“Thoughts and Prayers: Bed Making and Character Shaping”
Grant Glowiak, July 22, 2018
The Union Church of Hinsdale
That is part of the University of Texas at Austin 2014 Commencement Address given by Admiral William H. McRaven. Among many other things, he is the author of Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life…And Maybe the World, which was a #1 New York Times Bestseller.
I want to start off by taking a quick poll. You guys know I love me some audience participation. Let’s start with something easy. Raise your hand if you know how to make a bed? Alright, now raise your hand if you use hospital corners when making your bed? Alright, last question. How many of you individually, or at least one of you if share a bed, make your bed every day? Or like 90-95% of the time? Wow, you guys really have your act together.
The reason I ask this is because I used to be someone who didn’t really make their bed. If I did, it was sort of throwing the sheets and blankets back to make it look halfway decent. And this was not because I didn’t know how. As a child at summer camp I had to make my bed every morning. I just didn’t think it was something worth doing in my personal life, worth spending much time on.
However, in this clip we see, at least in my opinion, a pretty convincing argument for why someone should make their bed every morning. Admiral McRaven says if you do this, you will have accomplished the first task of the day, which will motivate you to complete more tasks and have a productive day. He also says that the little things in life matter, because if we can’t do the little things right, we’ll never be able to do the big things right.
At this point, you make be wondering…what does this have to do with prayer, our summer sermon series? Well, in my life at least, it has everything to do with prayer. This week we’re reflecting on personal prayer. Over the summer we’ve been covering a variety of aspects about prayer. The primary take away, the theme that’s run through many of these sermons, is that prayer is not about acquisition but formation. I’m not going to cover this in depth since you’ve already heard this from the pulpit several times. Now, if you weren’t here for the past few weeks I’d highly recommend watching the sermons on Youtube, but to bring you up to speed essentially prayer is not about asking God for things to happen, it is about what prayer does to us as people. Prayer is about character formation.
Now if this doesn’t make sense to you, I want to give you an analogy. I want you to think of the Quadratic Formula… Got it? It’s X = -b + or – the square root of b squared – 4ac all over 2a. You knew that right? Now I’m not going to take another poll because that would be mean. But if it makes you feel better I had to look that up for this sermon. I didn’t know it off the top of my head, but I definitely recognized it once I saw it again. And I’d be willing to bet you are in a similar boat. If you did know it, good on you 10 points to Gryffindor.
See, the point of education isn’t necessarily to have the quadratic formula memorized for the rest of your life, the point of education is to teach you how to learn. The point of history class wasn’t so that I would never forget that the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066 (although, let the record reflect that I didn’t forget that), but it was to teach me how to think, write, speak and read at a higher level than I had done the year before. I don’t use either of these pieces of knowledge in everyday life or in my job, nor do many of you I would imagine. There isn’t anything inherently special about the Quadratic Formula, or the Battle of Hastings, that makes knowing them more or less important than other formulas or dates in history. What’s important is that through learning those things I learned how to learn, how to study, which I do use every day.
There is nothing inherently special about making your bed either. It isn’t particularly hard, and it doesn’t afford anyone a distinct in advantage in life, at least directly. But we see that that’s not the point. The point is having a morning routine that starts with an easy task, the point is developing self-discipline and a sense of pride in one’s own work. Are you seeing now how this relates to prayer? The point of prayer isn’t the more obvious way we think about it, asking God for things or specific events to take place, the point is much more profound. The point is character formation, or perhaps a more religious way to say it would be faith formation.
This is I think one of the biggest sticking points for prayer, and why I didn’t do it for so long. Two weeks ago Mike gave us 10 reasons why we don’t pray in his sermon. And I had used many of them before. Similar to how a younger Grant may have complained in elementary school about how stupid it is that I had to learn all the capitals of all the states. Because, seriously, when will I ever need to know the capital of South Dakota? Or how I didn’t make my bed because I’m just going to get back into it and screw it all up later in the day anyway. The point isn’t the act, the point is what the act does for us in the long term.
My personal prayer life up until about a year ago was nonexistent. I mean sure I occasionally said grace, I prayed in church, I prayed when beloved people in my life were about to die. Similar to how I used to occasionally make my bed, you know for special occasions. But making my bed every day, and praying every day, changed my life.
See, I didn’t know I needed prayer. Similar to how I didn’t know I needed to make my bed, or I needed to learn how to learn. And let me tell you, the learning curve was steep. I started with what’s called contemplative prayer. Most folks know it as meditation. You sit in silence, repeating your mantra in your head over and over again. The World Community for Christian Meditation suggests doing this for 20 minutes twice a day. What I decided to do was attend one of their week long conferences where each day we prayed about 6 times in 20 minute sessions. It was maybe the most grueling 6 days I voluntarily put myself through. Keep in mind I also voluntarily did a 5 day survival school in a swamp, which was more relaxing than this conference. But let me tell you, after that week I was a lot more comfortable meditating. For lent this past year I meditated every day at least once for twenty minutes, often twice.
My second experience was a few months ago when I attended Brian Zahnd’s Prayer School. Two weeks ago Mike handed out his morning prayer liturgy. It takes about 20 minutes. It’s reciting mostly the same prayers every morning with a little rotation, as well as a some time factored in for your own individual prayers and meditation. He challenged us to do this every day for 6 weeks. And I did. This too was quite a commitment. Especially since I added an extra 15 minutes of silent meditation because that’s what I was used to. I had to find an extra 45 minutes a day to pray. I had to sacrifice doing other things I wanted to do to spend time with God.
Now what did all this time and effort do for me? It profoundly changed me. I said the prayer of confession every day, and you wouldn’t believe it, but I felt less guilt, which freed me from that paralyzing tendency of ours to look back with a woulda, coulda shoulda attitude. I prayed the prayer of St. Francis every day which says “O divine master grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console” and would you believe it I started listening to those around me more closely. And perhaps most significantly I sat with God for 20 minutes. I just sat, in complete silence, knowing that if God is everywhere than God is sitting right next to me. And that was a profound reality to know. I mean we know that God is everywhere right? We know it cognitively, in our heads. But I began to know it in my heart. That doesn’t leave you. God didn’t walk away once I was done praying. God stayed with me everywhere I went, and I felt it. If God is always with me, even when I’m scared. Even when I’m sad, or angry. Even if I don’t feel God at all, God is still with me. And if God is with me, what do I have to fear?
In 1967 the great Catholic theologian Karl Rahner wrote “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all.” Now, the most basic definition I can give you for mysticism is that which relates to union with the divine, which on the surface doesn’t necessarily scream relevant.
And yet, our present moment is filled with anxiety, with fear. We are scared of so many things. Our politicians exploit it, marketing campaigns capitalize on it. We distract ourselves from both our internal and external problems with constant stimulation from screens of all sizes. We blame others or other groups for problems, we store up possessions, refusing to live a life of abundance, we chase after whatever advertisers convince us will make us happy.
Now I want to be very clear. You might be hearing that I am getting more “spiritual” with all this praying. But spiritual certainly doesn’t mean other-worldly. Getting closer to God doesn’t mean ascending to heaven or running away from the world. The kind of praying I’m talking about made me more aware of the God who is here, among us, in the world, in my neighbors (even the one whose baby won’t stop crying), in those who are struggling and suffering. It started to affect how I lived my life. God was with me two weeks ago in Morocco, and so I sought out women owned collectives to buy my trinkets instead of whatever was convenient because that seemed like something God would be pleased with. However, as many of us know buying stuff only makes us happy until we see another shiny new thing we want. It isn’t a long-term solution to happiness.
But if my happiness isn’t to be found in stuff, where can I find it? Well that question brings us to our scripture reading this morning.
“Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding…for her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold.
How do I increase happiness in my life? Our writer says not in more silver and gold but in wisdom, and understanding. And where can I find this wisdom and understanding? Our scripture continues:
The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens
So what do we do? We seek the wisdom of God. We seek it through spending time with God, we seek it through prayer. Our passage this morning ends with:
My child, do not let these escape from your sight: keep sound wisdom and prudence and they will be life for your soul…
If you sit down, you will not be afraid; when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet. Do not be afraid of sudden panic for the Lord will be your confidence and will keep your foot from being caught.
These are problems of today, and problems of the future. Fear, sudden panic. Where do I find my confidence, my happiness, how do I keep my foot from being caught to use the author’s metaphor?
What we have as Christians is a God who, time and time again, says ‘fear not.’ Our God is a god of hope, of love, of peace. There is a collective fear, a collective anxiety amongst Christians that our numbers are shrinking, that the Church needs more young families, more youth or we’ll die out. We talk about how we need to stay relevant, how we can appeal to young people. And in all this anxiety we forget that we have, from what I can see, the best alternative narrative to the one we’re fed in this culture. Faith, belief, union with God won’t obliterate fear or sin in our world, but it’ll certainly make it much less frightening, and it’ll give us the courage we need to face the day with hope.
You know what all the church growth stuff says now? Having a great welcoming system, a state of the art nursery, moving music, fantastic youth programming, sexy advertising and blah blah blah I could go on. Sure, all that stuff is absolutely important, but churches don’t grow through programs, or advertising. Not even through great worship experiences. Churches grow when the staff and members have God in their lives, and they naturally and appropriately share what that means for them with others. But that doesn’t just happen on its own.
Paul Stifler, a former pastor at my home church in Western Springs, was the most authentic mystic I’ve ever met. He had the ability to walk into a room and immediately the anxiety would dissipate. It was like nothing I had ever seen. The man had an unbelievably close relationship with God, and I wanted to be like him. But he wasn’t born that way. As Mike and I have mentioned before, the famous 3rdcentury theologian Tertullian wrote “Christians are made, not born.” Paul was the way he was because of decades of spiritual discipline. Decades of spending time with God in prayer. As a high schooler I was drawn to him. I wanted to be in church not because of a cool, new wave worship space, or because it had the cool kids youth program, or because of great guest speakers. I was drawn to him because he modeled what it meant to be healthy Christian. He wasn’t anxious, or angry, or dissatisfied with life. And when you talked to him you knew he was truly listening to you because he knew the divine speaks through everyone, and that everyone as a child of God is worth listening to and loving.
If we want to spread the good news, if we want to change the world we have to start with ourselves. It starts with making our beds, and it starts with daily prayer. Each one of us is a spokesperson for Union Church, or perhaps even more importantly Christianity, and for our God. And if we haven’t taken the time to get to know God, then it will be tough to represent someone whom we don’t know very well. God wants to spend time with each and every one of us, but we have to make that happen. We have to set the time aside.
Prayer has changed my life in profound ways through the commitments I made. My friends, my family, the staff here at the church all have noticed a difference, and a positive one at that. And I want to invite you to make a commitment to strengthen your relationship with God. It doesn’t have to be 20 minutes of silent mediation or 45 minutes of prayers every day, but I hope you commit to something. God misses you. And the funny part about strengthening your relationship with God is that the rest of your relationships tend to follow. Your relationships with your family, your community, yourself, even the world will improve. But if I’ve learned anything so far, it’s that God can’t do it for us. We, you and I, have to want to and commit to making that change. Amen.
May the God of peace and love
comfort you when you hurt
Sustain you while you rest
And send you forth into the world
Doing works of justice and mercy
Knowing you are a beloved child of God
Just the way you are. Amen.