The challenge and joy in learning to pray is that there is always more to learn. The problem in preaching about prayer, as I did last Sunday, is that there is always a lot of good material that gets left on the cutting room floor. Like this, from Eugene Peterson:
Prayer is the practice by which all that we are, all that we believe and do, is transformed into the action of the Spirit working his will in the details of our dailiness. Prayer consists in the transformation of what we do in the name of Jesus to what the Holy Spirit does in us as we follow Jesus. (Tell It Slant, p. 25)
Or this prayer from St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274):
Grant me, O Lord my God, a mind to know you, a heart to seek you, wisdom to find you, conduct pleasing to you, faithful perseverance in waiting for you, and a hope of finally embracing you. Amen.
Prayer is a lot like jazz. Jazz musicians are able to improvise because they have first learned the basics. "A Disciple's Path" offers some simple practices that can help us learn the basics so that we can improvise in finding our own pattern for prayer.
The good news is that there are lots of resources to help us along the way. "The Upper Room" is a great place to start. In the video witness in worship last Sunday, Bobby Eggleston described his use of "Pray As You Go" during his morning drive to work. My personal favorite is "A Guide to Prayer for All Who Seek God."
Whatever resources you use, John Wesley's words continue to challenge us today:
"O begin! Fix some part of every day for private exercises. You may acquire the taste which you have not: what is tedious at first, will afterwards be pleasant. Whether you like it or not, read and pray daily. It is for your life; there is no other way; else you will be a trifler all your days ... Do justice to your own soul; give it time and means to grow. Do not starve yourself any longer. Take up your cross and be a Christian altogether."
A front page story in "The Tampa Tribune" reported that one-fifth of the American public - and a third of adults under 30 - now indicate "none" as their religious affiliation. The majority of the "nones" say they are "religious" or "spiritual," but they have either rejected, been burned by, or simply don't see any need for their religious or spiritual life to be practiced in community with others.
That same day, I came across an address by Peter Jensen, the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Australia, which described the "deadly individualism" of our time. He compared it to Frank Sinatra singing, "I Did It My Way." He called "undemanding, individualistic, homemade, sentimental spirituality" the "new religion" which "turns the human impetus to worship inward, toward the self."
So, what could be more countercultural than Scripture? The Bible simply has no place for a totally individualistic relationship with God. Biblical faith is always personal, but it is never private. It begins in the transformation of our individual lives, but it is lived out in community with others. Worship draws us together from our inherent need to be in community with others and turns our attention away from ourselves and toward God.
That's why John Wesley said, "'Holy solitaries' is a phrase no more consistent with the Gospel than holy adulterers. The Gospel of Christ knows of no religion but social, no holiness but social holiness."
This Sunday we consider our commitment to "presence" in community with one another and in corporate worship. It's the gift we have to offer to the "nones."
Rev. Jim Harnish is senior pastor at Hyde Park UMC.