Sunday, July 24, 2016

How does prayer work, anyway?

"He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples." He said to them, "When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial." And he said to them, "Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, "Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.' And he answers from within, "Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.' I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. "So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" -Luke 11: 1-13

First of all, I want to offer a shameless plug for my pastor Lois Pallmeyer, who preached on this text this morning. I highly encourage you to check it out because it's a beautiful piece of writing, and even though I'm about to offer my perspective, there's something to listening to those who are older and wiser than me. Here it is.

Secondly, I must apologize for my long absence. It turns out that pregnancy is kind of hard, and so is having a newborn. Baby "S" was born on June 26th after 16 hours of labor, and she is perfect. If you'd like to be spammed with baby pictures, take a look at my instagram.

Now, onto the matter at hand... 

After church today my husband and I were talking about how prayer works, and he said, "Well, the answer is obvious, isn't it? We don't know." You've got to admire his comfort with ambiguity. Unfortunately, most of us aren't totally content with that answer, especially when everything is going to hell and you find yourself thinking, "Okay, God, was THIS in your plan!?" It makes prayer feel pretty futile, and even worse, can lead us to question God's motives, as if God is some kind of devious puppet master pulling the strings in our lives until we pray to appease God's mighty wrath. So what's the point of prayer, anyway? Is it indeed to "ask so the door will be opened?", it to change God's mind as in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, where Abraham bargains with God over whether or not to let the city stand? (Genesis 18) Is it just a meaningless practice that gives us spiritual discipline? There is no place in the Bible that I know of where somebody conclusively explains exactly how prayer works. We are told to do it ("pray without ceasing") and we are told how to do it as in the text above. We are told it is important, and we see lots of other people in the Bible doing it, even at risk of bodily harm (Daniel). So how does it work?

Well, like P, I don't rightly know. This is what prayer is for me, and maybe in hearing a little of my experience you can get a sense of what prayer might be for you, and how it might shape your faith walk. I think I've mentioned in passing that my parish internship was pretty trying. I've not been super transparent there, and one of these days I will share what I have written about it. In the interest of brevity, I will say that in retrospect I consider it to have been abusive, and it took me some time to recover from it. My final year in seminary was spent coming out of the fog of depression and trauma that the internship caused. Because the internship was a requirement for my degree and for candidacy as an ordained minister, I had to jump through several hoops because of my not-great committee evaluations. After doing everything faithfully and trying my best to heal and learn whatever I needed to learn from the experience, I again met with my candidacy committee, who told me that I was not ready to be approved for ordained ministry and deferred me. I was totally stunned by this and my well laid plans were now starting to fall apart in front of me. One day I was sitting at my desk doing homework and worrying about what to do with this situation, being angry at myself and angry at God, a song came on my playlist:

The chorus is what struck me in that moment.

I have no choice
But to cry out for You
Please help, cause I'm helpless now
You hear my prayer
When my whole world comes unglued
I know You can fix it, but I don't know how
I don't know how

That was exactly how I felt. My plans, my life, what I had hoped for had all come totally unglued and there I was sitting at my desk feeling too many feelings and not knowing what to do next, and I turned that song up and listened to it on repeat over and over while sobbing. That was my prayer at the moment: "Please help, I'm helpless now." It was a moment of complete surrender for me. I had spent the previous weeks flailing around trying to fix things or salvage something, and I had spent the previous year flailing around trying to contort myself to fit into what that congregation wanted from me instead of just being the (fantastic) minister I am, and it had broken me. So I cried and let go of all that trying. That was my prayer. It was simple, it was desperate, and most importantly it was genuine. It was the Spirit interceding on my behalf with "groans too deep for words." (Romans 8:26)

I wish I could say that that moment at my desk was some kind of revelation in the moment, but it wasn't. I cried, as I had done before and would do again, and I turned off "repeat" on iTunes, and then continued with my homework. But what was revelatory was the sense that God was with me. That Jason Gray had had a moment of desperation and others had too, and I know in that moment that that song was the voice of God telling me I was not alone. That incident stuck with me throughout the next year as I took my first wobbling baby steps toward living into my call authentically. Somehow all the right people, from the chaplain and pastor who mentored me in Michigan over the summer before my CPE residency to my supervisors and the peers in my group had showed up in my life and stood with me and walked by my side as I rediscovered who God had created me to be.

So had God heard my prayer and changed what had been in store for me because I asked? I somehow don't think so. I had already been accepted to the residency program, and we were already set to go to Michigan for the summer. I don't like the idea of God manipulating other people's lives to suit my prayers. What I do know is that God showed up for me in my hour of desperation. God was present for me when that song came on and a wash of anguish and grief poured out of me as it hadn't before, pleading for help from the bottom of my soul. God showed up for me in the call from my pastor the following week, and God showed up for me in the kind words of my peers at seminary, and friends who let me rant and rave and offered words of solidarity and encouragement. Mostly, God showed up and changed me. Something about that moment of vulnerability led me to more moments of vulnerability where I learned and grew and made room in my self for all that I needed to be a chaplain and a better pastor. It also gave me new determination: a sense that God WAS with me guiding me, and had been with me, and that even the experience of being mistreated wouldn't be wasted in his hands. It helped me defy the voices that discouraged me, and embrace the minister that God had created me to be.

In my life, I have experienced some challenges and losses, and although I'm not much for formal "prayer time" in my day, I do keep an ongoing dialogue with God. It's usually a little sarcastic, because I think I'm often the wayward, reluctant disciple that God has to let faceplant from time to time in order to remember to stay close and learn the lessons that need to be learned. And in the course of that prayer life, I have come not to see prayer as a time to ask for wishes, but as a time to let it all hang out. To be who I am to God, who God knows I am already, and in doing so be assured that I am loved, wanted, and that God is working with, in, and through me, even in the grief, frustrations, even in the (often extreme) stubbornness. So for me, asking and having the door opened is more about receiving God than things; knocking is about having the door to God's kingdom fly open now and then; and seeking is about finding that God was really there all along. God does answer prayers, but as P pointed out, we don't really know how it works. But we do know that something happens and the Spirit is alive and present for us in our weakness and in our joy. My prayer for you is that you fully experience the mystery of God in your prayer life and beyond it today and every day.