By: Marthame Sanders
February 1, 2015
Our desires matter to God.
Our lesson today continues with Jesus preaching his Sermon on the Mount. After last week’s list of all who are blessed (especially those least likely to feel that they are among the blessed), Jesus moves onto the topic of prayer. Given his growing following as a spiritual teacher, there’s no doubt that many would have sought his wisdom on how best to pray. What he shares is what we, the Church, have enshrined as the Lord’s Prayer. Congregations may differ on whether they offer up themselves as “debtors”, or “trespassers”, or “sinners”, but you would be hard-pressed to find a church that doesn’t pray some variation of this prayer from week to week.
And yet, notice what Jesus didn’t say. He did not say, “When you pray, use these exact words.” What he said was, “Pray this way.” His point, most likely, was to offer up a template, more of an ethic and outlook of prayer that we might emulate rather than a formula that we might copy. And thus ended the only time in history when Jesus’ words were misunderstood.
All kidding aside, my hope is that our weekly expression of the Lord’s Prayer would remind us to be thoughtful of all the prayers we offer. And in that Spirit, let us take some time looking at what guidance Jesus gives us about prayer.
I want to suggest today that our prayers should be marked by three things: their simplicity, their honesty, and their desire.
First, our prayers should be simple. Jesus spends more time on this point than he does on the actual prayer that serves as our model. The kinds of prayers that frustrate him are those that take pleasure in stockpiling empty words. He finds it tasteless when people take prayer as an excuse to look like they’re hard at work, disfiguring their faces so that others will see how amazing and fervent their prayers are, how much better their prayers are.
But prayer is not meant to be hard. Nor is prayer meant for public consumption; not that we shouldn’t pray together. Rather, it’s that prayer is, in the end, between you and God. And no one else.
I know for many of us the idea of praying in public is terrifying. If that’s because we’re afraid of what others might think, then Jesus has some good news for us: it doesn’t matter what they think. And if anyone decides to tell you that you’re not praying right, then apparently they haven’t been paying attention to Jesus.
In your prayers, aim for simplicity. It’s what God desires.
Secondly, our prayers should be honest. We can see this in how Jesus models asking for forgiveness in this text. There is a connection, Jesus says, between God’s forgiveness of us and our forgiveness of others. There are volumes to be written about that connection, so that’s a topic for another day. The point here today, at least, is that we should ask God for forgiveness where we know we have fallen short.
We ask forgiveness for our debts; those times where we owe God something, where we ought to have acted but did not. We ask forgiveness for our trespasses; those moments where we have crossed a line, where we have done something we should not have. We ask forgiveness for our sins; those moments where we have made mistakes, missed the mark, gone astray.
In other words, this is where we lay it bare before God. We might be tempted to think that there are corners of our life that remain hidden to everyone, but if we are really honest, we know that God knows. And while this might send shudders through us, it truly ought to give us comfort beyond all comfort. If the things we hide bring us such shame, then there should be hope in knowing that the one who knows it all is the one, the only one, who can heal our deepest wounds. There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God – nothing in heaven, nothing on earth; nothing we have done, nothing God has seen.
You see, that’s just it: God, knowing everything that God knows, still wants to love us! God, having seen what humanity is capable of, still has hope in us and for us! So there’s really nothing to lose, except, perhaps our guilt, in bringing it all before God: our triumphs and failures, our certainties and our doubts, our wonder and our horror. If God is really God, then God can surely handle it.
In your prayers, aim for honesty. It’s what God desires.
And finally, our prayers should be filled to overflowing with our desire. In my own prayer life, this is the thing that has been the hardest to learn; that God wants to know what I want. Yes, even if you want to pray that the Seahawks beat the spread tonight, God wants to know what you desire. OK – that might be a stretch to the sanctity of prayer.
That’s the thing, though: I can get so wrapped up in making sure that I’m asking for the right things that I might end up not asking God for anything at all.
It’s what I like to call the “Genie Dilemma”. I know I’m not the only one in the room who has fantasized about stumbling across the genie in the lamp, crafting my three wishes so that I get maximum benefit while trying to anticipate the potential downside: “Let’s see: if I ask to be the richest man in the world, the genie mightjust give me a lot of money, or he might actually wipe out the rest of humanity…”
The prayer version of the Genie Dilemma is to become so consumed by theological correctness in our prayers that we end up not saying anything at all: “Let’s see: I could ask God to heal my foot, but what if this cool limp is all just a part of God’s plan?”
When Jesus offers up the model prayer, he does so with this important detail: “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Is it any stretch to recognize that earth doesn’t resemble heaven a whole lot? Do we have to turn far to point out places where it might just be that God’s will is not at work?
We could go global, pointing out the many, many places where war rages. We could go national, where our political system seems broken beyond repair, or as one recent study has found, a democracy that risks becoming an oligarchy. Or we could go personal. We know those places in our lives and in the lives of those whom we love where brokenness has taken hold: the grips of addiction, the abuses of power, the strangleholds of illness…Is it any stretch that we would cry out to God, saying, “We need earth to look a little bit more like heaven”?
I don’t pretend, for a moment, to have figured out why things are the way they are. I know that while history is ultimately in God’s hands, this does not mean that God predetermines every twist and turn. I know, as we all do, that there is a gap between God’s perfect grace and the imperfections of this world. I know for certainthat it is wrong to chalk up tragedies as simply being “God’s will”. This kind of thinking excuses our inaction in the face of true evil; at the same time, if we learn anything of Christ’s misery on the cross, God’s heart is the first to break. After all, God desires nothing but goodness for us.
In some ways, our prayers are an effort to bridge the gap between God and us. We raise our desires to God, because God wants to know what it is that we desire! Will those hopes match up with God’s all of the time? Most certainly not…but if we let the Genie Dilemma rule our prayers, worrying that we’re not “doing it right”, then we have already made sure that we will get it wrong.
My own prayers, of late, have been for growth here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian. And by that, I mean growth in numbers, but more importantly, growth in faith. Unless our faith grows, our numbers won’t grow.
I pray for this growth for several reasons. One is that our financial situation points me in that direction. After years and years of deficit budgets, we have managed to balance our expenses the last three years. And we have had to do so by coming back to the congregation, a decision that Session has not taken lightly. This year is no exception. It’s not all gloom and doom, though; each year, our financial picture improves slightly… slightly.
Another reason I am led to this prayer is what I see around us. Church is an optional activity. Sundays face stiff competition from many quarters. Congregations like ours are shrinking, as mega-churches take up more and more of the landscape. There is good news, however, in the fact that we are still here, and that we have held steady while others have not.
For these and other reasons, I am led to pray for growth. And in those prayers, I trust that we will grow in our faith, ever closer to God. And as we grow, I trust that we will grow in our generosity and in our willingness to share our faith with all whom God loves.
And yet, here’s the thing: I might be wrong. Maybe my desires for growth are not God’s desires. I kind of doubt it, but the gift is that it’s a risk-free scenario.
And that’s true of whatever it is that we pray, whatever it is that we desire. The very act of praying opens us up. The promise of prayer is that when we speak to God, God speaks to us. Whenever we offer up our simple, honest, desire-filled prayers, God takes them and perfects them.
The Apostle Paul puts it this way in the letter to the Romans: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know how to pray; so the Spirit pleads our case with sighs too deep for words.”
When we pray, no matter how simplistic, no matter how brutally honest, no matter how desirous, even whether or not we can even use words, God takes those prayers to heart. And as we pray, as we learn to pray, our desires become one with God’s desires. That’s the moment where we recognize that this gap we have been trying to bridge all along has already been bridged for us. God’s desires for us are closer than we ever even knew, carrying us in faith and strengthening us in hope.
And that, my friends, is the gift. In the end, we have nothing to fear in prayer. We don’t need to worry about “getting it right”. It’s all in God’s hands, the one who crafted the world and all that is in it; the one who knows, loves, and enjoys us; the one who has not given up on us.
May this knowledge set us free to pray, to love, and to rejoice.