If you were here last week, you heard Rich preach a characteristically wise and engaging sermon exploring an important question: why church? He started by reading a letter from a young person he received some ten years ago - a young person who was struggling to see the point of being a part of a church. The rest of his sermon was a thoughtful response to the letter, sharing some of the compelling reasons one might covenant to be a part of a community of faith. I thought I might try something similar.
I too have some words to share that were written by a young person, words that resonate with our question of the day - why pray? These words were written about ten years ago, and they are not so much a letter but a confession: “I do not pray,” the confession begins. “I don’t know how to pray. I don’t like to close my eyes, clasp my hands, and start talking in my head toward God. Of course, I know that isn’t my only option. I know that I could sit in silence, or read from a prayer book, or ride my bicycle down the street blessing everything I see. I don’t do any of that stuff, either. Even when I am desperate, rarely do I mention anything to God. God and I are not on speaking terms. I’m like the quirky, solitary, yet totally productive worker in the cubicle on the third floor. Never actually talks to the boss, and the boss seldom thinks about him except to vaguely acknowledge gratitude that the worker is such a company man. “I want to do the work of God on earth, to be part of the saints marching in - there just isn’t much for us to talk about in the meantime. I like to be in church surrounded by people who know how to pray. But I do not know to do it myself.”
And here’s another confession: I wrote these words. This was my confession. Ten years ago I was a seminary student who felt called to become a pastor, yet I did not engage in one of the most foundational practices of the Christian faith. A lot can change in a decade. And a lot has changed since I scribbled these words in my journal. But what hasn’t changed is this: prayer is not an easy thing for me. It does not come naturally to me. I can’t say that I have learned how to pray - but I can say that I am learning how to pray. So as I offer some responses to this question, I want you to understand that I am speaking to myself first.
When we ask why pray, we’re really asking a whole host of complicated question. Do we pray because it “works?” Do we pray because it makes us feel better? What does it mean to say that a prayer has been “answered?” If our prayers aren’t answered, does that mean God isn’t listening? Does it mean that God doesn’t exist? Or perhaps worst of all, does it mean that God does exist but is ultimately kind of a jerk? Um, we could be here for a while, couldn’t we? Prayer, and how it is answered – or unanswered, as the case may be – is incredibly tough to think through, because it isn’t merely an exercise in theory. It’s a matter of life and death, sickness and health, liberation and bondage.
And it’s so very personal. We pray about the stuff that matters to us most. We pray for loved ones who are sick. We pray for reconciliation between husbands and wives and parents and children. We pray for traveling mercies when our friends and family members board planes and take off in cars. We pray for wartorn places like Egypt and Syria, oppressive places like North Korea and Burma, hungry places like Zambia and Haiti. We lift up these people and places as far as we can reach, and then we say, “please, God, do something about this, because I can’t. In prayer we are at our most vulnerable. We express our deepest concerns and recognize our inability to control the outcome.
So does it mean to say that prayer works? Does it mean that if we ask God to do something, he gets right on it? It kind of sounds like Jesus says so in our scripture reading today. There was a movie a few years ago called Bruce Almighty in which a mere mortal had an opportunity to play God. The movie has elements of slapstick comedy, but it also dramatized the sticky question of prayer, and how it is answered. At one point you overhear the constant stream of prayers that people direct to God: “please protect him, please heal her, please help me” with a few “thank you’s” mixed in. The main character trying to fill God’s heavenly shoes soon realizes that he cannot answer all the prayers – or, more specifically, he literally cannot give everyone everything they want.
We don’t have to be told this difficult truth. We know from having prayed for something that didn’t happen that prayer isn’t like a soda machine. You don’t just put in your quarters and walk away with a miracle. But that doesn’t mean we worship a capricious God who sometimes cares and sometimes doesn’t. The deepest, most foundational beliefs of the Christian tradition insist that God is loving and merciful and worthy of our trust. Through the story of Jesus, we learn the extravagant lengths God is willing to go to give us new and everlasting life in the Risen Christ. God doesn’t necessarily protect us from experiencing suffering, but he does love us enough to suffer with us.
We aren’t ever going to understand why it seems like God answers one prayer and not another. But maybe the outcome of any given situation isn’t even the best reason to pray, anyway. C.S. Lewis, one of the sharpest Christian minds of the 20th century, once explained why he prays. “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time- waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God- it changes me.”
It doesn’t change God, it changes me.
We might not like this at first. It would be so much better if we could actually change God, wouldn’t it? But even Bruce Almighty found out that God is actually way better at playing God than we are. Maybe the best possible scenario is that we are transformed: that we have the strength to face our hardships with courage and conviction that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Indeed, one of my favorite prayers is the Serenity Prayer attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr. It seems like a prayer that is intent not on changing God but changing the one who prays to God. Maybe you know it: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Anne Lamott recently wrote a book about prayer called Help, Thanks, Wow. She says that these are the three prayers that are essential. If we don’t pray for anything else, but we ask for help, we offer our gratitude, and we express our amazement in the face of beauty, we’re going to be okay. I would personally add one more prayer to her list of essentials: Sorry. But I shouldn’t nitpick, because that little book on prayer is full of wisdom for people who long to learn how to pray. She writes, “My belief is that when you're telling the truth, you're close to God. If you say to God, "I am exhausted and depressed beyond words, and I don't like You at all right now, and I recoil from most people who believe in You," that might be the most honest thing you've ever said. If you told me you had said to God, "It is all hopeless, and I don't have a clue if You exist, but I could use a hand," it would almost bring tears to my eyes, tears of pride in you, for the courage it takes to get real-really real. It would make me want to sit next to you at the dinner table.”
I wish I’d had these words ten years ago, because when it comes down to it, the reason I didn’t pray was because I was too scared to be honest and I couldn’t bring myself to lie.
I didn’t have Anne Lamott’s words, but I did have the words of the mentor to whom I’d confessed my prayerlessness, and they more than sufficed. This is how that journal entry ended: “Maj told me this summer that I had to pray, that nothing would ever make sense unless I pray. He was surprised when I confessed that I do not pray. I said that I have always felt as though I am walking around the perimeter of the place where God is, peering in the windows and feeling forsaken. Have I ever knocked on the arched front doors, or tried to turn the silver doorknob? The door would be insignificant if I just prayed, says Maj. The walls themselves would dissolve.”
“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” May it be so. Amen.