Philippians 4:4-9

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

The Peace of Prayer

October 11, 2020

Is anyone else noticing how people seem to be feeling even more stressed than usual these days. I’ve decided that on top of the ongoing pandemic it’s the upcoming election that has everyone in knots. And all those commercials are definitely not helping! Vote for this and people will die! Vote against this and people will die! Vote for this and your taxes will soar. Vote against this and you may lose your house. The ads just don’t help, do they.

“Don’t worry” says Paul. “Rejoice in the Lord always” says Paul. “Yeah right,” says the pastor.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could reach the point where worry and anxiety never kept us awake at night. Wouldn’t it be great if we could just wave a wand and make all our worry, all our stress, all our anxiety and fear disappear?

The good news is that our old faith insists that this really is a possibility for us; not all at once and not overnight, but that it really is possible over time – maybe over the course of a whole lifetime.

The Hebrew scriptures are filled with appeals very much like Paul’s: “Do not be afraid,” “Whom shall I fear.” “I will fear no evil.” And these are surely the most characteristic words of Jesus as well: “Fear not.” “Have no anxiety.” “Let not your heart be troubled.” Today’s reading from Paul only reaffirms a theme that thunderously resounds throughout the scriptures.

But what’s great about Paul is that he doesn’t just tell us to do this – he also points to something that will help us to get there – he offers us an “antidote” to anxiety. He tells us to pray.

This man is sitting in a jail cell, awaiting his execution and yet the apostle Paul says that worry and fear can be overcome through prayer. “Do not be anxious about anything; but tell God all your needs and concerns in prayer and petition, and the peace of God will guard your hearts and your thoughts.”

Does that work for you? Over 90% of all Americans say they pray regularly. And yet I doubt that 90% of us are free of anxiety and unburdened by fear.

Have we missed something? Are we doing it wrong? Do we need another book on technique? In an old Peanuts cartoon Linus kneels by his bed to say his prayers and suddenly he says, “I think I’ve made a new theological discovery. If you hold your hands upside down, you get the opposite of what you pray for.” Are we doing it wrong?

What is Paul trying to tell us? Well, in the first place we need to recognize that the prayer Paul urges upon us is a real discipline, a discipline many of us have never taken seriously and yet a discipline as vital as any. We understand that it takes discipline to lose weight or get in shape. It takes discipline to develop good study habits. It takes discipline to say no to things that might make us feel good for a moment but that will hurt us in the long run. And yet if we know this is true of body and mind, why would we ever assume otherwise about the life of the spirit and soul?

In some ways traditional Roman Catholics have it all over us Protestants in this – their rosary beads provide them with a physical reminder of the kind of centering prayer that can bring with it peace. Religious Jews have their daily prayers.

Religious Muslims engage in five daily acts of devotion. On a meeting of the Interfaith Alliance the other day Uzma, a member of the Muslim community here in Lompoc, had to leave our meeting for 5 minutes to do her prayers. Muslims are expected to do their prayers 5 times a day… may just take them 5 minutes but practicing Muslims are very faithful about this. It’s wonderful.

People of faith in every great religion observe a disciplined prayer life.

After hearing a remarkable speech by Archbishop Desmond Tutu at a national gathering of Episcopal Priests, a friend of mine had the privilege of driving him to Kennedy Airport in New York. He says that at precisely 5:00 pm the Archbishop insisted that he pull over his car – so that he could get out, and get on his knees to pray. They were on a busy highway folks, but that didn’t stop Archbishop Tutu from getting out of the car and right there, on the side of the highway, getting on his knees to pray.

What if we who identify as Progressive Christians….who tend to have our attention focused on issues of justice and peacemaking in this world…what if we were to take more seriously Paul’s invitation to find peace through prayer. “Do not be anxious, pray!” insists the Apostle.

And prayer that overcomes anxiety requires silence. The Biblical story urges silence to the point where it seems almost synonymous with prayer. “In quiet is your strength.” “Be still and know that I am God.”

In the midst of a very busy routine, one that surely exceeds any of ours, Jesus gets up before dawn and goes off into the hills alone to pray. What about us? Do we make time for that in our lives….time to be still….really still?

There’s a commercial out right now – advertising the new Cadillac Escalade. And this is what it says: “We all have our own journey ahead of us…our own hopes and dreams…and along the way we’ll pass many milestones, each on more inspiring that the last. These are the moments that define you. These are the moments that drive you to achieve even more, to reach even higher, then do it all over again. So pause. Take a moment of reflection.”

I was thinking that all sounds pretty good! I was kind of impressed. But then comes the punch line: “Celebrate every single moment because success isn’t just about where you want to get to. It’s also about how you get there.”

And there it is. The aim of the journey according to Cadillac is success.

I mean if your goal in life is success then, who knows, driving a Cadillac Escalade might be just what you need. But if your goal is finding a peace that passes understanding so that you can then press forward in hope and joy….if your goal is a self-emptying servant love…if your goal is to be able to speak for those who have no voice and reach out to the last and the least, the lost and the little….then prayer, not a cadillac, is probably your vehicle of choice…..the kind of prayer that is grounded in being still….in quiet.

Unfortunately that is not how most people understand prayer. Many tend to see prayer as an attempt to change God and the world. It begins as a desperate attempt to alter reality – to fix things and maybe to control others.

But the prayer that Paul is talking about in his words to the Philippians is the kind of prayer that discovers an inner peace in the quiet struggle to somehow bring our will into alignment with the will of God. And to the extent that we succeed in that endeavor we begin to experience a shift of mind and heart toward acceptance and gratitude. Something starts to change inside of us. We begin to gratefully embrace life and our lot within it. We are able to shift our focus away from what we fear toward what we have and value and that liberates us and quiets our spirits.

It is surely no accident that the greatest gifts of this spirit often come to us from those who endure enforced isolation and silence: Dietrich Bonhoeffer from his cell in Berlin; Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his gulag; Terry Anderson… remember him? Held captive in Beirut, Lebanon for 6 years; Anne Frank in her attic. And Paul – writing from a jail cell, expecting execution.

I know. We are a church filled with a lot of doers. We want to rise up to take on the injustices, to walk up to the microphone and speak truth to power. We want to be generous in our giving. But before we do these things…before we do anything… perhaps we should heed Paul’s advice and first take the time to pray, because if all our doing is not first grounded in a relationship with the Divine, we will find no peace in the doing.