Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, my strength and my redeemer Psalm 19:14
This afternoon our catechumenate class turns its collective consideration to prayer. And since our epistle reading from James today is concerned with the same subject I thought it might be good for all of us spend a little time thinking about our conversations with God. My experience of Episcopalians is that many of us are not really comfortable with prayer. Of course, we are fine with the Prayer Book and can read a collect beautifully but if asked to pray unaided we feel awkward and uncertain. If we keep the daily offices we have trouble doing it consistently for any length of time and as for our personal prayers, we can often go days without thinking about praying at all. For most Christians, we try to fit prayer somewhere into our busy over-scheduled lives but either forget to follow through with our good intentions or let our secular lives encroach on the time we had thought to set aside for prayer.
Personally, I find that my efforts at maintaining a good discipline of prayer tend to be seasonal. I will be very faithful and consistent for a season and then something happens and I lose my momentum. My schedule becomes erratic until guilt or the prompting of the Holy Spirit calls me back for another season of disciplined prayer time.
Why do we pray? Is it out of some sense of duty….because we think God commands it? Is it just being faithful to tradition? Many of us are driven to prayer in crisis out of a feeling of helplessness and a desperate need to call on any external help that might be available. But without that sense of desperation on a daily ongoing basis how many of us actually believe that prayer is efficacious…that God does indeed hear and will answer prayer? If we do not believe that God answers prayers then why do we do it?
The writer of the Letter of James tells us “the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective”. He says that if any are suffering or sick, let them pray or have the community of believers pray over them and anoint them with oil. The Apostle Paul has written that we are to “pray without ceasing”… suggesting that we are to be in a state of constant communication with God. We are to cultivate the habits of spiritual people for our own benefit and for the benefit of our communities.
I would never undervalue corporate prayer…the collective voice of the gathered community bringing our desires and petitions…our concerns and our worries before God. However, each of us, as believers, as faithful followers of Christ are to participate in an ongoing personal practice of prayer. In other words, prayer is not just for when we are in Church. To use Jesus’ metaphor from the Gospel today…prayer is one of the ways we keep ourselves spiritually salty…able to create and nurture positive change in our communities and in our world. Prayer keeps us grounded in God…attuned to the Holy Spirit and strengthened in mind and spirit so we can handle whatever life throws at us.
We pray not because it changes God but because it changes us and opens us up to receiving answers to our deep questions, clarity in our moments of confusion and the comfort that comes from knowing someone who loves us is listening and understands, even in those moments when we do not have words adequate for explaining how we feel.
In my time as an Episcopalian, I have noticed that we are pretty comfortable in asking brother or sister to pray for us but not so much if the brother or sister wants to pray for us immediately…with us there. We need to become more comfortable with the practice of personally praying for and with one another. Praying together can feel very intimate and to do so asks us to allow ourselves to be vulnerable in the presence of another…to let our need be evident…our need for healing….for understanding….for comfort…our need to be heard. In those moments we become fully aware that prayer is not just pretty words strung together but the cries of an exposed soul.
Does God even answer prayers or is this just an example of walking by faith and not by sight? I do believe that God answers prayers but not always…not usually in ways that we expect. While we may use the words “if God wills” in our prayers I think most of us tend to think that our will is aligned with the will of God when it isn’t. God will answer our prayers as is best for us and sometimes …many times that means we do not get what we asked for or we get something else entirely. Sometimes we have misinterpreted a situation and to have our prayers answered as asked could be a disaster. That does not mean that petitionary prayer in which we request tangible things from God is inappropriate. We are told to ask God for what we need and we should but just be aware that we don’t always know what really need. I believe that even if we ask in error God will respond as is good for us.
The same is true in our prayers for other people. We cannot really know the heart of another. We just make guesses as to what they need and hope we can be of help. When we hold someone in prayer before God I believe that God hears the intentions of our hearts…feels the love we have for that person and responds both to us and to the other. But we may not see how or know when a prayer is answered. As people of faith, we trust that God hears us and in God’s time responds with love.
A skeptic might ask, “what about the evidence of unanswered prayers?” We pray for healing and someone dies. We pray for assistance with a financial problem and lose our job. We ask for help with a situation and yet everything remains unchanged. I cannot say why some prayers are answered and others are not. I do believe that God’s choice to allow free will in the universe may have something to do with it. God is not the big Santa Claus in the sky dispensing presents to good little believers….but neither is God the aloof, uninvolved deity who set things in motion and stepped away to let this little experiment play out unhindered or unhelped.
God through the Holy Spirit is moving and active in the world but in ways we cannot explain or predict. I know for myself that my ability to recognize God’s action in my life is directly correlated to where I am in my seasons of prayer. The more time I spend seeking the presence of God the more clearly I see God at work in my own life. I do not think that in my less observant days that God forgets me and leaves me to my own folly I just don’t think I am as aware of God’s presence…of the loving help of the Holy Spirit trying to keep me from willfully making a mess of things.
While prayer is a gift it is also a mystery. God desires an intimate relationship with each of us and it is prayer that we experience this relationship in a real way. But this intimate relationship is as unique as we are. God speaks our personal language sharing insight and wisdom and love in ways that we can understand. The more time we spend in communion with the Divine the more attuned to the ways of the Holy Spirit we become….and the more our own spiritual transformation will be visible to those around us.
Do not be embarrassed to talk about your prayer life…to share your deep experiences of God with those you love and in your community. In this way, we are all strengthened and we can all share in the joy and gratitude of answered prayers. At the same time do not compare your own relationship with God with that of someone else. We are not in competition here and God’s answers to my prayers may look nothing like the response someone else receives. A prayer that is not answered immediately, even an important one, does not mean that I am somehow less worthy of God’s concern or that God does not love me as much as my neighbor. While I may not understand if at all possible I am to remain faithful and wait.
There is power in prayer…power to nurture positive change within our selves and in our communities. In prayer, we become partners with God cooperating in the care of one another and in the work of bringing God’s love into this broken world. Pray without ceasing…for the earth and her creatures…for the nations….for the church…for our families and loved ones …for the sick and the suffering…for ourselves. I once heard a nun say that if we prayed for everyone and everything that need our prayers we would never get off of our knees. While I think she is probably right, I do not despair because I believe that when we forget, God remembers. We are not responsible for everyone but we are responsible for some…let us then be mindful of those the Lord lays on our minds and our hearts. Let us try to be faithful in our prayers and obedient in our service to God and those whom God has given us to love.