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In anxious times: Pray, Breathe

The following sermon was preached by Sarah Semmler Smith, LSTC student, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Thursday, October 16, 2008.


Philippians 4: 1-9

On Saturday I had a conversation with my mother regarding my older brother. She was a little irked because she found out via my sister that Steven was going skydiving that very afternoon, and he hadn't told her. "Of course he didn't tell you," I said, "You would have just worried. What could you have done anyway?"

 "I could have prayed, Sarah" she said. "I'm not a worrier. I could have prayed." I think I rolled my eyes. "Oh mother," I thought. I dismissed her mention of prayer as folksy. A nice Minnesotan Lutheran thing to say. Conventional.

Another person I loved, but loved to dismiss as conventional was my Grandma Semmler. Grandma was a 'prayer warrior'-from morning at circle with the church ladies to the evenings on her knees beside her bed. She might as well have had a plaque on her wall that read: 'the way to worry about nothing is to pray about everything.' Grandma loved to bring her grandchildren to church, and she also loved to tell us about the 'Dirty Thirty's,' how hard it was during the Depression, and that the Depression was coming again. "Right, Grandma." I had thought with yet another eye-roll. "I'll just pray about that one," I probably said sarcastically.

A headline from Sunday's newspaper: "All signs point to panic: Even Feds seem impotent to calm markets. Dow has now lost 39% of value in past year." And another from an earlier article online: "80% of Americans depressed or anxious over personal and national financial situation." Though we now see the Dow has rebounded slightly this week, financially we're up and down. The economy is unstable. We are uncertain whether we really are on the edge of another depression. Politically, we're weeks from a presidential election, and are literally in between leaders. We've heard so much political rhetoric in the past weeks, it can be disorienting. Here at the seminary, it has been quite a week for many of us-from actually running a marathon to marathons of late night study sessions. We hold our breath waiting to see if we passed those midterms, as we all hold our breath to see what is going to become of our economic and political systems. It's an unsettled time, as we take a posture of waiting, this autumn.

The Christians at Phillipi may have been holding their breath too, waiting for that letter from Paul we read part of today. Paul, their teacher, friend, and co-worker in the gospel, with whom their identities were enmeshed and their hearts of one piece-- this Paul, was away from them and in jail. The question on the minds of the Philippian Christians-which they had thought or even spoken aloud: "What does this mean for us, for this movement?" Did the angst of it all lead to divisions and squabbles such the one happening between the two women we read about? Did the disorientation exacerbate their anxiety about outside threats, the circumcision cult, persecutors. It was an unsettled time that was potentially frightening, as the Philippians received Paul's letter and we receive it with them this morning.

We know that his letter, though written from Jail, perhaps because it is written from jail, uses the word 'joy or rejoice' more than any other writing. And so he assures the Philippians in the opening lines that his incarceration was actually a good thing. Throughout the rest of the letter, he explains why this was so, encourages their hearts, and at the end of the letter, he says: "Don't be worriers. Pray."  The first times I read through this, I heard it in my mother's voice. And I sheepishly admit that made me want to dismiss it. "Think about happy things, and pray!" Says Paul. To me he sounded like a rose-colored glasses optimist-as if when he said 'don't worry,'  he was really saying 'just forget your troubles.'  It sounded like he was proposing something like post-it note prayers-where you write down your petition, rip off the note, stick it on God's desk and never think of it again.  (Indecently, I had a well-intentioned co-worker who used to do this to me, and it always frustrated me! Almost always I needed her help with the post-it note request which she had now forgotten about, or sometimes the content of the note was her responsibility in the first place!) A post-it note prayer practice would be like if we wrote 'election' on post-it note, but then didn't vote!

That's not the kind of prayer my grandmother practiced. Or my mother practices. Or what Paul was suggesting. I don't think the New Testament anywhere talks about post-it note kind of prayer. Prayer is not a ticket to passivity or an excuse to shirk responsibility. Neither is prayer meant to be a piety of words, to be said correctly with consistency. Prayer is never one sided.

Prayer is dialogue with the living God. A rootedness in the life of the divine. A hardwire to the source of life. According to Bradley Hanson, prayer is like breath. (Hanson, Bradley. Teach us to Pray: Overcoming Obstacles to Daily Prayer. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1990. ) At seminary, our tendency is to make everything more complicated than it needs to be. Prayer at its simplest is an in/out motion. Listening and speaking to God-inhaling Gods' word and reminders of God's power, love, presence in Christ-and then exhaling through speech and action. Prayer is the breathing of faith. When my brother later told me of his skydiving experience, he said that he didn't enjoy the first minute of his four minute descent as much as he could. Why? He was holding his breath until his shoot opened. When we are anxious or concerned, we tend to hold our breath-over midterm grades, election results, economic crisis, you name it.   Today Paul reminds the concerned Philippians and he reminds us-- especially in such times: we need to breathe.

Because finally, Prayer is peace. A peace that passes understanding, and is more than we could imagine because it is God's peace--which comes only from a constant connection to God through prayer; it is the state we find ourselves in when we trust profoundly in the providence of God. "The way to be anxious about nothing is to pray about everything."  I think my Grandmother knew something that was conventional, but also deeply wise.  It's the same thing my mother knew when her only son decides to jump out of an airplane. Something Paul knew from his prison cell in jail. Something Christ knew, lived with his life, and taught us to do the same. Prayer is the foundation and breath of our faith.

Unfortunately, prayer does not have the effortless character of breathing-for prayer to be strong enough to influence our life, prayer may be more like the trained breathing of a singer and even at times like the labored breathing of a long-distance runner straining for the finish line. Sometimes, prayer can be like a yawn-that catches us off guard because we didn't know we were so tired, so in need of prayer. Prayer comes from God.

So today, we are here to pray together. For our time of prayer-we are going to take advice of Paul.  We are going to share our joys and our concerns with God and with each other. When we pray together, we support each others prayers; we find strength in each other, and are connected to God through one another. While music is played, you are invited to go quietly to tablets of paper near the font. On left, write joys. On right, concerns. At the end of the service, you are encouraged to take a moment to consider these prayer lists. Take one joy and one concern with you that is not your own. Pray over it today. The point is sharing in each others prayers, we wrap our life together in the spirit of God. Boldly we pray because we trust that; the God of peace is up to something in this world and is calling us to be a part; that the God of peace is yearning for us to tap into the power of the spirit; that the God of peace offered up his son as an example and guide in making our entire lives a prayer, in any affliction, the peace of God is ours.

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