Anne Lamott is one of the most refreshingly down-to-earth Christian writers we have today. I’d love to meet her. Even her book titles are fun: Traveling Mercies, Operating Instructions (about her first year with her baby son), Plan B, Grace (Eventually), Hallelujah Anyway. She wrote a little book on prayer and called it simply, Help-Thanks-Wow. Not the usual outline for prayer!
But it works. Today we are talking about Prayer as one of Bishop Curry’s practices in The Way of Love, his guide to Christian living. We often think of prayer as asking God for things – Help. The Lord’s Prayer in today’s Gospel has much of this: Please God, give us what we need to survive daily, save us from bad things, forgive us when we sin. These are all good, basic, natural prayers. But it’s good to go further, to move past these into something more.
Jesus also taught us a bit of Wow – praise to God; awe and wonder. God in heaven – how cool is that! Your name is holy! May your kingdom and your will come completely! We always need to remind ourselves that God is bigger and greater than we are – “Our God is an awesome God” as one song says. It’s good to get in touch with what’s exciting, extraordinary, energizing.
Lamott’s third kind of prayer is Thanks. Jesus gave thanks throughout his life, for the food he had to eat, for life itself, for his mission, for his friends. We need to do the same. A thankful heart is an open heart. Thankfulness is the best antidote I know for bitterness, anger, and sadness. When you can give thanks, you can survive almost anything: you can get yourself out of the doldrums; you can see life as a blessing, the world as a gift, and God as an amazing lover of us all.
These three kinds of prayer are a good foundation for us – especially if prayer seems foreign, or complicated, or just “more religious” than we think we are. Help. Thanks. Wow. That’s pretty easy to get our heads around. A good start.
But…and there’s always a but in sermons! But, there’s more. Lamott’s big three are not enough. I’ve struggled with prayer for 50 years. Sometimes it is easy and smooth. Other times, it just doesn’t come. I’ve gradually moved away from prayer with lots of words, toward prayer as simple presence: standing (or in my case, sitting) in the presence of God, and waiting. Others of you have developed structured ways to do this – Centering Prayer is a big one – a practice of spending 20 minutes in silence, attempting to be attentive to God, without filling our minds with our own thoughts. It’s an admirable form of prayer.
But, I usually just sit – preferably in sunshine, if I can find some. Sometimes God seems to join me, even speak to me. Other times, nothing discernable happens. But I am waiting on God, open. Maybe that’s enough.
In today’s lesson from first Samuel, we have a lovely story of the boy Samuel in the sanctuary at Shiloh. He is being trained by the old priest Eli, who was a bit of a mixed bag. We’re told that God’s word was rare in those days – it was a low point in Hebrew history with God. Eli’s eyesight was growing dim, a sign of his declining role as God’s mediator. On the other hand, we are told that “the lamp of God had not yet gone out” – a sign of hope! Unlike old Eli, Samuel is alert, and he hears a call “Samuel! Samuel!” He thinks it is Eli calling, but it is not; we know it is the Lord himself. Finally Samuel answers, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.” Samuel will become one of God’s greatest prophets – because he knew how to wait on God, listen, and follow.
This young, receptive boy Samuel in the sanctuary makes me think of another boy. The other night I saw the best movie I’ve seen in ages: Billy Elliot – the story of a boy in a dismal gray coal-mining town in NE England outside Durham. (It’s an old movie from around two thousand.) Billy sees the girls in ballet class when he is doing boxing with the boys…and he is drawn to the beauty of dance. He secretly joins the class; the teacher takes an interest in him. And boy can he dance! My heart filled with joy to watch him. The movie tells the story of his miner-father’s disapproval of ballet for his son, but he eventually comes around and supports Billy to go to away to ballet school. When the school auditioners ask Billy what he feels when he dances, he stutters a bit, but finally says he feels like his body is on fire, …like he disappears, …like electricity. The judges are mesmerized.
Billy Elliot’s dancing was his prayer…and it was electric. Sometimes, every now and then, our prayer can be electric too – take us to a new level of consciousness, a higher plane of joy, rapture…what we might even call God. We might have the exquisite joy of knowing God as the Lord of the Dance.
So Anne Lamott gives us three kinds of prayer: Help. Thanks. Wow! But I have to add to this. I would add, Yes. Or maybe, Come. Some word that points to our human posture of waiting, waiting and listening for God, if and when God chooses to speak. Or if God does not speak, resting in God’s presence, because God promises to be present to us. Not asking for anything. Not saying anything. Not expecting anything. Just waiting.
Next week we’ll talk about worship – closely related to prayer, but generally understood to be more of a communal act, perhaps formalized into a ritual of some kind. Prayer can certainly be communal too – we pray together before meals and many other times – but prayer can be an individual act, a relational act with God.
…I hope you’ll find moments when you can put the rest of life on pause, and simply be still, quiet, and wait on God. It may take a while. But at some point, like Samuel, God may speak and call your name. And you’ll be ready – you’ll be prepared – you will say, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.” And maybe start dancing. AMEN.