What is Prayer (I)?


Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent 2015 St George’s, Dunsborough Gospel: John 12:20-33 Some weeks ago, a friend emailed to say that his dear friend had been diagnosed with breast cancer. I could tell this story dishonestly and say that I prayed for his friend and the tumour turned out to be benign, and we gave thanks to God. Those facts happen to be true; but actually what he asked me was not to pray from him and his friend, but, “What is prayer?” That’s a much harder question. Especially as we know that many times, most times, we pray for someone to be healed, and it doesn’t happen, or it doesn’t happen the way we expect. We don’t need much experience in prayer to learn that God is not some kind of cosmic Santa Claus granting our wishes just because we ask. In fact, it would be a little scary if our prayers caused anything to happen. If there was any cause behind the fact that our friend’s tumour was not life-threatening, apart from random cell growth, that cause is God, not our prayers. God heals, not our prayers. We don’t begin to know what to ask. We do learn that sometimes we batter on heaven’s door for a healing and God does not seem to answer. We also learn that sometimes God surprises with a healing that is unexpected and even un-prayed for. Jean Vanier is the founder of l’Arche communities where the mentally disabled live in community with the able. He tells the story of the parents of Vincent, a mentally disabled boy in Bangladesh. The parents felt great pain because of their son’s disability. They prayed and prayed that God would heal him. They were surprised when God answered their prayer – but not in the way they expected. They changed, not Vincent. They discovered they were more compassionate. They discovered that God had given them more strength to care for Vincent. They saw Vincent in a new light, as a loving son. They had buried his delightful personality by thinking of him as a problem, as a disability, and not a person. But we do want prayer to fix things. People with too much time on their hands have set up scientific experiments trying to show whether prayer works. In one experiment, they prayed anonymously for some patients recovering from heart surgery and not others to see whether their healing was fast-tracked. The results were inconclusive. Other scenarios have been tried, but prayer remains stubbornly inaccessible to science. You can’t prove one way or the other. The data is too vague. We Christians persist in praying. And this morning’s Gospel reading gives five indications why we pray and what prayer is.

  • In prayer we follow Jesus.
  • In prayer we recognise with Jesus that we live in a broken world.
  • In prayer we offer ourselves in solidarity and love, as Jesus did.
  • With Jesus we lose ourselves in the situations of others, hoping that our self-giving will bring transformation and life.
  • Prayer is an intention to serve the need of others.

Jesus does not see the world with rose-coloured glasses. He invites us, like him, to see the world as it is, a broken place. He gives us the strength to look steadily at its reality: not to look away from the friend with cancer, or the child with a mental disability, or the world at war, or the greed of corporations making the homeless hungry and Africans in the Congo desperate. We do live in a world where our children leave us for the Eastern States or overseas, and where the friends who we thought loved us the most betray us – like Judas. We can look at it all. Not to be overwhelmed by it, but to see it as Christ does, and still love it. The key word for me is solidarity. We give away our selves. In other words, we stop worrying about our needs. We stop putting ourselves at the top of the list of people to be served. We offer our own time and energy and strength in solidarity with the one in need. Often we cannot do more than hold out our heart in solidarity. Because of distance, or other practicality, there may be nothing more we can do. But our heart is powerful. When we when we hold out our heart to the one in need, when that is our prayer, we find Christ also standing there in solidarity with the one in need. That mutual solidarity can transform even the most hopeless of situations, even though, like Vincent’s parents, we cannot tell in advance what form that transformation will take.

Ghislaine Howard (1953 – ) The Methodist Collection of Modern Christian Art No. 40

There will be times when, in the strength of Christ, we offer not only our heart, but our practical help. So when I pray, I should be looking not to get God to do something, but looking for something I, and often only I, can do. My prayers often turn into cards and words. Sometimes they become phone calls, conversations in which I may have some particular knowledge or insight, or just share the load over a cup of tea. Sometimes they turn into Betadine on a scratched knee, or a letter to a politician, or a referral to a physiotherapist who has soothed the pain in my back and might do the same for the one in need. But in reality, those practical things are a small part of prayer. They are the tip of an iceberg. The main part of prayer – the nine-tenths that is mystery, that is hard to see – is the offer of solidarity, the sharing of love. We pray because, as Christ’s people, we can’t help expressing love. Real love involves letting go of our ego – losing our life for Christ’s sake, and standing in solidarity with Christ and the one in need. The end result of dying and rising with Christ is service, a life of service, and prayer means letting our selfish needs go so we can be transformed to serve. Prayer is a way of loving the one in need, and meaning it, and discovering the living Christ in that space also loving you and the one in need. What transformation can come from that! Books have been filled trying to answer the question my friends asked, ‘What is Prayer?’ I would encourage you: keep praying. Keep gazing on this broken world. Keep looking for ways to love it. Keep sharing your heart. You will continue to be surprised by Christ loving the world alongside you, and turning your tiny seed of love into a flowering of sharing and solidarity.

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Author: Ted Witham

Husband and father, Grandfather.Franciscan, writer and Anglican priest.

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