Sunday, April 06, 2014

Tefillah: Prayer (Romans 8:26-29)

During Lent 2014 I am again using chapters from Lauren Winner's Mudhouse Sabbath as a guide to exploring some of the practices and traditions of Judaism as a way of focusing on Jesus in an attempt to follow him more closely. This is the sermon I preached when I first did this three years ago:

During the season of Lent our church is studying some chapters from Lauren Winner's book Mudhouse Sabbath. The sermons during this time will also follow through on some of her writing, but the sermon author claims all mistakes and goofy ideas as his own.

In many ways, our prayer lives and habits parallel our overall growth in thinking and understanding. As children, our prayers are almost completely petitionary and mostly one-sided. We memorize prayers that we say every night before we go to bed or that we say before meals. Most of the time we don't understand their content very well, but we learn that it's important to say "Thank you" to God and to remember we are blessed in many ways we might otherwise overlook.

When we get older and our communication and relationships take on new dimensions, we certainly hope our prayer does as well, although sometimes it doesn't. Rather than just asking God for things or calling out in time of need, we begin to realize that prayer is also about listening to God. As much as we may fascinate ourselves, God wants to play a part in the conversation as well.

At the same time our awareness of how we pray grows, though, so do some of our questions about it. If we pray for someone's healing and it happens, we rejoice. But if it doesn't, what does that say about prayer and about God? Or if the person we pray for recovers, but another person prayed for doesn't, what can we say to the people who prayed for that person?

And what can we pray for in situations we don't understand? Does anyone really know, for example, what needs to happen in the Middle East so that people there can have a chance to live like they want to without a dictator or some crazy rebel leader dropping bombs on them or shooting at them as they go about their business? We obviously pray for the people suffering in the fighting and oppressed by dictators, but what do we want to happen for them? How do we want their problems solved?

Pick just about any problem in the so-called "adult arena" that needs solving and you will have a hard time finding the solution. And so we may throw up our hands and say, "Lord, help 'em!" Although those are words, they're not very specific and you can see how they might be like what Paul says about prayer in Romans.

If we focus on prayer results rather than on prayer itself, we will confuse the pretty much everyone before very long. And we'll probably confuse ourselves as well. Lauren Winner suggests in her chapter on prayer that when we pray, we get to join in a conversation or a communion that's already going on among the three person of the Holy Trinity. Although it's not a perfect model, I think we can use it to help shape our prayer life.

For one, not every conversation has results. We Methodists, veterans of a hundred committee meetings or more, know this to be so. But even pleasant conversations aren't conducted with an eye towards their results. They happen because the people involved want to speak with each other. If they're related to each other by friendship or family ties or similar interests, they may be enjoying each other's company. Married people will probably tell you that asking each other how the day went is less about finding out how the day went than about talking with their spouses. A mom who's been by herself with a toddler all day long probably doesn't much care about the new staplers in her husband's office, but she does care about being able to talk in real grown-up words and share with her partner (we should stipulate, of course, that significant parts of the office day may not be very grown-up, despite the words used to describe it). The relationship matters far more than the content.

When we pray, the relationship we are building with God matters more than the content. When we give thanks for our blessings in a day, we're not really trying to itemize every good thing that happened to us so we offer the proper thank-yous for them all, the way we had to make sure a thank-you note accompanied every birthday gift, even the necktie from the strange cousin who thought it was a good gift for an eight-year-old boy. We are indeed thanking God, but we're also trying to build belief and acceptance that all we have comes from God, and that we owe thanks to God for it.

When we ask for God's presence or intervention in a crisis, whether it's geopolitical or personal or medical or whatever, we are in fact seeking that presence or protection for those we pray for. Otherwise we would just be making noise. But again, we're also building our faith, helping strengthen our belief that whatever good things may come in those situations come from God. For the praying Christian, healing at the hands of the skilled surgeon is no less a miracle than one unexplainable by science. Who gave the surgeon her skill? Who created the dedication to her work that kept her through med school and residency and through all the patients that didn't make it? We may or may not know who she credits, but we will credit God.

Conversations have pauses, of course. But the relationships that fuel them don't. It's the relationship that prompts the desire to resume the conversation if the people involved have been apart.

Our prayers may pause when we say "Amen." But our relationship with God does not, and so we find ourselves following every "Amen" with an "Again!" as we are called and drawn to return to our prayer with Him.

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