What follows are excerpts from a sermon preached at St. Alban’s Church,Washington DC on October 15, 2017.
One of the more challenging aspects of prayer is how to pray for other people and what we hope or imagine will happen as a result of our prayer. A lay leader from the diocese wrote me: “The great area of struggle for me is the petitionary aspect of prayer. I understand its necessity as an element of the relationship you describe, but, taken literally, it does suggest that God’s mind can be changed by our requests and that God is ready to perform particular acts for our benefit in response to those requests. That, for me, is the rub, because we know that so many pious and innocent people suffer so greatly when their prayers go unanswered.”
Haven’t you struggled with that very issue? It’s impossible to witness great suffering and not question what is possible through prayer.
But there’s another aspect of prayer, equally challenging, that I’d like to address first, which is the danger of prayer. I learned first hand of this danger at a young age, as I learn most things–the hard way.
The summer before my freshman year in high school, I was hired by one of my father’s business associates to care for her young children at their cabin in the mountains. I had a lot of anxiety, typical enough for a 15 year old girl: Would I be accepted in my new high school and able to make friends? Was I pretty enough to ever have a boyfriend? Did I have the right clothes to fit in?
That fateful summer, I would walk into town in the evenings, enter a particular store, and try clothes on that I could never afford. One night I slipped something I had tried on into my purse and walked out. The next night I did it again. And the next. And the next.
I knew what I was doing was wrong and I felt guilty. For penance, I would read a chapter from the Bible every night and pray for forgiveness. That pattern continued for some time: I would steal during the day and pray for forgiveness at night. I felt, if not invincible, somehow invisible, as if those prayers shielded me. I had no awareness that people were watching, biding their time.
Until one night the local sheriff came knocking at my host family’s door, accompanied by the store owner. As I stood before them, the heat of shame coursed through me. I was really scared. Later that night when I lay alone in my bedroom, I saw the Bible on my night table, and I felt exposed and ashamed before God.
Suffice to say that I paid for the clothes I had stolen and did further restitution to pay my debt to the community. It was a long, humiliating, yet also liberating process. Imagine what might have happened to me if I hadn’t been caught.
Though I didn’t yet have the language to describe it, I learned something important about prayer: God is not easily fooled and cannot be manipulated. There’s a line in Psalm 50 that sums up how I felt God speaking to me in that moment: “These things you have done, and I kept still and you thought I am like you.”
Years later I would encounter the same truth expressed in prophetic literature. Hear these words, spoken by God through the prophet Amos: “I hate, I despise your festivals and take no delight in your solemn assemblies.” He’s talking about our worship. “Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Take away for me the noise of your songs. I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:21-24)
Jesus was also clear that God is not one to be toyed with. God is not an extension of our whims and preference, and certainly cannot be contained in the boxes of our self deception. And if we persist in our self deceptions long enough, our worlds will come crashing down. The consequences are not what God wants for us, but nor will we be spared them.
I wish I could say I learned my lesson once and for all as a teenager, but sadly, whenever and wherever in my life I am not yet able to face the truth, I pray within the confines of my self imposed blindness. God knows that, and while God has compassion, the process of answered prayer in those situations will always be painful before it is liberating. The truth will set us free, but first it will cut like a knife through the bubbles we’ve created to maintain the illusions we’re not ready to relinquish.
In some areas of our common life we are seeing the consequences of our collective determination to remain in our sin. We pray to be spared the consequences, and for others to be spared, but we are not yet ready to change our behavior.
We cannot blithely pray to be spared the consequences of our sin while we keep on sinning. For God is always on the side of truth, wherever truth lies. We must seek the truth even when it hurts. And when the walls of our illusions come crashing down, God is there, working among those who offer comfort, consolation, mercy. God is with us in our suffering, even at our own hand. But God will not collude with us in self deception and self imposed blindnesses. God cannot spare us when we deliberately close our eyes and refuse to see, but God will be there to pick up the pieces.
Which leads me to the ways we pray with and for one another.
Let me begin with an affirmation of faith: God is at work in the world, and at work in and through human beings. In the words of theologian Marjorie Suchocki, God is always at work in the world to bring about good within the context of the world’s own power, which is revealed to us through careful observation and study of science, mathematics, and more.
God is at work within us, within the context of our own freedom and capacities. We are free to align our creative power with God’s and we are free to resist. But as Suchocki writes, we cannot eliminate God. We cannot defeat God, nor can we rid ourselves of divine presence. As St. Paul audaciously declared from his prison cell: nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ. (Romans 8:39)
In our sin, we often distort God’s creative power. Alternatively, inspired by grace, we can open ourselves to God, become co-laborers with God, and experience our capacity for love amplified by God’s creative presence. When we do, we give God more to work with.
That’s why God wants to us pray for ourselves and one another–not because God needs to be flattered or appeased, nor because God needs reminding of what needs to be done or can be moved to change His mind. I think we’re the ones who change. Then the possibilities for God change when we choose to join our energies with divine love in order to bring a preferred future into being.
We change the equations of possibility when we pray for one another. There is more creative possibility as a result of our prayers. But along with prayer must come a willingness to act upon what we receive in prayer, whatever that may be. So our most fruitful prayers, in terms of actions, are prayers that are combined with a willingness to be proximate.
When we pray from a distance, the distance has an impact both on our knowledge of the complexities of the situation and what needs to be done, and our ability to engage as a result of our prayer. Thus one of the most important decisions we make in praying for others is our positioning as we pray. And the choices we make when we’re not praying affect the efficacy of our prayers.
And so I encourage you to pray, with and for one another. Remember the power of prayer; be mindful of the dangers of prayer. Pray aloud, pray in the silence of your heart, pray sometimes, as Rabbi Abraham Heschel described his prayer while walking with Dr. King on the road to Selma, with your feet. Remember that God always wants more for you than God asks from you, that God loves you and is deeply moved whenever you respond with love in return.