By: David H. May, Rector
Most Tuesdays at our weekly church staff meeting we begin the meeting by reflecting on the gospel reading for the upcoming Sunday. It’s always interesting to hear how the reading strikes us: how something is confusing or comforting or challenging or even funny. This past Tuesday I heard several comments that reminded me of conversations that have been going on in my own soul for a long time and that I’m pretty sure aren’t finished. These comments more or less boil down to the realization that a lot of us would much rather hit our thumbs with a hammer, repeatedly, than be asked to pray. The thought of someone turning to you and saying, ‘will you pray,’ is enough to make faithful souls break into a cold sweat.
I wonder why when it comes to praying a lot of people sound just like we did at our staff meeting. Are we afraid we’ll say the wrong thing and embarrass ourselves? Are we worried we won’t sound like the beautiful Book of Common Prayer prayers? Maybe something too personal will slip out. Whatever the answers are, they all seem to point towards the way it all makes us feel just a little too vulnerable, like just a little too much of our humanity is showing.
So when the unnamed disciples says to Jesus, ‘Lord, teach us to pray’, I’m right there with him. ‘Lord, teach us to pray.’ Over time, Jesus answer to his disciples request turned into the prayer all Christians everywhere pray. When we pray this prayer together on Sunday mornings, I sometimes listen in to hear all of our voices praying together and think about all those other voices who have prayed this prayer too in all those generations that have come before us (and who didn’t know any better than we do) and how we are connected to them all going back through the ages, all the way back to Jesus when he first said those words.
Luke’s version of what Jesus said doesn’t seem to be like one of those carefully crafted collects in the Prayer Book. What he says sounds more like guidelines for how to pray. Something closer to Jesus saying to us: When you talk to God, remember him in his holy love and let your longing always be for God’s holy love to come to this earth and change us. Our God is good. And when you talk to God remember that we need help: we need food, forgiveness and courage. Amen. God is good and we need help. When you talk to God, tell him about those things.
The problem with prayer, I’ve noticed, is all the ground-rules that seem to get attached. Have you ever noticed how do’s and don’ts filter in and tell us what we’re supposed to say or not say, like how we’re not supposed to pray for ourselves but it’s ok to pray for others? It’s enough to make you wonder sometimes about the God we say we are praying to, like God has a bad reputation and we’d better watch our step with what we say.
Which I’m afraid has to be laid at our feet, not God’s. If God has a bad reputation, that’s on us. Over the years, I’ve heard the most wretched things said about who God is and what God’s will is and what God think about this or that, putting words in God’s mouth, including who’s going to get fire rained down on them next.
We’re not unique in this. It actually goes back to the very beginning. For example, when Eve was having her little conversation with the serpent in the Garden of Eden she said that God said that if they ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – or even touched it – they would surely die. Well Eve embellished what God had actually said. God never said anything about touching the tree. That was Eve’s little rhetorical flourish, I guess. She may have been the first to misquote God and put words in God’s mouth but she surely wasn’t the last.
The story of Abraham and God talking about the coming judgement of fire raining down on Sodom and Gomorrah is another example. Incidentally – at least as the prophet Ezekiel reports it – what displeased God so much about the conduct of the people of those cities was that they hadn’t welcomed strangers into their midst – at least as the prophet Ezekiel understood it. But what’s so interesting in this part of the story is the negotiations between God and Abraham. Abraham to his credit worried that in destroying Sodom and Gomorrah innocent and righteous people would also die. So he asks if 50 righteous people are found, will God stay his hand. And the Lord says, yes for the sake of 50 I will forgive the whole place for their sake. What about 45, Abraham asks. For the sake of 45 I will not destroy them. 40? Yes. 30? Yes. 20? Yes. How about if 10 are found. Yes. And there it stays. But it’s Abraham who cuts off the negotiations at that point, not God. So we don’t know how far God’s mercy would have extended and are left wondering, what are the limits of God’s mercy? Are there limits?
The way we pray has everything to do with who we think God is.
Years ago, I went to a prayer vigil at Richmond Hill. There were people there from all over the city who had come to pray through the night for racial reconciliation and healing for Metropolitan Richmond. As I heard Bob Hetherington say one time this kind of reconciliation and healing work is ‘deep Spirit work’ which among other things needs honest prayer. There were all kinds of people, old, young, black, white; there were nuns and bishops and clergy of all kinds; there were folks from the suburbs and folks who lived in the city.
There was a little bit of a formal piece of praying to get us going and then it was just opened up to whoever wanted to pray. One by one folks would pray. Some of the prayers sounded a little like speeches and some sounded like good, terse proper collects from the Prayer Book. I sat there trying to figure out if I had the nerve to pray out loud and trying to figure out what I’d say that might sound ok. I was sort of plagued by the thought that the prayer I was trying to compose in my mind was really more for the people around me than for God. So I just stayed quiet.
This went on for a long time, late into the night.
Then, there was a stillness that came over all those people crammed into that chapel. And then I heard a voice, clear and honest, say, ‘Lord, it’s me, Thomas. You know me, because we’ve been talking together for a long time.’
You could tell that all of us had stopped working on our own prayers and were listening to this old man who’d stood up to pray. The woman next to me whispered, ‘yes. He knows the Lord.’
Many of us in that packed chapel had lifted our heads (which had mostly been bowed) and were looking at this ancient old man talking with God. He prayed about God’s goodness and how far we are from that. But mostly, he was just talking to God. And the way he talked to God showed us who God is – which is ‘deep Spirit work’. When this man prayed you knew that God was his loving Father. The way he prayed made me know that God is our loving Father too. He is the God who wants us to stand on our feet before him. He is the God who wants us to walk by his side and talk with him. In God’s great goodness and in our great need: God is the one we ask, knowing it will be given. God is the one we search for, knowing we will find him. God is the heart we knock on, knowing he will always open the door to us.
Just a little postscript. This past fall I was in a market getting a cold drink. As I was paying for my drink the cashier asked, ‘are you a priest?’ I said, ‘I am’. He said, ‘I need for you to pray for me. I need a blessing from God’. I said, ‘I will. What’s your name?’ He told me and as I was stuffing my wallet back into my pocket I said, ‘I will pray for you’. He looked a little put off and said, ‘no I mean now’. ‘Of course,’ I said breaking into a cold sweat. So, I took his hands, we bowed our heads and I prayed for him. When I said, ‘amen’, the woman standing next to me waiting in line crossed herself and said ‘amen’ too. I was still in a cold sweat and I’m sure I will be again. But that’s a small price to pay to stand in the place of our great need, and God’s goodness, and rejoice! Amen.