September 17, 2013
It’s a strange thing that something as powerful, as intimate, as comforting as prayer should be fraught with so many problems!
What should by rights be so easy, so natural….is anything but.
We each, without much effort, could tick off a rather long list of our own “problems with prayer.”
There’s the problem of thinking we know too much about God, for example. There’s the burden of theologizing everything--so, if God knows everything already, why should I bother to tell God anything—as if “new information” is something that even exists for God? And if God is starting to answer my prayer before I even pray it, what’s the point?
There’s the problem of finding the right place, time and posture for prayer--not to mention maintaining a discipline of prayer in the midst of so many other duties and responsibilities and distractions.
There’s the problem of finding the right words for prayer (this is God we’re addressing after all!) Which prayer is more thoughtful and sincere: the prayer you have painstakingly written out ahead of time, or the prayer of the heart that springs forth unbidden…a prayer you can sigh or even groan?
There’s the problem of getting in the right frame of mind for prayer, clearing away all impediments to prayer, opening the channels so that you and God can really communicate.
There’s the problem—the fear actually of boring God with our prayers (though honestly, I have my doubts as to whether “boredom” is something God is even capable of…)
There’s the vexing problem in our religiously pluralistic culture of praying in the proper name, with the right credentials. Is the phrase “in Jesus’ name” like our password or heavenly PIN number, that magically unlocks the door to the heavenly throne room? Does God even bother with “To Whom it May Concern” prayers, or are those automatically deleted and sent to the divine recycle bin?
There’s the problem of prayer’s commonality, we might even say prayer’s profanity…the fact that any Tom, Dick or Harry (whether they ever darken the door of a holy place or not)….anyone can just toss up a petition with a “God I sure hope you’re up there” address. As Anne Lamott observes, prayers of thanksgiving are something even atheists and agnostics utter when they’re not thinking about what they’re saying. But doesn’t that cheapen prayer?
There’s the problem of competing prayers and competing “pray-ers.” Visiting the Gettysburg Battlefield last month we were reminded, time and again, that the Union troops and their Confederate counterparts all pleaded with the same God to grant them victory in battle.
And, really, we could go on and on and on. How is it that we have so many problems with the profound, gracious gift of prayer?
And then there are problems with prayer that fly way under the radar…like the one that lurks in our prayer of the day.
This venerable collect, discloses another surprising problem with prayer. Look at it with me once again, especially the first line: "Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we are to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve….”
Now we get the part about God always being ready to give us more than we deserve—we understand that part in spades.
Miserable worms, ungrateful wretches that we are….we never deserve anything God gives us, even when we may have accidentally gotten prayer right for a change. Even when we’re at our very best—all our righteousness is as filthy rags, don’t you know? Our Lutheran guilt—guilt that burns like a pilot light, according to Garrison Keillor--our Lutheran guilt keeps us honest about that.
But the phrase that’s been eating at me since I saw this prayer in a worship service on the eve of our ELCA Churchwide Assembly….the word that bugs me in this venerable collect is that word “desire.”
Almighty God is always ready to give us more than we desire. Did you catch that?
We don’t even know what we want from God…what we need from God? You’d think that we concupiscent, sinful creatures could at least get desires straight—but no. We don’t even know what we want!
And still, God fulfills those desires and then some! What’s with that?
The key may lie in our text from Ephesians 3, another passage that’s gotten under my skin and made me ponder for the last ten years or so, especially this line: “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.”
There is something about “imagination” churning around in all of this…..imagination about ourselves, imagination about God and imagination about the things God aches to give us and the whole creation.
So, we probably all have our “to do” lists and our goals lists and our “bucket lists.” We may think that these encompass our desires—but do they? Does God’s Word here invite us, as usually happens, to dive even deeper?
In the Gospel of John, the first time Jesus speaks, he asks a question of two would-be followers….and I think it’s one of the highest, widest questions in the universe: “What are you looking for?”
I wonder if our prayer of the day, when it reminds us how God is always ready to give us more than we desire or deserve….I wonder if this prayer beckons us toward Jesus’ haunting question: “What are you looking for?”
To suggest, as this prayer does, that we don’t even know what we desire of God, isn’t to say that we have failed to draw up our Sears Wishbook lists of “stuff we’d really like to have someday”….
…but it is to suggest that when we pray, we will do well to approach prayer as people who have taken the time to stop, look and listen to Jesus who is forever asking us: “What are you looking for?”
Imagination—incarnational imagination!--therefore, is integral to the practice of prayer—isn’t it? Imagination about ourselves—“What are you looking for?” But more importantly, imagination about God…maybe with the counterpoint question in mind: “What is God aching to give me, to give us, to give to this whole hurting world?”
However we answer that second question, we need to say at least this much: God is always aching to give us more. I’m not too worried about boring God with my dull prayers, but I do wonder if my too-puny, too-small prayers often disappoint God.
Because the picture of God that is painted in this prayer of the day and in the Ephesians passage, is of One who is forever saying to us: “Is that all? Is that all you expect me to do? Why are you so sheepish about asking for more?”
Friends, what if the biggest problem with prayer is that we’re always low-balling God? What if the sort of prayer we want to be aiming for is the biggest, most audacious, as the Brits would say the cheekiest prayer we can imagine?
And in this regard we would do well to take the Lord Prayer as a jumping off point. It starts, you’ve certainly noticed, by asking for the Big Stuff first—right up front. We pray for the holiness of God’s name, the coming of God’s kingdom, the doing of God’s good and gracious will “on earth as it is in heaven.” What more could we ask? The rest of the Lord’s Prayer simply fleshes that out, albeit quite briefly!
So here’s the image of God I want to lay before us in closing: picture God looking us right in the eyes and saying to us: “Hit me! Hit me with your very best—your wildest, most bodacious petition—ask for my holiness to prevail, ask for my strong and gentle rule over all things, ask for heaven to come down to earth, ask for me, my very presence…just ask for me to enter your life, forgive your sin, wipe away your fear of death, turn you toward your neighbor, and make you and all things new.”
I don’t know. Can Lutherans learn to pray like that?
We can, as we sweep away most of our militant modesty, our contentment with ‘just enough,’ our perennially low and painfully realistic expectations….
We’ll want to get a little tipsy on God’s grace to pray like that, but I think it’s in our genes.
For if Father Staupitz was right when he asked Luther if he thought he could out-sin the grace of God….perhaps it will be just as right for you and I to ask ourselves: “Do we think we can out-pray the abundance of God?”
Given the challenges and changes we face in this unsettled, unsettling moment in the life of God’s church, I believe we need precisely such prayers—such big, bold, bodacious prayers for all that God has in mind for us and the whole creation---we need such “more, more, more” prayers….now, more than ever.
In the name of Jesus.Amen.