Faith Works 5-2-15
A day to pray, for starters
On the steps of Newark City Hall, on Thursday, May 7, our community will have an opportunity to observe National Day of Prayer.
At noon, we'll hear singing from young voices, prayers from clergy around the area, and the roar of passing traffic. Life will not stop there at the intersection of Fourth St. and Main, but we will bring our prayers into that space.
People will still pass us by to enter and exit the building, going about their business, and yet we will sing and pray and rejoice.
The weather? This is Ohio. It may be warm and sunny, for a while. It may rain. The winds might blow and chill. We will still pray. The size of the crowd, I've noticed over the years, might go up or down a bit, but in general, people who can will come, and stop, and pray.
What is prayer? That's a question even those who've been part of a worshiping community for years might still ask.
The disciples, gathered around Jesus on the Mount of Olives, looking across the Kidron Valley at the Temple Mount itself, asked him "Lord, teach us how to pray." They didn't ask how to preach, or how to succeed, or certainly not how to fight or even win – they asked him to teach them how to pray.
In response, Jesus gave them a model, a sample outline. We've tended to turn that into a series of words we "say" when the Boss' point was "pray like this," not quite "pray this precisely."
That model prayer does some interesting things. It starts by telling us to focus on God first, describing and envisioning and imagining to whom we pray. The Lord's Prayer continues to help us focus on God's will, and divine purposes that might well be beyond our wishes, or even our complete understanding.
Then Jesus does something I don't know that we notice often enough. When we've reminded ourselves that the focus of prayer is the One we are addressing, then we may ask for the help we need, that so often reminds us to pray in the first place: and the simple request in this model prayer is a paired petition, two needs that are laid right up against each other.
"Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins…" There's the basic bodily needs, and the basic spiritual need. We don't ask for chicken tenders with that special sauce we love, but for the grace of essential nutrition, and just as much as protein and carbs, we need for our spiritual health to know that we are forgiven.
Forgiveness, for our mistakes, our willful disobedience, our hurts and harms done to others: that's as essential as a piece of pita bread when we're hungry. Our soul, our basic self needs to know that we can move forward even when there's so much in our lives that can hold us back. We need to get to the heart of the matter, as Don Henley says, and that's forgiveness. We need it like we need our daily bread.
The Lord's Prayer goes on, and our need to work on our prayer lives goes on. Prayer has been called active listening, and I'd agree ("Be still, and know that I am God"); prayer is also that concept that has some modest traction in our culture today, what's called "mindfulness."
Mindfulness is simply a modern framing of what Paul said in I Thessalonians 5:17, "pray without ceasing." Paul clearly did not mean "rattle on to God in words endlessly," but he was helping unveil part of what prayer is, what prayer means. To pray without ceasing is to walk and journey and reflect and live in awareness of who God is, and how God is present and active in our lives.
Mindfulness, as prayer without ceasing, is something that continues even when a truck compression brakes right in front of a crowd at prayer, even when you're the truck driver who just saw the light change, and is part of your prayer when words have ceased.
And as a pastor who has stood at quite a few deathbeds recently, I can tell you that words often cease. But prayer does not.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about your prayer without ceasing at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.