Genesis 18:23-38; Psalm 85: 8-11; Luke 11: 1-13
A few of you have recently taken me up on my offer to preach a sermon series on topics you suggest. Thank you! Today’s sermon is my response to this question posed by one of you: “How do progressive Christians pray?” This topic and the others suggest that we as progressive Christians are starting to rethink our spiritual practices.
You’ll notice that, according to Luke’s gospel, Jesus’s disciples had to prompt him to teach them to pray (Luke 11:1). Our question about how to pray is, it seems, as old as the Christian faith. And the Bible clearly understands prayer in wide-ranging ways, as evident in our varied scriptures for today: prayer as negotiation between Abraham and God, prayer as silence for the Psalmist, and, for the Gospel writer, prayer as naming the needs of our hearts, prayer as aligning our intentions with God’s will.
This is a sermon for those who started down a progressive spiritual path and at some point looked back to realize they’d left their prayers behind. This is also a sermon for those who still pray—but without a former earnestness—because their former prayers no long reflect their expanded understanding of God. And this is a sermon for those who never did pray or who no longer pray because prayer just doesn’t make sense or feel authentic. If you’ve been exploring progressive theology and have come to doubt, for example, that God is a physical and, specifically, male being whose job it is to comply with all our requests, or at least the requests of his favorite folks, you may have also started rethinking your prayer life.
If you haven’t already felt this dissonance, this sermon may not speak to you. My intention is not to criticize a perfectly beautiful spiritual practice if you continue to find it fulfilling. I want to open up a prayer path for others without closing off the path you’re using. Open Table’s mission is to offer our community an alternative and emerging expression of Christianity for folks who would not otherwise have a spiritual community. We are not dismissing the older version of Christianity (and keep in mind, we believe we are in many ways retrieving an even older version than that!). But there are plenty of churches in Mobile where people can pray in more conventional ways—even with the thees and thous of the glorious King James English. We want to include those who cannot otherwise reconcile certain tenets and practices with modern science, sound psychology, interfaith understandings, and life experiences. And I want to call into question potentially harmful teachings on prayer—like the idea that if you pray hard enough you’ll be showered with prosperity. That theology, my friends, has a limited shelf life. As a progressive church, we hope to push the frontiers of Christian spirituality in ways consistent with healthy psychology and progressive theology.
And it’s our progressive theology that has caused some of us to think that “we don’t have a prayer.” Some of us understand what poet Christian Wiman meant when he admitted, “I have never felt comfortable praying. I almost feel I should put the word [prayer] in quotes, as I’m never quite sure that what I do deserves the name. . . . Mostly I simply (simply!) try and subject myself to the possibility of God. I address God as if.”[i]
Progressive theology poses to us at least three problems with prayer as we’ve previously practiced it. If you don’t want to hear what these problems are, now is the time to inoculate yourself against this sermon by placing your index fingers in your ears.
Problem #1: Many of us no longer conceive of God as a being. As Joan Chittister put it, “There is only one thing wrong with the traditional definition of prayer: it misrepresents God.” If God is no longer for us a “regal, distant judge outside ourselves” or “male humanity writ large” and is instead the “very Energy that animates us,”[ii] then to whom are we praying? Are we still addressing a “Father” who “art” in some literal location above the earth? Are we actually talking to Someone with physical ears to hear and hands and feet to do our bidding? And if not, if we are not talking to a person—or Super-person—then what is the point of the words we utter aloud in worship or in the words we form silently for private devotion?
I’d respond to that question first by describing prayer for progressives as often a practice of silence. A wordless prayer might be an embodied prayer—like deep breathing that allows us to experience God’s presence in our very breath and bones and pay attention to what’s going on in our bodies, we who so often disconnect mind from body. Or prayer might be a silent centering prayer in which we contemplate an image, for instance, or repeat a verse of scripture, or practice mindfulness of the world around us. The 4th century Christian teacher Evagrius practiced what he called “pure prayer” that was very like Zen meditation.[iii] Practices that allow us to still our spirits can heal us from the spiritual violence our noisy, frenetic culture increasingly inflicts upon us.
But progressives also use words in prayer, and even those who don’t direct the words to an invisible personality “out there” can use prayerful words to focus thoughts or follow them to new insights. I’ll speak in a future sermon about the function of corporate prayer, prayers in worship, for instance. But I speak now about our individual prayers and suggest that before the Spirit can move us to loving actions, our human brains must conceive of those possible actions through language. We may or may not choose to address these words to God, and we certainly want to be careful that our images of God are not reinforcing cultural prejudices, but words offer us the power to clarify our needs. It’s a brave and difficult but healing act to know and name what it is we long for, to put words around the truest thing we desire, to speak about our hurts with a confidence that love can eventually heal that hurt. We can lead such unreflective lives that we can’t even say what it is we need—what is that one “needed thing” that Jesus, as we learned last week, told Martha she had to discover for herself.
“Ask, and you shall receive” is a mantra that invites us into a process of prayer--not a promise of prosperity. We find our way safely home through the labyrinth of language, guided by the loving Spirit. And by addressing the unnamable Sacred force, we are tacitly expressing faith that we are participating in and with Something Greater than Ourselves.
Problem #2: Some of us feel either phony or degraded by praising God as a high potentate. Any God who requires veneration and flattery doesn’t seem worthy of veneration and flattery. But we do appreciate the importance of living with gratitude. We are full of gratitude. And gratitude is a close cousin to praise. While we know how to say thank you to the neighbor who shared freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, how do we say thank you for bird song? Perhaps in silence or song or art or actions. Or with the spontaneous “wow” prayer Anne Lamott recommends. Research shows that “gratitude improves emotional and physical health” and “can strengthen relationships and communities.” One researcher recommends “keeping a gratitude journal,” which is a type of prayer. We don’t have to say “Hallowed be thy name” to express our awestruck gratefulness for Life’s inexhaustible gifts. But we do need some way of offering a hushed “thanks” and flinging out an exuberant “wow.”
Problem #3: All of us have prayed for things that never came to pass—despite the Bible’s promise that if we ask, we’ll receive. There are people who have starved to death while praying “Give us this day our daily bread.”
Of course, you’ve heard the explanations for “unanswered prayer.”
“Well, you just didn’t pray hard enough or in the right way” is one explanation. (As if life is a contest won by super pray-ers, or a fairy tale in which you have to figure out the right incantation to break the evil spell!)
You’ve also heard: “God answered your prayer but just not in the way you wanted it answered.” (Well, then, that was the answer to SOMEONE ELSE’S prayer.)
Or “God will answer in God’s own time.” (As I continue to suffer.) Or “God is using this period to teach you something.” (As I continue to suffer.)
All these explanations make God seem mean and manipulative. A loving parent would never inflict cancer on a child, would not even “permit” it, in order to teach her “a lesson.” God has nothing to do with meanness.
When bad things happen to good and prayerful people, some wonder what’s the point in praying. For me, a stronger deterrent to prayer is when bad prayers happen to good and prayerful people. Prayers that treat God like a vending machine. Prayers in which the pray-er poses as the mouthpiece of God. I don’t pretend to understand how the miraculous can happen, but I don’t give up hope that the unexpected and unfathomable can occur. I see miracles of beauty and compassion every day. I assure you that I pray, in faith, for your healing and for this world’s healing. But as I understand it, the power God wields in this world is Love. Only Love. And one way I understand prayer is my own participation in a flow of love that is the strongest medicine and mightiest miracle on the planet.
We pray not to change God’s mind but to change our own hearts. We are God’s hands and feet in this world. When we pray as Jesus prayed that God’s “kingdom come,” we are aligning our intentions for this world with God’s loving purposes. Holding a person or situation in a loving place in our hearts is prayer, which builds up our capacity for compassion and adds to that mighty Force for good in this world. Praying with regrets for our failings and with extravagant forgiveness for those who have “sinned” against us” is also part of the process that builds up that reservoir of compassion.
We pray as a first step toward action. Christopher Winan shares this honest story: “One day when I had gone to a little chapel near my office at lunchtime and was once more praying while wondering how and why and to whom I prayed, a man came in and eased into the pew directly across the aisle form me. As we were the only two people there, his choice of where to sit seemed odd—and irritating. Within a couple of minutes all thought of God was gone into the man’s constant movements and his elaborate sighs, and when I finally rose in exasperation he stood immediately to face me. He had the sandblasted look of long poverty, the skeletal clarity of long addiction, and that vaguely aggressive abasement that truly tests the nature of one’s charity. Very cunning, I noted, failing the test even as I opened my wallet: to stake out this little chapel to prey upon the praying! For days it nagged at me—not him, but it, the situation—which, I finally realized, was precisely the problem: how easily a fatal complacency seeps into even those acts we undertake as disciplines, and how comfortable we become with our own intellectual and spiritual discomfort. Wondering how and why and to whom I prayed? I felt almost as if God had been telling me, as if Christ were telling me (in church no less!) get off your mystified [posterior] and DO something.”
Ah, yes. Problem #4: Prayer can become a substitute, not an impetus, for action. Progressives must act.
PRAYER: We have preached and heard a sermon on prayer—and we have no idea how to pray. But surely learning to pray is not about developing technique. We trustingly enter a silence that speaks to us louder than words.