On the Liturgical Calendar of the Orthodox Christian Church, today, September 26th is commemorated as the day that the Apostle and Evangelist John Died. John was the youngest of the Apostles and is the author of the Gospel that bears his name and three pastoral letters and the Book of Revelation.
From Church tradition, we know that John is the son of Salome the Myrrh bearer and Zebedee, a fisherman. He is also the brother of the Apostle James, who is believed to have written the letter that we heard the passage from today.
In his famous painting of the Last Supper, Leonardo Da Vinci painted John leaning on Jesus with his ear pressed against Jesus’ chest. Thus, John was listening to the heartbeat of Jesus, and as such, in our Trinitarian theology, John was listening to the very heartbeat of God.
The ancients, including our Christian forbearers, believed that the human heart is the very center of our being, our soul, if you will. The heart contains the very essence of who we are, and when the heart ceases to function, we cease. Thus, as John lay there, with his ear pressed against the chest of Jesus, he was listening to the very heart of creation.
Today’s scripture passage from the Letter of James is calling us, each of us, to a position of prayer in our daily lives. The passage begins with a series of questions. Are you in trouble? Are you happy? Are you sick? If you are any or all of these, pray. For some, James suggests calling the elders to come, and they will anoint you with oil and pray for you, and other times we are told to confess to one another, pray for one another, and we shall be healed.
But our prayers need to be more than a laundry list of things we need and people for whom we wish to pray. The intention of our prayer should be a conversation, and for conversation to happen, there needs to be a sender and a receiver. We are the sender, and God is the receiver. But prayer, like a conversation, flows in both directions; otherwise, it is not a conversation; it is a lecture. So for our prayer to be a conversation, there needs to be time to listen.
I had mentioned before that I spent some time as a community member just up the road at Glastonbury Abbey. The monk’s day is divided into equal parts of prayer and work and work and prayer what St. Benedict calls the Ora et Labora. The life of the monk is guided and regulated by the rule that St. Benedict wrote. The very first word of that rule is “listen.” Benedict teaches those who follow his rule that listening is an essential aspect of our spiritual life.
You might think I am crazy when I say that we will hear God’s voice if we listen, but it is true. The hearing God’s voice bit is true, and maybe a little of the crazy is true as well. However, if you are waiting for God’s voice to be as clear as it was to Charlton Heston in the 10 Commandments, you might be waiting a while.
God’s voice comes to us in many ways, from another person, through the Word of God, in worship, in song, in creation. For us to hear, we must be open to the voice, and we have to be listening for it.
The Celts believed that the voice of God is present in all of creation. We can hear the voice of God in the wind blowing through the leaves of a tree. The voice of God is present in the waves crashing on the rocks of the shore. The same God that created humanity created the tree and the flower and, I believe, placed a bit of that Divine Spark in that part of creation. When we look at another human being, we are to see the face of God, But I believe that when we look at any part of God’s creation, we are to see that same face.
When we gather as a community, we are gathering in prayer, and it does not matter what the occasion of that gathering is. Scripture tells us that whenever two or three are gathered, the creator is present. When we gather for worship, we invite God into our midst. Each aspect of worship, from greeting people when we first arrive to gathering in the circle at the close of our worship, is prayer.
But, when we gather for committee meetings, the same is or should be true. We welcome the presence of God into our gathering. We ask God to bless our time together and guide us as we meet. At the close, we thank God for being present and ask that God continue to guide us after we depart. Each time we gather, we gather first for prayer.
Developing a practice of prayer does not happen overnight; it takes time, and it takes practice. Prayer comes in many forms; there is corporate prayer that we are engaged in now. There is prayer using prayers that we perhaps learned as children and bring us comfort. There is meditation, sitting in the presence, and possibly using a mantra. All of these take time to develop, and the more we practice, the easier it becomes. Finding what works for you is the first step in the development of a healthy prayer life.
But there is what I consider the perfect prayer; this is the prayer that Jesus taught us. In the 13th Chapter of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus’ disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray and what follows we now call the Lord’s Prayer. We use this as part of each worship service, although I was told I left it last week.
The prayer Jesus taught is less about the words than it is about the process of prayer. The prayer is directed to God and begins with praise and then petition. We give thanks for what God has done for us in the past, ask God to continue to bless us, ask God to be present in our lives and the lives of others, and end the way we began with praise.
I mention this as a way of getting us started on our prayer life. We can begin by saying the Lord’s prayer once and maybe twice a day. Begin by saying the prayer upon rising, and then again, just before we go to sleep this way, we begin and end each day in a spirit of prayer. Every journey starts with that first step, and this could be that step.
As John lay there, leaning against Jesus with his ear pressed to his chest, John felt the warmth from Jesus. John’s head rose and fell with each breath that Jesus took in and out. John heard and felt the heartbeat of Jesus for those moments he was resting. Listening is an essential part of prayer and can be the most challenging.
Let us strive to pray more each day and spend some time listening for the voice of God in our lives.