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Like a Prayer


Series: Ordinary TIme

Category: 2018 Sermons

Passage: Philippians 4:4-9

Speaker: Nicole Trotter

Prayers are good… but prayer is waking up to the presence of God no matter where you are or what you are doing. (Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World)

BBT Taylor makes a distinction between these two kinds of prayer; prayers (with an s) and prayer. Prayers, the ones we say together in church, the ones we bow our heads for, the ones I light candles for, the ones of petition and intercession, the ones that become poetry when they are done well, the ones in our Book of Common prayer….the ones in our scriptures…are all good and invaluable prayers, a rich part of our communal history and shared wisdom. Prayers.

The scripture you heard this morning I chose because it is very personal to me … And also Prayer without an s.

It’s also the only scripture verses I have fully memorized by heart…which by the end of the sermon will hopefully have a double meaning, “By Heart.” memorized but living in the heart, wordless.

The scripture-
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.

That’s only two verses of the scripture you heard. They entered my life during the toughest time of my life which by now most of you may even be a little tired of hearing about.

Someone handed these verse to me on paper. I don’t remember who. I taped it to the wall, then I printed it out multiple times and taped on the microwave, the fridge, on the computer.. when times were toughest during the break up of my marriage, working full time and going to seminary…I had just moved to a new place, felt enormous shame over not being able to work things out, my life as I had known it was dying, and my new life was nowhere yet to be seen, I was living in an interim time, a time most uncomfortable for our culture of having a clear direction and plan. Vulnerability to anxiety was at its peak….And these two little verses out of an entire Bible

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.

At times that was reduced to don't worry about anything. At other times, it was just guard my heart and mind christ Jesus…but at its core, those most difficult moments…it was just…Christ Jesus….Christ Jesus…and it was coupled with trying to catch my breath.

I’m not trying to be dramatic, though I love to be dramatic. And I’m not looking for sympathy, it’s in the past, but it’s relevant, because I hope for trust between us, that I have compassion for your suffering that lives in my own lived experience. That’s why I mention it…

But I also mention it, because catching breath through tears or anxiety is a beautiful way to wake up to the presence of God, the presence of Christ, our breath is a prayer, which is why so many traditions begin with the breath, with the source of life itself…if you are looking for a prayer practice, that’s a great one to begin with, to breathe, deeply and with awareness, and over time, that breath becomes God…in you, through you, with you.

So words, two verses became just a few words, and eventually breath itself…which is life itself…and life extends far beyond a few verses into every crevice of our being.

BBT says in her chapter on prayer…The longer I practice prayer, the more I think its something that is always happening, like a radio wave that carries music through the air whether I tune into to it or not. This is hard to talk about, which is why prayer is a practice and not a discussion topic. The best I can do is tell you how it works for me.

She then goes on to describe an altar she keeps in her home, which was so very comforting to me personally because I have something very similar on my dresser in my bedroom. (show picture) There’s a statue of Mary and an icon picture of her, (most of you have heard how very important Mary is in my life, and how much I encourage especially the women to pray with Mary, as My grandmother used to say, she understands women.) there's the Shema prayer on a scrap of paper, I have cards with quotes on them, and the mass card form my catholic grandmothers funeral, there are little statues and things the kids gave me when they were too young to string sentences together, there a cross on a ribbon hanging from the top of the mirror from Cursio and a cross with garnets that looks like something King Arthur would wear from my mother which is where I get my flare for the dramatic, and another cross on the wall, can never have too many of those, and the quote from Thomas Merton, and a candle and plates that hold jewelry…and lotion and eyeliner, all of these become a prayer each time I move to it, each time I take part in the simplest most mundane ritual of say putting on eyeliner, there's Mary, cheering me on not to smudge it up, each time I apply lotion to my arms, there’s a cross to remind me these arms belong to Christ because I belong to him now. Each time sit not the bed and see this collection of random sayings and photos around me, on this dresser, this kind of altar, I am filled with gratitude for the presence of God in my life, for grace itself, and all these things are visual placeholders for the grace that fills my life…And I know many of you have similar places in your homes and gardens

But when I’m called to prayer for all of you, or for one of individually, I sit by the window and stare at the water and the ripples of that water, and the movement in the trees… bringing me to a calm that allows me to focus my thoughts on you and on God, and eventually, if I’m lucky, they become one and the same….


Ann Lamott once wrote a book titled Help Thanks Wow. The title is the book. There are basically three prayers in our life, Help, thanks and wow.  That’s a good summary…and sometimes one word can be more effective than 20 because it helps us to talk less and listen more….


That brings us full circle back to week one, Remember Brother Lawrence and practicing the presence of God, BBT talks about him in this chapter as does about 4 other theologians I read this week did also when they spoke of the practice of prayer…and it brings us back to that famous Buechner quote,

If I were called upon to state in a few words the essence of everything I was trying to say both as a novelist and as a preacher, it would be something like this: Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.


Most scholars agree that Paul wrote the letter to the Philippians he wrote it from prison… from prison…Which I didn’t realize when I clung to those verses…but now when I read it I go to verse 4

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.

Rejoice-when parsed in the greek mean more than be happy- It’s to experience Gods grace, to be glad for Gods grace.

A man who probably knew he would die in prison wrote that-How much more can we participate in God’s grace..perhaps we are most vulnerable to it when we are in a kind of prison of our own. Or perhaps we experience it most when we are filled with joy….rejoice is to experience Gods grace, which can happen in the pain of it and the joy of it…

Because we are vulnerable…and vulnerability is to be open…it’s a beautiful and tough place to live…and to have our hearts and minds guarded in Christ Jesus is quite different than having our hearts and minds guarded with a pint of ice cream or a pizza, or wine, or attitude, or anger, or resentment, or all the millions of ways that we can put on armor and keep ourselves from feeling the space that comes from waiting on God and Christ to calm us, to carry us, to reside in us and to breathe in us, in such a way that God’s presence is as true and real as our own body and breath. That's prayer…creating space, and being present enough that whatever life brings, there is God…

Prayers are good…but prayer is waking up to the presence of God no matter where you are or what you are doing. 

Finally, I want to leave you with a story form the Pilgrim way. About a monk who joins the monastery where praying without ceasing was his very desire…so he begins with a person of whats referred to as the Jesus prayer…Lord Jesus have mercy on me…he says it constantly to himself…with every breath…Lord Jesus, have mercy on me…

Years go by and the Monk’s Abbot asks him whether the practice is working…

And the monk says

The words of my prayer drifted down into my heart and now each heartbeat drums out, “Lord, Jesus, have, mercy” 

What do you do asked the abbot... 

The monk replied, I just listen…

After no great lapse of time, I had the feeling that the
prayer had, so to speak, by its own action passed from
my lips to my heart. That is to say, it seemed as
though my heart in its ordinary beating began to say
the words of the prayer within at each beat...I
gave up saying the prayer with my lips. I simply listened
carefully to what my heart was saying. It
seemed as though my eyes looked right down into it; 

Listen to you life…participate in grace, rejoice and prayer without ceasing... 

And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.