Prayer as Awareness on May 26, 2024

Prayer as Awareness

Exodus 3: 1-8a

May 26, 2024

          This past January, I invited you to share your ideas for future sermon topics. Steve Patton wrote these questions on his survey: What does the Bible teach us about prayer? How often should we pray? When should we pray? What should we pray about? What mental attitude and state should we be in as we approach the Lord in prayer? What if anything do we need to do to settle into that state before we pray? Are there any structures or formats that we should follow in praying?

          I sat down with Steve a month later to ask him about what was driving him to ask all these great questions. He talked about coming to a place in his life when the center of his life is no longer his career. He’s been looking for a deeper framework and foundation to live his life.

Steve said he recently read a biography of Martin Luther King Junior and was reminded of the strong spiritual underpinning of this remarkable life. Steve said he was looking for specific spiritual practices that would ground his own faith and life. It was like Steve was saying, “I need to get back to the basics of living a godly life.”

So that’s what we are going to look at for a few weeks. I believe the most important basic to living a godly life is prayer.

Too often we think of prayer as simply request. When we pray for something, it’s like we say we want or request something. It’s what we are doing as we share prayer concerns here on Sunday morning.

Over the next three weeks I’d like for us to look at prayer as something different than request.

If prayer is not simply request, what is it?

 I believe prayer is not a tool for doing and getting, it’s a tool for being and becoming.

This means we need to look at different prayer practices that go along with this different understanding of prayer.

I recently read a book that suggests a variety of prayer practices entitled: Honest to God Prayer. I’m going to follow the author Kent Ira Groff’s three main directions in the coming weeks: Prayer as Awareness. Prayer as Empowerment. Prayer as Relinquishment.

Today, we’ll look at prayer as awareness. Prayer is noticing. Prayer is paying attention to something, to someone. Prayer means paying attention to traces of grace in the grit.

          At first Moses walks right by it.

He notices the sand blowing, but he doesn’t notice the fire.

He notices the sheep, which is straying, but he doesn’t notice the fire.

He notices the goat, which is limping, but he doesn’t notice the fire.

He notices the heat of the sun, but he doesn’t notice the fire.

He notices that his oldest son Gershom is sitting down when he’s supposed to be helping, but he doesn’t notice the fire.

He notices his wife Zipporah’s cooking hasn’t been up to par lately, but he doesn’t notice the fire.

It’s like the disciples on the road to Emmaus after the death of Jesus. They are talking with this stranger about what happened. They don’t notice who this stranger is. This stranger is telling them about the connection between Jesus’ death and the prophecies related to a Messiah in the Bible. Still, they don’t recognize who this stranger is. They aren’t aware. They don’t notice. They aren’t paying attention. They don’t realize that it is the risen Christ who is walking besides them having a conversation with them.

It’s like my friend Sean and I paddling along in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of northern Minnesota. We’re looking ahead to our next portage spot. We’re focused on paddling and the distant horizon. At first, we didn’t notice the moose off to our left along the shoreline. We keep paddling, looking straight ahead. 

Elisabeth Barrett Browning wrote a poem that includes these lines: “Earth’s crammed with heaven and every common bush afire with God. But only he who sees takes off his shoes. The rest sit round it and pick blueberries.”

How often do we walk right by and never notice? Or end up picking blueberries? It’s easy because the fire is not that easy to see. There’s a hidden-ness about God’s presence. It’s hard to notice because the fire of God is often more like a glowing ember instead of a roaring bonfire.

At first, Moses walks right by it. The bush is on fire, but it’s not burning up. The Spirit of God nudges him to look. Moses looks back and sees it. He sees the burning bush.

          Moses says, “What’s going on here? I can’t believe this. Amazing! Why doesn’t the bush burn up?”

          Out from the bush, God speaks: “Moses. Moses.”

          He says, “Yes? I’m right here.”

          God says, “Don’t come any closer. Remove your sandals from your feet. You’re standing on holy ground. I’m the God of your ancestors: The God of Sarah and Abraham, the God of Rebecca and Isaac, the God of Leah and Rachel and Jacob.”

God is always there. The bush is always burning. How can we open our eyes to see more often? Is there anything we can do to make it easier for God to reveal themself to us in an ordinary day?

          The story is told about the disciple who asked the master: How difficult is enlightenment?

          The master answers: Oh, it’s effortless, like the sunrise!

          The disciple responds: Then, why all these difficult practices?

          The master says: “Ah! So that you will be awake when the sun arises.”

          A word from the Buddhist tradition that is used to talk about all this is mindfulness. Mindfulness practice involves the process of developing the skill of bringing one’s attention to whatever is happening in the present moment. We notice. We are aware. We pay attention.

          What do we notice?

          We notice our body and what’s going on with our body right now. Maybe we notice our breathing. Or we go through a scan of our entire body from head to foot – noticing what we’re feeling in each part. God can be found in our bodies.

          We notice our emotions. We reflect on the emotions that are leading us toward love and those that are leading us away from love. We notice, offer and listen to the emotions of our soul. God and God’s voice can be found in those emotions.

          We notice the natural world around us. We walk and notice all the wonderful creations of God. I often do this while I’m in my kayak in the mornings as the sun is rising. I notice God in all that I’m seeing and hearing and smelling.

          We notice the people around us. We hear their stories and notice God at work in their lives. We see them share love in so many different ways. We see God in the people we meet every day.

          What can we do with all that we are noticing?

          One specific prayer practice that helps me notice is journalling. From time to time, I stop what I’m doing and get out my journal. I write down what I’m noticing. I write down places and people I’m becoming aware of God. For me, this often happens while I’m walking through a park. I’ll take my journal and stop along the trail to write, to reflect, to notice, to become aware, to pay attention. And then I’ll read back on my previous entries to remember and thank God.

          Another way I’ll try to notice is using a Breath Prayer. Many mornings, I will come up with a short prayer that will be helpful for me to say during the day. For example: “Walk slowly with God.” Oftentimes during the day I’ll say that prayer, “Walk slowly with God.” Or I’ll sing a prayer chorus to myself: Like ‘Come and fill my heart, with your peace, you alone O God are holy.” It helps me notice and respond to God in the midst of my day.

A third practice is called the Examen. It started with Ignatius of Loyola back in the 1500’s. It’s usually used at the end of the day. You prayerfully reflect on the events of the day in order to discover God’s presence. It starts with noticing the gifts of the day, thanking God for them. The fancy word to talk about this is consolation. Then it moves toward noticing places of struggle in the day, lifting them to God for help. The word to describe this is desolation.

Here are some questions that might get at these two movements:

For what moment today am I most grateful?

For what moment today am I least grateful?

When did I feel most alive today?

When did I most feel life draining out of me?

When did I give and receive the most love today?

When did give and receive the least love today?

          Or something entirely simply like:

          What was today’s high point?

          What was today’s low point?

          I’d like for us to practice this Examen right now. We’ll do the first part aloud and the second part to ourselves.

          Instead of focusing on just what happened today, we’ll look at what’s been happening in our lives recently – the past days or weeks.

          For what are you most grateful?

          When did you feel most alive?

          When did you give or receive the most love?

          Where did you experience the presence of God?

           How would you answer one of those questions?

          (share aloud)

          Now, for the second half of the Examen.

          For what are you least grateful?

          When did you most feel life draining out of you?

          When did you give or receive the least love?

          Where did you experience the absence of God?

Let’s reflect on that silently and offer those situations to God.

The disciple who asked the master: How difficult is enlightenment?

          The master answers: Oh, it’s effortless, like the sunrise!

          The disciple responds: Then, why all these difficult practices?

          The master says: “Ah! So that you will be awake when the sun arises.”

Elisabeth Barrett Browning wrote: “Earth’s crammed with heaven and every common bush afire with God. But only he who sees takes off his shoes. The rest sit round it and pick blueberries.”

          God, help us take off our shoes and notice.

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