Learning to Pray
text: "teach us to pray" (Luke 11:1)
Judson Memorial Baptist Church
Rev. G. Travis Norvell
One thing you may or may not know about me is that I lose things all the time, particularly my keys and my wallet. One time I thought for sure I had lost my wallet, I searched everywhere and even brought the master finder of my lost things, Lori, in on the scheme. No avail. When I had given up hope…for some odd reason I looked behind the buffet and sure enough there was my wallet, suspended about three feet in the air wedged between the back of the buffet and the wall. If not for a chancing glance over in that direction I would have called given up, called the credit card company and took a number down at the DMV.
Im sure you lose things too: cats, tools, ear buds, homework, spoons, bills, phones, & etc. But I am sure we all lose other things as well, intangible things: the capacity to love, the energy to forgive, or in my case the experience of prayer.
It may sound odd to hear that a pastor lost their experience of prayer, but it is true. It is not that I couldn’t pray. I did. I could pray for other people and causes and needs on a dime. But I couldn’t rekindle the experience of prayer I once had in my life. By experience of prayer I mean the ability to be in the presence of God without an agenda or to-do list, just being.
And the more peculiar thing to me was that I didn’t even realize I had rekindled this passion or experience until weeks after I had found it. I offer my story as a entry or reentry for you to also journey together toward the experience of the Living God.
Let us pray: Living God, be with us as we listen, inwardly digest, respond and react. Let us trust wherever you lead we will be open to the way. Leave us not hungry, but instead let us feast at your table. Amen.
After dropping off our bags and swords (more on them in a couple of weeks) at our hotel in Newcastle we caught the next “hop on, hop off” tour bus to take us to the Museum of the North. The bus took a break across from St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in downtown. We knew the cathedral had a cafe, and we were hungry. We entered the cafe, it was like any other Northumberland cafe: linoleum topped tables, aroma of freeze dried coffee, people with lap tops doing work, and people enjoying the presence of one another.
I asked the woman behind the counter for five scones: three plain and two fruit and five teas to go. She handed me five cups of tea and a bag full of scones, jam, and enough butter to satisfy 20 Americans or 3 English customers. I said thanks, and we headed back to the bus. But as we were leaving the woman called back saying, “but you’ll need a knife to spread the butter and jam. Here.” She placed in our bag a metal butter knife.
It may sound like a small act but it changed my inner geography somehow. We exited the cafe and went inside the cathedral to look around. We walked through the glass doors into the sanctuary and were transported in the words of the St. Paul into the third heaven. The organist was playing the Main Theme to the movie The Mission, the air was light and warm, the colors were expressive of the congregation’s devotion. I wrote a prayer request down in the book, lit a candle, then kneeled at the kneeler. In my silence I realized what I had been looking for, what I thought was lost, was present again, at that moment the organist was playing the Gabriel’s Oboe from the Main Theme and my response was to weep in gratitude.
I would dare say all of us here have at one time or another had a transcendent experience where we felt at one with God, with another person, with the universe; felt that we stood on holy ground, cried tears of gratitude, laughed uncontrollably, felt truly loved and free and whole. The moment may have only lasted for an instant, but it was enough to convince you that the inner life was something worth pursuing.
I am sure the disciples were people just like you and me, folk who too had had some kind of inner experience of the holy that they wanted desperately to find again. When one day Jesus came along they thought maybe he could show them the way. They knew he was in touch with the perennial wisdom, ancient traditions. He possessed a life giving spirit. He warmed your heart just to be near him. That kind of presence doesn’t come naturally but through years of practice and cultivation. The disciples left everything to follow this Jesus. Im sure they thought he would teach them his ways of of the spirit, but he didnt. He just spent hours alone, and he didn’t like it when others disturbed his times of solitude. Finally, the disciples had had enough. Holy One, teach us to pray.
The disciple knew the work Jesus was engaged in and the work they were called to so was draining, exhausting, and never acknowledged. They were always giving of their time, their energies, their bodies to the movement and it was taking its toll on them.
Holy One, teach us to pray.
You may have in your mind a portrait of Archbishop Desmond Tutu as an activist, a truth-teller, a rabble rouser for peace, a prophet. And all of those portraits are correct. But there is another dimension to him. HIs press secretary John Allen described Tutu this way, “His power of communication is, of course, rooted in spirituality. His spirituality is natural and normal and is the central part of his life. In one way or another, the first four hours of the day were spent in silence, probably two hours in the middle of the day and an hour at the end of the day at least, so you’re talking about six or seven hours of the day in silence…even when we were traveling he kept the silent times. If you were arguing with people who were scheduling him, you would say, “Who do you want? Who did you invite? Did you invite the ebullient, warm, communicative Tutu who woos the crowds? If that’s who you invited and if you want that then you have to recognize that the warmth and the ebullience and the reaching out to the crowds, that loving to be loved and the enjoying of the crowd and the reading of the crowd and the sharing of the emotion and the sense of inclusive humanity, that’s one side of a coin. The other side of the coin is hours and hours a day in silence. And if you schedule him to run around morning, noon, and night, you are not going to get the Tutu you want. He cant be the ebullient without the hours of silence."
Holy One, teach us to pray.
But we are not called to be an Archbishop Tutu , although I do think there are prophets among us, I think I’ve already baptized a few in my six years here! Where do you and I start? Or how do we start cultivating the inner workings of our soul?
One spiritual writer suggests this as a starting or restarting place…
"If we find ourselves drifting away from spiritual engagement, even if we are already feeling alienated from the spiritual world, the direction can be reversed if we try to come back to the practice of personal prayer. To step back from our many important activities on a regular basis to make room for God. It can be as simple as you like. Words that mean something to us are important, but the meaning of prayer transcends the words we use. What counts is that we are reactivating a relationship that is life-giving. After that anything can happen."
Holy One, teach us to pray.
Before we left Newcastle for Durham we had one last stop, we wanted to return the butter knife to the cafe. We walked through the rain in downtown and reached the Cathedral only to find the cafe closed for a week of cleaning and holiday. We were saddened because we could not return the knife and express our thanksgiving and we were saddened because we could not try their hot chocolate, because they made it with shaved fair traded dark chocolate. But we did take advantage of their public restrooms and dry space to prepare for the train trip. As we were repacking and shuffling swords (again, more on them in a couple of weeks) and going to the restroom an elderly gentleman came up to us and started to talk. His presence was a bother, wrong time more than anything. But there was something about him that told me to engage him and pay attention.
As we got on the train and headed north I couldn’t get this gentleman out of my mind. He was lonely and just wanted someone to talk to and listen to him. But I don’t think he was just an elderly gentleman. I honestly believe he was an angel, a messenger of God - testing me! Would the in-breaking of prayer result in a more compassionate heart? Would I make the effort to stop and listen. Because what he had to say was critical to our pilgrimage.
The angel wanted to tell us something but he couldn’t quite communicate it. So he walked us to the cathedral doors and pointed to the northern saints: Saints Aidan and Bede and Cuthbert and Hild and Oswald and Wilfrid. In the sanctuary of St. Marys about eye level wrapping around the entire sanctuary are tiles printed with the names of these saints and hundreds of others and after each saint are the words, “pray for us”.
There are many times, most of the time actually when our faith in God dwindles and atrophies but God’s faith in us never tires. God is always reaching, seeking, and desiring to listen to us, to speak to us, to open us up to love supreme. And if you cannot believe God hasn’t given up on you, then at least take comfort in the Saints praying for you. And if you cant do that, then at least take comfort in the saints among you praying for you, take comfort that a small but lively, quirky but sincere, undisciplined but meaningful community on the corner of 41st and Harriet (reader, this is the address of Judson Church) has your back.
In closing, We brought the knife home to Minneapolis. I have it in my bag of relics I’ll share with you on September 16th during Second Hour. We thought of sending it back but instead we would like to send back a “Judson” knife, you do know we have our own custom stamped silverware: “Judson” spoons, knives and forks. Sharing with them a Judson knife as a way of symbolically keeping the link between their hospitality and our gratitude in our quest for a rich, vibrant and robust inner life.
Holy One, teach us to pray. Amen.