Romans 8. 26-28 When words don’t work…
…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. 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. We do know that all things work together for good for those who love God…
Whenever I ask you to suggest topics for Sunday mornings somebody (or multiple somebodies) will inevitably ask questions that are well above my pay grade. You suggest topics I don’t know much about or have a hard time getting my own head around.
Doing this anyway is good, for 2 reasons.
First, because it instills a degree of humility in me. And humility is something that men who wear long black robes to church on Sunday need. Many of us are not very good at it. So thank you, I think.
The second benefit of throwing me into the deep end of the pool like this accrues to you. Because when I stand up here and stumble and stammer, as I am about to do, you are reminded that the questions and concerns we raise around here belong to all of us. It should be clear, and today perhaps will be more so, that no conversation I begin here in the pulpit ends when I finally shut up and sit down.
We all have a part to play in the work of being the church. Every thinking brain and believing heart needs to speak and be heard. None of us should be satisfied being lazy consumers of other people’s ideas. Even, oddly enough, if those ideas come from the Bible.
Life isn’t easy. Living well, living faithfully, takes work—work we do best together. If you can’t figure something out, maybe I can help. When I can’t figure something out, I’m hoping you can. Figuring stuff out—coming to understand what is true and how we are to live and believe—this is the work of the whole congregation.
We really are all in this together.
Today’s question is on a topic I don’t know much about (and most of you will be thinking I should). Here it is:
When we ask God for guidance or for an answer to a question, how on earth do we decipher the reply? There are always lots of words in our heads at any given time OR is no discernible reply sometimes the real reply? How do you know the difference?
Could it be we are to watch for signs instead of waiting for words? How do we interpret signs that could be right in front of us? OR shall we actively look for them?
Now aren’t you glad I opened this can of worms?
Prayer, as we grew up understanding it, has to be one of the oddest things in the universe. We think thoughts or give voice to words, push the send button and like a text message, off they go—out or up the the Creator of everything. We make our request, ask our question and then we wait for a response.
And we wonder what that response will look like or sound like and how will we discern it when it comes. When, as the questioner rightly says, “There are always lots of words in our heads at any given time”, how are we to distinguish God’s words from our own random, meandering thoughts?
Well, there are 2 things I can say about this that seem to me to be true today:
1. I don’t know how. And…
2. I wonder if maybe we are asking the wrong question; or if maybe we could ask it in a better way.
I grew up with the same notion as most of you—prayer is speaking or thinking words to God and waiting for a response. And so that’s what I did for the first several decades of my life. But every time I thought about what I was doing I couldn’t make much sense of it. Could my thoughts really move God to do something that wouldn’t be done anyway? I didn’t really think so and I couldn’t think of an alternative, so after a long time, I pretty much just quit doing it.
I wouldn’t recommend that, by the way.
In the years since I quit praying, however, my sense of what it means to be in communion, or communication, with God has been changing—growing deeper and more personal. For this I owe a great debt of gratitude poets like Mary Oliver and Denise Levertov and to writers like Barbara Brown Taylor, Sara Miles and Richard Rohr, among many others.
From these people I am learning that prayer is mostly a matter of listening; of being quiet; of paying attention to what is going on inside and outside of myself. Prayer is mostly paying attention to those places where the love that God is is showing up in the world.
This is what Mary Oliver is talking about in the poem I read earlier:
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Then she asks the question that might be the answer to the question, “How should I pray?”
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Prayer is looking for those places where love shows up; paying attention to those places in your life. But prayer is also enacting that love; being and doing that love.
“Be the church” is a phrase we use a lot around here these days. “Being the church” is an act of prayer; a way of praying. Being the church is prayer—masquerading as life.
I said last week that if the church is to thrive today and into the future we must immerse ourselves together in the story of Jesus. I might just as easily have said we need to immerse ourselves together in prayer; because prayer is what listening to the story is.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus is called “the Word of God”. John meant by this that the story of Jesus is how God speaks to the world. Jesus is the translation of Divinity into human language. To commune with God—to pray, in other words, pay attention to that story. Follow it. Live it. It runs like a thread through the world. Hold on to it.
Pay attention to the story and you will, from time to time hear what you need to hear. You may even find the sign you are looking for to show you what to do.
I think this is what William Stafford meant by his poem, “The Way It Is”:
There’s a thread you follow. (That thread is the story of Jesus; the way of Jesus in the world) It goes among things that change. (That’s us and our lives)
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn't change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can't get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time's unfolding.
You don't ever let go of the thread.
That thread is the story of Jesus. Holding on to it and letting it guide you through the twists and turns, ups and downs of life—that is prayer. Prayer is immersing ourselves in the story we have been given; the story that communicates God’s word to us and shapes us into the people we are called to be.
You might say the story is our prayer and the answer to our prayer.
But let’s turn this idea of prayer, like the gem it is, just a little and let the light shine through it from another angle.
I suggested earlier that I have a long history of being a pretty poor pray-er. This is true. So when the question for today came in, my initial thought was, “O no; what am I going to do with this?” Then I remembered, with great relief, the passage from St Paul’s letter to the Romans we read earlier. These 3 verses keep alive for me the possibility of prayer—the possibility of being in communion with the Creator.
“…the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought”. Got that right, didn’t he. We all have hopes and dreams, needs and wants, fears, worries, joys and concerns. “Take it to the Lord in prayer”, the old gospel songs tells us. But we don’t know how to do that. Sometimes, words don’t work. Answers don’t seem to come; or at least we can’t seem to hear them if they do. Our prayers, such as they are, bounce off the ceiling.
Well, Paul says, welcome to the human race. “We don’t know how to pray as we ought but that very Spirit is interceding for us with sighs too deep for words.”
Imagine that. The Spirit of God listens in on our stumbling, bumbling childish mumblings about the things we desperately need or the gratefulness we feel and can’t express. The Spirit listens. And on our behalf translates those needs, wants, fears, worries, joys and concerns into sighs too deep for our words; into a language the Creator understands. God searches the heart, Paul says, our hearts. God knows the Spirit. And so the message is delivered—without our words.
Now this is poetry and metaphor, of course. I have no idea how this might actually work. But I believe it does. Mary Oliver, in another poem, describes this prayer as Stillness:
Today I'm flying low and I'm
not saying a word.
I'm letting all the voodoos of ambition sleep.
The world goes on as it must,
the bees in the garden rumbling a little,
the fish leaping, the gnats getting eaten.
And so forth.
But I'm taking the day off.
Quiet as a feather.
I hardly move though really I'm traveling
a terrific distance.
Stillness. One of the doors
into the temple.
This poem suggests that if we don’t know how to pray as we ought, perhaps we should stop. Stop doing what doesn’t work.
I don’t know how to play the piano. Julie does. So I don’t try to play the piano on Sunday mornings. I trust Julie’s fingers to express the music I need to sing.
I don’t know how to pray. The Spirit does. So I don’t try to put my own deepest feelings and needs into words. I trust the Spirit to intercede for me; to speak for me.
I listen. Quiet as a feather; in stillness. And often, a door to the temple is opened.
I don’t know how to tell when a prayer is answered, either. I don’t know which of the words dancing around in my head are words from God and which are my overheated imagination. I can’t tell if the sign in front of my face is from God or is just wishful thinking.
But the Spirit knows. So trust the Spirit, Paul says.
Trust brings us to what we can know. “We know all things work together for good for those who love God”. We can’t know when or why or how all things work together for good, at least not until well after the fact. Trusting the Spirit of God, however, we can know that they will.
Trusting the Spirit sounds to my ear a lot like this poem from Denise Levertov, “The Avowal”
As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so would I learn to attain
free fall, and float
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns
that all-surrounding grace.
You are the swimmer in your life. Stop swimming. Lie back. Face the sky. Trust the water to hold you up. Float into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace. Listen for the gentle murmurs of this Spirit, the sighs too deep for your words. Listen. The Spirit, in the language of heaven, whispers the very words you want to speak.
No effort of yours earns this grace. No word of yours expresses it.
(Let Your God Love You Edwina Gateley)
Before your God.
Let your God look upon you.
That is all.
God loves you
With an enormous love,
And only wants
To look upon you
With that love.
Let your God—
on summer hiatus