A wonderful place to observe human nature, and to participate in it, is the Hallmark card aisle in a convenience store. Especially around a holiday. Especially around three holidays in particular – Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day. And if you are anything like me and don’t stand in front of those cases of cards until the day of, the slightly panicked look on people’s faces as they search for the perfect card, or at least one that will do in a pinch, those looks are ones we can all relate to. Who has been in that situation like me? It’s the day we set aside to celebrate someone we love and we want to express our love for that person – but, life had gotten in the way and you didn’t have time to compose a message yourself. So, to the Hallmark card aisle we go – looking for a card that is cute, but not cutesy, funny but not dumb, sweet but not sappy. We start reading the messages inside the cards, none of them expressing exactly what we want to say or how we feel – but then we glance at our watches and see we are already supposed to be at the dinner, or brunch, or party and we grab a card that isn’t awful.
I once got a birthday card from a friend who, when he opened it to sign it in the parking lot of the restaurant where my birthday party was, realized he grabbed the wrong one. It was an anniversary card, not a birthday card. Not sure what else to do – he adjusted the written message to wish me a happy anniversary of my birth. He sheepishly handed me an awkwardly worded card, as it was originally written for a wife to give to her husband, and told me it didn’t mean he didn’t care. Of course he cared, I knew that. But, when it comes time to express words of love, or sympathy, or support, or encouragement, or simply well wishes – so often it feels like our words fail us. So, we try to find something already written in hopes it comes close to expressing whatever it is we are trying to say.
I say all of this because I read an analogy this week that compared, not in a demeaning way, the Lord’s Prayer to a Hallmark card. When the disciple asked Jesus to teach him how to pray, Jesus taught those incredibly familiar words. Perhaps in that moment Jesus taught the disciple the Lord’s Prayer because he knew so often our words fail us. We fear saying the wrong thing so we don’t say anything at all. I don’t say this to diminish the Lord’s Prayer, not at all. It is an incredibly important prayer that carries within it great meaning. It is so important I spent five weeks closely examining it with you all during Lent. When we can’t think of what else to say, the Lord’s Prayer is wonderful and meaningful and provides comforting and familiar words to both the person saying it. Just like a card we find that expresses, just as well as we could, our love for someone else, the Lord’s Prayer beautifully expresses love and devotion to God when we can’t find any other words to say. But, so often, a prayer life isn’t like a beautifully worded card. So often, prayer life feels like a blank card, one that we need to fill with words that express love, asks for help, or shares devotion. Staring at a blank card, searching fervently for words to say whatever it is we want to say – well, nothing can feel more intimidating.
I hear, over and over again, when I ask if someone else wants to pray, “well, I just wouldn’t know what to say.” Or, I have sat in conversation with people who tell me they want a more profound and fulfilling prayer life, but find their attempts to be unfulfilling. The disciple’s question to Jesus, “Lord, teach us how to pray,” is a question many of us often find ourselves asking.
It was a question I found myself asking about a year ago. I was in conversation with this congregation about becoming your pastor. I had a clergy coach and spiritual director, who as I was talking to her about the possibility of this new call, I confessed to her a tremendous fear I had. What if, I asked her, I lose my personal connection with God? What if, I asked her, in the hustle and bustle of pastoring a congregation, my own prayer life falls to the wayside. What if, I asked, I forget to pray? The question of the disciple, the question I am sure many of you ask, the questions I ask – how do we pray – is an important question. Prayer, the act of opening ourselves up to the presence and guidance of God – is a vital act of our faith.
Sometimes the prayers we have learned are just what we need in the moment. Sometimes the Lord’s Prayer, those familiar words, bring comfort and a sense of community in Christ. Sometimes the familiar prayers we are taught as children before we go to sleep or when we bless a meal – those prayers are just what we need and saying them helps us to find a connection to God. But, sometimes, those familiar prayers don’t express what we really want to say. Sometimes we are staying at a blank card and we must fill in the words. Sometimes we don’t know how to begin, so we simply never start. Sometimes it feels forced. Sometimes it feels shallow. Sometimes it feels overwhelming. But, as followers of Christ, we are to seek out a prayer life that not only draws us closer to God, but helps us to seek God’s guidance for whatever it is we are facing.
St. Ignatius of Loyola, a 16th century mystic and founder of the Jesuits, fought for a prayer life of his own. It was not something that came naturally to him and he struggled to find a way to live a life that set aside time for prayer. Over time he developed a discipline, called the Examen. St. Ignatius, who is, by the way, the patron saint of retreats, knew from his own experience having a prayer filled life was hard. There were so many distractions, so many feelings of not being good enough, so much that gets in the way. So, over time, he developed a practice that helped him and others focus on their lives, the role of God in their lives, and what God is trying to teach through various experiences. The Examen is a prayer practice that helps focus the mind on prayer by leading someone through various questions. The Jesuits continue to practice the Examen twice a day. When I spoke my honest worry and questions to my clergy coach, she recommended the Examen. To those of you who seek but struggle to find time and purpose for prayer in your life, I recommend the Examen.
In your bulletins you will find a handout that explains this prayer practice. It is straight-forward. You set aside time to examine your day. It is not simply remembering, but asking God to help you see how the Spirit of God is leading you through your day. As you examine your day, you look for the gifts you can give thanks for. Whether it be a conversation with an old friend, a song coming on the radio right when you needed to hear it, finishing a task or starting a project – you review your day in thanksgiving to God. As you do this thanksgiving focused review of the day, you pay special attention to the feelings that arose. In paying attention, you ask God to help you understand what it was God was trying to tell you in that moment. Were there moments when you felt particularly close to God? Were there moments when you struggled to see God’s presence? Finally, you look to tomorrow. Pray for God’s guidance during a difficult conversation you plan on having; pray for God’s grace as you try a new thing; pray for bravery; pray for peace; pray for healing. Pray for whatever it is you will need for tomorrow. And at the end of that day, do it all over again.
The Examen is a practice which helps you to be in connection with God and yourself. It is a prayer practice that creates relationship and helps you draw meaning. It is a prayer practice that helps you to pay attention. If you are like me and need an action to go along with the prayer, the hand-out also includes Examen journal questions. These are the questions I journal on every day, or almost every day. I also strive to practice what I preach, so I am eager to set this prayer practice as a priority going forward. I am eager to see how it gives focus to my day. I am eager to see how it draws me closer to God. And I encourage you to give it a try as well. Try it in whatever way feels natural to you. See what happens if, even if just for a week, you set aside time every day to pray. And let me know. And I promise to do the same.
“Lord, teach us to pray.” For right now, that is our prayer. Amen.