In the late nineteenth century, an archaeologist was getting ready to travel to the jungles of Darkest Peru in South America. He was looking for evidence of a great past civilization he had read about in the journals of a Catholic priest. The priest had written about certain artifacts that were shown to him by a local tribe who claimed they were the remnants of their ancestors who lived in a great city deeper in the jungle. Pictures accented the words of the priest, who had illustrated his journal with images of the artifacts. The university he taught at was willing to fund an initial expedition, but he would have to bring back some sort of evidence of a past civilization to make it worth their while to continue funding future exploration. The archaeologist was ecstatic, continuing to do all the possible research he could on the area, the people, the priest, and anything else that might be related. After doing his due diligence from the research end of things, the archaeologist set out into the depths of darkest Peru, searching for the great historical find.
A group of local tribesmen were hired to carry equipment and supplies, and a couple of student assistants went along to catalog the potential finds. Deeper and deeper they set off into the jungle, following old maps, hunting trails, and just as the archaeologist was beginning to lose hope, they finally reached a small hole in the ground, opening into a vast dark cavern. Lanterns were shined down into the abyss and the team put together a climbing rig for the archaeologist to use to climb down and look around. The archaeologist climbed down the rope but not far before the lights from above began to show that the chamber was flooded below by a swift moving underground river. They also showed walls that could only have been built by man, walls decorated in mosaic patterns and motifs that seemed to match the descriptions and drawings in the Catholic priest’s journal. He found it! The lost city that the priest had described!
Yet, most of it was beyond his reach, submerged beneath the river below. The archaeologist decided to pry a part of a mosaic away from the wall to carry back to the university. Once they saw what he had found, they would surely be willing to continue funding his explorations. The archaeologist was some fifteen feet away, so he began to swing back and forth to reach the wall. As he grasped at a part of the ornate decoration, the rig gave way and the set up with all the rope fell into the rushing water below.
The crew frantically went through the supplies and found a second rope, but it was so short it would not be connected to anything like the rig and it was only long enough for two people hold it and still get it down to the archaeologist. The two people would not be strong enough to pull the archaeologist up without his help. As the archaeologist frantically held on he was also trying to pry away a sample of the wall to take back. When the wall gave way, the piece was too big to put in any pocket. If he took hold of the rope, he would have to do so with two hands, letting go of the artifact. If he didn’t take hold of the rope, there would be no way to climb out of the cavern. So, he could hang on to the artifact and most likely die or he could let go of the artifact and return home, hoping his story was enough to convince the university to fund a return trip.
The whole story seems like something you might see in a B-Movie of the week on some station that shows old TV shows and films. One of those ‘movie of the week’ specials from the 1950’s and 60’s or a bad foreign film with subtitles or voices dubbed in English that are obviously not going to match what the actors are saying. I wonder though, what would we do? Would we hang on to the artifact you searched for and hope for something miraculous to happen in a hurry or take the lifeline that is given to you and regroup? The choice of the archaeologist here is not unlike a choice that we face every day, a choice to take a lifeline that has been given to us or to refuse it and hope for the best.
The lifeline of course, as we read in the scripture passage, is that of prayer. For some of us, the idea of prayer is comforting. For others, it is quite the opposite, an uncomfortable attempt at trying to use the right phrases and have the right posture and even as we try, we feel like we are doing it wrong. This morning I’d like to answer two questions and leave you with a simple admonition.
What is prayer?
Simply defined, prayer is literally, a petition, a request, usually directed to/at a deity; for Christians, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob, and of course, of Jesus. It is an attempt to draw our minds, our spirits, to God, to the very presence of God. It is also change, the central avenue God uses to transform us. Through this relational avenue, we come to know God in a personal way and to know our true selves as God reveals that to us through our relationship. The function of prayer is not to establish a routine, it is to establish a relationship with God who is in relationship with us always.
Of all the spiritual disciples, prayer is the one that we should see as the most important discipline because it leads to be in constant communion with God. Prayer is a means to and an expression of self-offering to God, a surrender of one’s life and activities into God’s hands. Yet many of us feel inadequate to come before the presence of God. Catholic priest and theologian Henri Nouwen wrote,
For many of us prayer means nothing more than speaking with God. And since it usually seems to be a quite one-sided affair, prayer simply means talking to God. This idea is enough to create great frustrations. If I present a problem, I expect a solution; if I formulate a question, I expect an answer; if I ask for guidance, I expect a response. And when it seems, increasingly, that I am talking into the dark, it is not so strange that I soon begin to suspect that my dialogue with God is in fact a monologue. Then I may begin to ask myself: To whom am I really speaking, God or myself?
This, I would think, is a struggle many of us face, that is, what am I doing when I pray? We wonder if we are good enough. We wonder if God is listening. We wonder, as Nouwen writes, if we are just talking to the ceiling.
The truth is every Christian has not only the right but the vocation to engage in prayer. It is part of who we are as children of God to be in conversation with God. As children of God, we of course, can speak with our father and as disciples of Jesus, we follow the example for Jesus who often through the Gospels, goes off to be in communion with God throughout his ministry. The focus is not on how to pray but on to whom do we pray. In following Jesus’ example from the Gospels, we can make God, specifically relating to God, the focal point of our prayer life.
What does prayer look like?
Prayer is a discipline that has to be cultivated, grown out of our own spiritual development. A prayer, in order to be useful, has to be offered out of a person’s faith posture, trusting God. When we offer these petitions, we offer them from the relationship we have with God through Jesus. Heaven and earth meet when, in the spirit, someone calls on the name of the Lord. It is a discipline that calls us into a right relationship with God, one where we are not disconnected through sin or breaking faith with God. In our passage today, James writes, The active and effective, urgent request to meet a need by an upright soul, has the ability to accomplish much. (James 5:16, my translation)
But prayer is not always an easy thing to do. Prayer becomes difficult when we are preoccupied. Because we lead busy lives, sometimes it is necessary to have time set aside for renewal and spiritual rest. Prayer…can be woven into the fabric of the day. Prayer is a type of renewal and spiritual rest that allows us to recuperate from the stresses and weariness of our lives. But a lack of concentration at prayer is a sign that our minds are too cluttered.
So, what is a practical expression of prayer? First, prayer is honest and open. The Cistercian monk Thomas Merton wrote,
Better just to smell a flower in the garden…than to have an unauthentic experience of a much higher value. Better to honestly enjoy the sunshine or some light reading than to claim to be in contact with something that one is not in contact with at all.
I believe Merton was trying to say that an authentic expression of prayer, of faith, even if it is not the most eloquent or conventional is better than being hypocritical. Jesus stated this in a different way in Luke 18,
Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.
For Jesus, and for God, honesty in our prayers and relationship are of greater value than any eloquent words or showy actions. The hear is the true place of prayer and the spirit of the person within that place is the true language.
And prayer is also a dialogue, a two-person give and take. We offer our petitions and thanksgiving and confession, but we also sit and listen. There is an ancient church practice of prayer called Lectio Divina or divine conversation. In it, we read a scripture, meditate on the meaning of it, ask for God to speak to us through the words, and contemplate or listen for God to answer. It is in these two parts of the dialogue that relationships are born. Imagine having to constantly listen to someone who refuses to listen to you. Is that much of a relationship? You know all about them, but they know nothing about you and, how can they? You haven’t had the chance to tell them. When we turn prayer into a verbal dumping ground of things we want or need without taking time to listening for an answer we are cheapening our relationship with God and turning it into a one-sided conversation.
When it is all said and done, prayer is this, an honest open dialogue (talking and listening) with God, believing through faith that the words we say and hear are part of our being in the presence of the one who created us.
The One Point: Prayer, open honest dialogue with God, is our lifeline of faith. Don’t let go.
Arndt, William F., F. Wilbur Gingrich, F. W. Danker, and Walter Bauer. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Christian Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
Feiss, High. Essential Monastic Wisdom. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1999.
Foster, Richard J. Celebration of Discipline. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1998.
Greene, Joel B., and William H. Willimon, . The Wesley Study Bible (NRSV). Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009.
Merton, Thomas. Contemplation in a World of Action. Garden City: Image Books / Doubleday & Co. Inc., 1973.
Nouwen, Henri. The Spiritual Life: Eight Essential Titles. San Francisco: HarperOne Publishing, 2016.
Witherington III, Ben. Letters and Homilies for Jewish Christians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on Hebrews, James, and Jude. Downers Grove/Nottingham: InterVarsity Press, 2007.
Wright, N.T. The Early Christian Letters: James, Peter, John, and Judah. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011.
 (Arndt, et al. 2000, 878-879)
 (Feiss 1999, 11)
 (Foster 1998, 33)
 (Feiss 1999, 21), from Sister Joan Chittister, The Rule of St. Benedict
 (Foster 1998, 33)
 (Feiss 1999, 12)
 (Nouwen 2016, 73)
 (Wright 2011, 43)
 (Greene and Willimon 2009, 1504)
 (Witherington III 2007, 544)
 (Wright 2011, 42)
 (Arndt, et al. 2000, 335)
 (Arndt, et al. 2000, 213)
 (Arndt, et al. 2000, 246)
 (Arndt, et al. 2000, 484)
 (Arndt, et al. 2000, 847)
 (Feiss 1999, 11)
 (Feiss 1999, 11)
 (Feiss 1999, 11)
 (Merton 1973, 363)
 Luke 18:10-14