We’ve all seen those infomercials that play into life’s daily frustrations. An already flustered parent with hair gone awry and disheveled outfit is maneuvering around the chaotic kitchen scene of kids and pets and is just trying to open the bag of chips. The bag is tight and the pressure is mounting as the parent tugs at the top until… POP!… the bag explodes, chips go everywhere and the parent looks straight at the camera with a look of utter despair. But… never fear… the infomercial precedes to give you the life-saving solution to your opening-a-bag-of-chips-inadequacy. With their new fool proof solution, a new picture of the parent appears with every hair in place and beautifully ironed outfit, standing lovingly in the kitchen flanked alongside angelic children and cooperative pets all enjoying a lovely, and quiet, snack of their favorite chip without getting any crumbs on the floor. Too good to be true! Not for a mere payment of four installments of $19.99.
But that was the way of a couple of decades ago. In our digital age and social media, who needs those infomercials any more? Welcome to the world of life hacks… strategies or techniques adopted in order to manage one’s time and daily activities in a more efficient way. The YouTubes will show you video after video of how to use practical things around your home to save you time and make your life easier. Can’t ever tear those goldfish cracker sacks well enough to get a smooth pour? Empty your whole sack of goldfish into your old coffee creamer bottle that now comes fully equipped with a cracker dispenser. Life Hack! Can’t ever find the end of the tape on a clear roll of the sticky adhesive goodness? Tape a little paper clip under the end and you’ll never ruin another nail trying to find the end of the tape. Life Hack! Ever open the salad dressing bottle and dump half the bottle of creamy siracha ranch on your plate? When you open a new bottle, don’t remove the seal. Instead, use a fork and poke some holes in the top. You’ll never waste again and likely save some calories too! Life Hack!
We’re always looking for ways to make life easier. “That’s just smart!” some of you will say. Certainly. There’s no reason not to utilize a good shortcut or home remedy to keep you moving through life. In our consumer, me-and-now, driven society, these same hopes creep into our expectations of the spiritual life as well. How can I become spiritually mature and fast? What’s the shortcut to God? How can I love my neighbor without having to interact with them? We wonder about these sorts of things. While most things about the spiritual life don’t come with any short cut, there are some life-hacks for the soul that may connect us more readily to the heart of God. Welcome to a four-part series we’re calling “Life Hacks: A Better Way to Live.” Things that make your life better tend to make you better at life. And we’re going to see if we can’t uncover such a notion in the realm of the soul as well. Today’s hack? Prayer.
According to the Pew Research Center, more than half of Americans, 55%, say they pray every day. 21% say they pray weekly. People fairly openly talk about prayer in our culture. Kelly Rippa said on live television this week that she was praying that Hurricane Irma would just die at sea. More than a few “Hail Mary’s” were thrown this weekend in football games across the country – referring to the desperation pass where quarterbacks throw it as high and far as they can and pray their receiver comes down with the ball. You very likely told someone this week you’d be praying for them and you may have forgotten to actually pray for them until I mentioned it right now. We quickly toss around the idea of prayer but when we get tired… when life hits us in the face or explodes like a greasy bag of potato chips, we tend to wonder if there’s really any use for prayer at all.
I hear it often. “I don’t even know what to pray for anymore.” “What am I supposed to say?” “Does it make any difference?” I’ve heard those honest statements so many times from the tired, weary, and angry. One day this week, I was driving back to the church. My allergies were all over me like a sidewalk preacher with a bullhorn. My eyelids just wanted to go on strike and shut down the whole operation of remaining open. They itched something terrible and my nose was sounding like every lawn mower in the neighborhood was started in succession, one after the other. And, I was having a bad food day. Ever had one of those? When you’re just not feeling great, you tend to want to eat comfort food. To be honest, I was coming off a few of those days in a row. Additionally, I felt I had disappointed somebody who asked me to do something I couldn’t commit to doing. I was behind on some important things with pressing deadlines. And at a stoplight, I just laid my head back and closed my eyes – yeah – you’ve seen that guy before? That was me. And I just found myself saying out loud, “Lord, have mercy.” Prayer. Prayer. Prayer. I believe in its connection. It grounds me in relationship with God and my neighbor but it is certainly complicated and mysterious.
If you’ve had little history with prayer or you sense that it has little to offer your future, consider yourself in good company. While we are quick to praise the ‘prayer warriors’ in our lives – and if you don’t have one of those people in your corner – find yourself one. Knowing some of you have committed to lift me and my family in prayer every day is the one thing that keeps me going some days. Many of us, however, for whom prayer is not the most natural inclination, are looking for a practical way to connect with the Divine. Jesus’ closest disciples were wondering about prayer in the same ways we do. They had likely grown up going to Temple. Shouldn’t they get prayer by now? They saw something different in the way Jesus prayed and asked, “Will you teach us to pray?” Maybe we can learn something from Jesus’ response to their same question.
The Lord’s prayer as we prayed it this morning is not exactly the same as we find it in scripture. Matthew and Luke hold the basis of the prayer for us though they don’t offer varied versions of the prayer themselves. Luke’s version has the disciples looking for a Life Hack. “Teach us to pray, Jesus.” They felt there was something powerful about the way Jesus prayed that they hadn’t experienced before. Frederick Buechner says, to pray this prayer of Jesus is to “unleash a power that makes atomic power look like a warm breeze.” How can that be? In both Gospels, Jesus says, “Pray like this…” Jesus starts in with “Our Father…” Those two words make the prayer approachable. Jesus says, “You want to know what makes prayer powerful? The relationship.” “Don’t heap up impersonal empty phrases,” he tells them. Make it personal: “Our Father.” Now – we know many have complicated relationships with their earthly fathers. Some 50% of Gen X’ers are said to have absentee fathers. It’s like the angst of that famous song from Mike and the Mechanics in the 1980’s, the “Living Years.” The song is about a guy who has an unresolved brokenness in his relationship with his father who had already passed away. He reflects throughout the song as he finally holds his own newborn child of all he wished he could have shared with his own dad confessing, “I just wish I could have told him in the living years.” For some, praying “Our Father…” is a painful reminder of a complicated, if not hurtful, relationship. Others yet note that the term pins down God into some specific gender. God is so far beyond the limitations of gender. I hope we can recognize that the old image of a white bearded man on a cloud wearing white – after Labor Day of all things – is an image we can drop. Beyond all of that, I wonder if we can see that Jesus is personalizing something that had most typically been left to the impersonal exchange of self-righteous, religious piety.
Think of it like this. I took in a concert at Cain’s a couple of weeks ago – probably twenty-five HACC’rs were there – some common love for a singer/songwriter named Jason Isbell and his band the 400 Unit. The guy has a way of getting to the real and raw stuff of life. He’s been sober for a good while now but knows the pain and struggle of addiction and you can feel it in his music. Not everyone’s cup of tea, of course, but I appreciate his craft. I can, and do, listen to his music in my car or in my home and I connect. Even with such appreciation and admiration, I still don’t know him. And the truth is, I’d rather have Jason Isbell in my house than one of his songs playing through my ear buds. I could truly get to know him. I could understand him better and he could understand me. And he could just live in our spare bedroom I suppose. God understood this. It was the point of Jesus’ joining humanity in the first place; God’s way of moving into the neighborhood – being in relationship. Jesus says, “Start prayer with a hope like that.” It’s relational. Jesus says elsewhere that the most important thing of all is to love God and love your neighbor. Starting prayer relationally gets at that very priority. “Our father…”
And isn’t that one of the strangest things to stumble onto when it comes to faith, religion, spirituality? Just think how that sounds if you’re not on the inside of all the Christianese. “Come into my heart, Jesus!” What? “Talk out loud to some invisible deity.” What? It’s like the first time I took a yoga class. “Put your legs like this, your body like this, hold this strange pose.” What? My body doesn’t bend that way. It’s all a lot to take in at first. Spirituality is that way. I love how Rob Bell breaks this down and makes it palatable. He says, “Spirituality is your awareness that your life is a gift and what you do with it matters.” How often do you step back and acknowledge that your life is a gift and what you do with it matters? I get caught up in so much, navigating five lives in our home and all the responsibilities the world presents and can begin to forget that there is more to my reality than just driving my car, paying the bills, escorting children to and fro, meeting with my insurance agent, checking my inbox. Life is actually animated by the unseen realities: hope, joy, peace, love, longing… a desire to be a part of something bigger than myself. When we talk about life, we’re often talking about these unseen realities that we can’t buy on Amazon. You can’t carry love in your pocket. Your sense of motivation isn’t like something you can put in a wheelbarrow and push around the yard. Spirituality is the thing that drives everything else. The problem for many people in our culture is this: the moment you talk about spirituality, they immediately jump to thoughts of crazy religion; as if we’re asking them to buy into the very thing that conjures up the worst of their stereotypes… often like we may unfairly conjure up about other faith traditions. They think, “Great, so if I’m going to be spiritual, if I’m going to do this prayer thing – it means I’ve got to go to war or condemn those particular people or judge those others that I don’t even know a thing about.” (insert record player screeching to a halt). No. It immediately takes them into thoughts of such a reality all the while they’re thinking “Yeah but, I have a brain…” and “I have a sense of civility and decency.” For these reasons, Bell says, “I just lead with ‘Your life is a gift and you intuitively know that how you respond matters.’ That’s spirituality.
When Rob Bell started Mars Hill, a church that exploded with growth, he started it because he was around so many people who wanted to be in on the spiritual conversation but couldn’t begin to understand the dynamics of what they had experienced as religion; like prayer that is not personal. And religion has often gotten a bad rap – some of which we’ve earned if we’re going be confessional about it this morning. But if spirituality is the awareness of life as a gift, then healthy religion can give us the tools, the hacks so-to-speak, to get after the part that recognizes what we do with our lives matters. It’s the practice. Good athletes practice. They order their days around what they eat, how they work out, when they sleep. Sometimes the practice of the spirit involves us giving a chunk of the money we make away because it’s good for our hearts. It’s practice, routine, ritual that reminds you that… life is a gift and what you do with it matters. Humans can create institutions that get in the way of truly being humane. The heart can go south in all sorts of ways. The Lord’s prayer, however, takes you into the practice of remembering that every task is worth making it relational. Even the first word should tip us off that it is not just about me. Jesus says “Pray ‘Our’ Father….” Need some prayer hacks? Transform daily tasks into prayer time. When you’re flossing your teeth, pray the Lord’s prayer. Every time you open your locker lift a friend’s name to God in prayer – for strength, for relationship, for hope. Before you turn the radio on, don’t. Make a daily segment of your drive, a silent ride – a relational time with God that spreads your prayer to a vision of “Our” … It’s one of the reasons that at the close of memorial services in our church, we invite all gathered to reach a hand out to those around them and we pray our hope forward… our hope. There is no separation when we pray together in honesty. God wants to free us all; free us from fear, judgment, hunger, hatred. And the truth about prayer is that none of us can be entirely free unless all of us are free. So, we pray – not because God doesn’t already know the pain or the need… but because we need to see what God sees, love as God loves, find vision to reconcile a fragmented world. Prayer is our discipline to help order this vision.
The memoir by J.D. Dolan entitled Phoenix is about the pain and struggle that families go through: the separation, the hurt, the struggle and how these things get passed down from generation to generation. The story is about J.D.’s older brother, John, who was burned terribly in a deadly explosion at a power plant in the Mojave Desert in 1985. Several died in the explosion and John was clinging to life in a hospital bed. J.D. hadn’t spoken to his dying brother in more than five years which was how the Dolan family tended to deal with family disagreements. J.D. holds vigil for weeks over his brother’s bedside searching for words. What do you say to your brother you have intentionally not spoken to for five years? He wants to tell his brother that it is okay to die but he’s not even sure if his brother can hear him. If John can hear him, does he want his brother to break the silence after so many years? J.D. agonizes over what to say, if anything at all, for days until finally resolving to speak the words of forgiveness and grace that must be spoken before his brother dies. Listen to what he writes about it…
It occurred to me that I wasn’t mad at my brother anymore, and I knew that in the end, when it mattered, he wasn’t mad at me. And I knew that I loved him very much, and that he loved me. And in this there was considerable grace. On the longest day of the year, I told my brother that he was going to die. I don’t imagine he heard me and I don’t even remember what I said – but I do remember a kind of clearing. I stopped crying and leaned close to him, and I said, softly, clearly, “Hey, buddy.”
That’s what it takes to pray, “Our Father.” It’s the courage to make it personal; to be free – to be free to love God and neighbor with full heart, mind, soul, and strength. Maybe we don’t really need a prayer hack. We just need a heart, an awareness that life is a gift and a commitment to respond knowing that what we do with that gift matters. If you’ve given up on prayer, give it another chance. If you’ve never been big on prayer, commit to the discipline today and see how it opens your heart over time. Life is a relationship. Spirituality is a relationship. Prayer reminds us that all of it, all of life, is about relationship. Prayer leads us to see as God sees. Seeing what God sees stirs us with compassion. Compassion leads us to reconcile with family, neighbor, or reach out with humility to the stranger. And that reach, somehow, makes earth more like it is in heaven. Make that everyday commitment to the relationship. And if you don’t know what to pray? You’ve got a prayer. Jesus shares his with us… and that’s not, at all, a bad place to start.
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 Thoughts shared in this paragraph come from Bell’s appearance on Lewis Howes podcast; episode 175: How to Practice and Understand Faith and Spirituality.
 From Phoenix: A Brother’s Life by J.D. Dolan. Vintage Books. New York. 2000.