How to live a life of prayer

I just remember I was alone, hungry, and cold as I bowed my head over my lunch. I don’t remember where I was eating or even what I was having…maybe soup. Still, the lovely smell pulled my face closer towards the bowl; as I leaned in steam rolled up my face. Cognitive psychology tells us that our brain cannot work apart from our bodies. Our stomachs release hormones like ghrelin, leptin, and insulin into our bloodstream that constantly but unconsciously signal our brains. Our nervous systems send neuro-mechanical messages about the push and pull of our stomach muscles. Our eyes alert our mouths to water before we can say aloud “this is yummy.” Taste buds on our tongues grab proteins and tell us if the soup is sweet, salty, sour, bitter, or savory. Without a second thought, our hands will lift the spoon to our mouths. We do not need to concentrate to chew or swallow as our brains wade through a lifetime of interconnected internal food memories and biases. Our whole body decides on the pleasure of a meal. The Psalmist said, “Lord, I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works…” (Psalm 139)    

Our Psalm is so tactile, so in touch with the body, almost bypassing beliefs and biases to get to a purer kind of core of connection to God, who resides beyond our best words. It reaches to God who steadfastly refuses to be cast into a manageable image. “Do not make an idol for yourself—no form whatsoever… Do not bow down to those images or worship them, because I, the Lord your God, am a passionate God.” (Exodus 20) Psalm 63 calls us a few stops past our best formulas. It can’t be argued for or summed up in a tidy theological formula. Such faith is only experienced, felt, embodied. 

God! My God! My whole being thirsts for you!

 My body desires you in a dry and tired land, no water anywhere. 

I’ve seen you in the sanctuary; I’ve seen your power and glory. 

My lips praise you. Your faithful love is better than life! 

 I will bless you as long as I’m alive; I will lift up my hands in your name. 

I’m fully satisfied— as with a rich dinner. My mouth speaks praise. Joy is on my lips. 

I meditate on you in the middle of the night— I shout for joy in the protection of your wings.

My whole being clings to you; your strong hand upholds me.

As the steam from my soup rolled up my face, I felt a deep liberating grace washing over me. God was in my soup; God was in me. That nourishing bowl called me into a deep state of gratitude, into a mindfulness that surpassed my normal table blessing. Somehow my openness to God in that moment invited me into what Dr. King described as a great web of mutuality, “It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied to a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of an interrelated structure of reality.” (A Christmas sermon on Peace) How did this lovely meal come to me? Where did the rain fall that grew the carrots?  Whose fingers reached into the dirt? What culture invented hot sauce? Who prepared my meal or shared the recipe? Who dug the gas line for the stove? Hearing my spoon clinking off the China invited me to consider potters, merchants, clerks, and truckers. 30 years ago, steam from one bowl of soup awoke me to a mindfulness, thankfulness, and connectedness that invited me to see God in unexpected places. Paul said, “whether in the spirit or body I do not know.”( 2 Corinthians 12) The Psalmist said, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.” (Psalm 150)

The letter to the Thessalonians invites us into mindfulness, connectedness, and practicing the presence with God. “Rejoice always. Pray continually. Give thanks in every situation. Don’t suppress the Spirit. Don’t brush off Spirit-inspired messages, but examine carefully and hang on to what is good. … Siblings, pray for us. Greet all your church family with a holy kiss.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-26) 

As a kid, we did not practice the holy kiss at church, and the thought of praying continually seemed an impossible burden. Maybe that was because my prayers mostly asked God to do something for me or someone else. Prayer was all asking, not dwelling with Christ. I did not understand that prayer might be seeing resurrection in a daffodil blooming or hearing Jesus in the sigh of a weary clerk. Thessalonians invites us to look for a window to rejoice in, pray in all things, find thanks in all things, and listen for the Spirit. The passage does not ask us to separate prayer from our living, but open ourselves to the sacred within our experience, learning, and living. 

Our understanding of Jesus as God’s “Word made flesh”, the holy mystery of Christ being fully God and fully human means Jesus’ entire life comes to us like a prayer: the birth, getting lost in the temple, dining with religious outcasts, weeping at a funeral, fishing with friends, teaching, seeing Elijah on the mountain top, listening to Magdalene’s story, worshiping in the synagogue each week, providing healthcare, feeding hungry people, hanging on the cross, and fixing breakfast for the disciples after Easter all come to us as prayers. (John 1) Mother Teresa says that everything begins with prayer. Prayer is a deep openness, a deep willingness to discover  and learn. If we are not open to learning, how can we be open to holy mystery? Jesus warns that our boasting about what we know indicates a spiritual blindspot. (John 9; 1 Corinthians 13) Prayer can be eating, seeing, playing, kissing, laughing, learning, listening, and simply living with an openness to the sacred.

I fear we have filled in the natural silences of life with podcasts, text alerts, and Tic Tok notifications. Missing life’s natural pauses, we may struggle to appreciate a simple bowl of soup or the sounds of a city waking up. Mother Teresa taught, “without silence it is impossible to hear from God. Even God cannot fill what is already full.” God will meet us in the pauses. (Romans 8) 

How might we learn to embody mindfulness, thankfulness, and connect with the presence of God? How might we learn to pray continually? (Romans 8; Ephesians 1) 

  1. Let me suggest morning prayers and evening prayers. There are excellent prayer and devotional guides. I love this one by our Encore leaders, full of Belmont stories. I often begin morning prayers with a coffee cup in my hands. I feel its warmth and sometimes let the steam fog my glasses, dwelling in silence on my porch, save the percussive song of the crackle and the sweeter melodies of the cardinals. My father-in-law used to kneel by his bed every night and examine his day, closing with the Lord’s Prayer aloud. Holy is your name. Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive. Give us the food we need. Lead us not into temptation, deliver us from evil, your kin-dom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven. Two simple ways to bookend your day with connection to God.
  2. Pray over your meals. You do not have to bow your head or hold hands around the table but look at your food. Where did it come from? Who prepared it? Give thanks for the hands that brought it to you; be mindful of those who are without enough food. 
  3. Read the prayers, poems, and sacred songs of others. I like Mary Oliver, Dr. King, Mother Teresa, Wendell Berry, and James Baldwin. Sing hymns with others, listen to the sacred music that stirs your soul and bolsters your spirit. My playlist has Dolly Partin’s “Wildflowers”, Mavis Staples’ “My Own Eyes”, and many other songs and styles that call me into worship and awareness. Worship with others, blend your voices in harmony, see each other’s faces, pass the peace of Christ. Lift up your heart. 
  4. Seek out spiritual friendships. Connect to others in prayer and study. Pray with others. Yes, it can be awkward to start this, but God made us for community, for deep spiritual friendship. Jesus does not take all 12 disciples into the Garden of Gethsemane, only Peter, James, and John. Jesus held a deep spiritual friendship with Mary and Martha. (John 11) “Carry each other’s burdens and so you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2) How can we really love our neighbors as ourselves and uphold the great commandment if we don’t carry one another’s burdens? God made us for community. 
  5. Learn something in the scriptures (hopefully with others as the Bible is a communal book). Read the Gospels, especially the Sermon on the Mount. John Wesley taught “Pray before consulting the Word of God remembering that scripture can only be understood through the same Spirit whereby it was given.” … frequently pause and examine yourselves…And whatever light you receive in reading and prayer use it to the utmost. Apply this light immediately! Let there be no delay.”  
  6. Finally, practicing the presence of God or praying continually means making the right decisions, doing the right thing, living ethically. James says faith without works is dead. Feed people, clothe people, welcome people, love people, forgive people, embrace people, defend the weak, offer healthcare to people. A life of prayer is a lifestyle of living into the Lord’s prayer, following Jesus, failing, and returning. Be gracious and lavish in loving yourself when you miss the mark. This is the heart of the Gospel.

Now, consider this: if you spent a few minutes in a devotional each morning, ran through your day with prayer each evening, and prayed over your meals that would be 5 prayers a day. You are on your way to praying without ceasing. And if the next time your phone flashed a disturbing headline or you felt you blew it, you lifted up a simple “Lord, in your mercy!” If you felt stressed, you paused for a breath prayer or the Lord’s Prayer, then you prayed 7 times a day. You are almost a holy roller! What if you read a poem or loaded a sacred song into your playlist for the drive home? If you added a confession and pardon for some angry word or deed, you would be at 9 prayers that day…almost a monk. Add a short prayer walk or long thankful look at the birds out the window and you have prayed 10 times. You are on the path to embodying a life of prayer. Amen.

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