Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord teach us to pray. . .”
I was among those who publicly stated, in response to the mass shooting in Las Vegas, that “thoughts and prayers are not enough.” Since then, I can’t stop thinking about prayer, and what it means to say that in certain situations prayer is insufficient. Perhaps it isn’t that prayer itself is insufficient, but rather our understanding of prayer.
I’ve been reading a book on prayer, Talking with God: What to Say When You Don’t Know How to Pray by Adam Weber, at United Methodist pastor in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, whom I heard speak l at the Church of the Resurrection’s Leadership Institute last week. What I love is his honesty about the struggles of prayer, his own and that of those who dare to confess to him that they don’t know how to pray.
“We throw ‘praying’ around a lot,” Weber says. “A tragedy will happen and we say ‘We’re praying for you,’ and ‘Our thoughts and prayers are with you.” So obviously, everybody else knows how to pray, right? It’s almost like an acquaintance that you’ve hung out with time and again. After a certain point, it’s too late to ask what the person’s name is without its being awkward. I feel like that’s what it is with prayer. It’s like “I have no idea, but I can’t ask the question.”
I’m going to devote this Sunday’s sermon to the topic of prayer, with special focus on how we pray for others in times of crisis, both personal and societal. For now, here are Scripture passages and resources for your own reflection.
When I spoke this week of the insufficiency of prayer alone, I was thinking of the New Testament passage found in the Letter of James which warns us against faith without works:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?. . . If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them ‘Go in peace; keep warm and and eat your fill’ and yet do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
James 2: 14-17
And also the words of the prophet Amos, through which God addresses the people of Israel:
I hate, I despise your festivals and take no delight in your solemn assemblies, . . .Take away from me the noise of your song; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters and the righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Amos 5:21, 23-24.
But I do not mean to disparage prayer as understood in the most intimate way we converse with God.
When Jesus’ disciples asked him how they were to pray, he encouraged the most simple, intimate conversation, and suggested words we refer as the Lord’s prayer. Certainly that is where we can all begin, as our Presiding Bishop encouraged us in his response to the Las Vegas shootings.
St. Paul also encourages us in prayer, saying we needn’t worry about finding the right words:
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. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
Such was a prayer that Martin Luther King, Jr. prayed during the loneliest days of the Montgomery Bus Boycott:
Lord, I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.
And here are words from the theologian Marjorie Suchocki on the power of prayer from both God’s perspective and ours:
We are taught in our tradition that God bids us to pray, invites us to pray, inspires us to pray. God’s call to us to pray is neither whimsical nor irrelevant to God’s work in the world. It is not a manner of receiving compliments, nor is it a reminder service informing God of what needs to be done in the world. Rather prayer is God’s invitation to us to be willing partners in the great dance of bringing a world into being that reflects something of God’s character.
Can it be that God needs us to pray when God needs resources, when God needs more to work with to bring about God’s kingdom? “Christ has no body here but ours,” St. Teresa reminds us. “Ours are the hands with which he works; ours the feet on which he moves; ours the eyes with which looks upon this world with kindness.”