A sermon about prayer

Occasionally I look at the parish profiles of churches that are looking for a new rector. These parishes list in order the duties and responsibilities they wish their next priest to focus upon. Sometimes the top section is about preaching, sometimes about church growth, sometimes about administration.

But one of the duties and responsibilities I see fairly often somewhere on that list is this one: teaching people to pray.

Now these are Episcopal churches, and of course you all know that we pray a lot in church whenever we gather for worship. We pray from the beginning -with the opening collect-to the end, as we offer thanksgiving after receiving communion. We pray through the prayers of the people, the prayer of confession, and the whole of our Eucharist is a prayer, from The Lord be With you to the great Amen. There is even a prayer within a prayer in the Eucharistic prayer - the prayer we heard Jesus teach his disciples today, the Lord’s Prayer. The one that assumes that we are in community with one another and God, that assumes we need forgiveness, that asserts our dependence upon God for all that we need. The prayer that many people know by heart even if they haven’t been to church in forty years.

During the week, those who try to keep the daily rhythm of prayers going in the monastic tradition also pray the offices - morning prayer and evening prayer and maybe also noon prayer and compline.

And that’s just our Prayer Book tradition. Some folks also practice contemplative or centering prayer, which is resting in silence before God, or lectio divina - a way of praying the scriptures. People use prayer beads and rosaries and walk the labyrinth.

Bookstores, including the one at the Cathedral of St Philip, abound with books of prayers for women, Celtic prayers, prayers of the desert fathers and mothers, prayers for just about any group or any occasion. The esteemed Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann published a book a couple of years ago called Prayers for a Privileged People.

And yet, many people say they want to be taught how to pray.

I am actually not surprised by this. I’ve often wanted to learn how to pray, too, even though I already do a lot of praying. Some of us - probably all of us - have noticed that our prayers don’t always seem to be answered.
Some of us have even experienced that when we asked for a fish we got a snake.
Some of us may have heard that if God doesn’t answer our prayers, it must be because we aren’t praying the right way. We might have heard that God does not hear the prayers of sinners or the unrighteous. Some of us have had the experience of praying for something fervently - for a loved one to get well, for abuse to stop, for a war to end, for the gift of a child. But the loved one did not get well, the abuse did not end, war goes on endlessly taking lives and shattering families, no child is conceived.

We know that God loves us, we know that we are supposed to pray, and so when we do not see our prayers answered, we figure it must be our fault. We must not have prayed the right way, we must not have prayed hard enough, we must have offended God.

Because we don’t want to wonder, does God even hear our prayers? Or does God hear them but decide to ignore them? Is God not powerful enough to answer our prayers? Which seems like treachery to speak out loud. What kind of God do we have then?

It’s better that it be our fault somehow.

I don’t pretend to know the mind of God. I don’t know why some people are cured and some are not. But it wounds me to the core to hear someone say that they didn’t pray the right way or didn’t pray hard enough and that’s why their daughter died or their husband left them or their mom’s cancer wasn’t cured or their dad didn’t come home from the war. The God I know does not have a plan that includes deliberately taking mothers or fathers away from their children or a plan that this person should suffer while that one does not.

I also believe that Jesus would not have taught us to pray if God doesn’t hear our prayers. We often see Jesus praying in the Gospels, from his baptism, throughout his ministry,and even as he was dying on the cross. Jesus not only teaches us the Lord’s Prayer here in Luke and similarly in Matthew, but also frequently tells his followers in John that if we ask God for anything in Jesus’ name, God will grant our request. How the request is actually granted is sometimes a mystery, I well know. All I know about that is that God brings life out of death.

I also believe that we sometimes have a pretty narrow view of what prayer really is. This goes with the part of us that believes that we have to pray the right way in order for our prayers to be heard, like having to put the correct change into a vending machine to get the product we really want. Or that prayer is just about asking for something: In seminary, a small group of us students gathered in the chapel for good old Prayer Book morning prayer, and some folks from other denominations complained that the “prayer part” of morning prayer only lasted for five minutes. They didn’t have an understanding that the collects from the prayer book, some of which people have been praying for hundreds of years, or the psalms, which people have been praying for thousands of years, counted as prayer.

If I were teaching people how to pray, I think first of all I would want to say that prayer is whatever we say or think or sing - aloud or held in our hearts - that we want to be in conversation with God about, including saying thank you, which we don’t seem to do much.

(Notice during the prayers of the people, we have plenty of intercessions and petitions to offer but there’s a lot of silence when we offer time for thanksgivings.)

Prayer is however we connect to God, both in offering up something to God and also listening for God to offer something to us. When we set aside time to be with God, perhaps in silence, perhaps in community, perhaps with words, for ten seconds or thirty minutes, that’s prayer.

Sometimes I don’t know what to pray for, so I just say a person’s name or name a situation to God, while I’m in the shower or driving down the street or sitting in church or whenever I want to say, again, “God, here is something I think has gone wrong. Here is someone I know who is hurting. Here is someone who is in need.” Sometimes I don’t know the person’s name, but I figure God does. Sometimes I don’t say anything, I just listen.

Sometimes I see people standing over others to pray for them; sometimes we lay hands on one another in prayer. Sometimes we say exactly what we want: healing, love, brokenness repaired, crisis averted. Sometimes we say we don’t know what we should want - can we pray for a good death, is it time for the hurting to stop by way of separation or ending of relationship? Might we pray for the strength to stop doing something that is hurtful to others or to ourselves? We might just say, God, we are confused and hurt and don’t know what to do or what to ask for, but here we are in your presence needing help.

We might even say that we are angry that the world seems so broken and that our loved ones are hurting or that we are in pain ourselves. I am sure God can take those prayers, just as God listened to Job, just as God heard the psalmist cry out for God to hurry up and do something.

The writer Anne Lamott says in her book Traveling Mercies that the two best prayers she knows are “Help me, help me, help me” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” She also sends out prayers by way of what she calls God’s inbox, which is the top drawer of her nightstand. She writes a person’s name down on a piece of paper, say a person she doesn’t like but would like to learn to appreciate
and be kind to, and she puts the paper in God’s inbox and waits for something to happen.

Sometimes, if something doesn’t happen for a while or if things seem to be getting worse, she’ll open up the inbox and take the paper out and put an exclamation point after the person’s name and put it back in the drawer for God’s further consideration.

And what she believes about this system is that whatever else is happening, cosmically or otherwise, God is working on her while she is waiting. She knows the name is on the paper in the inbox. She knows she wants - she needs - something to happen, but she is willing to wait and see what fruit is borne of her prayer. And she says that after a while, she often finds herself doing what she hoped she would do, being nicer, understanding someone, forgiving someone.

I like that idea, of God’s inbox. And I know that while being patient and waiting is hard, we who live in the hope of God don’t just wait passively. We wait with the expectation that God is working to bring something forth, something beyond our own imagining. It’s an active waiting, when we tell God our troubles, ask for help, cry out for justice, beg for peace, knowing that even now God is working to bring justice and peace and healing and strength to fruition somehow.

And while we wait, we learn to let anxieties go, to let worries go, to give our troubles over to God to shoulder for a while. Living a life of prayer gives us the opportunity to be worked on by God this way.

Prayer is not tricky. There isn’t a catch. Know that there are many ways to pray and that God hears all of our prayers, the well-written ones, the sung ones, the choked up ones, the ones we cannot bring ourselves to say out loud, the ones for others, the ones for ourselves, the ones where we don’t even know what we are asking for.

Use beads, walk, light a candle, shout hallelujah, sing, cry, sit in silence. If you mean for it to be prayer, then it is.


Lita Brown (gegegb@gmail.com) said…
I have never posted a comment on a blog before, but I wanted you to know how much I look forward to reading your blog. I loved your entries in Forward Day by Day in July. I was particularly interested in reading your entries because of my feeling about St. Stephen's. My very special aunt and uncle, Shirley and Joe Spruil, were longtime members. In fact Uncle Joe died in Rector Rabie Edward's office many years ago. And my brother and his wife, Bill and Marilyn Huffman, live in Richmond and are members of St.Mary's. But now that I have visited your blog I find many other connections! I have just finished Rowan Williams BEING CHRISTIAN and love his last chapter on prayer. I am one of those who is working on praying! Also I love Ann Lamott and I think I remember hearing that she had visited your church. And the final connection I feel with you and your blog are your beautiful photographs. I too love to take macros of flowers, and of course, pictures of grandchildren as well. Sorry that this comment is so long, but I had too much to say! Thank you again for your messages in Forward Day by Day and on your blog.
Lita, thank you so much for getting in touch with me. I am very glad to hear that you enjoyed the FDBD entries this summer and your connection with St. Stephen's as well as other things we have in common. It is a blessing to me to hear from people like you - thank you and bless you!