in and before the silence of God, Jesus yields: “your will be done” (Matt. 26:42). 

The desire to pray sits deep in the human psyche.  We are made to be in relationship with the Divine.  Roberta Bondi is a scholar of the desert mothers and fathers, eremites who lived and wrote and prayed in the deserts of Egypt, in the third century.   Bondi reminds us that, “We are so made that we cannot live fully without it. Prayer is central to the Christian life.” And as the desert mothers and fathers knew, “God’s love is the foundation of prayer.”[1] Love calls us into prayer.  In prayer, we deepen our capacity to love God, our neighbor, ourselves, the enemy and the stranger. It’s grounded in love.

Still, we want to know: How does it work?  Does it really help?  Libby Wolf told me this week she was really looking forward to this sermon because, as she said, “I believe in prayer.” It’s powerful, transforming.  Sometimes prayer is even effective in changing God’s mind (there are examples of this in the Bible), but for the most part prayer doesn’t work that way.  Yes, praying helps.  Prayer is effective. But probably not in ways we suspect.

My friend, Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), was a prayer warrior and wrote stunningly beautiful, psychologically profound prayers.  He once said, “Prayer does not change God, it changes the one who prays.”[2]  It’s here within us, in the human heart, that prayer is truly most effective, in the way that it shapes us and changes us, and makes a difference in our lives and through us in the world.

So, how are we changed in prayer?  I suggest that we are changed when we embrace silence, then speak from the heart, and then enter into communion with God and our neighbor.  Silence.  Heart.  Communion.

Kierkegaard tells the story that one day “A man prayed, and at first he thought that prayer was talking.  But he become more and more quiet until in the end he realized that prayer was listening.”[3]  No words. No talking to God.  Only listening.  Listening in silence, listening to the silence.  This is the basis of contemplative prayer: no words, just silence.  Some people are afraid of silence and do everything they can to avoid it.  More and more in my journey I’ve come to welcome the silence.  I find that prayer is being attentive to the silence and listening to what the silence says, to what it points to.  Scripture says, “Yahweh is in his holy temple, let all the earth keep silence before him (Habbakuk 2:20). When Elijah met God on Mount Horeb, God was not to be found in earthquake, wind, or fire, but in a “still small voice,” as the King James Version says—or, a better translation of the Hebrew is “sheer silence” (1 Kings 19:12, NRSV). Sheer silence!

What if God hides in the silence, and the silence pulls us in? Silence, then, would not suggest the absence of God, but God's presence.  The silence is not really silent, and it’s not empty.  It’s full of the silence of God!  You have to train your ear to hear it.  It requires stillness and attention.  Douglas Christie calls it “a fierce commitment to paying attention.”[4]

My mentor, James Loder (1931-2001), who taught at Princeton Theological Seminary, told the story of Willa, a young adult who was hospitalized for schizophrenia.  She was bright, but many people took advantage of her over the years, and she finally broke down.  In the hospital, she sat for hours in a chair, rocking her doll, “Bill,” and staring into space. Then she would get up, act in a bizarre manner, dance around, talk to herself, hassle the nursing staff for information about her medical record, and then go back and sit in her chair and rock her little doll. The head nurse told Jim that they didn’t expect Willa ever to leave the hospital.  One day, while she was sitting in the chair, someone came up behind her, put arms around her, and said, “The silence is not empty; there is purpose for your life.” She turned around, but there was no one there.  The power of the experience slowly began to build sanity for her.  She did leave the hospital, started therapy with Jim, and was eventually baptized.[5]  The silence is not empty. 

Everything emerges from silence.  Creation, language, music.  Silence is generative.  And, as Jim Loder often said to me, all wisdom flows from silence and returns us to silence.  Silence comes first.  Silence is the ground. Instead of indicating the absence of God, silence might actually hide the presence of God.

Look at Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Here we find him wrestling with God, looking for a way out of what Jesus sensed was approaching, yet desiring to do God’s will.  Jesus pursues the hidden God and encounter’s God’s silence.  And in this prayer of anguish, within the silence of God, we witness the intensification of Jesus’ personality.  It’s in and through his struggle in prayer that he remembers what is most important to him, that he discerns the purpose of his life, and then ultimately yields to the goodness of God’s will.  Jesus here offers the pattern for how prayer can work in our lives.  Out of God’s silence or after we sit with God in silence, eventually a word, an insight, a choice emerges.

More than thirty years ago, James Carse, professor of religious studies at New York University, wrote an excellent book on prayer, called The Silence of God.  He says, “The essential insight [regarding prayer] is that in an encounter with divine reality we do not hear a voice but acquire a voice; and the voice we acquire is our own.”  This is, I think, an extremely important insight.  “It is an experience in which we find we say what we never thought it was possible to say.”[6] Not my will, but your will be done, O Lord.  Our true voice emerges after embracing the silence, listening for the voice behind the silence.

Then from out of that silence we’re able to pray from the heart.  “The heart is a beggar. [So,] speak from your heart and you will speak to God.”[7]  We can pray honestly, authentically, without poetic language, without trying to put our Sunday-best-self forward in prayer.  “Speaking to God from your heart,” Carse says, “is the only real religious issue there is.  Learn to pray, and all else follows.  It is not the content of the heart that matters, only the ability to speak from it. We sometimes think that a heart full of hatred, or envy, [or sin, or shame] or a heart drained of passion, disqualifies itself for authentic prayer.  The task, however, is not preparing your heart for prayer, but speaking from your heart as it is.  We can easily get this backward in the religious life, assuming that our primary spiritual assignment is to make ourselves presentable to God instead of presenting ourselves to God as we are.”[8] 

When the heart speaks to God from out of the depths of silence, the result is communion, deep communion, intense intimacy of the human spirit with the Holy Spirit.  It’s in communion that we see the “results” or the “effects” of prayer, because it drives us deeper into God, deeper into the relationship, and through that relationship we are changed—again and again.  Oswald Chambers (1874-1917), author of the religious classic, My Utmost for His Highest (1924), said, “Prayer changes me and then I change things.”  Through the intimacy of prayer our attitudes and our outlooks change.  We see with new eyes.  We experience, we feel the world in a different way.  Our hearts are softened and transformed, and we find ourselves acting with greater compassion—we love, we forgive, we fight for justice, we bless, we extend grace, we work toward wholeness, we help transform the world.

Writing from St. Catherine’s Monastery, situated at the foot of Mt. Sinai, John Climacus (579-649) said, “Prayer is by nature a dialog and a union with God. Its effect is to hold the world together.”[9]  Through our union or communion with God the world is being held together.  Our communion with God in prayer deepens our communion with our neighbors, and, so, we hold one another together.  Praying for someone, praying with someone deepens the bond you have with them.  It forms a connection, a community.  This year, the Session randomly divided itself up in groups of two.  Each elder has a prayer partner.  They covenant to pray for each other. They regularly ask each other: how can I best be praying for you?  Praying this way deepens connection, community, and trust.  What if we tried this throughout the congregation?  What would happen?

Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), German mystic, Benedictine abbess, polymath, said, “Turn to God.  Be confident that [God] has touched you.  Continue to give [God] the burnt offerings of your heart’s openness.  Sigh, and know He hears you.”[10]  In being heard we come alive. You know what it’s like, you know how you feel when you are heard.  When we are heard, we are known, and in being known, we come to life.  Being heard in prayer calls us to life.  And it opens our hearts.  “Prayer awakens us to the intimate voice of the heart.  It is because our hearts find their voice that the present silence of God…become[s] the silent presence of God.”[11]

Prayer.  Does it help? What does it do?  Prayer changes us and helps us come to life. It evokes the voice of heart, it calls us to ourselves.  In prayer, we acquire our true voice.  Prayer fine-tunes our sensibilities—it deepens our capacity to love and to receive love, to listen, to feel, to see, to speak a healing word, to act. Prayer has a way of concentrating our desire or will by giving us greater clarity in discerning the deepest desires of our hearts, discerning what God desires for us.  Ultimately, it helps us to choose, choose to love. 

[1] Roberta C. Bondi, “The Paradox of Prayer,” Weaving: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life, Vol IV, No. 2 (March/April 1989), 7.
[2] Søren Kierkegaard, Self-Examination/ Judge for Yourself (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991).  See also Perry D. LeFevre, The Prayers of Kierkegaard (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976).
[3] Søren Kierkegaard, Christian Discourses (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974).
[4] 3Douglas Christie, The Blue Sapphire of the Mind, cited in Fred Bahnson, “The Ecology of Prayer,” Orion Magazine (December 29, 2017).
[5] James E. Loder, The Logic of the Spirit: Human Development in Theological Perspective (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 264-265.
[6] James P. Carse, The Silence of God: Meditations on Prayer (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1985), 8.
[7] Carse, 4.
[8] Carse, 10.
[9] John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, c. 600.
[10] Carmen Acevedo Butcher, Hildegard of Bingen: A Spiritual Reader (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2007), from a letter written around 1146.
[11] Carse, 32.