A Sermon for Covenant
“That Time I Stopped Praying”
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
July 28, 2013
Kyndall Rae Renfro
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
I believe I emerged from the womb a pray-er—at least, I do not recall a time in my life in which I was not someone who prayed. I have always talked to God, and I don’t just mean obligatory mealtime prayers and church prayers. I’ve always been a person who converses with God, and I don’t think anyone taught me or prompted me in this direction so much as the impetus to talk to God was simply there, inside me, like I was born with a chord that stretched from me to heaven and I had the natural curiosity to tug on it.
Over the years my prayer life has evolved of course. Since childhood I have been someone who journaled and wrote private prayers on paper, having always loved words, but imagine my delight as an adult to discover that some people actually utilize written prayers in public, in corporate worship, and not just in the privacy of their bedrooms and prayer closets. The beauty of language had a place in the church setting, which was brand new news to me! I thought all church prayers had to be freewheeling and off-the-cuff to be counted sincere. To find out that written prayers—my most favorite and authentic prayers—could also belong within the community of faith was a wonderful discovery.
That was one evolution.
Another evolution was my love for the outdoors. I didn’t grow up in a particularly outdoorsy family. We never went camping or anything like that so I didn’t quite get the picture that I was a nature girl until I was older. But even as a teenager, I was always taking advantage of the early morning hour at church camp—rising before the others, sneaking away to a secluded spot beneath the trees, meeting with God. By college I was sneaking off to the side of the lake, finding God at the water’s edge. By seminary, I finally figured out that if I had to be inside to pray, it didn’t make sense to be anywhere else except perched by the window, looking out.
This was another evolution—coming to understand that the outdoors was my best space to pray, that nature, for me, was like a lifeline to the divine.
Yet another evolution was my introduction to Centering Prayer, which was less of an introduction and more of a slow growing acquaintance with the kind of prayer that uses no words, or a single word. I learned the relinquishing and surrendering of my bustling thoughts, the movement into a deeper silence. Centering Prayer was an invitation to God to reorder my heart and soul beyond the level where words can help. It was this kind of prayer that taught me, over time, how to be gentle and gracious to myself at last. By practicing surrender in this way, I started to believe in grace for real, for me. Particularly as I learned to surrender my need to control my prayers and dictate its success, this opened me up to the genuine surprise of grace.
Those are just some of the evolutions my prayer life has undergone, and there were others, some arriving like a breath of fresh air into a suffocating practice, others arriving like aggravating frustrations upsetting my status quo. There was encountering the rhythms of hourly prayer, and there was understanding at last the value of repetition. There was exploring the idea of bodily prayer—walking while praying, or maybe kneeling, for example. There was the power of praying with friends and the potency of praying in solitude. There were the desperate prayers I prayed through agonizing seasons of spiritual drought. Also, praying my heart out for someone to live, and then watching them die.
It is a love-hate relationship we form with prayer, if we engage it. We are bound to love-hate prayer, to go through ebbs and flows with it, to experience rising doubts and rising faith, to wind in and then out of comfort and discomfort, the sense of security and the sense of losing our equilibrium, clarity and mystery, disappointment and delight.
Here is my most recent prayer-life evolution: Around the end of November, I stopped praying. That is, I stopped praying in the traditional sense. I couldn’t do it anymore. There arose a huge mental and emotional block when I tried to address God—I could not get those two words I’d used thousands of time onto the page—“Dear God.” I couldn’t say it; could not speak directly to him.
I started to worry myself a little because I’ve always told myself I would never, ever be a fraud as a pastor, and I can’t imagine a more fraudulent way to pastor than to be a pastor who doesn’t pray. I would quit my job before I’d let myself be a fake. And here I was, less than two years into my first pastorate, and all my prayers were stuck in the back of my throat. Frozen there.
But despite the initial panic, I felt an odd peace about the whole affair—like I was going to be okay, my spirit was going to be okay, my pastoring was going to be okay. And so I let myself stop praying. Sounds odd, but it was a deeply spiritual choice. I was saying to God, “I don’t know how to reach You anymore, I want you to reach me instead,” and I was half-trusting, half-afraid it would work.
For quite some time all seemed quiet. God was quiet. I was quiet. And then, shyly, slowly, I began to pick up on all the nonverbal communication happening between us, as well as the things I was saying and writing that were prayers in disguise, and the things people were saying to me that were, in fact, words from on high.
There is a poem by Rumi that says, “There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground,” and I have never been more certain of this in all my life. Because I am living it now, at least in fits and spurts. I always wondered how on earth the Bible could exhort us to pray without ceasing, and now I know. Because prayer is not the words you say, nor how often you say them. Prayer is an attitude with which you move through life. It’s a way of seeing your world. It’s a willingness to let things into your heart, and it’s the bravery to let things go. It’s the clarity to see Jesus in the face of a stranger and humanity in the face of an enemy. It’s the inexplicable hope that weasels its way into a wounded heart. It is a posture of surrender and a stance of audacious determination. It is any expression at all of gratitude. It is courage and it is belief and it is imagination and it is creativity. Prayer is any way by which we participate in God or engage God’s redemptive activity or let ourselves give way to love.
I am telling you all of this because Jesus was once praying in a certain place, so says our text today—and I’m sure, by the way, that “certain place” was just as crucial to his prayer as the actual words—anyway, he was there, holding sacred space for himself and God when the disciples asked him how to pray. They wanted to be taught, and Jesus did the strangest thing. He didn’t tell them a single thing about the mechanics: closed eyes vs. eyes open, bowed heads vs. raised faces, orderly lines vs. speaking in tongues, raised arms vs. clasped hands, silence vs. naming and claiming, singing and smiling vs. solemn whispers, community vs. solitude. All Jesus did was a recite a simple little prayer, and then, go figure, tell a parable.
What were those words about, those words we routinely call the Lord’s Prayer? Are these magic words, the abracadabra of prayer? Of course not. Do they represent some kind of formula—a list of the most important prayer elements: praise, supplication, confession, petition, what-have-you? No, I really don’t think formulas and lists is what this is about.
Think ahead to the parable, where Jesus is essentially saying, “Don’t you know that your Father in heaven knows how to give good gifts to his children?” I think Jesus’ point is this: Relax. Prayer is easy. All you’ve got to do is ask. It will be given. Seek. You will find. Knock. The door will open.
If it doesn’t seem that easy for you, maybe you’re trying too hard. Scale back. Return to the simplicity of a God who is interested in you, who would never pass out scorpions when you’re asking for eggs. Ask for an egg, he’s more likely to give you a whole breakfast taco. That is God, and if that isn’t how God seems to you, drop all your other spiritual efforts and ideas until you find the God of grace and mercy again. Better yet, let the Grace find you.
The Lord’s Prayer, consequently, isn’t something to dissect, analyze, or mimic. It’s something to free-fall into with confidence and relief. It’s something to recite when all your other words have failed you, or it’s just one of the ways to open your mouth with your face pointed to heaven, or it’s reminder that not that many words will do just fine, that this isn’t rocket science or any kind of science, it is art. Prayer is art, and finger-paints and crayolas will land you a treasured spot on God’s refrigerator door just as readily as watercolor and oils. You don’t have to push the right button to open the doorway between the worlds; the door is open. No incantations necessary—just the words we say and repeat, say and repeat, to help wake us up to the God who has not once slumbered through any moment of our lives.
I know there’s the whole business of unanswered prayers that gets us into a confused muddle about prayer, and I get that. I mean, boy, do I ever get that. I’ve had some nasty, curve-ball lack of answers thrown my way, and they’ve knocked me off-balance many a time. I’ve wanted to give up on praying, just to spare myself the disappointment. All I know for sure about that is I’ve also seen a few miracles and that something I cannot explain keeps drawing me back into the posture of prayer.
The Lord’s Prayer isn’t about how to have the perfect prayer—the Lord’s Prayer is a reminder to us of prayer’s simplicity. Jesus illustrates this with a few little stories: asking a friend for bread, approaching your father for an egg, knocking on a door and watching it swing open. See how this is easy stuff, regular, ordinary stuff? Somehow we’ve made it so hard to ask for what we want, and so complicated to see God, but Jesus encourages us to recover what the TNIV calls “shameless audacity” and he reassures us God is good and the Holy Spirit is on its way.
Lately, “dear God” has been creeping its way back into my journal. Organically. Naturally. Fittingly. I realize I’ve missed those more direct prayers. And yet, I am grateful, too, for their absence because I have learned how to pray in so many new ways.
Or, as Rumi would put it:
Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.