Saturday, July 14, 2007

Prayer With Scripture-Part 1

15 July 2007 * Pentecost 7

Deuteronomy 30: 9-14 * Luke 10: 25-37

The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills, MD

The Word is Very Near to You: Prayer with Scripture Part 1

“The word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”

-Deuteronomy 30:14

A generation or more has passed since the rag-tag group of slaves was delivered from Egypt and at Sinai forged a covenant relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In Deuteronomy they are on one side of the River Jordan ready to enter into the land of the promise. We can assume an air of excitement over-lain with anxiety and even fear of what lies on the other side of the river. It is a feeling we all know.

Moses has called everyone to review and renew the covenant before going one step further. God restates God’s promises and expectations. So as to reassure us, the Lord our God insists that the commandments and God’s word are not far away in the heavens or beyond the sea, but rather “the word is very near to you.”

Yet, despite such assurance the Bible can be seen as a record of just how far away God’s word seems at any given time or place. That word which is meant to ground us, form us, shape our lives, and keep us safe and abundant often seems to be set far away from our day to day circumstances, anxieties, fears, complexities and a just generalized sense of chaos – lives out of control. If this “word” is so near, how is it we cannot hear it, feel it or even know it is here?

Quite simply, there are many competing words and voices – voices which we too often allow to occupy our attention, distract our attention, and subsequently disrupt our covenant life lived with and even in God. These competing voices offer all kinds of promises, and yet most often result at best in disappointment, and more often lead us to loneliness, sadness and despair. Like Biblical characters from Abraham all the way to Jesus, Paul and beyond, we seek some way, some avenue of access, to this word which is said to be “very near you.”

One of the Four Holy Habits, daily prayer and study, is meant to offer us such access. Yet, the very thought of prayer and study can baffle us, intimidate us, and make us hesitant to even begin to make prayer a habit. Even if prayer becomes a habit, too often this degenerates into virtual endless talking and thinking on our part, distancing us even further from this “word” which is said to be “very near you.”

This could be, suggests Martin Smith in his guide to praying with scripture, “The Word Is Very Near You,” (Cowley:Cambridge: 1989) because we have too often been told that “Prayer is a conversation with God.” Which itself suggests we better get talking and hold up our side of the conversation! That this is a conversation that we had better begin ourselves! And the attendant expectation is that once we have spoken our side of things, God will reply with just the word we need to hear.

But this only raises further questions, such as just what do we expect God’s reply to sound or look like? And if prayer is a conversation with God, why is God’s side of the conversation often so sparse, sporadic and just plain silent? A silence that is often repeatedly broken by what Smith calls “the static of our random thoughts.” This can lead us to believe that there is something wrong with how we are praying, which itself is often a thinly veiled resentment of a God whom we experience as an all too passive partner in prayer.

All this, asserts Smith, calls for a new understanding of the whole enterprise of prayer, giving our attention first and foremost to attentiveness and receptivity. The God of Israel is the god who takes the initiative to address and approach us. After all it is in Deuteronomy that we hear God say, "I choose you not for what you have done, but because I love you." This makes prayer primarily about our attentiveness to God’s disclosure to us and the heart’s response to this disclosure. In fact, our attentiveness quite simply can be our response.

For instance, if in prayer we are made aware that “God loves us as we are, even in our mediocrity, our best response is to savor that, to allow it to sink in, rather than to start to make resolutions and promises to God, which might be a subtle way of changing the subject to what we can do.” To change the subject would in some way prevent God from doing to us what God desires to do: to love us and receive us into the household of love, the household of Father, Son and Holy Spirit - suggesting that prayer is more about our receiving rather than doing. God has already started the conversation – and from a Christian point of view this conversation includes the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Prayer is our way of being attentive to their conversation that is already ongoing, some of which is recorded in scripture. Prayer with scripture helps us to attend to what God is already saying.

For instance, when we pray with the story of the Good Samaritan we may find that what God is saying to us is to know ourselves to be the man lying on the side of the road. Our need for prayer says that is who we are – we need someone to come to our aid, to comfort us, to take care of us, to arrange for our care. To admit this, however, makes us uncomfortable, since it means facing our need and accepting dependence on another. In the story the other who comes to take care us of turns out to be the most surprising person of all, a hated, enemy Samaritan. Yet, even if that other were to be God, we are still anxious to surrender our self-sufficiency and allow ourselves to be served. Prayer wants us to become aware of this need of ours and our dependence on God’s grace and God’s love.

For those who are attentive and receptive to this word, God sends Jesus to heal us, who in turn arranges for our eternal care by the Holy Spirit.

For God is a lover, not a taskmaster. Prayer is meant to bring us deeper into the truth of this love. And prayer as attentiveness to what God is already saying to us reveals to us that we are not alone in this need for dependence on God’s care and love – whether it is care and love from God directly or through the many stranger/Samaritans God sends our way.

“You are not alone” is perhaps the singular message of prayer – by which prayer draws us into relationship with others, all others, who are also exploring this mystery. For if we are in God’s prayers, we are in one another’s prayers – all other’s prayers.

God is already talking to us. In prayer with scripture we attend to what God is saying, receive it in love, and let God set the agenda. Prayer and the desire for prayer, writes Smith, draws us out of isolation into the greatest of communities, the ultimate one, the communion of saints. To be continued. Amen.

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