Sometimes, Prayer Is All We’ve Got
1 Kings 3: 5-12
Romans 8: 26-30
I can hear the skeptics, or the contrarians, the highly intellectual, or some of those down on their luck, “If you say that God is omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent, why would we need to pray at all?” If our God knows everything, is everywhere, controls creation, why in the world would we need to, or dare to, feel the privilege to or even want to acknowledge that we’ve asked for or lifted up prayer concerns? In today’s scripture lesson, the Apostle Paul tells us that the Holy Spirit hears us in our weakness. The Holy Spirit interprets our weak thoughts and translates them from common words into prayers brimming with hope and possibility. This has the radical effect of holding the world together. This has the potential effect of healing for us all.
Rom. 8:26-30: Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.
The Rev. Dr. Bill Chapman is one of the Presbyterian Church’s best-known polity wonks. He’s written several books our Book of Order. My favorite, Mission Symphony, offers a beautifully written theological foundation for the 4th Chapter of the old Book of Order. He’s also written a book on the history of the denomination through the lens of our constitution. It’s equally engaging — for those who are inclined toward such a subject. Many of Bill’s books are studied by pastors and professional clerks of session around the denomination.
Bill Chapman didn’t leave Seminary as an author. He left Seminary as a man on a mission of prayer. It was on an evening in 1962 that Bill Chapman was walking the grounds of Princeton Theological Seminary. The iconic African political activist named Nelson Mandela had just been arrested for instigations against apartheid and it left Bill with feelings of outrage and sadness. He wondered what he could do about it, as a seminarian at Princeton. Walking along the path that evening, he began to pray. And in the midst of that prayer, he determined to pray for Nelson Mandela’s release every day until it happened.
A few years ago, Bill told me about the day Mandela was released from prison. He said with deep satisfaction that he was glad to have played a part. I wondered about that. – how Bill Chapman had lent a hand in Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. He told me the story, how he’s prayed for Mandela’s release every day for 27 years. Wow. Can you imagine? He prayed for 27 years – every day – because he knew it was something he could do in the midst of a horrific situation that otherwise seemed so beyond his control. I thought to myself, “What an exquisite idea!” Now here we are, on the verge of Nelson Mandela’s ultimate freedom from all of the oppressions of this world, and we pray for his life and his family as we pray for our own. Why do we pray? Among the countless reasons, I suppose that one very real reason we pray is because sometimes, prayer is all we’ve got.
Harry Emerson Fosdick would say that we pray – constantly – because we have a natural inclination for prayer. He calls prayer our “native tendency.” We invoke the name of the Lord with regularity and predictability, calling on God to fix this or that or maybe just to make Godself known out of frustration, out of fear, out of gratitude, admiration, or hope – whether we realize it or not because sometimes we think have no where else to go. Prayer is a practice like breathing or eating which people engage because we’re human. Then afterward we might argue about it, especially those who wonder aloud or to themselves whether or not we need to pray (or want to pray or even ever have prayed.)
To a rather reductionist way of thinking, our prayers can take the form of saying how beautiful a weekend we were having, which, since we agree that our God makes the sun to shine, the clouds to scatter and the rain to fall, is as if we’re praying a Prayer of Thanksgiving. “Why in the world did I do that?” can be chalked-up to a Prayer of Confession. Texting “OMG”? Maybe a Prayer of Adoration or, could be Supplication? “Heaven help us all?” A prayer for Intercession. “Lord, have mercy?” You get the idea. Do these sayings of exasperation, exuberance, or just plain anger, regret or sadness about something we’ve said or done or seen or heard “count” as prayers at all. I sincerely do believe that lending voice – aloud or in our heads – to our feelings is a way that the Holy Spirit can be helping us to search our hearts, recognize that we need to acknowledge something as bigger than ourselves, and offer that up in our own feeble way to the will and to the glory of God. Maybe I am giving us a little too much credit to what I’m suggesting are prayers buried within the context of our every day life expressions. Yet when the Holy Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words, the Holy Spirit effectuates that which could otherwise be left as an inadequate or unintended or even a lazy response to something big. In this way, our less than eloquent prayers can become a meaningful impression on the universe if only because we’ve acknowledged the basic truth that you and I are not in this life alone.
Yes, prayers can seem to have the radical effect of holding the world together because sometimes prayer is the only way it’s going to happen. In her lovely book, Amazing Grace, Kathleen Norris tells us about Dorotheus of Gaza, a 6th century monk, who imagined our world “as a circle, with God at the center and our lives as lines drawn from the circumference toward the center. The closer the lines crowd in toward God, the closer they are to one another; and the closer they are to one another, the closer they become to God.” (This is worth repeating.) In this way, our prayers ground us in a profound, all-encompassing gratitude for everything that God has given to the world in which we live as a church and with our God. One prayer joins with another prayer joins with another prayer for someone in our midst or in the deep recesses of our hearts so that our prayers eventually converge upon one another and touch each other in a profound and life changing way. Our simplistic prayers move beyond privatized prayer to achieve the corporate good for binding the needs of the wounded and brokenhearted just as they seal the joys of the celebratory leaving us with a profound, all-encompassing gratitude for what God has given us, including the trials and tribulations of our stark human reality in a world that can seem overwhelmingly filled with pain.
This is not to suggest that the ultimate “why” of prayer is results. “Results” are merely an ancillary benefit of all of our conversations with God which are themselves manifestations of our natural relationship with God. All of our conversations with God, whether they’re asking for this or that or bemoaning one truth over another – all of these prayers – are wonderfully authentic because they’re centered in our relationship with God and not an intended result from God. And they bring us palpable comfort and joy because they also tie us in relationship with those who are with us in prayer through our most difficult or best experiences of life.
Our prayers bring us together, and out of a deep-rooted desire to be in community and help to form that community, we are given the mechanism of prayer if for no other reason than the truth of our natural inclination to not want to be alone and prayer might be the only pathway from our loneliness. From our base of not wanting to be alone, ourselves, our natural, Christian compassion motivates us to not leave anyone else along, either. So while prayer may originate in our own desires, it quickly moves beyond them, into our life with others and toward a greater society such that you and I do play a part in some of the most pivotal, otherwise inaccessible situations in the world. The Apostle Paul wrote, “All things work together for good, for those who love God…” (Romans 8: 28, NRSV).
Think about all of those who’ve been working together through their prayers to play a part in the Supreme Court’s reversal of DOMA this past Wednesday. We’ve had prayers of confession, prayers of affirmation, prayers of anger, petition and supplication. We’ve had prayers of thanksgiving and we’ve had prayers of hope. Wednesday morning, Shenella came into my office to say that Julian was in the sanctuary. When I saw him sitting in the pew, his hands covering his face, I wondered what had happened. He said that he’d just come from the Supreme Court building and the announcement that DOMA was dead had just been made. The Supreme Court ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act was not constitutional. Tears of joy were finding their way around the bottom of his glasses, down his cheeks. Julian said that while he comes from a family that has always accepted him unconditionally, he was now overjoyed that the highest court in the nation now affirmed the inalienable truth that we all deserve equal rights to marriage. He said that most of the time we ask for prayers in church because we need God’s help. (Yes, indeed, how many tens of years have people been lifting up prayers for God to release members of the GLBTQ community from the oppression they have known, because sometimes, prayer is all we’ve got?) Now he wanted to bring those prayers full circle with a prayer of Thanksgiving.
God has implanted in each soul a natural inclination for prayer. It’s our native tendency to engage in prayer which sometimes unravels in a rather circuitous way and leads us to amazing things. Each time we pray, it draws us into closer relationship with our Lord and one another in ways that are brimming with hope and possibility. This has the radical effect of holding the world together. This has the potential effect of healing us all.
Let us pray: Lord, we are grateful that your Spirit interprets our weak thoughts with sighs too deep for words. Hear us in this space as we pour out our deepest yearnings and most heart-felt joys. Draw us closer to you and one another through the prayers we offer today and all ways. May our prayers strengthen us as a community of faith to continue to work together in love for justice and mercy and peace and hope for all. Amen.