Sermon: Intentional Practice

During the summer months the church I serve hold their weekly worship service on Wednesday nights. This summer we are reading the book Grateful, The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks by Dianna Butler Bass. This reflection is based on chapter 4 and all references are from the book unless otherwise noted.

Back in the mid 90’s, I joined the Roman Catholic religious order known as the Benedictines. The Benedictines have a rhythm of life focused on prayer and work and the day is evenly divided. We would rise in the morning and gather in the chapel for prayer. This early Morning Prayer focused on readings from the psalms and other biblical and non-biblical texts. A period of individual scripture reading follows and then back to the chapel for another round of prayers. The same cycle is repeated in the afternoon and evening with the idea that the day is started and ended with prayer and praise.

The rhythm of prayer was regulated by the bell. Five times a day the bell would ring and call us to prayer, it go so that you could anticipate the ring and start toward the chapel. However, other times, you would be right in the middle of something, and the bell would ring and whatever it was would become secondary to prayer.

My favorite prayer time was in the evening after the evening meal. For most of the year, it was dark in the chapel when we arrived. The service was simple and was the same every night, so it was soon memorized and allowed me to focus more on the words of the psalms. I have not tried in years, but I wonder if I could still recite it from memory.

Anyway, the evening focused on taking stock of the day in what the Jesuits call the “examen” the examination. There are five steps to this, and there is a focus on gratitude:

  1. Awareness of God’s Presence
  2. Review of the day with gratitude
  3. Paying attention to the emotions
  4. Selecting one thing from the day and praying from it
  5. Look toward tomorrow. (Bass pg. 79)

In the morning the focus is on the intention to live the day in gratefulness, but the night time is devoted to reviewing reflection, and the offering of thanksgiving. These hours of prayer do not focus on what we want or need. “The hours start with gratitude. Ancient Christian wisdom is that the first words of the day should be those of thanks” (Bass pg 76). We need to start each day remembering that each day is a gift and that the sacred is present with us.

This “hallowing of the hours of the day is fundamental to a faithful life, and remembering blessings and giving thanks is shared practice across world religions” (Bass pg 73). Christians are not the only ones to sanctify the day in such a way; Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists share this tradition among others.

I tried, somewhat successfully for a few years after I left the monastery to keep up this prayer rhythm but I soon fell out of practice. I would pick it up every now and again but never at the level of the monastery. I am not sure if it was because the bell was not present in my life or just that m priorities shifted. However, one needs to be intentional about prayer and set time aside for it each day. Notice I said my priorities changed and I did not say my life became more complicated to my life became busier than it was in the monastery. We make time in our lives for what is, and if prayer and praise are essential, we will make time for it. This is where I need to practice what I preach.

I think for many people prayer has become a laundry list of what we want God to do for us. Perhaps we have a list of people we are praying for; we do it in each service as well. Intercessory prayer is not a bad thing, but it is only one form of prayer that we need to practice.

However, we have to be intentional about it about the practice of gratitude.

Last week I mentioned that there are gifts all around us and we don’t see them. I asked us to be more mindful of those gifts and perhaps journal or somehow keep track of them. I began but the week got away from me so I need to start again.

Following a life of intentional gratitude is all about choosing to do it. We choose to be aware of the moments that surround us.

In the Gospel of Matthew we read the words of Jesus, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). What do we value in our lives? Do we value the things that we have earned or are we drawn towards the life of the spirit? In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes, “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the flesh. However, to those who live according to the spirit set their minds on things of the spirit” (Romans 8:5).

Just as we need to feed our bodies with a healthy lifestyle so we must feed our soul. We must be intentional about prayer, and we must be intentional about gratitude. Our spiritual life is life our physical life in the sense that we need balance. The Benedictine day was a balance of work and prayer so must our lives be a balance.

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