1 I will give thanks to you, O Lord, with my whole heart; *
4 When I called, you answered me; *
you increased my strength within me. (Psalm 138: 1,4)
Prayer has been a constant in my life. I grew up in church where there were prayers offered in word and in song. Adults invited me to pray in Sunday School and Youth Ministry gatherings. In my home, prayers were said at meals and my day rarely ended without a prayer as I prepared for sleep. What this created in me was the sense of God’s presence everywhere. Through I love the poetry of ancient prayers and the power of ritual, prayers were never restricted to Sundays and formal occasions or people with collars. Prayer was my opportunity to talk things over with God.
When walking on the beach, I would look up and pray simply, “Look at this glorious water. What a beautiful day. Thank you!” When things did not go well in relationships or in school I sought a presence to help me sort things out, “God help me. What went wrong? How can I make it right?” When everything was going just as I planned in life, “Wow! Thank you!” Prayer was a way for me to let off steam, to talk things over, to look at my life with gratitude and name my thanksgivings and my dreams. And in this way, God became a rich and integral part of who I was. There was nowhere that God was not present and there was nothing in my life that I could not share with God. I felt embraced and known and loved. I could lay my heaviest and my most frivolous thoughts on the One who was in my every breath. I never remember giving a thought to the idea that I could not trust this intimate relationship.
And then life moved me forward into my next stage of spiritual development.
When my precious, vibrant, Uncle John, from out of nowhere, was diagnosed with Stage 4 Melanoma Cancer I was knocked off my presumptions that I did not know I was holding. That is the thing about life, it can bring you unwanted learning really quickly. Everyone I knew from our church, our neighborhood, our friends and family began praying that John would be healed, that he would be returned strong to his wife and his two young sons, that the doctors would find a miracle, that the medicine he was ingesting would bring about a cure. Everyone I knew prayed constantly for four years, pleading, and seemingly confident that God would heal this extraordinarily faithful man, that the next scan would confirm that all would be well. But even with all our prayers, my uncle grew weaker and died just when he should have been at the height of his vitality at age 43.
This shook me at a deep level. I did not have words for this experience. I did not understand how this could happen. What is the point of prayer? I thought I could depend on you God. Why pray if you don’t get the most important things you pray for? In the grief that filled my home, I struggled to find answers to these questions.
It took a while, but gently and almost unnoticed, prayer reentered my life, and God was there waiting for me. I have prayed many times since my uncle died. I need it. I need it as much as I do breathing. Each day is enriched and centered by prayer.
I have been blessed to be present in prayer in many situations that have caused me to continue to develop my relationship with prayer and my relationship with God. As a Chaplain serving on a pediatric oncology unit, I prayed with a young girl facing a frightening future who “was just hoping someone would come and pray with her.” I have prayed with people rejoicing at the birth of a baby. I have prayed at the bedside of someone facing the end of their earthly life. I have prayed with parents who are watching their child struggle. I have prayed for the promise of a new marriage and with people as relationships and jobs come undone. I have had the opportunity to experience the effect of prayer in many lives and across many events. And from these holy places, I have witnessed how prayer can transform a setting and offer hope and shelter in the changing times of our lives.
Henri Nouwen says, “Prayer is an attentiveness to the Presence of Love personified, inviting us to an encounter.”In prayer, we can be reminded that we are continuously seen and held and nothing can separate us from the Source of life and love. Prayer is a chance to take a breath and remember that we were created by goodness for goodness and each life is infinitely precious. Prayer is the opportunity to stop and take a moment to inhale beauty and joy, and find that spark of life calling to us, even in the most difficult of times. And, prayer is the chance to claim our full selves in a particular moment–to be honestly who we are and how we are with no need to be pretty or proper or controlled—to trust that we can voice our primal screams, our most essential needs, our deepest emotions, and know that God will receive it, that God will meet us wherever we are and hold us in all our fragility and messiness. Prayer allows us to reveal our true selves and find God’s hand extended toward us to lift us up and hold us fast for this journey.
Two of our readings this morning give us insight into prayer. Abraham, in our reading from Genesis, trusts that he can speak his mind to God. He trusts God enough to argue and even negotiate with God. This story tells us that Abraham believes God listens and is compassionate. Abraham boldly pleads on behalf of a people unknown to him and yet seen by him as creatures worthy of redemption. The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah have come to represent for us the quintessential definition of immorality. But the story has been wrongly used to condemn people who were created by God to love people of their own sex. Sodom and Gomorrah are not cities under condemnation because of love. They are immoral places because the people there have rejected God’s command to love, to welcome, to care for each other. The people of Sodom and Gomorrah have become consumed with unrestrained violence towards others and so judgement is at hand. But still Abraham asks God to spare these people if any can be found who have love and compassion in their hearts. Abraham prays in confidence to a God that hears and cares.
In our Gospel reading according to Luke, a disciple asks Jesus to teach him how to pray. Jesus responds with words that are familiar to us. It is a prayer that we voice whenever we gather. It is precious to us because we can say, “Let us pray as Jesus taught us.”
But the disciple who asks Jesus to teach him how to pray, is not someone who is unfamiliar with the words of prayer or the ritual of praying. This disciple, like Jesus, is steeped in the Jewish tradition of prayer. As devout Jews, they had grown up in the temple, lifting their hands in worship and lying prone on the ground to confess their failings. They knew how to pray.
So, I do not believe this disciple was seeking a new technique or better words. I believe he was asking Jesus “How do we experience God’s transforming love as you do?” More than any of the other Gospels, Luke give us glimpses of Jesus praying in every kind of situation and the disciples notice. They sense that Jesus’ real depth and power are drawn from prayer—that he is linked at some deep place to a power outside this world.
The disciple longed for this intimacy, this belonging, this trust, this peace. A closeness that was transformative and nourishing. A new way of seeing, greater strength, deeper empathy. “Lord teach us to pray.” In other words, “Jesus show us how to be with God as you are with God. Show us your heart. Tell us what it is like to allow ourselves to be fully embraced in a love that is without end.” As Howard Thurman says, “Lord teach us how when we pray to be met by Presence.” Isn’t this what each of us long for—to encounter God with a deep intimacy when we pray?
Jesus encourages us to be persistent when we pray, not as a way of testing or to establish a threshold for success, but because God’s heart is always available to us. Jesus says, be like the neighbor who has a desperate need at midnight and does not hesitate to make his request plain.
The more we pray the more we encounter the Holy One. The more we pray, the more we are opened to a healing relationship in God. The more we pray the more our trouble and suffering are soothed in love. And all we have to do is make ourselves available, because as Paul says, “The Spirit comes to help us in our weakness for when we do not know how to pray the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. (Romans 8:26)
And Jesus goes on to say, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” These sayings have too often been misinterpreted to mean that if we pray properly, piously, and with full confidence, we will receive all we ask. This interpretation, has caused much pain because it can place blame on those who suffer for their suffering. And it makes God into a transactional parent rather than one who is extravagantly generous.
Instead what if these words are seen as permission, license, invitation. Permission to name our longings? To acknowledge our deepest desires? To state without reservation or apology that all is not okay, that we are not yet full, that God’s kingdom has not yet come. And even though it is past another’s bedtime, we are going to stand and beat on the door until someone responds to our plea. This is holy yearning, trusting that God can more than handle our anger, our frustration. What if we are invited to wrestle, to struggle, while never giving up hope in God’s compassion and mercy?
So we are invited to pray—in words, in song, in dance, in silence. We can pray simply with requests like Anne Lamott offers, “Help!” “Thanks!” “Wow!”We can pray by stopping in awe and wonder in response to God’s beauty–walking in the mountains, watching a sunset, marveling at the laughter of a child. We can recite ancient prayers. We can commit to memory prayers from our childhood and call them out when familiarity and comfort is our greatest need. We must pray when our every desire has been answered and we must pray when the floor beneath us falls away. We pray when God feels as close as our heartbeat and we pray when God’s seeming absence causes us anguish.
We pray because God has placed this need in our heart—the need for intimacy, the need to be searched out and known, the need to share our innermost self and still be loved. We pray because God wants us to. God walks in the garden looking for us, calling our name. God delights when God’s creatures reach out for relationship. We pray because we yearn and our yearnings are precious to God. And we pray because what we need most in every aspect and time of our life is the presence of God’s Spirit within us. With words, without words, through laughter, through tears, in hope, and in despair, our prayers open us to God’s Presence and remind us that we are not alone no matter what life brings and that our loving compassionate God is actively at work in our world. In God we hear our “Yes.” In God we find our hope.
Nouwen, Henri J. M. Clowning in Rome: Reflections on Solitude, Celibacy, Prayer, and Contemplation. New York: Image Books (Doubleday), 1979, pp. 68-70.
Anne Lamott. Help. Thanks. Wow: The three essential prayers. Riverhead Books, 2012.