Do You Hear My Prayers?
Twenty-Second Sunday After Pentecost • November 5, 2017
Recommended Readings: Romans 8:14-16, 26-28
Dear God, do you hear my prayers? Do you hear our prayers? Friends, I am absolutely and unequivocally convinced that God hears our prayers…and is moved by them. And, while I don’t think it’s a good idea to pray for wealth and power, generally, it is OK to pray whatever is on our heart. I like especially this prayer by writer Anne Lamott that I found in reading for this sermon:
Hi, God. I am just a mess. It is all hopeless. What else is new? I would be sick of me, if I were You, but miraculously You are not. I know I have no control over other people’s lives, and I hate this. Yet I believe that if I accept this and surrender, You will meet me wherever I am. Wow. Can this be true? If so, how is this afternoon – say, two-ish? Thank You in advance for Your company and blessings. You have never once let me down. Amen.
When we pray intentionally and expecting a response, it is because we have something serious to convey to God. But I think God must sometimes chuckle at how limited we are in our vision of God’s love, goodness, power, and presence. It must seem to God sometimes like we don’t think about what we are saying or don’t take our thoughts or words seriously.
Now, of course, there should not be any theological test for what prayer we consider legitimate – prayers are the cries and sighs of our hearts – but if we have a particular understanding and experience of God, then perhaps we should think about the way we pray and whether it aligns with how we believe God works in relation to us and to the world. For example, a part of the Christian tradition is to invoke the Spirit of God to be with us. Or, we might pray for God to guide the leaders of our own nation and the other nations of the world to work for justice and seek peace and harmony. Such prayers make it sound like we don’t believe God is with us and trying to influence us all the time. Or, consider our prayers for healing. If God is with us always and experiences, with love and compassion, every moment of our lives, every joy, sorrow, and pain, then surely, before we ask for it in our prayer, God is already at work doing everything in God’s power to ease our suffering and guide us to the best possible good.
I have always felt like God hears my prayers. But I do not pray for miracles. If our expectation is that God is going to fix all of our problems, cure all of our diseases, keep us from all harm, or miraculously end all in justice, then we will be disappointed. God does not miraculously fix all of our problems. If God could answer every petition in just the way we wished, then it is likely that very few people would ever get sick or die…and there would be a whole lot more winners of the NY Lottery.
Even though prayers like “God, cure my cancer” or “God, don’t let me die,” they may be the cry of our hearts, since we know the way God works in the world, perhaps a better prayer might be, “God, help me to find the best doctors and the best medicines and other therapies for my condition so that I can live with a decent quality of life for as long as possible.” And remember that God can help us to draw upon the amazing healing powers of our own minds and bodies and the healing power of mutual love and communal support. We can also pray, “God, thank you for all that you are doing to give me the strength and comfort me through this painful time.” or “God, help me to find joy and peace in the midst of this difficult circumstance.”
When I pray, I don’t think that I am bringing something to God’s attention that God did not already notice. I think that’s what the line from the scripture lesson means when it says, “The Spirit…comes to help us in our weakness. For we don’t know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit expresses our plea with groanings and sighs too deep for words. And God, knows everything in our hearts…”
God hears our prayers and God is always trying to communicate with us through prayer and other means, providing us guidance for living, encouraging us to act in loving ways, helping us to overcome anxiety and self-doubt, and trying to build up our faith, courage, and strength for practicing love and being justice-seekers. Thus, God is continually responding to our prayers, even those we have not yet voiced and even those that are not yet fully formed in our consciousness. We may not be listening carefully enough to perceive the answers. We may not be able to accept them. The chatter in our heads and the thunder and lighting in society and politics may drown out God’s message. Yet, God is always there, always listening, and always providing love, support, guidance, inspiration, strength. God’s response may be something like this: “I cannot give you exactly what you ask. But let me help you work this out. Will you allow me to guide you to an answer to your prayer?” Or, sometimes God’s response might be more like this: “This may not be what you are looking for, but here is the answer I am able to give you right now.”
Let’s look at prayer in another way. What if prayer is not about asking God for things or even thanking God, but is, instead, a crucial way we align ourselves with God’s desire and purposes.
We don’t pray to let God know what we need – God already knows even before we have fully formed our thoughts in our minds and the Spirit intercedes for us before we ever get to praying. The one to whom we pray continually calls us to the good and loving and just and works in us to make our prayer possible. Prayer is about changing us, opening our hearts, helping us to listen and to see what God is doing and what we are called to do.
So, let me share a bit about my own prayer life. I used to pray as if I believed God fixes things by divine fiat. But I was always uncomfortable with that. I do pray plenty in Anne Lamott’s three basic prayer categories: Help, Thanks, and Wow. “Help me, God.” “Thank you God.” And “Wow! That’s amazing!” When we have healing prayer in worship, when I am praying with the Hope for Our Neighbors in Need food pantry community, whenever someone lets me know they are in need of pray, I pray like this: “God, help Ana or Steven to find strength and courage within themselves to face whatever challenges are in their lives. Guide them to sources of support and comfort. Surround them with people who will act in loving ways toward them.” When Diane was in surgery and in recovery in the hospital in August, I certainly prayed that she would come through it all with the best possible outcome. I prayed, “God, please help her to stay strong and not despair. Help the nurses and doctors to be skilled and attentive to her physical and emotional needs. And help me to make her feel cared for and cherished.” I have to say that I don’t have a very disciplined prayer life. I don’t have specific times set aside every day to pray. I pray as prayers arise within me. For myself, I might pray something like, “God, thank you for all the ways to love me. Inspire me and help me to find strength and courage within myself to carry on the work you have call me to.” But I also don’t think prayer just means setting aside time to be in conversation with God. More often, my prayers are expressed in my attitudes and the way I live my life. Singing is praying. Working for something good, especially for someone else is a prayer. Enjoying the beauty of a flowing river or deer walking through the woods or an eagle gliding by – these are also prayers. I pray because I want my heart and hands and ears and eyes to be opened to all of that. I pray to understand what God is calling me to do so that I can contribute to creating new spaces and new possibilities for love and justice and beauty in the world.
Because God is love, God does not exercise power unilaterally. God’s power is relational, so God works in relationship with us and through the ways of love. Whether our prayer request is about financial insecurity, emotional turmoil, homelessness, a physical ailment, or freedom from oppression, God’s responds by guiding us toward what we need to be made well or whole, toward release from our fear, anxiety, or pain, or toward liberation from injustice.
Prayer begins with sharing with God the cries of our hearts and listening for the ways God is already responding to our needs and desires. But prayer is also expressed in action – acting to foster love and promote justice in the world. In doing so, we help ourselves and others to find freedom from things that bind us and restrict our ability to be open to God’s love, mercy, and grace – things like addictions, poverty, oppression, prejudice, greed, and hatred. God is powerfully influential in us and in the world, but God only exercises power through persuasion and guidance. Also, God can only work with the ranges of possibilities created by our individual and collection decisions. So the more we liberate human beings, the more they are able to hear and be guided by God toward the good and just. Thus, we help to create better possibilities through which God can work. Prayer changes us and, therefore, as Robert Mesle puts it, “can change what God can do….” In prayer, “we work cooperatively with God to create a better world within which God can offer better possibilities and do better things, within which God can be better perceived and better responded to.”
Lina Landström and I went to the first-ever ecumenical LGBT Religious History conference in St. Louis this week. There were 250 people – mostly activists – from many generations of the LGBT movement, who had struggled among Catholics, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Quakers, Baptists, Seventh-Day Adventists, and other denominations. For three days, they told their stories and we sang, laughed, and cried. It was a powerfully healing communal experience. Nickie Valdez, one of the oldest women at the conference, told of coming out as a lesbian in the early 1960s in San Antonio, Texas and how lonely that was. There was no organization to turn to for support. It was hard even to find the “gay” community, except in bars. However, by the early 1970s, she and a dozen other persons formed the first LGBT organization in San Antonio – a chapter of Dignity, the LGBT advocacy organization in the Catholic Church. There are thousands of people with stories like Nickie’s – people who prayed and marched and fought for recognition of their humanity in denominational bodies and with bishops, pastors, and congregations. And, in doing so, they vastly expanded the social, political, and religious space in which lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer persons can feel loved, affirmed, and relatively safe. And all of that made me remember one of the “whys” of the Church of the Village – one of the reasons we are here: to provide an expanding space of radical inclusivity and loving sanctuary – to make this community a house of prayer for all. It also reminded me that we stand on the shoulders of people like Rev. Paul Abels, the first openly gay pastor in a Protestant church who performed some of the first same-gender wedding ceremonies and Rev. Ed Egan, who helped to found Parents, Family, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. Imagine being queer in New York City without institutions of support like the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, The LGBT Community Center, SAGE and…Washington Square UMC, Metropolitan Duane UMC, and The Church of the Village.
God’s desire for our lives is for good and not for harm. God cannot answer every prayer in the way that we would like, but God does provide what we actually need, what is the best option available for our well-being and thriving. If we can maintain a deep connection to God’s loving and abiding presence, if we stay in conversation and relationship with God through prayer, we are transformed and can sometimes glimpse what God is doing in our lives and what God is doing through us for the world. Remember that, no matter what people say, you are a beloved child of God. God is working for good in your life and nothing in all creation can separate you from the love of God.
 Robert C. Mesle, Process Theology: A Basic Introduction (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1993).