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The On-Going Conversation

I'd like to invite you to think with me for a few minutes about the most important conversation you'll ever have--more important than conversations with your customers, your students, your neighbors, even your family. I refer, of course, to your conversation with God. I guess we normally refer to that as prayer, though we don't often think of prayer as conversation. Don't we really think of prayer as monologue---as talking to God, telling God how we feel, what we want, confessing our sins, seeking God's forgiveness, petitioning in behalf of others, reaffirming our praise and devotion? Usually, what we mean by prayer is monologue.

Let me begin with a confession. Though I'm a United Methodist minister, I have always had a problem with regular, scheduled prayer periods--taking a formal time out of every day, perhaps at the beginning of the day, to pray and meditate. I thought that when I retired from the daily pressures of active ministry it might become easier, but it hasn't. I lead spiritual renewal retreats from time to time, and yet I sometimes wonder if I'm not a spiritual fraud.

My organized prayer life is pretty disorganized. It may not be less faithful than yours, but it isn't as much more deliberate as you might expect from an ordained minister. I have the same problems I suspect you have. One is the problem of my impatience in waiting for answers to my prayers. In a "Frank and Earnest" comic strip, one of them has a conversation with God:

"Is it true, God, that a thousand years is but a second to you?"
"And is it true that a million dollars is but a penny to you?"
"Uh, can I have a penny?"
"Certainly...wait a second."

Our scriptures are filled with psalmists and prophets who cry out, "Where are you? Will you forget me forever? Why have you forsaken me?" The most oft-repeated phrase in the Bible seems to be, "How long, O Lord?" John Calvin said, "There is such a thing as waiting patiently for the Lord with suspended desires." But it's hard to suspend desires. It's been hard for me to discover that God answers prayers in more than one way--sometimes with a yes, sometimes with a no, and sometimes with a wait.

Then I also have problems with those times when God doesn't give me the answer I want. Sometimes, when we allow our prayers to actually become conversations, God's responses are hard to handle. That happened often in scripture. Paul, you remember, prayed not once but three times to have a certain thorn removed from his flesh, but God said, "No, you can handle it." And Jesus, who gave us the ultimate model of all prayer, asked if it be possible to let the cup of violent death pass from him. But he concluded, "Not my will, but yours be done," and his life was not spared.

We probably ought not dare to pray unless we're willing to enter into a conversation and be open to God's part of it. And that conversation must be genuine. God will certainly be honest with us so we can afford to be honest with God. I like what Mark Trotter wrote in his book "Grace All the Way Home":

"Throw anything up there. Stumble, use bad grammar, have long embarrassing pauses, split your infinitives and even dangle your participles. It doesn't matter. Just groan or sigh if that's all you can do, because God's hearing your prayer does not depend on your eloquence but on God's grace, which is already at work in your life."

So I don't pull any punches in telling God how I feel and what I want, any more than Jesus did. But Paul's words are very reassuring to me when he says, "We do not know how to pray as we ought, but God's very spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words." And sometimes God's response is not in words. Sometimes it's almost as if I could see the face of God smiling or maybe frowning or maybe quizzical, as if to ask for further expression.

In my own spiritual growth, I've been helped by many others, living and dead. One of my spiritual heroes is a 17th-century man named Nicholas Herman. Maybe one reason I take a liking to him is in some respects our earthly histories are somewhat parallel. We were both in the military involved in a war and then decided that wasn't the career for us. He was a personal servant for a while, but he was clumsy, kept dropping things, wasn't too much into dressing in style--that puts us in the same camp in a lot of ways.

But the shortened long story of Nicholas Herman is that he decided he wanted to be a member of a monastic community. So he gained membership in a monastic order in Paris, hoping to become a scholar. But they didn't think he had the brain power, so they assigned him to the galley and the sandal-making shop. He took the name of Lawrence of the Resurrection, and to this day the writings of Brother Lawrence--transcripts of his conversations under the title "Practicing the Presence of God"--constitute a spiritual classic.

Another reason for my appreciation of Brother Lawrence is that he seems to have had the same problem I have with designated hours of prayer and formal prayer sessions. Now, I realize that the Methodists were originally formed for reason of their methodical approach to spirituality, but I appreciate what someone has called Brother Lawrence's methodless method. It's refreshing to hear him say, writing to a nun, "Do not burden yourself with rules of private devotions (but) get used to gradually offering God your heart whenever you can."

Here is a man than whom probably no one in history--short of Jesus--walked more closely with God, who confesses that he could make nothing of methods of prayer, that they "discouraged" him, that for some time he did practice meditation with a measure of success, but that ultimately he gave up and fell back upon his own plan, too simple and too homely to be ranked as a method but with the results of which he was satisfied.

His feelings remind me of St. Teresa of Avila, another saint I admire, who said there was a time when the set periods of devotion were more than enough for her and almost more than she could stand; that during these times her mind fell out and wandered; that she felt bored, restless, and fidgety, and kept looking again and again at the hourglass--it must be nearly done--and marveled at how slowly time crawled away.

Brother Lawrence writes that, finally, "I gave up all devotions and prayers that were not required and I devoted myself exclusively to remaining always in his holy presence."

Let me quote him further:

"The holiest, most ordinary and most necessary practice of the spiritual life is that of the presence of God. It is to take delight in and become accustomed to his divine company, speaking humbly and conversing lovingly with him at all times, in every moment, without rule or measure, especially in times of temptation, suffering, aridity, weariness, even infidelity and sin."

This is the man who spoke of doing everything as an act of worship--even picking up a straw off the floor--as something done for God. "I possess God as peacefully," he said, "in the commotion of my kitchen, where, often enough, several people are asking me for different things at the same time, as I do when kneeling before the sacrament." He said if we can learn to do everything we do as a conscious act for God, in the presence of God and for God's sake, perhaps it will become easier for us to cultivate an ongoing conversation, "speaking humbly and conversing lovingly with him at all times." I think this is precisely what Paul meant when he said, "Pray without ceasing."

Now, ongoing conversation isn't always just dialogue--words in both directions. Sometimes it includes silence. I like that famous story of those two good friends, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau. It is said that one evening Thoreau came over to Emerson's house and, for a couple of hours, they both sat in front of the fire saying nothing. At the end of the time, Thoreau got up to leave, thanked Emerson for the evening, Emerson thanked him for coming, and that was their time together. Being silent together is one beautiful expression of the relationship between good friends or lovers. St. Teresa said, "The life of prayer is simply being with God and enjoying being with God."

A revelatory moment came to me recently in reading an article about prayer by a teacher in a Catholic high school. It's entitled "Attempting the Impossible," which is what he thinks teaching is. He writes of the impact of prayer on his work. He said:

"I was beginning to see that prayer was nothing but silence before the mysteries of life. Prayer had taught me that to be a teacher I didn't need to act, nor was it enough merely to wait, but I could cause things to happen by opening up a space in my heart to register the subtle movements of the students' souls toward real change. And I could do this only if I remained unimpressed by the old forms of power--progress, ability, ambition, results--and rested in the creative, unique, never-again-to-be-obtained moment of simple awareness."

So, I talk a lot with God now. Some people think I'm talking to myself. And I listen a lot, too. I'm even aware of how God's face looks when I talk to God. It may sound silly, but it's real to me.

I'd like to pray for just a moment.

Gracious God, that's all I've been able to come up with for this message. I hope it's been faithful, but I'll leave it to you to decide. Free me from worrying about results. It's been useful for me to do this. I'm going to try to lay back more, which is not the same as being lazy. I'll try to be more quiet, and that doesn't mean I'm stupid. And I won't give up on myself anymore than you give up on me. Thank you, God, for our ongoing conversation. God? I think you're smiling.