Feasting on Prayer

John Wilkinson Third Presbyterian Church
September 30, 2012 James 5:13-20

“I have learned that prayer is not asking for what you think you want but asking to be changed in ways you can’t imagine. To be made more grateful, more able to see the good in what you have been given instead of always grieving for what might have been. People who are in the habit of praying know that when a prayer is answered, it is never in a way that you expect.”

Kathleen Norris Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith


I remember very vividly a March afternoon when I was in eighth grade. When I got home from school, my mother was at the kitchen table waiting for me. Your father has been in a car accident, she told me. My father, a Presbyterian minister then working for the synod, was attending, along with two other minister colleagues, the funeral of the father of another colleague, in Cleveland. This was a late March day, but they hit a patch of ice on the highway and the car wrapped around a tree. The driver, a good friend of ours and as saintly a man as I’ve known, was killed instantly. The backseat passenger, now retired, with whom I am now a Facebook friend, of all things, was tossed around in the back a bit but not injured too badly. My dad sustained a significant head injury and other breaks and bumps and bruises. He was hospitalized for three months and endured a long and difficult convalescence. If you’ve met my dad, you know that he is fine now, some 35 years later.

Years later, when I began doing what I do now, and would go to meetings, which is what I do a lot of, people would look at my name tag hanging around my neck. Are you Ken Wilkinson’s son? I am, I would say. How is he doing now, they would ask. I would respond. That’s good, they’d say; we were praying for him all those years ago.

Our son was born some 7 or 8 weeks early. And as you know him, you know he turned out OK as well. But the first weeks were tough, and in his first year he faced a series of surgeries and treatments. At the time he was born, a kind of network was activated, a prayer network. Mind you, this was way before Facebook, let alone the internet. We had Salvation Army members, Nazarenes, Methodists and Baptists – all praying. We had Presbyterians praying coast-to-coast, praying more than Presbyterians are typically used to.

Just at this General Assembly, amid all the political drama, someone pulled me to the side and remembering his birth asked how he was doing. I told her. I’m so glad, she said; we were praying for him all those years ago.

Here is what I want to say. I believe those prayers mattered, for my dad, for our son, for us. They mattered in ways great and small, but more so in ways mysterious and unknowable.

And here is what I want to say as well. Those prayers would have mattered had things not turned out in the same way for each of them, for us. They mattered for Harvey Luce, the man who died next to my dad, and for his wife. They mattered to all the babies in the NICU, the ones to the right and left of us, the whole lineup of plastic bassinettes, whose stories unfolded in different ways, some much more sadly. They mattered. They matter still.

Are any suffering, James asks us. Pray.
Are any cheerful, James asks us. Pray.
Are any sick, James asks us. Invite the elders to pray.
Have you fallen short, James asks us. Pray.
Pray, as if it matters; because like dancing or throwing a Frisbee, doing it is much better than talking about it.

Nonetheless, I want us to explore prayer just a bit this morning, to lead us, perhaps, into praying more deeply and broadly – for each of us and in the life of this community. Prayer is human communication addressed to God.

Our Scottish forbear John Knox said that prayer is “an earnest and familiar talking with God, to whom we declare our miseries, whose support and help we implore and desire in our adversities, and who we laud and praise for our benefits received.” (See Wayne R. Spear, “Theology of Prayer,” in Encyclopedia of the Reformed Faith, pp. 285-286) That’s a lot to chew on. Earnest and familiar. Sharing our lives with God, seeking God’s support as we live our lives.

John Calvin, some few years before Knox, insisted that “prayer is the chief exercise of faith, and by which we daily receive God’s benefits.” (See Spear)

It’s that daily exercise I’d like us to consider, which comes naturally for many of us and is difficult for many others of us, myself included.

Perhaps we equate prayer only with Sunday morning, in worship, and formal. That’s not wrong, of course. Presbyterian worship should have four types of prayer: A-C-T-S. Adoration, praising God. Confession, sharing our sins and shortcomings with God. Thanksgiving, thanking God for God’s good gifts. And supplication, or intercession, praying for our concerns for others. A-C-T-S. There’s a fifth in worship, a prayer of illumination before the reading of scripture to call on the Spirit for guidance.

Even on Sunday morning, in a more organized and formal setting, our tradition teaches us that we are to avoid ostentation and formality in our language.

We might also equate prayer with whatever happens at the start of meetings here. In fact, the minutes of all our Session meetings need to indicate that we begin and end with prayer. If we don’t, the people from the presbytery give us a little checkmark, and we don’t like little checkmarks. We pray before meetings and at the end not to make meetings better, or shorter. We do so to remind us of our setting, and our focus.

There are other organized settings at which we pray. For years and years we’ve prayed on Wednesday morning, and now Tuesday mornings, at 9:15 a.m. in the chapel. Please come. We link those gatherings to the annual prayer letter you all receive, sharing joys and concerns and lifting up friends and family to God in prayer.

We’ve added Sunday mornings at 10:00 a.m. in the chapel to our prayer menu, offering up prayers of all kinds but focusing on intercessions and supplications, prayers of concern for others. My dad, our son, would have been on that list.

But I am primarily not talking about Sunday morning, or prayer at church, organized and in groups, as much as that matters. For that might play into our misconceptions, that prayer is the purview of experts, or that the eloquence of the language somehow equates with the quality of the prayer. To paraphrase, prayer is the gift of the people, by the people, and for the people.

From time to time I will receive a random phone call at my desk, or someone will come to the church off the street. A troubled woman came here some years back. She had significant hardships in her life. We talked for nearly an hour. At the end as she was leaving, tearfully, she pleaded with me: “Pray for me, pastor. Pray for me.” We prayed right then and there. As she left, I told her that I would continue to pray for her. And then I asked her to pray for me. She didn’t quite know what to make of it, but she agreed. I did, and I believe she did, and it made a difference for both of us.

It is just that conversation though, that reminds us that praying is not about formality, or ordination, or Sunday morning. With Calvin we remember that prayer is the daily exercise of faith, like eating, or brushing your teeth, or walking the dog, or numerous quotidian activities: when we do them, we feel the benefits, and when we don’t, we feel the consequences.

Some of us have trouble finding the time, or maintaining the discipline. Or we think that prayer is only for the pious and holy, and we certainly don’t want to be that! It needn’t be long, and it certainly needn’t be flowery.

The author Anne Lamott once wrote that there are really only two prayers, “please, please, please” and “thank you, thank you, thank you.” That’s a good place to start. For what are we thankful and for what are we concerned. You can do that, I can do that, as we get ready in the morning or drive from here to there or quiet down for the evening. Please…and thank you.

If we, when we, pray as a couple, or family, or individually, we build connections. We build connections first and foremost between ourselves and God, connections that only deepen our faith and spiritual life. But we also build connections between one another, whether we are gathered or whether we are dispersed. Those connections will strengthen us to face whatever it is we are facing, whatever the outcome may be.

And though we might know this in our heads we should claim it in our hearts; there are no magic formulas to prayer, and no guaranteed outcomes. We know that. We’ve prayed fervently and things turn out. We’ve prayed fervently and things didn’t. We’ve prayed fervently and things went in entirely unexpected directions, whether in a job or relationship or matter of our own health or the health of a loved one.

That is a mistake we make about prayer. We can’t control God. We pray to connect us with God, and to connect us with one another. We pray not because of scientific evidence, or a guarantee that’s slapped on us when we are born. We pray because we trust. We pray because we hope. We pray to a God who is bigger that all of our comprehension, who takes our longings and folds them into a deep providence and grace and compassion.

If a loved one dies out of season, or a cancer moves to a difficult end, or a job is lost, it is not because God does not care. And it is certainly not because a prayer was somehow inadequate or insufficient. The God in whom we believe is not arbitrary or petty, responding one way or another according to the quality of our prayers.

Rather, we pray into the mystery of God, and we pray that the mystery of God will receive our prayer, into a wisdom more infinite than ever we could grasp. We pray because we carry with us deep spiritual hunger and thirst, fundamental joys and concerns.

Hughes Old writes that in prayer “we seek God in the frailty of the human condition.” (“Practice of Prayer” in Encyclopedia of the Reformed Faith, pp. 284-285) We pray, therefore, whether we get the response we desire, a different response, or no discernible response whatsoever– based on our very limited ability to understand what the response might look like.

But we believe that true prayer, authentic prayer, lifted up honestly, is heard by God. And we believe that trivial prayer is just that – whether for your football team or a parking space or good weather or whatever it is that characterizes prayer in the broader culture.

And one thing more. Karl Barth wrote that prayer is an ethical matter, that we pray on behalf of the whole world, whether the whole world prays or not. In my own words, prayer leads to action and action leads to prayer.

In a few weeks, we will gather on the front steps of the school board offices to pray for students and teachers and families and staff. We will pray. We will also re-commit ourselves to work for positive change in the schools. Bur first, we will pray. Not merely pray. But pray. As if it matters…because it does.

We utilize the Presbyterian Church’s Brief Statement of Faith on a regular basis on Sunday mornings. I love the Brief Statement. I love especially the section on the life of the church. In a broken and fearful world, it says, the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing. That is our calling and our gift.

In a broken and fearful world, the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing.
The Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing.
Pray without ceasing.




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