Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
It’s unquestionably a strange and unsettling time we are living through right now. It’s apparently going to last far longer than we’d originally anticipated. And even beyond the odd dimensions of our shared new normal, like social distancing and more isolation in our homes, some of you may be facing additional challenges too. Anxiety or depression. Financial stress. Medical worries. Concern for loved ones.
The spiritual practices I’d originally planned to discuss with you in a more ordinary season of Lent are, for me at least, taking on added significance as we walk through this stressful time together. Between now and next week I’ll be inviting you to share with me some of the practices that are sustaining you in this time so we can learn from one another.
Meanwhile, for today, I’ve been thinking specifically about “tools for prayer.” The phrase comes from the title of the Eugene Peterson book some of us began reading for our Lenten book group earlier this month, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer. Peterson observes that “in the business of being human, … tools are required… Some tools are made of wood, some of metal, some of words. A tool that is made of words is no less a tool than one made of steel. Prayer is a tool that is made, mostly, of words.” Then he argues that “the Psalms are the best tools available for working the faith… People of faith take possession of the Psalms with the same attitude and for the same reason that gardeners gather up rake and hoe on their way to the vegetable patch, and students carry [we’d now say laptops and tablets] as they enter a lecture hall. It is a simple matter of practicality – acquiring the tools for carrying out the human work at hand.” 
In other words, if you’re looking for a way to deepen and enrich your prayer life, it could be as simple as opening the book of Psalms and reading a chapter each day. Or if you find one psalm that is particularly meaningful to you, read it every day for a while, or even multiple times in one sitting. If you don’t have a Bible nearby, reading the psalms is now as easy as typing into the search engine on your phone or your computer: “Psalm 1” or “Psalm 2.” (Spoiler alert: there are 150 in all, so they’ll keep you busy for a while.) The Psalter has been the prayer book of the Jewish people and the prayer book of the Church, both, for thousands of years. Which makes me think our ancestors in faith were onto something. “Therefore since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses,” might we not draw strength and sustenance from that same well?
Certainly Psalm 46 takes on new resonance every time God’s children find themselves in challenging circumstances, as we do again now. “Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change.” “Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change.” How many times a day would it help us to remember that line these days, with all of the changes we’ve been facing and the head-spinning pace at which they’ve been coming at us? Or this line: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble.”
Thanks be to God for the gift of this psalm. Thanks be to God for the person who wrote it thousands of years ago, and for those careful to include it in the biblical canon so we’d have it this many years later, and for the great cloud of witnesses who’ve prayed it over the years. Can you picture their voices joining with yours today? Can you imagine the kinds of trouble they may have been in when they prayed it? These lines would have been prayed by ancient Israelites, and by Jesus and his parents and grandparents. They would have been prayed by his twelve disciples, and by the early church communities we read about in the book of Acts and in Paul’s New Testament letters. And it’s been prayed by millions and millions of voices since, through civil wars and world wars, through famines and financial crises, by people of faith on every continent, in every kind of trouble. If we are struggling to know how to pray right now, psalms like this one can teach us how: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea…The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.” (Psalm 46:1-2, 11)
And while the biblical book of Psalms may be the original prayer book of our faith, there are any number of other prayer tools available to us too. Compilations of prayers by ancient saints and by contemporary authors. Prayer books from different eras and different denominations, devotional booklets, prayers we say together in worship. Whether you are more accustomed to praying extemporaneously, or whether you grew up in a tradition rich with liturgy, all of us can benefit from using prayer tools like these. Like the psalms, these other books of prayers can also help to deepen and enrich our communication with God, teaching us how to pray. Surely that’s true of the powerful prayer called St. Patrick’s Breastplate that I sent out to you in email earlier this week:
I arise today, through
God's strength to pilot me,
God's might to uphold me,
God's wisdom to guide me…
God's hand to guard me,
God's shield to protect me…
Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise…
Meanwhile, did you know that the coronavirus is offering us a new set of prayer tools? Not only in the broader sense, the way crises often do by giving us a fresh set of reasons to lean on God.
Think about that 20 seconds it takes you to wash your hands, and how often you need to do this every day. Did you know that you can say the Lord’s Prayer in 20 seconds? Think about that for a minute. Instead of standing there frustrated by counting off the seconds in your head, or annoyed to be singing “Happy Birthday” or the alphabet song for the hundredth time, use the time to connect yourself to God and to Christians around the globe who are praying the prayer Jesus taught us. “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name…”
Some of you have probably heard that the song “Amazing Grace” also works well for a 20-second hand washing. And just this week I started trying it with the 23rd Psalm since we’ve been memorizing it together at church. Another great option. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul” and so on.
We’re spending a lot of time at our faucets these days, hands soaped up, unable to do anything else. When it comes to prayer tools, it doesn’t get any simpler or more hands-on than that! If you don’t have a favorite prayer or hymn or psalm memorized, no problem – just write out the words on a small piece of paper and tape it to the mirror over your sink. Then think of yourself joined in prayer with others of us in the congregation, and with brothers and sisters in Christ near and far, as you wash and pray, wash and pray, wash and pray throughout the week.
If you need any help accessing the kinds of prayers I’ve mentioned today, don’t hesitate to let me know. I’ll be happy to provide resources for you. Meanwhile, I ask you to consider the prayer tools you rely on these days, whether they are lifelong habits or new disciplines you’ve only begun recently. What helps you feel connected to God? I’ll send out an email asking you to share your favorite spiritual practices with me, and I’ll be honored to pass them along to the rest of the congregation in our sermon for next Sunday.
For remember: the “great cloud of witnesses” that surrounds us as we “run with perseverance” also includes your friends from neighboring pews. We may not be able to sit together at church right now, but we can surely support one another in “the race that is set before us.” Amen?
Let’s pray together:
Gracious God, we thank you. For being a very present help in this time of trouble. For being our refuge and our strength. For surrounding us with a great cloud of witnesses along our respective journeys of faith: witnesses as old as the psalmists, as many as those who’ve prayed to you over thousands of years, as near to us as our brothers and sisters in Christ at Magnolia Presbyterian Church, as new as the next person who teaches us an important lesson or shares a useful tool that helps us connect with you, our loving Creator. Hold us and help us, God. Strengthen us to be your faithful people in the days ahead. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Eugene Peterson, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer, pp. 2-3.