Shelly Pennefather was a basketball phenom. She grew up in a big Catholic family and played basketball with her brothers. By the time she was a teenager, she was unstoppable. Her high school team in Denver won 70 games without a loss in her first three years and won three state championships. When the Air Force transferred her dad to New York before her senior season, nothing changed. Utica's Notre Dame High went undefeated, too. She never lost a high school game and won four state championships.
Pennefather played college basketball at Villanova. Over her career she broke Villanova’s all-time scoring record for both women and men. This was before there was a 3-point shot, and her record still stands today.
In 1987, she won the Wade Trophy, given to the best women’s college basketball player. There was no professional women’s league in the US when she graduated from college, but professional basketball overseas offered good money. She signed with the Nippon Express in Japan, the place where her whole life would change.
The pace in Japan was much slower -- the Express played only 14 games in four months. Away from her college teammates and the chaos of her large family, she felt homesick and alone in a faraway city. Her second season there was especially tough. She did everything she could to keep busy, reading books, learning Japanese, teaching English. But she still felt a deep emptiness.
Until while doing volunteer work that next summer, at a soup kitchen run by the Sisters of Charity in Norristown, Pennsylvania. She went to a retreat and was asked to read a Bible verse that spoke of communion with God. And suddenly she knew that she was not alone, that God was with her and had always been with her, even in the lonely times. This experience of God’s presence led to her decision to become a nun.
But she did not join just any order. She joined the Poor Clares, one of the strictest religious orders in the world. They sleep on straw mattresses, in full habit, and wake up every night at 12:30 a.m. to pray. They never rest more than four hours at a time. They are barefoot 23 hours a day, except for one hour when they walk around the courtyard in sandals.
The Poor Clares are cut off from society. Now Sister Rose Marie, she will never leave the monastery unless there’s a medical emergency. She gets two family visits per year, but has to visit with her family through a see-through screen. She can write letters to her friends, but only if they write to her first. And once every 25 years, at a ceremony marking the renewal of her vows, she can hug her family.
That service was held this summer. The Mother Superior allowed her college coach and three teammates to sneak into the line of family who had the chance to hug her. Her mother, who is 78, will be able to hug her again is she lives to 103.
The Poor Clare nuns enter this radical way of life because they believe that their prayers for humanity will help the suffering, and that their sacrifice will lead to the salvation of the world.
But why would someone with so much to offer the world lock herself away and hide her talents? Who, looking at one of the biggest professional contracts in their sport and at the top of their profession, would subject herself to such strict isolation and sacrifice?
I read this story of Shelly Pennefather, now Sister Rose Marie, and found it fascinating and moving. (You can read it on espn.) And I thought of this story as I read one of the topics suggested for a sermon: “Prayer as a Way of Life.” Another wonderful suggestion.
When we think of prayer as a way of life, completely separating oneself from society and devoting one’s life to prayer like the Poor Clares is one way to do it. And to live that kind of life certainly shows an absolute devotion to prayer. You don’t just make that kind of choice on a whim.
For most of us, however, if prayer is going to be a way of life, it will have to be understood differently. To think about prayer as a way of life, we have to first think about what prayer really is.
The psalms offer us a picture of prayer. And it is a multi-faceted picture. People cry out on behalf of themselves, their loved ones, their community, their nation. They cry out for justice. In pain they curse their enemies. In lament they mourn losses. In joy they offer God praise and adoration. In worship they speak of God’s glory. In confession they ask for forgiveness. In confusion they try to discern the ways of the Holy. In hope they pray for the nation, for the future, for children. Pretty well every human emotion is shared with God.
We can sometimes reduce prayer to a kind of take-out order. “I would like this and this and this. And make that to go.” As it turns out, that is not the Biblical understanding of prayer. Prayer is much bigger than that.
Prayer is essentially a connection with God. An ongoing relationship and conversation with the Holy in which words may be used.
Toward the end of 1 Thessalonians Paul gives some assorted final instructions. In the passage that Rita read, Paul says “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.” How are we to “pray without ceasing?” I mean, you have to cease praying at some point in order to go about living, right? You can’t do your job, you can’t go to class, and you can’t have your Fantasy Football Draft if you are praying all the time, can you?
If prayer only means to close your eyes and bow your head and talk to God, then, no, you can’t do that 24/7, even if you are a Poor Clare.
In our scripture from Luke, Jesus is going about his ministry of teaching and healing. He heals a man with leprosy, and the growing crowds become even greater. For his part, Jesus seems to want to limit the crowds and tamp down his fame, telling the man he had healed not to say anything about it - but to no avail.
And then, what is most pertinent for us today, he goes away to a quiet place to pray. And it wasn’t just this one time; it was a regular practice. We see Jesus doing this in other instances; the verse says, “He would withdraw to deserted places to pray.”
For Jesus, there was a regular rhythm of prayer and action, of worship and service, and it was his life of prayer that made the action possible. Prayer was the fuel that got him through. He lived a life of prayer.
I had a weird thing happen this week. I’m working on this sermon about prayer on Thursday afternoon, and the phone rings. Janelle, our office manager, had just left for the day. I answer the phone and the person asks if there is a pastor around. I said, “You’re talking to one,” and she says she has a question about prayer. It’s about a verse in the Bible, 1 John 5:15: “and if we know that God hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained the requests made of him.” But she had been praying and was wondering when those requests were going to be obtained – when her prayers would be answered.
The verse does make it sound pretty simple. I quickly looked up the passage and noted that the verse just before speaks of asking God anything according to God’s will. So it is not just a blank check. You don’t pray for a million dollars to arrive in the mail and it shows up the next day. The passage is speaking of praying in a way that aligns with God’s will. And then she mentioned she had been praying for a long time for another person to change.
That is especially difficult, and many of us have prayed those kinds of prayers. The Bible speaks of persistence in praying. But there is also the reality that God does not force any of us, even toward a good purpose. We all have free will.
The answers to our prayers might be yes or no, but a lot of times it is maybe or eventually or give it time. Or maybe the answer is, I want that as bad as you do, but it’s not entirely up to me. Or not infrequently, we’re not sure what the answer is. Or maybe there are those times when an answer, as we think of answers, is not the main point.
I asked this person how she had come to call our church, and she said she was new around here and didn’t have a church and just wanted to talk to a pastor.
Once in a great while I get a call like that, but the timing of it – while I was thinking and sermonizing about prayer – was really curious. But that short conversation was a reminder of how complex prayer is. And how important it is to us. And it was a good reminder that prayer is not so much a transactional enterprise.
Prayer is not a matter of we ask and God delivers. Prayer is much deeper than that. It is about cultivating a relationship; it is about immersing ourselves in the ways of God so that the things we hope for and dream about, and the things we work for and strive for – the things we pray for - are aligned with God’s ways. It is about transforming our hearts toward love and justice and compassion and truth and being aware and open to God’s work and presence in the world around us. It is about sharing the depths of our souls with God.
The spiritual writer Henri Nouwen captured what it means to think of prayer as a way of life:
To pray, I think, does not mean to think about God in contrast to thinking about other things, or to spend time with God instead of spending time with other people. Rather, it means to think and live in the presence of God.Prayer is about thinking and living in God’s presence.
As soon as we begin to divide our thoughts into thoughts about God and thoughts about people and events, we remove God from our daily life and put him in a pious little niche where we can think pious thoughts and experience pious feelings. Although it is important and even indispensable for the spiritual life to set apart time for God and God alone (as Jesus did), prayer can only become unceasing prayer when all our thoughts - beautiful or ugly, high or low, proud or shameful, sorrowful or joyful - can be thought in the presence of God. Thus, converting our unceasing thinking into unceasing prayer moves us from a self-centered monologue to a God-centered dialogue. This requires that we turn all our thoughts into conversation. The main question, therefore, is not so much what we think, but to whom we present our thoughts. (Clowning in Rome)
Now it is important to set aside time both for personal prayer and for prayer as part of a community. Nouwen also said that without community, individual prayer becomes self-centered, but without individual prayer, the prayer of the community becomes a meaningless routine. So we need both individual and community prayer - one without the other is problematic.
Both personal and corporate prayer are essential, and when we are mindful of God’s presence throughout our daily activities, then prayer become a way of life.
For me, a time when this happens more easily is as I walk our dog in the morning. Taking in the beauty of the morning, noticing the trees and flowers and sky and clouds and sunshine. It is a time to be mindful and grateful for the blessings around us. I may think about the day ahead or concerns that I have, or maybe I am totally in the moment, maybe I'm more focused on Rudy's adventures as we walk, but I can be mindful of God’s presence in the midst of it.
When we think of prayer in that sort of way, it can change things. We are able to simply be in the presence of God. This may be what Martin Luther had in mind when he said, “The fewer the words, the better the prayer.”
And so, our singing can be a prayer. Our work can be a prayer. Our activities can be a prayer. Our study can be a prayer. Our drive to work can be a prayer.
Anne LaMott wrote this wonderful little book that we used for a Lenten Study a couple of years ago: Help, Thanks, Wow. She says those are the three essential prayers. When prayer becomes a way of life, we go through our day in a kind of conversation with God, as Nouwen describes it, and as the day unfold, we can be quick to ask for Help, quick to give Thanks, and quick to exclaim Wow.
Most Sundays, we pray The Lord’s Prayer as a part of worship. Part of what we pray is, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” If that is truly our prayer, then we will also be working toward those ends. And those things we do to help our neighbors, to work for a more just society, to build community, to care for God’s earth, to visit the sick, to nurture children, all of these activities are a kind of prayer.
Prayer is more – it can be more - than periodically having a talk with God. That is very much a part of prayer, to be sure – it’s an essential part of prayer. But prayer as a way of life is an ongoing awareness and attitude of God’s presence with us – through the good and the bad, through the joys and pains of life and through our day-to-day living. May it be so. Amen.