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Prayer Partner

July 28, 2014

“Prayer Partner” Romans 8:26-39 © 7.27.14 Ordinary 17A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

I’ve got a problem. Had it for years and years. It’s a tough one for a pastor.

I don’t know how to pray.

I know that I don’t know. And I’ve tried to learn. I’ve got tons of books of prayers and on prayer in my library. The Book of Common Worship, including Daily Prayer. The Book of Common Prayer. The Book of Uncommon Prayer. Worship books from most mainline denominations. The Book of Blessings, which is a huge, comprehensive Roman Catholic volume. A Guide to Prayer. Let Us Pray. When We Gather. Venite: A Book of Daily Prayer. Phyllis Tickle’s three volume The Divine Hours. And of course, the Directory for Worship in our Book of Order. I’ve experimented with labyrinths, prayer stones, prayer globes, icons, creative ways for confessing sin or showing gratitude, praying with hands outstretched in the ancient orans position. But still I can’t get the hang of it. Not quite as bad as my complete lack of understanding of math or anything mechanical, but serious and embarrassing. Every week I struggle with the prayers of the people, and many of you have heard my halting, inadequate prayers at a hospital bedside or in your home. Let’s not even get started on private devotions.*

The problem is compounded when the situation is really tough, personal, emotionally-laden, hard to sort out. And this is where I suspect you share my quandary. That is, in those kinds of times, neither you nor I know how to pray, what to say, what to do.

Let me share a couple of examples. Many years ago, an elderly friend of ours named Cecil struggled with how to pray for his wife JoAnn, who had inoperable cancer. Radiation didn’t help her; the drugs she took did little to ease her pain. Cecil didn’t want JoAnn to linger in extreme discomfort, but what kind of man prays for his wife to die? He didn’t want her to hurt, but neither did he wish to say “goodbye.”

A true saint of a woman was our clerk of session in Montevallo, Alabama. Her name was Lucille, a scholar, writer, professor, pillar of the church, and the glue that held her far-flung family together through correspondence. But then a stroke robbed her of her ability to speak and write, but her mind was as bright as ever. It was agony for her. She eventually recovered enough to communicate in simple ways, but the person she had been was gone. The morning of the day she died, I was with her in the hospital. “I want to die. I’m ready to go,” she told me. How was I to pray at the end of that call? I didn’t want her to die, because she was my friend and the loss to the church would be immeasurable, but then again I did, if her days could no longer be lived with quality and dignity.

You have your own stories to tell, and indeed, as we look at the world today, in such a mess, and our own lives, sometimes full of chaos and trouble, what are we to do? Crises like sickness, surgery, death, accidents, storms, wars, international discord, family conflict bring our emotions to the surface, clouding rational judgment and dispassionate analysis of a proper course of action. How in such times do we know what’s proper to ask? Are we never to pray for fear of getting something wrong? Or only use rote prayers from a resource, like one of those in my library, which are fine as far as they go, but obviously can’t speak to the specifics of a particular situation.

And it’s those pesky details that make things so hard. In a broad sense, we know very well what we should pray for. We have the Lord’s Prayer, which Jesus taught in response to his disciples’ need to know how to pray. It’s always figured prominently in classical Reformed discussions of prayer. Both the Heidelberg and Larger Westminster catechisms devote a great deal of space to it. We know from what our Lord gave us that we should pray for the coming of God’s kingdom, the accomplishment of God’s will. We properly pray for material needs, for which “daily bread” is a shorthand. We ask God to forgive us and for the grace to do the same for our neighbors. We ought to pray not to be put to the hard test, but delivered, as we give all glory to God.

We also have the personal prayers of Jesus. The late commentator William Barclay once observed that the perfect prayer is “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. Not my will, but yours be done” (Romans: 112). And there are 150 examples of how to pray found in the middle of the Bible, as well as some scattered here and there, covering the broad range of human emotion and situations.

But in a crisis we rarely deal with fairly vague generalities, what the medieval scholars called “universals” of human life. We are instead confronted with the “accidents,” by which they meant the specifics of a particular person. It’s not just a faceless example of humanity lying in that hospital bed or who’s gotten into trouble; it’s our spouse, our child, our friend. Our child or our close neighbor or we ourselves are being bullied or excluded or hurt. Our community, where we live and work or more broadly, our nation, is trying to find a solution to a huge problem. We’re not indifferent robots; we have feelings, like doubt and fear and hatred and love. And we’re well aware that God’s will is life and health and good. And he only wants the best for us. But what is that? And what is the good? What would wholeness and life look like in this situation? What is possible? What do we and those for whom we pray really want and need?

When we turn to the psalms for help on how and what to pray, we find people who struggle as we do with injustice, evil, chaos, pain, and the unfairness of life. They complain that they’re lonely and afraid, bullied by enemies, heartbroken and sick. Jesus, of course, was so stressed during his Gethsemane prayer that the gospel writer reports his sweat was like blood. And Paul knows that our world and our lives are in a mess. We long with all of creation for redemption, to be free of grief and pain. That’s the cosmic context of our personal, private prayers. The result, as someone once said, is a feeling of being so overwhelmed “that words escape us. Our loss of words leaves us feeling helpless. In spite of having Jesus’ model prayer, even an abundance of prayers in both Old and New Testaments that reflect the whole spectrum of human experience, we nonetheless find ourselves speechless” (Preaching the New Common Lectionary—After Pentecost: 114).

It’s in this weakness, this groaning longing and this longing groaning, that the promise and presence of God comes. The Spirit helps us. The Spirit helps us, becoming our prayer partner. When we are so exhausted we can’t go on, the Spirit puts us to bed, tucks us in, and keeps on praying. When we’re speechless, the Spirit articulates our inner longing. When we have no clue what we want, the Spirit is God in us—searching, revealing, understanding. When God is hidden and our anxious hearts cry out, the Spirit brings us face to face with him again. In our powerlessness, in our not knowing how or what to pray, our assurance comes. It’s simply this: God is able to accomplish what he sets out to do, and nothing can separate us from his love.

So we need not be afraid. When words won’t come, let us sit silently. Words are not necessary for prayer. As one writer observes: “Prayer. Really, it has nothing to do with the words. Nothing. I mean words are nice. Quaint….But, real union with God comes not from words [but] from the sighs that are too deep for words…The only thing that I can think of that it resembles is the wordless communication that happens between two people who know each other so well, that one person can send a signal with one raised eyebrow to the other person in the room…and the person knows exactly what it means….And, with God, this is a gift of the Spirit” (Fr. Rick Morley, “*sigh*”

Sometimes all we can do or should do is groan and sigh, maybe yell or weep. Robert Raines, a spiritual director, once wrote: “Sighs are tears not yet released into the world. Tears are wet sighs. It is comforting to me to think that God’s Spirit is searching, hallowing my spirit with sighs too deep for words” (A Faithing Oak: 21-22).

Indeed, our Directory for Worship reminds us that prayer takes many other wordless forms. We may dance a prayer or create a work of art or play a piece of music. Working for social justice through protest and service is prayer. So is contemplation and meditation. The same may be said for moving beyond words and images and conscious thought to communion of our spirits with the Spirit of God within us (see Book of Order W-5.4002). This is a sort of prayer the Orthodox tradition calls apophasis.

Given Paul’s emphasis on our weakness and need, the move he makes next comes as a surprise. Yes, we are dependent on God; we need the Spirit’s help to lift our prayers, be they articulate, composed pieces or groanings from some deep, dark place beyond words. But we are also involved in the answers to our petitions. The text won’t let us wallow in despair and believe that we can never do anything but wait on a God who takes forever to get anything done. Instead, the apostle makes the amazing claim that God works together for good with those who love him. At least that’s one way of translating the passage. Most of the versions don’t say that, I’ll admit, but it’s possible, and the old RSV and the Good News Translation have that reading.

If indeed such a translation is right, we are participants, partners with God in our redemption, our salvation, and that of all creation. We’re called to put feet and hands to our prayers, knowing that God goes with us, working with, in, and through us, guided, supported, and helped by the Spirit. This is not the same as the old saw that God helps those who help themselves. As someone has observed, that common idea is “pagan and false,” but it contains a twisted truth, namely, that by starting to answer our prayer ourselves, even by crying out in despair, we create an opening for the work of God in our lives. Our prayer may be in words or actions, in groans or in silence, beautiful and eloquent or halting and in the simplest of words. But as the old Jewish saying goes, “Who rise from prayer better persons, their prayer is answered.” We are changed by our prayers, and there is more space for God in our lives. As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, we discover “more room around [our] heart[s], a greater capacity for fresh air” (Leaving Church: 141).

Whether in our weakness or our strength, then, God is with us to work his will. We look at the world today, and it seems pretty clear there are forces at work to thwart the purposes of God for justice, peace, and compassion. Every malevolent, maleficent agent in the cosmos is doing its dead-level best to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. But Paul is absolutely sure that will never happen. In the soaring passage that closes the text for today, the apostle reminds us that when we are at wit’s and words’ end, nothing in all creation can or will separate us from the matchless, marvelous love of God in Christ. At the end of the day, it’s not our words or lack of them, our weakness or our strength, our sighing or our shouting, but the love of God that makes us more than conquerors. It will be “him who loved us.” When all else fails, when all around gives way, we cling to this: God has come to us in Christ, and he will never cease caring.

“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” In crisis and in the most mundane of moments, that is, was, and ever shall be the good news.


*See the excellent chapter on prayer in Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, in which she says “I am a failure at prayer” (176)


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