Sunday, July 29, 2007

It Is Finished. The Final of Four

The final sermon in my month's series: Luke 11:1-13...

Dear God, please keep me safe tonight. Don’t let anyone break into my house and hurt me or my family or kill me. Thank you for the trees and the animals and my cat and the mountains and the sun. Please help me to fall asleep quickly. In Jesus name I pray, Amen.

I used to pray the same prayer every night as a child. I can still remember it. Lord, don’t let anyone kill me and thank you for the trees. Supplication and thanksgiving in its purest form.

That prayer carried on until high school when I became very studious with my Christianity. I bought a prayer journal and read my Bible every night even if I fell asleep halfway through. In the prayer journal I would write my prayer requests on one side and the answered prayers on the other. Week after week I’d write the same requests only by now they had become more sophisticated: please God, help me to get a boyfriend and help my dad to get a job.

The first time I ever experienced pain on a deep level I was in college. To cope, I prayed all the time: I’d lay awake at night praying and crying and crying and praying. The second serious loss I experienced was after seminary. I cried some more and decided to write out my prayers in a journal, this time for a half an hour during lunch. It was Lent and I would sit in the Teacher’s Lounge at work and write; write and beg God and praise God and try not to cry. The third time I experienced overwhelming pain, I stopped praying. The pain was so acute and so unfamiliar that even prayer, which had been as familiar as breathing, could not ease my pain. So I just cried and put up a wall around my heart, to protect it from the world, protect it from an unreliable God. No prayers would escape and no healing would enter in.

So now I don’t pray a lot. I’m not a Jane Lowrimore or a Margie Mines or a Millie Bishop. It doesn’t come easily. It’s confusing, and often the complexity of it overwhelms me. I pray when people ask me to mind you. It’s my job. I pray in staff meeting. I pray for people who call in prayer requests. I pray when emergency vehicles pass me with their sirens blaring. I pray every week at Beresheth and I mean the prayers, I really do. But I don’t know what they mean and I can’t explain them. So when I discovered the topic for my final week of preaching was Prayer, I began my prayer of lamentation.

“Roger, I can’t preach on this I don’t understand it!” He was not helpful in releasing me of this burden. So I went to my friends.
“This is the most difficult topic for me you guys, I can’t do it. I don’t even pray much myself. I don’t know if I believe in it!” (Whatever that means).
“Well that’s not an option Ann,” they chided me. “It’s your job. You’re supposed to pray.”
Their words were a slap in the face. A moment of vulnerability and I was given no grace.

They were right though. If I’m a spiritual leader, or even if I’m just a recent convert, I’m supposed to pray. I’m supposed to talk to God. Even if it weren’t my professional job, it’s my duty as a Christian!

The problem is that fitting prayer into a formula of “give me bread and keep me from trials” isn’t helpful for me. “Ask and ye shall receive” seems a blatant contradiction to much of my experience and observations about life. And just because my dad doesn’t give me a scorpion when I ask for fish doesn’t mean my neighbor won’t. The world is unpredictable.

“The prayer of a righteous man will go far!” people used to tell me. But I don’t know why they quoted that. I don’t have the confidence to admonish someone to pray and to expect it to change their situation in life.

Because when we pray for God to change things in our lives, it doesn’t always happen. When we view prayer like this, prayer doesn’t always “work.” Prayer is not a prescription for success. It’s not a health plan. So when someone calls to tell me their father has cancer, or that their cyst turned into a tumor, I do pray for healing of their bodies, but it scares me. I’m afraid of what will happen if healing doesn’t come, of how that person will feel, how I will feel. So mostly I pray God’s comfort goes to the family, I pray that the best medicine will be prescribed, I pray for wisdom on the part of the doctors, I pray for peace and perseverance for the patient. I pray for healing, but I don’t necessarily believe it will be given.

I’m a terrible minister, I know.

But God doesn’t intervene on every illness. God doesn’t prevent every car wreck. God doesn’t stop the downsizing of a company. And I can’t stop it either. Even if I ask God to, I will not necessarily receive what I ask for. So often I’m afraid to ask.

But the Bible says…

Yes, I know. The Bible says an annoying neighbor will get what they request. The Bible says a father will not give his child a snake. The Bible says ask and ye shall receive, seek and ye shall find.

So I guess my question is – what? What will we receive? And do we even know what to ask for?

Often I think prayer can be easily interchanged with wishes. Wishes and wants. Not necessarily selfish ones, but things we expect from life and from God nevertheless. What I can’t control, I give to God: safety on airplanes, healing of family members, protection of loved ones. As I was growing up, I wished for what was out of my reach, and subconsciously, expected God to deliver.

As a teenager, when I’d catch a star’s eye at night, this is what I’d recite: Starlight star bright first star I see tonight, I wish I may I wish I might have this wish I wish tonight. I wish I would pass my history test, in Jesus name I pray, Amen.

A wish functioned as a prayer and a prayer ended in Jesus’ name. It was habit.

When I have trouble understanding something about life or God or myself, I often turn to music. I find that musicians have a way of articulating through words and music what I cannot express myself. So it is with prayer. Much of what I understand, or don’t understand about prayer is expressed by some of my favorite songwriters. My questions are… Why ask for things in prayer when there is no guaranteed outcome? Why does the Bible speak in such concrete terms about prayer when in reality life is so much more complicated? Should we pray to change the world? Should we pray to change ourselves? If the prayer of a righteous woman goes a long way, why didn’t healing come, why didn’t safety prevail, why weren’t her prayers answered? If I can supposedly raise the dead in the name of Jesus why can’t I get over this cold?

Sufjan Stevens in one of his songs off his album Illinois articulates my frustration as he sings about a friend who died from bone cancer.

Tuesday night at the bible study
We lift our hands and pray over your body
But nothing ever happens

Yes. Yes. That’s what I don’t understand.

And it makes me feel helpless. Sometimes I feel helpless and I feel like God is helpless too. He’s battling humanity’s free will and the cyclical nature of cause and effect in the world. And so Don Chaffer sings from the perspective of an angry Christian calling God out on all the evil in the world.
I came stumbling into church
With a hot gun in my hands
I was ready to talk to Jesus
To tell him my demands.
(He says to Jesus)
Now you can stand right there and judge me
Shoot, you can send me straight to hell
I know you got the power
I know that fact full well
But before you do explain to me
Why suffering and why death?
And why did I pray all those years
And waste all that good breath?

Do you ever feel like that?

Now you may argue with me and say, “Ann, what you’re describing is an issue of theodicy (reconciling the presence of evil with the presence of a good God), not an issue of prayer.” But to attempt to reconcile the presence of suffering in the world with the presence of an active and wholly good God necessitates, in my opinion, a discussion on prayer.

After all, it is Abraham in the Old Testament who talks God out of destroying Sodom for the sake of 50, 45, 40, 30, 20 even 10 righteous people. And it is Job who boldly confronts God in prayer about taking away everything he had in life from his job to his family to his health. It is Jesus who cries out, “Not my will, but yours!” when facing capital punishment.

They prayed. When faced with evil, they prayed. And so, for me, the two are inextricably linked. You can’t talk about prayer without acknowledging the reality of pain. If God is not good, then why appeal to him for goodness? And if we are not meant to have a personal relationship with God – one in which we can talk, and communicate on an intimate level such as prayer suggests – then why bother with the incarnational Christ?

Prayer is relationship.

No! No! Some of you may want to scream. “Ask and ye shall receive!” “I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly!” “The Lord bless you and keep you.” “The same Lord is the Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him.” “God blesses the home of the righteous.” Are you saying God doesn’t want to give us the desires of our hearts?

I think God would rather give us the Holy Spirit. At least, that’s what it says in verse 13. And then perhaps the Holy Spirit adjusts the desires of our hearts so they match what is in God’s.

Truthfully, I would say my life is a prayer, that as I live and breathe and think and emote, all my self belongs to God. When my life depends on the breathe of God, how could anything I utter be anything but a prayer? Being in constant conversation with God - that feels like prayer. When I’m sad and can’t talk so I go garden, that’s prayer. When I’m overwhelmed with excitement and I rejoice with my friends, that’s prayer. When I’m frustrated in traffic and then get frustrated because I’m frustrated – that becomes prayer too. But somebody else would probably say that “life is a prayer” is a copout answer. And if “life is a prayer” were really what prayer’s like, then why would the disciples have asked Jesus to teach them how to pray? Maybe because they felt like me.

And so Jesus complies.

And so do I. Prayer is obedience.

You know what Mother Theresa told a reporter once when he asked her how does she pray. She responded, “I listen.” And what does God do, the reporter asked. “He listens,” she replied.

I don’t have any brilliant insight on Luke 11:1-13. I don’t have anything profound to share with you about prayer. All I have is my experience and my confession as one of your pastors but more importantly, as your companion on this journey through life in Christ. It’s true, I don’t always voice my prayers, and I’m working on that; but my sighs and smiles and aching and laughter are always lifted up to heaven. I don’t always get what I expect in life, but I depend on God to get me through it anyway. God knows. God is my source and my salvation. The Holy Spirit is my comfort and my conscience. And Jesus Christ was confronted with evil every day he was here too.


Ann Pittman
First Baptist Church Austin
July 29, 2007


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this sermon. I sat there with tears in my eyes through the whole thing. It was the most honest sermon I have ever heard preached and I felt like you were talking directly to me.

David McCullars said...

I have honestly been searching all day for the right words to express my feeling for today's sermon -- the first thing that popped out of my mouth to Cinda as we left the choir loft was "kick ass" but I don't know if most ministers would consider that a complement. It was brutally honest and painfully profound. It was beautiful.

I have struggled (or maybe I had better say lost the struggle) with the concept of prayer and was hearing my own thoughts and frustrations this morning. It would have been would have been so easy to just preach a banal sermon about prayer, but this was fearless and genuine, and I dare say this is exactly what I needed to hear.

This sermon was one that I can not imagine any other minister preaching, not even our beloved Roger. It was truly a gift from you, and all I can say is thanks!

Cinda said...

It was the best sermon ever! It took a lot of courage for you to get up there and tell the truth. I loved it. You rock!

Anonymous said...

My dearest Ann: Your sermon on prayer just voiced what my inner feelings have been for 84 years. I have only read it once, but I will study it in depth. I am a great one to say to persons who I know are ill, or grieving or having family problems – “We’ll keep you in our prayers” but truthfully – that is as far as I go.

Does thinking of God and his solving our problems make that a prayer then and there? Now occasionally – when something happens that really has my concern I go so far as to get down on my knees by the bed, and really pray. Does that accomplish more?? I very very often think and hope God is looking after my loved ones – particularly you three girls who drive all over the kindom come, but I don’t know if that is sufficient - or should it be a voiced prayer?

I remember once, a long time ago, when I was very seriously ill – I was 18, and had a bursted appendix. I would lay in my hospital bed and say the Lord’s Prayer. I still pray that prayer – sometimes at night when I can’t sleep, or when I feel things are out of my control! Now, my daughter is going to drive from Eureka Springs Ark to Guatamala – through what I would believe is a treacherous Mexico. Should that be a down on my knees episode?

My husband always gives a good prayer down at the Food Kitchen. It is usually simple and not too long – but does it ever touch God’s heart or touch the hearts of those poor unfortunate people?

See – you opened up a “can of worms”.

Kester Smith... said...

Amazing. I will be chewing on this for weeks. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

From one pastor trying to make sense of both the physical and spiritual worlds to another I want to tell you thank you for your honesty, for being so frank, for being real, and for this message. Even the 84 year old "Anonymous" saint who commented on your message doesn't have the answers so many of us struggle with where prayer is concerned. But, it seems to me the fact that we love God and grapple with how to reach Him is a form of prayer itself. Quite frankly, I'm tired of my own self-imposed guilt trip for not praying hard enough...long enough...enough.

For me the bottom line is this - I have a deep desire to please God in all I set my hand to. And, I want to be able to hear His voice so I can walk in obedience. Therefore, my life must become a prayer, always speaking to Him but ever listening at the same time.

God bless you.

Anonymous said...

It is amazing how many of us struggle with prayer when it is simply talking with God wanting to know His will and purpose for our lives as well as learning how to trust Him for our every need which He already promised to supply according to His riches and glory in Christ Jesus. I was really glad to know Im not the only one stuggling but I firmly believe that His eyes are upon the righteous and His ear open to our cry. Im praying that we all continue to press toward the mark of the high calling of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord, and that my friends take prayer!!!

Rita, Detroit