Some of you know that I’ve started working out in a gym again. What you may not know is that for most of my life, until we moved back to Seattle in 2014, I had a regular workout routine. Our first year here I was training to walk the Camino so it wasn’t that noticeable that I’d lost my routine.
Then the years piled up without focused exercise, strength building or stretching. When the pandemic began, like many others, I turned into a couch potato as we isolated at home. Previously I had been too busy. Or I couldn’t find a gym I liked that was convenient or it was too expensive or I had injuries that needed to be rested. But really, I had just gotten out of the practice.
It can be that way with prayer, worship and the devotional life. We get out of practice. We’re so busy and tired all the time. It’s not convenient to pray or to get to church for a Sunday morning. There are already so many obligations. Participating in a faith community can be costly in time, talent and treasure.
When the pandemic began, we simply had to stop attending church in person or participating in communal gatherings. The added weight of the almost unfathomable events of the past few years made it difficult or even seemingly fruitless to keep up with a routine of prayer, worship and devotion. At least 30-50% of the American population who were regular church attendees pre-COVID have not returned to that practice.
If you are within the sound of my voice, you may be one of those whose spiritual disciplines have continued unabated. Or you may be just beginning or restarting the practice of participating in worship, regular prayer and renewed service to others. Maybe you, like me, need assistance – a trainer as it were to help you develop or redevelop your spiritual strength and endurance. Perhaps, like the disciples, you are asking Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray.”
During the pandemic there was a lot of TV binge watching. Perhaps you did some of that as well. After hours and hours of this, it seemed like there was nothing good on, no new shows to watch. Only a few shows can now hold my attention. One that continues to engage and move me is “Call the Midwife.” And it is from the nuns at Nanartis House that I received the encouragement and inspiration to return to regular prayer.
During their very busy and intense days as midwives in a poor neighborhood of London after World War II they are faced with challenges, tragedies, personal doubt, conflicts, injustice and just plain exhaustion and discouragement. Maybe you can relate. I know I can.
At the end of each day, their practice of praying the daily office of compline together brings many episodes to a close. There in the peace of their home chapel, they light candles, chant the psalms, hear Scripture and offer their hearts joys and woes to God together. This is no big production and there are less than a dozen nuns present, but it’s clear that this act of faithful prayer is what gives them the strength and courage to carry on for another day. They learn to pray by praying.
When we pray, we go into the Mystery. We acknowledge that we don’t have it all together. We don’t control the Universe. We can’t make it all better. We can’t save the world. We are contingent. We are not ultimate. In the face of all that is difficult and overwhelming; in the presence of all that is awesome and beautiful; in the middle of situations that we cannot understand or fix; we fall to our knees. “Our Father, who art in heaven.”
When we pray, we turn towards the eternal and Holy One who is beyond all our comprehension and yet as near as the breath we breathe. We exhale all our longings, pleadings and laments and inhale the dear presence of the Holy Spirit.
In prayer we receive our daily bread, just enough courage, hope and strength to go on, to continue the journey, to trust for the next step. I know why those disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray. They asked because they saw in his life and practice an intimacy and trust that was deeper than they had ever experienced and they wanted that connection for themselves. He was praying constantly and his prayer never ceased. He prayed up until the moment of his death and our Christian faith teaches us that he is still interceding for us eternally in glory.
Prayer holds us close to God’s heart and at the same time, we hold the cares, concerns, and thanksgivings of our own lives before God. As we expose our own sins and sorrows to God, we receive the grace and forgiveness needed to forgive others. As we ask for our own daily bread, we open our hands to share what we have been given. As we pray for God’s kingdom to come, we find ways to participate in the building of that vision. We find our lives becoming more and more of a prayer in both word and action.
The Episcopal Church is a church of prayer. Aside from the historical creeds, we don’t have a set of confessions or doctrines that you have to ascribe to. We often say, “Lex orandi, lex credendi” which means that the law of prayer is the law of belief. We believe what we pray. And what we pray often comes from Scripture through the Book of Common Prayer.
The prayer book is what gave me words when I had no words of my own in times of tragedy. The prayer book provides us every Sunday with prayers that have been prayed by people through the centuries, the world over. It gives us both a daily rhythm for prayer through the offices of Morning and Evening Prayer and Compline as well as prayer for the great transitions of life: marriage, ordination, sickness and death. Yesterday, prayers from the Burial Office helped those of us who loved Chuck Mason to get through his funeral service.
Communal prayer, written prayers, prayers that are memorized and recited over and over again shape us and are there for us when words escape us. Many times at a death bed, a seemingly unconscious person will begin to mouth the words of the Lord’s Prayer in unison with those gathered in vigil. Often in times of anxiety, in the middle of a dark night, my lips repeat over and over the prayers that now live inside my brain without effort or conscious thought, “Holy God, holy and strong, holy immortal one, have mercy upon us.”
Only a very few will choose a monastic life of regular, corporate prayer with others, but we can choose to be part of a faith community that continues faithfully with worship, prayer and service regardless of the circumstances.
In the TV show, it is only the nuns who pray together each day but often the camera shows one of the nurse residents or other characters passing by the door to the chapel while they are praying. Sometimes they simply look in. At other times they stop or sit at the back of the chapel. They know that the deep prayer of the community continues for them, the concerns of their lives and the whole world even if they are not actively participating.
I take great comfort in this. The prayer of the faithful. The prayer of Jesus continues without ceasing for you. For me. For our broken and hurting world. The door is always open for us to drop in, rest and join the ongoing offering of prayer, worship and service. Amen.