Sermon delivered by Loyd Allen, professor of church history and spiritual formation at McAfee school of Theology in Atlanta, Ga., on March 3, 2009,
To the leader. A Psalm of David.
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy,
and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them;
and nothing is hidden from its heat.
The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the LORD are sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the LORD are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is clear,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the LORD is pure,
enduring for ever;
the ordinances of the LORD are true
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
But who can detect their errors?
Clear me from hidden faults.
Keep back your servant also from the insolent;
do not let them have dominion over me.
Then I shall be blameless,
and innocent of great transgression.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you, (Psalm 19, NRSV)
One of the funniest scenes in the movie The Queen is the one where the new prime minister is given a crash course on protocol in the presence of the Queen of England: how to address her (Ma’am); how far to bow (just beyond a nod of the head), wait for her to step forward first; if she offers her hand, don’t take off your glove to grasp it ”Of course, you are wearing gloves! You get the picture. If you want your time with the queen to go well, here’s what you say and do.
If you are here this morning thinking you’re about to get little lesson on proper protocol when talking to God, so as to please and not offend the Deity, relax, I don’t have one. Learning to pray is not a matter of talking to God correctly at the appropriate times and in the right manner. Prayer is not something we do, it is a longing we have. It is a thirst, a hunger that nothing will satisfy until God quenches it with God’s divine presence. Seven hundred years ago, Augustine knew this longing. He wrote: Our hearts are restless till they rest in you.
We are all restless souls. Some of us think it is because we are not good enough or smart enough or good-looking enough; others are restless because we believe we are not rich enough or powerful enough or well-known enough. Still others of us are restless for the pain or the grief or the dull grayness of life to end. At its root, every human longing is some form of our longing for God. Learning to pray, then, is learning what you want, what you really, really want, or better, learning Who you long for.
The gospel good news is this: the One you long for longs for you. God thirsts for you, she hungers for your embrace, he would rather die any death than be forsaken by you. God, as the song says, is addicted to love. (Personally, I like the Tina Turner version!)
The psalmist, tradtionally assumed to be King David, understood this. He looked to the sky and saw, in the beauty of the stars and the scorching brightness of the sun, a silent but universal, unceasing, searching, message from the Creator written in wordless beauty and scorching heat. He then looked to the Scripture and saw the same luminous, passionate life-giving message ”perfect beauty and pure righteousness ”this time revealed in his own vocabulary, the Hebrew language, and directed specifically to humanity. Torah, instruction on living life as we were made to live it, is God’s loving gift to humankind. In both wordless creation and wordy Holy Scripture, God calls out to us, day and night, for us to see, to hear, the possibility of life as it is meant to be: beautiful, meaningful, innocent and righteous, bright hot with passion, everywhere present and without end. And most important ”most important ”never alone. Thousands of years after Psalm 19 was written, Baptist minister Robert Lowry heard the same universal lyric as this Psalmist and penned the following words:
My life flows on in endless song
Above earth’s lamentation.
I hear the real, though far off hymn
That hails the new creation.
Above the tumult and the strife,
I hear the music ringing;
It sounds an echo in my soul
How can I keep from singing?
Trouble is, we seldom hear, much less sing the morning stars’ mystic song. We seldom see the beauty deep in creation, or sense the Word beneath the words of scripture. That Unquenchable Light, that Eternal Word, came and dwelt with us as one of us, and his own knew him not. Still, now, Christ is present with us, though we seldom see, and even more seldom heed him.
As the Psalmist realized, something deep in us insolently refuses to listen to or see the Life, the Truth, the Way within our reach. We know the way, but can’t walk it. As the Apostle Paul wrote: For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate (Rom. 7:15b NRSV). Surrounded by life, we often choose death, like a person dying of thirst sitting by a pool of clear water eating sand.
Let’s be honest with ourselves. We cannot drink from the cup of God’s love and life by simply willing ourselves to do so, or by resolving to change our bad habits, or by adding on a few good ones. The Psalmist points to the fact that the faults (or sins or errors) that are killing us are hidden from us. Only God can clear them from us. We can’t detect them, much less correct them ourselves. To think we can is to join the arrogant, says the psalmist.
To know this is the beginning of prayer. Through prayer, in prayer, we stop, look, and listen. We stop our frantic busy-ness and quiet our minds; we look for God everywhere and in everything ”persons, circumstances, all creation; we listen to scripture with longing hearts as well as searching minds. We offer to God our deepest desires. We pray Please, and we pray Thank you. Hands clasped in prayer are like the hands of a starving person cupped to receive bread. Through our prayers we receive life.
Sixty years ago, my father laid a pack of cigarettes on a tree stump in the woods near our Alabama home and knelt in prayer before that rude altar. Four years earlier, Daddy had been shot through the chest with a Japanese bullet on a Pacific island. He lost most of his right lung to the infection that followed. After two years in the hospital, he managed to find work, build a house, and marry a good woman. She gave birth to his eldest son, who lay in his cradle the day Daddy knelt in the woods to pray. Daddy longed to live and live fully, but he remained addicted to nicotine, and it was surely killing him. He prayed to God to help him quit. Years later he testified that when he stood up to walk out of the shadowy woods back toward the lights of home, he was free, free to live. To the end of his life, he declared he never wanted another smoke. His deep longing for God and God’s deep longing for him met in that prayer, and he lived to tell me about it decades later.
By the time I was two years into my theological education, I was a little embarrassed by that story. There was my Daddy: so simple, so unaware of the psychological and physiological underpinnings of the event, so naively accepting of a pietistic theology about a personal God who cared about each individual, so gullible he believed literally all the stuff from the Garden of Eden to the Garden with the Empty Tomb. Me, I was educated. In point of fact, I was smarter than Daddy, but I was not wiser. In my sophomoric arrogance, I used my learning not to fan the fires of my longing for God but to lay it like a blanket of criticism over them.
Later, working on my Ph.D., I struggled to pray right. I read, I discussed, I reflected, and I reasoned carefully about the matter. I even wrote my dissertation on spirituality. As a result, when I prayed, I filtered my words cautiously through my new-found theological understandings. It worked, but it only made my prayers more theologically correct. Improved my prayer protocol, that’s all.
Then one night I had a dream. I dreamed I was sitting in the pew in the little church of my childhood. As the preacher preached, the electric organ to the side of the pulpit began to play, though no one was sitting at the bench to play it. The men in the church, amazed by this, took up tools and began to take the organ apart to see what caused this unexpected music. As they pried into the organ, the music stopped. The preacher resumed preaching. Then the piano, on the other side of the pulpit, began to play of its own accord. The preacher and the church men again approached this marvel with tools to investigate. From my pew, I called out, Stop, leave it alone. At that point in my dream, I recognized the music. It was the melody to the lyric, Praise the Lord, Praise the Lord, let the earth hear his voice; praise the Lord, praise the Lord, let the people rejoice . . . . And I awakened.
I have kept learning and teaching about prayer since then, to my personal benefit and I hope to the benefit of others, but in my prayers, at my prayers, I have stopped talking so much and thinking so much. I have sought to become quiet and still in order to hear the music better, to see more clearly in the dim light I have personally been given.
You know, the older I get, the more I am struck by this fact: Daddy quit smoking, he received life rather than death, and came home to us addicted to love. Let us pray.
Wm. Loyd Allen holds the Sylvan Hills Chair of Baptist Heritage and is Professor of Church History and Spiritual Formation at James and Carolyn McAfee School of Theology.