Romans 8:18-27/Psalm 63/Matthew 6:5-13
We continue this evening with our series on Time. Last week it was “Time to Stop”. This week it’s “Time to Pray”. And after the Eucharist it will be time for soup and time to play “Stump the Preacher” with difficult questions.
One of the most interesting things to exist in time is the universe. And one of the most interesting things in the universe is also the most complex—by far the most complex. That would be we human beings. From all that we can see and otherwise know about, human beings are the most complex things in the universe. Not the largest, not the smallest, but the most complex.
We’ve evolved over millions of years to this level of complexity—a very fragile complexity, we might add. We possess not only brains, but sentience. And not only sentience, but consciousness. And not only consciousness, but conscience, i.e., we have about us a moral sense, a sense of good and bad, better and worse. And we have the capacity to be present to this moment of time, and to remember times past, and to imagine future times. And we have language and mouths to both shape and articulate our experience of past, present and future, good and bad. All this together makes us unique: tremendously complex, wondrously gifted, frighteningly fragile in so many ways.
And, also unique among creatures, we think about ultimate things: where we came from, where we’re going, things larger than ourselves, infinite things, all-encompassing things. And we sense within ourselves the impulse to speak not only of these ultimate things, but to speak to that which is ultimate. That is, we pray. We sense within ourselves the impulse to speak to, to reach out to, to pray to the One who is ultimate; that is, the One we call God. We pray to God, our creator, who we believe to be our origin and our destination: Alpha and Omega.
This God we believe became flesh and dwelt among us. We’ve just heard some of his teaching about prayer from the Sermon on the Mount. An early follower, St. Paul, speaks of the impulse to pray in his letter to the Romans. In the context of some reflections on the universe, the cosmos, what’s happening in “the whole creation”, Paul brings up the topic of prayer. “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” [Romans 8:26]
We do not know how to pray, he says. But the Spirit of God intercedes with sighs “too deep for words”. Paul’s words are a little opaque, but I think there is an insight here about prayer that is helpful. I think what Paul is saying is that there is an impulse to pray within us that is something beyond, or prior to, specific words. I’ll venture a definition of prayer based on this: prayer is an inchoate impulse originating in God refracted through and articulated through human beings.
I’ll unpack that a little. The first half: prayer is an inchoate impulse originating in God. I had to look up “inchoate” to make sure I was using it correctly, but I think it’s the right word. “Inchoate” means not completely formed or developed yet. This, I think, is what Paul speaks of poetically as “sighs too deep for words”. This inchoate impulse, that is, this unformed and undeveloped impulse within us, originates in God, God the Spirit. The human impulse to pray has its source in God.
The second half: this impulse is refracted through and articulated through human beings. Like a beam of light refracted through a prism into many colors, this inchoate impulse from God is refracted through us. And it is given specific shape and articulation through our concerns and the language we use to express them. Our concerns about past, present and future and what is good and what is bad become the specific subject matter of our prayer.
The classic example of this is the Psalter. The Psalms give voice to a wide spectrum of the “colors” of the human experience. The range of subject matter of the Psalms is astonishing: thanksgiving, lamentation, contrition, joy, wonder, aspiration, intercession, even cursing and things we might not think of as proper for prayers. And the Psalms are known for their extraordinary emotional transparency.
Prayer is indeed often closely woven together with our emotions. We are, after all, incarnate human beings subject to a wide range of feelings that can have very strong physical, visceral manifestations—sometimes they seem to get the better of us, they can be so powerful. Even prayer has its biochemical and neurological profile: the endorphins of euphoria, the serotonins of well-being, the cortisol of stress and fear. There is lots of biochemistry in the Psalms, people praying out of their real life circumstances, sometimes overwhelmed by them.
But it is this very humanity that God has assumed in Jesus Christ: our humanity in all its frailty and strength, all its completeness and incompleteness, all its subjection to being overwhelmed and breaking down. But the God who takes on mortal flesh—even cortisol and endorphins—the God who takes on mortal flesh in Jesus is also the God of creation, of generativity. And so, in the Incarnation, God joins his creativity and generativity to our human fragility, our very complex fragility.
And so there is a link between the stuff of our prayers and God’s ongoing work of creation (it’s God’s ongoing work of creation that Paul is reflecting on in Romans 8). It’s our prayers, with their originating impulse in God, that become partner to God’s creative working. It’s our prayers, in all their confusion and inadequacy that are partner to God’s generativity. I think it’s in this sense that we can say that prayer “works”. If it may seem that specific prayers are sometimes not “answered”, I think we can say that the world is what it is and is becoming what it is, shaped by the cumulative effect of human prayers—which have their ultimate source in God. The world would be a very different place if no one anywhere had ever prayed.
The inchoate impulse in us to pray is partner to the creative, generative energies of God in the world. The never ending stream of prayer down through the ages is God’s way of continuing the ongoing work of creation: in and through us, in and through our desires and hopes and aspirations; and equally through our despair and anguish. And, of course, partner to our prayers is what we actually do inspired by prayer. This great stream originating in God flows through these lives of ours, giving shape and form and texture to the lives we lead and the world around us.
In terms of practical advice, a few tips: First, the Brothers’ Rule of Life , which has five short chapters on the subject of prayer. These are as good a summary of what prayer is and can be as you’ll find anywhere. And it’s free on our website. Second: finding time to pray. This is a “just do it” kind of thing. Any time, any place—jumbled and chaotic and unfocused and distracted, on again, off again–it doesn’t really matter. Just do it when you can, any which way you can. When we do pray, the never ending stream of God’s prayer is shaping the world we live in, even if only by imperceptible increments.
And finally: Hymn 698. A whole school of prayer is distilled in this little hymn:
Eternal Spirit of the living Christ,
I know not how to ask or what to say;
I only know my need, as deep as life,
and only you can teach me how to pray.
Come, pray in me the prayer I need this day;
help me to see your purpose and your will
where I have failed, what I have done amiss;
held in forgiving love, let me be still.
Come with the vision and the strength I need
to serve my God and all humanity;
fulfilment of my life in love outpoured;
my life in you, O Christ; your love in me.
Words: Frank von Christierson (rev.)
Words © 1974 by The Hymn Society]
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