Sermon by Pastor Kris Tostengard Michel
Twenty-some years ago when I was a first year seminary student, I went to Detroit for a 10-day urban immersion experience to fulfill a cross-cultural requirement. It was in the middle or January, and it as cold as it could be. We tromped through the streets of an unfamiliar city visiting churches and ministry settings, and we spoke with community leaders. For part of the experience, we were sent off by ourselves to shadow a pastor and stay in his or her home. One night, we each rode in a squad car on an overnight shift to see what it was like to be a police chaplain. The point of a cross cultural immersion experience is to go to the edge of your comfort zone to see what you might learn there, and I was definitely hanging out at the periphery of my comfort zone, wondering if I was really up to this pastor thing.
One night, I accompanied a Baptist pastor to his church for choir practice. The choir was friendly, and the sopranos welcomed me to their section. It was a relief, frankly. I had been so alert and vigilant wondering what would happen next, that I was grateful for the opportunity to relax and do something I knew how to do: to take a deep breath, sing with the choir, blend in and fade into the wallpaper. At the end of the rehearsal, the pastor led a Bible study, and as he wrapped it up, he announced, “In closing our time together, we’ll ask our visitor, Kris, to lead us in prayer.” I’d like to say I responded gracefully, but instead I blurted out what should have been my internal response, “Oh…well…put me on the spot then!” He deftly took on the task himself and prayed for the group. And afterwards I apologized and thanked him for the opportunity to have been with them. Inside I felt completely inadequate in my ability to pray. It wasn’t a new thing for me to pray. I prayed all the time. I didn’t even mind praying out loud, but in that moment, I had no words at all. I was completely inarticulate.
For some, prayer is like breathing; we just do it. We’ve done it so many times that it has become natural. For others, we struggle to find words, either silent or aloud. And even in our most intimate relationships, we are too self-conscious to pray out loud.
We learn to pray by doing it, by watching others, by praying with Scripture. We practice. There are books and classes and retreats to help us learn to pray. But it’s not another thing we learn to do to master the art. We do it to grow in relationship, to go deeper.
Ann Lamott says, “Prayer is communication from the heart to that which surpasses understanding.” It’s communication from our hearts to the great mystery. Prayer is from our heart to something unimaginably big, and not us.
There is mystery in prayer. We wonder, does it work? How will we know if it makes a difference? And because we’re human, we’ll wonder if we’re doing it right, and we’ll think there must be a right way to do it.
Our reading today says, “pray without ceasing,” and we wonder, what if I forget to pray some days? And what are the right words? What if I forget to pray for people who really need the prayer? Will it somehow be my fault when things go wrong if I haven’t prayed for them enough or at the right time? And what about when prayer doesn’t seem to work?…when the answer isn’t what I prayed for, or there seems to be no answer at all? Is it possible that prayer doesn’t work because I don’t believe enough?
Part of the life of faith is mystery. Even when we don’t understand prayer, we pray anyway trusting that prayer helps us align ourselves to God and makes us open to God’s leading.
During Holy Week of 2003, Father Michael Joncas was struck with Guillain-Barré (also known as French polio), a disease that impacts the nervous system and renders a person paralyzed for a time. As he celebrated mass on Holy Thursday, he noticed that his feet were tingly, and as he lifted the cup for communion, he didn’t have the strength to lift it up as high as usual. The next day, he slept through Good Friday service. On Saturday morning, he went to Urgent Care, and they told him to go home and rest; he was tired and overworked. On Sunday, he went back to the clinic, and they told him to go to the hospital. Just two hours after he drove himself there, he was unable to walk on his own. A week later, he was completely paralyzed, and at the height of his symptoms, he could not even blink his eyes.
Michael Joncas is the composer of the hymn, On Eagles’ Wings. He’s a professor at the University of St. Thomas, a scholar, a writer and speaker, and a composer of music for worship. He was a highly talented and productive man who had always managed to juggle several balls, and now he suddenly had no exams to correct or papers to read, no lectures to prepare, no deadlines to keep. He was utterly helpless.
As he lay in the hospital unable to move or speak, he was left with only his thoughts. As a theologian, he had spent a much of his time thinking about God in all kinds of different categories and using all the tools of reason to be able to describe God. Now he lay in bed and struggled to remember the Lord’s Prayer.
Through those long days, he learned to surrender. He came to thank God each day for letting him live another day. In a world with only the four walls around him, he prayed for the people who were caring for him. His prayers had no complex thoughts, no carefully articulated petitions, only names. It was all he could manage to do – to bring to mind silently the names of people he loved – and that was enough.
He was grateful that the words of a song written by his friend, Marty Haugen, came to him, “Shepherd Me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life.” Each day, he prayed, “Help me to see what you are teaching me, God.” But he never got a crystal-clear answer to that prayer. It’s like that sometimes.
It took over a year for him to recover from Guillain-Barré, but slowly healing came. On Wednesday and Sunday nights, a group of Mennonites would come to his hospital room and sing hymns. In contrast to all the machines that bubbled and whirred, their music lifted his spirits and helped him heal.
He remembers the first time he was wheeled on a gurney into the chapel to attend Mass. Everyone else had either been wheeled in on a gurney or in a wheel chair, or used a walker to get themselves there. He wasn’t able to receive communion that day because he had a feeding tube, but it felt so good to be praying in community again. He noticed that unlike most parish communities, in this one, it was evident just how broken most of us are, he said.
We have this human tendency to think that prayer is up to us – that we need to say the right words or remember to pray at the right time and enough times in order to convince God to protect or heal the ones we love, or that we need to believe enough – but prayer is a far more gracious thing than that. It’s not really about doing it right. We come to God and open ourselves up. And God does a work in us. The Spirit helps us to pray. The Spirit helps us to become attuned to God.
In these days following Easter, we ask the question, How are you going to live when you know that life, not death, wins? One of the things we do is pray. We pray to grow in our relationship with God and in our walk as we follow Jesus. We pray, and the Spirit does a work in us.
When Paul wrote his letter to the Thessalonians, the people were struggling to keep the faith. Their loved ones had started to die, and they wondered what would happen to them. Paul told them to encourage one another and build each other up. He told them to pray, and that the Spirit would do a work within them. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.” So often our prayers lead to gratitude.
Maybe you would like to grow in your prayer life. That’s something we can all do; it’s a lifetime pursuit. Let us know if we can help. Or reach out to a friend whom you know prays; maybe you can grow in relationship as you pray together. Or pray with Scripture. The Psalms are a good place to start. In them, we see that there is nothing we can’t say to God – no words or feelings that God can’t handle from us. And, of course, we can pray with the newspaper; there is so much in this world that God loves in need of prayer.
Soren Kierkegaard said, “A man prayed, and at first he thought that prayer was talking. But became more and more quiet until in the end he realized that prayer is listening.” May you be so richly blessed as to listen and hear. Amen.
Articles about Michael Joncas:
Anne Lamott, Help, Thanks, Wow.