We talked about prayer--which I preached about Sunday. I have lots of issues with the 'normal' understanding of prayer. In fact, I don't think 'prayer' is something we 'do' so much as it is a way we 'be' in the world. I don't want to pray a lot--I want to 'be' prayerful. I want to have my eyes wide open and my heart wide open and my life wide open to the presence of the 'divine' that, I assert, surrounds and envelopes us. If we only look, watch and listen.
I don't have what I said about prayer on Sunday written down in any way that would make sense if I put it here. But I did find a sermon from 3 years ago on my computer that addresses some of my concerns and begins to flesh out some of my thinking on prayer.
I'll share it with you (it's on the same lessons from last Sunday--thank God for a three year lectionary!) and come back to prayer another time.
Today I want to talk about prayer and say some things that the church usually doesn’t teach about prayer. Two quick stories—decades and time zones apart—that will help me get started in the right direction.
First story:When my father was stationed in England just before the invasion of Europe, he had bad problems with his teeth. Against the rules of both the Army and the English government, he went into London and found a civilian dentist. The dentist knew the rules and told my father he couldn’t possibly work on his teeth. As my father was leaving, the dentist shook his hand and gave him the Masonic hand-shake which, my father, being a Mason, returned. “Ok,” the British dentist told Dad, “sit down and I’ll see what we can do….”
Second story: When I was a new priest in Charleston, West Virginia, I rushed to the hospital because John Weaver, a teenage member of St. James Church, had been hit by a truck as he walked along the highway. John died shortly after I got to the hospital and when I was holding his mother, Bea, she said to me through her great, global grief—“Did God let John die because I didn’t pray well enough?”
That is the most painful and disturbing question anyone has ever asked me about God. Bea Weaver, mourning her son, imagined God was waiting for the “secret handshake”, the right words, the correct formula, prayer devout and impassioned enough to let her son live instead of die.
What kind of God would that be? That would be a monstrous, fickle, irresponsible, crazy God. No God worth our worship, no God who truly loves us, would make prayer into some kind of parlor game where we have to somehow “solve the puzzle” before our prayers are answered.
Yet that is the way the church, more often than not, teaches people to pray. The church tends to teach people that there is a “right way” to pray, that there is some skill to be learned, some practice to become facile and adroit with, some formula that “works” when dealing with God.
Today’s lessons, I want to suggest, are not helpful at all in wrestling with how to pray. In fact, and this is just me talking—it isn’t the Truth—today’s lessons teach us something wrong and misleading about prayer.
The lesson from Genesis leads us to believe that God can be “bargained” with and manipulated. On first glance, its rather interesting—even amusing—to see how Abraham is able to convince God to “lower the ante” on destroying Sodom down to 10 righteous people that can save the city from God’s wrath.
Theologically, though, that kind of God is as disturbing as a God who would let John Weaver die because his mother didn’t pray quite right.
No better is the God in Jesus’ parable about the inopportune neighbor. The message, it seems to me, is this: “annoy God enough and just to shut you up God will give you what you ask for….”
That’s a deeply troubling thought to me. The rest of it is better—the ask and search and knock part, how God will give and find and open—and the part about God knowing what to give us—a fish rather than a snake, an egg rather than a scorpion. At least these thoughts reveal a God who deeply and profoundly “cares” for us and wishes us wholeness and wellness.
But the whole “prayer” deal is problematic to me. I can’t believe God operates on the Gallup Poll—though the church seems to teach us that both persistence and quantity of prayers are important and may just result in answered prayer.
I want to suggest—just as a suggestion, not the Truth—that maybe prayer is not so much a skill to be learned as it is a possibility to be embraced. What if “prayer” is not so much something we “do” as it is something we seek to “be”? What if “learning to pray” is not so much learning what to say to God as it is realizing how to be with God?
I’m not suggesting that we don’t DO “prayer”. In fact, that’s why we gather here each time we gather—we gather to “do the work” of Prayer. That is as it should be. What I am suggesting is that “doing” prayer—repeating words hoping we’ll find the right ones, looking for the secret handshake, trying to influence God—isn’t “prayer” at it’s most profound and significant level.
What I am suggesting, just as a possibility, is that living “prayerfully” is the key to “learning to pray”.
What I am suggesting is that the deepest kind of prayer is something we soak up on an almost cellular level, in the deepest part of us, in our souls. This understanding of “prayer” makes it accessible to all of us all the time. It is more akin to listening than to talking. It is more akin to breathing than to thinking. “Prayer”, it seems to me, might just be a kind of awareness, a kind of “being awake” to God, a kind of dance we dance with the Lover of souls.
To bring all that near, let’s look at Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer.
First of all, when Jesus tells his disciples “how to pray” he begins with God: “Father, hallowed be your name. Your Kingdom come.”
Prayer—deep prayer, soaking prayer, prayer from the soul—begins and ends with God. Hopefully, praying “gives” us something, “shows the way”, “opens the door”—but prayer is about God, about being present to God, about being open to God’s holiness and God’s will and God’s unfathomable love.
“Give us each day our daily bread.” Prayer is about what we “need”, not what we “want”. Just enough bread to fill us today; just enough courage to inspire us today; just enough patience to relax us today; just enough love to let us love everyone we need to today. Learning to expect what we “need” rather than what we “want” answers countless prayers we haven’t even prayed yet.
“Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us,” Wow, that’s pretty “bad news” for me and I suspect for you! If the disciples had had their wits about them, they wouldn’t have asked Jesus how to “pray”, they would have asked him to teach them how to “forgive”…. Prayer, it seems to me, is as much about “our forgiving” as “God’s forgiving”—the deepest prayer is forgiveness, forgiveness, forgiveness….
“And do not bring us to the time of trial….”
Lots of people tell me they don’t know how to pray. And, if I were a betting man, I’d bet my house that everyone here has, in a moment of trial, said something like “O God…” or “Help me…” or “What now?”
If you’ve ever done that, you know how to pray. It’s really that simple, just offering up whatever pain or fear or anxiety or loss is with you in the moment. That’s Prayer. That’s how Jesus tells us to pray….
Many people love the Lord's Prayer from the New Zealand Prayerbook that expands and enriches what Jesus told us to pray. I prefer the minimalist method. This is my Lord's Prayer.
“You are holy; your Will, not mine; give me what I need each day; teach me to forgive and forgive me; keep me safe from myself and save me from 'me'; you are holy. Amen.”
Emmanuel, Killingworth/July 28, 2013/jim bradley