Praying Well = Praying Much
A wonderful theologian named Gunther Bornkamm says that the essence
of all Jesus' prayers comes down to one three-word phrase: God is near.
Another thinker, William McNamara, says that the core of our prayer
is "wanting God."
If it weren't for my own prayer life, in times of searching and
injury and fear, in times of joy and hope and social passion, I
wouldn't be here today. I would not be the Christian that I am, would
not have gone to divinity school, and I would not have made it this far
in marriage and parenting and life without prayer. Yet God is near, and
I want God.
But as I look back on the five-plus years that I've been here, I
have preached or offered an after-hour program on prayer only seven
times. That is to say, roughly once every thirty-eight weeks, and
frankly that's not amazingly impressive to me.
So this year I ask us as a group, once a month, to do what Jesus
calls "casting our nets deeper" and pause and pray as
a central part of our worship and communion.
We always enter worship with prayer and offer pastoral prayers each
week, but we'll do more, too: pausing to make sure that everyone can
share their voice somehow and embracing the silence that allows us to
listen and hear God as well as praying for this world.
Our world needs deep prayer. I don't think that it is a vestigial
curio on Christianity or extraneous and optional for us. Prayer is part
of full health and life, and I think that many, many of us know just
how to do it very well and that others of us don't have all of the
models and inspiration and even time
that we need, and I want to pursue that this morning.
But I want to do something more than talk about prayer today: I want
to pray together more.
Let me pause right now. Let me ask you to step out of sermon
listening mode, great though that is, and literally sit in the way that
allows you to feel peaceful, and try to suspend stimulation for just a
moment, which could mean closing your eyes, and let us pray.
Be with us, bountiful God of creation. Be with us, merciful God
of justice. Be with us, God of children and our own childhood, God of
seniors and our own wisdom. God of the free and God of the imprisoned,
God of the fearless and the frightened, of heaven and horrors and
hope, be with us now in Christ's love. Be with us and guide us to
trust each other in this moment, and to trust you, and to grow. Open
our hearts, as we welcome you in. For we want you, we want you. Amen.
Henri Nouwen, a contemporary saint and a devoted priest and pastor,
wrote about how distracted he got in prayer. He just couldn't focus, he
says, and other thoughts kept coming into his head.
Mother Teresa wrote of how after she left her 20's, she never really
experienced God's presence in prayer very much. Her world was so busy
Now scores of researchers and medical doctors write about double
blind studies where prayer influences depression, blood pressure, and
even bacteria. They examine long-distance prayer and its material
effects. They say these effects are measurable. Then why did my brother
die at birth, and why did my mother die in my arms unexpectedly? I
prayed for them. Because prayer does some things but not exactly
everything. Yet to me, something is far greater than nothing.
If prayer is wanting God, when do we want God? When we are alone?
When our nation is in danger? When someone is ill or afraid? What about
at times of joy and celebration? What about
to crown our success and satisfaction?
There is an old saying that there are no atheists on the cancer
ward. What about the corporate board? Doesn't prayer make a difference
in private need and public practice? Shouldn't it?
To me prayer is intensely personal, absolutely social, and
unquestionably political: all you need to do is read the Gospels to
There is a great story from religion professor Marjorie Hewitt
Suchocki that brings together all of these elements. It's about her
journey in prayer many years ago.
Suchocki tells about the days of the anti-apartheid movement
addressing South Africa. She says used to pray regularly, constantly,
for justice and well-being there. Then one day she was called to be
Dean of a seminary in Washington DC, just as faculty voted to
demonstrate at the South African Embassy. Brand new, she wanted to
respect the faculty vote, but she was terrified that this meant civil
disobedience and almost certain arrest. She says inwardly she was
horrified and felt neither bravery nor courage, even on the day of the
demonstration, yet she did feel professional embarrassment. But she
pondered that in South Africa it meant torture and imprisonment and
death to demonstrate, which was more than embarrassing. When the
teachers all got to the embassy, she was told to go first, as Dean, and
held the petition to deliver at the door. Again she was scared. She was
arrested and fingerprinted and then released, wondering finally what
difference all this had made in the end. Five months later, as Dean,
she was the one to receive a letter from a pastor in South Africa,
thanking them for what they had done. He had read of the action at the
protest, which had given his congregation new courage and boldness to
know that across the oceans, other Christians stood with them in
prayer. And they fought on.
Suchocki says that the easiness of her prayer became a hardness of
action, and by God's grace part of the story of healing creation.
Prayer matters. Be careful what you pray for, she says. God may use
you as a channel to unleash divine well-being. We become part of God's
rolling waters of life.
I have a quote on my desk, and frankly it may be from me because it
has no other attribution. It says that prayer is to faith what original
research is to science.
I have trouble praying sometimes, though. I get distracted. I may
not get the vision or the answer that I wish. But I always, always feel
lighter, more integrated, more hopeful, more graced, literally
healthier after I pray.
And there is a great deal that deserves our prayer. Christians can
pray boldly and regularly for peace on earth and good will to all.
Christians can pray for the earth that is the Lord's and the fullness
thereof. We can pray for this church to grow, not because of numbers
but because we need depth and energy for service and the wisdom to live
diversity. We can pray for Newton, not because it is poor, but because
it is busy and complicated and worried and rich. We can pray for JP and
Roxbury and Needham and Watertown because they are our homes, and we
want God there. We can pray for our enemies.
Jesus prayed for God's Kingdom, for daily bread, for interpersonal
forgiveness, and for freedom from temptation. Paul prayed for faith,
hope, and love. We have plenty of material. Let us take time now, and
let us pray, too.
Amen.Copyright © 2007
Kenneth F. Baily. Used by permission.