The Languages of Prayer

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Mark 10:2-16

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Preface

‘Different are the languages of prayer, but the tears are all the same’.

So, Abraham Heschel, whose mighty labors to interpret the Hebrew Prophets were drenched themselves in tears—the joyful tears of adoration, the bitter tears of confession, the heartfelt tears of thanksgiving, the worried tears of supplication.

Prayer comes in ACTS, and its languages are the tongues of adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication.

Our theme this year, in the life of Marsh Chapel, particularly in our preaching and teaching, is prayer. ‘Pray without ceasing’, we are taught in the 5th chapter of the earliest document in our New Testament, 1 Thessalonians. Without ceasing.

We pray in silence before our worship begins, come Sunday. Here, in this sacred hour, we set ourselves for the week to come, and set before ourselves what we hold dear, and all in which we are dearly held.

Then: Sunday evening in Eucharist, Monday noon in meditation, Wednesday morning in theological community, Wednesday evening in communion, Thursday noon over an outdoor common table, and privately, meal by meal, morning by morning, we pray.

Prayer is to sit silent before God. Prayer is to give utter attention. Prayer is to think God’s thoughts after God. Prayer, like a poem, is ‘a momentary stay against confusion’ (Frost).

Adoration

A language learned in prayer is that of adoration. Here is the tongue of aspiration, delight, hope, imagination, wonder and praise. In the dim-lit daily world, adoration language can be hard to hear, hard to find, for it is the exuberant utterance of ‘why not’?, of ‘how about?’, of ‘oh my’!, sentences concluding in question marks and exclamation points.

Our gospel reading, at heart, is an aspiration, a high hope about human being, human loving, and human life.

Both Jews and Greeks made welcome space for divorce, as even our text attests (‘Moses allowed…’).   The church did too, before and after our passage, 1 Cor. 7 and Matthew 19. Paul before and Matthew after also make allowance for divorce. We too, out of our experience, know fully, for the sake of the institution of marriage itself, that sometimes divorce is the only course. Here in Mark 10, though, the early church remembers, from Jesus or for us, a very high view, an aspirational hope for human love. A prayer in aspiration, that the joining of two, together, might make way for the One among the Many. That upon this earth there yet might be—real friendship, real fellowship, real love, real marriage, the reality of the union of hearts, for which we are made. For a union: a hint of the eternal, a glimpse of the divine, a glimmer of joy without shade.

All this takes time and practice. We learn to follow each other’s thoughts, but imperfectly. A month ago I bought new sneakers, but made the mistake of hanging them, in a plastic bag, where I normally hang the trash, to be taken down for disposal by the next traveler down stairs. Jan did what she normally does, and should do, taking the bag and leaving it for disposal. Off they went, those new shoes. Oops. Or so we thought, until a kind, wise custodian, sensing something not right about the bag, found them, kept them, and returned them. There is a lesson here, a moral to the story. Our aspirations take the support and help of a community to last.

So, in the same breath, and in the same paragraph, the Jesus of Mark’s gospel, and the Lord of Mark’s community, adores children, and offers their innocence (not their ignorance) as aspiration. He lifts them in his arms. A little child shall lead them, the holiness of aspiration, and adoration.

Hence, in a few months we shall sing, ‘Come Let Us Adore Him’. There is a prayer, a prayer in a wonder-land. What do you adore? Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Where your heart is, there will your treasure be also.

So we sing a hymn each Sunday.

Adoration. A language of prayer.

Confession

A language learned in prayer is that of confession. Such a dialect is much needed, in our time, in our generation. Contrition, compunction, regret, and lament. “I am sorry”. “Forgive Me”.

Today our choir sings, only for the second time in public, a lovely anthem, whose three stanzas lament sin and pray for peace.

1 O God of love, O King of peace,

Make wars throughout the world to cease;

The wrath of sinful man restrain;

Give peace, O God, give peace again.

 

2 Remember, Lord, Thy works of old,

The wonders that our fathers told;

Remember not our sin’s dark stain,

Give peace, O God, give peace again.

 

3 Whom shall we trust but Thee, O Lord?

Where rest but on Thy faithful word?

None ever called on Thee in vain,

Give peace, O God, give peace again.

You probably one day suddenly realized the power of confession. Bishop James Matthews once said, in a memorable sermon, that he came to a day when he just wanted to write down in a list his most memorable shortcomings. (I was thinking of him the other day, visiting our own C Faith Richardson, who was his secretary). He wrote down his mistakes and his regrets. His regretful mistakes and his mistaken regrets. That he did, and tossed the list into the fire, and resolved to live a great good life unrestrained by what was past. “I gave the list to God and to the fire”, he said, “and I headed out into the future”. Then he added: “I’m sure you all have done the same, one way or another”. I wasn’t so sure we all had, but I basked in the confidence—in the living pardon—of his confidence in us.

We depend on this reminder of our fragility. It keeps us from becoming naïve about the fragility all around us. Especially the disguised fragility of beloved institutions. Many churches are one pastor away from demise. Some countries are one government away from demise. Our schools, halls of government, businesses, families—all these are far more fragile than they sometimes seem. They take constant tending, mending, and befriending. They take daily, careful leadership. And when over time the fabric begins to fray, devastation may ensue: see the 200,000 dead and 4 million seeking refuge and the 7 million displaced in Syria today.   They take attention to small things. ‘Yard by yard, life is hard. Inch by inch, it’s a cinch’.

So we offer confession, KYRIE ELEISON, each Sunday.

Confession. A language of prayer.

Thanksgiving 

A language learned in prayer is that of thanksgiving. My friend says that all birds are either robins or non-robins. Well, the prayer book of the Bible is the Book of Psalms, and in that same oversimplified way, the psalms are either laments or thanksgivings, and there are more of the latter. So today the psalmist is ‘singing aloud a song of thanksgiving, and telling all your wondrous deeds’.

We know gratitude in hindsight. Thanksgiving is the gift of retrospective. We learn, and we grow. But as R Sockman repeated, and we now with him, ‘The larger the body of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of mystery that surrounds it”.

Eucharist is a word that means thanksgiving. Our Eucharist is a thanksgiving in remembrance and in presence. Eucharist is a thanksgiving in remembrance of our Lord Jesus, his ministry of preaching, teaching and healing, his death upon the cross, and his radiant resurrection, our beacon and life. Our Eucharist is a thanksgiving in presence, an announcement of the divine presence, the real presence of God, here and now, in the humblest of forms, in bread and cup. Eucharist means thanksgiving.

Emily Dickinson had her happy moments and happy thoughts and choice, true words of thanksgiving (amid darker hues aplenty to be sure):

The Props assist the House

Until the House is built

And then the Props withdraw

And adequate, erect,

The House support itself

And cease to recollect

The Auger and the Carpenter-

Just such a retrospect

Hath the perfected Life-

A past of Plank and Nail

And slowness-then the Scaffolds drop

Affirming it a Soul.

If you are wondering how to pray, start with a word of thanks, a thanksgiving, a generous recognition of a cause of gratitude.   You will not have far to look.

            The heavens are telling the glory of God. The Lord is my light and my salvation. Whom then shall I fear? God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.   Sing to the Lord a new song, sing to the Lord all the earth. Make a joyful noise to the Lord, serve the Lord with gladness. I lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence does my help come, from the Lord who made heaven and earth. O Lord, thou hast searched me and known me. Let everything that breathes praise the Lord.

So we read a psalm each Sunday.

Thanksgiving. A language of prayer.

Supplication

A language learned in prayer is that of supplication. We name what we need. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will open. Ask and it shall be given. Not always. Not frequently. Not in a timely way. But…

You don’t get what you don’t name as needed.

In supplication, today, we feel or murmur or mutter, perhaps through clenched teeth, a prayer of supplication. Free our land of horrid, tragic, gun violence. How will this happen? We see no easy way.

But then our minds begin to move. Gun violence is a matter of public health. You have lifted your voice in chorus with those who attack gun violence not as an issue of individual right or freedom, but as an issue of public health and safety. We have had success in other improvement to public health. Reductions in death from smoking. Reductions (some) in death from drinking. Reductions in highway deaths. Here is a different evil, so we shall need to think differently.

How shall we do so?

Maybe we shall restrict the sale of ammunition: keep and bear arms all you want, but ammunition we will lock down. Maybe we shall make those who make money on gun sales pay a stiff price for every misuse of their product. Maybe we shall hold households and home insurance responsible for mayhem that emerges from a house.

Congress regularly supports the so-called gun lobby, fearing to contradict the NRA. Oddly, though, they are mistaken about what Americans, and particularly gun owners, think about gun restrictions and gun safety. They mistake the representative voice for the people’s voice. ‘85% of Americans and 81% of gun owners favor gun show background checks, which Congress rejected…Since 1960 1.3 million Americans have died from fire arms, which amounts to 80 gun deaths a day.’ The broad swath of the American people, in harmony with the Book of Hebrews, offer prayers of supplication for an angelic deliverance. And here and there, there is change: ‘In 1970 ½ of all US homes had guns. In 2012 it is less than 1/3.’ Our tendency to conformity, our over-eager deference to authority, and our too willing adaptation to imposed roles weaken us over against these and other challenges.

In supplication, we are reminded of who we are and whose we are. Hebrews:

            What is man that though art mindful of him, the Son of Man that though dost care for him? Thou hast made him a little lower than the angels.

            As it is, we do not yet see everything subjected to them (the angels). But we do see Jesus.

So we offer our common prayer every Sunday.

Supplication. A language of prayer.

Coda

‘Different are the languages of prayer, but the tears are all the same’.

Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. ACTS in prayer.

In 1983 we hurried across an open field, arriving a little late to the edge of the Pacific Ocean in Vancouver. There was a great tent. Inside were many hundreds of leaders of the World Council of Churches. There they sang a hymn, and offered a confession, and uttered a thanksgiving, and cried out in supplication. Emilio Castro. Paolo Freire. Connie Parvey. NT Wright. Philip Potter. Another generation. Gathered in prayer. Yet their prayer is not yesterday, nor just today, but the fullness of tomorrow:

In Christ there is no east or west

In Him no south or north

But one great fellowship of love

Throughout the whole wide earth

 

In him now meet both east and west

In him both south and north

All Christ like souls are one in him

Throughout the whole wide earth

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

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