“And When You Pray…”
June 30-July 1, 2012
A note: this summer at our church, we're preaching a series we're calling "Faith questions you were afraid to ask...but your kids weren't." Back in May during a Confirmation class, we had our 6th-8th graders write down any question they wanted about God, faith, the Bible...whatever. What emerged was a set of questions that was so foundational, that got to so much of the important, big stuff--we needed to do something with it, something more than just addressing what we could in a class with just those young people. And so a sermon series was born. We've dealt with how we read Scripture, why bad things happen to good people, angels and demons and the devil, and now we're looking at what prayer is all about.
I’m going to be honest with you. There’s a lot that I don’t know about prayer. There’s a lot that I don’t understand about how it works, about what happens exactly when we pray, about how God answers our prayers. But there’s some things that I have come to believe about prayer through what I’ve read in Scripture and through how I’ve experienced it myself. There’s also some things that I’ve heard about prayer, some fairly common perceptions, that I think are ultimately unhelpful. I’d like to take a look at some of those, and in examining them, maybe together we’ll stumble on some truths in the process.
First, I fully believe that God is not a vending machine. Prayer is not the money we put into the divine pop machine so that we can press the button we want and wait for God to spit out the answer we’ve asked for. Sometimes what we read in Luke gets interpreted that way—that whatever it is we ask for, as long as we do it in the right way or with the right formula of words or with the right heart, God will give us exactly what we ask for. If we were to look at prayer that way, though, who is the one in control? Who is the one pulling the strings? God may be the one doing the answering, but we become the ones in power, as though we had discovered a magic lamp and because we freed the genie, he is bound to do our will. In a very real way, we end up putting ourselves in God’s place. That’s not to say that God doesn’t want us to ask. The Greek word in our Gospel lesson that is for some reason translated as “persistent,” really means “shameless.” God wants us to ask, God wants us to be shameless in our asking, God wants to hear the cries and desires of our hearts…and why? I think it’s because God wants us to remember that we are completely and utterly dependent not on ourselves, but on God.
This isn’t some sort of power trip—God doesn’t have a Napoleon complex. But when we are offering our petitions to God, when we are shameless in our asking, we are being drawn into a relationship—the relationship of loving grace that God wants for and with each of us. We are assured that God hears our prayers. Sometimes, the answer is yes. Sometimes, the answer is no. Often, the answer is “not now.” Is there a specific, divine reason behind every response to prayer? This sort of goes into some of the issues that Pastor Tobi has been preaching about. I do not believe that God causes evil and suffering—I do not believe that there is necessarily a divine purpose behind when bad things happen to good people—but I do believe in a God of transformation. I do believe in a God of presence. I do believe that God hears our prayers, that God listens to our prayers, and that God is present beside us in the midst of whatever it is we’re praying for. And when we’re shameless in our asking, we are more fully drawn into the loving arms of God’s embrace.
Second, prayer is not about having all the right, fancy, churchy words. In fact, as we hear in our passage from Romans, sometimes we don’t even have the words at all. Think of a time in your life when words failed you. Sometimes, it’s a time of joy, or beauty, or wonder. I think of when my children were born as a time like that. Sometimes, it’s our time of deepest sorrow, or fear. I still remember the numbing grief that gripped me when I got the phone call years ago telling me that my mentor Larry Meyer had died. At times like this, whenever it is that our brains and our words fail us, Romans 8 tells us that we still have the God of presence with us, the Holy Spirit interceding on our behalf when we don’t have the will or the words or the strength or even the faith to pray on our own. I’ve told our middle and high school youth that sometimes, the most authentic prayer we can pray is simply three words: “Oh my God.” When they are said as a prayer, when they become our address to God and not just simply a throwaway phrase, they have the power to say in three words what we wouldn’t be able to encompass in an entire book.
In Matthew’s account of when Jesus teaches the disciples what we now call the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus also reminds us that prayer isn’t about needing to say the right things in the right way. He says not to pray like the hypocrites do—at the time, a hypocrite was an actor who wore a mask, quite literally someone who was “two-faced.” So Jesus didn’t have anything against big words or prepared prayers—in fact, he gave his disciples the model of the Lord’s Prayer to help them. Prayer can be spontaneous, or it can be prepared. Neither is more or less real than the other. There are ancient, beautiful prayers that the church has prayed for thousands of years—sharing the same words with those who have gone before us, knowing that there are those who will come after us who will also share those words—what an amazing picture of the kingdom of God through time. What a way for us to ground ourselves in this thread of faith that runs across the centuries. At the same time, spontaneous prayer speaks to where and when we find ourselves—as the Spirit moves, sometimes the words just flow and we are for that time intimately connected with God and those around us. What Jesus is warning against is praying one thing while your heart is in another place entirely. Using fancy words isn’t bad praying if what you’re trying to do is to be drawn more deeply into communion with God—it is bad praying if what you’re trying to do is impress the person next to you. What we see again is that prayers become about relationship—our relationship with God.
That relationship between us and God form the centerpoint around which the Biblical psalms revolve. That’s what the vast majority of the psalms are, after all—prayers addressed directly to God. Prayers of praise, of thanksgiving, of petition, of fear, of anger, of sorrow. The psalmists sometimes get angry with God. They sometimes tell God exactly what they think of God. They sometimes doubt and wonder. They sometimes are in awe of God’s goodness, and sometimes question that same goodness. You want a guide to authentic prayer that covers the wide range of human emotion and experience? Use the psalms as a prayer devotional and guide. It’ll knock your socks off.
Our prayers are also about our relationship with our neighbor and with all of creation. When we pray, WE are transformed. Did you notice that Jesus doesn’t begin with the phrase “my Father,” but rather “Our Father.” Prayer isn’t merely individual exercise. It is inherently communal. It forms community. It is meant to be something that is done together. And it draws us together in the very act of doing it. When we pray for our neighbor, we become invested in their well-being. When we pray for our enemy, we can no longer dehumanize them. When we pray for the world, we are empowered to become better stewards. When we pray for peace, when we pray for an end to hunger or a cure for a disease or that our children will be well or that God’s kingdom come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven, God draws us into that which we are praying for. We become part of the story, part of God’s mission.
There’s a man named Gordon Atkinson who lives in San Antonio. For years, he was a preacher in a small church—now he does independent web design. He is an incredible writer—I discovered him online where he wrote a blog called “Real Live Preacher.” He had a book published by the same name, a book of vignettes about the intersections of life and faith that he encountered. Gordon’s a dreamer, a wonderer, a faithful doubter, and a firm believer that when it comes to the really big stuff, the stuff of life or death or God or love or...prayer...sometimes the deepest truths are revealed through story rather than through rote explanation. That’s why the Bible isn’t mostly a book of theological exposition—it’s mostly a book of stories. Stories and prayers. This is one of his stories, one that speaks to what I think are some of the deepest truths about prayer. It speaks to our relationship with God, our relationship with each other, and how God uses our prayers to open our own hearts.
These are Gordon's words:
What's the weirdest thing I ever prayed for in church?
A hermit crab.
A little girl raised her hand and asked if the whole congregation would pray for her sick hermit crab. I don't remember exactly what was wrong with this crab. I don't know how you determine that a hermit crab is sick in the first place. She seemed pretty sure he was sick, so we took her at her word.
Among those who bowed their heads that day was Roy, whose father died when he was nine. This was back in the Great Depression. His mother was left alone to scratch out an existence for herself and her two small boys there in the flatlands of the Texas Panhandle.
Chris was there that morning, too. Her father abused her for years and years, and no one in her family ever came to her rescue. As I recall, she used to sit in church when she was a little girl and pray that he would stop. I sneaked a glance at Chris and saw her head go down.
There were others with similar stories. The room was full of people who had seen plenty of hard times in their lives and done plenty of praying.
It's funny how a preacher's mind can wander, right in the middle of a sermon or even just before a prayer. I couldn't help but think of Julie, the little girl I prayed for years ago. She was five years old and had vaginal cancer. I prayed first that she would be healed and later that she would die in peace. The silence was deafening. After she died in great pain, I said to God, “I guess that's a ‘no', huh?”
All the heads bowed except mine. I was left standing at the front, wondering how you pray for a hermit crab in the presence of a man who prayed that his daddy would live. How do you pray for a hermit crab while looking at the bowed head of a woman who prayed that her daddy would stop?
And what about Julie, God? Exactly what was going on with that situation? Maybe it's like what I read about the butterfly causing a hurricane on the other side of the planet. Maybe you have complex reasons for letting things develop freely, but what grand scheme would have been derailed if you had let her die with no pain? She was five, God. Five!
If letting Julie die in peace was outside your self-imposed limits, what will you do for a hermit crab that we hear is a little under the weather?
Like I said, it's funny how a preacher's mind can wander. The people in my church have gotten used to the occasional pause before I begin to pray. This was one of the longer ones.
You know what got me started praying? The bowed heads. Roy's head and Chris' head. All of them. Rows and rows of bowed heads, waiting expectantly. Toward the back I saw the head of the little girl who asked for this prayer. Her hands were clasped in front of her so seriously. It was a precious sight, and my heart was filled with love for these people. I was like the Grinch looking down on the little town of Whoville and having a stunning revelation of his own.
“Maybe prayer,” I thought, “Means a little bit more.”
Here were people who would pray for a crab in church. They loved this little girl, and she felt comfortable enough to share the concerns of her heart. Even in the midst of their own unanswered prayers, they were big enough and small enough to pray with their little friend for her hermit crab.
Suddenly, I wanted to be like these people. I wanted to be praying with them, and I didn't care if it made sense or not. I said to myself, “The heck with it. I'm praying for the darn crab.”
And I did. And it felt good.
When the prayer was over, all the heads came up and no one knew what had happened to me. As far as they knew, a kid had asked for prayer and we had prayed. Business as usual.
But it wasn't business as usual for me. Whatever I was praying for, I got what I needed. And I did not miss the irony either. The one leading the prayer knew less about praying than almost anyone in the room, including the little girl who loved her hermit crab.
That little girl was my daughter, by the way. The second of three sisters. The crab was named “Pinchy,” and he lived in our house all the days of his life. And I am a man who has become a child again.
I tell you, I will pray for just about anything.
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church