Paul on Prayer & “Lordship”
I confessed a couple of weeks ago, when I began to talk about one of Paul’s letters, that about half of it is so dull and boring for a modern audience that I would never dream of using it in the pulpit. Ministers don’t like to admit that parts of our sacred literature are about as exciting as a cold potato sandwich, but it’s the truth….and the church might be better off to be more honest about it. You are the best listeners I have ever met, but if I were to plow doggedly through everything in the book of Romans even you might fall asleep. So I am selecting only what I think might be useful to you, and in that way of preaching from Paul I have come to a verse in the very middle of the book where Paul does a rather uncharacteristic thing. He says there is something he doesn’t know.
Paul doesn’t confess ignorance very often. He is a brilliant and positive man who says what he knows in no uncertain terms. Get him on the topic of the Jewish laws with which he grew up, and he says: “We know that the law is good….” Get him on the topic of life’s disappointments and he says, “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him.” Set him at a table where talk turns to dietary laws and he says, “We know that there is nothing wrong with eating meat sacrificed to an idol.” Put him in jail and he says, “I know that I will be released through your prayers.” Lead him to the edge of his own grave and he will say, “We know that if this earthly tent be dissolved we have a house eternal, not made with hands.” But bring him into a chapel, with no one else there, and let him kneel to pray, and he may say — as he does in the verse we start with this morning — “We don’t know….we don’t know how to pray as we ought.”
It’s an odd confession for a man who prayed constantly, who asked us to pray without ceasing, and who begged for prayers from others. Or maybe it only seems odd because we turn the people who wrote scripture into robots, always consistent, never confused, never in doubt. Perhaps this is one of those moments when the great apostle felt a genuine moment of despair about shaping words and offering them up before the mystery of the will of God. Paul is not as comfortable in that divine presence as some of us, who pray from habit or pray as part of our profession, and who have taken the mystery for granted. Remember how he suddenly cries out once, “O the unsearchable riches of God….who knows the mind of God?” Maybe Paul is just so overwhelmed in the verse we are considering right now that he blurts out that rare confession of ignorance: “We don’t know how we ought to pray!”
I suppose he could simply be acknowledging the confusion of his own life. After all, we heard him make his painful confession last week: that the good he meant to do, he often never got around to, while the very things he did not want to do, he often found himself doing — a man, in other words, with the problem that plagues every one of us at times. Given the conflict and confusion we often feel, no wonder we can sympathize with Paul’s not knowing sometimes how to pray for himself, how to pray for others. Remember those times when you simply did not know how to pray best for someone you love? Ever try praying for a beloved child, only to find yourself in the very midst of the prayer no longer sure exactly what that particular child needs? Sure, perhaps, of what YOU want, but suddenly in the midst of your prayer not sure it really is the best thing for the child? And how about an aged parent or friend you love whose quality of life has been lost in the face of hopeless pain? Have you ever had an experience I confess to having had: that in the very course of prayer for such a person the words get slower and slower until finally they stop, and in your confusion you give up and say, “Whatever is best for her, dear God….I just need to speak of my love for her, and of my trust in your love. Amen.”
Sometimes when I am reading Paul I think he talks too much, drags out the argument too far, so I’m rather pleased that on occasion he may have felt that in the awful presence of God the best you can do at times is simply fall silent and hope that the yearnings of your heart are understood. Paul would have known that line from the sacred literature of his own Jewish people that said, “There is a time to speak….and a time to keep silence.” Words have a season, after all. I think Paul, with all his passion for the gospel, would flinch, as I do, at those people who catch a bus and buttonhole the nearest stranger to ask, “Are you saved?” I think his stomach would churn, as mine does, at the silly cuteness of a bumper sticker that says, “Honk if you love Jesus.” He was too passionate for self-righteous slogans, and as much as he believed in his gospel, and as much as he loved to preach it, I can’t imagine his doing something like this: I am walking up that covered chute into the plane, ticket in hand, when a total stranger feels called upon to see how things are with my soul. Someone has told him in a class on evangelism to look for an opening gambit, a conversation piece….so he looks at my ticket and says, “I see you have your ticket for this flight, but the important thing, of course, is whether you have your ticket for the Great Flight.” I said, “I’m just going as far as Chicago, thanks” — and then I said a silent prayer — that our seats would not be together. I suppose that someone who is here for the first time and does not know me, could be thinking, “Well, this is strange: a minister who doesn’t care about religion!” The truth is, I care too much to see it cheapened by those inappropriate intrusions and gimmicks which are taught in handbooks on how to approach sinners. Just as I care about prayer enough to understand why Paul could say, I don’t know how to do it! I care enough about it to wince sometimes when it is professionally delivered on demand at a ball game, in the legislature, even in church — words spoken to satisfy convention, slick and pretty words that flow easily from the lips but carry no hint of passion or of pain. You have all been someplace where prayer became babble, rambling on and on until you found yourself, even against your will, no longer listening.
Jesus must have heard such prayers. Keep in mind, he said, that you are not heard for your much speaking. He knew how brief and urgent words are when we feel deeply. He knew, as Paul knew, that sometimes prayer is only silence, or a muffled cry. When my friend Fred Craddock was teaching preachers how to preach at Phillips University in Enid, he used to read a column written in the Kingfisher, Oklahoma newspaper by Molly Shepherd, an Arapahoe Indian woman. It was part gossip column, part cultural history. She would tell of her people’s customs — weddings, funerals, pow-wows, dances and songs — in a broken but passionate English that made it seem all the more authentic. Fred remembers that on the Friday after President Kennedy was killed, Molly’s grief was too deep to express. She wrote just a brief note: “Molly has no article today. Molly has nothing to say today. Molly has no words today. All week, Molly goes through the house, saying ‘Oh-h-h-h-h-h.” That was all. Paul would have understood, and loved Molly. And Paul would know that even if we don’t know how to pray, we pray. Not in the same set forms, not always by means of a formal address, but more people pray than come to church: the engineer at Koch, the CEO of the company, the lawyer, the physician, the teacher — in some inarticulate way, when love informs our yearning, we all pray.
One more theme from Paul’s letter. Over and over he speaks of Christ as “Lord.” If someone were to ask you to say what that title means, what would you say? One day, a few years ago, a military officer came up to the front of the church at the end of a sermon and when the minister asked what his wishes were, he said this: “I have never belonged to any church, or made a confession of faith, but I wish to become a Christian.” The minister had a little formula he followed, so he said, “Do you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God?” The man hesitated a moment and then said, “I haven’t really worked out the meanings of words like that, but I know what it means to have someone in charge and to take orders, and I wish to say in public that Jesus is the Lord of my life.” The minister had never heard a confession quite like that before but he decided he liked it.
Like many of you, I served in the military and learned what it means to be under orders. Most of the time they were easy enough to obey, but sometimes I had to do things I didn’t feel like doing — wouldn’t have done if I had been the supreme authority in my life. If any of you remember what college life was like in the 60’s you will understand why, as a teacher in those years, I became convinced that many of my students needed a year of military discipline. If they “felt” like it, they came to class. If they “felt” like it, they washed their clothes and combed their hair. Some of them disliked authority (lordship) so much that when they became parents, they couldn’t bring themselves to discipline their children. Somebody told them how fragile children are, so when the kids set fire to the sofa and sawed the family dog in half they were reluctant to intrude on the children’s feelings. But feelings can’t always be the ultimate criterion. There are some things you do, and some things you don’t do, because somebody is in charge.
Bring the idea into our church life for a moment. If you come to church only when you feel like it, I doubt it will make much difference in your life. This minister will greet you as warmly as he greets anyone else, pleased to have you, but he will know — as any minister in any church knows — that the church lives because of those who come and serve week after week whether they “feel” like it or not. They may or may not be as handsome, charming or influential as those whose loyalty is less, but they are the backbone and the lifeblood of a place…..and the true guarantee that it will have a tomorrow. I could name every one of you….if there weren’t so many, and if doing so were not embarrassing for good people who have not yet committed themselves that fully…..but I hope you know how deeply I respect you. Quietly, wihout fanfare, you do year after year after year the things that have to be done if Christ is Lord.
A man goes to his store on a bitterly cold Monday morning, unlocks the door or runs up the steel curtain, gets the place ready. If somebody shows up to say, “What are you doing here so early on this cold Monday morning?” how do you think he will answer? “Oh, I just felt like it today. My heart was warmed, when I woke up, with the thought of being here and opening the store.” You know better. He says, “Wel-l-l we have to open every Monday morning at 7.” I can remember grading papers at midnight and again at 5 in the morning not because I “felt” like it but because the registrar, who at that moment was boss, said they were due at 9 a.m. We have many teachers in this room who faithfully show up in the classroom on days when they don’t feel like it. You say, “Oh, your heart must warm up each morning at the thought of teaching the kids,” and they say, “No, but it has to be done.”
There’s church this morning. Do you feel like coming? I have all those names in my head of people who come anyway because they said they would. That board I said I would serve on is meeting today. Do I feel like spending the time? If this church has high priority in your life, if Christ is Lord, you do those things because you feel you have to. A woman alone in her house one night heard a noise, looked up, and saw a strange and frightening face through the small glass of her door. For a split second she panicked, and then she jumped up and moved the piano against the door. When her husband came home, a little while later, she couldn’t budge the piano to let him in, and he had to go around to the heavy steel door they had in the back of their house. For months after that, she told friends, her husband would look up occasionally over the morning paper and say, “Who helped you move that piano?”
You know the answer. We do some things because we have to, just as Paul did some things in his life because he had to, because he had made a life-changing commitment. I like a story circulating in Detroit about the early days of Henry Ford and Ford Motor Company. It has to with a machinist with the Company who over a period of years had “borrowed” tools and other automobile parts. Although it was against company policy it was tacitly understood that “everybody does it,” and management did nothing about it. One day, however, the machinist was converted and joined a church. He took it seriously. The day after this happened he gathered up all the “tools” he had collected over the years, loaded them into his pickup, took them to the plant and handed them over to the foreman with a request for forgiveness.
The foreman was so overcome by the man’s honesty that he cabled Henry Ford himself, who was visiting a plant in Europe. After reading what happened, Ford immediately cabled back this response: “Dam up the Detroit River, and baptize the entire plant.” Hidden in his joke was a grudging respect for people who take their faith seriously. Because you do, we have this lovely place where week by week the energies of love and compassion are renewed in each one of us, and taken away when we leave to bless the lives of others. It seems appropriate, somehow, to wish for you what Paul wished long ago for his favorite church — “that your love may grow ever richer and richer in knowledge and insight of every kind”