Someone asked me about prayer this week.
Have you ever had one of those moments when you think you have everything sorted, planned and ready to go and then someone says something to you and suddenly that’s all you can think about? That’s what happened. And that’s good.
Every year, we have a Sunday on which we celebrate United Church camps. There’s a lot of them across Canada, and they provide amazing experiences for children of all ages. It’s important to remind people of that, promote their use and encourage support. And this year, it just so happened that the gospel story, from John, is about Jesus describing himself with the image of the vine. “I am the vine, you are the branches,” says Jesus. “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.” (John 15:5) Camp can be an experience that’s formative in our relationships with each other and with God. And here’s a way of talking about that with foliage. Great.
It was a very practical concern about how to pray. And yes, they knew the story about one of the disciples asking Jesus to teach us to pray and Jesus answers with the words we now know as The Lord’s Prayer. And yes, they knew how we pray as a community, in church and elsewhere. But, the question really is “how do I - emphasis on the I - pray?”
But what about that vine story? Well, come with me.
There’s communal prayer and there’s individual prayer. We pray together with the words of Jesus (historically the Lord’s Prayer) or with language “wordsmithed” to be evocative and create an impact. In other words - no pun intended - the prayer’s been well thought out for its effectiveness. And it should be. As a community joined together in prayer, those words should inspire and lift up our own prayers.
And it isn’t only words that can do that. Both communally and individually, art can do that, with images, media, music and dance. Nature can do that. Even how we move and breathe can do that. Labyrinths, yoga and other forms of meditation can do that. There’s even a way that connects prayer and doodling, called Praying in Colour, that can do that. I’m sure there’s more that can do that.
Hang on. You might have thought I was going to camping with the nature connection. And you sure could. But I’m getting there with the vine. Give me a minute.
The question is still how do “I” pray. And I think many people are intimidated by technique when, really, the only technique that matters is what focuses your conversation with God. Your words don’t need to meet a certain standard or style, they don’t have to follow a certain form, you don’t have to assume a certain posture or hold your hands a certain way. Don’t let those things get in the way when all they need to do is work for you. And they might, but don’t let them get in the way. Whatever you choose to do, what’s important is that it brings focus.
Here’s how I understand that. I believe that God is in all of us and all of creation. We come from God and return to God and God is with us in every moment of the journey of our lives. God is life-giving and life-connecting. Because of that, we are always, in every moment, in touch with God. We’re already connected, that’s why we so often hear that God knows what’s in your heart. God does. So do you. Prayer is how we focus our end of the conversation and “speak,” in words or other forms, with God.
It’s like the vine. Jesus is always with us - we’re always connected. That relationship “bears fruit” when we’re open to it, we participate in it and nurture it. Prayer is one of those ways. One. Action is another.
When we say we hold others in our thought and prayers, whether in grief or thanksgiving, there’s great spirit in that. But there has to be more. Prayer must be accompanied by action. That action could be a personal act or inspiration to make change on a greater scale, but there is always an opportunity for action. The beloved pastor and theologian Henri Nouwen said that “prayer without action grows into powerless pietism, and action without prayer degenerates into questionable manipulation. If prayer leads us into a deeper unity with the compassionate Christ, it will always give rise to concrete acts of service.”
There are as many acts of service as there are prayers, as many leaves as there are branches. Still, one vine.