Prayer 201

by | Oct 15, 2017

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 4:4

Once more Jesus spoke to the people in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”
Matthew 22:1-14

Good morning, St. Alban’s Church!  I’m thrilled to be in worship with you today. If you are a guest among us, let me be the first to welcome you in the name of this extraordinary conversation.

We’ve been hearing a particular phrase quite a bit in public speech: Thoughts and prayers. Thoughts and prayers.

  • The people in Houston affected by the floods of Hurricane Harvey are in our thoughts and prayers.

  • The people in Florida suffering from the storms of Hurricane Irma are in our thoughts and prayers.

  • The people in Puerto Rico devastated by the ravages of Hurricane Maria are in our thoughts and prayers.

  • The people in Las Vegas gunned down while attending a country music festival are in our thoughts and prayers.

  • The people in California who have lost their homes and cannot find their loved ones due to fires raging uncontrollably are in our thoughts and prayers.

I was among those who publically said, in the wake of the Las Vegas shootings that thoughts are prayers are an insufficient response. Since then, I can’t stop thinking about prayer, and what it means to say that in certain situations prayer is insufficient. But I wonder, on further reflection, if it isn’t prayer that is insufficient, but rather our  understanding of prayer.

Thus I find myself on a quest to explore as best I can the meaning, the value, and the purpose of prayer.  

Last week, in another congregation of the diocese. I touched upon what we might call the fundamentals of prayer–basic definitions and practices. By way of definition, I suggested that prayer is the word we use to describe all ways we are in relationship and communication with God, some of them conscious, many of them unconscious.

How we pray, or communicate with God, I said, depends a great deal on our image of God. Our experiences of God–or lack of experience–loom large in prayer, as do the images of God we have internalized from others. And weren’t we reminded of that this morning in our Scripture readings? If your image of god is a golden calf, as it was for the people of Israel, how would pray to that god? If your image is of a god who changes his mind, as the Lord, we’re told, did in response to Moses’ prayer, how would that influence your prayers? If your image, going to the gospel text, is of a king who invites everyone, both good and bad, to the wedding feast for his son, how might you pray? Or, in the next verse of Jesus’ story, if your god is like a king who banishes those without the proper attire, what might your prayers consist of?

Our images of God matter.

And so last week I dwelt upon two images from Jesus’ own life and final teachings and one from St. Paul, to guide us in prayer. Let me review them here as a foundation for what I’d like explore more deeply with you.  

When Jesus prayed to God, he addressed God using an intimate familial word  for parent–Abba–that could be translated as “pappa” or even “daddy.” He encouraged his disciples to do the same, giving an image for God of unconditional parental love. He wanted them, and us, to think of God as the father in Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son, the one waiting anxiously to welcome his wayward son home, running to meet and embrace him on the road.

And at his last supper with his disciples, Jesus said to those same disciples, and by extension to those of us who strive to follow him now, “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant doesn’t know what the master is doing, but I call you friends. You are my friends.” (John 15:1)

So whenever we approach God in prayer, Jesus himself would have us imagine that we are in the presence of a wise, kind, spiritual parent who loves us unconditionally, or as friend who has only our best interest at heart and wants to know all that both burdens and delights us.    

St. Paul goes further in assuring us we needn’t worry that our prayers aren’t good enough. It doesn’t matter if  we can’t find the right words, or that the image of God we carry in our heads isn’t the right one. In addition to the wonderful words we read this morning in his letter to the Philippians, in his letter to the Romans, he writes that even when we don’t know how to pray, the Spirit of God that dwells within us actually prays on our behalf  “with sighs too deep for words.” And God searches our hearts and knows what we need or want even before we ask. (Romans 8:12-27)

With all that as foundation, today I’d like to focus on two aspects of prayer that are admittedly more challenging than everything I’ve described thus far. Call this, if you will, Prayer 201:  

One of these more challenging aspects is how we pray for other people and what we hope or imagine will happen as a result of our prayer. This is a big topic, rife with challenges. A lay leader from the diocese wrote to me this week: “The great area of struggle for me is the petitionary aspect of prayer. I understand its necessity as an element of the relationship you describe, but, taken literally, it does suggest that God’s mind can be changed by our requests and that God is ready to perform particular acts for our benefit in response to those requests. That, for me, is the rub, because we know that so many pious and innocent people suffer so greatly when their prayers go unanswered.”

Haven’t you struggled with that very issue? I know I have, and do. It is such agony to bear witness to the suffering all around us, and that which we experience ourselves, and not question everything we think is possible through prayer.

But there’s another aspect of prayer, equally challenging, that I’d like to address first. This falls into the category of the dangers of prayer. I learned first hand of one particular danger in prayer at a young age, as I learn most things–the hard way.

The summer before my freshman year in high school, I was hired by one of my father’s business associates to care for her young children at their cabin in the mountains. I would go up to the cabin on Sunday nights, watch their young children as a live-in babysitter, and then return home on Friday afternoon.    

I had a lot of anxiety that summer, those typical enough for a 15 year old girl: Would I be accepted in my new high school and able to make friends? I didn’t have many friends in junior high and I desperately wanted high school to be different. Was I pretty enough to ever have a boyfriend? In those years I struggled mightily with my weight and body image, and I wore big, unattractive glasses. We didn’t have much money and I worried incessantly about having the right clothes. Clothes, you see, were a really big deal for the girls in my junior high, and I knew that they would be even more so in high school. Believe me, I could relate then, and can relate now, to the poor man thrown out of the wedding banquet  for not wearing the right clothes. I’ve had plenty of my share of weeping and gnashing of teeth because of wardrobe.

That fateful summer, I would walk into town in the evenings, enter a particular store, and try clothes on that I could never afford. One night I slipped something I had tried on into my purse and walked out. The next night I did it again. And the next. And the next.

I knew what I was doing was wrong and I felt guilty. My family didn’t go to church, but I was thinking in religious terms and I knew that stealing was a sin. So for penance I would read a chapter from the Bible every night and pray for forgiveness. That pattern continued for some time: I would steal during the day and pray for forgiveness at night. And I felt, if not invincible, somehow invisible, as if those prayers shielded me. I had no awareness that people were watching, biding their time.

Until one night the local sheriff came knocking at my host family’s door, accompanied by the store owner. As I stood before them, my sins exposed for what they were, the heat of shame coursed through me. I was really scared. Later that night when I lay alone in my bedroom, I saw the Bible on my night table, and I felt exposed and ashamed before God. And I was scared.

Suffice to say that I paid for all the clothes I had stolen and did further restitution to pay my debt to the community. It was a long, humiliating, yet also liberating process. Imagine what might have happened to me if I hadn’t been caught. The family I lived with was very kind, and firm. So were my dad and stepmom. I learned a lot that summer.

And though I didn’t yet have the language to describe it, I learned something important about prayer: that God is not easily fooled and cannot be manipulated. There’s a line in Psalm 50 that sums up how I felt God speaking to me in that moment: “These things you have done, and I kept still and you thought I am like you.”

Years later I would encounter words like Psalm 50 in the Bible, and the same truth expressed in prophetic literature. Hear these words, spoken by God through the prophet Amos: “I hate, I despise your festivals and take no delight in your solemn assemblies.” He’s talking about our worship. “Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Take away for me the noise of your songs. I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:21-24)

While I’m not entirely sure what Jesus was trying to say in the story of the man thrown out of the wedding not wearing proper robe, I’m positive that God couldn’t care less about our having the right clothes but cares mightily about our having the right attitude. The man who refused to put on the wedding robe that the host gave to all his guests had something in common with the one who had disregarded the king’s invitation in the first place. He didn’t care.

I wonder if Jesus is saying that God is not one to be toyed with; God is not an extension of our whims and preference, and certainly cannot be contained in the boxes of our self deception. And if we persist in our self deceptions long enough, our worlds will come crashing down. They will. The consequences are not what God wants for us, but nor will we be spared them.

I wish I could say I learned my lesson once and for all as a teenager, but sadly, whenever and wherever in my life I am not yet able to face the truth about myself or a situation, I pray within the confines of my self imposed blindness. God knows that, and while God has compassion for me, as God has compassion for all of us, the process of answered prayer in those situations will always painful before it is liberating. The truth will set us free, but first it will cut like a knife through the bubbles we’ve created to maintain the illusions we’re not ready to relinquish. Our friends in 12 step groups talk about this experience as “hitting bottom,” when all our illusions are exposed for what they are.

There is no doubt in my mind that in some areas of our common life we are seeing the consequences of our collective determination to remain in our sin. We pray to be spared the consequences, and for others to be spared, but we are not yet ready to change our behavior.

As Pope Francis observes when speaking about dangers of environmental degradation and climate change, “God always forgives, but the earth does not. God will not intervene when the earth responds to our treatment of  her with destruction.” Keeping those affected by the ways human behavior is adversely affecting the planet “in our thoughts and prayers,” is fine, but we can’t ask God to work to heal the environment upon which we all depend without our active engagement.

Nor can we hold in our thoughts and prayers those killed or wounded in mass shootings and the daily assaults of gun violence while we do nothing to change the laws that have allowed the proliferation of military style weaponry throughout the civilian population. God will not be mocked when we say that guns don’t kill people when we know full well no other country in the developing world experiences the level of gun violence we do, and the only difference between those countries and us is the proliferation of increasingly lethal weapons.

We cannot blithely pray to be spared the consequences of our sin while we keep on sinning. For God is always on the side of truth, wherever truth lies. So we must seek the truth even when it hurts. And when the walls of our illusions come crashing down, as they must, God is there, working among those who offer comfort, consolation, mercy. God is with us in our suffering, even at our own hand. But God will not collude with us in self deception and self imposed blindnesses. God cannot spare us when we deliberately close our eyes and refuse to see, but God will be there to pick up the pieces.

Which leads me now to the ways we pray with and for one another.

Let me begin with an affirmation of faith–the foundation of faith for me as a Christian–that God is at work in the world, and at work in and through human beings. In the words of theologian Marjorie Suchocki, God is always at work in the world to bring about good within the context of the world’s own power, which is revealed to us through careful observation and study of science, mathematics, and more.

God is always at work within us, within the context of our own freedom and capacities.  We are free to align our creative power with God’s and we are free to resist, which we do with predictable regularity. But as Suchocki writes, we cannot eliminate God. We cannot defeat God, nor can we rid ourselves of divine presence. As St. Paul audaciously declared from his prison cell: nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ.

In our incompleteness and sin, we often distort God’s creative power. Alternatively, inspired by grace, we can open ourselves to God, become co-laborers with God, and experience our capacity for love amplified by God’s creative presence. When we do, we give God more to work with and through.

That’s why God needs us to pray, wants to us pray for ourselves and one another. It’s not because God needs to be flattered or appeased, nor because God’s needs reminding of what needs to be done. And forgive me, Moses, I have a hard time imagining God changing his mind in response to our prayers. I think we’re the ones that change, and the possibilities for God change when we choose to join our energies with divine love in order to bring a preferred future into being.

We change the equations of possibility when we pray for one another. There is more creative possibility as a result of our prayers. But along with prayer must come a willingness to act upon what we receive in prayer, whatever that may be. So our most fruitful prayers, in terms of actions, are prayers that are combined with a willingness to be proximate.  

Here I am deeply indebted to the work of Bryan Stephenson, the tireless advocate for criminal justice reform and racial reconciliation. He states emphatically that if we are to solve the greatest problems that vex us, we must get close to the people most adversely affected by them. When we pray from a distance, the distance has an impact both on our knowledge of the complexities of the situation and what needs to be done, and our ability to engage as a result of our prayer.  

It simply makes sense that the power of intercessory prayer–our prayers for others–is greater in proximity, as there are more opportunities for response and engagement in real time, and we can continually adjust both in prayer and action according to what we learn of the situation we’re in. Thus one of the most important decisions we make in praying for others is our positioning as we pray. Which means that choices we make when we’re not praying affect the efficacy of our prayers.

If we’re praying for those experiencing suffering because of racial injustice, for example, but don’t spend any time in places, among people where that suffering occurs, or if we go out of those realities as a result of our privilege, our prayers, while sincere, will be less fruitful. We’re not giving God enough to work with through us. Whether we realize it or not, the parameters of life set for us the boundaries of prayer, as do our capacities to respond.

Now there’s one more dimension of intercessory prayer that I’ll touch upon here, which comes to us from the contemplative traditions of prayer and the mystery of shared suffering. This topic is worthy of a sermon in itself, but I can’t stop without mentioning it briefly. I am indebted here to the wisdom of Richard Rohr and James Finley, leaders of the Center for Action and Contemplation.

When we choose to pray for others in their suffering, bringing ourselves into the presence of God and creating space for another’s well being to be our focus, some of the pain they are experiencing will come to us, and actually take up residence inside us. We will feel it; experience it as they do, and be changed by it. And through the mystery of divine suffering, something happens. It happen within us; it happens in others.

That’s one way, at least, to understand the experience of being sustained by each other’s prayers.

Have you ever felt the power of being sustained, held up by others? I have. It’s like you’re being carried or strengthened by a power greater than you. It comes from God but also from one another. It’s when, in their prayers, they are holding for us some of our suffering, allowing it to be absorbed in them. We do the same when we enter into that contemplative place, allow another’s pain to come into us, and allow it to remain. I think this is what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to as the power of redemptive suffering.

I need to stop now, not because the subject of prayer is exhausted but because you all have lives to tend to and so do I. Let me close simply by encouraging you in prayer. Spend time alone with God. Pray with and for one another. Remember the power of prayer; be mindful of the dangers of prayer. Pray aloud, pray in the silence of your heart, pray sometimes, as Rabbi Abraham Heschel once described his prayer while walking with Dr. King on the road to Selma, with your feet.

Hold as your image of God what Jesus offers us: that of a parent who unconditionally loves a child and a friend who wants only what’s best for you. Remember that God always wants more for you than God asks from you.

God loves us and is deeply moved whenever we respond with love of our own.