Pray Last

(A sermon for Easter 3B–April 22, 2012–Psalm 4)

It was a New Year’s resolution, sort of. I don’t really make them, but I began last year determined to make a positive commitment. My life felt … complicated. I didn’t want to do the usual, promising I would exercise or eat right. (Not that those would be bad ideas.) I don’t smoke, and I drink rarely, so I couldn’t give those up. I wanted to do something that would be easy to commit to and also measurable. I read a Marist Poll about New Year’s Resolutions and saw, sadly, that getting closer to God only made number 8 on the list.

So I chose a commitment related to God.

And to make sure I did it, I wrote about it for the newspaper.

But I’m interested in how far down the list we find God. I’m interested in how true it is for me when I answer questions about my personal goals.
Oh, I’m very clear about God’s place in my vocational life! In a search for a new call as pastor, I made every effort to listen for God’s guidance. But in my personal life, I’m a mom and a newly single woman and an overgrown girl with romantic notions and a daughter whose parents are long gone on to their reward and an erstwhile princess and a wannabe Queen of the Universe with a desire to set everything to rights.
So it’s on my mind, as I round the corner to turning 50 this year and take back the name my parents gave me long ago and ponder whether there will be another dog in my future. What will be my highest priority? Will I get God up higher than No. 8 on my list?
I’m going to try, and to do it, I will focus on two words: Pray. First.
That can be as small a gesture as turning off the iPhone alarm and praying before checking my darn e-mail in the early dark of morning. It can be as routine a practice as praying before I start the car. It can be as deep a commitment as closing my eyes and opening my heart and mind before an important conversation or a worrisome meeting. 
It can be unformed as a period of meditation or formulaic as the blessing before a meal or impulsive as a whispered, “Thank you!” or “Help?!?!!”
Pray First.
I’ll let you know how it goes. (Portland Press Herald, 1/1/11)

I didn’t let them know.

But I did pray, a little more than usual. It was my mantra, if you will, for 2011. I managed the morning prayers, usually, and the important meeting/encounter prayers, yes. The hurried yelps to God were nothing new. All this was good, but as I kept on trying to sort out the changes in my personal life and the ways they intersected my ministry, I needed something more. I just didn’t know what.

Activity took over. I made myself busy. This is not hard to do when you have a home to tend alone, with a dog and a cat and a child in it, and friends to talk to and email and see, and a church community to serve.
Maybe this is why I didn’t report back to the paper, and I let myself forget about the column and my commitment, a little. Well, a lot.

Sometime just before Christmas I got a friend request on Facebook from someone I could not identify. I looked at her page and tried to figure out our connection, but I couldn’t. Eventually she sent me a message:

Rev. Spong,
You don’t know me, but I am asking you to be my friend on Facebook. I think it’s fair to ask you to be my friend, since I’ve just taken down a column you wrote last year, or maybe it was the beginning of this year. I didn’t date it. It was on the Top Resolution: Pray First. It has been on my frig all year. I’ve seen the title every morning. It has made a huge impact in my life, which I’m going to write you about someday. Tonight I’m too tired…. but I will definitely write to you about it. And I hope you are planning to write another column to let us know how it went for you.

Then I remembered.

And here is the answer, for my not-yet-friend on Facebook.

I’ve discovered that it isn’t enough to pray first. I also needed to learn to pray last. At the end of the day, when I’m in the dark, I can’t hide anything from God. My hopes and fears, my dreams and nightmares, my successes and failures are an open book at the end of the day. But I struggled with how to put them into words, and night after night I avoided it. In the morning I could put a braver face on things, I thought, and have a more positive talk with God. I anxiously read my Facebook news feed or played Words with Friends or scrolled through my Twitter feed until the iPhone fell out of my hand and I went straight to sleep.

And the truth was that my morning prayers had become pretty anxious, too.

Then a wise friend suggested a solution. If I was having trouble putting my night prayers into words, maybe I should read some old, old prayers written in a book. She suggested praying Compline.

And it happened that this former Baptist, current Congregationalist does own a copy of the Book of Common Prayer, and that night I went home and opened it.

And there I found Psalm 4.

1    Answer me when I call, O God, defender of my cause; *
         you set me free when I am hard-pressed;
         have mercy on me and hear my prayer.
2    “You mortals, how long will you dishonor my glory; *
         how long will you worship dumb idols
         and run after false gods?”
3    Know that the LORD does wonders for the faithful; *
         when I call upon the LORD, he will hear me.
4    Tremble, then, and do not sin; *
         speak to your heart in silence upon your bed. (Psalm 4:1-4, Book of Common Prayer)

I love the Psalms. They are full of complaints and threats of violence, right alongside words of praise and awe and wonder. They are gorgeously human, as wrong-headed and noble-hearted as we are at our worst and best. They tell a profound and timeless story.

We pray because we’re worried that people are talking about us, or aren’t doing right by us. We pray because the world is going to you-know-where. We pray because we need God’s attention on these things right now!

And so often they make reference to praying at night, to praying on our beds.

“Tremble, then, and do not sin; speak to your heart in silence upon your bed.” 

Be aware and amazed that God *is* faithful, and God *is* listening. Be in awe of this and do not sin! Do not fritter away your time with that darn iPhone! Speak to your heart—speak to your God—in silence on your bed.

These nighttime prayers worked on me. They are long and complicated and not as compact as the ones I had in mind when I promised to pray first. They are the cries of ancient people who trusted God despite the seeming evidence that they had been utterly forsaken.

You may be wondering, just two weeks beyond the big day, why does this Psalm appear in the Easter season?

But I do not wonder. Could there be darker nights than the ones spent in the tomb?

Pray last.

It’s what Jesus did, from the cross. In the unnatural darkness of the afternoon of Good Friday, he cried out his prayer in the words of another Psalm, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34 and Psalm 22:1, NRSV)

Pray last.

For me, this practice brought about a little Easter of my own. I began to wake in the morning less anxious about what my future will bring, no longer feeling alone with the actual worries of life and disinclined to invent ones that don’t actually exist.

Pray last.

8 “I lie down in peace; at once I fall asleep; *
         for only you, LORD, make me dwell in safety.” (Psalm 4:8, Book of Common Prayer)

And just so you don’t worry that I’ve been changed completely, I typed my favorite portions of Compline into my iPhone. That’s where I usually read them, when I pray last. In the name of the One who never truly forsakes us. Amen.

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6 thoughts on “Pray Last

  1. Compline may well be my favorite bit of liturgy outside the Eucharist. Certainly the Prayer Book's version contains my favorite prayer- one I've used so often as a starting point for my own prayers that I have it memorized.I'm glad you've found it helpful, too."Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work or watch or weep this night; and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love's sake." I'm glad you've found it a

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