Prayer for People Who Think They Canít

November 08, 2014

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

What do we mean when we say I will pray for you? We say it every Sunday in service when people come to the mike at joys and concerns and request our prayers. You really shouldn’t lie in church – so when a person asks if we will pray for them, when we shake our heads yes or our souls realize they have been struck by a sympathetic chord, it is good to be honest. Not phony. We often say the same promise in very secular settings – if a co-worker announces that she has cancer or someone says their mother has died. We usually mean it. “I will pray for you,” means at least that we will hold the person in our heart. For years – remember the days of get well cards that you hand wrote – I was a person who didn’t know what prayer meant. I didn’t want to lie so I would say, “I will think of you.” Saying “I will pray for you” was false right at the kind of moment when I wanted to be most true.

Today I want to head for the kind of honesty about prayer that Annie Lamott suggests. Lamott is a great Christian humorist who made her son Sam go to church. She is pretty sure that there are only three prayers that matter. One is thank you, the other is help, and the third is sorry. She fits right into the fancier theological framework of prayer. Prayer is at least praise – thank you. It is also petition – help. And it is also confession – sorry. Praise is thank you. Petition is help. Confession is sorry.

Because my goal is honesty about prayer, I don’t really want to clutter your mind with what other people think prayer is. I want you to join me in writing your prayer autobiography. When did you last pray? How did you learn how to pray? Who taught you? Can you teach another? How will you pray tonight?

I learned prayer from the warm fundamentalists of the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church. They had a should for just about everything, including prayer. You should pray the 23rd psalm. You should pray the Lord’s prayer. You should use the words of the ancient mass before you took communion or the communion wouldn’t take. At night you should thank God for your parents, your siblings, your grandparents and your pets. In the morning, you should ask God to protect you from danger, even though at the age I learned the danger protecting prayers I had no idea what danger was. Back then we were all free-range children, wandering the streets, buying 3-cent jelly donuts and making sure to get home before dark. Some days, especially on confusing days, I wish I could follow this formula again. I can’t tell you the number of times I have been glad to know the 23rd psalm and the Lord’s Prayer and lots more by heart. It was more knowing by heart than praying. The concepts meant little to me as a child. The obedience meant everything. It meant that, despite appearances, the adults were in charge and they knew what I should do. Absent that kind of authoritative teaching about how children should pray or live, kids sometimes get scared. Today we are having a potluck at Grace House after church with parents of the 14 or so kids we have at Judson who are moving into early adolescence. We are going to discuss what patterning and what rites of passaging are appropriate for these kids, whom we call our own and whom we have watched age and develop. I am really excited about this conversation, mostly because I don’t know where it will turn out. And I also know that we are in a new time, where I could suggest the Lord’s prayer – in the father-mother virgin – or the 23rd psalm – or morning prayers and evening prayers in some formula – and that I probably would get at least one vote for such a patterning.

Many people think we can’t pray because we are pattern free. Or pattern ignorant. Or pattern averse. Take a minute and think about your prayer autobiography. How do you pray? Is prayer a practice of the presence of God for you – or just a pause or just the kind of reflection that you like to attach to your action? I don’t know anybody who doesn’t need a pause. Robert Frost says that poetry is an eloquent pause. I think prayer is the same. I also don’t know anybody who would like to be able to reflect more on their own action. Prayer is reflection on action. You can do it any time you want to. Why did I say that? What could I have said that would have been more useful? In pause, we often find ourselves heading towards appreciation. I am so glad we had that lunch or she said I looked good. I am so glad I saw that show. I am so glad I don’t have cancer, even though she does. (Whoops – note how prayer is often more than politically incorrect. It can be downright selfish. Some of you know the famous one: Thank God I am not like other people. If you want to learn about prayer, beware self-censorship. Beware the shaming direction of your own interiority. Prayer is not something you have to tell anybody else about. It can be private. Many of our thanksgivings are. Why not pray them? Note also that in reflection about action, we often inch into confession. Boy, that could have been better if I was more prepared or less untutored. Prayer is pause. It can also be reflection upon action. Prayer can also be a reach. I sure would like to run the marathon better next time. How can I move from here to there. In our private prayers, we don’t have to be experts. We can be amateurs. We don’t have to be perfect. We can be imperfectionists. In our private prayers, sometimes we can just groan. Oh, God, we might say.

I am a big fan of the manna and quail form of prayer. Something daily. Something simple. Something that gnaws away at our hunger. Something that gets us involved with the big question of what God might want of us, if God wants anything from us at all. Prayer is obedience to God. It is practice of the presence of God. I don’t much believe in obedience to anything but God. Why would one not be obedient to God’s ways and walks? Why would there be a God small enough to be manipulated? The manna and quail story gives you a sense of God’s ways and walks: God is trying to get us out of Egypt and giving us what we need to stay the course till the time comes when we can get out.

When my brother had his stroke, all I could really do is pray for him every day. I just said, ‘Jesse,” the way I had said the same word, before falling asleep as a child. Mommy, Daddy, Cathy, Jesse, zzzz. Do I think that helps Jesse in his recovery? Yes I do. At least he knows I care. How does he know? Because I really do, that’s all. Prayer is pause and reflection: it is not instrumental. It is not even practical, except in the sense that it is something to do when there is nothing else to do.

So prayer is pause and reflection. It is confession, thanksgiving and petition. It is sorry, please, help, thank you. It is best done in the interiority of your soul. People who are afraid they don’t have any inner room best do it. It is the door to your inner room.

When people ask me if I will pray for them, I always say a qualified yes. I prefer to not be people’s spiritual surrogate. I prefer that people be their own Spirits. So I try to teach people to pray and here is the best instruction I know. Prayer is a lot like interior decoration. It is about style. It is about the place that is yours inside you. Prayer is giving your inner space and place a make-over. Maybe you don’t need one. But I usually do about once a month or so. It is time to declutter. It is time to recycle. It is time to make sure the refrigerator isn’t growing bugs. It is time to water the plants. It is almost always time to dust or sweep or vacuum. All of these verbs can have spiritual meanings. Prayer is not something on another far away erudite, spiritualized eternal planet. Prayer is much less important than all that. Prayer is as simple as a pause to breathe. If you don’t like your words, steal some from a hymn. Breathe on me Breath of God. Fill me with Life Anew. That is a high class petition for interior redecoration. Or A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing. That is a high-class praise. Or the newer version of the big tune, “In Unity we lift our Song.” Both of those hymns have a very different theology. But they do have pieces of an over all theology or design for a spiritual home. Hymns are often architects of the spirit. They are a spiritual GPS system. Prayer is a pause and a reflection that is a lot like global positioning. Why let technology have all the fun. Plus, hymns help us pray in music instead of words.

So what about public prayer, the kind we do every Sunday in the service? Many people who come to Judson find that the sharing of joys and concerns is the most meaningful part of the service for them. They believe what we believe which is that in unity we lift our song, that community can bear what individuals cannot and that community can know a joy that an individual cannot. Others find their privacy invaded by some of the joys or concerns. We have not resolved these differences before and we probably won’t this decade either. Minimally, though, we need to have a sophisticated enough sense of community – yes, this is Manhattan – to observe certain manners in our prayer. Without manners there is no honesty. It is like you forget to see all the elephants in the room and redecorate your house as though everyone liked purple, which everyone does not like. Brevity is courtesy. Tears are good. Humor is a delight. When the line is long, maybe you can wait. Our goal is to mean it when we say we will pray for you – and if we just irritate each other, the goal will be unreached.

And if all else fails – pause, reflection, breathing – sorry – help – thank you – petition, thanksgiving, confession – if all else fails, just remember that God is not in a hurry. God has a daily practice of prayer which mannas and quails us, moves and quiets us. Prayer is more like speaking in a second language than anything else. Didn’t you always want to be fluent in a second language? Yes of course. But you can’t be fluent in prayer. Or perfect in prayer. But you can try to pray, which is to say to pause long enough to listen to the murmur of the larer than you.

Yes, my new book is called Prayers for People Who Think They can’t. You can buy it on Amazon. Or you can get a free prayer a day on Facebook by signing up at Mannaprayers.

Let’s experience that second language right now in a prayer by Gerardo Oberman of Argentina.

Gerardo Oberman of Argentina shares these words of faith through Red Crearte.

Afirmación de fe

Creemos en un Dios
que nos guía por el camino del vivir;
que es sombra que proteje del calor que calcina
y agua refrescante para la sed que lastima;
que es luz que alumbra
los bordes de la existencia,
marcando el horizonte de la plenitud.
Creemos en un Dios
que es fuego que reúne, que alegra y anima
y pan que alimenta, que nutre, que da vida.
Creemos en un Dios
que no se apura demasiado,
que sabe esperar, paciente;
que no sigue los pasos del prepotente o del insensible;
que comprende los tiempos del cansado
y el ritmo frágil de los pequeños.
Creemos en un Dios
que señala siempre hacia delante,
donde el sol de la justicia
asoma el rostro de un mañana nuevo
para toda la humanidad.
Creemos en un Dios
que, cual caminante eterno,
bendice el camino con su presencia
y lo santifica de esperanzas.
Creeemos en un Dios
que inventa sendas
y que, con nosotros,
las transita. Amén.

In Lucy Berrios Taveras beautiful translation.

We believe in a God
who guides us along the path of life;
providing shade that protects us from the scorching heat
and is refreshing water to quench our painful thirst;
a light that shines
through existing borders
showing the fullness of the horizon.

We believe in a God
who is a flame bringing happiness and encouragement
and a nurturing bread of life.

We believe in a God
who is not in a hurry
and waits patiently
not following the footsteps of the arrogant or insensitive;
understanding the weary
and the fragile pace of the small.

We believe in a God
who always points ahead
toward the light of justice
illuminating the promise of a new tomorrow
for all of humanity.

We believe in a God
the everlasting traveler
whose mere presence blesses the path
and sanctifies it with hope.

We believe in a God
who creates new paths and
travels them with us.


"Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought
and the thought has found words." — Robert Frost

Prayer for Focus

Spirit of the Living God, help me on this day to focus my attention on what really matters. Keep the fragments of this long day together and as it ends, let me see my part in its connections, my life's way in its many ways. When I get confused, give me clarity. When I get lost, find me. And when I wonder what meaning all the pieces have, visit me.

Confidently, in the name of the Holy Spirits everywhere, who know the threat of the fragments to the whole. Amen

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