Pray Without Ceasing

Meade Hanna

October 27, 2019

What does a life of prayer without ceasing look like?

The hymn we just sang was originally a poem called ‘Pray Without Ceasing.’  It was written by Joseph Scriven who was born in Ireland in 1820 to wealthy parents.  At 25 he was to be married but his fiancé drowned the night before their wedding.  Comforted and allured by the theology, he joined the Brethren church and as a result, had conflicts with his parents who were probably Catholic, maybe Anglican.   Subsequently he emigrated to Canada.  At the age of 35, he learned of his mother dying back in Ireland and wrote the poem ‘Pray without Ceasing’ for his mother and sent it to her in Ireland.  At the age of 40, he fell in love again and was due to be married until his fiancé died unexpectedly of pneumonia.  At the age of 66, depressed and being watched around the clock by friends, he snuck out of his room at night and they found his drowned body on the edge of the lake nearby. 

Charles Converse, born 1834 in Massachusetts, wrote the music for the poem which became the hymn "What a Friend We Have in Jesus.'

What a friend we have in Jesus, All our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry, Everything to God in prayer!

O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry, Everything to God in prayer.

Have we trials and temptations?  Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged, Take it to the Lord in prayer!

Can we find a friend so faithful, Who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness, Take it to the Lord in prayer!

Are we weak and heavy laden, Cumbered with a load of care?
Precious Savior, still our refuge, Take it to the Lord in prayer.

Do thy friends despise, forsake thee?  Take it to the Lord in prayer!
In His arms He'll take and shield thee, Thou wilt find a solace there.

I can relate to Joe as I was born to wealthy parents who divorced when I was 9 and left our perfect family a little lost.  At the age of 14, I went to a Methodist summer camp where I learned that God was the source and definition of Love and God will never leave you or forsake you and he even came down to earth to let me know how far he would go.  I became a Christian in order to have this more perfect love that never leaves. 

I work in a mental health crisis stabilization house with six beds for people who need to stabilize from crisis of anxiety, depression, psychosis, and/or substance abuse before returning back to their lives or starting a new life.   Last weekend, one of the staff there was complaining about a client, calling her “extra” because she inserted herself into the activities of the house in a full throttle fashion.  Great word - “extra” I often feel like I am “extra.”

So, it is no surprise that I am drawn to three of our four scriptures this morning.  On our lectionary menu this morning we have a lament from Jeremiah, Psalm 84 - beckoning our heart to know her home in God, and Luke giving us two men on two different spiritual journeys.   

Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22
14:7 Although our iniquities testify against us, act, O LORD, for your name's sake; our apostasies (abandonment of spiritual practices) indeed are many, and we have sinned against you.
14:8 O hope of Israel, its savior in time of trouble,
why should you be like a stranger in the land,
like a traveler turning aside for the night?
14:9 Why should you be like someone confused,
     like a mighty warrior who cannot give help?
Yet you, O LORD, are in the midst of us, and we are called by your name;
     do not forsake us!
14:10 Thus says the LORD concerning this people:
Truly they have loved to wander, they have not restrained their feet;
     therefore the LORD does not accept them,
     now he will remember their iniquity and punish their sins.
14:19 Have you completely rejected Judah?  Does your heart loathe Zion?
     Why have you struck us down so that there is no healing for us?
     We look for peace, but find no good; for a time of healing, but there is terror instead.
14:20 We acknowledge our wickedness, O LORD, the iniquity of our ancestors, for we have sinned against you.
14:21 Do not spurn us, for your name's sake; do not dishonor your glorious throne; remember
     and do not break your covenant with us.
14:22 Can any idols of the nations bring rain?  Or can the heavens give showers?
Is it not you, O LORD our God?  We set our hope on you, for it is you who do all this.

After reading the Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, I can tell you with authority that the Israeli people here are like, “Yes, God we are bad and ignore praying to you but now we are in trouble and if you don’t save us you are going to look bad!  Your name and reputation is on the line here, God, if you don’t save us?  Where are you?  We know you are the best”

God responds with the facts, “I know how much you love to wander, you do not stop yourselves from wandering.  I am not saving you now”

Then Israel dares to say, “But God!   You promised not to abandon us!”

Here, Israel wants their Davidic promise – the promise to be their own country with a series of their own Kings, with a government and structure of their own creation.  So Israel’s trouble lies in losing their structures, the certainty of their own creation.  They have forgotten the essence of the Passover and the essence of our Holy Communion where God pursues us in captivity, in the desert, through the wilderness, in the experience of becoming human himself, in order to deliver us out of oppression, slavery, and death itself. 

God does not see this as a heartfelt confession and does not see Israel as really knowing their need for God.  Do we know our need for God?  How much do we rely on ourselves and credit ourselves for our own success?  Our education?  Our intelligence?  Certainly the Pharisee in Luke relies on himself …

Luke 18:9-14
18:9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:
18:10 "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
18:11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus,
 'God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.'
18:13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!'
18:14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."

Again, referencing the wisdom of the Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, last week’s Gospel of the widow could be titled the “promise of persistent prayer” while the title of this week’s scripture the “peril of presumptuous prayer.”  THIS week’s scripture is number two in a series of at least four scriptures about prayer.  The next scripture in Luke talks about coming to prayer with the heart of a child and then the fourth is the scripture of the rich young ruler who is told that he needs to give up all he owns before he even considers membership into the Jesus club; it is not for sale.  While these scriptures do not tell us exact methods of prayer or how long to pray but what attitude to come with.    The Pharisee is isolated in his purity, critical of others, sure of himself.  There is a strong implication in these parables that if we be implementing a foolproof religious method or brokering a deal like the rich young ruler, we are too much in control.  We are to come like little children to God, dependent on God and humble, not knowing the answers about what is right for us.   In our culture that worships efficiency, technology, scientific answers, this scripture speaks loudly to me.  Like the Pharisee, I may ask how do I make my prayer life so contained and efficient that I get it right and God’s flow of answers come down reliably, just when I need it, like Google?  Even the pope has written in Laudate Si that putting our faith in technology is not the answer to climate change – I am so not there yet!  “I believe technology with be part of the solution but I do not have faith it will be technology alone”

Instead we are called to humble ourselves, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”  This is the Jesus Prayer.  “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God Saviour, have mercy on me a sinner.”

God incarnate within creation your love is written upon our hearts, you are written upon my heart, have mercy on my failure to only see the separation between us and not how close you always are.  Have mercy on all the moments of my day where I lost sight of You.  Thank you that you are always with me anyway.  Thank you for riding to school with my emotionally volatile teenage daughter so that our silent time together may validate her anxiety and still hold her accountable for good behavior as a student and peer.  Thank you God for the bonus of an occasional laugh. 

Have mercy on me that I woke up late and chose to clean the kitchen instead of being quiet with you.  Thank you for the peace of a clean kitchen.

So how much of my 45 minutes was that?  Maybe 2?  How am I going to do this for 43 more and how will I do this all day? 

A quote from Gordon Cosby for insight…

 The one journey that ultimately matters is the journey into the place of stillness deep within one’s self.  To reach that place is to be at home; to fail to reach it is to be forever restless.  In contemplation we catch a vision of not only what is, but what can be.  Contrary to what we have thought, contemplatives are the great doers.    Gordon Cosby

The operative word in forty-five minutes of quiet prayer is the word “quiet”   Prayer has always been, is today, and will be even more expansive in everything we do. 

Our inward disciplines are not an end in and of themselves.  They are tools for the journey.  They are the beginning of our life where our bodies, our minds, and our hearts are praying unceasingly.  If we only see it as forty-five minutes of accomplishing a task, then we are missing the point.       

Our daily quiet is the tending the earth of our soul so that our thoughts, feelings, and actions that grow throughout the day can be expectant of God in each person, can be full of love and peace for others, especially the ones that are difficult to love; and the quiet can be reminders of loving ourselves when needed.  Each morning becomes an Advent, each day a Pentecost, each night a Lent. 

This week I heard a small story about a nomadic Native American tribe.  When asked “Why did you stay in his one place so much longer than the last place, the chief answered, “We needed to allow our spirits to catch up with us.”  So our daily quiet is that time to allow our life of prayer to be revealed to us. 

So I want to go back to Jeremiah with my own eyes and share. 

In my reading of it I want to answer yes, of course you Lord are a stranger in this land!  Until I do the work of the spiritual journey to know that stranger, to feel what that immigrant feels, to know the darkness and its risks, I will not know your transformation, O God.    Until I do the work of understanding the confusion of others and the loneliness of the self-sufficient that cannot ask for help, I will not know your transformation, O God.  And THEY won’t know transformation either. 

And yes, I love to wander; I am not ready to bring each part of our life under the care of God; So yes, why should you, God, bother if the covenant is only a one-way street.  What would true my confession look like?  (read Habakkuk or Job.)

Or reading Psalm 84 after tending the quiet…

Psalm 84:1-7
84:1 How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts!
84:2 My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.
84:3 Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young, at your altars, O LORD of hosts, my King and my God.
84:4 Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise.  Selah
84:5 Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
84:6 As they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools.
84:7 They go from strength to strength; the God of gods will be seen in Zion.

So at work last week, the 7-3 staff member wanted to communicate to me how this “extra” client had personality tendencies that were high maintenance and hard to manage for that particular staff person.   I happen to know the director last week had used LB’s “extra” to lead check in group for at least two mornings.  LB also stepped up to act out her own future in a psychodrama visioning around that path.   She chose butterflies on a scarf to represent her future new life and skulls to represent the three overdoses she had taken in the last month.  She called upon her memories of a mother who had been through similar circumstances but was further along the road.  She embodied the chair and the story three times over to nurture the ground of her soul and grow more resources in her spirit. 

Sure she complained a little more and inserted herself for attention AND she was growing and we needed to be her yellow lines for her driving lane, not her branch in the face as she rolls ahead straight.  At least she had the resources to move and grow. 

Sometimes those of us who need a lane are “extra.”

Finally a song that expresses what is like when you see God everywhere and cannot help but pray unceasingly. 

 “Holy Now” by Peter Mayer

When I was a boy, each week, On Sunday, we would go to church
And pay attention to the priest, He would read the holy word
And consecrate the holy bread, And everyone would kneel and bow
Today the only difference is Everything is holy now, Everything, everything, Everything is holy now

When I was in Sunday school, We would learn about the time
Moses split the sea in two, Jesus made the water wine
And I remember feeling sad, That miracles don t happen still
But now I can’t keep track, Cause everything is a miracle
Everything, Everything, Everything s a miracle

Wine from water is not so small, But an even better magic trick
Is that anything is here at all, So the challenging thing becomes
Not to look for miracles, But finding where there isn t one

When holy water was rare at best, It barely wet my fingertips
But now I have to hold my breath, Like I’m swimming in a sea of it
It used to be a world half there, Heaven s second rate hand-me-down
But I walk it with a reverent air, Cause everything is holy now
Everything, everything, Everything is holy now

Read a questioning child s face, And say it s not a testament.
That’d be very hard to say, See another new morning come,
And say it s not a sacrament, I tell you that it can t be done

This morning, outside I stood, And saw a little red-winged bird
Shining like a burning bush, Singing like a scripture verse
It made me want to bow my head, I remember when church let out
How things have changed since then, Everything is holy now

It used to be a world half-there, Heaven,  second rate hand-me-down
But I walk it with a reverent air, Cause everything is holy now