In the name of the Holy One, Amen.
God says: It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.
I have a friend who sits each morning in prayer and contemplation with his five-year-old daughter. They sit on the couch in the study. The little girl is like her dad: thoughtful, always ready for questions and surprises, playful and serious at the same time. He lights a candle. They say the Lord’s Prayer read a Scripture passage. Sitting has been their morning custom for a long time. It’s not complicated. A candle is lit, a prayer is said, they listen to God’s word in Scripture and in each other for a few moments.
“Daddy, what are we doing?” “We’re sitting.” “Oh.” Thoughtful pause. “Daddy, when did you know that God is real?”
When did you know that God is real? Was it when God lifted you to God’s cheeks and bent down and fed you?
Some of the most important teachers in my life who taught me that God is real were people I knew at Tillman United Methodist Church in Smyrna, where I was baptized when I was eleven. I lived before then in a very rural area. In fact, in the wilderness, in Alaska. I knew God was real there, in the wilderness, because I could smell the dirt and see the sky in the shapes in the between the leaves of the trees. I knew that God was real because there was a clear rushing creek, because my parents and my sisters took care of me (I was the youngest). I knew God was real because we had a house full of dogs, cats, horses, ponies, guinea pigs, fish, and goats, and they all needed care and responded to care. My mother took us girls to a Bible class in someone’s house a few miles away when she could. We only made the long drive to Anchorage to go to the Methodist church a few times a year. I knew God was real because I knew love was real. Because of my home in Alaska, I learned that God is real, and I learned to pray, simply to respond to God, most often without words.
In the Book of Common Prayer, which we use in The Episcopal Church, where I now worship, there is a summary of the faith at the back of the book. The outline is given in a question-and answer-form. One of the questions is, What is prayer? The answer is, Prayer is responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words. Praying is not talking to God. It is responding to God, the one who creates our home and loves to be with us.
I work as a Spiritual Director. I listen to people who want to sort through their experience of God. We listen together for where God might be prompting the person’s heart to deeper prayer, to study regularly the Bible and the traditions of the Church, to act with love in the world. It amazes me how uniquely God brings each person alive through prayer, how God pick us up, heals us, and leads us with cords of compassion and kindness. And just as God tends, feeds, heals, and guides each heart, so each heart responds to God in ways the person is only partly aware of.
We live in a world saturated with words and images. Words and human-made images fly around the world and pass our eyeballs and our ears almost nonstop. When does God get to sit with us, just for the sake of being together as our parent who loves us and cares for us more than we can know?
God says, “It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.” Prayer means knowing we are in God’s presence. In a moment of sitting with God, like my friend sitting with his daughter, it is just being together that makes it prayer.
We can never pray alone, because Christian prayer is response to God through Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. As in everything, in prayer God acts first. We respond. All prayer takes place within God’s loving presence. Prayer is something God begins and continues within us, and prayer returns to God what God has begun. Prayer is response to God, the God that picks us up as you might pick up a toddler.
When did you know that God is real? Does your faith change over time? Mine does. Sometimes it seems like believing in God is hard, because the story is implausible, or just plain weird, with God taking on human nature, walking among us as a brother and teacher, dying, and rising. It’s a strange story.
More often, for me at least, believing in God can be hard because of the relentless human appetite for cruelty and ill will. When my faith changes, or when believing in God is hard, God mercifully heals me, even when I don’t know it. We have not loved perfectly those entrusted to our care. None of us have been loved perfectly throughout our lives. Anguish happens on large and small scales, close to home with a few people, globally with systems we did not create yet we must give account for because God loves all people and all creation.
Sin, separation for God, ignoring God’s presence, is insidious. Sometimes I am the sinner, and sometimes I am sinned against. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what is going on, except the lack of love tells me something requires healing, something needs God’s care and guidance. When Christians fail to be just, merciful, and humble, we ignore God and dishonor what God has made. Sitting or walking quietly with God, responding to God just by being with God, not filling up God with words: something opens up to God’s healing, guidance, and nourishment.
It was God who taught all of us to walk; God took all of us up in his arms; but we did not know that God healed us. God leads all of us with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. God is to all of us like those who lift infants to their cheeks. God bends down to us and feeds us.
Remember those people at Tillman United Methodist Church in Smyrna that I told you about, who taught me so much? There was one, an elder woman who did all the things that happen around churches: attended worship, worked on committees, and volunteered to serve whenever she could. Her red velvet cake and potato salad set the very highest standard at potlucks. She said kind things and had a kind face. I was used to seeing her in action, and I liked being around her.
One Saturday during Lent, one of the adult Sunday School rooms had been designated a prayer room, with a handwritten note on the door. I popped my head in, curious about what would be different about a prayer room versus any other kind of room. And I got my answer. A prayer room is a room where someone is praying. My favorite doer-of-things and maker-of-red-velvet-cake was sitting. Just sitting. The overhead lights were off in favor of a side lamp. This mother in the faith, her body full of years, looked as loving as she always did. I sat down a few seats away. I joined her in responding to God. She led me with cords of human kindness, with bands of love.
Preached at Long Cane and Bethel United Methodist Churches near La Grange, Georgia