This week is the third Sunday of our three-week series on the promise of prayer. I’m surprised to find that as we come to the end of this time, I feel like we’re really only just beginning to scratch the surface of the topic. We talked the first week about George Fox’s struggle with despair and the empty practice of religion, and then his life-changing realization that Christ alone was the one with the answers for him. As he learned to let the Light of Christ guide him into more and more truth, and the path of his life opened up, leading him to the practice of worship we still follow today.
And then last week we explored together how God has made us for himself, loving and guiding and nurturing our relationship with him through the call-and-response and continual connection of prayer. There is no prayer, no hope, no question we can ask God that will go unanswered, because God loves us and God wants us to know him. Whether we realize it or not, God has always been and will always be in relationship with us.
This week we’re taking a look at the changes that come when we begin to make room for real, living prayer in our lives on a consistent basis. The way we spend our time—and with whom—has a big impact on who we are and are becoming. It would be impossible for us to spend good time in the presence of God and not change. As Paul said in 2nd Corinthians, we are all being transformed into the likeness of Christ as we spend more time contemplating God, and approaching, listening, and responding to Him.
Finding the quiet for stillness within may seem like a next-to-impossible thing to do—or unlikely at best—when we think about how loud, stimulating, and demanding everything in our world seems to be today. It may be hard to imagine truly becoming more and more like Christ in the midst of all the craziness we see. Hard to picture being more poised. More serene. More forgiving. More open. All things our poor world seems to need most just now.
An Anglican priest I follow on Twitter captured her attempts at early morning prayer in a poem last week. It is called, The Liturgy of Interrupted Prayer:
So far…Up early to pray in (the) garden.
Start. Dog goes off it at cat
Try again. Dog goes off it when delivery comes
Try again. Brent comes out for a chat bringing [coffee]
Try again. Brent comes out to see if I want breakfast yet. I do.
The liturgy of interrupted prayer is complete.
It is likely that, like this young priest trying to pray early in the morning, our efforts at consistent prayer may be uneven and interrupted and might not go as planned. With the reality of our world as it is, unexpected things break in. Time and again, we’ll start our prayer, try to pick up where we left off, or in the middle of something completely different, suddenly remember that we have forgotten to remember God. Such is the human condition.
In his book, A Quaker Prayer Life, writer David Johnson makes the point is that our part in prayer is waiting and listening for God and God’s part is to do the rest. “Yield mentally,” Johnson writes, “and accept that true prayer and ministry are the work of God, not the human mind. Quaker prayer is based on stilling all our own words and becoming attentive to the holy voice and Light within. We are to stop our inner speaking and cultivate an attitude of inward listening. We are to wait patiently for God to communicate with us, for there is nothing we can do to manufacture this response from God.”
George Fox taught that prayer is mostly a matter of waiting, as you can hear in this passage from Fox’s book, Gospel Truth Demonstrated:
“Therefore, all wait patiently upon the Lord, whatsoever condition you be in; wait in the grace and truth that comes by Jesus; for if ye so do, there is a promise to you, and the Lord God will fulfil it in you. None that is upon the earth shall ever come to God, but as they come to that of God in them—the Light that God has enlightened them with. That is it which must guide every one’s mind up to God…The Spirit leads to wait upon God in silence, and to receive from God.”
In our Old Testament reading today—God giving the second set of stone tablets to Moses—we know that Moses and God already have quite a history together. Scripture tells us Moses had found favor in God’s sight and had done many great and unexpected things with God’s help—including leading the children of Israel out of exile, crossing the Red Sea, and guiding them for decades through their nomadic time in the wilderness. God had given Moses the 10 Commandments once before, but that hadn’t worked out well. When Moses came back down the mountain, he found the people worshiping idols and in a fit of rage, threw the tablets down and broke them. But now God suggests they try again, and Moses does as God asks and returns to the mountain.
But this time things are different. Now God descends in a cloud and actually comes to stand beside Moses. What an incredible gesture of trust and intimacy. What would that feel like, I wonder, to know that God had come to stand beside you, literally beside you, in your life? Then the Lord passed in front of Moses, saying, ““The LORD, the LORD God, is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in loving devotion and faithfulness.” Moses only saw his back because as God himself reminded him, no one can see the face of God and live. In this encounter, God is fulfilling something Moses had asked for. In the chapter just before this one, Moses had said, “Show me your glory, I pray.”
We can see from the experience of Moses that the intimacy that develops with God arises over time, deepening through repeated contacts, lived moments, and shared experiences. God learns by our continuing attempts at prayer that we care about Him and are earnestly doing our best to seek Him. We learn by waiting on God that precious peace and a clear path to stillness emerge when we wait on God’s presence. We find experientially—as George Fox knew the day of his encounter with the living Christ on the hillside in England—that we truly do, “live and move and have our being” in God. And that cannot be taught or shared, handed down from one to another. It is a realization we each have to discover for ourselves—and God will help us discover it, if our hearts are willing. And prayer will take us to the place where that can happen.
We find that over time, our attempts at prayer begin to make small changes in our lives. We begin to have a more accepting attitude toward ourselves—it’s okay to try and keep trying—and our trust in God begins to grow. With just a few tastes of the sweetness that comes with prayer, we feel encouraged to stay at it in the hopes that deeper experiences will come. We begin to feel that we know God, and that God knows us. Through our day, we may think of God more often, more naturally, gratefully, gladly, with feeling.
We soon begin to notice a sense of evenness developing in our emotions. With a consistent life of prayer, we are less vulnerable to the choppy waves on the surface of life, less frightened by fearful images, not as vulnerable to bullying tactics. The outside world has less power and less appeal. We’ve found something deeper that is precious. Bernard of Clairvaux, a Benedictine monk in the 11th century, wrote about how we are transformed as we grow in prayer:
“In this life, man lives more purely, falls more rarely, recovers more promptly, advances more surely, receives more graces, dies more calmly, and is more quickly cleansed.”
Richard Trench, the Archbishop of Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin in the 1800s, was also a poet, and he said it this way:
Lord, what a change within us one short hour
Spent in thy presence will avail to make--
What heavy burdens from our bosoms take,
What parched grounds refresh as with a shower!
We kneel, and all around us seems to lower;
We rise, and all, the distant and the near,
Stands forth in sunny outline, brave and clear;
We kneel, how weak; we rise, how full of power!
Why, therefore, should we do ourselves this wrong,
Or others—that we are not always strong;
That we are overborne with care,
That we should ever weak or heartless be,
Anxious or troubled, when with us is prayer,
And joy and strength and courage are with Thee!
It is true that we feel all these good upswings of emotion when we make the effort to spend more time intentionally in the presence of God. But early Friends also understood that this happy place of balanced feeling wasn’t the end of the story. Human nature being what it is—and specifically, our ego’s hold on our daily life being what it is—we are sure to experience many temptations and trials as we cultivate a deeper life of prayer. That’s one way to know our efforts are working.
George Fox wrote in an epistle to Friends in 1652 that they needed to “stand still in the Light” when thoughts and doubts arose that challenged their sense of peace and faith. He wrote,
Friends, stand still in trouble, and see the strength of the Lord. Friends—whatever ye are addicted to, the tempter will come in that thing: and when he can trouble you, then he gets advantage over you, and then ye are gone. Stand still in that which is pure, after ye see yourselves; and then mercy comes in. After thou seest thy thoughts, and the temptations, do not think, but submit; and then power comes. Stand still in that which shows and discovers; and there doth strength immediately come. And stand still in the light and submit to it, and the other will be hushed and gone; and then content(ment) comes.”
David Johnson says that once we begin to settle down into the silence where we can listen to God speak, certain types of thoughts will come to interrupt our stillness and provide reasons why we should question the leadings or peace that we receive. But we can simply let those thoughts go, like clouds passing in the sky. Simply being yielded and listening is the goal. We’re letting God use the time in whatever way God chooses. We don’t have to direct, or ask, or interpret. We can simply let ourselves be in the quiet, loving and waiting on God. And God will do the rest.
Early Friend Isaac Penington puts it this way:
“And O, know that your strength lies not in yourselves, not in any thing ye can do of yourselves: but in God’s living principle of truth, wherein he appears and whereby he works in your hearts. Therefore wait for the Lord’s visiting and appearing to you there, and making your souls acquainted with him therein.”
Our New Testament reading today is a classic and often-quoted passage of Scripture, when Jesus teaches those listening how to pray. He began this part of his teaching—which is a long passage encompassing several chapters in Matthew and includes the beatitudes and much more—by telling us not to be like hypocrites, praying in public to look pious. And we shouldn’t be like those who speak lots of flowery words but have no reverence in their hearts. He says to pray simply, for daily needs, for God’s will to be done, for our sins to be forgiven, and for us to have hearts of mercy that forgive others:
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial but rescue us from the evil one.
The pattern for prayer Jesus gives us is a simple, practical prayer, focused on trusting God with our most basic needs, every single day. There is right order to Jesus’ prayer, as we humbly seek God’s will and recognize our own limitations and shortcomings. We also acknowledge, as both David Johnson and Isaac Penington point out, that the saving work being done here is done by God. Our part is to listen, trust, and act in love.
Whether we’ve been praying all our lives or have only recently begun to explore a deeper life of prayer, we’ll always have more to learn, more to practice, less to do. Getting ourselves out of the way, quieting our busy minds, is a big part of the work of prayer—helping to create that quiet place of inner sanctuary where we can meet with God in the stillness of our hearts. If we give God time and space in our lives, He will bless and transform us from the inside out. No matter how imperfect our attempts at prayer, God blesses and gladly accepts each one, drawing each of us closer to the divine lap where we are all–equally–beloved children.
I’d like to close with a quote about prayer from Thomas Kelly’s book, A Testament of Devotion:
“How, then, shall we lay hold of that Life and Power, and live the life of prayer without ceasing? By quiet, persistent practice in turning all of our being, day and night, in prayer and inward surrender…Lapses and forgettings are so frequent. Our surroundings grow so exciting. But when you catch yourself again, lose no time in self-recriminations, but breathe a silent prayer for forgiveness and begin again, just where you are.”
Wherever we are in our prayer life just now, let’s begin again, Friends, with feeling. God will bless our tiniest tries, filling our lives with His beautiful presence and our hearts with joy.
- OT Exodus 34: 4-10
- NT Matthew 6: 9-13
- Johnson, David. A Quaker Prayer Life. http://www.innerlightbooks.com/books/quaker-prayer-life.html
- @RevdJacquiT, The Liturgy of Interrupted Prayer
- Fox, George. Gospel Truth Demonstrated. https://www.amazon.com/Works-George-Fox-Demonstrated-Collection/dp/127695056X/