After hearing today’s interesting readings—with Hosea’s rather bizarre talk of whoredom, Jesus calling his disciples evil, and his unexpected sayings about giving children snakes and scorpions instead of fish and eggs—you can maybe see why we had scheduled a hymn sing for this morning. But God clearly had other plans. And behind the somewhat strange language at the end, this morning’s gospel reading is focused on an important subject for Christians and people of faith: prayer, both how we pray and what we are to pray for. It is an especially useful and timely topic, I think, given the state of the world, and the intense realities of our lives. Lately, it seems that we—collectively, and some of us individually—are being inundated with trials, tribulations, and concerns.
All you need do is turn on the TV or open the newspaper to find stories of shootings or worse. I watched Friday’s news of the shooting spree in Munich with particular horror, as I was just there two weeks ago. It’s both saddening and frightening to think of the places I saw and the people I met under siege, being told by the police that they need to shelter at home and not go out on a beautiful Friday night. It leads us to wonder just what has happened to the world. What has happened to human life?
Some of us may even wonder—at least some of the time—whether there is any point to prayer, whether God listens at all, let alone answers our prayers, at least in any of kind of recognizable way. I confess that I have pondered these questions myself from time to time. And yet at other times, we may well believe that maintaining a life of prayer is the only way to find the strength we need to make it from one day and one trial to another. For many, prayer is a source of comfort and hope and perseverance.
Now, when it comes to the subject prayer I can’t claim to be an expert. Just yesterday I was saying to Dave Sullivan, after the Rev. David Prentice’s priesthood ordination celebration, that for the 20 years that Tom Shaw was our bishop I always had this inner feeling of unworthiness when it came to prayer, since unlike Bishop Shaw I wasn’t able to spend two or three hours every morning in prayer. Then, again, Bishop Shaw was a monk. Prayer is their expertise. And I don’t think monks would expect everyone to adopt prayer lives like that. In fact, I think they know that most of us won’t be able to share in that same prayer focus, and so they pray for us, on our behalf. Bishop Gates, by the way, is a less intimidating to me that way, though I am sure he has a rich and full prayer life as well. He loves to sing, and I suspect that singing is prayer for him, as it is for me as well.
Interestingly, 20 years ago, in the spring of 1996, I took a seminary class called “The Life of Prayer,” which was very popular—not only with seminarians, but people from the wider community. I think it was the highest enrolled seminary course at that point. We met in the chapel and each week there would be an initial lecture by the professor, and then we would try on different prayer models—usually types quiet contemplative prayer—for at least an hour or more. Unfortunately, at age 23 I found it really hard to settle into that life or style of prayer—either on my own or in the classroom. Thoughts were so busy bouncing around in my mind that it was hard to quiet things down and move into a quieter and more contemplative space. And often, once I started to get into that mental state, the professor would say something and I’d lose it again, ending up more frustrated than prayerful. So, developing that deeper personal prayer practice is something that has come later in life, on my own, as I have sought a deeper connection with God. I kind of wish I could go back and retake that “Life of Prayer” class now. I think I would appreciate it far more.
In any case, what I do know about prayer is that when it comes to intercessory prayer—when we pray for certain intentions, as we often do—I don’t subscribe to the idea that God is a giant supernatural Pez Dispenser or Santa Claus up in the sky, who just gives us what we ask for at any particular moment. While Jesus does say in today’s gospel, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you,” I have to imagine that he was not focused on the attainment of material goods or even the fulfilling of wishes.
Perhaps like many of you, I was disabused of that idea when I was a kid. As you know, I was brought up in a religious family, so prayer was part of our lives—not necessarily always in a deep way, but it was there. We prayed before dinner, every night before bed and if we were struggling with something. I remember in particular, when I was maybe 5 or 6, standing outside on a very clear and starry night, praying and praying with great fervency. And what, you may wonder, was I praying for?
Wizard of Oz toys.
Wizard of Oz toys.
I wanted them so badly. The Wizard of Oz was my favorite movie, and of course it was only on TV once a year in those days—with no VCRs or DVD players, no Netflix or youtube, so these toys were, I suppose, a way to keep those wonderful characters with me all the time. So I prayed and prayed, not just once, but night after night after night—I prayed for my birthday. But nothing came. Then I prayed for Christmas, but sadly again nothing came. And then I prayed just because. Still nothing. I couldn't have prayed harder. But somehow those much longed for toys just never showed up. This leads me to believe that either God either must not care too much about Wizard of Oz toys. Or maybe, prayer just doesn’t work that way.
Maybe, prayer is not so much about asking for things, or getting things, but instead maybe it is about communicating our concerns with God. Even communicating ourselves with God. Maybe, and I suspect this is true, maybe prayer is about keeping the lines of communication open between us and God, and offering the deepest and truest concerns of our hearts to God, in as open and vulnerable a way as possible. That can be frightening, of course. Vulnerability is not easy, even when it is just between you and God. It can be tremendously hard to explore and name the deepest questions and concerns, and also the hopes and desires, of our hearts and souls. It requires that we grapple with and confront some hidden aspects of ourselves.
We contend with health scares or ongoing, chronic conditions; some of us struggle with job and money insecurity; others with loneliness, depression, or questions of meaning; some of us fight addictions that weigh us down and prevent us from living freely and fully; and of course, eventually all of us are forced to deal with the deaths of those dearest to us, leading us to ponder questions of eternity. Just this week, two members of our parish family lost those closest to them—Colleen Moran’s father died while out for a swim, and Bernie Hutchens lost his brother after a plane crash. And, of course, on the societal or global scale nearly every day we hear of shootings, of cities and nations at war, of people fearing for their lives. There is so much to pray for, and sometimes it can be so hard to find the words, or the openness or vulnerability necessary to communicate with God, to truly commune with God.
That’s why Jesus offers us a guide, a road map, really. When you pray, he says, try praying like this:
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.
I do not think Jesus means that we have to use these words exactly, though Christians pretty much have for 2000 years. But, I think, he means that these are the concerns that we should have at the forefront of our minds and hearts and souls—when we come to God in prayer and probably at all times.
We pray for the coming kingdom of God—in contrast with the kingdoms of the world. We pray for the place and the time in which all people will be free, in which all people are reconciled, and in which war and pain, conflict, death, and illness are ended. Pray for that, he says. And pray for daily bread—the food we need to survive, though probably not the excess that we are so accustomed to in the west and especially in the United States. And pray that others have enough to eat as well.
We pray to be forgiven for our sins, for our faults, for the things we do and the things we say that hurt others and that hurt ourselves. Of course, to receive this forgiveness we have to acknowledge to God, to ourselves, and to others, that we are not perfect. We are compelled to search our hearts and souls and lay them open, to become vulnerable, so that we can freed, so that we can be liberated really, from all that weighs us down. Of course, this also means that we likewise have to forgive others—of their debts, whether financial, spiritual, or moral. For our own good we can’t go on carrying our baggage forever—dragging garbage bags full of hurts and mistakes, frustrations and disappointments behind us. And neither can we go on dragging others’ baggage behind us either, holding onto old hurts and grudges and debts, sometimes for years and years. Instead, Jesus tells us, when we forgive and when accept forgiveness, we experience liberation. We experience resurrection life. Pray for that liberation, he says. Pray for that resurrection life.
In fact, when you think about it, prayer—as offered to us by Jesus—is all about liberation. It’s all about real, abundant, resurrection life. Sometimes we may use words when we pray, since that’s largely how we communicate. But then again, sometimes words are completely inadequate, and all we have is our breath, our touch, or the beating of our hearts. Because really prayer, however, wherever, and whenever it happens, is about opening ourselves and opening our hearts to God—so that we allow God in, so that we allow God to take root in us, so that we allow God to live and grow in us and through us and among us. That’s why we pray.
At its deepest and most profound, in prayer we invite God to bring God’s kingdom to life in us—whether that prayer happens at home at the dinner table or before bed; in a hospital nursery at the joyous birth of a baby, or gathered around a bed in the ICU, even after life support systems have been shut down. It happens here in church, in words and in song and in quiet moments of solitude. And it also happens before a job interview and maybe even sometimes before a first date. Prayer can be hard. And it can also be a source of life.
Too often in church we feel rushed and we don’t allow ourselves enough time to pray. So, as I close today, I invite you to take a few moments to pray. With words or in silence, offering the concerns of your heart, or maybe quietly opening yourself to what God may be want to say to you now. After a few moments, I will gather us back together. So, let us pray….
Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer. And may God’s kingdom live and grow in you and those you love, now and always. Amen.
© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD