by Ellen Sims
Genesis 18:20-33, Luke 11:1=13
Prayer is as challenging a topic as sex. People generally want to do more of it and get better at it, but overanalyzing it (prayer or sex) is not necessarily the way to get more satisfaction from it. So rather than beginning analytically, I’m going to start narratively with a very personal story. About PRAYER.
George and I moved from Nashville in 2002 so that he could take on the role of Provost and Academic Vice President at a college in Ohio—-and at the same time our daughter Georgia started college in Kentucky. Those first few months in Ohio sometimes felt as if I were losing most of what I loved in life: a daily relationship with our only child; a fulfilling profession as an English teacher blessed with close colleagues and fun college students; and a challenging role as a lay leader at a joyfully aberrant Baptist church that had just called a lesbian pastor. On the very morning of our move to Ohio and the day after her high school graduation, our 17-year-old daughter became very ill, was hospitalized a couple of weeks later with mono, but was in poor health off and on and a year later was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease.
Amidst upheaval and uncertainty, I decided to add one more life-change to the list: I applied for admission to the nearest reputable theological school. Maybe I was recalling this advice that the wizard Merlin gave to the future King Arthur in T. S. White’s trilogy, The Once and Future King:
“The best thing for being sad is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”
I wanted to learn more about God, or that which we call God. With all my heart I wanted to explore more of that vastness in some way. I wanted to learn about the world and to love the world better, too. I don’t think you can learn something deeply without loving it.
Years later some friends from Nashville told me they had worried about how hard the move to Ohio would be for me and seemed surprised I’d weathered the transition well. They should have worried more for George because we soon realized he was working for a killer of a president: unrelenting and unpleasable. You see, just weeks after George joined the the college’s administration, the development officer had a fatal heart attack. Then the president’s husband had a non-fatal heart attack. The next year another member of the president’s cabinet suffered a non-fatal heart attack. George sometimes ate lunch with a few of the college’s coaches, who made a sick joke about George being her next victim. After the second heart attack, George walked into the dining hall to see these coaches each holding up two fingers, then pointing at him, and then holding up three fingers as if to say, “Two down, and you’ll be number three.” The day after the third heart attack, they held up three fingers as George walked toward them and then pointed to him before holding up the sign for number four. Before the end of his first year, George was trying to figure out how to apply for his next job without his president finding out because she would surely blackball him and end his career.
I worried, of course, about my husband and daughter and ached for my former church and friends and neighbors and colleagues, but it took us just a few weeks to find our new tribe at a loving and outrageous American Baptist Church 45 minutes from our new home. There, the week before starting seminary, I met my best friend and doppelganger throughout seminary, who was leaving the practice of law to prepare for ministry. We were so similar in some ways that classmates would sometimes call us by the other’s name.
Seminary was a totally absorbing adventure. But I owe my salvation from worry and loss and sadness mainly to long walks I took each morning and evening with my spiritual advisor: our dog Lily. We’d start from our condo atop a hill and next to a forested area where often we’d meet bold deer and shy rabbits and rare black squirrels found only in Ontario, Canada, and Ohio.
And here is where the praying part comes into the story. (Thanks for waiting!) On those long walks beside evergreen trees and skies that were not Southern trees or skies–and in the blessedly cooler temperatures of the Ohio summer and beautiful but bitterly cold snow falls and snowbanks in the late fall through early spring, Lily the dog–God rest her sweet soul—-was as happy to be there as any other place on earth. And gradually I realized I might be capable of that, too. That realization sneaked up on me when my interior dialogue on those walks started including a lot of “What a sunset from up here!” as well as this strange but persistent, half pessimistic/half optimistic thought: “Hmmm. I’m not exactly MISERABLE.”
I was taking my emotional temperature. And I was . . . okay. I had assumed I might have been running a high emotional fever by that time. But I checked and I wasn’t. I didn’t plan to gauge how I was doing. But I kept mildly surprising myself to discover afresh, “Things aren’t THAT bad. I’m not exactly MISERABLE here.” Maybe I should have been. Maybe not. I’m not saying I wasn’t worried about my loved ones or missing lots about my former life. But I’d received a gift of time and solitude on my walks and in my car on my hour and half commute to seminary. And this unusual alone time opened me up to something more than just introspection. I took time to question and ruminate and appreciate and process what I was learning. And all I was learning excited me. But I was also trying to get to know myself better. And become gentler with myself. And others. And that was prayer for me. Just that. Sometimes that interior dialogue was intentionally directed to God. But most of the time there was just quiet. Or self-talk. And lots of self-evaluation. And gratitude. And holding up my loved ones and others to the Light. At some point I said to myself: “I never wanted this experience, but I am more than ‘not miserable now.’ I am embracing this.”
And that’s how, during a stressful time in my husband’s life, I found a gentle spiritual retreat and a bracing academic challenge that saved me. Learning something meaningful and stumbling upon a wider experience of prayer saved me.
I’m sure there’s a better way to analyze what turned those walks and long drives into prayer. I can only say that God met me there. And comforted and strengthened me. And allowed me to face into seminary with a skeptic’s pugnacity so that, unlike many of my much younger classmates, I was unconcerned that seminary might turn me into an atheist and thus disqualify me to become the pastor I was preparing to be. I wanted to see and know what I could see and know. I wasn’t preparing for my next career. I was learning and experiencing and reaching out for God. And all of that was prayer.
But what does the Bible say about prayer and specifically what might today’s lections teach about prayer? Our Hebrew Bible reading and our Gospel text help us consider the rhetorical dimensions to prayer. A rhetorical study of today’s scriptures may seem an odd approach to prayer, but I am convinced that, like good writers and good speakers, good “pray-ers” do well to consider their audience and purpose. Abraham’s prayer (his conversation with God in Genesis 18) sounds very different from Jesus’s prayer his disciples elicit in Luke 11 (Luke’s version of “the Lord’s prayer).
Briefly, Abraham’s prayer assumes God, the “audience,” is a powerful but not omnipotent potentate who is less merciful than Abraham yet who nevertheless can be persuaded to curb his violence against possible innocents in Sodom. Abraham’s “purpose” is to appeal to the mighty one’s ego through his own self-debasement and by flattering the powerful one. Specifically, Abraham’s purpose is to intervene on behalf of possible innocents in the city of Sodom.
We see a very different model of prayer in Luke 11 because Jesus has a different audience and purpose. Jesus’s understanding of God (“the audience,” to use the rhetorical term) is evident in his simple prayer when he addresses God as Abba, Father. Jesus’s God is also powerful, but Jesus is praying for that kingdom to “come”–which means his God’s realm is not yet here or not yet fully realized–and maybe Jesus followers have a role in helping to realize that coming kingdom. We can go further into the rhetorical analysis of what Jesus’s prayer reveals about who his god is and what Jesus’s purpose is in teaching the disciples this prayer. But my point for today is simply this:
The prayers we pray will be shaped by these same rhetorical questions: 1) who is my audience (that is, to whom am I addressing this prayer; that is, who/what is God to me?) and 2) what is my purpose (that is, why am I offering this prayer?) The Bible contains many kinds of prayers based on many different ways of viewing God and for many purposes. I am not prescribing how you should conceive of God or what your purpose for praying should be. I’m suggesting that if prayer is not meaningful for you, it may be because you are praying in a way that does not reflect your genuine understanding of the Divine or that does not support what you believe is the purpose of prayer. Let your prayer match your theology.
Recognizing that we have different assumptions about prayer explains why public prayers are especially challenging. When we pray in worship together, we’re all making some concessions in order to find a little common ground for shared prayers—because we don’t all agree about the same “audience” and “purpose” of our prayers. That’s part of the challenge of communal prayer. And prayer generally. I’ve shared with you something about my own prayer life. But that story was not intended as a model for YOUR prayer life. I encourage you to reflect on and nurture prayer that meets your needs. As/if your theology changes, your practice of prayer may evolve.
I can offer an ecumenical public prayer.
I can write a prayer for worship to underscore the week’s theological theme.
I can sing you a benediction.
I can stand at your hospital bedside and hold your hand as we pray before surgery.
I can offer prayerful liturgy at your baptism, wedding, or funeral.
All of those prayers require words. And I love words.
But the best prayers for me are made of time and silence, a faithful dog and a new vista, an open heart and a mind that wants to learn a new thing.
My prayer for you is that you may know how YOU need to pray. Amen