Reflections to start the week
Monday, May 4, 2015
Two days ago, it was my privilege to officiate at the wedding of my wonderful niece and godchild. She is remarkable, and she has been graced with a wonderful, remarkable life partner. Their outdoor wedding was a holy occasion, held in a beautiful Southern garden under sunny skies. It has rained the past two weekends. In fact it poured on Friday, and the forecast for next weekend is not good. They threaded the needle, meteorologically speaking. I started my homily confessing that I’m not a huge believer in weather prayers, or sports prayers for that matter.
This year, March Madness elicited several prayer requests for teams that faced each other as the bracket unfolded. What’s a cleric to do? Pray for both teams? A young middle-schooler I admire asked me to pray that his team would win. I gave voice to the prayer that was clearly on his heart. But when that team suffered an upset defeat, I wondered what this young Christian would think of prayer and priests.
When people ask me to pray for a good day for their event, I usual draw on the old joke that as clergy, I’m in sales not management. With the apparent unraveling going on in our cities and around the world, I am not always comfortable asking God to orchestrate things that seem less urgent. I think the holy one has plenty of other things to do. I feel funny praying for the easing of traffic or the opening of a parking space or the timely arrival of a flight so I can make a connection, even though I admit I have prayed for all these things. I did pray for good weather for my sweet niece. And I sent up prayers of heartfelt gratitude for the beauty of the day.
The weather last Saturday was just one way that I’ve been asked to think about the mystery of prayer. Do I treat God as valet? As holy executive assistant? As super-Uber? In a conversation over lunch last week, a friend asked what I think about praying for outcome. She had been in discussion with another person about whether it isn’t better to pray for acceptance rather than outcome. One of my spiritual guides was going through a challenging time. I asked how I could pray for him. He said he didn’t think so much about praying for a particular resolution to his issues, but asked for the grace to navigate them. So the discussion goes, round and round.
St. Paul tells us to pray without ceasing, which to me does not mean 24/7 intercession, though that may be the vocation of a holy few. Rather, it means that there is not a moment in our lives that could not involve some kind of prayer. The monastic pattern of prayer throughout the day, echoed in the Daily Office of the Book of Common Prayer, is a spinoff of this idea of prayer without ceasing. For some, this kind of liturgical practice may work. For others, it may be pausing throughout the day to offer Annie Lamott’s three words: Thanks, help and wow. She claims we need no other words than those in prayer. A more recent saint, Reinhold Neibuhr, found a beautiful way to sum up prayer life in what is now known as the serenity prayer, printed in the column on the left.
All of this is a lead up to make the point that I don’t really understand how prayer works. I know people who have faced extended battles of all kinds, who have had thousands of people pray for them, and the intended result has not happened. That can be confusing and defeating. But if asked whether it’s okay to pray for something, even something silly like a parking space or a break in traffic, I tend to say: Go for it. Let God (however you understand God in your life) know what’s on your heart. And be ready to be transformed in that process. I encourage people to offer the desires on their heart, and then to focus on acceptance, and gratitude, and hope, based on the premise that God’s intention for us is health and wholeness and goodness and love. Some days that’s a whole lot easier to do than others. But if I began to think that there was something off limits for my prayer life, I would probably not know where to draw the line.
It’s been said that prayer is not about changing God. It’s about changing us. When we say thanks, help or wow, we are making a big theological statement. It’s a kind of creed, actually. So let the prayers infiltrate every corner of your life. And see how you grow in response.
– Jay Sidebotham
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. -I Thessalonians 5
Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. -Philippians 4
The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays. -Søren Kierkegaard
If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough. –Meister Eckhart
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
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