July 24, 2022
"Prayer Changes Things … Including Me"
Rev. Scott Landis
Jesus’ disciples came to him with a simple yet important request, “Lord teach us to pray.” It was a rather typical request of a rabbi by his disciples – and so he gave them what they asked for. [Pause].
When it comes to prayer – I have some rather strong feelings and beliefs. First, I believe there are as many different types and means of prayer as there are people offering them. And I believe that ,not a single one of them is better or more effective than any other.
Second, I believe that as a person of faith prayer is important, but I also believe there are times when we simply cannot pray. We either lack for words or no longer believe prayer works. These are hard and dry times when we wonder if God even exists.
Third, I believe God blesses us – surrounding us in Holy Love – regardless of where we are in our understanding and practice of prayer. So, whether we are experiencing a time of fervent and dynamic prayer or whether we feel our prayers are going no higher than the ceiling – God is still there and will not let us go.
Finally, I believe prayer changes things – most importantly – me.
Let’s think for a moment about types and means of prayer. I have many colleagues in the Episcopal church – many of whom I have served with in various capacities during my career. They have often told me that they would not dream of offering a public prayer that had not been previously written down in the Book of Common Prayer. For them, these are prayers that have been carefully and thoughtfully written and speak to every occasion and season of life. Indeed, they are beautiful, and I enjoy reading them and praying them as a source of inspiration and comfort.
But I was taught to pray with my eyes closed and simply let the words come from my heart. A practice many of my Episcopal friends find rather remarkable and not terribly well-crafted.
Many of us learned rote prayers as kids. “Now I lay me down to sleep,” and “Bless, O Lord, this our daily bread,” which we recited each day with little more enthusiasm than brushing our teeth or tying our shoes. It was just something you did.
Then there are the lovely prayers of the Saints such as Francis’, “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.” And Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous, “God grant me the serenity to accept things I cannot change,” and so on.
There are the poignant and humorous prayers like the one coined by spiritual author Anne Lamott, who prays with few words: “Help, Thanks, Wow!”
And the one that is likely the most famous and familiar – one that even lapsed believers have probably committed to memory. The prayer we refer to as “The Lord’s Prayer.” It’s remembered differently by the various gospel writers – some offering more details than others. But its simplicity has stood the test of time as it includes the basic elements of: “Give us.” “Forgive us.” “Lead us.” And “Deliver us.”
It's a beloved prayer that around here we offer in song, some of us fumbling through the chanted Hawaiian version and then raising our voices fully in English to Malotte’s more familiar tune. But even it, as lovely as it is – and regardless of the version used – is no better than any of the other prayers I have mentioned – written or rote. Why? Because ultimately our prayer is not about the words we use or the method we practice. Prayer happens regardless of how, where, when, or why we do it because prayer is nothing more or less than a conversation based on our relationship with God – or as others may refer to as “the Universe” or Allah, or “the Great Spirit” or simply “Presence” just to name a few.
It’s a conversation, I hasten to add, that may be in words – OR in sighs and moanings where words fail to communicate.
Because what Jesus was inviting was NOT to specific words or means – written or extemporaneous – but into a relationship with none other than “Holy Love.” I believe he fully understood that our experience – our current life circumstance – would determine our ability to pray or how we pray at any given moment in our lives. Jesus understood this because he, too, experienced prayer in this way.
I believe what Jesus was trying to point out to his disciples is still relevant to us today – our prayer indeed changes things. It always does. But the most important thing that is changed in prayer – is me.
You see, I think our understanding of prayer is misguided if we believe that IF we just say the right words, or IF we engage in the correct method, or IF we have the right person offering the prayer that we ought to get our desired result. That may happen – but that’s not the goal of prayer. So, my prayer that MY team will win the game or that I will ace a test I have not prepared for may happen, but even if it does, I doubt God had anything to do with it nor does God really care.
I believe that what we should be noticing as we engage in prayer has less to do with outcomes or how the focus of our prayer is changing our life situation in any particular way – and much more to do with how WE are changing as we participate with God in an ongoing and unfolding process. [Pause]
Notice where Jesus goes with all this after offering his rather simple model for prayer. He tells a story about a guy who goes to his neighbor’s house very late at night because he needs some food to feed some unexpected house guests. His neighbor wants him to go away. “Don’t you know how late it is? My wife and kids are sound asleep. If I get up now, they’ll all be awake. Go on home.”
But the guy doesn’t take no for an answer. He is persistent. He keeps asking, and asking, and asking.
Sometimes that’s what is needed in our prayer. We have to keep at it. Once and done simply will not work. We must be persistent and, in our persistence, – whether we get what we want or not – WE will be changed. We may begin to see the situation differently. We may begin to see ourselves differently. Our prayer may even change as in the process we begin to experience God and our situation very differently than we did initially. [Pause]
Some of you know I had a very close friend die recently. She had just been to Maui to visit Randy and me a few weeks before she was diagnosed with liver and eventually pancreatic cancer. Initially my prayers were for her healing. And I prayed persistently, “Lord, let the treatments work. O God, restore her health. Please, let her live.” But when I visited her and saw how sick she had become and how her body was in such pain my prayer shifted. I was just as persistent, but my language changed. And so, did I. [Pause]
That said, I have to admit, there have been more than a few times in my life when I have all but given up on prayer – even doubted that the God to whom I thought I was praying paid me any attention. I suppose that’s where faith comes in. To believe even when I see all evidence to the contrary. To depend on the strength of others when ours is completely gone.
And that takes me to the last few sentences we read today in our gospel lesson. It seems to me that Jesus was suggesting that as we pray – as we change – sometimes we are challenged to do something to make a difference because of the prayers we offer. As Gandhi said, “Sometimes we need to be the change we want to see in the world.” Or as a popular book suggests, sometimes we have to “pray with our feet.”
As Jesus said, “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will you give a snake instead? Of if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion?”
Prayer sometimes changes us to the point that we may be the ones called upon to offer the solution. Which means, I suppose, that we ought to be astute listeners to the prayers of others and notice HOW or IF we are responding to those situations where WE might be the ones to make a difference.
Which begs the question — as we adhere to the metaphor in this lesson — what are our children – or others – asking for today and how are we responding?
I hear folks asking for safe homes, schools, churches, shopping malls and theaters. But what are we giving them – more guns to ensure such safety – and legislation to ensure acquisition and carrying even easier?
I hear folks asking for cleaner air, water, and land. But what are we giving them – more junk being pumped into the atmosphere that is rapidly warming our planet to unprecedented levels?
I hear folks asking for rights, human dignity, and the ability to decide what is best for ones body. But what are we giving them – more and more restrictions legislated by the highest court in the land?
It can be humbling. It can be frustrating. It can even tempt one to want to give up for a moment before we become outraged and know we’ve gotta do something. Call me crazy, but I think that’s all a part of our prayer – and it changes things – even me.
I encourage you to set aside some time today to talk to God AND to listen to what God is calling forth in you. In your conversation say just exactly what’s on your mind – both the hopeful and the frustrating – the gratitude and the tears. That’s your prayer and it will change you into the child of God you are meant to be.
Let us now be united in prayer.