If you were here last week you may have heard Kathleen, the congregational chair for the year ahead, share the outcomes of the church council and pastorate’s working retreat day on Saturday, September 9. For those of you not familiar with the retreat it is an event that happens each fall as we begin a new year in the life of the congregation here at HMC. Early in September the members of the church council [which is made up of the chairs or representatives from each of the formal committees of HMC] and the pastorate [the committee of HMC which offers support to the pastors and spiritual care for the entire congregation] meet together for an all-day working retreat to make plans for the year ahead.
These retreats typically include a time of reflection on the past year in the life of the congregation, reflections on the state of the congregation and then a time to glean what seems important for us to focus on as a community in the year ahead. This year was no exception to that process. [And again, Kathleen already mentioned most of this in last week’s announcement but I wanted to repeat it again so that we can really start to dig in and explore what is ahead.] This year at the working retreat we spent time reflecting on what had happened in the last year in our personal lives, in the life of the congregation and in broader society.
We came out of those reflections with a sense that folks are being pulled in many directions right now and we wondered what the role of the church is in a time of change, weariness, and seemingly constant chaos and upheaval. And we began to see that in the midst of feeling uprooted in many ways, the church might be a place for folks to get grounded and connected. This seems like a no brainer for a church community, be a place of connection and grounding, and yet, it also feels like an act of resistance in this day and age.
There are many voices in our world trying to divide and conquer our spirits. There are also many people actively engaged in resistance in a variety of forms to say: No. We will not be divided, we will not be conquered and we will not let injustice be acceptable practices in this land. Being a church that chooses to build connections is a way that we can help folks feel tethered in the midst of storms and while also being re-energized for the on-going work of relationship building in the name of peace and justice that is requested of God’s people.
So our plan for the year ahead is to dig in and build connections.
- Connections within ourselves as we practice grounding ourselves in spiritual practices
- Connections with each other as we spend time together and find ways to get to know each other in both passing acquaintances and on deeper levels
- Connections with God as we seek to be a community of faith that strives to understand itself as part of the way God moves and works in the world
- Connections with communities beyond this community – the communities in which we live and work, as well as communities of which we may not be a natural part of but which we choose to support and build relationships with as an act of peace and justice and living out God’s love in the world
Connections can be built in so many different ways. I am excited about how we might work with this theme intentionally and creatively in the year ahead.
One of the ways we already connect with each other and that we might consider working on even more in the year ahead is through prayer. It is an amazing gift that this community already offers each other each Sunday – a space to share joys and concerns with the assurance that those shared requests are actually held in by the community in prayer.
Prayer is a mysterious thing. I think we all have an internal sense of something specific when we hear the word prayer [whether that response is positive or negative may vary]. Yet, when it comes down to it, prayer is ambiguous and is hard to actually define.
In seminary I had the opportunity to do an in-depth study on the topic of prayer alongside of an exploration of embodied prayer through visual art making. In my research I found several attempts to define prayer a few of them went like this:
- Prayer, in the realm of Christianity, is often considered as an interaction between humanity and God. Author Richard Beckman suggests: “Prayer in a broad sense links all aspects of your life to God…Prayer is the name we give to the experience of being in communication with God wherever we are and in whatever we are doing…Prayer is part of the process of becoming – the unfolding of your life in a world God has created.”
- Art historian Sister Wendy Beckett offers this definition in a book aimed towards children: “Learning what God is like is called prayer. When we pray, we open ourselves to the love that is God, absolutely certain that God will hear us and help us to change. We usually think that praying is talking to God, and so often it is. But even more often it is listening to God, even though we cannot hear words. Instead we shall find ourselves simply knowing what God is like and what we ought to do. God will teach us silently if we are listening.”
- And a new thought from my Dad this week as we were chatting about my sermon. He said this: “Prayer is like managing diabetes, the longer you do it, the less you know about it, but the more necessary it becomes.”
The word prayer’s “roots are the Latin precarius, which also gives us ‘precarious’ as in “dependent on chance, uncertain.” While this association of the word precarious and prayer surprises me, it also makes sense. The act of prayer can feel a little bit uncertain at times. We pray, and yet, what do we expect from the prayers that we offer? Do we expect them to come true? Maybe some of us do believe that prayer makes a difference. Maybe some of us have experienced the mysterious sense of connection that can come from being held by, or holding, others in prayer. Maybe some of us have waited and hoped too many times for our prayers to come true and they haven’t in the ways we have expected and so we are resistant, skeptical, or have even stopped believing in the power of prayer.
This uncertainty in the face of prayer is the same uncertainty that the disciples lived in while they walked and worked with Jesus. The scripture today starts with Peter’s astonishment that the fig tree Jesus cursed the previous day, by saying “May no one ever eat fruit from you again,” was actually withered. Jesus, himself, is no less surprised by the withered fig tree than he is by Peter’s astonishment over it.
Instead, Jesus reminds his followers to open themselves up to trust in God and that in so doing, they become connected to all things and can do unfathomable things. Jesus gives an unfathomable example [moving a mountain into the sea] and yet goes on to remind his followers that they are to fathom what is they are praying for, before they even pray it:
That’s why I tell you that whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have already received it, and it will be done for you.
What Jesus tells us here is that part of the act of prayer, is opening ourselves up to the effects of prayer. In order for prayer to be truly effective, we are called to make space for God to work in the places we are asking God to work. And called, not just to make space for the movement of God, but to also trust that when we ask God to move and make space for that movement, God moves.
God may not always move in the ways we have predicted, or in the timeline of our desires. None the less, God is always moving.
A few weeks ago Simon and I were at the grocery store. As we made our way through the aisles I saw that there was a vendor stocking bags of chips and pretzels in the chip aisle. As I saw him doing his work, my mind wandered back to a memory from when I was a kid. My parents had made friends with some neighbors at the first house they lived in in Harrisonburg and, even after we moved to a different section of town, my parents would still take us to visit those old neighbors. Their names were Jimmy and Elsie.
Jimmy and Elsie were wonderful, mysterious, earthy people unlike anyone else we knew and it was always a treat to go to their house for a visit. One of them either worked for, or had a relative who worked for the potato chip factory in town and so they would very often have those little snack sized bags of chips in a box on their back porch. In my memory it was an endless variety of chips and it was a super special treat because we each got to pick out our own bag in whatever flavor we wanted. In my growing up years it was rare for us to get to have our own of anything, let alone a whole little bag of chips. It was a special treasure.
Back in the grocery store I found myself smiling at the memory and quietly saying the names Jimmy and Elsie as I watched the man place bags on the shelves. And I wondered to myself – does anyone at a chip company still give out the post-dated bags of chips anymore? How random and fun would it be to have a variety pack of chips bestowed upon me, like in the old days of my memory?!
A week or so later Simon and I were out and about once again. This time we were on an ice cream adventure. As we were sitting on a retaining wall outside the little ice cream shop and convenience store eating our ice cream, I saw a guy walking across the parking lot from the store to his delivery truck. He looked a bit weary and so, as I caught his eye, I smiled and waved to him across the parking lot. He paused, smiled, waved back and then went about his work. I looked at his truck and saw it was a Herr’s potato chip truck. Once again I smiled at the oddity of another chip delivery man drawing my attention while Simon and I were out running errands.
We continued to eat our ice cream and soak in the sunlight for a while and then I looked up as I saw the man I had waved to walking across the parking lot carrying a big ol’ box of potato chips towards us. He marched right up to me and said, “Here you go!” I was so surprised, humored, and amazed. All I could say at first was, “Wow – thank you so much!” He and I showed Simon all the varieties of chips that were pictured on the front of the box and asked him which ones he might want to try. Not long after that, I expressed my thanks once again and he smiled, and without any more words, turned and moved back to his truck to continue on his delivery route.
Now, I’m not saying I exactly prayed for a big ol’ box of potato chips to come into my life. And yet, I can’t help but see a connection between that first moment of memory and the openness that memory created within me and the second moment of encounter and the gift that was bestowed on me.
Prayer is all about making space for the life-giving movement of the Spirit to create connections. It is about making space for those connections to come to life. Prayer is also about seeing and naming the connections that we experience in our lives – even seemingly mundane ones. Prayer works, in part, by making those mundane connections meaningful. It invites us to open ourselves up to memory which connects us with ourselves in a rich way. Prayer also moves us beyond connections with our own selves and makes paths for us to be connected to others.
This connection with others happened with the box of potato chips in several ways. Initially I had a unique moment of unexpected connection with the potato chip delivery man – we engaged in a moment of connection by anonymously enjoying and encouraging the humanity within each of us. And while Simon, Becky and I did our best, but there was no way we were gonna be able to eat 38 bags of potato chips. So we did what we do with surplus, we shared it. Becky took it to work one day and passed the potato chip love on to her co-workers, who apparently descended on the box of chips with glee and excitement at the unexpected offering in their world.
These are the kinds of spaces of connection I would invite us to explore in the year ahead through creative and mindful approaches to prayer. If, as was suggested earlier, prayer is a way of living in connection with God, if it is the process of us becoming and experiencing our lives unfold in the world God has created, then prayer can be our every moment. It is not just the moments we set aside to be mindful and speak words of gratitude, request, and complaint to God. It can also be the moments in which we are living in the mundane realities of our daily lives.
- It can be the act of cutting watermelon to share with folks at the CUCE day center, imbuing each piece with a sense of love and connection, knowing that it will literally be consumed by those experiencing a rough patch in life and will fuel their afternoon activities.
- Prayer can be doing the dishes at potluck, repetitively loading and unloading the dishwasher as a gift to those who are lingering in conversation and connection around the tables.
- As Cindy has shared in her reflections on her time protesting in Charlottesville this summer, prayer can be choosing to spiritually embrace and send positive energy and love to someone so different from you that it feels like the chasm between you is too big to cross, but choosing to send that positive energy forth anyways, trusting it will somehow find a place to land within them, while also stretching and expanding your own spirit.
- Prayer can be playing with kids, showing up for work, chatting with friends, it is exercising, it is resting, it is breathing and being present in each moment with an awareness that in all moments, God is with us and so we are in prayer.
Understanding prayer like this is a choice, it is a prayer practice. Author Daniel Wolpert defines prayer practice like this: “A prayer practice is just that: practice. It is taking time to learn how to listen for God. It is taking time to see the hand of God at work in our lives.”
Prayer is not an end result. Prayer is the beginning of a journey, it is an opening that makes space for God to move in life-giving ways. Prayer is a choice to see and experience God in our midst, in ourselves, and in each other. It is a practice that connects us to the presence of God and to each other.
As we dig into building connections with ourselves, God, each other, and communities beyond this community in the year ahead, I invite us to choose to explore practicing prayer in new ways. I encourage us to continue to share our joys and concerns with each other in this space and beyond and to continue holding those in tangible and formal prayer. I also challenge us to expand our ideas of what prayer might look like so that we can find and experience new ways of connecting with ourselves, God, and each other while we make space for and participate in God’s movement in the world.
Richard J. Beckman, A Beginner’s Guide To Prayer (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1994).
Sister Wendy Beckett, A Child’s Book of Prayer in Art (New York: Dorling Kindersley Publishing, 1995), 6.
L.B. Brown, The Human Side of Prayer (Birmingham: Religious Education Press, 1994), 3.
Daniel Wolpert, Creating a Life with God: The Call of Ancient Prayer Practices (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2003), 18.