Do you ever think of a Sunday morning service of worship as a journey? Most of us might not be able to describe what we expect to happen during the service, but we hope to get something we need. When people are asked why they come to church, they may respond that it is a habit, or they feel they should, or out of a desire to be part of the community…but there is an unarticulated piece that they yearn for something more. We say and sing lots of prayers. We pray together, but how are we doing? Are we doing it right? Are we doing it wrong? How can we tell? And prayer…well it is talking to God! Stakes are high!
Our way of saying prayer after prayer is a journey, like moving through stanza after stanza in a poem. Poems are journeys; we are different at the end than at the beginning, even if we don’t know how we got there. The process is an unfolding, and if we skip down to the last line of the poem, we will miss the point. It is the experience of the poem that is the message of the poem. So it is with our worship–it is our praying experience which shapes our faith. Our praying shapes us.
Our way of prayer is ancient, rooted in Jewish prayer. Jewish Morning Blessings offer praise and thanks to God: Thanks be to God who created Heaven and Earth, to the one who gives the rooster the wisdom to crow, who lifts the fallen, who gives sight to the blind.. Then there is a blessing for God’s holiness—the Kedushah: kadosh, kadosh, kadosh Adonai tse’vaot…Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts… Heaven and earth are full of his glory. How we pray is a bridge from our time back to this parable.
It isn’t hard to imagine the scene Jesus describes in the Temple—one person whose lips are praying, but whose mind is full of a self-satisfied narrative: I give, I volunteer, I deny myself, I am an important part of this place…Thank you God for everything, and especially for not making me like that person over there… And who is that “other” person? He’s miserably unhappy with his life. He has a bad job, serving bad people. He picks the pockets of his own people, and gives the money to the Romans, and he’s beating himself up about it. The people listening to Jesus were very sure that the Pharisee was the good guy, and the tax collector was the bad guy. So far, so good. But then Jesus tells them that it is the tax collector who is right with God, not the Pharisee. Wait—what?
Luke says that “Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt”—what was he telling them? I believe he was telling them something about prayer.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said we have two ways of praying: praying out and praying in. Praying out is when the prayer bursts forth from deep within (almost in an accident—thank God it didn’t happen! On your way to the doctor after a routine test showed something that needs to be looked at again—please God don’t let me be sick!) Those prayers are full of focus—from the gut. Praying in is what we do in church—we pray in using someone else’s words. They come in through our eyes and ears. And that is part of the journey—we hope that some of what comes in mingles with what we have inside—that we internalize, we incorporate, we INCARNATE the words. Perhaps the difference between the Pharisee and the Tax Collector is that the Pharisee was praying “in,” or even more precisely, he was hardly praying at all, merely congratulating himself, and the Tax Collector was crying out from his soul, praying “out.” Jesus, who prayed, talked about prayer, and taught about prayer, was teaching a few people who really needed to hear it that if they were looking over their shoulder and congratulating themselves that they were better than the “other” guy, it was getting them nowhere with God.
The praying we do together on Sunday morning is not intended to be the only prayer you do. There is much prayer—both “in” and “out” that will help you be connected with God, and will help shape you into who God dreams you will become. It may not seem like anything is happening—everything about prayer is a mystery. You may come away some Sunday and think—I’m not connecting, I’m not getting anything out of this. Maybe I just won’t go. Even Big Papi doesn’t hit a home run every time he goes to bat. Sometimes he strikes out! But can you imagine David Ortiz deciding to give up playing the game? Quitting would guarantee that he would never connect with a change-up that tailed to the outside corner, would never send a line drive to right field ever again.
Our worship is not a game, and it is not a performance. The Book of Common Prayer is not a cookbook. We do not merely “get through” the worship service, the service “gets through” us—awakening something within. That is why we worship together—to discover, sometimes with tears in our eyes, that we are no longer praying “in,” but that what we are praying has become part of us and we are praying “out.” That is the journey we make together on Sunday. That is how we enter into the poem of our liturgy.
When you pray, you don’t need to beat yourself up. And don’t spend a minute congratulating yourself. Center yourself. Focus to the best of your ability. Give yourself. Prayer by prayer; week by week; Sunday by Sunday. That is what brings us fully into the presence of God.