Real Prayer

A sermon preached by the Rev. Christopher L. Webber at St. Paul’s Church Bantam, Connecticut, on October 17, 2010.

There aren’t many places in the Gospel where we are told plain and up front what the point is, but today’s Gospel is one of them: “Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” So that’s our lesson for today – and we need it.

“To pray always and not to lose heart.”

I have a book about prayer, written some forty years ago by a French Protestant named Jacques Ellul and he begins very bluntly by saying, “The man of our time does not know how to pray; but much more than that, he has neither the desire or the need to do so. He does not find the deep source of prayer within himself. I am acquainted with this man. I know him well. It is myself.”

Ellul goes on to say, “We are in a domain in which experience is individual or it is nothing. Am I to attempt to prove that prayer is good, still more that my reader stands in need of it, when he doesn’t even know it or feel it? If someone is not thirsty, how am I to prove to him that he is mistaken and that he is thirsty after all? – that he is in need of all that water which I find to be so excellent? I shall never make him drink that way.”

Is that our situation? Ellul suggests that in a world like ours traditional patterns of prayer may not work because we no longer feel the need of prayer. We can solve too many of our problems without them. Well, that was written at the end of the nineteen-sixties and things were beginning to change already. The easy optimism of the nineteen-fifties was beginning to fade and we were learning from Vietnam, as we now learn from Afghanistan and our own society with it’s growing polarization between rich and poor, immigrant and native born, that problems are not easily solved by human wisdom, that if we can’t turn to a power beyond ourselves we may truly be fated to destroy ourselves. Maybe we need to think seriously about prayer.

Ellul begins his analysis by discarding some familiar ideas of prayer – for example, the picture of prayer as a heavenly telephone. For many people, he suggests, their image of prayer is like using a telephone: you call up and have a conversation and find it reliable no matter how great the distance. Well, that was written in 1970 and maybe telephones were like that then. Now, I think, our experience would be closer to the experience of failure and frustration Ellul is discussing. We place a call and get a busy signal or we get put on hold or we find ourselves talking to a tape. Maybe we try to use our cell phone and are told there is “no network.” If our experience of prayer is really like using a telephone we’re in real trouble.  And maybe it is.  Maybe we are.

And maybe also, Ellul suggests, our image of prayer is controlled by the fact that our society is so totally consumer oriented. Prayer, he writes, “makes no sense to a person such as I am unless it paves the way for an increase in consumer goods.”  God becomes the agent for satisfying the needs created by our society.  He’s not being simplistic. He’s not thinking just about toys, even sophisticated, grown-up toys like cars and computers, or even homes and a steady job. No, deeper, much deeper than that, he suggests that God also becomes a consumer item, God becomes “an objective satisfaction.” We pray in order to feel something, to get that feeling, to have a religious experience, to know – through our feelings, through an emotional kick, that God is there for us, that our prayers are heard. There’s a lot of piousity these days that provides that, that aims to give us a good feeling, to satisfy that need to feel good about ourselves and think that’s religion. We talk also about having faith about receiving the Holy Spirit even about getting converted – having, receiving, getting – as if faith were just one more item to bring home from the shopping center.

Now, Jesus did say, “Ask and you will receive” and even the widow in this morning’s gospel is after something, she wants to get justice, she wants some specific thing to take home with her. And that’s all right for beginners. Prayer often does begin at that level. Children begin by seeing their parents as sources of consumer goods. Mother is a source of milk. Father is a source of rides. Parents are people to help you with your homework, put meals on the table and a roof over your head. For small children, that’s fine. But you hope they grow beyond that eventually, begin to see that human relationships are not just about getting, but also about giving, and even more, about love, about shared hopes and dreams and sorrow and joy.

So, too, our relationship with God needs to grow beyond simply getting, even beyond giving, Begin there, yes; but don’t stop there. Prayer is much more. Prayer, says Ellul, is never a consumer satisfaction. I would disagree. Prayer at an elementary level is often about a consumer satisfaction, and God does often answer that kind of prayer. We pray, and things happen – sometimes. But that’s not the end, not the goal, not the real meaning and purpose of prayer.
Again, we have that kind of relationship with some people: parents when we are very small, shopkeepers, people from whom we buy things, politicians: “What have you done for me lately?” But those aren’t satisfying relationships, are they? Come to think of it, that’s probably what’s wrong with our politics: that we are treated like children: here let me take care of your needs, reduce your taxes, get you health care – always immediate “consumer goods,” never an appeal to selfless concern for others.

But mature relationships  have no giving and getting in mind. I don’t have to give or get anything from my close friends – it’s reward enough to be with them, just to be with them and enjoy that presence. So with prayer. Mature prayer is it’s own satisfaction. So why does Jesus give the example he does: a widow who persists against the odds to get justice? Well, I wonder if there is anything more important in prayer than persistence: just plain stick-to-it-iveness? The widow kept coming, kept banging on the door, and finally just to get rid of her, the judge responded.

Is God like that: responsive only to persistent banging on the door, responding only to be rid of us? Well, I wonder if we don’t need to balance that picture with the Old Testament reading of Jacob wrestling with God. That’s a very strange story, isn’t it? “A man wrestled with him .. .” But at the end, he is given the name of Israel, “because you have wrestled with God and prevailed.”  How do you interpret that?  Scholars will tell you how the story developed from very primitive origins, but all we need to see, I think, is exactly what it says: Israel wrestling with God and refusing to yield without a blessing.

Think about the Bible and about prayer with that image in mind: wrestling with God, refusing to yield without a blessing. Think of Moses challenging God: “Will you really slay the innocent with the wicked? Will you destroy the city if there are righteous people within it?”  Think of Isaiah challenging God: “Who am I to be sent, a man of unclean lips?”  or Jeremiah, “I refused to cry out and God’s word was like hot burning coals within me and at last I could not contain,” or Amos, “I was no prophet or the son of a prophet but God said, Go.”  Think of the psalms: “Why have you cast us off, O God, will you be displeased at us for ever?”   Think of Jesus in Gethsemane praying so earnestly that his sweat was like great drops of blood. That’s wrestling with God, that’s praying, that’s taking prayer seriously, that’s taking God seriously: working at it, using all the energy we have.

But isn’t God a loving God who hears and answers prayer? Yes, but is that all there is to it? Do you have children, and love them, and never have to work at that relationship, never have to wrestle with them over homework or family values? Are you married, do you love your spouse, and never have to work at that relationship with all the strength you have? Do you know any relationship that really matters that’s easy? I never have to work at my relationship with the folks at the checkout counter. I pay my money and they give me  my change and tell me to have a good day. But I can’t remember their names and faces the next time through the line. I suppose you can have that kind of relationship with God if you want but why would you want? What difference would it make in your life?

I don’t think I can find words for what happens when a relationship matters and you wrestle with that relationship and sweat blood over it, but in that struggle something happens, a relationship happens, caring happens, love happens. Why should we expect prayer to be any easier or any less important? Why should we expect that the blessing of God can come without a fight?

I had a friend years ago who had once been a championship badminton player. I think he had won a state championship. Then he decided to go into the ministry and I met him in seminary. He used to go to the seminary gym and take a dozen badminton birds and stand at one place in the court and hit them to a specific place in the opposite court for hours at a time until he could get it right every time. He wasn’t playing in competition any more but he was serious about what he did. Why do something at all if you don’t do it the best you can? I learned something from him. I haven’t always acted on it but if my prayers aren’t real I also know why. It’s because I’m not serious enough to work at it hard enough that God will find my whole self involved, that God will see that I’m serious, that I want to take my life up to a higher level and begin to find out at last what prayer can do and what life with God can be.  The gospel this morning challenges us to find out.

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