8/23 Sunday Message

"The Moments Before Prayer"

Sermon Audio

Sermon 8-23Artist Name
00:00 / 16:59

Introduction


Hello Riverside United Methodist Church community, this is Henry and it has been awhile since I have given some sort of sermon. For the past couple of months we have been engaging in Bible studies and discussions about restorative justice, anti-racism work, and then tying those topics to spiritual practices like prayer and concepts like God’s grace. There has been this orienting question of “How do we engage the systems of oppression in this world through the lens and toolbox of our deeply personal yet very communal faith.” And I hope that you have been able to take what we have discussed, shared, and learned into your families, contexts, and day-to-day lives. And that you continue to wrestle with, and think about the topics that we have discussed.

Today I would like to briefly dive more into the practice of our faith. How can we maintain and cultivate this disposition and posture of justice in all aspects of our faith? How do we come to know and be assured that the God that we worship, is indeed a God of justice? How do we cultivate our attention and intention to live out the life of Jesus, that challenged systems of oppression, flipped tables, advocated and listened to the marginalized of his own context. Attention, intention, disposition, and posture are words that I have been reflecting on this past week. Attention, intention, disposition, and posture. One may argue that all of this can be cultivated by engaging in the justice work that God calls on us to do: advocating for the marginalized, which may be through marches, discussing legislation and voting, or volunteering your time and donating your money to charity organizations and social justice movements. The physical and outward actions toward the world can definitely cultivate our attention, intention, disposition, and posture toward justice. However, I believe if we solely act, act, act, we may burn out and miss encountering God in the moments of inaction. We may miss the moments where our faith can be cultivated in the stillness, the silence, and the moment right before an action.

The Mechanical, Murky, & Mundane


You may be thinking, “Henry, are you trying to say we need to pray more before we engage in action?” Yes and No. I believe that we can always pray more, I can pray more. But I believe there is something that can be done before prayer, before communicating to God.

Before we get into that I want to be honest first, for a majority of my life prayer was not spiritually nourishing. I was not drawn to prayer. It was difficult for me. I guess for a majority of my life prayer has been cultivated to be more of a chore, something I had to do rather than something I looked forward to doing. I also felt that prayer was more of a practice to appease and please God, rather than develop a relationship with God. It was mechanical, an isolated moment not connected to the other actions I would take during the day, or even the moments right after the prayer. I pray before I eat, saying thanks to God, but am I really thankful as I take a bite out of my food seconds later? I pray before I sleep, for safety and forgiveness, but I still continue with my poor habits when I wake up in the morning and go throughout my day. You can say the content of my prayer became murky, because clearly I did not remember it. Prayer did not cultivate my faith, relationship with God, and the life of justice that Jesus calls on me to live out. Prayer was mechanical, murky, and ultimately mundane. 

Embodied Prayer


I did not seek to totally abandon prayer, because there were still aspects of prayer in my life that I did find valuable. For example, I enjoyed the moments of praying with family and friends. Also, sometimes prayer would give me comfort before a school test or a piano recital. But there was still something lacking. A few weeks ago in Bible Study, we discussed different types of prayers proposed by theologian Jane Vennard - prayers of intercession, action, renewal, transformation, and discernment. We may now know the format and ethos of these prayers, and can pray them all we want, but are they actually cultivating something - a relationship with God, an understanding of our faith, an affinity to engage in peace and justice? 

In my reflection this week I realized that when we discussed prayer we illuminated the “What,” but i did not illuminate the “How.” Jane Vennard observes that prayer is not some ethereal abstraction, but is ultimately an embodied activity. For my whole life prayer has been about getting it right, saying the right words, making sure I don’t say anything silly when praying in front of people - it came from the mind and through my mouth. But Vennard says, it is more than that, prayer is embodied - yes, it involves your mind and your mouth, but it also  involves your bones, your emotions, your breath, your eyes, your ears, the rest of your physical body, even under your skin, and especially your heart. For Vennard, although oriented toward God, Prayer “must begin within ourselves, in our own hearts.”

I have said it many times that God will meet us wherever we are at, as God’s grace, remember, is prevenient - coming before anything we can do. But also remember that God’s grace requires our response. Therefore, if God is willing to meet us where we are at especially in the moment of prayer, we have to be willing to bring all that we are to God. In order to cultivate the spiritual connection of our prayers, in order to cultivate faith and action, we have to bring all that we are, we have to embody prayer. 

The Moments Before Prayer


So how do we actually do this in practice? One big problem that I have noticed, which perpetuated my posture of prayer as mechanical, murky, and mundane is that I often rushed into prayer. It was something that just needed to be done, a simple check-box in my life to get to heaven. And this is problematic. I am reminded of Proverbs 21:5, where the writer states, “The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to want.” In other words, if you rush you may not feel fulfilled in the end - and that is what has been happening to me. Therefore, I would like to share three things I have done before prayer, that can hopefully make prayer more embodied and hopefully cultivate your faith, your relationship with God, and the life of justice that Jesus calls on you to live out.


One - Before prayer, savor the silence. Try and sit in the silence for 30 seconds. It may feel uncomfortable at first, where you notice thoughts popping up in your head. That is OK, thoughts will come and when they do slowly release them. You may want to move a little bit, becoming mindful of the ache in your bones. That is OK, don’t resist what your body is telling you to do. The reason for savoring the silence is not just to clear our mind, but ultimately to open ourselves to God in the silence. The prophet Elijah was searching for God on a mountain - 1 Kings 19:11-13 states,

“11...Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 

God communicated to Elijah not in great wind, not in the earthquake, and not in the fire. Instead, in the sound of sheer silence, God communicated in a voice, and various translations characterize it as a “still small voice.” In the midst of all the noise of the world today, in the midst of the noise of our own mind and spoken prayers, may we have missed God communicating with us and cultivating us in the stillness, in the silence, in quiet? 

Two - Before prayer, bring all that you are to God. Remember that prayer is ultimately embodied and begins from the heart. I am reminded of Luke 12:7 - “But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are more value than many sparrows.” For me, this verse speaks of a God who is constantly active and moving throughout our lives - a God who counts all the hairs on our head. In other words, God cares about you, loves you, and knows you. But in the context of prayer, this verse moves me to ask the question, “Do I know myself?” Am I bringing the person that God fully knows in the midst of prayer, or am I just bringing part of myself - only the parts that I believe will please God. Vennard observes, “Perhaps you are angry that there is so much wrong in the world.” She ultimately suggests, “Bring that anger into your prayer” (Vennard, 17). Bring your anger to God. For I believe it is not until we can bring all that we are to God, that we can fully experience the transformative nature of prayer. And consequently the content of our prayers may change as well, and the mechanical, murky, and mundane content goes away. 

And so after savoring the silence, we can ask ourselves a couple of mindful questions, that can ease us into bringing all that we are to the prayer. We can reflect: 

  • What is most salient in my mind right now? 

  • What emotions have I felt throughout the month, the week, the day? 

  • Why am I feeling these emotions? 

Three - Before prayer, be mindful that you are not praying alone. Vennard reminds us that “As you pray, you are joining others around the world in many cultures and traditions who are also praying for justice and peace” (Vennard, 33). Imagine that whenever you are praying, there is always someone in the world praying with you. There is someone sharing your joys and thankfulness to God, possibly even for the same thing. And as you are talking about your suffering to God, someone else may be praying about their suffering and pain as well. And what brings me comfort is that through the Holy Spirit we are in a sense connected. Through prayer, my pain may be connected to your pain. Through prayer, my struggle may be connected to your struggle. And what this does is open me up to the deep interdependence and interconnection of God’s creation. Moving me to ultimately want to work to end both of our suffering.  Matthew 18:30 states, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Which is beautiful. But we can also be mindful that when we individually pray to God, not only is God with us, but the rest of God’s creation is with us as well, some even praying with us. 

And so after savoring the silence, and bringing all that you are to God, we can remind ourselves that we are not praying alone. That somewhere on this planet, people are lifting their prayers toward God as well. 

Closing Prayer

 

To close, I would like to invite you all to participate in a meditative exercise of what I just shared, then move us into a closing prayer. Let us prepare ourselves for prayer. 

I invite you all to take a deep breath in and a deep breath out. Take a deep breath in and a deep breath out. One more time take a deep breath in, and when you breath out I invite you to smile. Let us sit for a few moments and savor the silence. 

Let us now bring all that we are to God. Ask yourself: 

  • What is most salient in my mind right now?

  • What emotions have I felt throughout the month, the week, the day? 

  • Why am I feeling these emotions? 

  • Who am I? 

Finally, let us become mindful that we are not praying alone. In our context, Riverside United Methodist Church is indeed not only praying for you but also with you.

 

Let us take a deep breath in and a deep breath out. Take a deep breath in and a deep breath out. One more time take a deep breath in, and when you breath out I invite you to smile. Shall we pray. 

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference. Amen. 


Don't go rushing into your day yet. I invite you all just to savor the moments after the prayer as well. Feel free to sit in silence or become mindful of your body and emotions. I hope you all have a blessed week and much peace. 

 

Notes

- Jane Vennard, Embracing The World: Praying For Justice and Peace
 

RIVERSIDE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH

Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.

803 Vallejo Way, Sacramento, CA 95818. 916-443-4360. 

© 2020 Riverside United Methodist Church of Sacramento. All Rights Reserved.

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