Prayer

The Joy and Deepness of Daily Prayer

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This is my sermon transcript for July 30, 2017, and the promised resources to follow up on the idea of daily prayer, weekly spiritual practice and making your own daily prayer (mantra or litany). Be blessed, Beloved of God!


A Daily Prayer of Love Learn Serve

Sermon of July 30, The Practice of Daily Prayer

Good morning, I come to you today in the name of the God who infuses matter with divinity, who does not hold aloof, but enters into our world, our lives and our moments. I come to you as a fellow observer of the God whose Spirit is here and whose essence is love.

From Romans 8, one of our readings for today: “Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Do we have any fans of Dean Koontz, the author, here? He’s one of my favorites… he writes in a genre blending style, some horror, some mystery, always with some humor and something more than just a little supernatural. One of his most endearing characters is named Odd Thomas, a young man who can see (though not hear) the spirits of the dead. Anyone else an Odd Thomas fan? Among Odd’s colorful family is his very old, salty gambler of a grandmother, Granny Sugars, who taught him her daily prayer, waking each morning to ask God, “Spare me that I may serve.” It became Odd’s daily prayer.

I love to find these little, yet large, things in novels, songs and movies: glimpses of profound truths maybe embedded in fiction or simple daily life. These are reminders that more might be happening and might be present than just what I’m seeing, hearing or noticing.

Finding the profound in the ordinary is a way of describing what I wanted to chat about with you, today. Tomorrow is the feast day of St. Ignatius of Loyola, a saint, a sinner, one of the last Don Quixote’s in his own right, a Basque soldier, a preacher, an armchair theologian and a particularly astute observer of the human spirit. He founded the religious order The Society of Jesus, most known by the moniker The Jesuits.

St. Ignatius has in many ways been a spiritual friend and father to me, through my Spiritual Director Fr Leo Murray and other Jesuit writers, helping me construct a bit of the missing framework to exercising and daily exploring my faith in ways that help me grow, finding new vistas instead of simply struggling to maintain a place where I have arrived. My father Ignatius famously wrote his guide to hearing and recognizing God’s voice and direction in daily life, The Spiritual Exercises, before any theological education. Central to those Exercises, whether you complete them in the intended 30 day retreat or a one week to a nine month adaptation, is the idea of daily giving oneself to an intention and reflecting on the day that’s gone by. Each morning begins with a prayer of intention, a grace he called it; it’s something we hope to realize in the course of that day.

I’d like to chat about daily prayer, fresh on the heels of hearing Granny Sugar’s daily devotion, “Spare me that I may serve.” I know that Dean Koontz’s books are works of fiction, but he’s so good at developing characters that you can see the way this morning mantra, spare me that I may serve, shapes the life of Odd Thomas. He’s a character wholly devoted to helping others, often at a cost to himself. Granny Sugars’ simple prayer shapes his life and keeps him rooted on a chosen path regardless of the circumstances of any given day.

There’s a deep wisdom in this character and this little prayer. Our intentions do shape us, intentions like daily prayers that reflect the basic decisions we make for the day before the day happens. So, in Romans Paul can say that daily trials don’t reflect the love of God for us, or a lack of God’s love, for he’s predetermined that God’s love is consistent regardless of what any day brings us. Granny Sugars prayed a prayer that assumed she would serve if spared. And we make choices and can affirm intentions before our days happen, choices and intentions that when held closely and believed in will lead us, shape us and sustain us with God’s help.

This is something I think I knew before I realized it was really true. I had an experience four years ago when I went up to Princeton Theological Seminary for a week long summer session on preaching. As I usually do when I travel I became a militant introvert. I’m always an introvert, but I have to act like an extrovert whether I’m working in religious vocation or at Apple at the mall, so when I travel I tend to curl inward and soak up some me time. And I was doing this at Princeton. Here’s the picture: at one point between classes I was out on the campus lawn, sitting under a tree, writing a haiku. That’s the kind of stuff introverts do when surrounded by strangers.

I began to notice that everyone else seemed to be walking around between classes in groups, social arrangements in which they were getting to know each other, and I thought, “What am I doing?” I was like, “I need to go interact with these people and not just play introvert for the week. We’re only here together a few days, and I could easily waste this opportunity to make some new friends.” Its not wrong to be an introvert, and I still am an introvert, but there was something here not to be missed. I ended up composing a prayer instead of a haiku under the tree that day, eventually writing these simple words: Let me love. Let me learn. Let me serve. 

As I sat and watched people, people with people, it dawned on me that I needed that connection, or a similar connection with the people around me. I needed connection so that I could better love, better learn what needed to be learned, and to be ready to serve and be served. I was there to learn, it was a preaching class and conference, but learning is not the only value of my life. I sat with that prayer, tweaked it a bit, and came to these three things: loving, learning, servingmy heart, my head and my hands.

I’ve carried that prayer with me now for four years and found it resilient to the different themes and movements of life. I’ve used it as a beginning place of reflection when my day is not going well or when I feel a dissonance within my life; often I find that I’ve neglected one or two of these movements, not loving enough, missing what needed to be learned, or having arrived in a place of detachment and self-service.

The first experience I had of this sort of practice was really years and years ago when studying Eastern Orthodox Theology and I learned about the Jesus Prayer: “Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” This is an ancient adaptation of a prayer Jesus himself shared in a parable about a two men who went to pray at the Temple, a religious leader and a despised tax collector. The Jesus Prayer is a breath prayer, a mantra and a litany. Here’s an exercise for you to try sometime… I will sometimes want to pray, but not really know where to start or how to begin. I’ll start with the Jesus Prayer and then slowly, as I repeat it, change the words to be prayers for specific change in me that I want to see around me, or for the needs of people I love, or just different expressions of praise for Christ, God or the Holy Spirit.

in Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, praying for a specific grace throughout a week or month is foundational to keeping focus and attention on what God is doing in my life and how the Spirit is speaking to me, and how to recognize the other voices and spirits in my life to ignore.

One last example, from our time here at St. John’s, and an example of adapting scripture into a daily prayer, is something Teresa and I did with our Sunday School class this past year. We wanted a binding theme throughout the year and began by choosing a passage of scripture to be our anthem. We chose Micah 6:8: He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? This passage presents three main ideas: justice, kindness and humility. Justice, kindness and humility.

We spent time with our kids explaining what it means to be just, which is to be true, trustworthy, fair & honorable. We talked about kindness, being compassionate and good to the people around us. We spoke about humbly seeking to walk with God, to draw close to God and to follow God. We eventually comprised our weekly prayer for class and daily prayer for any day of the year: Help me be kind, help me be true, God I give myself to you. After using it a few times, it sticks and has meaning. Who doesn’t face an opportunity in any given day to be more kind, true in our words and actions, and more in tune with following God?

Prayers like these have a way of changing us. They keep us focused and they help us hold up certain truths as a compass for our faith, our emotional well being and our daily walk. As a mantra or a litany I often use my prayer Let me love Let me learn Let me serve reciting in over and over on my drive to work as way of storing up the energy and reserve of intention for my day. This way no matter what comes why way, no matter how people find me or I find them, no matter the moment, my choice has been made to love, to learn and to serve. As I go through my day I draw on that reserve of God’s will and my intention.

This is similar to what Paul is doing in the passage from Romans 8. He knows that some days and some seasons of life can be tough. He knows that we struggle and we experience pain. He himself struggles and faces hurt of many kinds. He also has learned that these daily hurts do not mean that God loves us less, but God’s love is steadfast even in the hardest of days. So he speaks it: God’s love and our lives are inseparable. Bad days don’t mean that God loves us less. God’s love and our lives are inseparable. It’s good to hear this and sit with it before the worst days roll around, so that when they do we have a starting place to deal with those painful times. This is what daily prayers can do for us, helping shape us for the best and worst of life, strength when needed, extra joy when happy and wisdom when pressed.

What’s your prayer? I invite you this week to make an exercise of distilling down a favorite or a meaningful passage into an expression of prayer. Or maybe not a passage, but an expression of the great themes of your faith as you understand them. It doesn’t have to rhyme. You could take something from the end of Romans 8. You could use Micah 6:8. Maybe use the way that Jesus sums up the Law in Matthew 22: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind… and ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

To help you do this, if I can, I’ve put some resources on my personal blog, and I invite you check them out. First, I’ve prepared a short one-week guide for daily prayer and reflection modeled after the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius. That includes a sheet for each day which gives a grace to pray for, a passage to read, and prompts for reflection and prayer. This is best done shared with a spiritual friend, so I invite you to try it out and share the experience with someone else. You’re invited and welcome to bounce reflections and things off me as you pray and reflect through the week. My contact information is in the document. Secondly, there’s a little one page guide on making a personal daily prayer that includes the ones we’ve mentioned today and some helpful tips on making your own. This is all at toddthomas.net, and I invite you to share some of the journey with me and with one another.

I’m no Saint as Ignatius was in his life. I’m not an author like Dean Koontz. I don’t see dead people like Odd Thomas. I’m not even a rough and tumble cool 90 year old gambler like Odd’s Granny Sugars. But I am on this same road with Micah and those Roman believers, as are you. We are each set on a path of life, which is a path of will. It’s a path of choices, intentions and experiences. Our prayers are strength for that walk. Our prayers prepare us for the choices, the forks and turns we will take.

May God bless your path in the coming week. May we all in new and fresh ways, love the world and it’s people around us, learn something which we didn’t know or understand last week, and may our loving and knowing the world lead us to serve it’s needs with greater joy. Amen.

AMDG, Todd

A Spring Novena

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StFrancisGood morning, beloved. This past weekend was our Pentecost celebration in churches around the world, and it got me thinking of making a novena, a nine day prayer exercise for my daily life; it’s a little Spring Cleaning for my soul. I’m starting mine tomorrow, on Wednesday, May 18th. My little novena is not officially sanctioned by any church body, Catholic, Anglican or Episcopal… it’s just my own effort to focus my prayers for the next nine days, and I invite you to go along with me as a spiritual friend.

I’m structuring my novena with an intention, prayers and a practice. You’re invited to join me in that intention, the use of these prayers and my framework of practice, or to change them and use them as seems best for you.

Intention

My intention for this novena is to focus on the spiritual flow of my day, to slow down my mind and still my heart to a place where I can sit with God in the middle of my hectic flow of work and play. In short, my intention is a greater awareness of God’s Spirit with me at various points in the day.

Prayers

I’ll be using three prayers as a beginning place for each prayer time during the nine days, my own daily prayer, the Lord’s Prayer and a prayer from the Book of Common Prayer for the human family In Times of Conflict. I’m going to have these all on my phone for easy access, and I usually have my Book of Common Prayer (also found online and in most used bookstores) in my backpack. Plan for prayers!

My Daily Prayer: “Let me love, let me learn, let me serve.”

Our Father, who art in heaven, 
hallowed be thy Name,
thy kingdom come, 
thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses, 
as we forgive those
who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
and the power, and the glory,
for ever and ever. Amen.

28. In Times of Conflict
O God, you have bound us together in a common life.
Help us, in the midst of our struggles for justice and truth,
to confront one another without hatred or bitterness,
and to work together with mutual forbearance and respect;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.  BCP pg. 824

Practice

My practice will be to stop before each meal or a break time when I get something to eat (I sometimes take a break at work and grab a samosa and a diet Coke), and feed my soul before feeding my belly. Again, my beginning prayers are all in the Book of Common Prayer which I normally carry, but will also be in my phone and iPad. I also plan to begin each of the next nine days upon waking with our baptism vows of the Episcopal. If you’re familiar with them, they end with the following lines (my favorites):

Celebrant: Will you proclaim by word and example
the Good News of God in Christ?
People: I will, with God’s help.
Celebrant: Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons,
loving your neighbor as yourself?
People: I will, with God’s help.
Celebrant: Will you strive for justice and peace among
all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
People: I will, with God’s help.
BCP pg. 305

If you join me on this little journey, I’d love to hear about your prayers and days. If you have a different intention or vary the prayers and practice, I’d love to hear about that, too.

AMDG, Todd

Praying for Syria

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love everyoneI was driving to work this morning, to the sounds of my radio and the BBC World News, no bombs, no gunshots, no screams. The program was about Syria and the experience of everyday folks still trying to make a life in the war-torn city of Aleppo.

My soul is heavy and burdened for the thousands killed in that conflict, a death toll estimated to have almost reached half a million people as of February. The number of refugees has been placed at 4.5 million. Let this quote sink in for a moment: “More than 85 percent of the country is living in poverty, with close to 7 in 10 Syrians stuck in extreme poverty — unable to afford essentials like food or water. At the start of the war in 2011, joblessness stood at 14.9 percent. By the end of last year, it surged to 52.9 percent.” from the Syrian Center for Policy Research.

These victims of a brutal war are women, men and children, our neighbors. Love them. Each and every one of them is a human being made in God’s image, carrying the value and worth that God has placed within each of us. They are God’s beloved. They have died and they are hurting, and so I pray with them, today.

Pray with me for peace to break lose in Syria. Pray for the fighters and the rebels, the soldiers and the leaders. Pray for the mothers and fathers, the children and the entire nation to know peace. Pray for the souls of the dead and the tomorrows of the living. Stop and desire in your heart the best for them and the richest of choice blessings. Sit with me and we will bend our wills to love them deeply.

I learned an East African proverb from our mentors at seminary years ago, “When the elephants fight it’s the grass which suffers.” Pray that the love of war, the pride of hate and the tendency to violence may be overcome. Pray that the winds and ravages of war may end and that the Syrian people can again stand straight and tall in the warmth of God’s sun.

Believe that our prayers are heard, and given any chance speak for peace! Speak for the blessing of the Syrian people. Speak for the refugees. Believe that our prayers are heard, and given any chance act for peace! Find an agency that is helping the people of Aleppo, and give. Find a group that is serving the refugees, and donate. In this way we show our faith that God hears us and we offer ourselves to be part of the answer.

All things to God’s glory and the blessing of God’s world.

AMDG, Todd

Mutual Love, February’s Intention

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Weekly Grace Feb 7 2016As we enter into February and the Lenten Season, let’s pray for a mutual love to deepen and expand among us, against all odds. Each week we’ll dig into a single biblical author’s thoughts or account of mutual love and we’ll re-affirm our own commitment to the love that should be growing between us.

It’s going to be my personal prayer this month that I will be able to grow in deeper love for the people who are least like me and think least like me. I believe I have more often been taught to try to change those people, or at least to avoid them. If I wasn’t taught to do so, then I have certainly learned through experience that this is usually the easiest course.

Perhaps with some prayerful creativity and reflection I can discover ways to listen to them better; I may even find some ways to more fully offer them the benefit of the doubt. Hopefully, I will imagine some new ways for us to maintain our unique experiences and perspectives, but still coexist in harmony and shared love. It seems that when Paul was speaking to the church in Rome he fully expected them to be a diverse people, but never released from that debt of shared love.

Let’s just go ahead and accept it: we won’t awake tomorrow to find that everyone thinks and believes like we do, even in our own families or congregations. So, what’s next? Without a universal agreement on all doctrine and faith issues, may we still maintain a sense of mutual love and shared harmony? Without our complete similarity of conviction, may we nonetheless value and support one another’s spiritual journeys and affirm the mutual love and things we do share in common? It may go “against the grain” by some human sense, but that may just be the signal that we’re moving into a truly transformative practice. Lord, teach us to pray.

AMDG, Todd

Finishing a Month on Civility

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Weekly Grace Jan 31 2016I realized today that with the drama of Snowzilla last Sunday, I forgot to make a Weekly Grace! I mean, wow. I haven’t missed one in a few years. So, I wanted to make sure we finished and finished well this month of intention based around civility.

It’s an election cycle year, and it’s a pretty heated race for all concerned. That’s one reason I wanted to start the year on civility. Another reason is that sometimes it’s so hard to keep my words flowing from love. It’s so easy to let something else step in and drive my speech.

In our focal passage written to the church in Corinth, Paul says that nothing is as important as love. Nothing should be allowed to take it’s place. There’s no miraculous spiritual gift, no self-denial, not even any great knowledge or correctness that surpasses love. This is not a message that religious people like to hear. We are very enamored of our personal gifts and, oh my… our correctness? We often like to stake our very salvation on it or deny another person theirs.

1 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 
2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 
If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. 
4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 
5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 
6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 
7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 
8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 
9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 
10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 
11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 
12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 
13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Paul says that his ability to understand every question and mystery is nothing if he does not have love for others. The capacity to love matters more than the capacity to be right. I won’t belabor this point too long, but come on! I think it’s one of the clearest passages that teach us that we should let our love help us understand more often than letting our understanding teach us to love.

Our civility will grow as we move more fully toward letting love take it’s place of preeminence in our lives. Our words will grow to reflect that we have matured past the idea that our own perceived correctness gives us license to fight, humiliate, defame or condemn. We will listen better, with more desire to understand one another. We’ll ask good questions, meant to free and not to trap. We’ll grow together as we share and understand one another better. This could be a good year, even with a presidential election.

AMDG, Todd

Our Prayer Intention of Civility

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Weekly Grace jan 10 to 16 2016Civility begins within and then manifests in speech and action. This is true of everything, good and bad, better and worse. Out of our hearts we incubate ideas and expressions that take form in our words and responses. For this reason our God is not just standing around waiting to slap our wrist and cluck at us, but God is working to rehabilitate our heart and inmost being!

Are we open to this? It’s one thing to capitulate and obey a greater power or a higher influence, but are we ready to allow ourselves to be fundamentally changed from the inside out? This is the difference between obeying the great sermon points in Matthew 5, 6 and 7 out of legal and religious obligation or allowing the Beatitude Statements in Matthew 5 to frame a change of our hearts and minds as we navigate the reorienting of life that Jesus presents for us to follow.

This is not Christianity 2.0 or any new innovation or deeper level… this is actually the beginning of religion and faith. Jesus often gave this invitation to people, “Follow me.” This is the invitation of a teacher, mentor and life-changer. This is an invitation to reflect on who we are and how we are, with Jesus’ help. And it’s an invitation to change. 

Want to change the urges and reflexes of destructive negativity in your life? Begin by reflecting on your heart and cultivating a change there… work with energy and consistency to remove the negative things and plant beautiful things in their place. Where their is hurt and injury, sow some forgiveness. Where there is anger, sow some quiet and prayer. Where there is hatred, sow some empathy and hope. Christian saints and mystics often rooted this in their prayers: St. Catherine of SienaSt. Ignatius of Loyola & St. Francis of Assisi.

Even as I begin a new year no longer serving a congregation as pastor and shepherd, I want to renew my commitment to being a spiritual friend and brother to you. And I have to remind you that I need you. Jesus didn’t invite one person or single individuals to follow this path of change, he called us into community, together. Let’s do this together. Let’s chat.

AMDG, Todd

A Weekly Prayer Intention?

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Weekly Grace Jan 3 to 9 2016I’ve been making a weekly prayer intention for several years for our congregation at Church in Bethesda and for myself, but I’ve been wondering about continuing the practice now that I have left my pastoral duties with the congregation. After some thought and prayer I’ve decided to continue.

First, I do hope it blesses someone to have some weekly help with prayers. We all have time and even seasons when prayer is drier and more difficult to start. Second, it does help me to have it in mind and carry it as a daily reminder. Third, it’s a practice of intention, study and creativity that I don’t want to lose. Instead, I’m thinking of ways to expand on the weekly grace and what  it’s intended to be.

This is a Presidential election year… oh my. In honor of the coming strife and internal warfare that we are about to incite, I thought we’d begin the year with another reminder of civility. For people of faith civility is actually at the core of who and how we are to be interacting with our communities, nation and world. Civility is scriptural. Civility is Christian. Civility is a core element of a life of faith.

I’m personally so tried of the arguing around the phrase “politically correct.” It gets used too often, sometimes to minimize our responsibility to one another, the exact opposite of its intention. Some people proudly say that they don’t care about being politically correct as an excuse or a prelude to their incivility, rudeness and meanness. Being non-politically correct has become a badge of honor to many, as they see the need for sensitivity toward others as a type of censorship. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Being sensitive of others is a foundation of civil discourse and a very deep, important spiritual practice. We must work hard to remove racial slurs and demonizing language from our daily and shared conversation. We need to speak and act in ways that welcome the other and invite the other to participate in life with us, even in disagreement and dissimilarity. Christian Dominion, our elevation and dominance in religious, political and social affairs where all others are supposed to be made to conform to speak and act and think as we do, is not a scriptural idea. Truly, our scriptures teach the opposite. We are the world’s servants, broken and spent for the world’s good.

God blesses all. God’s blessings are for all. This is a teaching of our Christ, and maybe one that we by and largely ignore as we deeply fear its implications. (Matthew 5:43-48) The faithful are not the sole object of God’s love and peace… we are invited to share God’s burden of being used to bring more love and peace to the human family and all of creation.

So, as we begin the new year and look forward to electing a new President to lead our country, let’s renew our intention of civility in speech and action. Let us refuse to follow voices of indignity, disrespect and disharmony. Seek the voices that speak to bind us in love and peace. Be a voice that builds others up.

AMDG, Todd