Rev. Anna Woofenden
Listen to the Audio of this week’s sermon “Teach Us To Pray”
“Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.”
― Mahatma Gandhi
Scripture: Genesis 18:20-32 and Luke 11:1-13
Prayer, regarded in itself, is speech with God, and some internal view at the time of the matters of the prayer, to which there answers something like an influx into the perception or thought of the mind, so that there is a certain opening of the person’s interiors toward God; but this with a difference according to the person’s state, and according to the essence of the subject of the prayer. If the person prays from love and faith, and for only heavenly and spiritual things, there then comes forth in the prayer something like a revelation (which is manifested in the affection of the person that prays) as to hope, consolation, or a certain inward joy. –Emanuel Swedenborg Secrets of Heaven #2535
Last week I was talking to a woman who was seriously questioning her faith. She began sharing some of her story with me, and giving me the background, and then she stopped and said, “Last year there was something in my life that I really really deeply wanted, and I prayed, and I prayed, and I prayed for it. And it didn’t happen. And now, I just don’t know. If God is out there and supposed to care, why would God not answer my prayer?”
When I was a hospital chaplain, I spent a fair amount of time praying with people, and most of the time it was in intense situations—life and death for the individual or their families. I would usually start by asking, “What do you want us to pray for?” and the conversations would unfold. And most often, people would have a pretty specific ask. “Pray that my mom’s cancer will go away.” “Pray that I will not die from this tumor.” “Pray that my baby’s lung will heal.” All of these prayers made perfect sense. Of course. Of course these were the things to pray for. Of course this was what they desperately and fervently wanted, and what I wanted for them—but how to pray?
Teach us Lord, how to pray.
I stood in those hospital rooms, or sat in the ER waiting room, and I would have these moments playing the scenario out in my head—yes, I could pray for the cure of the loved one, and it could happen, but it also was just as likely that the patient would die, and then what? Then God doesn’t answer prayers and was this prayer not just setting people up to sever their relationship with God along with their heartbreak and loss?
I wrestled with how to pray with wholehearted belief in the power of a healing God and with hope, while praying with the deep knowledge that God needed to be big enough, close enough, loving enough, that even if the worst thing happened, that there was space in the prayer, in the theological constructs that we weave with our words of prayer, for God to still be there and for God to still be the force of love in the universe.
And so, I found myself praying for the words to pray, and then praying the grief and the worry, praying the assurance of God’s presence in the room, praying the sobs and praying the hopes. I found myself exploring prayers for healing vs. prayers for cures, as healing comes in so many forms, including the peace that comes along with trusting and walking with God through even the most impossible situations.
I found prayers becoming times to squeeze the hands of family gathered round the bedside of the patient on the ventilator, and let the tears flow, to breathe, to sigh deeply and to feel God’s presence there with us. Bringing God from a high place of decision-making in the sky, the force that can wave his finger and say, “heal” or “not”—immediately changing the course of events—to the God who’s presence of love and comfort are immediately there in the hospital room, as we walk the halls. This is the God who is with us in our grief and in our joy, the God who holds all of it, and encompasses the breadth of our lives.
Being with people in these rooms, they taught me to pray. Flowery lofty prayers don’t go very far in the linoleum floored hospital room, with the green heartbeat monitor going up and down by the bedside and the IV fluids dripping through the tubes. In those rooms, it was about as real life as you can get, and God was certainly present. Teaching us how to pray.
“Lord, teach us how to pray” the disciples ask Jesus and he does. He doesn’t give them a five-point plan or specific rules; instead he gives them a prayer, a piece of poetry to guide us for generations after in the movements of prayer…
From the “Our Father… to the “…forever and ever, amen.” This prayer shows us the character of God, the conversations with God, the way that prayer weaves heaven and earth together, humanity and our creator, us and God.
Emanuel Swedenborg, the theologian and Christian mystic this church is dedicated to said it this way: “Prayer, regarded in itself, is speech with God.” Prayer, is a conversation with our creator. Prayer, in itself, is a conversation. A back and forth. Speaking and listening, giving and receiving in an active relationship.
Lord, teach us to pray…
And Jesus says, “Pray to your Divine parent and pray collectively, “Our father…” Pray with conviction and trust in God’s provision, “give us this day our daily bread.” Pray with surrender, surrendering our idea that we can know the will of God without engaging in the conversation. Pray with humility, ask forgiveness, give forgiveness; pray with persistence, pray with hope, pray with trust, forever and ever, amen.
This prayer holds within it this interplay, this dance, this conversation between God and us. When asked, “Lord, teach us how to pray,” we’re given a conversation.
My Spiritual Director, Sister Julia, the 90-year-old nun I go and see for an hour once a month for guidance and prayer told me recently, “Anna, you need to get more chatty with God.” We’d been talking about a number of decisions I was trying to make, and the things that weigh heavy on the heart of a pastor—those things I lie awake at night and worry about. “Get more chatty with God. Tell God about these things, tell God your worries, ask God to help, tell God that you can’t do it on your own, chat with God.”
This immediate and intimate way of engaging with the expanse of the Divine is one that I see and appreciate with Sister Julia, and with the pillars of strength and faith I have witnessed in various people of faith. When there is a depth of faith and spiritual wisdom, there is a foundation, a breadth and encompassing web of prayer. People who have strong relationships with God have active and engaging conversations with their God. God is not some force so far away that we cannot engage it, but instead, God is intimately here and available to converse with and is interested in and can handle our prayers and our lives.
Like the bargaining between Abraham and God that we heard in our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, like the persistence in the prayer parable in our gospels, these stories of prayer offer us a blueprint—an opening—to the way we too can interact with our Creator.
It’s an invitation to honestly interact with this great God of the Universe, who wants to be in a conversation with us—there is nothing we can do or say that will change that. When we pray to a God, we are in conversation with a God who while we may not be able to even begin to comprehend Her expanse and wisdom, whose love is immediate and present. We pray to a God who is faithful to us, not always in the ways that we see or what in the moment, but always, always in the eternal view, in the overarching sweep of the story. God is there, Alpha and Omega, Beginning and End, caring for us and listening and engaging when we pray.
So, it’s up to us, to keep praying. Praying consistently, praying regularly, getting “chatty with God.” Not just when we’re in trouble, or when we’re at church, but in a back-and-forth of relationship, in regular communication.
I forget so often. But then I am reminded. Sister Julia calls it “fidelity to prayer”—to be faithful, to keep turning back, picking it up again, because God is always still there.
I don’t always feel God’s presence, but I find a growing trust in the fidelity of God. That God is in this relationship for the long haul and isn’t going to disappear on us. When we reach out to the Divine, the Divine is present, not always altering the course of what is playing out in front of us, but always, always, with us in it.
And as we pray, we know that we are not alone. God is with us, and we pray in community together.
When I wake up in the middle of the night, or I’m in a place of deep worry, when I just don’t have the words to pray, these are the words I pray. “Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”
As I pray, sometimes I think about all the other people across the globe and throughout the millennia who have prayed this prayer, who are praying this prayer along with me. Woven throughout time and space, we are not alone as we pray in unison to and with our Divine Parent. We pray with the saints who have gone before us, and our neighbors on the streets; we pray with our sisters and brothers and siblings across the globe, in every language and place of life. When we pray, we pray for ourselves, but we also pray for and with each other, forgiving each other and asking for forgiveness from God. We believe in the daily bread and being called to share it with others, imploring in a collective voice that God’s way in heaven be done here on earth, and that all things being God’s, will infill God’s kingdom with power and glory, forever and ever, amen.