This past week I had the fortune of spending several days with clergy colleagues at our annual clergy conference in Cape May, New Jersey. This year the conference took on a special significance as it is the first we've been able to reconvene for a time like this in the past two years due to the pandemic.
The purpose of the days were, of course, to cover the necessary business items, but also to inspire and provide a healthy space for reflection in the wake of the busy season of Holy Week and Easter. The backdrop of the cool beach, devoid of its summer time inhabitants, provided the idyllic space for contemplation and prayer. There is something about an offseason beach that I absolutely love and rarely get to experience. There is a rugged beauty and harshness as icy waves crash into untarnished sand and jagged rocks and the primal wind sends shivers down the spine. I'm obsessed with it. There is something innately human about the experience - both beautiful and harsh. But what I especially loved about my times in solitude on that beach was its emptiness. Not just due to its lack of tourists but also due to the terrain and the activity of a beach. Sand sprawled, waves crashed, gulls squawked, and I, clearly the outsider to the setting, could do nothing but stand my ground against the whipping winds and become subject to the environment. I was powerless to it - empty in my ability to control the whims of the sea and the sand.
The content of my day to day life, and indeed the lives of most modern adults, is rarely so raw and wild. Generally my days are structured and ordered to ensure a certain level of predictability and control. Even my prayer life, a vital part of my vocation, is structured and ordered in particular ways. As I write this I sit in my study and am surrounded by my books, art, and other resources, intended to aid my prayer life. I deeply love my books of course, especially scripture and my prayer books. However, what I found on that beach, in the space for reflection, is that prayer is not an activity that requires us to jump through a complex series of hoops (and by the way some of them are on fire) nor does prayer require all the correct resources. Prayer is so often about subjecting ourselves to the raw and wild winds of the spirit. Open, empty, and subject to the groans of creation itself.
Romans 8:26 says that "the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words." In Eugene Peterson's translation, the message, it reads, "The moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans."
I don't know how each of you pray or where each of you find your prayer lives today. But my prayer for you is that in your moments of weakness and vulnerability, you may find the truth and strength of the Holy Spirit interceding on your behalf in the groans of creation.
As I sat on that wild beach in Cape May this past week, seeking for the words to pray for our congregation, in the midst of the relentless wind and crashing waves, these words of blessing and petition came to mind and I jotted them down as a written prayer. I hope they may be a blessing for your prayer life as well:
This is all I need
This is all I want
I do not have anything of substance
That I might offer
Only the will to allow
The folding waves of the Ocean
And the raging winds of creation
To envelope me in presence
May the groans of creation
When the loudness of my being