I sit in my bedroom, at the little desk in front of the window. I’ve just finished my ice cream- vanilla with hot fudge, and I listen to the quiet hum of the fan in my laptop as it patiently waits for me to type this sermon. I also hear the inspirational music I’ve put on in the background, and below that, always hovering on the fringes of my awareness, I listen for the quiet breaths of my sleeping son over the baby monitor. Each breath has a calming effect, at least on me, as the rhythm of each breath in, followed by each breath out, reassures me that my son is alive- that he is well, that my world is okay. He inhales, and he exhales, and I finally exhale, releasing whatever tension I had allowed to well up inside.
Prayer is the topic I’ve agreed to speak on. Prayer, and suddenly I’m reminded of the format of a spelling bee: “Number 22: prayer. Prayer is the subject you must preach about. Prayer.” And then the waiting begins, and the inevitable Jeopardy-music-in-my-head begins playing as everyone waits for me to correctly spell prayer. I look around nervously, clear my throat, and begin: “Prayer. P-R-A-Y-E-R. Prayer.” The judge nods affirmatively, the audience claps, and again I exhale. I got it right. Prayer.
Prayer. What could I possibly have to say about prayer? I, who mumble a cursory “Thanks God for this foo…” and can’t even finish the word because my mouth is already full. When I’m feeling a bit more honest- usually with Kirsten there- I’ll sarcastically and only half-jokingly say “God, help us” as I dive into whatever I’m about to eat, and yet I have been charged with speaking to all of you about the in’s and out’s of prayer?! Look- I’ve called myself a Christ-follower most of my life, and especially when I was younger, I was actually earnest about it. I was sincere and somehow innocent, despite- or maybe because of- the abuse I was suffering at home. I raised my hands when the praise band sang at church. I closed my eyes. I didn’t notice- and didn’t really care- that sometimes I was the only one standing- the only one who was into it. I read my Bible- and I underlined it- as a kid. I faithfully and unwittingly consumed Christian products. I shopped at Christian stores, listened to Christian music and watched Christian television. I even wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper defending our nation’s founding fathers as bona fide Christians rather then mere Deists. I mean I was a Christian.
I prayed back then, too- I mean really prayed. I prayed first thing in the morning, being careful to put on the whole armor of God, just like the Bible talks about. I prayed at church, attending to each of the pastor’s words as he dutifully prayed for the President, for Congress and the rest of the government, for other leaders and other churches around the corner and around the globe. I prayed about the little details of my “walk with Jesus,” about what I was doing and what I wasn’t doing; heck I probably even prayed about my praying.
But that was then. Now? Not so much. As I’ve gotten older and more cynical over the years, I’ve found that I cannot pray like I used to. I’ve seen too much and done too much and had too much done to me. It’s not that I don’t know how to pray any more. It’s more that I just don’t want to. It’s too naïve, too simple-minded, too risky. I mean after all, why would I pray? Nothing’s going to change anyway, right? Right?!
Jesus prayed in that spot- his spot, with the blue sky visible through the branches of the tree he leaned against and that sweet smell of Autumn in the air. He knew he didn’t really have to say anything, for his Father was watching, and listening, and Jesus knew that they were one. It was enough for Jesus to simply breathe, to just be. Yet even in his solitude, Jesus knew that he was not alone. They were watching, and waiting, eager and excited, though they still were far, far from really “getting it.” Jesus opened his eyes- “Rabbi,” one of them shouted, “Teach us to pray like John taught his disciples,” as if Jesus could tell them something better. Jesus sighed, and then told them what they wanted to hear, some mumbo-jumbo about the right words to use, as if it was all so easily reduced to some formula.
Then, emboldened, Jesus begins to tell a story instead. “Look, you want know how to pray? It’s like this. Your buddy from college, the one who moved out of town, he pounds on your door at midnight. You knew he was coming, but you thought it would be tomorrow night, or maybe it was next Tuesday, whatever. You certainly didn’t expect him now. Now! You haven’t bought groceries in a week. Your half-eaten Ramen noodles still sit in the pot in the sink, with the empty flavor packet on the floor in front of the garbage where you shot- and missed- the proverbial game-winning shot into the waste-can. You’ve got some ketchup and a discriminating mix of soda and beer in the fridge, but none of this will go very well with the pop-tarts that are left in your pantry. So you panic, ‘cause you know your buddy will be starved from his long drive, and he never seems to have any cash on him. He’s one of those friends.
Ever improvising, you put on your gracious-host-smile and invite your buddy in. You set him up on the couch with a beer and make up some excuse about why you have to disappear for a minute, and then quietly slip out the back door and run across to the neighbors. While sprinting, you quickly assess which of your neighbors will respond most favorably to your desperation. The college kids across and to the right might be most sympathetic to your plight, but are also least likely to be much better off than you are. The old folks on either side of you are likely to have fully stocked fridges and pantries that would make any grandmother proud, because they are grandmothers, but they’re also most likely to have a heart attack due to your post-midnight knocking- if they hear it at all. Honestly, you’re still a little wary of the reclusive guy with the big dog that lives next to the college kids; so you settle for the very young couple with the pair of kids instead. Kids have to eat, right?
You peek for any signs of life through the living room curtains; seeing none, you knock on the door- ever so lightly. You wait, with minimal patience, as nothing happens, and then you knock again, a little harder. This time you hear some stirring, and soon, out of nowhere, a full-blown argument has ensued inside: ‘If that’s your low-life brother again, I swear I’m gonna…’ You cringe, as this is definitely not what you had in mind, but desperate, you stand your ground as finally the door opens. You expected the husband, but quietly rejoice when you see it’s the wife. She says: ‘Oh, hi; aren’t you? Can I help you?’ Stuttering, you explain your plight- ‘look I just need some bread and some peanut butter, a pot roast, something! I’ll pay you back in the morning.’ The confused pity in her eyes tells you you’re in luck, but then he buts in, yells ‘beat it!’, and slams the door.
You wait a minute, and then desperate and stupid, you knock again. As the door opens, you raise your arms in a defensive posture and start sputtering your excuses again, when you see it’s the woman again. She smiles dutifully, hands you the makings of a sandwich or two, and only slightly less forcefully shuts the door. Grateful, you scamper back to your place and your hungry friend. THAT,” Jesus says, “is prayer.” “Or,” he goes on, “perhaps you’d prefer to think of it this way: Look, even you semi-stable knuckleheads at least try to feed your kids, right? I mean, you don’t put arsenic in their milky-baa, do you? Well, if you can accomplish that, remember that God is a parent too, and just imagine what he might do if you ask him…..but be careful what you wish for. If you want everything to work out just so, well, look around, buddy. All bets are off if you’re looking for the American dream. But if you want peace and purpose and an awareness that somehow God is near- even if you don’t always feel warm and fuzzy about it, if you want God to blow your mind so that you see and hear things in a new way, He just might give you his Spirit, and I promise you you’ll never, ever be the same.”
Tim calls again: “Hey… so you know we’ll be at those adoption classes on the 17th, right, and you said you would preach?” I nod, and then remember that he can’t see me, and answer, “Yeah.” He goes on, “So we’ll still be going through the series we talked about a while back as the next step for Sanctuary where we dive into what it means to be ‘on the way’ with Jesus. The topic for that week is prayer. You can talk about something else, though, if you want to. What’s your plan?” I agree to leave it as prayer, and then get caught up in my life as usual, fatalistically trusting that inspiration will strike when the time is right.
When I finally sit down to type up my talk- this talk- I feel….stuck….uninspired….even bored. “What was I thinking?” I wonder. I don’t care much for prayer. I have certainly not been blessed with the “gift of intercession.” Most days, I muddle through, intending to follow Jesus, however jaded I’ve become, knowing that it’s going to be messy and ugly- especially with me around- and yet somehow I trust that God will work it all out. You see, I’m kind of a mixed bag. I may be one of the most jaded people you’ll ever meet, which is to say that I’ve been hurt- a lot. Yet I also am one of the most stubborn- and stubbornly hopeful- guys you’ll ever lay eyes on. You see, deep down I believe that the gospel is true. Somehow, some way, I cling to the idea that God is for me– and for you. Deep down the child-like wonder is alive and well inside me, though buried so deep that when I experience my own awe at the mystery of God it surprises even me. Yet I know, somehow I know, that God is love, and the resurrection is true, and that it’s not all about me. It’s about us.
So, I pray. I may not form the words in my mind, or speak them aloud, but the truth beneath the words is present nonetheless, and I do my best to uncover that truth before God, and even before myself, trusting that God will know what to do with it- what to do with me and my life- even if I do not, even if I don’t even know what to say about it all. When I wrote those words- those words I just said- I cried, or at least offered the dry heaves of a cry because the tears would not come, and that is how I know that what I’ve said is true- and this is what Paul means, I think, when he speaks of prayer in Romans 8 and says that it’s probably more like groaning than anything else.
In fact, Paul says, when we think of it this way creation itself- the bees and birds and trees, especially the trees, they pray too- because they yearn. Creation is filled with longing, and for what you might ask? Creation longs that we- that you and I- would take our rightful places as sons and daughters of God- as heirs of his kingdom. It’s a kingdom, after all, that is not of this world. It’s a kingdom in which love is the only law, in which strength is revealed in what looks like weakness. It’s a kingdom in which the first are last, and the last are first, and the cycle goes on so that first and last really don’t matter anymore. It’s a kingdom that is a far cry from the world we shop and drive and dine in everyway. It’s a far cry from the bodies piled up in Iraq and on the streets of Philadelphia. It’s a far cry from the white New York of Seinfeld and Friends, and the racist New York of NYPD Blue.
It’s a far cry, a far cry indeed, and so Paul says that we ourselves groan too, and more importantly, God’s Spirit groans for us with sighs too deep for words, because the words just can’t do it all justice. In this, there is hope. But, Paul says, hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what is seen, what is already there? Well… we do…I hope. I mean, on the one hand the kingdom of God is here already- Jesus lived, died, and now lives again. It’s crazy, I know, but it’s true. His love does reign- even in me- in the dark places of my own heart. But like they say, “God’s not finished with me yet.” There are still dark places in my heart, after all, and I suspect in yours too. God’s kingdom is here- already- but it’s not finished yet. It’s not fully revealed.
I’m not fully revealed as a son of God because I’m still working to make peace with the idea that God could love someone like me- no matter what. That’s why we still have so much work to do- so much groaning and praying to do- because I think we’re all still trying to make peace with our own existence to some extent, and because in the meantime we still act in so many ways that aren’t very loving at all. So finally, that, my friends, is how prayer can be kind of like wearing a pair of 3-D glasses. It enables you to see things that you couldn’t otherwise- like the good in your neighbor and even in yourself- like the kingdom of God on earth.