Preached by Rev. Jill Sander-Chali on February 16, 2014, at University United Methodist Church
O God, in the stillness, come meet us. Amen.
Sybil MacBeth writes that “Praying for others is an act of hospitality.” She says that when we pray for others, “It involves opening the door of our hearts and minds and admitting people into our consciousness. We invite them to take up residence for a time and allow them to engage our feelings and thoughts. Like entertaining guests for a weekend, praying for others requires time and energy.”
I love this metaphor that praying for others is like entertaining guests for a weekend. Through prayer, we are inviting those we pray for to live with us for a while. We show hospitality to others by inviting their names, their troubles, their joys into our sacred space of prayer.
There are certainly times when praying for others is something we look forward to. A friend bought a new house and we share her joy by praying a blessing upon the home. A niece or nephew or grandchild is born and we pray for a new life and a new family.
Other times, praying for others is harder because of the emotional energy it requires from us. A colleague is in a car accident and is critically injured. We pray for healing, but there is much uncertainty. There is a fire in a neighbor’s home and all of their possessions are lost.
And then, there are also the times when we don’t want to pray for others because of the broken relationship we may have with that person. This can be on a large scale—some of us may find it difficult to pray for political leaders if we do not agree with their platform or party. But, it can also be very personal—some of us may find it hard to pray for those who have hurt us or wounded in some way.
Jesus shows us radical hospitality just by the way he lives—and he especially challenges us to be radically hospitable with our prayers by praying for others. Though it would be comfortable to assume that he intended prayer to be a time that makes us feel good and happy and that we could just focus on praying for our friends, scripture tells us a different story.
Jesus intends prayer to be healing for us and to help us connect with God and those around us, but sometimes that will mean overcoming challenges and barriers of praying even for people who we don’t like. This is hard. Usually, we don’t even like to think about the people who irk us, the people who hurt us, or the people we dislike or hate. To allow them to enter the sacred space of our prayers is often out of the question. We prefer to avoid our enemies rather than to offer them hospitality by bringing their names into our prayers and sharing life with them even for a brief time.
In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus gives what we now call the Sermon on the Mount. This sermon contains many challenges, but one of them is praying for our enemies. In fact, Jesus starts out this section of scripture by commanding us to love our enemies. He says that if we are only kind to our friends, then we aren’t different than anyone else and as Christians, we are called to a different kind of living where love rules. Jesus says that one way to love our enemies is to pray for them.
In her book, “Praying in Color,” Sybil MacBeth writes of an experience with a neighbor who took Jesus’ challenge in the Sermon on the Mount literally. When Sybil and her husband moved into a new home, this neighbor showed them hospitality by bringing over brownies and by offering things like tools and meals as they got adjusted to their new place. As Sybil learned more about her neighbor, her admiration kept on growing. This neighbor hosted prayer groups in her home and seemed to always be inviting people into her life.
Some time later, Sybil learned even more about her neighbor. When her neighbor’s great-aunt was 94, the great-aunt was raped and murdered when she walked in on a burglary of her apartment. The man responsible was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death. He has been on death row for thirty years and for thirty years, Sybil’s neighor has been praying for him. Those prayers lead her to initiate communication with him. They exchanged letters and she even went to visit him in prison.
Sybil reflects how her neighbor’s hospitality through prayer changed her. She could have remained angry for the violence this man caused. Instead, she chose a different path. Because of the way her prayers have changed her, she now speaks in public against capital punishment.
Her neighbor’s hospitality has also changed the man in prison. He’s not perfect now nor is he a saint, but the neighbor’s encouragement lead him to write and publish poetry. He has been seen by someone as a person worthy of prayers—and that changes others in ways that we cannot fully understand.
Even if we know that Jesus asks us to pray for our enemies, it is a lot easier to pray for the many others in our lives who need prayer than it is to speak the names of our enemies in that sacred space.
Sybil teaches a prayer technique called “praying in color.” This is a technique that can be used in many ways and for many reasons. It can be helpful if you can’t find the words to pray, but you want to connect with God. It can be helpful if your mind tends to wander during prayer. It can be helpful if you promise to pray for others, and then never follow through.
Praying in color is an active form of prayer that is meditative and playful at the same time. It puts us in touch with our child-like side through drawing, coloring, and improvising, but it also connects us with God in a profound way. You don’t have to be good at drawing to enjoy praying in color. People of various artistic abilities have found it to be a helpful way to pray.
First, I want to teach you about the technique. Praying in color involves writing a person’s name, a quality of God, or a life situation on paper and then doodling around it. The doodles can include shapes, colors, or words, whatever comes to your mind. The doodles are a way to allow your mind to wander in a focused way.
You are not judging the person or situation that you are praying for, you are simply holding them close to God through your prayer for that period of time. The gift of this prayer practice is that the visual image stays with you even after you are finished praying. Later in the day, you may see the name of the person you prayed for in your mind’s eye, bathed in the yellows and greens that you colored around him or her. This recollection is also a form of prayer and gives you the opportunity to hold that person close to God once again.
Tom Mitchell put together a wonderful power point that illustrates this prayer practice. I want to show it to you this morning so that you can see what I am trying to describe.
One of the ways we can use this technique of praying in color is to pray for our enemies—to show hospitality to those who we may dislike for some reason.
This morning, we are going to try out this technique and I want to show you and explain what I mean before we get started.
First, you will draw a line to divide your paper in half.
Then, you will write the initials or a code name of the person you consider an enemy but for whom you want to pray on the right hand side of the page. Draw a shape around the name and add decoration doodles as you focus on the person.
On the left hand side of the page, divide the space into three sections. Add labels to each section. The first is “Things to like,” the second is “Thoughts and Feelings,” and the third is “Things to dislike.”
Allow your mind to associate freely and write anything that comes to mind in any of the three categories.
When words are not coming, doodle around the titles and the things you have written as a way of holding this person close to God.
When you are finished say thank you to God for this time of prayer. You may want to hang your prayer drawing in a prominent place where you will see it and bring the person to mind again. Or, doing this prayer exercise may have been challenging enough and you may prefer to put it in a place where you won’t see it again.
So, as you came in this morning, you should have been given a gel pen. If you don’t have one, you will find some at each entrance to the sanctuary. Inside your bulletin, you will find a blank piece of paper.
We are going to spend some time this morning following Jesus’ challenging instruction to pray for our enemies and I want you to try this technique of praying in color. The power point illustration will remain on the projection so that if you forget the technique, you can glance up and remember. But, don’t get too caught up in the details of the instructions. The main thing to remember is to offer hospitality to this person through your time of prayer and to allow your hand to doodle freely.
The gel pen is yours to keep, so I encourage you to take it home and try this practice this week. You may try praying for a friend or a situation. You may try praising God for loving you.
I will leave a time of silence so that each of us can pray in color. After some time, I will close the prayer with a few words.
God, thank you for this time of prayer. Amen.
Copyright 2014, Rev. Jill Sander-Chali
Material for this sermon developed from: Praying in Color: Drawing a New Path to God by Sybil MacBeth, Copyright 2013. All rights reserved. See more at prayingincolor.com