September 23, 2018: Persistent Prayer by Rev. Beth Hayward (Luke 11: 5-13)

There was an Eighth Century monk, John of Damascene, who said that: “ Prayer is raising of the mind and heart to God.” In my experience prayer most often begins in the depths. The raising up, that takes time. The most raw persuasive prayers, they rise from the depths of life’s tragedies and challenges.

I am in awe of those who’ve had near death experiences, those who have had to face a life threatening diagnosis. There’s something about coming face to face with your own mortality in tangible, visceral ways that seems to change people. Often those folks seem to know a little bit better how to live. There’s nothing like the threat of death to help you get real about life.

If you’ve never been so blessed to survive a near death experience, not to fear, technology is now available to help you get a little closer to the way those folks so often approach life. For only a buck thirty-nine you can get an app for your smartphone called We Croak. Five times each day, usually when you least expect it, your phone will buzz with a pop up message that reads: “Don’t forget, you’re going to die.” And if you’re inclined to add insult to injury you can click the message and a helpful, humbling quote will pop up like: “Death is only the end if you assume the story is about you.” There’s something about death that brings us closer to life.

This past week Jews around the world celebrated their most significant religious holiday Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. A writer in the New York Times describes the daylong fasting ritual as “a 25 hour caffeine headache capped off by a lox and bagels binge.” [1]  On a more serious note, she says that it’s also, at its deepest level, a dry run. It’s the one day of the year when Jews are asked to look their mortality in the face. She wonders out loud in her opinion piece whether at sundown, as the day long fast comes to an end, “will we have the courage to direct our appetite not just to good food, but to good life?”[2]  Do you have the courage to direct your appetite to good life?

Awareness of our own mortality brings us face to face with life, with good and worthwhile living, but we get there by being brought to our knees. It leaves us so exposed, so bereft, so unsure of our own footing, we fall to our knees and pray. There’s nothing like death, or the fear of it, to inspire us to pray. When we’ve exhausted all other avenues, when hope is all but lost we turn to some higher power to help pull us out of the bottomless pit of our lives. When the ‘I can do it myself’ façade crumbles and we look down at the rubble at our feet, that’s the moment many of us turn to prayer. It might take the form of a good cry or a deep aching moan, a sigh too deep for words. Sometimes prayers even pour from our lips with demands and surrender, please help, please heal, make it go away, make it better.

I remember Confirmation class as a teen when the student minister taught us how to pray properly. He said that you had to begin with gratitude, then offer prayers for the people in your life, your church and finally the world. I felt so suffocated by the form I pretty much gave prayer up for the remainder of high school. The church hasn’t always done a good job of teaching us how to pray, sometimes form has trumped function and besides that our post Modern minds can’t help but dismiss prayer as an outdated conversation with a supernatural power.

What if prayer is not supernatural, not beyond the laws of nature but an extension of them?  What if prayer creates a positive force for healing, opening doors for God to be more present? What if it is about that desire to be in alignment with and embody God’s vision for our lives and the world? What if prayer awakens us to God’s deep presence? If it’s the portal that enables us to live out God’s vision in our lives?[3]

When he’s asked Jesus says the key to prayer is persistence. He’s asked earnestly how should we pray? He offers words, words that have stuck in the form of the Lord’s Prayer. But then, as if to ensure we don’t start idolizing words, he offers a parable. A man arrives at his neighbour’s house; he needs a loaf of bread. It’s the middle of the night. What in the world is he thinking? How dare he wake up the household for a mere loaf of bread? Where is the 24-hour convenience when you need it? No matter the inconvenience, the rules of hospitality in those days would insist that you’ve got no choice but to oblige, that’s just how it works. This is where Jesus goes off script. No, he says, the bread won’t be given because it’s what’s expected, not even because it’s a friend at the door. The bread will be given because the one asking is persistent. Be persistent in prayer Jesus says and you too will get what you need.

It’s just that persistence doesn’t fully capture it. The word translated persistent would better read shameless. Be shameless in prayer, don’t apologize for the ask, don’t second-guess your motive, don’t pay any attention to the voice that says I’m not worthy and the giver isn’t generous. Be shameless, without shame. In a world so filled with shamed people it’s a curious choice of words. Think of the layers of shame that quietly begin to shroud our lives: shame when you look in the mirror and see that the free tickets of youth and beauty are beginning to fade. Shame, for all the daily little ways you keep making the same dumb mistakes, for looking at your phone when there is someone standing before you who needs you to look in their eyes, shame for the email that should have been put in the virtual trash before you ever pressed send. Shame for all the not good enough, not successful enough, not as good as some other people or standards, shame for the accumulated baggage of a lifetime that is weighing you down with each step even when you thought it was all nicely packed away in the attic of your soul. Shame. Why does he need to bring shame into it? Be shameless? But we are so good at shame, we can sling it as well as the best of them and we can absorb it with an unquenchable thirst. I wonder if it’s easier to shed the shame when we catch a glimpse of the world from the posture of our knees?

German theologian, pastor, anti Nazi dissident Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was killed in a concentration camp near the dying days of World War II, wrote about shame. He understood it as grief, the feeling that comes from being estranged from our oneness with God. I often speak about sin being estrangement from God, self, neighbour, creation. Shame is how sin feels. Be shameless in prayer. Be without that insidious feeling of guilt when you pray.  Except the paradox is that the praying itself is where we learn to disrobe of the shame.

We are ashamed, Bonhoeffer said, at the loss of our unity with God and people. Shame is the moment we see, even dimly, even below consciousness, that we are no longer one with our source. To be shameless is to be one again. Think about it, think about how we absorb the stories we are told either personally or systemically, about all the ways we are not enough. The accompanying shame is what keeps us believing the lies of the subconscious mind and keeps our oneness with the source of all Love elusive. Shameless in prayer, why? Because it is perhaps the one place where our shame actually is most likely to slip away like sand through clenched fingers. When we let go, who knows what might happen?

I’m not going to tell you how to pray. I don’t want to turn you off of the whole thing like my student minister did so many years ago. Besides, the most important thing is not how you do it but that you do it. I could talk all day, too, about the letting go, the persistence, the slow erosion of shame, the need to feel a bit of urgency when it comes to prayer, as if it is a life and death matter. But I can’t avoid the question that many of us have and that is does it really work? Religion has not served us well in suggesting somehow that God will choose when and if and how your prayer might be answered.

To be sure Jesus doesn’t say that your shameless prayers will bring you good fortune, dreams come true or a cure. No your shameless prayer will tap you back into the grace of God and frankly what more do we need on a daily basis? That sort of divine embrace, grounding, connection, has proven again and again to be enough not just to hold you in the reality of your life but to lead you into a life well lived. We are so busy filling up with stuff that numbs us and maybe we thought we were denying death but in so doing we deny life, the full beautiful mess of it.

An anonymous 19th century author wrote a book called The Way of the Pilgrim. In it he says “by love God may be grasped and held. By thought never.”  Maybe he knew that our thoughts can’t extract themselves from the shame. Maybe he knew that we can’t think ourselves into the life we are called to lead. Maybe he knew that we need to begin with a little breath, a bit of quiet, a persistence in letting go.

Amen

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/17/opinion/yom-kippur-death-rehearsal-morality.html

[2] ibid

[3] Read more about a Process Theological perspective on prayer here: http://www.bobcornwall.com/2010/05/what-difference-does-prayer-make.html