text :: Romans 8:26-27
theme verse :: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought...” (Romans 8:26)
Many of us have learned a “go-to” prayer over time –often a bedtime prayer as a child or The Lord’s Prayer as we prayed it each week in worship. But ask anyone without notice to say a prayer aloud or share about their prayer life and most get wide-eyed and tight lipped pretty quick. It seems, however, that as our spirit’s mature, we recognize that the gift of prayer shifts as well –often from a sense of communication to God to an experience of communion with God. How might we move from “What do I pray?” to “How is my life a prayer?”
special music :: 'Come As You Are' (Crowder) :: The Rising Band; Isaac Herbert, leader
reader :: Hollie Hawkins
preaching :: Rev Mark Briley
anthem :: 'Lord, I Want To Be A Christian' (arr.Lantz) :: Chancel Choir; Kelly Ford, director; Christina Maxwell, soloist
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. 27 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. 28 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.
I could be wrong. No need to wait for the but, here. It’s not coming. I could be wrong. Period. I’ve got to say, I’m sort of relieved. Sure, we want to be right. We believe what we believe, we do what we do, we fight for the things we fight for because we believe we’re right. But some of us never seem to get to that point of saying, “I could be wrong.” It really is sort of refreshing. Do you want to try? Just say it: “I could be wrong.” Doesn’t it feel good? Nah. We much prefer to be right. So I won’t speak for you. I’ll just speak for myself. I could be wrong, you know. I mean, I’m thinking specifically about prayer in this moment. I’m sure there was a time when I once thought prayer was about getting what I want. I’d heard all the quips: “God wants me to have the desires of my heart.” Terrific. I want to date her, drive that, live there, go to that school and do that job. Done. Even Jesus said something that turned into a great worship tune I sang in college: “Ask, and it will be given to you. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be open to you… the door will be open to you.” Boom. Prayer. This stuff is easy. Well… not everything turned out as I prayed so I was confronted with what that was all about. You’ve had this struggle too.
Think Bedlam. Oklahoma Sooners versus O-State Cowboys – always the biggest game of the year around these parts and half the crowd is praying for a Sooner victory and the other half for the Cowboys but we all know God prefers the _________, right? So you could be wrong. Ah… so then what about those prayers? And it gets more serious than football. I got a text last week from a friend whose mother was in the hospital… things weren’t looking good. My friend texts me that his sister is praying for a miracle to heal their mom and my friend was praying for the suffering to end so their mom wouldn’t be in this terrible state any longer. That’s a little deeper isn’t it? What about those prayers? Another friend comes to me with a great heartache in her spirit about something she’s been facing for decades and is weary and scared and uncertain and she simply says, “I don’t know what I want from you… I guess I just want your prayers.” Of course. Another friend yet texts about a job interview – this would be a great career step for my friend and good for his family and he said, “Please pray me in…”. Absolutely. But do I pray he gets the job, and my other friend’s heartache gets removed and for a miracle for my other friend’s mom or his request that her suffering ends and she joins the great saints of the resurrection?
Richard Rohr, a Franciscan Priest, wrote a great book called “Falling Upward,” addressing the two halves of our lives – which I highly recommend. And I’m soon to be officially “Over the Hill” myself which I can’t believe. I remember as a kid going to a family friend’s 40th birthday surprise party and we hid a bunch of “Over the Hill” gags around the house and I thought that Don must have known Jesus personally he was so old. Well, now that’s almost me so… pray for me? Anyway, Rohr quotes Paul in Romans 9 where Paul writes,
But Rohr says we only realize this is true in the second half of life. Rohr’s life halves are less numerical and more spiritually based. “We had to do the wanting and the trying and the achieving and the self-promoting and the accomplishing. The first half of life is all about some kind of performance principle. And it seems that it must be this way. We have to do it wrong before we know what right might be. In the second half of life, we start to understand that life is not only about doing; it’s about being.” He then tells a story about going home to Kansas after his father had just retired at the age of sixty-five.
For thirty-six years, his dad had painted trains for the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad. He had grown up poor during the Depression and the dust storms of western Kansas. Generationally, jobs were something you valued deeply and once you got one, you weren’t going to lose it. Never missed a single day of work in all those years. The company said, “He turned on the lights every morning.” Isn’t that something? And so here he is on Day One of retirement literally falling into his son’s arms in tears saying, “I don’t know who I am now. I don’t know who I am. … pray with me, pray with me.” Here is Richard Rohr, a grown man, a priest, supposed to be strong for his dad and he said, “I didn’t know how to do it. I guess I said the appropriate priestly words, but I didn’t know how to guide him into the second half of life and he was begging for a guide.”
Our prayer lives may reflect this same struggle of claiming our identity. A church friend sent me an article this week about the importance of community and it engaged this very idea. The author said, “I spent my days focused on optimizing myself: Endlessly working and improving, on a permanent quest to do as much as possible in the unforgiving confines of twenty-four hours. It was the only way I knew how to be. Compete. Excel. Win. She then said, “I never considered there might be a cost to a life of high-octane, high-reward competition.” Bill Gates reflected on aging and perspective, particularly regarding his work of the past year. He said that as a young man in his twenties, he was consumed with making Microsoft a personal-computing giant. Today, his focus is on other people. “Did I devote enough time to my family?” he asks himself now. “Did I learn enough new things? Did I develop new friendships and deepen old ones?” These would have been laughable to me when I was 25, but as I get older, they are much more meaningful.” Given this current season in your life, what is pulling your greatest reflective attention? And how do your prayers, if at all, reflect such a season?
The Apostle Paul brings a word for us today from his letter to the church at Rome. Rome! Now there was a place that was hustling and bustling with amazing world-class art, exquisite poetry, finely crafted moral philosophy and imperial decrees. People of great influence in this city. And Paul writes this little letter to a church there that would have mostly gone unnoticed in such a place. Its thirty years after the Jesus event – death, burial, resurrection – which had taken place in a remote corner of the Roman Empire. Few of the elite in Rome were giving it much worry; nobody tweeted about the resurrection, you know? Peter didn’t post a selfie of himself on Instagram with the abandoned linens in the empty tomb. The movement took some time to catch on. But this letter of Paul’s – somehow, some way, in the midst of such deep and culturally important work – would soon leave all of those other writings in the dust; a world-altering word from a man whose life had been altered by an encounter with Jesus.
In the brief piece we look at this morning, Paul’s writing about the birth pangs of the world. Change, difficulties, tension, conflict – externally, yes, but Paul says, “That same turmoil is going on inside of you.” We’re yearning for deliverance from meaninglessness and we’re waiting and wondering and yes, even praying, for whatever that may look like for us. And when it all seems unanswered and growing in its complexities and our relationships get rocky and the job is uncertain and the desire isn’t coming to pass as easily as the praise song said it would, we get tired in the waiting. Paul says, “that’s exactly when God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along, making prayer out of our incoherent thoughts… even our deepest sighs that are beyond any words we could muster. The Spirit is right there.” The Spirit is right there? And then it hit me… made a lot of sense to me… and I could be wrong, remember? But this sounded a lot like keeping good company. Is that the true gift of prayer? The Spirit gets us…at the very essence of our being… and holds company with us. “That’s prayer,” I thought, “Keeping company with God.” There’s less a spirit of “fix-it” in this company and more a withness. There’s a change in your prayer life if you consider such a possibility.
How often I’ve just prayed, “God, fix it!” and not, “God keep company with me through this.” It doesn’t mean that we should never pray and plea for the desires of our hearts, for our needs, for great things that are needed in the world. The Hebrew writer said, “Come boldly before the throne of God with our prayers,” so there’s space for that and I trust in the power of those prayers, yes. But think of any maturing relationship you’ve had in your lives. Like when you’re first in that dating phase with someone and it’s all about the words. “We talked on the phone for like three hours last night.” And then you do that every night for a month; maybe two or six or twelve. The words! That’s how you connect at first but as the relationship matures, it’s not that you don’t still have things to say to each other – you should always ask new, inquisitive questions of the loves in your life – but there becomes a comfort in simply keeping company with that person. A knowing glance says what three hours of conversation once said. A reach for their hand speaks volumes without even uttering a word. Could our prayers grow in this withness with God too?
Think of some of the biggest moments in scripture. 23rd Psalm – the most known of all the Psalms – what does it say as a prayer? “I will fear no evil for you are with me.” That’s not fixing, that’s keeping company. The incarnation of Christ as we read in John’s gospel: “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God. The word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood.” Withness. Or Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane – as human a moment of any as the text says that Jesus is sweating blood as he’s praying over what is about to happen – his pending arrest and subsequent crucifixion. Jesus prays, “God if you can fix this, that would be my preference but if not, your will be done.” “God… if this doesn’t go the way I want it to go, then give me some new perspective on the matter at hand… help me see your take on this.” The interesting part here is my wondering if Jesus is projecting next onto the disciples what he wanted of his heavenly Father. He just wanted his Abba, Daddy, to be with him and he wasn’t feeling much withness in the stress of the moment. What does Jesus say to the disciples who had fallen asleep as he was praying blood out of his pores? “Can’t you stay awake with me for even an hour?” “Can’t you keep company with me? I’m kind of dealing with some big stuff here.” If you’ve ever wondered where God was in your time of need… maybe you know that feeling.
Life is tumultuous isn’t it? It’s often harder than we thought it would be. It’s more complex and things we assumed would be easy and a natural part of our lives – falling in love, having a child, raising a child, getting that job, retiring well, etc, etc, hasn’t panned out like we imagined. Life feels more like wave crashing down on another wave and we’re just trying to stay afloat without losing our minds or blowing up the good things that are holding us steady while the waves are raging in other areas of our existence. We may want a fix-it God in these moments, but we may only get some divine company who simply commits to guide us through it. I was amazed this week to learn about life as a Columbia River Bar Pilot. Do you know about these pilots? Imagine a stretch of water so dangerous that even huge ships can’t cross it safely. It’s a place sailors call the “graveyard,” where hundreds of ships have sunk and thousands have lost their lives. But the global economy relies on navigating this place with shipping vessels every day to avoid economic collapse. The Columbia River Bar in the Pacific Northwest, located at the intersection of the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean is such a place. It is considered one of the most dangerous stretches of water in the world.
Not just any ship captain can navigate these ships so there are expert Captains that are trained to do this – their only job is to get on these ships out in the ocean and navigate those ships through the passage; a real Jesus take the wheel sort of vocation. In the 1960’s, these special captains would get to the ships by rowboat – sometimes enduring 25 foot swells – just to get to the ships. They’d scurry up those ships on a dropped rope ladder and then guide those ships through the rough waters. Today, it’s much more MacGyver than that. These expert captains get helicoptered onto these ships simply to guide them through the passage – some ten times a day – which ultimately moves $24 billion dollars in goods each year through this passage. Can you imagine a passage so treacherous that an expert withness is flown in to help you get through it? I wonder if that is the kind of company God keeps with us when we’re in those most difficult or uncertain places. And I imagine not a lot is said … just focused company… just a hand held in the waiting room at the hospital… just a tear wiped when the pain was clear but no words could repair. So many will say in times of tragedy or deepest challenge, “I just don’t know what to say.” “Just be there,” I’ll offer back. Just be good company. Silent presence is as powerful a prayer as you’ll ever pray. The Spirit already knows and recognizes the sigh.
Do you have these company keepers in your life? There are some people in my life whose spirits are deep… they don’t need to offer words anymore to prove that… they just are a well of spiritually-deep-second-half-of-life wisdom — and when I’m in prayer with them… and they look at me or send me a three word text, “I’m with you…” or they simply exhale; sigh … I believe them… I believe their spirit. I believe their withness. I feel their prayers washing over me. And I feel the Spirit’s agreement in our two-or-three-are-gathered moment. That’s keeping good company.
Jesus, post-resurrection, was having one last moment with his assembled team, tasked (big gulp) with transforming the world with all he had shared with them, before he ascends to heaven. Do you remember what he says to them? At the end of Matthew’s gospel he says to them, “Go into all the world, make disciples (people willing to learn the Way), and I will be with you.” I will be your withness. I will keep company with you all along the way…even to the end of the age. That seems to be the promise. I could be wrong. I wonder, however, if that is truly the greatest gift of prayer… and worth our daily practice… simply to keep holy company with God and one another… and trust that such is enough. Surely that’s the pray without ceasing idea… keeping constant company. The Spirit already recognizes our sighs… knows the need; holds it with us. And there is enough power in the holding to transform the world.
A colleague of mine… just this fireball of a woman who is retired professionally but engaged in the work of world-wide compassion sharing as much as any I know. She just spent time in Guatemala serving with partner communities and learned of a Mayan belief that suggests there is a fixed amount of suffering in the world. The idea is simply this: if you share your suffering with others, your burden is lightened. And if that person shares that suffering as well, the suffering diminishes yet again. The Mayans could be wrong. So could my friend. But she wonders about it. And so do I… at least in the power of holding each others joys and pains… keeping company with God and one another.
So when you text me or email me or call me or pull me aside or sit with me over coffee or in my office or however we communicate – there’s something about the gift of prayer that turns that communication into communion. There’s something in our withness that changes outcomes and strengthens weakness and brings hope to despair. When we say, “I’m holding that with you,” we’re trusting the Spirit to be with us too; to transform us, heal us. I could be wrong. Period. God already knows. So I’ll trust God with that without really needing to say any words at all.
 Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation From the Center for Action and Contemplation. Week 12. Growing in Christ. Tuesday, March 19, 2019.