I ran into Peg at Meijer several years ago. We started to talk and she exclaimed to me how an in-depth Bible Study she had taken at the church had saved her. Peg lost both her adult children to separate tragic accidents that happened about ten years apart. A deep chasm of grief separated her from her world for years and understandably so. As we stood by the leeks and lettuces, she said that reading the scriptures and praying with the same small group for a year was the catalyst—finally—to her healing. The dark cloud of sorrow began to lift and glimmers of joy began to peek through. My first thought when I learned she had died was to rejoice that she was reunited with her beloved children. As we walk through the Lenten season, I celebrate the rescue she found in scripture and prayer.
I’m struck that we don’t read anything deeply any more. We are internet addicts. On-line publishers accommodate us by offering short articles that can be perused quickly and give just enough information to satisfy our curiosity. One of my assignments in January was to find a research article about a subject that interested me, read it, then present it to my classmates. The articles had to come from some academic database that requires membership. A good research article will tell you how they collected their data so that you know the results weren’t skewed—and they’re honest about how they did choose a particular angle. I read paragraphs several times over to understand them. Reading in depth about meaningful subjects is not something I am accustomed to! Who wants to go deep on a particular subject? I think of how the disciples wanted to stay put in Capernaum and settle for a local ministry in a small fishing village. But Jesus moved on! He asked His disciples—and that includes us—to go deep. Who can and who does?
Paul spent three weeks in Thessalonica, teaching in the local synagogue. At some point the Jews rejected Paul’s message and atempted to drive him out. Paul and his colleagues had to escape under the cover of darkness and, sadly, Paul was never able to return there again. So he wrote two letters to this young congregation to guide them as new Christians. This letter is the much-needed Constitution and By-Laws of the Early Church that was still in formation.
A few of Paul’s commands from the fifth chapter of this first letter are these. Recognize those leaders who work hard among you. Honor and appreciate them. Care for the poor. Never repay evil for evil. Rather, strive ALWAYS for what is good. Rejoice in God’s presence. This verb indicates not just a feeling of joy but an active commitment toward living a joyful life. Because Paul was convinced that God was always at work on behalf of the believers, he urged the Thessalonians to “give thanks in all circumstances.” Rejoicing and giving thanks became forms of worship for Paul. Holy Spirit utterances are not to be blindly accepted because someone claims to have the Spirit. The proper course is to “test” them for their authenticity. Leaders in the Church were not to be chosen based on wealth and status, which was the usual requisite for other organizations in the Greco/Roman world. Congregation members and leaders were to share responsibility for mutual care and encouragement. All worked together for good on behalf of a hurting world. Paul forbids that we seek retaliation against our enemies. He says that we are to seek to do good. When we look at these exhortations, we remember how some of the disciples of Jesus, as He instructed them on what it meant to live the Gospel, exclaimed to each other, “This is a hard teaching.” And that was the last Jesus saw of them!
A final command reminds us of how difficult it can be to follow Jesus: “Pray without ceasing.” As we’ve wrestled with the horror of the Ukrainian siege, our congregation members have remembered that we are to pray without ceasing. In 300AD, the Desert Fathers and Mothers headed out into forsaken wilderness areas to pray continually. Some called themselves “Akoimitai” which means “non-sleepers.” The newly converted believers in Thessalonica needed guidance and Paul reminded them that praying without ceasing is an attitude and orientation toward life. Equally important is rejoicing always and giving thanks in all circumstances. People looking in on such a community would either write it off as deluded…OR…they would be attracted to its beauty.
So how do we pray without ceasing? What defines this sacred conversation? Where do we turn during this Lenten season for guidance and inspiration? If I were to give you a course syllabus, I would direct you to the psalms. Those are prayers written about 3000 years ago that still echo our experiences today. There are even “imprecatory” or “cursing” psalms. You know how it sounds: “How long, O Lord…” or “Why do my enemies surround me…” or “Where have You gone from my presence…” All emotions are allowed as modeled by the psalmists.
The Jesus Prayer developed in the desert in the fourth century as monks looked for a way to make prayer as regular as their breathing. It was short and confessional: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” They found ways to connect the praying to their breathing, inhaling for the first two phrases then exhaling for the last two. Breathing this prayer became second nature over time. It can still be a centering prayer for us.
Perhaps you have heard of Brother Lawrence. He was a monk who lived in Paris in the 1600’s. For ten years he tried the monastic methods of prayer which only frustrated him. He was the cook and dishwasher for the brothers and discovered that prayer came most naturally when he talked with God in the kitchen. He grew to know and love the God of pots and pans. The style of prayer attributed to him is “practicing the presence of God.” His prayer was attentiveness in each moment which is evident in something he wrote in one of his letters: “I turn my little omelette in the pan for love of God.”
Today we talk about “vertical habits”, linking words or phrases to worship habits. One such acronym is ACTS: A for adoration, a prayer that sounds like “I love you.” C for confession which sounds like “I’m sorry.” T stands for Thanksgiving which is voiced as “Thank you.” S is for supplication which are prayers of “Help.” I love you. I’m sorry. Thank you. Help. An additional set of prayer habits are Lament or “Why?”; Illumination or “I’m listening.”; Service or “What can I do?”, and; Blessing which sounds like “Bless you.” These are helpful guides when we get stuck in only one type of prayer when we turn to God.
I wonder how you might practice the presence of God in your work and family lives? With what object from your work life might you replace the pots and pans from Brother Lawrence’s devotional life? How do you come to know God not just in Lent but every day and waking hour?
Jane Marczewski gained recognition on the recent season of America’s Got Talent. 31-year-old Jane was fighting cancer when she courageously went on stage. She sang beautifully an original song entitled, “It’s OK” and received the coveted golden buzzer. She had to withdraw from the contest as her health declined and then died in February. In an interview, she spoke of the deep faith she developed while battling terminal cancer. She teaches us about prayer through her words that live on:
“I have had cancer three times now, and I have barely passed thirty. There are times when I wonder what I must have done to deserve such a story. I fear sometimes that when I die and meet with God, that He will say I disappointed Him, or offended Him, or failed Him. Maybe He’ll say I just never learned the lesson, or that I wasn’t grateful enough. But one thing I know for sure is this: He can never say that He did not know me,”
Paul did not write to give thanks for all circumstances, but in all circumstances. He had absolute conviction, gained of pain and suffering, that God is always at work on behalf of the beloved community. That is reason enough to give thanks and rejoice. Jane or Nightbirde, as she called herself, reminded us that our prayers don’t need to be polite. They must be honest.
“I am God’s downstairs neighbor, banging on the ceiling with a broomstick. I show up at His door every day. Sometimes with songs, sometimes with curses. Sometimes apologies, gifts, questions, demands. Sometimes I use my key under the mat to let myself in. Other times, I sulk outside until He opens the door to me Himself. I have called Him a cheat and a liar, and I meant it. I have told Him I wanted to die, and I meant it. Tears have become the only prayer I know. Prayers roll over my nostrils and drip down my forearms. They fall to the ground as I reach for Him. These are the prayers I repeat night and day; sunrise, sunset.”
The disciples wanted to stay put but Jesus called them out into the deep. In Lent we have an opportunity to immerse ourselves in meaningful writings and deepened prayer. We ask ourselves when we read scripture passages, “What is the larger story that surrounds this scene? How can I make better sense of this so that it lands in my life in a fitting manner?” Mark up your Bibles. Earmark your devotional books. Try praying in a new setting or a new position. I have prayed laying prone on the floor and I can assure you that that position elicits a very different emotional response than resting my head on a pillow or talking to God in my car! Sometimes I’ve felt led in prayer to get more specific in my requests. So I have…and then, sometime later, I realize that exactly what I asked for happened. I understand that God is showing off with a sort of “Can you see Me now?” act. Other times I’ve realized in these sacred conversations that I’m limiting God’s power by asking for too little. So I broaden my prayers and invite God to show up in power, to knock my socks off by answering my prayers in a far better fashion than I ever would have thought to request! And it happens! I realize, with great humility, that God knows me and loves me.
Do we genuinely believe that “in all things God works for good for those who love Him?” If so, do we pray with expectancy? Do we hold God to those Biblical promises? Or do we think we have to be polite and can only begin each prayer with “Thank you?”
I’ll let the singing theologian and suffering servant offer us one final lesson through her words about the sacred conversation she kept going with God even when she lay on the bathroom floor, sickened from her cancer treatments:
“Call me bitter if you want to—that’s fair. Count me among the angry, the cynical, the offended, the hardened. But count me also among the friends of God. For I have seen Him in rare form. I have felt His exhale, laid in His shadow, squinted to read the message He wrote for me in the grout. I’m sad too. If an explanation would help, He would write me one—I know it… I remind myself that I’m praying to the God who let the Israelites stay lost for decades. They begged to arrive in the Promised Land, but instead He let them wander, answering prayers they didn’t pray. For forty years, their shoes didn’t wear out. Fire lit their path each night. Every morning, He sent them mercy-bread from heaven…I look hard for the answers to the prayers that I didn’t pray. I look for the mercy-bread that He promised to bake fresh for me each morning. The Israelites called it manna, which means ‘what is it?’ That’s the same question I’m asking—again, and again. There’s mercy here somewhere—but what is it? What is it? What is it?”