Matthew 6:7-15; Philippians 1:1-11 1st Sunday of Lent: Relentless Joy
Dorothy Day was most well known for her work with the poor and the Catholic workers movement. She lived from 1897-1980 and was utterly focused on hospitality, always talking about how we can welcome people as Christ. She also happened to be a heavy smoker. Her day began with lighting up a cigarette. Every Lent Dorothy would give up smoking, but by halfway through Lent the rest of the community was usually praying that she would take it up again! One year, as Lent approached, the priest who ordinarily heard her confessions urged her not to give up cigarettes that year, but instead to pray daily, "Dear God, help me stop smoking." She used that prayer for several years without it having any impact on her addiction. Then one morning she woke up, reached for a cigarette, and realized she didn't want it and never smoked another. (1)
I share this story because I do believe that prayer is powerful and affective. I also believe that prayer is a lot of work sometimes and that many times it’s hard to know what affect it is having on us or on others. Mother Theresa said that prayer is to our soul like blood is to our body. I find that an interesting metaphor because of course we can’t live without blood in our bodies; and blood is also what carries nutrients, oxygen, proteins, and hormones throughout our body. Prayer is the carrier within our souls— bringing life and health and joy to us and to God. (2)
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul tells them that he is praying for them constantly— relentlessly. And I can believe it. If you don’t know much about Paul, let me tell you this. Paul was a Jewish religious leader before he became a follower of Jesus. He was charismatic to a fault, it seems, for when he was a Jewish leader he people to terrorize Christians; and then after he had his own conversion experience, Paul traveled around sharing what he knew about Jesus to anyone who would listen and when he was arrested for sharing the Gospel in places that didn’t want him telling about Jesus and getting people riled up about this new faith, he wrote numerous letters to the people who had started following Jesus in the places he had visited. And that’s how we have some of those letters today in our Bible. These letters were not meant to be Scripture, instead Paul feels a sense of responsibility to those whom he shared his faith with, and so he wants to encourage them in their own faith.
And that’s what we see so clearly in these first eleven verses. Paul thanks God for the people. Paul tells them that he sees God in them. And then he praises God for them. So often in our own lives, we focus on praying for people when things are going wrong: when people are ill or grieving or stressed out. And of course those are great times to be praying for people. But when we only pray in times of crisis, we miss out on the wholeness and joy that prayer brings to our lives.
Did you notice that Paul says he is praying for them with joy? These are not rote prayers that he is praying. It is not a chore for Paul to pray for them. This is a style of life for Paul— he is living his life as prayer. By framing his prayers first with Thanksgiving, next by praying for what God is doing in their lives, and then to praise God for what is already happening, it frees Paul up, and us too— to find joy in prayer rather than to feel helpless, discouragement, or even a growing sense of apathy when we don’t see a difference in the situations we are praying for.
In fact, prayer is a great place to be imaginative and hopeful about our relationships, our church, the people and situations in the world around us. We may often feel like we don’t know what to pray, but we can engage in something Harvey Cox, in his book A Feast of Fools calls “disciplined fantasy.” So prayers of thanksgiving become playful as we rejoice in what God has done— no matter how great or how small. Praying for the people around us, whether friends or family or our enemies becomes a time to imagine wonderful things in their lives. That relative that drives you nuts and makes a point of calling to tell you their opinion? Pray for them by imagining their bodies filling with joy. Imagine them resting in the knowledge that they are loved instead of having to prove they are right. Be creative! Instead of imagining a wonderful comeback to whatever they will say to you, imagine instead love surrounding them daily. Don’t know what to pray for when you watch the news? Imagine the people who are hungry and afraid finding people to eat with where they feel safe. Imagine those who are victims of crimes being able to share their story in a community where they feel loved. Our prayers do not have to be limited by what we think can happen— they are prayers! God has given us an imagination so we can imagine the world as God created it to be, and what better place to use that imagination than in our prayer lives. The stories of our faith tell us that anything is possible with God; the stories of the Bible remind us that systems of oppression that seem like they will never end are mortal and will crumble one day. Jesus’ stories tell us that forgiveness is possible and the lost can be found and that the Kingdom of God is right here in front of us. (3)
Prayer opens us up. It helps us practice being in God’s presence. Paul writes about praying constantly because he knows that there isn’t a section of our day that is reserved for spiritual things, but rather all of what we do each and every day affects our spirit and shapes our lives to either be starving for more of God’s presence or to be full of health and love.
Prayer is not just a conversation, which is why Jesus tells us not to worry about the words we use or whether we sound good when we use them. Prayer is a form of life, the life with God. So our prayer lives are not confined to a verbal statement that we share with God— those verbal statements are an overflow from our encounter with God. (4: Jacques Ellul, Prayer and Modern Man)
How will we be attentive to God today? How will you be attentive joyfully— looking for the ways God is at work in the people and situations around you?
If you are looking for ways to deepen your prayer life, there are several resources right at your fingertips. The first resource is in our Philippians Bible study that the Lenten Groups are using. You can download it off of our website or pick up a copy at the Connexion Point in the Entryway. It has prayers, daily scriptures, and of course the Bible study too. You are also welcome to write on your Connect Card that you would like to sign up to be texted a prayer daily at 11:07am. This is a simple way to be reminded to pray on a regular basis, and I have found that being interrupted to pray changes my prayers quite dramatically. If you are more into silent prayer, we have the Contemplative Prayer gathering called StillPoint every Wednesday night at 6:30pm. It is a great discipline of praying in silence with other people. And, of course, you can use the structure that Paul gives us in this letter. Anne LaMothe simplified it with the three words, “Thanks, Help, Wow.” (5) And every Sunday when I approach the altar with Randy and we pause for that moment, I will tell you that those are the three words that go through my heart— Thank you God for these amazing people and this opportunity to worship you; Help us in all the ways that we need you today; Wow— what an amazing gift to be here. You are an awesome God.”
Simple; thankful; joyful. The lifeblood of our lives with God.
Resources Cited/Consulted: 1) “Dorothy Day- Saint and Troublemaker” by Jim Forest. Canticle Magazine. 2) A Simple Path, Mother Theresa 3) Because of This I Rejoice by Rev. Max Vincent 4) Plough Daily Dig 5) Thanks, Help, Wow by Anne LaMothe 6) Interpretation Commentary on Philippians. Fred Craddock