Text: NRS Psalm 139:1 O LORD, you have searched me and known me. 2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. 3 You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. 4 Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely. 5 You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. 6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it. 7 Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? 8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. 9 If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, 10 even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. 11 If I say, "Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night," 12 even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you. . . 23 Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. 24 See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.
As we look forward to streaming our worship, which in our context means that it would appear live on your computer screens — and we now have the hardware and software and hope to be ready, though I do not want to be overly optimistic, by next week, —as we look forward to streaming our worship, I should mention, in case you have missed it, that streaming has been a very big deal during what is still for most of us a stay-at-home or work-from-home or “shelter-in-place” mode of living as the Corona 19 virus continues to rage, especially here, in Arizona.
Of course, more than half of our winter congregation consists of people who live outside Arizona, and thus miss the days above 110 degrees Fahrenheit that we experienced earlier this past week, and I want to remember one of them whom we lost since the winter of 2018-2019, Bill Berger, a retired dentist from St. Paul, Minnesota, whose widow, Char, was with us part of this past winter. And one reason I’ll always remember Bill, is because the first year I was at Florence, I mentioned in a sermon something I had read in “The Wall Street Journal,” and as I greeted people leaving the church, he said to me, “Do you really read ‘The Wall Street Journal’?”
Well, I did and do — though now almost entirely online, — primarily but hardly exclusively a business newspaper, “The Wall Street Journal” t is where I tend to follow the movements in the stock market, which indirectly affect far more people than are aware of those movements. This year, as the President is often too ready to point out, the stock market has been very resilient despite taking an initial drop, from which it definitely has yet fully to recover, because of COVID-19; if we want a strong stock market and economy, the answer is, “It’s the virus, stupid.”
At any rate, one particular stock that has fared quite well for some time is that of Netflix. If you do not have a computer you might not have Netflix, though I know some cable companies are now offering it, and if you have a good home high-speed Internet connection, but do not have Netflix, you may be missing out on the best programming that television has to offer.
Netflix began as a company that rented through the Internet DVD’s that were sent and returned through those now largely disappeared but once ubiquitous little red mailing envelopes. DVD rental by mail over the Internet — as opposed to the Blockbuster store approach — was a very clever business, but the leaders of Netflix saw that it would not last forever, and decided to prepare to “rent” movies by streaming them over the Internet, which essentially means we watching them remotely from our own TV or computer on a host computer that is who-knows-where; one is never in physical or digital possession of the movie.
But streaming movies others had made was not enough, so Netflix went into its own programming, producing both individual movies — the Mexican movie, “Roma,” nominated for the best picture Oscar in 2019, was produced by Netflix, as was one of this year’s nominees, the very awesome, “The Irishman” — producing both individual movies and what I guess one would call “limited episode series” or “serials,” such as “Marco Polo,” highly entertaining even if historically dubious, “The Last Kingdom,” and “The Medici,” a three year series with about ten episodes in each year of historical fiction based on the very real Medici family of Florence, Italy, that completely engrossed Patricia and me the past few weeks; in fact, we just finished the three years and roughly thirty episodes last night!
At any rate, the result of its business change into streaming combined with people’s being forced to remain at home these past months, has been that Netflix, which earns its money on monthly subscription fees, added ten million subscribers; indeed, there is now a pattern of people’s doing what is known as “binge viewing,” as they stream as much as a year’s worth of a television series into a day’s viewing. Heck, unable to go to work and with time on their hands, why not spend it watching the TV.
Well, I readily confess that the reason I watch TV other than the reason for which it was invented, sports, is that Patricia likes to watch while she knits, and she wants me to be with her — and I enjoy being with her, — but our viewing, aside from the occasional Sunday afternoon movie, is no more than one to two hours in any one night.
But I want to offer not exactly an alternative to watching a streaming Netflix as we continue our rather isolated-at-home existences, but either a substitute for some of it or a simple addition to it, a substitution or addition that I would hope would survive when we end “stay-at-home,” and that is: structured daily prayer.
Let me begin with a confession, which should be a part of such structured daily prayer: As fervently as I have on two previous occasions offered a multi-week series of sermons advocating daily prayer, fear — or maybe that and a mixture with fatigue —fear that I was merely parroting words committed to memory, rather than praying earnestly and conscientiously, combined with the morning time pressure that came with adding Oliver, then a four-month old puppy sixteen months ago, led me to turn to alternative morning devotional attempts. Those attempts were not bad: reading Augustine’s Confessions, doing a study that I have not completed that involved reading psalms in three different translations; they were not bad, but they were not the same as prayer. I returned a month ago or so to structured daily prayer, because, well, because some of the things I confess in that prayer were hurting my and Patricia’s lives and life. As I have said before, I have a lengthy series of sins, sufficiently lengthy that I have them alphabetized to help me as I confess them, but anger, impatience, interrupting, irritability and temper are among them, and awareness of increasingly slipping into those sins has led me, forced me for my own benefit, to make time, so that prayer has returned to its proper priority. The first thing that gets my attention once the dogs are put out and fed, so that they will leave me at least relatively alone while I do so, is not reading emails, but spending time with God, in prayer.
Our Psalm reading today was the Lectionary-chosen verses from one of my absolute favorites, Psalm 139, and I love these words in particular:
. . . you discern my thoughts from far away. 3 You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. 4 Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely.
before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely . . . If that is so, then one might ask, “Why pray? God knows what my prayers would be!”
But two things I would ask back to that question: “Do we voluntarily and consciously bring to our tongues all that we truly would hope to bring?” And, perhaps more importantly, “When we pray, are we the only ones speaking?
Today, again, as our Prayer of Confession, we used my slightly-edited version of a prayer by the Danish philosopher and pioneer in the concept or existentialism, Sören Kierkegaard:
. . . do not hold our sins up against us, but hold us up against our sins, so that the thought of You each time our soul awakens reminds us not of what we have committed, but of what you have forgiven; not of how we went astray, but of how you have forgiven us [italics added]
In our unnecessary seeking to recite to God — unnecessary for God, but necessary for us — in our seeking to recite to God what our sins are, the offering of our prayers of confession allows us to experience what Kierkegaard is saying, and in that experiencing, helps us to be grateful — which, by the way, helps us in other parts of daily structured prayer that I shall suggest in just a moment.
But moving to the second question, “When we pray, are we the only ones speaking?” If we are sincerely engaged in our prayers, then I will say without hesitation: NO!
In discussing prayer before, I have used the term interstices, which I probably first learned in a solid state physics course, used interstices to define those brief instances, those few seconds between our own mental expressions in our prayers when, not in the sense of a voice overtly saying, “John, what about?” but rather in the sense of an awareness of something not in what we have said, something has popped into our minds! If that is obtuse, let me give an example from my own experience: While reciting from those alphabetized sins of mine, something led me to add, “interrupting” right after “intemperance,” though I am not sure what I mean by that, and recently “defensiveness” and “projection” seemingly just popped up, two terms that you can figure out for yourselves; I am not willing to admit to you all the things that I admit to God. I think these words were somehow God’s speaking to me.
And I think this “popping up” aspect of prayer is both important and too easy to miss, and usually completely absent when we pray together, at least in collective prayer, although the thirty to forty-five seconds we do “Silent Confession” can be an exception, and Bob Phillips has wondered why I do not more often incorporate silent prayer between our pastoral prayer and the Lord’s Prayer, a really good suggestion.
I call that “popping up” aspect, and I believe correctly, “God’s speaking to us.”
But that God tries to speak to us in our prayers is, I think, implicit in the closing of that Psalm 139:
Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.
Lead me in the way everlasting; when we do pray and “listen,” God does so lead us.
I did mention how confessing helps us further in prayer, though Kierkegaard clearly grasps it, and that is that — at least theologically — we do not confess to obtain forgiveness, Jesus provided that, as I say each week, when He went to the cross, though paradoxically and importantly we do ask for it. But we confess as well to give thanks for forgiveness, which helps us to be thankful overall, and if we allow those thanks to be explicitly expressed as prayers of thanks for the roles played in our lives by individuals we name, our gratitude carries over as we pray for them, and praying for them leads me, at least, to the last words I offer in my pastoral prayer, and I would ask that you seek to pray them in your prayers, as well.
But before I offer those words, let me give a suggestion of the structure that works for me, though it is hardly an ex cathedra suggestion; everyone must find what works best for her or him:
Thank you God for getting me to this day, and for all the blessings of my life, and for Jesus Christ, in whom, through whom, by whom, as whom, you have forgiven my sins, promised me the gift of eternal life, and dwell within me as the Holy Spirit, and in whose life and through words uttered to prophets and others, you have told me how to live in peace and joy and harmony in this world, a way that I do not always follow
Then, and I reverse the order from time to time to avoid being rote, I offer detailed thanks, first for Patricia and Carol and my sons and daughters-in-law and granddaughters, then for, well, a list of people from present and the past, such as my late parents and some school teachers and others, and for, among other things, being called to pastor the two churches I serve. Next — or before that — is my confession of named, not a generalized “I confess my sins,” but I confess names of the specific sins of which I am aware.
Following that, I give a list of “petitions,” prayers for named individuals, for the small “c” and large “C” church, for the nation, and close with:
May all your children [by which I mean everyone on the planet] know the peace, the joy, the love, the freedom, the comfort, the reassurance, the sense of abundance that we find in you through Jesus Christ, in whose name I — we — pray. Amen.
My daily prayer is not a short engagement, but it takes less time and affects me more than a show on Netflix, however engaging.
And so good viewing — but even more, good praying.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.