How Faith Grows: Thoughts and Prayers

November 25, 2018
Second Presbyterian Church, Indianapolis

Romans 8:18-27 p. 1030
"I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God."

I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving. I hope it was a full day no matter if you spent it alone or surrounded by family and friends. I hope you found time to rest and be recharged for your weeks ahead. I hope you found it to be exactly what you needed. And if the day left something to be desired, it is my hope that you find peace, comfort, and belonging here with us this morning.

There truly is nothing quite like this holiday we call Thanksgiving. It provides many the opportunity to consider all gifts this life has to give; to think back; to reminisce; to consider the loved ones who have shared this journey we call life with us; to miss those who are no longer present; to celebrate the ones who still walk alongside us; to give thanks. Yes, there is nothing quite like Thanksgiving.

Every year, a collection of my family gathers for a scene that I am sure is similar to the scene in many of your homes. We come from different places. We descend upon one of our homes carrying way too much food often demanding several trips to the car to retrieve one more casserole dish. We put the dishes in the precise and preassigned locations - side dishes there; appetizers over there; and desserts way over there (so as to not ruin our dinner). O, and your coats? Put your coats on the bed in the master bedroom. For some reason, they seem to always belong there.

Then the real reason for gathering begins. Pockets of people fill different places in the house and conversations start. With the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade on in the background, one can overhear talk of children, recent marriages, new jobs begun and old jobs lost, bumps and bruises, and loved ones not present. And don’t forget the story telling. Stories that everyone knows, the ones that are told at every family gathering, are retold with new flair and somehow brand new details. Sound familiar?

It is in the storytelling that I am reminded of a character trait of my family every year. Actually, I am reminded of it every time we are together. We are collectively the loudest family ever. Seriously. I know that there is no way to test it or to prove it, but I promise that it is more than likely true. When the three Shivers children are in the same room, the same house, the noise level is unbelievable. Each story builds upon the last. Each story is louder than the one that preceded it. In fact, in the car on our way home following one of our family gatherings several years ago, I observed out loud that Jennifer had been unusually quiet all day. In response, she said, “I was afraid to talk because I didn’t think there was enough oxygen in the room for me to do anything but breathe. You three were so loud.”

Yep, that’s us. That’s the Shivers kids. Is it any wonder that the “quiet game” was one that my parents often wanted us to play when we were in the car together? It’s probably no surprise that we weren’t very good at it. We obviously still aren’t.

Actually, I’m not sure our entire culture is very good at the quiet game either. It’s always seems to be so loud, so noisy.
Buy this, we are told . . .
Don’t buy that, they say . . .
This is the best deal ever, they shout . . .
This is the worst day ever . . .
That is the worst person ever . . .
Don’t believe that person . . .
Believe me . . .
Look over here . . .
Watch this . . .
You’re doing it wrong . . .
Listen to me . . .
No, listen to me . . .

It’s just so incredibly noisy. (Provide yourself 15 seconds of silence.)

It’s just so noisy in this world in which we live.

It is easy to fall into the temptation to raise our voices so that we too might be heard, might be noticed, might be seen, might be valued.

“We’re here, we’re here, we’re here,” we simultaneously shout in a thousand different ways on a thousand different days.

This same pattern seems to repeat itself in our spiritual journey. There are those who try to convince us that somehow we aren’t doing it right, doing it enough, doing it in the right manner, or in the right place, or with the right words. There are those who try to tell us that our prayers are ineffective. And that they are ineffective because we are doing it all wrong. It is entirely our own fault.

It is so noisy.

So, in hopes of getting the noise level just right to make sure that our voices are heard above the fray, we try new formulas, new approaches, new gadgets, and gizmos, and whirligigs, all the latest fads sold by all the latest television prosperity gospel salesmen. And when we are convinced yet again that our prayers don’t work we shout even louder. We stand in the streets in hopes we will be heard. We hurl our petitions, our longings, our pleadings toward the heavens in hopes that our shouting will be heard in the midst of the cacophony of noise. We post our thoughts and prayers on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. We share the articles written by the latest spiritual gurus; we make sure that we add our amen to the new form of chain letter. I am sure you’ve seen them: “Share this if you aren’t ashamed”; “Share this if you love Jesus”; “Share this and God will bless you”. As if God is our network supervisor, our internet watchman just waiting to give us a blessing because we passed along the latest meme. And we add to the noise.

It’s just so noisy in our over active hyper attentive world. And our spirits get lost in the racket. (Provide yourself 20 seconds of silence)

In all the noise, we forget Jesus’ words found in Matthew 6.
“whenever you pray,” he said, “go into your room and shut the door and pray to God who is in secret; and God who sees in secret will reward you.
‘When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for God knows what you need before you ask.” (adapted from Matthew 6:6-8)

It isn’t our many words, our volume, or our religious performance that gets God’s attention. We already have God’s attention. We never lost it. God knows what we need before we ever ask. Shouting, filling the silence with unneeded words, cannot garner the attention of the One who is already fully attentive and closer than our very breath.

In the midst of all of the noise, in the midst of our frantic busy-ness what we don’t realize is that we are doing it, right now.
We are praying the deepest of our prayers, right now.
We are in full communion with the divine, right now.
And in the process, we are becoming, right now.

(Provide yourself 30 seconds of silence.)

Yes, we are doing it right now, and most of the time we are completely unaware.

Perhaps what we are called to do is to shatter all of the noise with our silence.
Perhaps that is the first step to prayer.
Perhaps that is prayer.
Perhaps the prayer offered on Thanksgiving wasn’t simply the words of blessing said before the meal but the very meal itself, the way you cooked with love, the loneliness felt, the warmth of the embrace, the sound of laughter, the memories that flooded back, the hope that it would somehow be different this time, the desire that things would never change.

What if all of that was prayer?
What if all of this is prayer?

Kaitlin Curtice, a Native American Christian author and speaker recently wrote this in her piece entitled “A Slow and Steady Surrender,”
“When we visit the river (as a family), we often take our kayak, and sometimes we go just to swim, just to splash and dig for rocks and shells in the sand.

As I watch my four- and six-year-old play in the water,” Kaitlin writes, “I learn again for myself. I learn that the river slowly carries pebble after pebble over the rocks at the river’s floor, years and years of slow and steady wear to make the rocks smooth and still at the water’s edge.

This is what it is like to learn the ways of God, to learn the ways of the world, the ways of mystery. It is beyond religion, beyond theology, beyond the dogmatic things we were taught when we were young.

It is a slow and steady surrender to the current that we often don’t understand.

It is a slow and steady surrender to the mystery of God, who uses the everyday experiences of our lives to make our ragged edges a little smoother.

It’s that same kind of surrender when I sit in my garden and dig up weeds, best done crouched down on my knees, face so near the dirt I can smell it. It is painful, this long and hard work of weeding, just like the long, hard work of a river rock becoming smooth over the years.”

She concludes, “To rest in the quiet of a current, in the quiet of work, I am simply taught to be, by the ways of the water, by the flowing and steady presence of God” (Curtice).

This beautiful piece is reminiscent of the words of Paul to the church in Rome, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness;” he wrote, “for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8:26-27, NRSV).

With sighs too deep for words.
We are doing it right now.

To rest in the quiet of a current, in the quiet of work, we are simply taught to be, by the ways of the water, by the flowing and steady presence of God. We are always doing it, but most of the time we are completely unaware. (Provide yourself 30 seconds of silence).

In that silence, what did you hear?
Those longings;
those deep desires;
those hidden fears;
those overwhelming doubts;
those insatiable worries,
the ones that keep us up at night;
the ones that leave our stomach unsettled;
the ones that make our minds wonder;
these are our prayers,
and yet, they so often get crowded out with all of our words; with all of our noise. And we struggle to hear the beauty of the divine message there in the silence - the silence that is always present.

Our deepest questions are birthed in the silence of prayer, and they become a prayer themselves that then lead us to transformative action for the world.

It is in these depths that we are transformed. Prayer bears witness to this becoming; to our becoming.

Our core identity is unveiled in the silence, and we are invited to dwell there in the accepted tenderness of the divine. Listen. You are the beloved.

This silence, this listening, this praying is not synonymous with passivity. In fact, it may be the very opposite.
This silence, this listening, this praying, is the beginning of radical action. It is our act of resistance to a world cluttered with noise. Prayer changes our hearts and leads us to action.

Thomas Keating wrote, "We rarely think of the air we breathe, yet it is in us and around us all the time. In similar fashion, the presence of God penetrates us, is all around us, is always embracing us" (Keating).

Perhaps prayer is first and foremost becoming aware of the Presence, understanding that God is ever present with sighs too deep for words.

May we have the courage to dwell there. May we listen. May we pay attention to the groaning.

So let us pray.

But let us not simply fill the world with more words, with more noise.
Listen.
Be silent.
Wait with expectation.
And then, may we live “as if” in a “not yet” world. May we live into the promise of God’s presence, and may we be open to our spirit joining with the divine when we know not what to say.

(Provide yourself silence.)

We are doing it right now.

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