Travis Norvell: Prayer Lessons

When I was a teenager, I asked my parents how to pray. They replied, “Travis, just do it.” Since I didn’t know how to just do “it,” I asked my pastor. He looked at me with a suspicious side glance, like I was trying to trap him. He replied the same way as my parents did, “You just do it.” But I wouldn’t take that for an answer. He finally gave me a book on the topic of prayer that he had not read, but he thought it might help. It didn’t.

Over the years I have sought to learn how to pray from monks and nuns, spiritual directors, ancient Christians, books and journals, and various sundry sources. But it wasn’t till my daughter questioned one of my sermons that I really learned how to pray.

Several years ago I preached, in my opinion, a great social gospel sermon where I asked the congregation if they would consider sacrificing something in their lives so that others might experience joy. Later that evening when I went to tell my daughter Seneca, then 11 years old, goodnight, she asked me, “Dad, I’ve been thinking about your sermon. What are you willing to give up so that others might experience joy?”

In that instance, I felt my tongue turn ashen. I told her, “I do not know, but I’ll think about it and let you know in the morning.” Her question, an innocent question, stung. I received it as a challenge: Dad, are you just all talk and no action?

After saying goodnight to Seneca, I turned the dining room table into a makeshift midlife crisis center with my laptop opened and a legal pad full of notes. That night, for a host of reasons, I decided to sacrifice my car for my work as a pastor.

The decision to sell my car and walk, bike, and take public transit for my pastoral work enabled me to see Jesus’ teaching on prayer not just as instruction, but as an invitation to prayer.

Scholars call the time of Jesus as the Pax Romana, the Peace of Rome. If you were a member of the elite living luxuriously on the banks of the River Tiber, I am sure it was peaceful. If, however, you lived under Roman occupation, it was anything but peaceful. It was more like Vexatio Romana, or the Violent Oppression or “Hell” of Rome. Villagers throughout Israel resented their occupiers but were faced with only two options: Resist and die or capitulate and rot from the inside out. In this world Jesus walked, taught, healed, told stories, and offered a third way.

Jesus’ third way is most clear and visible and present in his teachings, healings, actions, and stories. The third way is particularly clear in the stories he told; in his stories he offered a way where villagers could live with integrity, nurture their relationships, and expand their love. Jesus’ way offered was an alternative lifestyle, rooted in the ancient Israelite traditions of hospitality, healing, and prophetic actions, a way that went counter to the dominant policies and practices of Roman occupation. We can see the effects of Roman policies by reading and hearing Jesus’ parables backward, reading them slowly, questioning why Jesus is telling the story the way he is.

Embedded within Jesus’ teaching on how to pray is a parable about hospitality, which is further interpreted by Jesus as a parable about persistence. It is an odd structure and a puzzling presentation. But I found hospitality and persistence as the way to understand how to pray.

After a few years of sacrificing my car, I discovered another invitation: to open the door. Whereas Jesus’ parable illustrated the need to open the door and let someone in, I was invited to open my door and get out of my car, get out of my church.

Now for a moment, think about what a car is. It is a sealed steel (and plastic) exoskeleton transit machine. It is more of a tank that an old-fashioned buggy. For a moment think about what a church is. It is a sealed stone (and wood) exoskeleton house of worship. It is more of a castle than an old-fashioned tabernacle. A friend once quipped about their beautiful English castle-like church. They said, “We may never have more than 35 in worship, but if the French ever invade – we’re ready!”

Our time, however, is not a time from being sealed off from our community and neighbors. Our time is one of being open and available to our community and neighbors. This can take the form of simply walking around your neighborhood, or taking the bus or light rail or subway home and listening to those around you, or asking others to join you for a bike ride after worship. Or, try this experiment: don’t count how many people attend worship either in-person or online, instead count how many dogs you met for the week as a better ministry metric. Or just sit on your church steps or front yard with a cup of coffee and say hello to the people as they walk by. Notice the change this brings.

Showing up or persistence. I have lived in south Minneapolis and served as pastor of Judson Memorial Baptist Church for 10 years and I feel like I am just now getting to know the neighborhood and making connections within the city. I ask myself, “Why did it take so long?” I am sure this is partly due to my introversion and partly due to the lack of trust of leaders of organized religion. But I also think it took this long to establish relationships, for people to know who I say I am and who I am in practice are congruent. Or for people to know that myself and the church are the same people on the inside as we are on the outside. It is the long obedience in one direction of showing up to community events, protests, policy discussions, sports games, school theater and concerts, funerals and weddings, occupying the same table and drinking the same cup of Oldman black coffee in the same coffee shop every Tuesday morning.

Progressive, middle-class Christians like myself often talk a good game of social justice and the need for the church to be active in the political sphere. Yet, we rarely, if ever, share space with the poor, the downtrodden, those with their backs against the wall.

When I started riding my bike, taking the bus, and walking for my pastoral duties, I began sharing space and time with the very people I had proclaimed that I, and the gospel, stood in solidarity with. Once I changed my mode of transit, I started hearing stories of immigrants struggling to find jobs and housing. I learned about the diligence of parents working two jobs just to make ends meet. I saw people derided by their personal care attendants and I became friends with people whose stories broke my heart. Sister Simone Campbell often says, “A cracked heart is an open heart.” And my experiment cracked my heart open and allowed the stories of my neighbors to become my prayers.

After a few months of sacrificing my car, strangely enough, I found my prayers were very specific. Sure, I prayed for people with names and faces, but I also prayed for transit routes and signs that make sense to people for whom English is not their first language, for dedicated bike lanes (so people could ride safely), and for intersections with longer crossing times so elderly people with a walker and people in wheelchairs had enough time to cross the street.

In closing, when we are engaged in our neighborhoods and communities, we are not praying for whatever happens to enter our minds, we are praying for the names and faces and situations and experiences of our neighbors and community members. Jesus says, “Ask, and it will be given. Search, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened.” But Jesus presupposes you know what to ask for, search for, and know what door to knock on. I propose the only way we can know what to ask for, search for, and which door to knock on is by getting out of our cars and churches and onto the streets and neighborhoods.

So, if you are willing and able, I invite you to join me this summer by lacing up your sneakers, lubing your bike chain, and filling up your bus card so that you can learn how to pray anew. And let Jesus, through our communities, teach us to pray in this manner. Amen and amen.

Let us close with a blessing:

As you go on this venture, may God be beside you, in front of and behind you, as you venture outside. May the stories on the bus, the sidewalk, or the bike lane crack open your heart. May your neighbors shape your prayer and inform your soul, and may you be a living reminder of Jesus’ joy, grace, and welcome. Amen.