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!
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, serving… my 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.
If you’ve ever been involved with Ignatian Spirituality then the concept of First Principle and Foundation will be familiar, but if not… Ignatius presents this early in The Exercises as a sort of purpose statement for being. I won’t bore you with the long form of the principle, but it is often abbreviated to something like, “We were created to receive God’s love and give love back to God.” I find two main elements of the principle to be: 1) the foundation of God’s love as what animates us, and 2) our relationship to everything around us is based on experiencing God’s love.
When you are engaged in the Exercises in almost any form, whether a true retreat or one of the annotations, you will be asked to think about and design a first principle and foundation statement of your own. I’ve been asked to do this many times, but have to admit that I can’t remember how I ordered my thoughts in the past. I could go and dig up my journals from those times, but it remains the case that what I thought and wrote did not become a part of my spiritual journey to any meaningful extent. I simply don’t remember what I have written.
So, as I came to the part of the Exercises as I am following them now, and I was again asked to pray about my own first principle and foundation, I decided to really think and pray and bend my energies toward something that will be lasting for me. I want to make some words and meaning which will stick. I’ve worked in the words during this past week, and I’d like to share them here…
I am a student of LOVE
in all its complex and healing forms:
affection, compassion, mercy and truth;
kindness, grace, service and contentment.
If I can’t recall anything else in the days and years to come, I want to remember that I am a student of love. As I get older and continue to sift and weight the many scriptural themes and ideas I have come to understand, I rely more and more on the ascendancy of love. Love is not just an idea, or a feeling, but a basic understanding of life and a way to relate to all things in life. I also believe that God is best understood as and thru love, and so I could also relate my first principle this way…
I am a student of God
in all her complex and healing forms:
affection, compassion, mercy and truth;
kindness, grace, service and contentment.
I hope that this kind of foundation helps me to be both fully human and fully connected to the divine. From this position, with a Christ-centred and valuing and understanding of both our shared humanity and divinity, then love is better able to manifest in me to the betterment of the kingdom of God and all the world God has caused to be.