“Being Persons of Prayer in a Pandemic” by Joan Dodge

Icon of the Resurrection by the hand of Thomas Xenakis

May 24, 2020

Seventh Sunday of Easter

My theme for this morning is prayer and being persons of prayer during a pandemic.  I feel that this focus ….prayer…was given to me by the Holy Spirit but as I’ve wrestled with what to say today, it became more of a mystery with many questions forming and not a lot of answers.  (This has always been my way in my spiritual journey).  I am not a theologian, or priest or learned academician in this field.  I’m a beginner in prayer.   I’m just a follower of Christ who has always had many questions throughout my own spiritual journey.  A few of my questions on prayer are:

  • What does it mean to be a person of prayer?
  • How can I learn to be a person who can pray deeply and trust God?
  • How are we as Seekers’ community committed to becoming persons of prayer?
  • Can prayer give us a sense of hope for the future in the midst of this pandemic?

Since I don’t see myself as any authority, in preparation I turned first to our scriptures of today; then to the many persons who have been my teachers and my  mentors; and also, to my own reflections on my spiritual journey over the last 40 plus years.

What are they all saying to me about prayer? Is prayer a helpful tool for hope?

Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, in his book, Contemplative Prayer, assured us that we are all beginners in prayer.  Merton said…  “one cannot begin to face the real difficulties of the life of prayer and meditation unless one is perfectly content to be a beginner.” (p3).  I am that beginner!  Merton’s words give me a courage to be that beginner.

My own prayer beginnings were in a Presbyterian church in suburban Philadelphia  during which the minister usually did a long, rather boring, pastoral prayer and then there were two minutes of silence somewhere during the service.  It wasn’t until I came to the Church of the Saviour (CofS) as a young adult in 1968 after graduating the university in Ann Arbor that prayer, praying, and the notion of silence became real.

Here was a church community in which its members were not afraid to say that they, too, were beginners and to ask the hard questions about themselves and what their relationship to God might be.  As the founder of CofS, Gordon Cosby, said  “the call to pray is a call to become aware of our true selves and a call to an intimate relationship with God.”(p.12).  As a young person at the time, I was eager to look for my “true self” and to be in a closer relationship with a mysterious God.

Where have the years gone!  So many “Ups and Downs” to life since those early years.  And now suddenly, we are ALL facing a pandemic that none of us have experienced before.

How crucial now to ask:  What does it mean to be a person and a community of prayer?

Over the last few months as Doug and I have quarantined ourselves, we have been watching the Netflix show, The Outlander.  It’s a love story between an English woman from 1945 and a Scottish Highlander in 1743. The woman, Claire, time travels back 200 years to an ancient place and falls in love with the rugged, handsome Scotsman, Jamie.

I’ve reflected on why I’ve been so intrigued by this story and I think there are at least two reasons.  One is that my paternal grandfather, Alexander Moir, was a Scotsman from Aberdeen area and came to this country as an immigrant at age 17.  The other reason that I’ve like this series is that the concept of time travel has always been exciting to me.

Imagine if we could time travel back to the time period described by our various scriptures today. Imagine if we could be standing there with the disciples as they are assembled in that dusty, gritty Upper Room with Jesus before his crucifixion, death, and resurrection as outlined in our John scripture for today.  Imagine that Jesus was trying so desperately to teach his followers…to teach me…to teach us, before he left us.  These early followers were beginners too and Jesus, the man, …the pre-Easter Jesus… as Marcus Borg describes in Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (p.30) knew that his little band of disciples had much to learn.

And… at the end of this time of being with his disciples, the scriptures described that “Jesus prayed.”

Jesus prayed first for himself and for his relationship with his Abba, his Father.  Then he prayed for his disciples who were there with him.  Jesus prayed “I am asking on their behalf: I am not asking on behalf of the world but on behalf of those whom you gave me because they are yours.  All mine are yours and yours are mine:  and I glorified them” (John 17:9-10). So, Jesus, the man, prayed in an intimate way to his Abba (Father)…..he prayed for himself and he prayed for his band of followers. Later he also prayed for the world.

Time travel again to the period after the crucifixion, resurrection, and immediately after a mysterious event in which Jesus seemed to disappear into the heavens (Acts 1: 6-14).  I imagine then that for the disciples, it was a time of total confusion, anxiety, uncertainty, and fear as to what the future held for them.  They were in the midst of a crisis!

What did the disciples do?

Acts 1:13 -14, tells us what they did…”they went to the room upstairs where they were staying.   Peter, John and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Mathew, James, son of Alphaeus, and Simon the zealot and Judas, son of James.  All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, and including Mary, the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.”

So…. in the midst of their fears and chaos of the situation, the disciples prayed.  They knew that they needed to pray, and they came together to do so.  Scripture gives us a solid foundation for the importance of prayer.

A teacher to me on this theme has been Henri Nouwen in which he tries to answer for himself the question of what prayer is. In his book, Spiritual Direction, he describes different kinds of prayer such as prayer as “crying out to God” which Mark Greiner described  in his sermon on 5/3 called, Lament: From Illness to Wellness.  Mark defined the concept of lamentation as affirming the relationship with God and “expecting to be truly heard.”

Marcus Borg in The Heart of Christianity talks about prayer as primarily being about “paying attention” to God.”  He outlined categories of verbal prayer which we do throughout our Seeker liturgy on Sundays or some of us may even do in our spiritual reports including our confession, praise and thanksgiving, and intersession. However, Borg also spoke to the importance of listening prayers through meditation and contemplation. (p.168)   Many in this community are drawn to listening prayers.

Dr. Craig Barnes, former minister of the National Presbyterian church (which I attended for a few years) and now President of Princeton Theological Seminary, talked about prayer techniques and language that we use does not matter nearly as much as “the thirst for God that prayer must nurture within us.”  He goes on to say that “to pray is to change” (p.53)

Merton also referred to this change in us, saying that prayer does not blind us to the world, but it transforms our vision of the world, and makes us see it, all persons, and all the history of humankind, in the light of God. (p. 139)

I have discovered that prayer changed me.

On my own spiritual journey with prayer, I have been most familiar with the  “crying out” to God and conversation or verbal type of prayers.  These prayers were fairly ego-centered but they were my “beginner” steps in my spiritual journey to know both myself and God better.  Meditation and contemplation—the listening part of prayers– demanded a certain amount of silence on my part and this type of praying was more difficult.

Silence was not a part of my Presbyterian background and although I had friends who parents were Quakers, I did not experience much silence until coming here to Washington and the church in 1968.  The thought of going on a “silent retreat” at Dayspring (the church’s retreat center) for 2.5 days filled me with terror; and yet, over the years, retreats have become a place of inner healing, new insights about myself and others, and peace.

It was in 1974 that my prayer life was to hit a crisis point.  After being married at Dayspring, and then parenting as a young mother, our first child, Jenny, lay dying in the hospital after surgery for a malignant brain tumor.  She had been quickly diagnosed, operated on, and her prognosis was not good.  I cried out, I pleaded, I implored God for her life. It was not to be and on October 12th Jenny died.

Where was God in all of this? God seemed very silent, at least to me.

However, God was not silent.  At the time, Elizabeth O’Connor, scribe for the early church, wrote in her book, The New Community how the prayers of the community for Doug, for myself, and for Jenny brought everyone in the community closer to each other.  Elizabeth described that as a community, members “waited, prayed together, shared our hopes and our fears, looked once more at our own deaths, and fought for the healing of a child, we moved into a oneness in Christ.” (p.8)

I experienced at that time the power of not just my own prayers but also the power of community prayers.  I had trouble hearing God’s comfort but others within a small community of believers could hear the comfort and hope. The community prayed for us all.

So……I “got it”…Yes, my individual prayers were important BUT also being part of a community of prayers was also powerful.  I was no longer on a “ME” journey but because I was part of people who believed in praying, I was on a “WE” journey as Brenda described in her sermon, Living Stones: Building a New World (5/10). 

Brenda mentioned in that sermon that  “We are in this together. My faith may be at low ebb but someone else is strong. I may not have vision now but someone else has that vision. My commitment may flag but someone else will carry me over the finish line.”

I knew that back then in that time of this great grief, there were others praying for Doug, for me, for Jenny AND also for our, second daughter, Elisabeth, who had been born 6 days before Jenny’s death.

This event was only one piece of my prayer journey.  Over the years, there has been Ups and Downs as I’ve tried to manage the responsibilities of a professional life in national policy for children’s mental health, parenting of two creative children, a marriage, small group relationships, church life, my aging parents and their deaths, and  my recent health issues.  I am still the beginner in knowing how to pray but I trust it more and there are others!

The “ME” part of praying had become more of a “WE”.  I realize the importance of being part of a community of believers that can pray for itself as well as for each other, particularly at those times that it seems so difficult to pray at all.  I realize that others could hope and tell me about their own hopes.  I know that I am committed to a journey with others.  I know that I can pray for myself but also see that a major pathway to prayer and hope is with others.

I recognize that my prayer and spiritual life are bound in some mysterious way with small groups of persons who believed in and practiced prayer in their everyday lives.  I can see that whenever we are in small groups of caring persons or gathered as a worshipping group, hope emerged somewhere amongst us.

Here in the small groups at Seekers we could show “defiant hope” to each other and that “God is still writing the story” as our reflection today point out.

Marjory Bankson reminds us in her book, Stalking the Spirit, about the importance of and commitment to our own quiet time and our life together in small groups at Seekers.  She reaffirms our need for prayer, study, and reflections as part of our disciplines in our group life (p.29).  As a people of prayer, we are required to take prayer seriously and to put in the necessary time and work to grow in these aspects.

In ending, I find myself still gathering insights about prayer as I’ve wrestled with the theme over the last few weeks.  I have a better understanding that:

  • Prayer does not take away the pain, fears, hurts, anxieties or regrets in my life either in the past or present but these feelings can be transformed
  • Persons find their way to God in different ways and it is all prayer and it’s ok
  • Persons who want to know themselves and God need to commit to spending time to do so
  • Prayer within a community of fellow spiritual travelers is comforting and is the foundation for hope
  • Seekers community with its small groups is one expression of persons of prayer but there are others

Finding a place where you can pray your own rich prayers, listen to the prayers of others, and hope together for the future might your next step in your own prayer journey.  Remember, we are all beginners together in this!

AMEN

(Based on scriptures from John 17: 1-11 and Acts 1:6-14)

Resources

Bankson, Marjory Zoet. Stalking the Spirit–In a Do-It-Yourself Church.  Eugene, Oregon:  WIPF & STOCK, 2014

Barnes, Craig M. Sacred Thirst.  Grand Rapids, Michigan:  Zondervan Publishing Company, 2001

Borg, Marcus J.  Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time.  New York: Harper Collins Publisher, 1994

Borg, Marcus, J. The HEART of Christianity—Recovering a Life of Faith. New York: Harper Collins Publisher, 2003

Merton, Thomas.  Contemplative Prayer.  New York, New York: Herder and Herder, 1969

Nouwen, Henri J. M. (with Michael Christensen and Rebecca Laird).  Spiritual Direction—Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith. New York, New York:   Harper Collins Publisher, 2006

O’Connor, Elizabeth.  The New Community.  New York:  Harper and Row Publisher, 1976

 

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