The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
In one week we’ve moved swiftly from Jesus’ birth to his baptism at the age of 30. Today’s gospel tells us that the sky was ripped open and the Spirit came upon him like a dove. A voice from heaven defined Jesus’ relationship with the Father, with Abba, as he called him. He was God’s Son, the Beloved, with whom God was well pleased.
It was an intimate, connected relationship of complete love, and Jesus lived out of this reality all the time. That’s what gave him his power, his peace, his compassion and his clarity. He was one with Abba.
Today we renew our relationship with God, using the Baptismal Covenant. Like Jesus, we are God’s own beloved children, God is well pleased with us, and the Spirit was given to us, too, in baptism. We are already in a relationship with God that is intimate, connected, loving. We are already one with Abba. But do we live out of this reality? Does it give us power, peace, compassion, and clarity?
Perhaps our relationship with God needs to be refreshed. In the Baptismal Covenant, we promise to do several things, as our part in renewing our relationship with God. We promise to continue to use the faith tradition as a spiritual tool – the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, and prayers. We say that we will repent, when necessary, that we will proclaim the Good News, love and serve others, and strive for justice and peace. Most of us know that our relationship with God includes these kinds of things.
But strangely enough, the Baptismal Covenant skips lightly over the very thing that I believe is the most essential in maintaining and refreshing our relationship with God: a life of prayer.
Reading and study is fine, because it brings intellectual understanding. Coming to church is good, because it links us to a community and the teachings and traditions of our faith. Serving others is essential, because it is an outward expression of our faith that we are all one as children of God.
But when one of you tells me that don’t feel connected to God, I don’t recommend reading or more church attendance or service projects. I want to talk about prayer. For if we want to be in a close relationship with God, we must pray.
Prayer is the intimate place where we make contact with the Spirit. Prayer is the time when everything but our relationship with God drops away. No one else is there, only the two of us. Prayer is like those moments with someone you love, when you get vulnerable and real, when time stops and there is only deep companionship. Without this connection from time to time, no relationship is intimate. So it is with God.
There are, of course, many techniques that help us to connect with God: meditative reading of scripture, liturgical prayer, contemplative silence, small spirituality groups, chanting or speaking a repetitive mantra, walking or gardening outdoors, listening to music, using The Book of Common Prayer.
But what I’d like to talk about today is Prayer 101: the most basic form of prayer, when we just bring ourselves into God’s presence, when we voice our needs, and we listen, the way a child might pray – nothing fancy or technical, just being together as friends.
I’m going to state the obvious here and say that just as there are two sides to every human relationship, there are two movements in the relationship of prayer. There is a movement from us to God, and a movement from God to us.
We begin with our movement towards God. You might try it now, as I speak. Start with an awareness that God is in you, around you, everywhere. You may not be able to see, hear, or feel God, but you can know – at a level that is deeper than feeling - that God’s Spirit is in every particle of your being, in every corner of creation.
God is already listening, waiting for you to open your mind and your heart, like when you open a window to the outside air that is always there. Feel your breath going in and out. It is the divine life force that has been given to you by the Creator. It is the physical form of your unity with Abba. Take a little time to settle in to this.
Then bring to mind the things you are concerned about, or the things you are grateful for. But don’t just say it and move on. Feel what you already feel about it. Stay with this for a little while; slow down; soften your heart. Be as honest and as vulnerable as you can. Don’t worry about being articulate or repetitive or having the right attitude or asking for the right thing. Just express your concern or your thanks. Then remain quiet for a while, holding up your prayer in hope and expectation.
This is the part of prayer that is a movement from us towards God. We bring our life and our experience, as it is in this moment, into the relationship with God, just as we would with anyone whom we love. We become real; we share ourselves as we are, right now.
But if this is all we’re aware of in prayer, we miss out on much. Our prayer life may eventually dry up, because we start to feel as if we’re just shooting prayers up into the ether, with nothing coming back.
The other part of prayer, the other part of the relationship, is a movement from God to us. This might be in the form of an insight that comes in the time of prayer, or later, sneaking up on us from behind. It might be a feeling after prayer that all is well. Unexpectedly, our fears are quelled and we find ourselves centered again. Our needs may not be immediately answered, but we have less anxiety around them. We move into our day with more trust and equanimity.
But these feelings don’t always come, and we shouldn’t expect them to. For God is silent, hidden, subtle, beneath our conscious mind and beneath our emotions. Because of this, we might make the mistake of thinking that God is absent; but this is never true.
God is closer to us than we are to ourselves, at all times. A life of prayer teaches us to trust in this presence that is deeper than thought or feeling. A life of prayer teaches us that God is at work in us, hidden beneath our consciousness, even when we don’t sense this in any way. If this weren’t true, God would be as small as our consciousness. But God is far more than we can ever understand or feel, and God’s ways of working in us are, too.
Sometimes we do sense God’s presence in prayer, but mostly we can only see the effects of prayer, in hindsight, over a long period of time. God’s movement towards us, God’s part in the relationship of prayer is like the wind. We can’t see the wind itself. All we can see is its effects.
Over time, if we take the time to be in companionship with our Source, we will be affected. One day we will turn around and notice that we are more patient, more accepting of others, more ready to speak the truth in love, more generous and free.
What I am describing are the gifts of the Spirit. Our scripture and the experience of the saints over thousands of years have clearly identified these gifts. There’s no big mystery or controversy about what they are. As St. Paul says, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22). Or as Jesus himself promised: meekness, mercy, purity of heart, and a hunger and thirst for righteousness and peace (Matthew 5, Luke 6).
Anyone who regularly opens their heart to God with humility, honesty and love will be given these gifts over time. They come not because we craft them in ourselves. They come because God crafts them in us, in the intimate relationship of prayer.
So this day, if you are looking to renew your friendship with God, pay attention to the promises you make in the Baptismal Covenant we are about to say together. But also pray as often as you can. Make a movement towards God by offering your needs and your gratitude, every day. Also know that God is also moving towards you. And over the course of your life of prayer, you will look back and see the good work that God has been doing in you.