Written by Pastor Ed
Let Us Pray
July 24, 2016
Gen. 18: 20-32
Luke 11: 1-13
I recall a conversation, and I believe an article by John Esau, quite a few years ago in which he wrote about which was the most appropriate call to prayer for a pastor to use. Should it be, “Shall we pray?” which is a question to which one could conceivably answer “No,” or should it be “Let us pray” which is a statement. As I recall he came down clearly on the side of the statement, “Let us pray.” It’s just one of many discussions related to prayer one can have.
Growing up we had Prayer Meetings in church, usually on Wednesday evening, a time for the congregation to come together, share concerns and spend time in prayer, generally on our knees. For us kids it was mostly a time to wonder how long it would be before we got to go home. These were still scheduled in the first congregation I pastored, until hardly anyone was showing up and I decided to stop scheduling them. I was asked at that time if I didn’t believe the church needed to pray. I said I certainly agreed that the church and congregants needed to pray, but it seemed obvious that not many thought coming together on Wednesday nights was a good time to do it.
Over the years I’ve participated in and heard a lot said about prayer. Next weekend Gay and I will be with some monks and nuns and will probably participate in their morning and evening prayers, a highly ritualized service with reading of Psalms and prayers, which I actually find quite meaningful. I’ve also been in services where everyone prayed, out loud, all at the same time. Robert Hartzler, whose sermons I read and wrote about, also included in the material he gave me many prayers; full page, typed out prayers which said a lot about the times he was living in.
Some people like to preach a sermon in their prayers, while others “pray around the world.” Some keep prayers fairly short and specific. There are private as well as public prayers, praying with clay, and sometimes prayers in rather odd places. I was once invited to open a day’s session of the Nebraska legislature with prayer, invited by my neighbour who was a member of the legislature. On the other hand, in Ontario the mayor of our region, who was a member of my congregation, never invited me for that task because he wasn’t sure if that was too much mixing politics and religion for me.
Anne Lamott in her book Traveling Mercies, (pg. 82) says that our two best prayers are “help me, help me, help me” and “thank you, thank you, thank you.” In the Mitford series, Jan Karon has Father Tim talk about the prayer that is always answered, namely, “Thy will be done.” And Paul assures us that even when we don’t have the words for our prayers, the Spirit will supply them, because there are certainly times when we don’t know how or what to pray.
While we could spend a lot of time talking about how to pray or different kinds of prayer, I’d like to broaden our focus this morning and talk about how we view prayer and what it says about our relationship with God, for in many ways prayer has to do with a relationship.
I have always been somewhat amazed at the chutzpa of Abraham in the passage from Genesis 18. Abraham barters, argues with God and talks God down from wiping out the whole city of Sodom to agreeing that if there are 10 righteous people in town, God won’t destroy it. I wonder how many of us would feel comfortable doing that? Could we stand in front of God and suggest that God really shouldn’t do what is threatened because, well, it just isn’t really like God to do that particular thing. Yet it speaks to the kind of relationship that Abraham had with God, one of openness and honesty. One that allows for disagreement and argument.
I don’t believe that God is simply at our beck and call to give us everything we ask for, yet clearly according to Jesus in the passage we read from Luke 11, we are invited to ask, and even to persist as the neighbour does in the story Jesus tells. But again, it seems to me, at least part of that has to do with what our relationship is to God. After all, would you even think about going and asking your neighbour to help you out if you didn’t know your neighbour? And it’s because of your relationship with your children that keeps you from giving them something harmful instead of something good.
Just so, Jesus suggests, a relationship with God means we can talk with God as we would any other person we have a relationship with. Which, of course, raises an interesting question. Does God only answer prayers of those who have a relationship with God? Certainly some would argue that, yet Jesus also says that the rain falls on both the just and the unjust, and he himself responded to people like the Syro-Phoenician woman who asked him for healing. So I’m certainly not willing to put that restriction on God.
But I certainly think that it is true that the closer our relationship is to God, the freer we will feel to speak to God like Abraham, or like the Psalmists who cry out, even rage against God at times. And when we are free to pour out our wants, hurts, hopes and desires we can be sure that something will happen. Sometimes that means it will change us. Praying for our enemies changes our perspective on them, voicing our desires sometimes puts them into a different perspective.
And while I certainly believe in prayer, I have also been struck recently by a certain response to language we often use that it seems is becoming an almost daily occurrence in the world today. Whenever we hear of another attack of some sort, whether a mass shooting in the US, an African-American being shot by police, or an attack like those in France and Germany recently, one of the first things we hear are people saying that “our thoughts and prayers are with them.” And that’s good. But as Sir Thomas More once said, “The things, good Lord, that we pray for, give us the grace to labour for.”
It should remind us of the passage in James which tells us that just saying, “be warmed and clothed” without helping to provide something to wear is meaningless. As the song says, we are God’s hands and feet here on earth, so not only are we called upon to pray, we are also, as God’s people, called upon to respond to the prayers of others. If we only expect God to show up in some miraculous way, we will be like the man caught on his roof in a flood who called out to God to save him, and then passed up a ride from a passing boat and helicopter, saying he was waiting for God. When he arrived at the pearly gates, he complained to God who responded, “I sent you a boat and a helicopter, what more did you want?”
Prayer, in whatever form it takes, need not be elaborate, with lots of fancy words. Sometimes we don’t even know what to say, yet we are assured that God hears and knows our hearts even if we can’t put it into words. And sometimes all we can do is pray as Jesus taught us, asking only for provision for the day and safety for the times of trouble that we face. And that’s enough.
Each of us will have a different style and practice of prayer. I used to feel guilty because the way I felt comfortable praying didn’t fit the pattern that was usually touted as “the way you ought to pray.” Until I came to realize that there is no one right way to pray, but many different forms that prayer can take. The real question is rather, are we in a relationship with God such that we can comfortably talk with God, sharing our deepest wants, needs, joys and sorrows? If we nurture that relationship, prayer becomes a natural part of our life, no matter what form our prayer life takes.