Faith In Real Life Blog
Rev. Vernon Gramling
Decatur Presbyterian Church
March 10, 2022
5 “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
7 “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
9 “Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. 10 Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.11 Give us this day our daily bread. 12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
Prayer is a spiritual discipline to help us move closer to God. In ordinary life, there is research to suggest that it takes roughly two hundred hours together to shift a relationship from an acquaintance to a close friend. It takes no less time to develop a close relationship with God. There are many categories of prayer —Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, or Supplications (ACTS for short) and prayer can be expressed in many ways. We can pray in church or while washing the dishes. We can pray on our knees, with open palms, with our heads bowed or we can pray on a morning run. There is no right way to pray. The most important thing we can do in prayer is show up. We can’t get closer to God if we do not invite him into our space and have conversations.
Ron Johnson tells a story about an old man who is dying. His pastor went to visit and invited him to pray. The old man said he didn’t know how. The pastor pointed to an empty chair near his bed and told the man to simply imagine God was sitting there—and God wanted to hear what he had to say. The old man died three days later. His daughter, however, said something was strange about his death. He had been found sitting on the floor with his head on the chair. This may have happened as told or it may be someone’s creative sermon illustration but the story catches the intimacy and tenderness that evolves as our relationship with God grows. If you have a close friend, you already have an intimation of the potential of prayer. You can be fully yourself, you can share anything in your heart, you can be playful, angry or in despair—all in the confidence that you are safe with that person. All of that is possible—and more—with God.
Such a relationship takes time and a mutual willingness to engage. We believe in a God who wants to know us and wants us to know him. We believe that God sent his son because humankind was missing the point. Most of us begin with parental images of God. That is usually our first experience with someone who loves and protects us. But such a God is often viewed as a big person who holds us accountable. Such a God rewards and punishes and we cannot help but think God’s care is ultimately conditional—that if we are not good enough or do what we are told, we will lose God’s favor. All of these things are partially true but are too narrow and too human in their understanding. We needed to be shown dimensions of God that are outside of the constraints of our understanding. Hence, Jesus. God reveals a willingness to share every human condition so that we can know God better. Such a God was not received well in the first century and that problem continues. This God disappointed and angered people who needed a Messiah who changed the politics of the day. It certainly was not enough to know God could know and share our human suffering, they wanted specific relief. They wanted a God who would make Israel great again, a God who did more than share our lives—a God who fixed the pain.
All of this is context for how we pray. Discussions of prayer are often caught up in how we perceive God answering prayer. If we, or in many cases worse, if someone we love is suffering, it is only natural to pray for relief, to pray for a cure. If God is all powerful and good— and we are faithful enough, anything is possible. Prayers can easily slide into litmus tests of fidelity rather than sharing of our deepest heart. In the extreme, God becomes a short order cook serving up ‘specials’ to the faithful. But I’m not at all sure that is a different understanding than the first century expecting God to defeat Rome.
There has hardly been a time in which I haven’t had at least one client who felt betrayed and abandoned by God. What we view as just and what we view as salvation is very different from the salvation God offers. Though, there is a temptation to believe we can know God’s favor by the outcomes to our petitions. In FIRL, we got into quite a discussion about what was ok to pray and what was ok to ask for. Neal tells the story of a woman’s conviction that God had repaired her windshield wipers on a rainy night. God had answered her prayer. Her faith was confirmed. Was her prayer a misuse of prayer? On the other side, Ron reported he regularly prayed for a good parking place. Is it selfish to pray for a good day on the stock market or your football team to win or that your cancer be healed? Are there things that are too petty, trivial or selfish that we should not trouble God with?
I’m going to say no. There is absolutely nothing you cannot bring to God or ask for. The bible is full of entreaties to God for ‘justice’ as we judge it. Psalm 137:8-9 goes so far as to say: O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Blessed shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” It doesn’t get more vengeful than that. In real life, whenever we come before God, we come with a complex mix of understanding and lack of understanding, a complex mix of care for others and worry about ourselves. Bring it all. That is what you would do with a truly close friend. That doesn’t mean anything you say will be complete, much less true. We can only grow by starting out with where we are—not by where we think we ought to be.
Every day in every family, children ask for things they cannot have. They may be asking for a trip to disney world, candy before supper, a new lego project or a hug from an exhausted parent. Every single request deserves respect whether or not the request is granted. It is very different to say “Going to Disney World would be fun but we cannot go.”—rather than scolding the child for asking.
The key here is that God’s favor rests with his desire to listen to anything we have to say —not with an outcome we would deem favorable or just. It is not our job to decide what is acceptable. It is our job to discover and share whatever is in our heart. Take forgiveness. Most of us see forgiveness as desirable but in real life, it is really hard. We may try our best. We may believe that is what God wants but if we find ourselves returning to old injuries over and over, the best we can do is bring our inability to God—in the promise that God will not hold our failure and sinfulness against us. We trust that God can forgive our shortcomings in ways that we cannot forgive other people’s comings. That requires a great deal of faith and a great deal of courage. But that is the very process that brings us closer to God. That is the very process that opens us to God’s abiding love. It is where the Word—the idea of being loved beyond our understanding becomes flesh—the experience of such love in real life.
Make prayer a practice. Show up. Share your joys and concerns, Be as present as you can. Strive to be honest about yourself—especially when you don’t like what you know about yourself . We believe in a God who loves us and who wants to listen to us. Get to know and trust such a God.
You will be transformed. Let it be so.