When our children were young, we were given a teddy bear for them. If you pressed on the tummy of this bear, a recorded voice would recite the familiar children’s prayer: “Now I lay me down to sleep…” I am sure it was a well-meaning gift. But it was more than a little creepy. In fact, we started calling it “Creepy Bear.” You would understand if you heard it…especially when the battery started running down, and the voice got slower and even creepier: “Now I lay me down to sleep….I pray the Lord my soul to keep…if I should die before I wake…I pray the Lord my soul to take….” Straight out of a Halloween horror movie!
But I think it is actually a perfect symbol for the way that many of us try to teach prayer to the next generation – whether our children or grandchildren or nieces and nephews or family friends. We want to teach them to pray. We want to teach them our faith. But sometimes, it some off awkward at best…creepy at worst.
Case in point. A few years ago, a documentary came out called Jesus Camp. Nominated for an Oscar, it tells the story of a fundamentalist Christian camp and the experiences of children attending. The way the movie unfolds, it presents these methods as manipulative, emotionally controlling, and even abusive. My sense is that those who ran this camp had every intention of helping their children to understand and feel passionate about their faith. To help their children see the same joy and faith that they had. But the result was, well, more than a little creepy. And, in many cases, actually drives young people away from the church.
That is our struggle. How will we teach our kids to pray? How will we share our faith with the next generation? How will we do right by our children and our children’s children so that they know our faith and faith practices, but don’t feel manipulated or abused into a faith that is not their own?
Maybe we can find solace in the company of Deuteronomy. The book tells the story of the Exodus and the earliest days of the covenant people of God: the receiving of the Ten Commandments, wilderness wandering, and the moments right before they cross the Jordan into the Promised Land. It tells of an important crossroads.
But most scholars agree that the book was written much later. Likely, it was written several hundred years later, when the people of God were at another important crossroads – the Babylonian Exile. Like the Exodus, the Exile was the point in the history of the Israelites when the future was murky and uncertain. Their authority and certainty were in shambles, and they were unsure what the future would bring. So, they looked back to a time when the same was true – the Exodus – as a way to receive assurance and courage. If God could take them through that time, then perhaps God will take us through this time.
Many of you all know of the hit Broadway musical Hamilton. It is a retelling of the Revolutionary War in a contemporary way. Two hundred and fifty years later, it uses rap music, contemporary lyrics, and a multicultural company of actors to make its point: our country has always been a country of diversity and cultural openness. Even back to the immigrant Alexander Hamilton. It tells a truth for the present generation, in order to affect future generations, by using the story of past generations.
In much the same way, Deuteronomy is a retelling of the story of the people of God. Several hundred years after the Exodus, God’s people find themselves in the heart of Exile. And the authors of Deuteronomy use this history to make a greater point. Ronald E. Clements suggests that the overall point of the book of Deuteronomy was to help God’s people “nurture the right attitude about God.” Instead of an overwhelming fear about the future, all they really have the power to do is turn to God in the present.
I asked the Two-way this week what words in the passage jumped out to them. For them, the two words that came up early and often were “children” and “love.”
They recognize the importance placed by the authors of Deuteronomy on future generations: their children and their children’s children. But, Deuteronomy seems to say, the best thing that we can do is be fully committed ourselves in the present. Rather than a manipulative, abusive force-fed faith that does not offer our children freedom or give them space to question, what we hear from Scripture is that our children will most likely emulate what they see in us. Our faith. Our prayer. Our love of God.
And so, what can we do? “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” The future-fearing hearers of these words were taught to practice their faith now in diligent ways. Recite God’s teachings to their children. Talk about them, first thing in the morning and the last thing before they fall asleep. Write them, bind them, post them so that they are reminded of them and immersed in God’s teachings as their way of life. Instead of fearing the future, they were encouraged to trust God in the present!
The quote of the night on Wednesday that stuck out for me was this: “love is the one thing that makes all other things possible.”
The author of Deuteronomy would agree.
As would Jesus. When asked what the greatest commandment was, his answer was to reference this passage from Deuteronomy: “Love the Lord your God will all your heart and soul and strength.” As well as its corollary from Leviticus: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “On these commandments hang all of the law and prophets,” said Jesus. This passage tells a truth for the present generation, in order to affect future generations, by using the story of past generations.
The same is true for us today. This morning, we finish our series on prayer. Throughout Lent, we have been talking about ways to integrate prayer into our busy lives. I didn’t want to focus on time-consuming, unrealistic, prayer practices that most of us don’t have time for. I could talk about them, and everyone would nod their heads that they were a good idea, and then no one would do them. Instead, my goal has been to look at practical, integrated practices that we can do as a part of our everyday lives:
- The early morning “Here I Am Prayer”
- Choosing meditation over distraction
- Pausing to practice lectio – holy reading – of our vocations and surroundings
- Sending up arrow prayers for those who we meet and experience throughout the day.
- These are contemporary models, but of course, they are based on the writings of Ignatius, Benedict, St. Francis, Frank Laubach – masters of prayer.
My goal was to invite a practice of prayer that was do-able. Now, I believe that some of us have special gifts in the area of prayer and are able to pray for hours on end. But the rest of us shouldn’t feel guilty, or intimidated, or ineffective at prayer if we cannot do it that way. Prayer is something we need to work at, but not an impossible task.
If and when we practice these simple methods of prayer, our lives are strengthened, and we are able to show the next generation our heart of prayer. We show our children what it looks like to live out our faith. I believe that if we want to share our faith and faith practices – with our children, our co-workers, other friends or family members – the best way to do it is by becoming clear about our faith and our relationship with God. Like the Deuteronomist suggests, the best thing that we can do for future generations is to nurture this attitude about God, and practice love of God and neighbor, with our whole beings. Augustine reminds us that “whole prayer is nothing but love.”
Today, we learn a final model. We have walked through an average Tuesday together, and now the day is about over. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I have a hard time falling asleep. Often times, by the end of the day, my mind is racing so fast that it is hard to shut down. Given the extra things that we have in our lives that can distract us, it is harder now than it ever was. So, many of us use a pill or a glass of wine or a book or a screen to lull us to sleep. And I get it…I know I’ve done the same things in the attempt to slow down my brain. But this Lent, I have been trying to be more intentional about following these ancient writers into a life of prayer, including the last thing before I fall asleep. I want to share one final model, what I call, “Anne’s Examen.”
The prayer of examen is an ancient prayer that is meant to end our day. Originating with St. Ignatius in the 15th century, it is a way to spend our final moments of each day praying and reflecting upon our day. Perhaps we can end the final moments of our days asking two questions: “when today did you feel yourself moving toward God?” And “when today did you feel yourself moving away from God?” This simple practice of examine helps us to center ourselves at the end of the day, and celebrate the love that we have toward God.
But I have a contemporary spin on this ancient prayer, what I call “Anne’s Examine.” Anne Lamott is a contemporary writer on issues of spirituality and faith, but she is not your average Sunday school material. She is bold, blunt, and sometimes too crass for some. But it is an honest outpouring of her soul, and she writes beautifully about her love affair with God. All prayers, she writes, boil down to three words: “Help. Thanks. Wow.” Thus, I would suggest a final practice of prayer this Lent: “Anne’s Examen.”
- At the end of the day, reflect upon your day, and pray three prayers. First, help. Name something that you need help with. Something that you have failed to do well during the day. A friend who is hurting. A medical need for you or a loved one. Ask God for help in that situation.
- Next, tell God thanks. Thanks for something that has happened during the course of the day. Something you needed. A help prayer that was answered. An unanswered prayer that turned out to be a huge blessing. Tell God thank you.
- Finally, share with God a “wow.” Something that happened over the course of the day that blew your mind. Caused you to experience a moment of wonder. Of awe. Of glory.
Maybe you say these things in your head as you lay in bed at night. Maybe you journal them. Maybe you practice Anne’s Examen with your children, as another way to share your faith practice with them, and show them your passion for God. Any way you do it, I invite you to practice this – and/or another one of the prayers that we have talked about – over the next couple of weeks as we prepare for Easter. Palm Sunday is a week from today and Easter is two weeks away, so you have time in front of you to prepare and pray through these days. In the preparation, may you be reminded that “love is the one thing that makes all other things possible.”
Our chancel choir director Mark Robinson has written an alternative to the children’s poem that speaks volumes, as we end the sermon, the series, and perhaps it provides us a profound way to end each day:
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If my mind should race before I wake,
I pray the Lord my stress to take.
And unto me His peace to give,
That I may rise, rejoice, and live.
May it be so!