Message for September 6, 2020
Text: Psalm 32
Eleven years ago, I went through a brief period of depression that alarmed me enough to seek medical treatment. I was especially alert to this because my mother struggled with depression, and took her life at the age of 40, and this episode came upon me around the 25th anniversary of her death, at a time when other factors in life were leaving me particularly vulnerable. I spent a few months on medication and, among other things, discovered just how very powerful exercise can be in bringing emotional healing and balance.
Another thing I noticed during this dark period — and it’s something I have seen played out, over and over, in the lives of church members and other people close to me — is that it is incredibly easy to slip gently out of that balance. I imagined it to be rather like walking along a sort of floating dock, then stepping onto a piece that is not tied up properly, and just sort of floating away, lost.
I am discovering that one can lose other core habits and practices in the same way, including the practice of prayer. What once was so foundational can gently slip away, at first without one even realizing it, until eventually its loss starts showing up in other areas of dysfunction, as one’s grip on a centered, meaningful life slips away, leaving one feeling unanchored, lost, even hopeless.
I am wondering about the toll that COVID, politics, racial strife, economic woes, and fire worries has been taking on you, and on other brothers and sisters. As I and my colleagues here in the area take up the question of how to be the Church now, in these trying and uncertain times, and in sober recognition that we won’t be going back to “life as usual,” we are endeavoring to chart a course that starts in prayer.
The psalmist describes the toll that hiding from God had taken on him — the wearing out of the bones, the groaning, the sapping of energy — in very physical terms. He interpreted this as the effect of sin, a need to confess.
And while I hesitate to use the term “sin” in these days when most of us feel that we are largely afflicted by things that are not our fault and not in our control — and we may not have “sins of commission” that we’re “hiding” from God — I will confess my own tendency to try to handle difficulty on my own, to just buckle down, stop complaining, and get to work, assuring myself that “I can handle this; I don’t need prayer” — or, “I should be able to handle this on my own.”
To that inner voice I need to respond by reminding myself that God is the one in control.
Years ago I had a chance encounter with an Irish priest (we were co-efficiating for an unusual wedding) who told me about his doctoral work in the area of the efficacy of intercessory prayer (that’s “church speak” for praying for the needs of others). What this priest found in his study — and I’ve since read about this in other, published works — was that, while people who are prayed for — whether they know about this praying, or not — experience positive outcomes, what is even more remarkable is that there are positive outcomes for the people doing the praying. In other words, when we pray for others, oftentimes we receive a great benefit. We are healthier, more at peace, more in balance, when we engage in prayer for others.
A similar phenomenon I have noticed, in my life, is that praying for a situation to change, or for another person to change, isn’t nearly as effective as praying for change in myself — in my own attitude, or in my ability to cope with what life has handed me.
The psalmist shifts from his own voice to God’s, in the psalm, when he says: “I will instruct you and teach you about the direction you should go” (v. 8). Listening to God keeps us from being “like some senseless horse or mule” (v. 9) at the mercy of events surrounding us — keeps us from being distracted and pulled every which way, by emotions, addictive patterns, people’s opinions, and the endless tide of news. Instead, God offers us the centeredness that comes from staying connected in love to God’s heart, which keeps us walking confidently on God’s path, even when the future looks murky, fearful, and uncertain.
Now, there’s something else about prayer that I want to raise as a caution — and again, it’s because I fall into this trap myself sometimes. It is confusing the practice of constant prayer with the practice of constant worry. I have sometimes defined spirituality as developing a constant awareness of God’s presence. I know saints who keep a running conversation going with God throughout their day. I’ve also known people who keep a constant “conversation” going, but it’s really a steady stream of rumination, anxiously repeating a list of fears and “what ifs,” a habit of holding on instead of letting go.
If that is what your prayers have looked like lately, allow me to suggest an alternative script. Try something like: “Lord, have mercy,” “Thy will be done,” “I surrender” (one of my favorites), or this one that I learned from theologian Brian McLaren: “Here I am. Here you are. Here we are together.” Any of these mantras can facilitate a constant practice of letting go, and placing our fears and worries in the arms of Almighty God.
At one of my previous churches, a member “told me a story on” one of the former pastors (I’m not about to name names, though!). The congregation had gone through a wonderful period of growth, and the pastor was musing about it aloud, admitting he was rather flabbergasted by the “success” of their efforts to reach out. The chair of the evangelism committee responded,“Well, you know, Pastor, we did pray.”
That faithful disciple made a great impact on my friend, such that he remembered those words years later.
The Psalmist proclaims, “All the faithful should pray to you during troubled times” (v. 6). May it be the first step, not the last resort; may it be the first breath of the day, not an afterthought; may it be the last breath of the day, and not go forgotten.
As we consider how God is calling us to be the Church in these times so fraught with uncertainty, let us ground ourselves in the healing and centering practice of prayer. It is certainly one exercise that can’t be limited by masks or distance. It is fuel for courage and hope — two things that our world desperately needs right now. And if you’ve gotten out of the habit, and found yourself adrift, know that stepping back onto the dock is not so very difficult. You may be feeling understandably heavy, stressed, fearful. But God is reaching out with a steady hand and a welcoming embrace. God is ready to guide and direct us. Let us hold fast, know God’s grace, and be the Church, now. Amen.