“Listening As Prayer”

Aug 28, 2022

The Scripture

Matthew 13:13-17

13 The reason I speak to them in parables is that “seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.” 14 With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says: “You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. 15 For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, 
and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn—and I would heal them.” 16 But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. 17 Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it. 


The Sermon

This Sunday, we are going to talk about listening as prayer. Have you ever thought that listening is a form of prayer? It seems almost counterintuitive, doesn’t it? It seems prayer is about talking to God. If you grew up in the church, you probably even studied different types of prayers, for example, prayers of worship and praise, petition, intercession, supplication, thanksgiving…I could go on and on. The prayer list varies from 5 to 7 to 10 different types of prayers. We certainly want to make sure we don’t leave out anything…we want to say just the right words and make sure we don’t leave anything out. Heaven forbid we leave out something, and God doesn’t hear us, right? This leads us to Kate Bowler and the chapter titled: When Words Fail. She knows those times when there are no words, nothing to say, no utterance that can capture what one is experiencing. Where is God at these moments? How do we pray at these times? What if, especially at those times when words fail, we realize that God is present? God is right here in the moment available to us. Perhaps we might just learn there are times when we don’t need words at all to be in communion with God. This takes us to the book of Matthew, where Jesus shares that even when he teaches others about God, it is hard to understand who God is. It’s hard to know how we are to be in relationship to God. It should comfort us to know that Jesus understands those times when words fail us. 

Kate Bowler begins this chapter by saying we might need a new way to pray. What is she saying here is that the old way we pray isn’t working anymore? That begs the question, what is not working? Let’s see where Kate Bowler takes us as we ponder that question. She says, “Many of us are living in a strange, distended moment, the sameness of a world that groans for change. We need justice for all and miracles for the people we love. We need beauty that stirs our hearts and affordable healthcare for the parts of us that keep breaking.” I think her point here is how do we pray for all of this. It seems overwhelming, doesn’t it? What words could capture all that our hearts wish to say to God? What words could capture all the things happening around us that we want God to step in and change? It certainly feels like we are living in an in-between time. Watching horrific things around us and hanging on to hope things will improve. We are living in this in-between time. If we connected this in-between time to our church calendar, I would say we are living between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. That fits, doesn’t it? And it even fits our church right now. We know things aren’t good for us, but we don’t even know what to hope for; we don’t know what to pray for, for the possibilities are unfathomable right now. I imagine the disciples didn’t know what to hope for on Good Friday as they huddled together, sad and afraid.

Kate Bowler describes this in-between time as “before the cure. Or the answers you seek. Or the relationships and money you need. We live here before the heartbreak is over.” As people of faith, we know what it is like to live in heartbreak. And we personally experience heartbreak with each client who comes to our clothing ministry or food pantry. It is precisely at this place of heartbreak, not before the heartbreak when life is zipping along, not after the heartbreak when things are resolved. No, right in the middle of the heartbreak is where Kate Bowler’s idea becomes a reality that we need a new way to pray. Kate turns to the author Marilyn McEntyre for a new understanding of “listening as prayer.” She says this, “my favorite definition of prayer is ‘the practice of the presence of God— that is, to dwell securely in knowing ourselves to be loved and to be in love—open toward God, oriented toward God, struggling with God sometimes, out of authentic longing for understanding and a right relationship, and in conversation, bringing all that happens to us back into that conversation.” Now, this might sound like a new idea to you. Still, this idea of practicing the presence of God was first recorded in the 1600s in a book by Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, a lay brother living in a Carmelite monastery in Paris titled “The Practice of the Presence of God.” Brother Lawrence cultivated a continual awareness of God in everyday living. No matter what he was doing or what he was experiencing, he was able to see God’s very presence. 

Marilyn McEntyre takes this original understanding of the practice of the presence of God, which is really just paying attention to God, and turns it into a prayer….” Listening as prayer.” She says this about this kind of paying attention, there is “the subtle difference between listening for and listening to.” It is an attitude of readiness without an agenda, an openness to what might come. Kate Bowler shares that this special kind of listening for God comes to her when she is at the beach. She says she can’t be busy there, mainly because sand gets stuck under her laptop keys and is not easy to remove” (trust me on this). 

Maybe for you, it’s watching a sunset, seeing snow-filled mountain tops, watching children play, listening to music, you know, that place I’m talking about, where everything slows down, and peace flows in. Kate says, “as we sit there, perhaps we are waiting for miracles or hoping beyond hope. Perhaps we have often found ourselves without words. Perhaps here, our prayer can be a form of listening. Of paying attention to the world around us, watching for the presence of God that might come as a breeze or in a bird’s song.”

You and I can cultivate this attitude of readiness, an openness to what might come, and learn to listen for the presence of God and let that be our prayer. Amen