Prayerful Service

Randall Tremba
February 5, 2012
Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church

Mark 1:29-39
In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.

* * *

Several years before my mother died she told me the secret to her resilience and good humor. Every morning, usually before sunup, she would pray alone and read a Psalm or two to herself. And then, she said, the devil himself could charge through the front door and I’d be ready.

My mother was in pretty good company as you’re about to see.

In the morning, while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.  Simon and his companions went out hunting for Jesus.  When they found him, they said to him, "Everyone is searching for you." To which Jesus replied, "Let’s go. Let’s go to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do."

When the world came beating to his front door with a thousand demands on his time and attention—not unlike our own early morning experiences—Jesus was able to discern the way to go. In the midst of countless things to do, he knew what to do. Evidently, whether you’re Jesus, my mom or yourself, it helps to begin the day with prayer.

I grew up in a praying family. We prayed before every meal. We prayed before every snack. We prayed before bedtime and before every road trip. We prayed at the drop of a hat. I grew up in a praying family.

And I was raised in a praying church. We prayed at Sunday morning services. We prayed at Sunday evening services. But the really serious praying happened at Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting. There, after a token hymn or two we’d get down to the business of the evening—the women and girls in one room; the men and boys in another, usually the basement. And when I say we got down, I mean, we got down. We got down on our knees, put our elbows on cold metal chairs and prayed. And prayed. And prayed.

In longish droning prayers the men would tell God the entire story of salvation which I figured God already knew since it was in his book. But just to be sure each man repeated it and then again next Wednesday in case God had forgotten in the mean time. I myself had one extremely short prayer which the men let me get out of the way first thing and then I would redeem the monotony by imagining myself running touchdowns or hitting homeruns.

Praying takes many forms.

When you’re a boy of eight or nine on your knees while six or so—what seemed to me—90 year old men take turns reciting every human sin and human condition by name, it’s pretty much hell. Hell in the basement of a Baptist church! Or so it seemed.

I must admit, however, that I did try their prayer techniques more than once as I knelt in the on-deck circle waiting my turn to bat in a little league baseball game. Lord, please let me get a hit. Or, if I was really desperate: Almighty God, Heavenly Father, Creator of heaven and earth, who sent Thy Only-Begotten Son Jesus to die for the sins of the world, please let me get a hit.

At the time I didn’t realize how big the world was, let alone the universe, so I just assumed God had the time, interest and ability to intervene in this particular little league baseball game in Youngstown, Ohio. I mean, why not? Invariably I’d strike out. In retrospect I should have prayed less and practiced more.

I attended a praying college in Wheaton, Illinois. Every student was required to attend daily chapel, which began and ended with prayer and several prayers in between.  Every class began with a rote prayer led by the professor. During exams, of course, the students prayed fervently and feverishly. You could cut the prayers in the room with a knife. In retrospect I should have studied more and prayed less.

A few of us misfits, inspired by Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, found a political use for prayer. We began praying out loud on campus for peace and an end to war just to annoy the nervous administrators. We were called “commies” and we didn’t mind. Of course, we didn’t really expect peace to break out since by then we knew how big the universe was and how puny we were. Surely God had other fish in other galaxies to fry.

After graduating in 1969, I found myself in a praying seminary in Pasadena, California. Every class began with prayer. We also had an entire course on prayer—prayer as a subject. By now, as you can imagine, I was jaded on prayer.

And then something happened.

On one particular Saturday morning I joined a public demonstration against war in front of the Pasadena Post Office. I stood holding a sign with a cluster of 80 year-old Quaker women who, as I found out, prayed in silence.

Silent prayer was a novelty to me. Instead of telling God things God already knew, this was prayer in the form of listening. War after war after war, these Quaker women waited on the Lord to renew their strength.

Soon thereafter I found myself in the lettuce fields of Central California holding a “Viva la Huelga” (“Long Live the Strike”) sign for Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. Some of you may remember those boycott lettuce and table grapes days.

We arrived in the fields just before sunup, devoured a couple burritos, gulped strong coffee, and then went into the fields and joined hands to pray. That prayer as I recall wasn’t a lecture on theology or a recital of sins and personal ailments. It was a request for the Holy Spirit to empower us, to empower us to stand up for justice and withstand sneers, sticks and clubs. It wasn’t so much a prayer for God to intervene and save us, as it was for us to have the courage and strength to serve God in that place.

We had come to wait upon the Lord. To kneel at the feet of our friends.

That was then. This is now. Once again I’m in a praying church. But it’s praying, I believe, of a different kind, a different order than I once knew.

Yes, here we are in this house of prayer for a service of prayer once again. Here we pray in various ways through three movements. The first movement of prayer is “Alleluia!” or something like that. Alleluia! The world is good. In the light of the morning, we sing for joy.

Alleluia, yes. But also, alas. Alas, we mess up, sometimes terribly. That’s the second movement of prayer. We confess. Yes, we doubt God’s presence and we admit it. We are stingy and selfish. And we admit it.

Alas, alas. We mess up.

But there’s a third movement of prayer. It’s the prayer of grace and hopefulness. By God’s grace we are hopeful. For when we are humble, truly humble, the love of God fills our hearts and transforms our feverish lives into channels of healing and peace.

Long before there was organized religion, our great ancestors and human predecessors prayed. They sensed the mystery of this world and the wonder of their being.

They stood in fear as the sun slipped out of the sky behind the horizon. Would it return? Who knew? In the morning they stood in grateful reverence as the sun arose again. At noon they paused to reverence the day. And at the closing of the day, they paused to give thanks for the gift of rest and sleep.

As you know, the cure for a bad diet isn’t food abstinence. The cure for a bad diet is a good one. It took me a while, but I found out that the cure for bad praying isn’t no praying. The cure for bad praying is practicing the right kind. And if you need a simple recipe, this forthcoming hymn, “Lord of All Hopefulness,” has a pretty good one. If you’d like to begin practicing this week you might do this: pause four times during the day, take a deep and mindful breath. Remember where you are. Remember who you are. And remember what you have already received.

Lord of all hopefulness, Lord of all joy,
Whose trust, ever childlike, no cares can destroy,
Be there at our waking, and give us, we pray,
Your bliss in our hearts, Lord, at the break of the day.

Lord of all eagerness, Lord of all faith,
Whose strong hands were skilled at the plane and the lathe,
Be there at our labors, and give us, we pray,
Your strength in our hearts, Lord at the noon of the day.

Lord of all kindliness, Lord of all grace,
Your hands swift to welcome, your arms to embrace,
Be there at our homing, and give us, we pray,
Your love in our hearts, Lord, at the eve of the day.

Lord of all gentleness, Lord of all calm,
Whose voice is contentment, whose presence is balm,
Be there at our sleeping, and give us, we pray,
Your peace in our hearts, Lord, at the end of the day.