In this coming Sunday’s gospel reading Luke 11:1-13, Jesus’ disciples ask him to teach them to pray. As a pastor I have been asked to teach people to pray. Each time I have been asked to teach someone to pray I have cringed inside because I do not feel up to the task. For some reason the old hymn “I Come to the Garden Alone” keeps playing in my mind. I keep telling it to, “Shush!” so that I might hear the “bath qol” but the daughter of a sound eludes me. Below is a portion of a sermon I preached a couple of years ago on the subject of prayer. If nothing else, it reminds me to shush!
I began this sermon by asking the congregation to sing from memory the old hymn: I Come to the Garden Along. Feel free to sing it to yourself!
I think my earliest memory of prayer is a distant memory I have of skipping along the sidewalk chanting a familiar refrain: “Don’t step on a crack or you’ll break your mother’s back.” Most of us can remember a moment from our childhood when a superstition was instilled in us that caused us to perform some ritual in order to placate the unseen power that could determine our fate. Whether it was avoiding cracks, or walking under ladders or black cats, we were trained from an early age to believe that there were powers out there that could determine our future.
I don’t remember whether or not I was trying to avoid a crack in the sidewalk or not, but I do remember going ass over tea-kettle and smashing my skull on the ground. By the time I reached my mother, I was still crying that soundless cry that emanates from a kid when they are in so much pain and shock that even though their mouths are wide open no sound can be heard. I was really small, perhaps 3 or 4, but I have a vague memory of my mother shouting, “Ah holy Jesus”. Now whether this was a curse, a cry for help, or just my Irish mother punctuating a moment in her Irish way, I remember hoping that I was not going to die from the pain that was emanating from my skull. So, right then and there I asked God not only to save me but to stop the pain.
After that, my remembered prayers began to take the shape of bedtime requests to take care of Mommy & Daddy, Nanny & Granda and all the other loved ones in my life. I remember thinking that if I forgot to name one or the other of my loved ones, terrible things would happen to them, so I worked hard to make sure they all got a mention. I remember once being so angry with my brother that I deliberately left him out of my prayers. But just before I fell asleep, I had a vision his nose bleeding as it often did, only this time because I had not named him in my prayers God let his nose go on bleeding and worried that I might be the cause of my little brother bleeding to death, I got out of bed and down on my knees to pray for my brother.
I never went to church as a child so what I learned of prayer and of God and Jesus came from my parents, grand-parents and various aunts and uncles. The over-riding impression I got from these impromptu lessons was that God was to be feared, appealed to, and feared some more. God functioned as a kind of grand disciplinarian in the sky; a kind of boogie man who would visit all kinds of tragedy upon me and upon my loved ones if I did not behave. God was definitely an old man with a white beard who spoke with an upper-class English accent. Sometimes when I wasn’t busy being afraid of God, God functioned as a sort of Santa Claus, or as I knew him, Father Christmas, who could bring me all sorts of presents if I prayed just right.
Jesus on the other hand was kind of like my buddy. Jesus was the one who I prayed to when I was too afraid to pray to his Father, or when I thought what I was praying about wasn’t important enough for his Father to bother with. Jesus was far more friendly than his Father and way more understanding. But both of them, Jesus and especially his Father, had the power to bestow upon me anything I asked for and when they said no, it was clearly for my own good. God had a plan and it was up to me to figure out what that plan was and be happy about it.
Later, when, as I believed then, God’s plan led me into the church at the tender age of 15, my prayers became more formal. As I learned to read my bible and pray every day, pray ever day so that I would grow, grow, grow. I began my days with prayer, and tried to remember to issue up little prayers during the day, and then continued praying before falling asleep at night. Each Sunday I would begin by going to the garden alone. Literally, I would go outside for a walk and sing to myself. My song was a sort of prayer to get God’s attention and then I would prayer about all the traumatic stuff that a teenager prays about. Then I’d faithfully go to church and there I would participate in the prayers of the church, which for the most part were a slightly more formal version of the prayers I’d prayed in the garden alone.
Over the years there were disappointments when God failed to do what I had faithfully asked God to do, but I was willing to believe that God had a plan, and one day I’d understand why God had said, “no” and I’d be grateful to God for having loved me enough to say, ‘no’ to me. There were times when the suffering of loved ones caused me to shake my fist at God in anger. But my faith never wavered. I figured that God must like a good argument, cause the bible was full of stories about people arguing with God, so I walked, with him and I talked with him, and he told me I was his own, and from time to time, I shouted at him, and I argued with him, and I cried with him, and always knew that no matter what I could always go to the garden alone while the dew was still on the roses.
Looking back on it know there was a distinct pattern to my prayers. I would talk and God would listen. God never got a word in edgeways. I would talk and God would listen. God would answer me one way or another, but I would talk and then God would listen. Church reinforced this model. In the beginning the pastor would talk, while God listened. Sometimes the congregation would talk, while God listened. So many words. Too many words. Words that made my being cry “Shush!”
These days my personal prayer life is non-verbal as I listen for the voice of the ONE we call God. In the scriptures the voice of God is named in the Hebrew as the “bath qol” or “bat cole,” which literally translates as “the daughter of a sound”. The daughter of a sound. I’d always imagined the voice of God as a deep baritone booming from on high. But our ancestors imagined the voice of God as the daughter of a sound.
Elijah hears the Bat Cole when the presence of God passes by him and the Hebrew for daughter of a sound has been translated as “a still small voice” or the translation that I love, is Elijah heard the sound of the “thinnest silence.” The voice of God, the daughter of a sound is the sound of the thinnest silence, a still small voice, clearly beyond the boundaries of speech.
I know that some of you have heard the bat cole. I also know that in order to hear the daughter of a sound, the thinnest silence, the still small voice, you must begin by listening. I suspect that if all you can hear is the booming baritone from on high you might miss the thinnest silence of the daughter of a sound. Over the years, I have come to believe that if we listen we will hear the bat cole. For the God I AM coming to know is the God who lives and breathes in with and through us. The daughter of a sound can be heard if we listen.
When I was a child, I remember being handed a large seashell. I was told that if I put the seashell up against my ear I would hear the sound of the ocean. As I grew up, I learnt the that the sound that I was hearing was not actually the ocean. I learned this the day that I cupped my hand over my ear and heard the very same sound. I learned that it was a sound that emanated from deep inside of me. While I still love the notion that I might be able to hear the ocean, I am even more intrigued that I can hear a sound that emanates from deep within.
Sometimes when I can’t for the life of me, hear the Bat Cole, when the still small, daughter of a sound eludes me no matter how hard I’ve been trying to listen, I will cup my hands over my ears and then that sound that emanates from deep with in will help me to hear the Bat Cole. And so before we leave the garden on the shore, before we leave behind the booming, tones of God as he walks and talks with us, we need to pause, take some time to listen. Cup your hands over your ears if you need to be reminded of the sound that emanates from deep within.
Listen to your life. Listen to what happens to you, because it is through what happens to you that God speaks. It’s often difficult to hear, but its there, powerfully, memorably, unforgettably in ways that will nourish, ground and sustain us as we wade in the waters of life.
This week, I encourage you to linger on the shore, only keep your mouths shut, and listen. Listen for the daughter of a sound, who will speak to you in the thinnest of silence. And the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known. Shuuusssssshhh!