It’s been a rough many months for those of us who read and pray using the Revised Common Lectionary—so rough that for the next two weeks in our adult forum at my parish I hope to have some lively discussions about the way our tradition approaches scripture and troubling texts. And then I looked at today’s readings from the Daily Office Lectionary, and knew that we had hit a new low. First comes Jeremiah 38’s recounting of Jeremiah being thrown in a well, and no Lassie to save him. Next, we have 1 Corinthians 14’s admonition that has traditionally been used to claim that women are to be silent in church—a text that I saw used to clobber women all too often in my growing-up years in fundamentalist circles. And the gospel for this day is Jesus’s admonitions in Matthew chapter 10 that he is here to divide every family member from every other family member.
Given that these readings confronted me as I considered this coming Sunday’s gospel reading in Luke 18 about persisting in prayer, I had to laugh a bit at myself and my dismay. There have been more than a couple of times when I have had this experience since I started praying the daily office as a spiritual discipline 13 years ago. There have been many times I have seen the readings and given a sigh and thought about giving it a pass that day, but most of the time I have managed to at least spend some dedicated time in prayer each morning and each evening. Add in my daily intercessory prayers I write, and that’s a lot of praying.
When I was in seminary, I once got pulled into a discussion about pastoral care. Whatever you do, I was told, DON’T pray. Several people nodded sagely around me, but I tried not to let my chin hit the floor. Why not? I asked, incredulously. In response, I was told that if you prayed for someone to be cured and they didn’t, it could cause them or their family members to lose their faith. To my mind, that made just about as much sense as arguing that a surgeon shouldn’t operate on someone in case their condition might worsen.
What we have here, I thought, is a failure to communicate.
I remarked that we Episcopalians don’t have a Book of Common Prayer for nothing. We are a praying people! Now, of course, being present with people and listening to them is a vital part of caring for them rather than quickly offering up a rote prayer and going about our business, but to not pray at all? As Episcopalians, prayer is what we do and how we are formed. The law of prayer is the law of belief, after all.
Of course, prayer is NOT a cure-all, and many of us would be very careful about couching our prayers in the language of seeking a “cure.” To be relieved, to be brought to comfort or peace, to be granted resilience and endurance, to feel supported, heard, and known as beloved, yes. But the fact is, as Mahalia Jackson sang, I believe that prayer changes things.
Prayer changes things – starting with the person who does the praying. Prayer changes things by giving the one who prays a chance to both speak and listen to the presence and support of God in that person’s life. Prayer is not a wish-fulfillment system, but a mostly-intentional conversation between ourselves and the Almighty. Sometimes – more often than we like to admit, probably – that conversation calls us to silence and to opening ourselves to the movement of the Spirit in our hearts and minds.
Sometimes prayer comes in a torrent of words. Sometimes prayer centers on the same word repeated dozens of times. Sometimes it comes in praying with someone who is ill and reminding them that they are not alone, physically or spiritually. Sometimes prayer comes with the click of one prayer bead sliding against another on a rosary, or a deliberate footstep on the path of a labyrinth. Sometimes, prayer is just the name of Jesus, or, as Anne Lamott noted, “help,” or “thanks,” or “wow” prayed on each breath.
And as we have learned a lot recently, sometimes it comes with praying through selections of scripture that do not seem to be all that congenial at the moment. Certainly, there are times when it is difficult to pray, or to know what to pray. I’ll tell you one thing, though: when in doubt, there’s never been a time I have regretted praying when choosing between that and not praying.
So let us ever persist in prayer, that our hearts and minds may be tuned to the presence of the holy alongside us and within us.
The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire is a retired teacher and a priest in the Diocese of Missouri. She is priest-in-charge of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Ellisville, MO. She posts daily prayers at her blog Abiding In Hope, and collects spiritual writings and images at Poems, Psalms, and Prayers.