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Sunday, July 26, 2020 | 11:00 a.m.
Praying as We Ought?
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
When I married into the Kershner family twenty-five years ago, I became the unofficial family chaplain. Over the years, particularly when we still lived in Texas, I officiated at family funerals, played a part in family weddings, made family hospital visits, and basically got to be the theologian-in-residence from time to time. I have been glad I can stand in that dual role of both family member and pastor during those important family moments.
But what has always struck me as most curious, and what I have always teased them about, is that somehow along the way I also became the official Kershner family pray-er. After Greg’s maternal grandfather, Paul, died in the mid-1990s, I became the person they always asked to pray whenever we gathered for holiday meals or other special occasions. The joke has always been that, since I am what my theology professor Shirley Guthrie always called “a professional Christian,” my prayers must travel faster, or sound better, or just generally hold more influence with the Holy than any pray they utter—or so they say.
Now, none of this is new to me. I grew up witnessing it happening to my preacher father too. Frankly, I am always glad when the two of us are together at an event, because I know they will go to him first. But regardless of how familiar it is, I still find it interesting. I wonder about the motivation behind always turning to clergy for public prayer. Do people ask me to pray because I am the pastor, I have always wondered. Or do people ask me to pray because deep down they wonder if they know how to pray as they ought?
Do you ever wonder that yourself? Do you ever hesitate to pray in a public setting or even in your own personal spiritual life because you don’t really feel you know how to do it very well? I understand those feelings, for while I feel very comfortable and natural praying with and for someone else—regardless, these days, whether it is on Zoom or over the phone—I, too, have moved through seasons of struggle within my own personal prayer life.
When I am feeling that way, I struggle with what I am supposed to say. I struggle with being silent and listening, because all my to-do lists start running through my head. I struggle with wanting to pray “thy will be done,” because I know full well that prayer acknowledges I am not in control, and that makes me feel vulnerable.
And then there are those moments when the words for prayer just do not come at all. For example, I will see what is going on in Portland and find myself speechless. Or I will hear about a story of violence in our own city, like the mass shooting at the funeral home this past week, and will notice that some of our own Fourth Church staff marked themselves as “safe” on Facebook implying that the horrific incident hit close to home for them. And though my heart rate will speed up, the words for prayer will get stuck somewhere in my spirit, and “Lord, have mercy” is the only thing that comes out. So if you have days, seasons, when you feel that way, just know that I, too, the professional Christian, also have days and seasons in which I feel that I do not pray as I ought.
Perhaps that truth is why this particular passage in Romans is so important to me. If one of you were to ask me what passage of scripture I absolutely could not live without, could not believe without, could not function without, I would recite this passage from Romans 8. This passage, almost more than any other one in all scripture, holds the truth of the gospel for me and props me up when I feel too weary to walk in faith anymore.
Theologian Paul Tillich claims the mere sound of the words in this passage is able to grasp human souls in desperate situations. He writes “They are stronger than the sound of exploding mortar shells, of weeping at open graves. They are stronger than the sighs of the sick or the moaning of the dying. They are stronger than the self-accusation of those in despair. And these words prevail over the permanent whisper of anxiety we all carry around within us” (Paul Tillich, chapter 7 of The New Being). It’s no wonder why I find these words from Romans 8 to be even more lifegiving in these chaotic days as whispers of anxiety are morphing into full shouting matches!
Paul begins this section of the letter by writing, “likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weaknesses, for we do not know how to pray as we ought.” That one sentence is almost a miracle in and of itself. Paul, Mr. Know-Everything Disciple, Mr. Damascus-Road-Conversion Experience, Mr. Suffering-Produces-Endurance himself articulates what you and I sometimes feel: that despite our best efforts, despite our deepest desires, despite our sincere longings, we do not always pray as we ought.
For we know that even in those times when the words do come, our prayers can primarily consist of handing God a few shopping lists, or listing for God our life’s goals, or dictating to God the tasks we think God needs to do in order to get the divine job done. Even in times of ease and comfort, many of us realize that we do not always pray as we ought. So then, as we have already alluded to, what happens in our prayers when we hit the wall of personal crisis? How do we pray in those moments, when it feels like the world is caving in on us?
Now it very well could be that for some of you prayer comes quickly in those moments of being down in the pit, as the psalms put it. In my personal experience, though, it is often precisely in those moments of personal crisis and pain, in those moments of chaos in my own life, when prayer can feel the most elusive to me. It is always precisely when I feel I most need to pray, when I most desire to reengage that connection with my Holy Source, when I most long to hear God’s assurance and feel God’s courage that my personal prayer life can often become stopped in its tracks. My tongue goes mute, and my mind wanders.
Allow me to share one personal example merely as an illustration. I, like many women, had a miscarriage before I became pregnant with Hannah, now nineteen years ago. It was very early in the pregnancy when the miscarriage occurred, but that fact did not take away the pain. We were ready for a child and had been elated when that pregnancy happened easily. I immediately felt a connection with the new creation beginning to form.
But then, in the blink of an eye, it was done. That particular new creation was not to be. Greg and I were both devastated. I grieved the death of that possibility. And as I walked through those shadow moments, I found myself longing to pray, but not for the people in my congregation at that time and not even for the pain of the world; I just wanted to pray for myself. I so desperately wanted, needed, to feel that connection with God, that intimacy with the one who had formed me in my mother’s womb, the one who held me close.
But for whatever reason, I could not do it. I could not form the words. I could not quiet my mind to listen. I simply could not pray. And I felt betrayed by that truth. Feeling forsaken, I called a spiritual advisor. “Here I am,” I said as soon as he picked up the phone, “a minister, a person who prays for anybody and everybody who needs it, and I cannot find the words to pray for myself. What am I supposed to do now?” The voice on the other end was gentle. “Shannon,” he said, “sometimes when I feel like that, the only thing I can do is raise my empty hands and trust that is enough.” Just raise my empty hands and trust that is enough.
“Likewise,” Paul wrote, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” Just raise your empty hands and trust that is enough, says Paul.
Perhaps you know of the salty, boisterous, Presbyterian writer named Anne Lamott. We know, due to her writing, that Ms. Lamott has also experienced those feelings of spiritual inadequacy and forsakenness. She has been in recovery from addiction to drugs and alcohol for decades now, but before her recovery took hold, she struggled and fought her way through a wide variety of personal crises. She is very honest about it in her books.
Now Ms. Lamott was purposefully not religious in her youth and young adult years, but as she moved into her thirties, still living daily at that time in the pit of addiction, she found herself drawn to a small Presbyterian church in her hometown. At first, she could only handle standing in the back for the beginning of worship and the hymns. She always made sure to leave before the sermon, before too much Jesus talk started flying around. But one Sunday, after a particularly wrenching crisis, she found herself back in the sanctuary.
Listen to what she writes about that experience:
And one week later, when I went back to church, I was so hungover that I couldn’t stand up for the songs, and this time I stayed for the sermon, which I just thought was so ridiculous, like someone trying to convince me of the existence of extraterrestrials, but the last song was so deep and raw and pure that I could not escape. It was if the people were singing in between the notes, weeping and joyful at the same time, and I felt like their voices or Something was rocking me in its bosom, holding me like a scared kid, and I opened up to that feeling—and it washed over me. (Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith).
Singing in between the notes, praying with sighs too deep for words, weeping and joyful at the same time, being rocked in God’s bosom, the Spirit searching the heart, being washed clean and new: all of that sounds like Romans 8 to me. In my mind’s eye, I see Ms. Lamott sitting there in the pew, eyes shut, hands open and empty, God’s own Spirit doing the hard work of praying in and for her while she tried to trust that could be enough, that she could be enough.
For trusting that even silent mouths and empty hands are enough is also a part of the promise, isn’t it? It is part of the promise we find in this section of Paul’s letter to us. God’s promise is that even when we cannot find the words; even when our minds won’t stop making to do lists; even when our mouths simply hand over to God our take on the divine job description; even when we feel absolutely overwhelmed by the raw needs of the world or by the powers and principalities that still try to divide us; even then, Paul promises that God’s Spirit is busy at work deep down within us.
In those moments of anxiety or fear or God-forsakenness, God’s Spirit is searching our hearts, feeling our deepest longings, uncovering all that we think we must hide, and then offering it up with sighs too deep for our words. And the God who formed us in our mothers’ wombs hears those guttural sighs and absorbs them into God’s own heart, filling us up with the courage and hope that we will need in order to keep going, even though we might not discover that holy reservoir of courage and hope until much, much later.
Indeed, trusting that our silent mouths and empty hands can be enough is a central part of the promise we hear in the eighth chapter of Romans. But beyond Paul’s own God-breathed testimony, how else do we know our silent mouths and empty hands can be enough? We know because of what we have seen at the manger and at the cross. Because of Jesus, we trust that God is not just taking a good divine guess at how it feels to be human. In that baby born of Mary, God came to be one of us, one with us, in all of our weakness and brokenness and humanness. In Jesus, God became flesh precisely so that we would come to trust that God understands what it feels like to be us, to live life as creature, to be both broken and whole, both hurt and healing, full of pain and possibility, all at the same time. In Jesus, God experienced what it is to have no words and only empty hands.
Our Christian faith claims that in Jesus Christ God embraced humanity and all of creation once and for all and, by doing so, God revealed that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor racism, nor pandemics, nor isolation, nor fear, nor unemployment, nor anxiety, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Because of God’s Love Made Flesh named Jesus, our brother and our Savior, we can simply raise our empty hands, or unclench our fists in our laps, not speak a word yet trust that can be enough of a prayer, because nothing less than God’s own Spirit is praying for us and in us.
So yes, we, like Paul, do not know how to fully pray as we ought. We lose our words. We struggle with narcissism and selfishness. We don’t set aside the time. We feel inadequate or empty or angry. We get overwhelmed by the pain of the world and our sense of helplessness. We do not know how to fully pray as we ought.
Nevertheless, Paul promises, the Spirit, whose sighs are too deep, too profound, too full of mystery for our words, who searches our hearts and hears our longings, who knows God’s vision of reconciliation and healing for all nations and all people, that Spirit prays in and for us, indeed prays in and for all of creation. And that is and will always be enough. And so will you. Amen.