November 14, 2021
"Prayer: Petition, Persistence, Patience, and Praise"
Rev. Scott Landis
What is your understanding of prayer? If we had the time, and this was a bible-study or faith-formation class, I would love to talk story with you regarding YOUR personal understanding of prayer. I’d ask you to reflect on how you think prayer works and the specific prayer practices you engage in. Do you pray? – aside from your time here in what we refer to as “hale pule” or “house of prayer? If you pray, how fulfilling is your prayer life? Do you sense a deeper connection with God when you pray? In short, what is the role of prayer in your everyday life? [Pause]
A few years ago, I served on our denomination’s CREDO faculty. Twice each year we invited approximately 30 clergy from throughout the country to participate in a week-long retreat. Among other aspects of their reflection and instruction, we invited our colleagues to assess honestly their spiritual life and disciplines. I served as the “Spiritual Faculty Person” for this program. One aspect of my role was to meet with clergy, who signed up for individual consultations during the retreat. My dance card always filled up on the very first day. I never had enough slots to meet with those wanting to talk. The reason – these folks were desperate for help.
I cannot tell you how many times I heard the same confession, “Scott, I gotta be honest with you. I don’t pray. Oh, I pray in church, and I pray in meetings, and I pray in hospitals, you know, the obligatory, professional prayers. But I don’t have a personal prayer life anymore. I used to, but it’s gone.”
They would go on to describe how when they started in ministry, they would take time to pray each day, but things got busy. Life became complicated. The tasks and responsibilities in ministry were endless, and their spiritual disciplines took the hit. It was easier to use that time to “get things done,” and by the time they came to me – they were the ones who were done – well done, in fact burned out. Depleted – they looked like the valley of bones described in the book of Ezekiel. And they longed for what they once knew – and the God who called them into ministry in the first place. They were in desperate need of help. [Pause]
Hannah is a prime example of this situation in one’s life. We don’t know what her prayer life was like before this story. All we know is, she was done. She desperately sought to be healed of her barren state. Stuck within a patrilineal and patriarchal society where she needed both a man to protect her and a male heir to feel any sense of worth, she was the victim of a reality that so many couples today know all too well – the pain of infertility.
On top of all that, she received no sympathy for her predicament. Elkanah’s other wife, Peninnah, taunted her mercilessly. Peninnah seemed to get pregnant every time Elkanah looked at her sideways. But not so with Hannah. Neither did Elkanah seem to understand the pain Hannah experienced as each time she tried, she was unable to conceive. His arrogance and insensitivity only made matters worse, “What’s the big deal?” he asked her. “Am I not worth more to you than 10 sons?” He just didn’t get it. What she wanted more than anything eluded her, so she took her pain, her deep disappointment, her prayer to the temple in Shiloh and poured out her heart. [Pause]
What I love about this passage is both the vulnerability and honesty expressed on the part of the one praying. Just like my colleagues in ministry confessed, so also did Hannah stating in no uncertain terms – “I’m done. I’m at the end of my rope. I don’t know what else to do or who else to turn to. I need your help.” Hannah’s was the prayer of broken dreams, of humiliation experienced through taunting and insensitivity by those closest to her, and of the lack of compassion given her hopelessness. And, so, she took matters into her own hands and went to where she believed she just might get the help she so desperately needed. She made her petition known to God.
The petition of her prayer had a persistence to it that held God’s feet to the fire. She wept and cried out and then began to murmur silently which alarmed the priest who didn’t know what to make of this woman he suspected she had too much to drink. But, no matter. God was and IS big enough to receive all of that. God understood – in fact – I think God valued that level of honesty as she fell helplessly into her sincere confession. I love that about Hannah and I love that about God. AND – I believe there is an incredibly valuable lesson being taught in Hannah’s prayer that supersedes her petition that may inform our prayer life as well. [Pause]
The struggles we face in life AND in our prayer are the essential ingredients of our relationship with God. The reason the priest, Eli, hadn’t a clue what was going on with Hannah was because he had completely abrogated his relationship with God. Life became complicated and he became more focused on preserving the institution he served than on worshiping the God for whom it was built. He no longer had the ability to recognize her pain – he no longer understood.
As I read of Hannah’s vulnerability, her authenticity, as she poured out her deepest longing, the only thing that concerned me a bit was the bargaining that entered her desire to strike a deal with God. It’s certainly understandable. Without agency, and desperate for her understanding of fulfillment in her world – she told God she would give her son (if she is so blessed to bear a son) back to the service of God.
Maybe you have done the same thing yourself. I have. These are our quid pro quo prayers. “God IF only you will do this for me, THEN I will … (you can fill in the blanks). It happens all the time when we face loss or grief — or are confronted with daunting crises. We try and bargain with God to get what we want. While it is not the best form of prayer, and I don’t think it is at all what God expects, it helps us deal with situations of apparent helplessness – and, I think, God is big enough to realize our human need to do that as well.
But it’s what happens last in the prayer that makes my heart sing. When she finished pouring out her heart, Hannah went back home. The scriptures say, “She ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.” In other words, she let it go. Do you remember that old saying about prayer, “Let go and let God?” That’s exactly what she did. She released her prayer — and her longing no longer had power over her. But more than that. She broke out into praise.
The Song of Hannah, that follows is a response to the knowledge that she believed God had heard her prayer. Justice would prevail. Despite whether she was granted a child, God was present and would make all things right and all things new. [Pause]
So, as you consider your understanding of prayer, I offer you these words by way of challenge and confession. Prayer is absolutely essential to our lives as faithful beings. Just as it is essential to talk honestly and sincerely with those who are closest to you – we must do the same with God. If we do not, our relationship will weaken to the point where we no longer know who God is in our lives.
This doesn’t mean the conversations — our prayer — will always be pleasant. At times they may be raw, and tear-filled, or bitter. But our honesty will only serve to deepen our roots with God. That doesn’t mean it will be without a struggle. Nor does it mean our issues will be easily resolved.
Hannah’s prayer was answered, but not all of ours will be – at least not in the way we may have hoped. That doesn’t mean God is not in our prayer or that God has not heard our prayer. It just means God has other ideas in mind the reasons of which may take us some time to understand. Our kuleana is to bring our deepest longing to God and God will guide us the rest of the way.
Perhaps that old hymn may help us to remember:
What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear,
What a privilege to carry, everything to God in prayer.
Oh what peace we often forfeit, Oh what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry, everything to God in prayer.
E pule kākou. Let us pray.