February 2021

Finding a Deserted Place to Pray

5th Sunday After Epiphany, February 7, 2021
Isaiah 40:21-31, Mark 1:29-39

– The Reverend Dr. Arnold Isidore Thomas –

The Prophet Isaiah describes God as one who never faints or grows weary (40:28), but this is certainly not the stamina of those who follow after God.

The popularity of Jesus as a faith healer spread so far and wide throughout Galilee that he found very little privacy for himself. Jesus, the healer, suddenly discovered that he needed to find a time and place away from the stressful, clamoring, desperate, inquisitive crowds where he could be alone, pray, and be spiritually healed. Where is that time and place for you?

I tend to be a night owl, meaning that my most creative pursuits are accomplished late at night. And especially during late nights of winter, when the whole world seems to be at rest, I will sneak out into my backyard, gaze into the star-spangled darkness and recall the prayer of the psalmist, who said:

When I look into your heavens, the works of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have made; what are humans that you are mindful of them, and mortals that you should care for them…O Lord, our God, how majestic is your name in all the earth! (8:3-4, 9)

Where is that quiet, deserted place for you, and to whom do you pray? Jesus said “whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door, and pray to your Father, who is in secret; and your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:6)

So, while we often pray in public, public prayers are subject to a variety of theological sensitivities regarding the nature and image of God, of which we should be mindful, so as not to cast the Creator of all life into gender-exclusive concepts. It is important that we convey a concept of God that embraces all humanity and life.

However, I also believe that our public prayers are inspired by personally intimate and private encounters with God, embodied in individuals and experiences where we feel God’s love and spirit and compassion were truly present.

The fact that Jesus, in his instruction on how to pray, refers to God as “Father” does require that we confine our references to God in such a way. In the patriarchal world where Jesus lived, this was probably the most convenient way of describing the intimately close and protective presence of God. Yet he also compared God to “a hen that gathers her brood under her wings (Luke 13:34); even as the Prophet Isaiah compared God to a comforting mother (66:13).

In both our prayer life and faith, our expressions of and to God can only, at best, be metaphors of a reality far greater than our lives can comprehend; yet metaphors inspired by incarnate and tangible encounters with God’s presence through those who loved and cared for us unconditionally. So, when I pray, I see God in my father and mother, my siblings, and my children, my friends and nurturing teachers, in those advocating for social and environmental justice, as well as in the sacred cycles and wonders of all creation.

The Pulitzer prize-winning newspaper publisher, William Allen White, once found himself attending a political convention. White strongly opposed the views of this convention, but attended nonetheless as a reporter. The presiding officer, upon noticing him in the audience, asked if he might offer an invocation. White replied that he couldn’t pray for two reasons. “First,” he said, I am not trained in the fine art of public prayer and, secondly, I don’t want the Lord to know that I’m here.”

I would differ with the renowned publisher, believing that God would be delighted in knowing that there are individuals contending with the powers that be, and advocating for a divine agenda that places compassion over capital, and grace over greed.

Martin Luther coined the expression liturgy after the liturgy to help us understand that the liturgy we express in worship must be translated in the liturgy of our every-day lives that strives for the healing of a spiritually and physically broken world.

We are all, in some way, spiritually and physically broken, in need of a deserted place, away from the pressing crowds, where we can quietly reflect on the meaning and purpose of our lives, and relieve ourselves of every burden by offering them to God in prayer. I pray that you find such a place, and know that God is there waiting for you. Amen.