Rev. Teri Peterson
If You Can Breathe, You Can Pray
1 Thessalonians 5.14-28, Luke 18.1-8
7 May 2015, National Day of Prayer
FIRST READING: 1 Thessalonians 5:14-28
14And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. 15See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. 16Rejoice always, 17pray without ceasing, 18give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19Do not quench the Spirit. 20Do not despise the words of prophets, 21but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22abstain from every form of evil.
23May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this. 25Beloved, pray for us. 26Greet all the brothers and sisters with a holy kiss. 27I solemnly command you by the Lord that this letter be read to all of them.
28The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
GOSPEL: Luke 18:1-8
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2He said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, 'Grant me justice against my opponent.' 4For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, 'Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'" 6And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"
I think it is possible that one of the most common things pastors hear from church members is “I can’t pray.” It’s almost like the prayer version of “I can’t sing”—something we believe about ourselves but that is not true. Just as many people think they can’t sing because somewhere along the way, someone discouraged them, many people think they can’t pray because somewhere along the way, we gave the impression that only the professional Christians know how to do it right. If we don’t feel eloquent, or don't even know what we want to say, we call that an inability to pray, and often we think of it as a failure.
And yet Paul writes that we are to pray without ceasing. Luke’s commentary on Jesus’ parable says we are to pray always and not lose heart. It’s almost as if they want us to feel guilty about not being good at something.
Well, I have good news today. As my best friend and I wrote in a book a couple of years ago, “if you can breathe you can pray.”
No fancy pretty words are necessary. No seminary training, no internships, and no call story carefully honed through many tellings are required. All that is needed is desire for a relationship with the Holy.
If you can breathe, you can pray.
Most commonly, breath prayers are one short phrase broken into an inhale and an exhale section. Some might use the ancient prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” Some might choose to come up with words for a specific situation, like “God of life, heal your people.” Some may hear Paul’s instruction to give thanks in all circumstances and decide on a breath prayer of gratitude, such as “Thank you God, for your love.” As many combinations of words as are possible in our language, are possible with breathing.
Why don’t we try this for a moment. If one of these phrases works for you, use it: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. God of life, heal your people. Thank you God, for your love. As you breathe in, say the first half to yourself. Pause a moment before you exhale, and then as you breathe out say the second half in your mind. Choose just one phrase—either one of mine or one of your own—and allow your breath to guide your prayer for just a minute.
Take a deep breath in. Let it out slowly.
Breathe in God’s mercy. Breathe out God’s mercy to others.
If you can breathe, you can pray. Since we are breathing all the time, that means it is possible to pray without ceasing, as Paul taught us to do. Of course, that version of a breath prayer still has words, and sometimes words won’t come, or words are inadequate to the task. When our breathing is more like groaning, or sighing, or gasping, remember that the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words—and simply let your breath be your prayer, even without words.
Sometimes it feels like prayer, especially this kind that you can do anywhere all the time, is a fairly anemic response to the realities of life in this world. Sometimes it fees like prayer is a last resort, or is confined to one day. Often we end up with a transactional view of God: if we ask, it will be given to us if only we have faith and persistence…so when we ask and things are not given, then either we didn’t have enough faith or else God denied us what we wanted. While we may be able to theologize that away eventually with a platitude about God’s plan, the reality is that it hurts to pray fervently and still get the late night phone call, still see the evening news, still live with pain or anxiety or depression. It hurts to pray fervently and then open the newspaper to hundreds of kidnapped girls returned pregnant, thousands of people trapped under rubble, and a child dying every 5 seconds from hunger. It hurts to pray fervently and simultaneously hear yet another story of a church denying care to a family because of their sexual orientation, a child dying by suicide because their youth group bullied them about their gender identity, people walking away from God because God’s people have closed the door. It can feel like we are knocking, asking and seeking, begging and crying, knocking again—day after day, night after night—waiting for the unjust judge to finally see the light.
And maybe we are. Maybe praying without ceasing is exactly like that: to ask constantly and wait for God to come around. For so long we have thought of prayer as words we say to God, mostly asking for things, sometimes also giving thanks. Have we forgotten that prayer is a relationship, not a transaction? Just as we would never show our love for someone by only speaking to them when we want something, surely there is more to our love for God—and God’s love for us—than this kind of prayer.
I was reading Jesus’ parable and noticing a few things. The judge is described as having no fear of God and no respect for people, as being unjust. He says of himself “even though I respect no one, including God, I am tired of this woman asking me over and over again, so I will grant her request in order to get rid of her and have some peace.”
The woman is described as seeking justice so earnestly that time and comfort are no object.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not really okay with the idea that God is unjust, with no respect for anyone, and that God grants our requests simply because we ask enough times or because we are annoying and God wants us to go away. That goes against everything we know about God, who is love, who is made flesh to live among us, who calls us to love as we have been loved, calls us to compassion.
Who calls us.
What if we turn this parable upside down, and God is the widow who begs the judge—us—to do the right thing, day after day? He is caught up in his own ego. He knows who he is, and listening to small voices and doing inconvenient things are not part of his MO. He has a good life that cannot be disrupted by any kind of prayer that is not about asking. And yet the widow persists, calling, calling, calling.
What if we were to listen to the small but persistent voice—perhaps even more than we talk? What if we were to think of prayer as letting go of the things we think we know and opening ourselves to what God calls us to do? What if our breath prayer were silent, an offering of our life to the God who begs, cajoles, and demands justice for all people and all creation? What if our call to pray without ceasing is a call to allow the Spirit to intercede on our behalf, while we join our hearts to God’s own prayer, God’s own vision of the world? God is faithful and will answer our desire with relationship and with hope.
This kind of prayer may be the most important thing we can do for our community, our nation, and our world: to listen for God’s call coming through the voices of the poor, the marginalized, the ones we would rather get rid of or at least not have to see—a call to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly; a call to love as we have been loved, to love our neighbor as ourselves. To hear and obey: this is the prayer God desires.
If we can breathe, we can pray. If we can breathe, we can give thanks to the one whose breath is our life. And we can listen, without ceasing. And when we have heard, our prayer becomes action, working for God’s kingdom of justice and peace in this world.
May it be so. Amen.
**h/t to Richard, who first suggested to me that we could turn this parable upside down.