Be Careful What You Pray For


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps 

Old First Church, Middletown 

July 21, 2019 

Texts: Psalm 86; Luke 13:1-11

       It wasn't that she hated him. She only hated what he had made her become, a sniveling fearful person who would jump at every sound she heard him make. Looking at the image of a bullet riddled body on her cell, she broke down in tears. "I had prayed that God.would punish him for what he did to me and our children, but this. . . ." She paused for a moment, and then continued. "I never thought this would happen. He was always drinking and trying to sell drugs." 

        "Abogada, was it so terrible for me to ask God to punish him?" she asked. Remembering Paul's statement in Galatians, I could only respond that we reap what we sow. No, God had not answered her prayer in a terrible way. She was not responsible for her husband's brutal murder. Then, I reminded her that had she not fled to the United States with her children, they might all have been killed as well. After all, the cousin who was in the house was shot but not mortally wounded. 

       What is it that we pray for? The Psalm we read reflects the oldest, the deepest kind of prayer we have: the cry of despair to God. It reflects that time when we feel utterly abandoned, utterly and totally alone. Jesus uttered it on the cross: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? This prayer addresses the raw fundamentals of life–what we hope to escape, but cannot–suffering and raw fundamentals of life–suffering and death, sin and illness, fear of evil and the longing for redemption. Nothing, nothing is more basic than the call for help. 

      The prayer we pray when we are in the depths contains something else as well: a deep theological question about the nature of God. Doesn't God already know our most intimate needs and desires? Why is it that we even need to feel or say this in prayer? We often do feel prayers; there are needs we have that are so deep that they are unable to be articulated in words. Prayer here does not really go to God but to ourselves.

       The Danish theologian Kierkegaard once said, "Prayer does not change God, but changes the one who prays." The very effort in prayer calms and purifies our hearts, and these are Kierkegaard's words: It opens us to receiving the divine gifts poured into us spiritually. In other words, we pray not to remind God of what we need but to remind ourselves of our need for divine help. 

      There are other kinds of prayers as well. There is the regularized and ordered prayer of the devotee, the prayer that is said at regular intervals. All religions have this kind of prayer. As with all prayer, it has a sacrificial character. We pray at set times of day. Christian monks and nuns open the day with matins, in the early, really early hours of the morning before the first light of day; the Jew opens the day with the shema, "Hear, 0 Israel, the Lord your God is one," and the Muslim enacts how the complete universe worships God through the salat, a series of postures in prayer. The salat begins with the person standing erect, then kneeling, and then prostrating on the floor, repre-senting human, animal, and even vegetable life worshiping God. 

       There is, of course, contemplative prayer. What is contemp-lation? It's different from thinking, even meditation–it  is an act of the imagination. Someone once said that the contemplative enjoys a life hidden in God; contemplation becomes life. Above all, contemplation is openness to God. One way to describe it is to say in contemplation the borders between us and God are erased. Its expression can be the silence of a Trappist like Thomas Merton, rhythmically moving as the motion of Orthodox Jews or it can be wildly ecstatic like the whirling of a Sufi. 

      There is the prayer of gratitude: The Talmud says that it is forbidden for a person to enjoy anything without first giving thanks to God. What is a grace but a recognition that we depend not on ourselves for the very food we eat but ultimately on God? When we bless the food and bless God, we recognize our limits and say that, in the final analysis, we do not independent of God. 

        In an interview with Mother Teresa Dan Rather asked her what she prays for. "Oh,'' she responded, "I listen." Taken aback, Rather continued, "So what does God say to you?" She smiled and responded, "He listens." I think what she was saying is that prayer is a circle, a circle that interweaves us into a complete dependence on and with God. There is a deep truth in that. 

       The appeal of the Lord's Prayer is more than just the fact that Jesus offered it as a model. The Lord's Prayer takes in all aspects of prayer. First of all, it acknowledges God as creator and ultimate reality. Hallowed or holy is the very name of God. In asking for God's kingdom to come, we acknowledge that God's realm means that what God wants–justice, mercy, and peace–and that we will be instruments for God's will. The prayer continues by acknowledging our ultimate dependence on God: Give us this day our daily bread. In these words, Jesus tells us not to ask for more than we should have: fulfill our needs, not our desire or greed for more and more, for if we take only what we need, there will be enough for all. 

       Next, the prayer ties us as intimately with others as it ties us to God. Forgive us our sins, 0 God, but only as we forgive others. These words express a profound truth: without forgiveness and reconciliation, there is no healing and we are not whole. This reflects the Jewish tradition that one cannot fully repent until one has forgiven and is forgiven all sins. 

       Then we are moved into a blunt recognition of our limits. Lead us not into temptation; don't test us, 0 Lord, for you know how weak we really are. We all know how easily we fall into our old ways of ignoring the needs of others. 

       Finally, the prayer ends with the same recognition that it has in the beginning: that God is the ultimate reality. Yours, 0 God, is the kingdom, not ours to ravage and pillage through environmental degradation. Yours, 0 God, is the power, not our miserable earthly imitations through war and violence. And Yours, 0 God, is the glory, not ours, for we are only human and a part of this incredible, wonderful universe that you created, not us. It contains the full circle of prayer: dependence, sacrifice, justice, need, forgiveness, relationship, and back to dependence. Amen. So be it. And it is so. Amen.