Dear God …

April 29, 2018/Covenant Living: Pray Faithfully

Matthew 6:5-13 and I John 5:14-15


I have a dear friend with whom I can share pretty much anything happening in my life.  We talk regularly, and when time passes without a conversation, one of us will pick up the phone and say, “Hey girl!  What’s going on?”  The conversation is off – children, grandchildren, husbands, parents, work, politics, the cost of gas, and what in the world am I going to cook for supper.  Nothing is off limits; nothing is too small or big, too insignificant or monumental, for us to tackle.

Prayer is not very different from that.  In her little book on prayer, Anne Lamott writes, “Prayer means that, in some unique way, we believe we’re invited into a relationship with someone who hears us when we speak in silence.”[1]  Quaker author Richard Foster says, “Prayer is the human response to the perpetual outpouring of love by which God lays siege to every soul.”[2]

We know we should pray.  Maybe we even want to pray.  But somehow we feel inadequate.  It’s one thing to pour our hearts out to a friend, but God?  We worry that our words won’t be eloquent enough, that we will bother God with things too trivial for the Most Holy to consider – or that we won’t find the words to say at all.  Oh, we all have a small pocketful of prayers that we learned as children, but those default prayers don’t seem to work for us as adults.  “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep …”  And the other one we all remember: “God is good, God is great …”  That might not be a bad start, actually.

Why do we get so uncomfortable at the idea of doing something that God invites – in fact, requires – us to do as part of our life of faith?  Jesus’ disciples must have seen something compelling in his practice of prayer, but still they seemed uncertain how to pray.  In the Gospel of Luke, one of the disciples entreats Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray.”  In our text from Matthew, Jesus first tells his disciples how not to pray – don’t be like the hypocrites; don’t use a bunch of fancy words like the Gentiles.  Don’t broadcast your prayers from the street corner or stand up in front of everyone to show off your way with words.  Go into your room, lock yourself away, and pray in secret.  Then he shares the short, simple prayer that we repeat nearly every Sunday.  “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.  Your kingdom come.  Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread.  And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.  And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.”

This is not a fancy prayer.  It is short, does not use lofty language, gets right to the point.  Notice that Jesus doesn’t set forth any requirements about our own spiritual status in teaching this prayer.  He doesn’t say we have be perfect or even good before we talk to God.  Lamott reminds us that “Prayer is taking a chance against all odds and past history, we are loved and chosen, and do not have to get it together before we show up.”[3]   This little prayer can serve as a guide for us any time we seek to communicate with God.  It asks for help during time of trouble and provision for all the little things.  It offers thanksgiving to God for the gifts of life and creation.  It lifts up praise and adoration for God our maker.  Or as Lamott puts it, “Help!  Thanks!  Wow!”

The wonderful thing about prayer is that we don’t have to worry about what we will say or whether our prayers will be good enough for God.  “We bring ourselves before God just as we are, warts and all.  Like children before a loving father, we open our hearts and make our requests.”[4]  God welcomes us no matter our state of mind.  Angry or sad or frustrated or overjoyed, our prayers rise up like fragrant incense and are welcomed by God.  “Prayer is our sometimes real selves trying to communicate with [God].  It is us reaching out to be heard.”[5]

No problem or concern or request is too insignificant for us to bring before God.  Foster writes, “I urge you: carry on an ongoing conversation with God about the daily stuff of life.”[6]  He would love my granddaughter Avery, who, while watching her brother play Pac Man, prayed fervently, “Dear Lord, PLEASE HELP Levi to beat the game!”  “Give us this day our daily bread,” we pray, asking God to meet our most basic needs and confessing our complete reliance on God’s provisions for us.  With these words, Jesus teaches us that we should take all of our desires, cares, needs, and concerns to God, who is the very source of our being.

***

Spirit, open my heart to the joy and pain of living.
As you love may I love, in receiving and in giving.
Spirit, open my heart.

God, we’re not sure about prayer.
We’re not sure you really want to hear
the silly, insignificant things
we are worried about.
But we are worried.
About our children,
our work,
our parents,
ourselves,
our world.
Help, God.  Help.
Amen.

 

***

Sometimes our needs are much deeper than daily bread.  Sometimes we find ourselves in what St. John of the Cross called the “dark night of the soul.”  While we may want to pray, while we may want the comfort we believe only the Most High can provide, we falter in approaching God.  We may wonder if God is not somehow to blame.  We may wonder why God did not step in to spare us this pain, to heal our friend, to prevent the shooting, to stave off the hurricane’s destruction.  We are angry, and we just don’t understand.  Theologian Daniel Migliore writes, prayer means “being open and honest to God, praising God but also crying to God in our need, and even sometimes crying out against God.”[7]  French Reformed theologian Jacques Ellul insists that we must “demand God keep his word. … Hope never ceases to shout in God’s ears.”[8]

The Psalms are full of complaints against God.  In despair, the psalmist cries out: “I am here, calling for your help, praying to you every morning: why do you reject me? Why do you hide your face from me?” (Ps. 88:13-14 JB).  The psalmist questions the inaction of God: “I say to God, my rock, ‘Why have you forsaken me?’” (Ps. 42:9).  Lamott writes, “I want to tell God what to do: ‘Look, Pal, this is a catastrophe.  You have got to shape up.’”[9]  She continues:

God can handle honesty, and prayer begins an honest conversation.  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 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.[10]

When you become angry with God, when you despair of anything ever being right again, and when you because of that think there is absolutely no way you could possibly pray, I ask you to consider this: if your son or daughter was hurting and sick at heart and angry, would you want to hear from them?  In the same way, God yearns to hear from you.

***

Spirit, open my heart to the joy and pain of living.
As you love may I love, in receiving and in giving.
Spirit, open my heart.

God, where are you?
What have I done to make you hide from me?
Are you playing cat and mouse with me,
or are your purposes larger than my perceptions?
I feel alone, lost, forsaken.

You are the God who majors in revealing yourself.
You showed yourself to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
When Moses wanted to know what you looked like, you obliged him.
Why them and not me?

I am tired of praying.
I am tired of asking.
I am tired of waiting.
But I will keep on praying and asking and waiting
because I have nowhere else to go.

Jesus, you, too, knew the loneliness of the desert
and the isolation of the cross.
And it is through your forsaken prayer
that I speak these words.  Amen.[11]

***

Thanks be to God, we are not always in the depths of despair.  Sometimes we are overcome by the wonder of the creation around us, overcome to the point of tears or song or breathless, wordless prayer.  Lamott encourages us at these moments to pray simply.  “When we are stunned to a place beyond words, … when all we can say in response is ‘Wow,’ that’s a prayer.”[12]

Our adoration rises up from thankful spirits.  Drawn close to the heart of God, we experience God in the smallest of things – the single violet blooming in an otherwise empty garden, the butterfly flitting from flower to flower, the smell of spring rain, the blue of the sky, the tiny chipmunk scampering toward its hole.  We cultivate a habit of gratitude slowly, Foster writes, by first focusing on these little things.  “We are first drawn into these tiny pleasures and then beyond them to the Giver of pleasures.  True pleasures are, after all, ‘shafts of the glory.’”[13]  Here again, the Psalms can serve as a model for our prayers.  “O magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt his name together” (Ps. 34:3).

***

Spirit, open my heart to the joy and pain of living.
As you love may I love, in receiving and in giving.
Spirit, open my heart.

O most high, glorious God,
it is Love that calls forth my speech,
though it still feels like stammering.
I love you, Lord God.
I adore you.
I worship you.
I bow down before you.

Thank you for your gifts of grace:
the consistency of sunrise and sunset,
the wonder of colors,
the solace of voices I know.

In the name of him whose adoration never failed.  Amen.[14]

***

“Our prayer[s] are a response to the One whose love embraces us.”[15]  Foster says that prayer “ushers us into perpetual communion with the Father.  Real prayer is life creating and life changing.  In prayer, we begin to think God’s thoughts after him; to desire the things he desires, to love the things he loves, to will the things he wills.”[16]  Is it any wonder, then, that God, desiring a relationship with us, would want us to pray?

Swiss German theologian Karl Barth envisions a person in prayer approaching God with empty hands.  “But empty hands are necessary when human hands are to be spread out before God and filled by Him.  It is these empty hands that God in His goodness wills of us when He bids us to pray to Him. … [The person praying] has nothing either to represent or to present to God except himself as the one who has to receive all things from Him.”[17]  In our praying, we present ourselves as empty vessels, ready to be filled.  The miracle of grace is that God our Father waits for us, ready to fill us to overflowing!

Father, hallowed be your name!  Amen.

[1] Anne Lamott, Help! Thanks! Wow!, 4

[2] Richard Foster, Prayer, 81

[3] Lamott, 6

[4] Foster, 9

[5] Lamott, 7

[6] Foster, 12

[7] quoted by Bill Tammeus, “Prayers and Silence,” Presbyterian Outlook, March 5, 2018, 41

[8] Ibid.

[9] Lamott, 16

[10] Ibid., 6-7

[11] Foster, 24-25

[12] Lamott, 73

[13] Foster, 88

[14] Ibid., 90-91

[15] David W. Johnson, “The Most Important Part of Thankfulness: A Reformed View of Prayer,” Presbyterian Outlook, March 5, 2018, 22, 25

[16] Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 33

[17] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III.4, 97

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