The One About Prayer
November 18, 2018
The Scripture for today is often referred to as Hannah’s song. And unless you’ve read 1 Samuel lately, it needs a bit of a background story. You see, Hannah was the wife of Elkannah, and she had been unable to have children. Elkannah had another wife, though, who had lots of babies, and she would often meanly lord it over Hannah. But, Elkannah loved Hannah; she was his first wife and the one he adored. Hannah, though, for many years, felt worthless and alone, and she wept and prayed, day in and day out in the temple, for God to bless her with a child. The priest, Eli, noticed Hannah crying and praying so much that he thought maybe she was drunk, but Hannah said if she was able to have a son she would give him up to serve God all of his days. The prayer, or song, we will read, is a prayer of thanksgiving to God when Hannah, after waiting for so long, miraculously gives birth to the boy named Samuel. And Hannah, unimaginably, fulfills her promise- she gives up Samuel to Eli, to serve God among the priests, on behalf of the people of Israel. Hannah’s prayer echoes through the centuries, as they are the words Mary chooses to sing when she finds out she is pregnant with Jesus. Both women are surprised to find themselves with child, and both women rejoice at the opportunity to bear children they will ultimately have to give up. This sounds inconceivable to us, but through these seemingly powerless women, God made the impossible possible, choosing them for greatness.
Hannah, in particular, was living on the cusp of Israel’s birth as a nation. The Israelites had just found their way out of the wilderness and were waiting for God to give them a king. As Samuel grew, he, with Eli’s help, answered the call to bring King Solomon to God’s people. And when Solomon’s reign came to an end, Samuel, in his old age, recognized that David should be the one to lead them. And, remember, Jesus comes from the lineage of King David, and he was also born in a time when the people of Israel were desperate for a King. And so, from Hannah, through her prayer, her body, and her life, the fulfillment of God’s promises were born into the world. Through her prayerful persistence, Hannah realized she was not powerless, but chosen and beloved. Her prayer is an affirmation of her openness to receive God’s grace. Let us hear her words:
1 Samuel 2:1-9
Then Hannah prayed:
My heart rejoices in the Lord.
My strength rises up in the Lord!
My mouth mocks my enemies
because I rejoice in your deliverance.
No one is holy like the Lord—
no, no one except you!
There is no rock like our God!
Don’t go on and on, talking so proudly,
spouting arrogance from your mouth,
because the Lord is the God who knows,
and God weighs every act.
The bows of mighty warriors are shattered,
but those who were stumbling
now dress themselves in power!
Those who were filled full now sell themselves for bread,
but the ones who were starving are now fat from food!
The woman who was barren has birthed seven children,
but the mother with many sons has lost them all!
God makes poor, gives wealth,
brings low, but also lifts up high!
God raises the poor from the dust,
lifts up the needy from a pile.
God sits them with officials,
gives them the seat of honor!
The pillars of the earth belong to the Lord;
God set the world on top of them!
The Lord guards the feet of faithful ones,
but the wicked die in darkness
because no one succeeds by strength alone.
God’s wisdom for us, God’s people. Thanks be to God.
A friend of mine told me once that when she was a little girl she would lay in bed at night, in her dark bedroom, and stare at her nightlight. The little plug-in light next to her bedroom door, she believed, was actually her guardian angel. And as she was falling asleep she would pray to the light. It’s a sweet, vulnerable picture- the image of a child praying to a little nightlight. And, I like to think about the innocent way her mind must have worked to find such a connection to God in a tiny lightbulb.
The truth is, many of us long for days when prayer would come to us like this. When we trusted in the light. When we believed anything was possible. We yearn for a season of life when cynicism wasn’t an option, when angels could be real, and God was as close and accessible as a sparkle of light as we snuggled under warm covers. In reality, many children don’t go to bed like this, feeling safe and protected. But this story reminds me of what should be. Prayer that isn’t self-conscious. Prayer that is safe and honest, and full of willingness and hope.
This longing we have for a genuine prayer life is actually, what I believe to be, God’s eagerness to hear from us. God places this inclination inside our hearts so we will stay in touch. God hungers to be close to us, and at some deep and profound level we are constantly responding in prayer even when we don’t realize it. I’m convinced we were created to pray.
But I would also wager a guess that some of us think of ourselves as sub-par prayers, so we don’t “do it.” We hear pastors well-worded, liturgically appropriate prayers in and think “wow, I could never put all that together.” And while it’s good job security for us clergy, it’s a loss if we believe that is what a prayer has to be. When prayer is only located in the church and coming out of the mouth of someone who is ordained, then we start to think God is only located in these places. Unfortunately, the church has perpetuated this way of thinking- institutionalizing God, making people who walk in here think their prayers have to have a thesis statement, or that their nightlight prayers, or the ones they say in the car at a stoplight, or their yoga prayers aren’t good enough. But, they are so, so good enough.
Someone said to me once, what if we are, each one of us, a prayer? And I nodded in agreement because that made total sense to me. As though prayer is less something we do and more a way of being we have in the world. Prayer is like breathing, we need it, and God, in order to be fully alive.
I like what writer Anne Lamott says about prayer, and one of her many definitions of the word is this: “prayer is taking a chance that against all odds and past history, we are loved and chosen, and do not have to get it together before we show up.” She’s right. Beyond thinking we are bad prayers, I, too, admit to feeling that I am not worthy of it, or I’m too ashamed to admit the truth about what I’ve done. As if I can hide it from God. But, Lamott also says that once we tell the truth in our prayers we realize they are universal. Once we get up the courage to pray those things we stuff down deep inside, the things we don’t like about ourselves, we come to understand everyone has them. And, despite all of what we bring to our prayers, once we do it, we have the opportunity to understand that we are loved immeasurably.
But, we do get confused about prayer. As though prayer is always supposed to make us feel good after. And when it doesn’t that’s really discouraging. A friend of mine told me recently that, about a year ago, she was facing some serious depression, and because she was trying to just power right through it, like we all do, it took her awhile to figure out what was going on. She finally realized something was seriously wrong when she couldn’t “gratitude her way out of it.” And it makes sense, right? Because most of us should be grateful for our lives and put our own struggles into perspective. But, God is not a divine auditor, measuring us one against the other for deservedness.
We shouldn’t have to pray our way out of anything, thinking there is this idyllic level of nirvana that really grateful people prayerfully reach, when all their anxiety and stress just melts away. This might come to you as a relief or a disappointment, but prayer doesn’t work that way.
The Bible can be confusing, too, when it comes to prayer. Take Job for instance. Job is God’s faithful servant. He does things right. But, then, when things go terribly wrong he prays to God, for like 30 chapters, as he asks the age-old question: why do bad things happen to good people? God’s response to Job goes something like this: “Where were you when I created the foundation of the earth?” It almost seems like a bad dad joke. But, Job is praying hard to know what to do, and God seems to say, take it down a notch, Job. Let me show you your place in the great scheme of things. The bottom line is, it’s not a feel-good, or straightforward answer. Apparently, prosperity gospel is not a thing, and prayer is not a perfect formula- ask, believe, receive doesn’t always mean we walk away happy, at least by the world’s standards.
One way the Bible isn’t confusing about prayer, though, is when Jesus teaches the disciples the Lord’s prayer. It was short, maybe so they could memorize it. The prayer is bookended with praise to God and promises to serve, and in the middle there is mention of our daily bread- a prayer for sustenance, though just enough for one day…
There is a short confession, too: forgive us, and help us to forgive others. But, mostly the prayer is that God’s will, God’s love and justice would be done in the world, on earth as it is in heaven. There’s an assumption that this is just a nice prayer we say on Sundays because it’s what Jesus told us to do. But, there’s more to it than that. The Lord’s prayer teaches us how to pray. We say it over and over again and it begins to form us, over time, into Gods people. I’m more and more convinced this is the point of prayer – to mold us and make us more attentive to all the things God notices. Saying the same prayer every Sunday is a reminder that each and every morning we wake up is a chance to bookend our lives with praise, to see this hallowed, sacred God in each and every person and in all things. It’s a reminder to ask for sustenance and forgiveness, and to work faithfully to bring the justice of heaven down to earth. The gift of prayer itself is the incredible acknowledgment that God choses us, and delights in the intimacy of refining us.
One of my favorite writers, Wendell Berry, has a character named Jayber Crow. Jayber is a barber in a small town in Kentucky in the early 20th century. As a seminary drop out, though, he also functions as the local theologian. Jayber Crow speaks at one point in the novel about prayer and describes the way it can take hold of our lives. How, if we give ourselves over to it, prayer can lead us into uncharted territory.
He says, “Prayer is like laying awake at night, afraid, with your head under the cover, hearing only the beating of your own heart. It is like a bird that has blundered down the flue and is caught indoors and flutters at the windowpanes. It is like standing a long time on a cold day, knocking at a shut door. But sometimes a prayer comes that you have not thought to pray, yet suddenly there it is and you pray it… Sometimes the bird finds that what looks like an opening is an opening, and it flies away. Sometimes the shut door opens and you go through it into the same world you were in before, in which you belong as you did not before. If God loves the world, might that not be proved in my own love for it? I prayed to know in my heart God’s love for the world, and this was my most foolish and dangerous prayer.”
Jayber Crow’s words remind me that prayer can take us places. As God forms us, we might be surprised at what new people we become, at what door opens, at what call we might receive. The profound lengths God is willing to go for us kindle our hearts with selflessness and passion. It’s a dangerous thing, and like Jayber says, when prayer changes us we enter the same world we were in before, but we don’t belong as we did before.
And this is what happened to Hannah. She prayed through her tears, through disappointment and fear. And her prayers formed her, into a promise keeper, and a promise bearer. Her one prayer for a child led her to give him over to God, which changed the course of history, and, centuries later, brought forth a savior into the world. The broader story of Hannah and Elkannah, mention that they both are able to visit Samuel, and each year Hannah would bring him a gift that she had made. As a mother it’s hard to comprehend how one does this. How you could pray through so much hardship for a child, only to give him up when he is born. But, Hannah’s prayer does this amazing thing, where the verses start out about how God has saved her- she speaks first to “my God.” But, then the prayer shifts. She prays about the community, and God’s faithfulness to all of them. She realizes her life and the life of her child are about so much more than her. Hannah’s prayer, much like Mary’s, proclaims the great reversal, the good news of the Gospel. That those of us who are broken become those who are chosen. That those who are poor, unimportant, ashamed and forgotten, will be lifted high- even, she proclaims, given a seat of honor, by God.
Hannah’s words remind me of that now famous phrase Michelle Obama said, “when they go low, we go high”- and if that’s not a prayer, I don’t know what is. With God’s constant presence, we pray ourselves into the people God wants us to be, and when we do that, we become a prayer for the world, and the world can change. When we pray genuinely, with our very lives, prayer has power. It’s about so much more than casually mentioning our thoughts and prayers are with someone, as if justice, and the world’s greatest pain wasn’t hanging in the balance as God waited with baited breath for us to pray.
On earth as it is in heaven- it’s a prayer of partnership, of promises God makes that heaven is possible, and the promise we have to fulfill, like Hannah did, to bring heaven here. That kind of sounds like a lot of pressure on your prayers. And maybe it is. But, that doesn’t mean they need to be complicated. Just genuine and formative and wise. Worthy of the gift it is, to be able to pray.
And you are worthy of prayer, too- my prayers and the ones of every person in this room. It’s why we come together to say them, because it’s easier together than apart.
I’m going to close with these words from another favorite writer, John O’Donohue, because when it comes to talking about prayer, we can’t gather enough beautiful words about it. God’s people, “Give yourself time to make a prayer that will become the prayer of your soul. Listen to the voices of longing. Listen to your hungers. Give thought to the unexpected that lives around the rim of your life. Listen to your memory and to the inrush of your future, to the voices of those near you and those you have lost. Out of all of that attention, make a prayer that is big enough for your wild soul, yet tender enough for your shy and awkward vulnerability; that has enough healing to gain the ointment of divine forgiveness for your wounds; enough truth and vigor to challenge your blindness and complacency; enough graciousness and vision to mirror your immortal beauty. Become a prayer that is worthy of the destiny to which you have been called.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.