Preaching: Rebecca A. Henry
Date Presented: Sunday, May 29, 2016
Scripture Reference: Acts 17:22-31
Sermon: All My Days: God
The truth is that even with the best of intentions we don’t always do the best at staying focused in our conversations with one another. We’ve seen it more and more now with cell phones such that a year or so ago I learned a practice in which people piled up their phones in the center of a table when eating out so as not to be tempted to check messaging or emails. Even a lot of youth groups, including our own at times, collect cell phones before gatherings to keep people focused on the activities and conversations. It is for good reasons, too, because we need help staying attentive; I can’t tell you how many meetings I have been in where people are busy texting, checking emails, or playing games.
If we struggle in our conversations with one another, with people we can physically see, then it shouldn’t be all that surprising that many people feel the same way in their conversations with God, that is their prayer life. We know that prayer is important in our relationship with God. We hear Paul say in I Thessalonians that we are to pray without ceasing. We see the value of prayer as we learn of Jesus’ prayer life. We enter into times of prayer with the best of intentions, but we so easily become distracted with thoughts of things we need to be doing, with noises or people interrupting us, or even our own tiredness. For some of us, maybe even many of us, prayer isn’t as easy as it seems it should be. It’s not even just about being focused, but worrying about what we should say or how we should say it. And while there is no right way, or one way, to pray, many struggle to feel comfortable praying.
We certainly aren’t alone in our struggles, or in our desire to grow in our prayer life. We read in the Old Testament how the Israelites became distracted, restless in their devotion to God as they traveled through the wilderness. Despite all God has done for them and the ways God has engaged them, the Israelites became agitated and rebellious. Finally in Numbers 15:37 we read that God instructs them to put fringes on the corners of their garments, and then in Deuteronomy 22:12 instructions to tie the fringes into knots, each one helping them to remember the Commandments and their connection with God.
Of course, even the Lord’s Prayer emerges from the disciples’ request to Jesus to teach them how to pray. On the one hand it is a prayer we can say, but it also offers us an outline or framework for our own prayers.
The Lord’s Prayer was certainly one of the many prayers the early church prayed, but they also turned to the Psalms frequently. Among those were our desert mothers and fathers in the 3rd and 4th centuries who were so committed to a life of prayer that they went and lived in seclusion in the desert, where nothing could distract or interrupt them in their prayers. Only in the course of their day they would lose track of their progression through the psalms. With their heart’s desire to stay faithful in their prayers some would place a stone in a bowl for each psalm prayed, and others began using knotted rope to assist them in knowing which psalm was next. This practice continued into the Middle Ages.
Many of us would recognize that Catholics adopted this ancient practice with the rosary, but in the 1980’s Protestants also began to reclaim this practice as they sought to enliven or renew their own prayer life. It is this shared desired for a healthy prayer life that has others starting to use prayer beads. Interestingly, the word “bead” comes from the Old English word “bede” which means “prayer.” Prayer beads are just one of many traditions and tools that can teach us how to pray, that can guide us in our prayers, and help us deepen our prayer life as we stay focused on God.
To be honest, that can be challenging during the summer when we are being pulled in so many different directions with vacation plans, weddings and other celebrations, school trips, mission trips. Often it feels like the summer is gone before it has even started. But that is why I am encouraging us to use prayer beads this summer. Not only will they be a visible reminder to pray and stay connected with God, but they will keep us connected as a community whether we are together or not. They will help us learn and grow in our prayer life together.
Today, as this weekend marks the beginning of summer for many, we begin our series of turning to God in prayer “all of [our] days.” As theologian Karl Barth once said, “If we do not pray, we fail to realize that we are in the presence of God.” That is why every time we pray we begin by addressing God, why our first bead, a big gold bead, is for God.
Recently at a meeting a colleague shared something she had learned from Koreans, and was now trying to do herself. She said often in emails she would be quick to get to the business or purpose of the email, but she had learned from Korean colleagues to first spend some time focusing on the person, whether it be appreciating something they’ve done, inquiring about family, or following up on a previous conversation. That observation made me think about our prayer life, and how so often we are quick to jump to business, or the reason for our praying. “Dear God, please help me with my test in school tomorrow. Dear God, forgive me for once again being short with my children. Dear God, I am struggling at work. Help me remain patient and open to new possibilities.”
Only this gold bead, much like the Korean practice of correspondence, is inviting us to go deeper, to focus on the One we are addressing and our relationship with God. It is inviting us to offer praise and thanksgiving to God, to recognize that our very being is in God.
That is what we hear Paul calling us to do in today’s reading. He looks around and sees the hunger of Athenians to be connected with a god. He sees all the ways they are mindful of blessings and significant moments, but their inability to recognize and know God. He stands before them and argues that God is not far off or distant from them. Rather God is right here. He draws attention to their poetry, their statues, and that in them all one may find God.
As Paul states, “In him we live and move and have our being.” Indeed everything around us, every moment of every day, is a moment to connect with God. Every moment gives expression to and broadens our very experience and knowledge of God. In storms and fierce winds we know the Almighty, All Powerful God, whereas in the still air or quiet breezes we feel the gentleness of God. In war and times of chaos in our lives we turn to and experience God who gives us strength and courage. In moments of grief and pain we come to know God as Comforter. When we hear stories of oppressed people, orphans, the weight of our own guilt we learn of a God who liberates and frees us, who never leaves us alone. In times of harvest we give thanks to God our Provider. Every day offers us moment upon moment to awaken to the very presence of God in our lives.
When we pray, when we pause in the presence of God, we open our eyes, our lives to be aware of how God is with us in this moment. It is a time to refocus, to not just see the fun and play we are enjoying, but the gifts of friendships and laughter, God who created these miraculous bodies. They are moments to see beyond the chaos and pain of our lives and to remember a God who suffers with us, who listens, who comes to us, who has brought down mighty armies, who has provided food in times of famine, brought forth life from the dead and to give thanks. So that when we progress in our prayers to pray for healing, forgiveness, help, we do so in confidence of all that God has done and promised.
Indeed, the moment we pause to pray, the moment we open our mouths to utter, “Most Gracious God, Almighty Father, Creator,” we take notice, not just of our lives, but the one who created us. The moment we pause in prayer we recognize the very gift we are given, that One so great enters our lives in so many ways, that One so great comes to us and delights to hear our words of praise and love in all of our days.