8/7/11, How Then Shall We Pray?

1 Kgs 19:9a, 11-13a, Rom 9:1-5, Mt 14:22-33

Well, here we are, nearly a week into the month of August!  It seems like we waited so long for summer this year and now that summer weather is really with us, it’s fast fleeting.  But we will make the most of it while we can, and likewise, we will make the most of these ancient stories of scripture that we are given for reflection, bizarre as some of them are.

Those of you who were here for our July 17 Mass will recall that the Gospel passage for the day focused our attention on Jesus’ parable about the farmer who broadcast seed on his field, only to have his servants notice that when the seeds began to sprout, there were some plants present that did not have the appearance of the intended crop.  The farmer’s direction to the servants was to let all the plants grow together until the harvest.  My own experience with this prompted me to show you a picture of my flower garden where I had broadcast zinnia seeds, some of which  were emerging with a decidedly un-zinnia like appearance.  As more time went by and the plants grew larger and began to flower, I became more and more suspicious that these might be tomatoes.  When I got down on my hands and knees, smelled those sprouts and detected the unmistakable fragrance of tomato leaves, this was confirmed. Eight of those plants and not a zinnia among them! If you came to the Agape Feast last Sunday, you had the opportunity to take home and nurture one of those unintended plants.  I regret they are not the zinnias I planted, but on the other hand, since I did not uproot and relegate the plants to the compost heap, there is now the possibility that they will produce a crop of fruit for the local food pantry.   

That incident very well illustrated a contemporary application of the Gospel passage for us.  Today we live in a world of religious and cultural diversity.  God’s presence is planted among us in many creative people and diverse practices.  Is our Christian faith the only true and faithful way to live a holy life?  Who but God is to be the final judge of the purpose and value of other religions and cultures?  It is our challenge in this generation to learn to let all of this grow together, nurturing what is ours to nurture and letting be the rest to prove itself.

Along with that Gospel passage, we heard a short selection from Romans that seemed to cry out for attention.  “The Spirit comes to help us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit expresses our pleas with groaning too deep for words.  And God, who knows everything in our hearts, knows perfectly well what the Spirit is saying, because her intercessions for God’s holy people are made according to the mind of God.”

Time didn’t permit us to explore that passage, but I promised you that this week we would return to the consideration of prayer, for it comes up again in today’s readings in the Old Testament story about Elijah’s cave-encounter with God.  So rather than unpack the Gospel story about Jesus walking on water today, we will take a look at this prophet’s prayer experience. 

 Many faithful and mature Christians tell me that the nature of prayer in their lives is undergoing change.  I count myself among these.  As Paul notes in his letter of encouragement to the Romans, we struggle with the feeling that we do not know how to pray as we should. 

Our Catholic tradition tells us that the Mass is the church’s highest prayer. This Lumen Christi community prays together regularly as we have been taught.  We are grateful for our sacramental heritage and the richness of our ancient prayers.  Yet, to be relevant in today’s world, we are challenged to let go of our need to control the future of our faith structure with the same rituals and language that worked in the past.  Can we trust the Spirit to continue to pray in us even as we exercise the freedom of using different words and different methods to express a spirituality that is relevant to contemporary life?    These are questions we are living with right now, both in our personal prayer lives and in our community life.

The story about Elijah is instructive here.  A little background might help to put it in perspective.  Previous to this passage, Elijah has had a tumultuous life carrying out God’s instructions to him as a prophet.  He victoriously finished off his encounter with the 450 prophets of Baal and successfully prayed to God for rain that ended the long drought experienced by the Israelites.  But the thanks he got for this was the news that the wicked queen Jezebel had committed to find and kill him.  So our passage today finds him hiding in a cave at the end of a 40-day run for his life.  He is exhausted and disheartened.  The passage doesn’t imply that Elijah went to the cave to pray, but says while he was there, God approached him with the question, “Elijah, what are you doing here?”

Elijah’s response is one that indicates his self-pitying discouragement.  “I have been most zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts, but the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they seek to take my life.”[1]

In return, God tells him to go out and stand before him on the mountaintop.  God sends a display of power, first in a mighty wind, and then in an earthquake, and then in a fire.  But Elijah couldn’t discern God’s voice in any of these dramatic events.  It was in the still, small voice of silence that Elijah knew God was present.  He stood at the door of the cave with his face covered… and this is where our lectionary passage ends.  

But it’s not the end of the interchange between Elijah and God.  As we read on, God repeats the original question to Elijah, and despite the fact that Elijah has obviously experienced the power of God, and recognized God in the small voice, his response is the exact same complaint as before .  “I have been most zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts, but the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they seek to take my life.”

Elijah’s attitude has apparently been unchanged by the fact of God’s presence.  He is worn out!  So from this time forth, God begins to reassign the prophetic work to Elisha, an indication that no one of us is absolutely essential to God’s plan.  If I am unable to recognize God’s voice, or too exhausted to make an active response God will call someone else to finish the work.   Nor does this indicate that God disregards the faithful obedience one has shown in the past.  Remember that after Elijah has passed on his prophetic mantle to Elisha, he is “assumed” into God’s presence, taken up in a whirlwind of flaming chariot.  Perhaps this story is God’s way of telling us that there is reward for what we have been faithful in doing, even if it wasn’t perfect to the very end.

It’s worthwhile to ponder this story a little.  God was not in the wind or the fire here… but at Pentecost, God did speak with a mighty rushing wind AND with tongues of fire.  God wasn’t in the earthquake for Elijah, but he was for the Moses and the Israelites at Mt. Sinai, according to Psalm 68.  In this story, God was in the silence, and it was there that Elijah recognized God’s presence.

We have all the freedom in the world to communicate with God in whatever way fits the moment.  We don’t even always have to do the initiating or the talking. Remember in our story about Elijah, God was the one who broached the question: “Elijah, what are you doing here?”  Always be open to the many ways that God might be speaking, even when you haven’t been thinking about praying in the conventional sense of the word.

So what does this say to us, to you?  Is there some rule to follow about conversing with God? Are there certain words or methods that are necessary? Scripture assures us that we really can stop worrying about the rightness of content or method.  If we have yielded ourselves to the working of the Spirit within us, whatever we are longing to express to God, whether praise or petition, gratitude or complaint, the Spirit will take that simple longing within us and translate it very clearly.  God already knows all that we long for and all that the world needs, she just wants us to be communicating with her about our participation in life.  The key seems to be our determination to be attentive to God in all moments of time.  God speaks in the Word of Scripture that we hear, in the bread and wine of Eucharist that we eat, in the fellowship we have with one another, in all of Creation.  And God speaks in the silence.

How then shall we pray?  I refer you again to   http://web.me.com/ispiritual/spirituality_pages/prayer.html, where there are multiple postings about the various ways in which humans communicate with The Holy.  You might be surprised, delighted, overwhelmed… and you just might discover a new way to hear God’s voice.

Sandra DeMaster, 8/7/2011