What gets in the way?
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Last Sunday we began a new series of sermons in which we will hear and think about and practice different methods of communicating with God. Last week we examined how one engages in a time of Centring Prayer.
1. Sit comfortably with your eyes closed. I would suggest you place your hands in your lap, palms up, symbolizing an openness to receiving what God wants to say to you. Silently say your holy word or phrase. Say it as many times as you need in order to quiet that “monkey mind” of yours. 2. Whenever you find your mind wandering to your to do list or calendar or the agenda for tomorrow’s meeting, return to your holy word. 3. When the timer rings or buzzes, don’t respond immediately; remain in silence with your eyes closed for a minute or two.
So let’s begin our time today with a Centring Prayer.
Our text for today is a familiar story. As I have said on numerous occasions, the important question to ask about this story is what does it mean? I don’t think it matters a whole lot if we believe Adam and Eve were historical persons as much as it matters that we find in this story a profoundly accurate picture of life as we experience it. It’s all here, our mistrust of God’s love and intentions for us, our desire to be our own god, our broken relationships with God and others, and our inclination to look for someone else to blame when we turn the wrong way. In other words, in the story of sin entering creation, we find the story of sin at work in the lives of us all.
Have a look at the story. You might think it’s not exactly about prayer and you would be right, but as it describes what is going on in our lives, I think it also talks about what gets in the way of prayer for us. What was intended in the relationship between God and us is that intimacy characterized by the conversation that once took place that is symbolized by that evening stroll in the garden.
The story from Genesis 3 is about sin entering the world and it is also about the painful tears in the fabric of what was intended to be that tender relationship between heaven and earth. The serpent questions Eve about what God has prohibited in the garden. Have you ever noticed that? If someone wants to put a strain on the fabric of a relationship, the surest way to do it is to concentrate on what could be perceived as a negative factor. Don’t mention all that has been done, all that has been given, ask about any small thing that was withheld.
I think it is important to notice the effect on Eve of this focus on something that has been withheld from her. If you look back at Genesis 2:17 you will see that God has said that she and Adam are not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But when Eve reports on what God has said, she expands on the prohibition. “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it…”
You know what happens. According to the story Eve takes a bite of the fruit and gives some to Adam. Something happens to them. When God looks for them that evening they hide. They are found, of course. After all, it is God who is seeking them. But Adam is a real man; he takes responsibility for his actions. No, that’s not what happens; instead the blame game begins. He blames Eve whom he points out was given to him by God. In other words, “if I had been on my own, I could have handled this.” Eve blames the serpent. From that point forward it seems to me that at least part of the human story is that when a wrong turn is taken the first glance is often to see who can be blamed.
The memories of Christmas are still fresh for many of us. Unless you spent the month of December locked away you must have heard at least once that popular song, “Santa Claus is coming to town.” I think that many people have the notion that God is a lot like Santa.
He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake.
I think this idea has implications for our prayer life. One of the things that preparing for this series has stirred in my thinking is the realization that we Protestants are just getting around to renewing our understanding of prayer after about four centuries of having thrown out the baby with the bath water. It may be that my experience is unique but I don’t think so. I think many of us who are around my age or older grew up in churches that urged us to pray. Of course, one of the things they did was to urge us to pray in the morning. Prayer at other times of the day was OK but it was made clear to me that the holiest of people prayed before the sun made it too far past the eastern horizon. Beyond that I don’t recall much direction as to what prayer was or how it could be done. I certainly never heard anything about Centring Prayer or contemplative prayer. I think that was the baby that got thrown out with the Reformation bath water. Instruction about how to pray was somehow connected with the Roman Catholic part of the Christian family and God forbid we do anything those folks did.
There are two things that came together for me as I was preparing for today. The first is one of the readings we were given as part of the Blythwood Prayer Retreat back in November. The text was Colossians 1:9–12. Paul tells the folks in that church that he continues to pray for them and he lists what it is he is asking God for on their behalf. Here is the phrase that stuck with me—joyfully giving thanks to the Father. That was the one thing. The second thing was that someone talked about the need for us in our prayer life to express our gratitude to God. Then I found what is called the Prayer of Examen.
One writer referred to this prayer as rummaging for God or as praying backwards through the day. Here are the steps—
A Method: Five Steps
1. Pray for light. Since we are not simply daydreaming or reminiscing but rather looking for some sense of how the Spirit of God is leading us, it only makes sense to pray for some illumination. The goal is not simply memory but graced understanding.
2. Review the day in thanksgiving. Note how different this is from looking immediately for your sins. Nobody likes to poke around in the memory bank to uncover smallness, weakness, lack of generosity. But everybody likes beautiful gifts, and that is precisely what the past 24 hours contain: gifts of existence, work, relationships, food, challenges. Gratitude is the foundation of our whole relationship with God. So use whatever cues help you to walk through the day from the moment of awakening—even the dreams you recall upon awakening. Walk through the past 24 hours, from hour to hour, from place to place, task to task, person to person, thanking the Lord for every gift you encounter.
3. Review the feelings that surface in the replay of the day. Our feelings, positive and negative, the painful and the pleasing, are clear signals of where the action was during the day. Simply pay attention to any and all of those feelings as they surface, the whole range: delight, boredom, fear, anticipation, resentment, anger, peace, contentment, impatience, desire, hope, regret, shame, uncertainty, compassion, disgust, gratitude, pride, rage, doubt, confidence, admiration, shyness—whatever was there. Some of us may be hesitant to focus on feelings in this over-psychologized age, but feelings are the liveliest index to what is happening in our lives. This leads us to the fourth moment:
4. Choose one of those feelings (positive or negative) and pray from it. That is, choose the remembered feeling that most caught your attention. The feeling is a sign that something important was going on. Now simply express spontaneously the prayer that surfaces as you attend to the source of the feeling–praise, petition, contrition, cry for help or healing, whatever.
5. Look toward tomorrow. Using your appointment calendar if that helps, face your immediate future. What feelings surface as you look at the tasks, meetings, and appointments that face you? Fear? Delighted anticipation? Self-doubt? Temptation to procrastinate? Zestful planning? Regret? Weakness? Whatever it is, turn it into prayer–for help, for healing, whatever comes spontaneously.
6. To round off the examen, say the Lord’s Prayer.
A mnemonic for recalling the five points: LT3F (light, thanks, feelings, focus, future).