Paul E. Jackson
Sunday, February 1, 2015
University Congregational Church
“Tough Theological Questions: What is the Purpose of Prayer?”
When I remember you[c] in my prayers, I always thank my God 5 because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. 6 I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we[d] may do for Christ. 7 I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother. Philemon 1:4-7 NSRV
So prayer is our sometimes real selves trying to communicate with the Real, with Truth, with the Light. It is us reaching out to be heard, hoping to be found by a light and warmth in the world, instead of darkness and cold. Even mushrooms respond to light – I suppose they blink their mushroomy eyes, like the rest of us.
Light reveals us to ourselves, which is not always so great if you find yourself in a big disgusting mess, possibly of your own creation. But like sunflowers we turn toward light. Light warms, and in most cases it draws us to itself. And in this light, we can see beyond our modest receptors, to what is way beyond us, and deep inside.”
― Anne Lamott, Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers
We pray for many reasons. Already today we’ve prayed together and separately. Some of us may have said a blessing this morning at breakfast or we will at lunch. Some of us had morning devotionals and they may have included a prayer. In the foyer there is a plaque that states the dedicatory prayer for this fine building (given by Rev. Dr. Robin Meyers many years ago) and is a good example of that type of prayer. We prayed together the Lord’s Prayer and in doing so joined with millions of Christians around the world who will say that prayer this Sundayh. We pray in many ways and for many reasons. But what is the purpose of our prayer? Let’s explore this purpose together this morning.
The author Ann Lamott writes in her book Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, that most of us turn to God or our concept of God in just those three times. The “Help Me! Help Me! Help Me! Prayer” that we’ve all uttered…me at least three times just this morning. The “Thank You, Thank You, Thank You prayer” that we use occasionally, when we remember to give thanks to this Creator God for all we have been given. And the “Wow Prayer” this one is actually my favorite. Remember when you were a child? The wonder and awe and sheer joy that life held? I think of that childlike awe that I used to hold of the world, and I try to return to that as often as I can. Have you noticed our recent sunrises and sunsets? We live in Kansas, so we’re used to breath-taking vistas of color and light, but lately we’ve been treated to some really blazing depth of color. Moments when I just go…wow.
But what is this thing we do? This sometimes private, sometimes public communication with the divine? Jesus tells us in Matthew’s Gospel that whatever we ask for will be given us. In Luke 18, Jesus tells a parable about persistence in prayer—pray, pray, pray and eventually you will wear God down and God will give in. Matthew 18:19 has Jesus telling us “If two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in Heaven.”
The problem with those examples of Jesus telling us to pray is that they are always taken out of context. There’s that tricky word again that gets us into so much trouble. Context! The scriptures I just quoted have less to do with God as a magical being who grants every request and more to do with our being instructed to bring about the Kingdom of God on Earth through our acts of healing and reconciliation and justice. God’s justice.
It’s been said that there are no atheists in foxholes. By that we mean that when you are on the battlefield contemplating your probable, imminent death, you develop a keen awareness of the divine and you want to let that entity know that you are here and you are in trouble. To me, this is one of the easiest to abuse prayers. Dear God, if you keep – fill in the blank of whatever terrible thing here—if you keep this from happening, then I promise to do…fill in the blank. I don’t think our God is very interested in bargaining with us.
The other extreme of this type of abuse of prayer is more subtle and publically endorsed. Dear God, please let my team win the Super Bowl and I promise that I will…fill in the blank. Isn’t the other team and their fans also praying for the same thing? How on Earth do we expect God to be objective when we are always begging for competing outcomes on the same event! And then take this to its logical and morally reprehensible end…”Dear God, please ensure that my army is victorious in battle and that the Godless heathens of the other side are vanquished.” Godless Heathens? If you recall Robin’s sermon from last week, we’re all praying to the same God (different names) and expecting outcomes that are mutually exclusive. The Televangelist Pat Robertson is famous for claiming that because Hurricane Gloria missed his Virginia headquarters back in 1985, it was proof that his prayers were answered. I am sure that the other people who lost their homes and the families of those that died were comforted by Robertson’s claim that his prayer was better and more important than theirs because obviously God spared him and not them. Hogwash. It doesn’t work that way.
So how does it work, Paul? Well, I don’t know. I’m only in my second semester at Phillips Theological Seminary and I haven’t had the required course on “God Answers My Prayers and Not Yours, nyah, nyah nyah”. To be honest I haven’t seen it in the curriculum, but it must be there right? Surely I have to learn that my prayers are more important that yours. That our prayers as Congregationalists must be better than the Evangelicals down the street. That the prayers of American Christians are, by definition, better than the prayers of Israeli Jews or Palestinian Muslims or Tibetan Buddhists.
I have always thought of breath as prayer. When I can center myself and breath calmly and serenely then I feel like I enter into a state of communion, of intimacy, with the divine. Isn’t that what we’re really looking at here? A very personal connection with God that occurs when it is just us, our thoughts and our supplications, fears and “wows”.
I’ve been reading Bernard Haisch’s book “The God Theory” and while I still can’t grasp all that he is dealing with, there is so much to this theory. At its very basic level Haisch is saying that something much bigger than we can even contemplate–something huge and powerful and maybe unknowable has created everything that is, everything that ever was and everything that ever will be. He goes on to propose that human beings are how this power, which he calls the Godhead, is experiencing its creations–the Godhead is experiencing life through us and with us and through our collective and individual experiences. Under this theory, anytime we have an interaction with another human being we are, in effect, interacting with the Godhead. This is one reason why we should never harm another, because in essence we are harming the Godhead. We damage God by our actions and our inactions. I’m not saying that God is pleased or displeased with us, I’m saying that the infinite consciousness and power of the Godhead experiences everything that we do and say and think and feel and upon our deaths we will return our energy to this “Great-I-Am.” It’s a fascinating book and I promise you a more complete report on it when I’ve finished it and understand it better. But, when I approach my prayer in this manner, of a shared life with God, experiencing my life in all of its glory and mess, that the Godhead experiences that as well. That we are in this together. Wouldn’t I want my prayer to reflect goodness and the possibility of what can be? Wouldn’t I want the positive energy of my words to flow forth and create ripples of goodness and kindness and love that echo out into the world?
Prayer is not insurance. It’s not something we do to store up good deeds and then we can tap into them when we need it. This is called “Tow Truck Theology” and the concept is this: You run out of gas on a country road. You think to yourself, I’m a good person, so I’ll pray to God to help me. God then sends a tickle out to the ear of a local farmer who suddenly thinks to himself, “I need to load up my truck with an extra gas can and head out to the interstate”. He suddenly shows up and there you are. All gassed up and thanking God for answering your prayers. If you’ve ever done this sort of praying you know how fruitless it is. It doesn’t work that way. The faith we claim as Christians is not an insurance policy against tragedy, loss and all of the other things that happen to us as humans. Our faith as Christians means we have a covenant with God for God’s presence with us. And prayer is one way we can experience that presence. It is a very common belief among Christians to think that as long as I am a good person and pray regularly, I will be immune from life’s difficulties. Being in relationship with the divine does not create some sort of force-field about us, protecting us from harm. Even Jesus cried out from the cross, My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? Wouldn’t you think that of all of humanity’s prayers, that one would have maybe been answered? No, being faithful means connecting with God; in whatever way we do that best. Prayer is just another way to help us connect with the Spirit on our journey.
In my practice, prayer serves more as a motivator and way for me to focus, than any sort of magical wish list or test of my faith. As I pray, I look at what I am praying for or about. And then I look to see if I have the resources to achieve my prayer. I also trust in our God that I will be given the strength and the wisdom to uncover these things. My prayer is less about what a God, way out there, can do for me– as much, as it is a contemplation of what a God, who is right here, in my breath, within me, and what we can accomplish together.
The writer Ann Lamott also writes: “So prayer is our sometimes real selves trying to communicate with the Real, with Truth, with the Light. It is us reaching out to be heard, hoping to be found by a light and warmth in the world, instead of darkness and cold. Even mushrooms respond to light – I suppose they blink their mushroomy eyes, like the rest of us.” She continues…
“Light reveals us to ourselves, which is not always so great if you find yourself in a big disgusting mess, possibly of your own creation. But like sunflowers we turn toward light. Light warms, and in most cases it draws us to itself. And in this light, we can see beyond our modest receptors, to what is way beyond us, and deep inside.” She wrote, “We can see beyond our modest receptors, the physical parts of ours eyes that perceives the light, and see beyond that…to what is way beyond us, and deep inside. I think THAT is what prayer is all about—connecting us with a God who wants to be in our lives, if only we will let that happen.
So what IS the purpose of our prayer? Is it a plea for help in the darkness of our lives? Is it a thank you for the myriad gifts we have been given? Is it an opportunity for us to say “WOW” and revel in all that this wondrous world has to offer? Or is it all of this and more? Prayer can be and should be a time when we think and act intimately with God. When we seek God’s presence in our lives and reflect upon that. Prayer should be our breath and our breath should be prayer.
Please stand as you are able and sing our closing benediction.
Next week Robin returns to the pulpit with another Tough Theological Question: Is God Active In Our World? Join us then. In the meantime, go forth from this place secure in the knowledge that your prayers or Help Me, Thank You and Wow can make a difference if we only allow God to work with us in a world so starved for our love.
Haisch, Bernard. “The God Theory” Weiser Books: San Francisco. 2009