The Rules of Prayer: Looking Beyond Ourselves

A sermon preached at the Congregational Church of Grafton UCC on November 13, 2016

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

There’s nothing easier than thinking of yourself as a Christian, especially as we so often define that word for ourselves. And that’s ok. But if you want the full benefit of following the way of Christ, there’s more to it than just giving yourself the name.  It’s like the difference between dating and marriage.

Last week, we took the first step in the difficult part of being Christian: recognizing that we can’t do it all ourselves, that we need help to make it through the day.

This week, we’re diving a little deeper, to help us get comfortable with the idea that there’s more to all this than just what we want.

Christian faith is pretty clear, and even easy, when it’s just me and my Savior. Jesus is really understanding, non-judgmental, accepting and gracious – even when I don’t spend much time with him. And it’s pretty easy to do what seems right to me, and know it’ll all be ok with him.

But then add in community, and it all get so complex and messy. Community is part and parcel of the Christian way; though it is harder, it’s also more rewarding.

Living in community is more challenging because it pulls out of our own self-centered orbit and requires that we think about and deal with – not only our own desires, or even the desires of our friends, but with the needs of the community and the wider world.

As we grow in our ability to pray, we’ll deepen our commitment to praying more for what the community needs than what we want. We’ll be drawn out of our own selves, our own experiences, expectations, wants and desires.

Jesus tells the story of the sower…who went out to sow seeds.

  • Some of his seeds fell on the path. They were never going to sprout. Some got eaten, some were destroyed.
  • Some seed fell on rock, it died for lack of water.
  • Some fell among thorns, and got choked out.
  • Some fell on good soil, grew and prospered.

There’s any number of lessons which may be taken from this story, but for today, it tells us that there are ways to be which can look good, but for differing reasons do not prosper.

So we can go through the motions, like the sower, but pay no attention to anything in our lives, and the gifts of faith do not prosper.

Or we can pay attention enough that the seed of faith sprouts, but then it withers and dies because it’s not nurtured at all.

We can pay attetion, and nurture it, but then allow the realities of life to choke it out.

We can pay attention, and pay attention, and pay attention… and grow more and more deeply into relationship with God and one another.

Lives change, and sometimes it feels as though that change happens by the minute. Happy and receptive one minutes, it can feel as though we’re nothing but rocky ground the next.

Sometimes we’re so captive to our own troubles, our own concerns, that nothing else can flourish.

And then comes those times when we are able to move beyond our selves, to see and hear the need of the community within which we live, and reach out to them through the power of prayer. Because prayer changes things.

But that’s hard. It reminds me of a devotional written some time ago by professor Mary Luti:

Mother and child in the supermarket. The boy’s two-ish. Squirmy. In the cereal aisle, Mom’s tension rises. When he rips open the Cheerios, she’s had it. She yanks the box away, plunks him in the carriage, and wheels him to the register before he can summon a sound.

 And I’m thinking it’s terrible to be two. You want what you want when you want it, but you get what adults think is good for you and convenient for them. You can manipulate them to a point, but your power’s limited by size and weight. They can always toss you in a cart like a head of lettuce and wheel you away.

No wonder children like playing grown-up, bossing each other around. They think we’re free, that we just will things, and everything we want leaps from the shelf into our carts. They don’t know yet that to be in charge of yes and no is more terrible than being two.

 They don’t know about the tyranny of choices, the terror of decision, and unintended consequences. They don’t know that we’re never not at the mercy of other people’s ideas about what’s good for us and convenient for them. They don’t know that at any age, without warning or consent, rogue events can yank dreams from our hearts like a fed-up parent in a grocery store. Even if you’re 6’5″ and weigh 240, life can still toss you around and wheel you away.

 Here’s truth, consolation, saving grace: In life and death, and in every tossing, we belong to God

Here’s more truth: the more we practice reaching out to others, paying attention to who they are, what their frustrations are, what their needs will be, the better we will be as well.

We had a national election this week, and there are a lot of people hurting today, a lot of people scared. There was more vitriol in this election than I can remember in decades and it has not stopped with the election. It’s a time when we might well be consumed by our own reactions. And it’s a time for us to also reach out, to extend the hand of community to those whose fears are overwhelming, to offer them our prayers, to together comes to a sense that “tho the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.”

The first rule of prayer is to “ask for help”.

And the second rule is to “get outside ourselves”.

All so that we may strengthen our faith, increase our trust in God’s empowering presence, and be a strong witness to what it means to “be the church” in this community.


© 2016, Virginia H. Child

The Rules of Prayer: Recognizing We Need Help

A sermon preached at the Congregational Church of Grafton UCC on November 6, 2016


Psalm 17:1-9 Hear a just cause, O Lord; attend to my cry

Luke 20:27-38 . . . that wife, now – I nthe resurrection whose wife is she?

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Psalm 17 is often held up as an example of a good prayer – and it is – an example of a good prayer. It’s a prayer which knows, absolutely, that God is there for us. It’s a prayer which trusts, absolutely, that God will support us. It’s a prayer which comes pretty close to demanding that God pay attention, hear our cries, and respond to our needs. The Psalmist even speaks to God in the imperative mood.

You remember the imperative mood from high school English, right? Do this, NOW. Hear! Listen! Pay attention!!

Well, that’s how confident the psalmist is; he – or she – tells God how it should be, and what the answer will be to his/her prayers. That’s one confident pray-er!

Now that seems pretty normal to me – just the sort of thing we usually expect from the Bible. But today’s Gospel lesson is clearly from another place. Every time I hear it, I can’t help but think to myself, golly, if I had a chance to ask Jesus a question, I hope to heavens it wouldn’t be something as piffly as this one.

It is so odd, it’s confusing. The poor woman! She keeps being married off to one brother after another .. . . and don’t you wonder how brothers 6 or 7 felt about this, given that she’d seen brothers 1, 2, 3, 4 AND 5 all die. In this day and age, we’re all wondering if she’s not a serial killer after the insurance money, but all the religious rule-keepers of the day (the people who want every little part of the service to be JUST like it was in grandpa’s day)… well, all they can worry about is, just whose wife will she be in heaven?

It’s really not surprising that Jesus’ response to the rule-lovers was quick and pointed. You’ve gotten it wrong, he says. Resurrection life isn’t about having wife or husbands.

So it seems we have two lessons here: one a model of how to pray and the other a model of foolish expectations.   But if that’s what we think, we’re only partly correct.

That’s because there’s something out of kilter in each lesson; neither is really a model of right-ness. Each of them starts from the same place…. Each starts by the writer, or the rule-lover, thinking they’re right. Neither of them has any sense of humility; neither was written by someone who was conscious of their own distance from perfection.

And the first rule of prayer is to begin by recognizing that we – not one of us — start from a good position. We have all fallen short of the glory of God. That’s why we confess our sins on a regular basis – we need to remind ourselves that we don’t stand in the position of perfection.

The Psalmist was so sure of his position that he didn’t feel the need to acknowledge any shortcomings on his part. He must have seen the world in black and white to have ended up there, I think.  And those rule-lovers? They were so sure they knew the rules backwards and forwards that they tried to debate with Jesus!

Neither the Psalmist nor the rule-lovers had any sense of their own shortcomings, and not knowing, they weren’t able to ask for forgiveness, much less vision or healing.

Church – this church – at its best, is a place where we can be vulnerable, where it is safe to admit our shortcomings, our sins, our struggles. It is a place where we can stand together and support one another. But when we forget to remember who we are, when we lose our sense of humility & begin to act as if we’re just tidying up the loose ends, well, then we’re really stepping out into the cold, by ourselves, wrapped up in our cloak of self-righteousness.

Now, this is part of the natural order of life. We’re all prone to attacks of self-righteousness. We’re all hesitant to admit our own short-comings, our errors, or fears.

The first time I ever went down to Cape Cod by myself, I was driving up from Philadelphia with a friend. I’d made the trip a million times, for sure, but always riding in the back seat, up through Connecticut to my grandparents’ home in Woodstock, and then via US 44, through Providence and Taunton, and thus to the Bourne Bridge. This time, I was driving. This time I didn’t go to the grandparents’ home. This time, I took 195 through Fall River and New Bedford. And the trip went really well, until we turned to come back to Philly at the end of the week.

All I know is the next road sign I saw said “welcome to Quincy, city of Presidents”. I’d thought I was right, boasted of my competence… and led us to Quincy when we should have been on the far side of Providence. Because I didn’t know we were wrong, I couldn’t get to right.

The first step is a kind of strong honesty, at least with God, admitting our faults. Henri Nouwen, the great teacher of spiritual life, wrote “the whole central idea of meditation is to simply pay attention to God & find your real self in God. . .” We can’t find that real self until we can admit that we don’t know where it is.

When we think we’re in the right, when we’re not able to see ourselves as God sees us, we back ourselves into a world ruled by anger and frustration. Because, you see, if I’m right, you must be wrong. That’s just the way it is. And I’m right, right? And then because you actually don’t believe I’m right, or at least not as right as I want you to think, I get angry.

And anger eats away at joy, dissolves happiness, corrodes family relationships, and destroys community.

Of course, we all get angry. Even Jesus gets angry – remember those money changers? But there’s a difference between the petty angers of running out of something important, and the kind of anger which eats away at community. It’s the difference between immediate problems, and long-term problems. I eat the last of the cereal, and there’s nothing for tomorrow morning – it’s an immediate, easy to solve problem. I tell my friend I think he’s a bigot – that’s a long-term, difficult to solve, problem.

Someone wrote recently – “for every stitch of hate you put in the fabric, you have to unstitch and you have to restitch in a different way later”[1] in order to mend the rent in the fabric of community.

When we begin to see ourselves as imperfect, when we begin to recognize how the fabric of our relationships has been damaged, we’ll naturally try to bring all together again, to fix what’s broken.

All too often, the solution we seize on is that the other person should begin things by apologizing to me. What we don’t realize, at least at first, is that the hot blazing core of anger lives in our own hearts.

The first step in re-building after a fight is healing the anger in our own hearts. That’s why I focused this month in the newsletter on how we get beyond what tears us apart. It’s something that happens all the time – in families, at work, and even here at church.

Sometimes we don’t even realize how angry we are. Sometimes, we feel so justified in our anger that we don’t want to let go. But Jesus tells us, in that story about the poor woman who’d been married seven times, not to get lost in the irrelevant.

Growing out of a fight will never happen so long as we fix our hearts on being right, on getting even, on making the other do what we want. Every person who’s been through a divorce knows how hopeless it is to keep on being angry at your ex after everything’s over. But still, it’s hard to let go of the feelings; that’s why the author of the story I quoted said he often finds he has to begin by asking for the will to let go of his anger and resentment.

The first step in prayer is to know you stand in the need of prayer, to recognize that where you are now is separating you from God and from your community – your family, your work, even your church. Take that first step and acknowledge your need. Even if you have to begin by saying, I don’t know what I need, or I’m just not ready to let go of my feelings, that’s a beginning. And you will grow, throughout this month, as you continue to offer prayers for that situation, for those persons who have made you so very angry.

Then in God’s good time, your healing will begin. In the meantime, come to this table spread for all who stand in the need of God’s healing love.

In the name of Christ, Amen.

© 2016, Virginia H. Child

[1] Eboo Patel