“When Prayer Makes News”

August 14, 2011


II Chronicles 7:12-18

Philippians 4:4-9


“The Lord appeared to Solomon in the night and said to him: ‘I have heard your prayer.’”

Well, prayer is back in the news again.

A week ago yesterday Texas Governor, Rick Perry, led a gathering of evangelical Christians called “The Response” at Houston’s Reliant Arena. While everyone was invited to attend, Perry made it clear in planning and publicizing this event that it would be a “Christian-centered” occasion “to pray for the troubles of the nation.”[1]

You might know that this wasn’t the first time the governor called people to turn to prayer. As The New York Times pointed out, “In April, as Texas reeled from wildfires and drought, Governor Perry sought assistance from the federal government, but also from a higher power. He asked the state to pray for rain.”[2] The three day period from Friday, April 22 to Sunday, April 24, were officially proclaimed “Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas.”

All of this brought the usual responses from the usual sources.

Some of those attending last Saturday’s rally indicated an eagerness to vote for Perry for president—an opportunity that Perry now seems ready to give them.

And there was the opposition.

The “Freedom from Religion Foundation,” our neighbors over in Wisconsin, first tried to stop Perry’s involvement in his rally on the grounds that his role as governor would lead to a violation of the separation of church and state. When that failed, they simply protested outside the stadium. They were joined by, among others, the Rev. Dan DeLeon, the pastor at the United Church of Christ in College Station. Wearing his robe in near-100-degree heat, he said, “The brand of Christianity being offered today is one of fear, and we want to let people know that God loves everyone.”

All of this raises so many issues, I’m not sure where to start.

So let’s just begin here: These days call for greater interfaith cooperation, not the underscoring of old lines of division. Perry’s call to prayer began: “Right now, America is in crisis: we have been besieged by financial debt, terrorism, and a multitude of natural disasters. As a nation, we must come together and call upon Jesus to guide us through unprecedented struggles…” Does he not realize that there are many Americans of deep faith and good will who do not “call upon Jesus?” While a federal judge determined that no constitutional clauses were violated in this governor-planned-and-publicized event, it is troubling that an elected official would hold a gathering such as this that so blatantly excluded Jews, Muslims, and people of other faiths.

Then there’s the weather issue. I have a colleague who swears she once witnessed someone pray—successfully—for a nearly instantaneous change in the weather. On the other hand, I’m quick to tell people that I don’t do “weather prayers”—even on church picnic days. A new forecast at the beginning of August stated that the Texas drought that the April “Days of Prayer” were supposed to address is expected to continue at least into October.

And after some 30, 000 people prayed for our debt besieged nation on Saturday, the stock market promptly tanked on Monday. And we can only imagine what the prayers on Wall Street sounded like during this past week.

As troubling as the governor’s calls to prayer are, however, I am thankful for them. When prayer makes news we receive yet another opportunity to consider what prayer does mean for us and what prayer might mean for us.

We pray together each week. We pray in private. And yet we in the church often have a hard time understanding prayer.

Certainly we have grown beyond the point of thinking about prayer as “a cosmic crowbar”—which is how a friend of mind used to put it. You know, prayer as a lever to push God in a certain direction. Obviously a god who is there to do our bidding is not the living God we read about in scripture and encounter in Jesus.

Yes, Paul urges the Philippians: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” But think about this: Paul wrote these words to a congregation, many of whom were slaves and most of whom were poor. We might think that they would have everything to worry about and very little reason for thanksgiving. Paul himself was in prison facing a capital charge when he wrote to them. Again, we can imagine Paul letting his requests be made known to God. But “no worry” and thanksgiving?

“Don’t worry. Let your requests be made known to God.”

Still today we are slow to take this advice. Many worry excessively. All too often when we pray our prayers sound more like a shopping list than anything else: “I need this, I want that. And don’t forget . . .”

In contrast, prayer suffused with thanksgiving recognizes God as the giver of all good things. Prayer suffused with thanksgiving understands that all of life is lived in the presence of this generous Giver.

To pray as Paul suggests is to recognize that there is a power in the universe that is immeasurably superior to us. And well-off, self-sufficient Americans sometimes have trouble with that.

When we pray we put ourselves and our lives in God’s hands. Now, that’s where we belong. But let’s be honest—that’s not necessarily where we want to be. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I want God to take care of everything—or think God should take care of everything. That is why we have brains and feelings and the ability to think and talk and act.  But to pray is to confess that there is a limit to our ability—to know, to understand, to act, to love. To pray is to confess that God is greater.

Dale Matthews is a physician who is convinced of the healing power of prayer. He tells of a conversation with one patient in which she said, “My upbringing trained me to grin and bear it, no matter how hard things were, so I though that’s what God wanted me to do, too—to just be a good girl and keep a stiff upper lip. It turns out all along I could have been saying, ‘Okay God, you know I need your help with this!”[3]

So we will pray for all manner of needs—health, wisdom, good relationships, well being, common sense, our nation, our world. Anything and everything are worth praying about.

But then what? What if we do let our requests be made known?

Should we expect an answer? The psalmist addresses God, crying: “O you who answer prayer.” Is this a statement of faith or a desperate attempt to convince God and ourselves?

We remember Solomon’s vision of God: “My eyes will be open and my ears attentive. I will hear and forgive.”

The title of a book: Where Is God in My Praying? is our question as well. Why should God answer my prayer and not the prayer of someone else? Why do some—all—of my prayers go unanswered? Why should God answer American prayers and not Afghani? Perhaps these are the wrong questions. They assume that God has not answered and that we will know an answer when we see it or it will come in the way and at the time we desire. Human imagination is limited, and we should not presume that we know all of the ways in which God can respond to us.[4]

Or as it has been said elsewhere: “If God doesn’t seem to be giving you what you ask, maybe God’s giving you something else.”[5]

One way prayer is “answered” is by bringing us closer to one another and to God. An ancient image is that of a circle, with God at the center and our many lives as lines drawn from the circumference toward the center. The closer the lines crowd in toward God, the closer they are toward one another; and the close they are to one another, the closer they become to God.[6]

This, of course, is one reason why we come together for worship once a week. We learn to pray together. We pray here together. We’ve been doing this week after week for over 150 years. We pray here together so that we might pray alone. That, more than anything else, is what we “get” from worship—an immeasurable gift. Then we pray alone so that when we come together we might once again be closer not only to each other but also to God.

Of course, this closeness reveals another problem. The danger of prayer is that it changes the one who prays. The first things to change are our hearts, our lives. When we accept the invitation to pray we start to look at things differently.

Consider our enemies, for example—or those people who cause us difficulty. If we dare to pray we start to see how we are the same.

Or consider illness. We discover as we pray that healing does occur—and sometimes the person prayed for even gets well.

Consider even the weather. We pray for an end to drought and by God’s grace we might come to see the drastic and potentially fatal changes our actions are inflicting on the environment and the climate. We must change if there is to be any hope that the weather will.

So if people gather to pray for our nation in all its turmoil and trouble, and if we pray for our nation, my hope is that we will all, as the Lord God said to Solomon in the night, humble ourselves and turn from our wicked ways. That is, I hope that by God’s grace we and all of Texas and all our nation will recognize that we are not the center of the universe, or God’s chosen people. I hope that by God’s grace we will all start to heed the biblical mandate to care for the ill and the poor, that we will heed the prophets’ call to seek justice and love mercy, and that we will follow in Jesus’ way of open and affirming love for all people. I hope that by God’s grace we will be changed people, new people.

Prayer changes us first.

Then we open our eyes and start to see that healing and reconciliation and salvation have come near.

[1] “Texas Rally Renews Debate Over the Boundaries of Perry’s Faith,” NY Times, 8/5/11.

[2] ibid.

[3] Dale Matthews, The Faith Factor, pg. 204..

[4] Kamila Blessing, It Was a Miracle, pg. 22.

[5] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, pg. 37.

[6] Dortheus of Gaza quoted in K. Norris, Amazing Grace, pg. 59-60.