One effect of being in one parish for nearly eleven years is that the kids start to grow up. As I watch them mature, knowing that they’ll be off on new adventures in a year or two or four or six, I’ve realized that what I hope they’ll carry with them – what I hope we all carry with us, when we log off or walk out the doors on a Sunday – isn’t so much belief in God. What I want most of all – for our young people, for all of us – is a sense of being in a living relationship with God.
It’s hard to sustain belief without relationship – and it’s pretty easy to sustain belief with relationship. If you’re talking with someone on a regular basis, you tend to assume they exist. Relationship really is the heart of the matter.
This is a humbling thing to realize because I don’t think I’ve modeled or taught it especially well. When we’re ordained, priests are charged with responsibility to proclaim the faith of the church – which pushes us towards things like teachings and doctrines. And then there’s prayer – the heart of our relationship with God. The Episcopal Church is good at inviting people into formal, set ways of prayer, individually or together. There’s good stuff about reading a prayer off the page, using it as a container for whatever we’re bringing to God.
But we don’t always have a prayer book on hand – and what we’re carrying inside us does not always fit those containers very well. When someone comes into church like Hannah, praying from their heart, with tears and trembling… I like to think most priests would handle it better than Eli did, and at least not assume they’re drunk! But we don’t entirely know what to do with prayers that don’t fit into the restrained and elegant form of a Prayer Book collect. So today I’m going to take a cue from Hannah, and talk a little bit about prayer, as the heart of relationship with the Holy.
There are a lot of kinds of prayer. For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to focus on my own prayer life. There are the prayers I share with the church – on Sundays, at Compline, and so on. I bring my own heart-prayers and intentions to those gatherings, and join you in yours. There are family prayers – grace before dinner, Advent prayers, occasionally shared prayer for a particular person or need. There are my personal daily-ish set prayers, involving Scripture, prayer for others, and reflecting back on the day in the evening.
And then… there’s my ongoing conversation with God. (Or with Jesus, or with the Holy Spirit, whatever name or aspect of the Holy feels easiest to call upon in the moment.)
The conversational part of my prayer life connects with all that other stuff, but it’s different. It’s not in fancy words, and sometimes not in words at all. It’s not context-dependent; these are anywhere, anytime prayers. It flows from what’s going on in my life and in my heart. It’s the least structured part of my prayer life, and the most fundamental.
I’m not talking about chattering at God all day. It’s more like touching base, maybe daily, maybe a few times a week, about the stuff that’s on my mind and in my heart. In my mother’s book about Saint Nicholas of Myra, she describes how he would turn his heart and mind towards the Mystery at the center of things. I like that image a lot – but let me be honest that sometimes it’s a pretty quick turn towards the Mystery, and then back towards whatever else I’m doing.
In some ways this aspect of my prayer life looks a lot like a relationship with a close friend or family member. Sometimes we might sit down to have a real talk about something; sometimes I might ask their advice; occasionally there are big feelings to address. But a lot of the time it’s a casual, “Hey, remember not to lose track of this commitment!” Or “Hey, this is giving me trouble, can you help me figure it out sometime?”
Conversation with a friend or partner or parent probably happens mostly in words – spoken or texted. With God, the channels of communication are much broader. On my side, I’m just… talking to God. Sometimes out loud, sometimes silently, sometimes in writing. With or without words. Sometimes using music, or art. Some people find that silence and stillness help. Some people find that movement helps.
On God’s side the channels are even more diverse. I might hear God speak deep in my heart. Or through the words of friends or strangers. I’ve heard God speak to me through Scripture or other things I’m reading. Through art; through music; through the natural world. Through pivot points where a path suddenly became clear. Through the occasional ridiculous coincidence.
We have to learn to listen for God’s side of the conversation. Whether we’re looking for guidance or help, resolution of a difficulty, easing of pain, or simply the next right thing to do – God’s response may require some listening, some noticing. The clarity or mercy we’re seeking may not show up in the form we expect.
You’ve probably heard the story about the man trapped on a roof during a flood who prays for God to save him as the waters rise. People come by in a rowboat and offer to help him; he says, No, I’m a praying man, I have faith that God will save me! Next comes a motorboat and then a helicopter, and the same thing happens: the man refuses their help, preferring to trust in God. Later, in Heaven, the man is furious at God: “I had faith in you! Why didn’t you help me?” And God says, I sent you a rowboat, a motorboat, and a helicopter; what were you waiting for?…
It’s an old joke but there’s something to it. I’m sure I’ve missed rowboats before because I was looking for, I don’t know, some sort of angelic chariot?
So, God’s replies to our prayers aren’t always easy to recognize. Furthermore: God’s timing is different from ours. Sometimes God leaves us on read for a while. Hannah becomes pregnant within months of her fervent prayer; but those months must have felt long in the living of them. Sometimes we have to be patient with God. I’m confident God often has to be patient with us.
Most of the time, God’s side of our conversation, as I’m able to perceive it, is occasional and subtle. I start reading something and realize it speaks directly to something I’ve been wondering about for weeks. I happen to mention a problem to a friend who immediately offers me three concrete solutions. I wonder about whether something is the right direction for our congregation, then a new member shows up out of the blue with a deep passion for that exact issue.
What’s the difference between things like this, and just a lucky turn in daily life? Like finding cool boots in my size at the thrift store – which is fun, but which I would not generally interpret as divine intervention? How do I know when something I read or hear or see or experience is a glimpse of the mercy or guidance or assurance I’ve been seeking from God? I don’t know. Something deep inside me says: Pay attention. This. Now. Sometimes it feels like catching something heavier than expected. Sometimes my breath or my heartbeat tell me that something’s happening. Sometimes my eyes prickle with tears. Sometimes something just becomes almost imperceptibly clearer, or lighter, or softer.
On the other hand, I’ve had a few times in my life when God answered me in laughably obvious ways. I remember a time in my 20s when I was driving home on a dark county road at night and struggling with a question of faith.
I remember asking God – demanding of God – If this is what you want from me, give me a sign! And right on cue: A shooting star blazed across the sky above the road ahead of me.
It was a precious, holy moment for me – but as soon as I put it into words, it sounds like something from Reader’s Digest. At best, too tidy, too sweet; at worst, a glimpse into an unsteady and desperate mind, ascribing personal meaning to space debris.
In his book Unapologetic – an exploration of the lived experience of Christian faith – Francis Spufford describes a comparable moment from his own life. He’d spent the night arguing with his wife, and in the morning he went to a cafe to try to write. And as he sat there drinking his coffee and struggling to focus, somebody put in a cassette of the Adagio movement of Mozart’s clarinet concerto. Spufford writes, “If you don’t know it, it is a very patient piece of music… It sounds as if it comes from a world where sorrow is perfectly ordinary, but still there is more to be said. I had heard it lots of times, but this time it felt to me like news. It said: everything you fear is true. And yet… Everything you have done wrong, you have really done wrong. And yet…” It was exactly what he needed to hear at that moment, to calm his soul and help him move forward.
A few pages later he talks about the nuts and bolts of how he makes sense of a moment like this. He says he doesn’t believe that God suddenly showed up in that cafe at that moment: “God is continually present everywhere anyway, … underlying all cafes, all cassettes, all composers.” Instead, he says, two centuries ago, Mozart wrote a piece of music that successfully expresses the reality that the universe is sustained by love. And when that music started to play, on that particular morning, he simply became able to notice what was always already true: that we are more than our worst moments, and that we are never abandoned.
When we talk to God honestly – When we pray from our hearts, unfiltered, unpolished – our prayers are often not things we’d say out loud in church. We pray grasping prayers for things we want or think we need. We pray from our pain, our bitterness, our anger, our envy. Our fear or confusion or despair. How could we not?
When we read Hannah’s prayer as our Song of Faith today, I skipped a verse:
“The woman who was barren has birthed seven children,
but the mother with many sons has lost them all!”
Hannah seems to be imagining her rival Peninnah losing all her children, as punishment for her cruelty. The Song of Mary, the Magnificat, in Luke’s Gospel, is built on the foundations of Hannah’s song. But Hannah’s prayer bears the traces of her pain and anger. So do ours, sometimes. It doesn’t matter. We can’t hide those feelings from God; we might as well pray them.
And how? There are so many ways. When words fail you or you’re weary of the sound of your own voice, anything can become a vessel for prayer. Maybe it’s choosing which salts to burn with colored flame, like we did at FireChurch a couple fo weeks ago. Maybe it’s holding tight to a rock and saying a name in your heart before you put it down on the green felt. It could be a picture you draw in your journal while thinking about a friend you’re worried about. Poet Mary Oliver offers this advice for prayer: “Just pay attention, then patch a few words together and don’t try to make them elaborate; this isn’t a contest but the doorway into thanks, and a silence in which another voice may speak.”
What I’ve shared here is from my own experience. If you recognize any of it, I would love to hear about the texture of your ongoing conversation with the Holy. If all of this is new to you – if you’ve never heard prayer described this way, or been invited into it – I hope you will try it. And if you feel that you have tried it, and heard only silence – then let’s talk. Or maybe I could connect you with someone else in this congregation. Clergy are not experts on personal prayer, and many of my best mentors have not been ordained. I know there are some people of prayer in this congregation who would be glad to companion someone.
I’d like to close with a prayer for all of us… May we be as bold and open-hearted as Hannah in bringing the prayers and yearnings of our hearts to God. And in times when we see a prayer answered or a hope fulfilled, may we, like Hannah, notice God’s hand at work, and give thanks. Amen.