Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Tragedy of Unoffered Prayer

The Tragedy of Unoffered Prayer

© copyright 2010 Robert J. Elder
Third Sunday in Lent, March 7, 2010

Psalm 63:1-8

I will bless you as long as I live;
I will lift up my hands and call on your name. NRSV

A lot of conversation about prayer suggests that it amounts to petitioning God for stuff we want. It reminds me of a story about the great Arnold Palmer, who once played a series of exhibition golf matches in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi king was more than a little impressed by Palmer’s skill, and so he expressed a desire to give him a gift. Palmer demurred, citing the honor he felt simply to have been invited. But once he realized the king would be upset if he failed to accept a gift, he thought for a moment and said, “Alright, Your Highness, a golf club would be a lovely memento of my visit to your country.” The next day, an envelope was delivered to Palmer’s hotel containing the title to a golf club, thousands of acres complete with trees, sand traps, water hazards, fairways, greens, and a clubhouse.

Sometimes I suspect we think this way about prayer, that it is a matter of receiving stuff for our prayer efforts.

I also remember a story I heard about one of baseball’s legendary players, Yogi Berra, who played catcher for the Yankees. During one game, in the bottom of the 9th, the score was tied and there were two outs. The next batter from the opposing team stepped into the batter’s box, and casually reached over with his bat and made the sign of the cross on home plate. Yogi Berra thought to himself, “Hey, I’m Catholic, too!” So he reached out, wiped off the plate with his glove, and said to the pious batter, “Why don’t we just let God
watch the game?”

This is pretty good theology if we’re thinking about baseball games and their outcomes, but it’s really lousy theology if we attempt to apply it to our lives and to our faith. A philosophy that says “Why don’t we just let God watch?” runs against 20 centuries of church teaching about the necessity of prayer.

“Oh, easy for you to say,” you might be thinking, “you’re a pastor, you know all about prayer, you’ve studied up on it.” Well, of course that thinking ignores the facts that, first, prayer isn’t so much a matter of study as it is a matter of practice, and secondly, that effectiveness in prayer is never measured by skill, always by repetition. Repetition. That almost seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it? If I say a prayer once, doesn’t God hear it, why does he need to hear it repeatedly? But any golfer will tell you that you can read all the books on golf you can find, you can watch golf on the Golf channel from morning to night, even attend PGA tournaments in person and watch the best golfers in the world and collect their autographs, but none of that will improve your game at all. The only way to improve your game is to get out on the course and
play golf!

John Calvin, great-granddaddy of all Presbyterians, once said that the Lord’s Prayer is there to help us when our own ideas run out.” This is true, but it is also true that the Lord’s Prayer can serve simply to get our prayer life moving when it is stuck.

The Rev. F.B. Meyer was born in London, England in 1847, began pastoring churches there and writing books – lots of books – in 1872. He lived through the turn of the twentieth century. While some may recall the names of evangelists such as Spurgeon, Moody, Graham, and Bryan, Meyer was well-known in his day, but not so much today. This is so even though he wrote over 40 published books. Still, if he hadn’t written another word, it is worth remembering him for a single sentence he did write, and for which his name is still recalled at least by some. Once I began looking for it, particularly on the Internet, I discovered his name is referenced in literally hundreds of thousands places out there in cyberspace. All this about a man who died back in 1929! Though Meyer was well known in his day, hardly at all in our own, here is a cryptic sentence, which he wrote about prayer, and which appeared just a few years ago in a new book, and by which he has been referenced in hundreds of books and untold numbers of sermons:

“The greatest tragedy in life is not un
answered prayer, but unoffered prayer.” [1]

I think, hearing that sentence, we can see why it is captivating. It takes one of the commonest things we hear and say about prayer – that it sometimes goes unanswered – and turns it on its head. By far, I suspect, there are more prayers that go unoffered than go unanswered. That isn’t to say there is nothing to the idea of unanswered prayer, but Meyer’s comment reminds us that often, suspecting there will be no answer, or perhaps not the answer we desire, we leave prayers unoffered, turning a deaf ear to what the Spirit might say to us if only we had been listening.

When, in the first verse of the psalm, the psalmist says, “O God ... I seek you...” Are we to take this to suggest that God is hiding, that God must be sought out, that God is generally unwilling to hear from us? I don’t think so. Wasn’t the scene of Adam and Eve in the garden the quintessential example that it is we who hide from God? American philosopher William James, best remembered for writing The Varieties of Religious Experience, once responded to a question about whether or not he prayed, saying, “I can’t possibly pray. I feel foolish and artificial.” Yet he wrote in his famous book that prayer is “the very soul and essence of religion.” One observer, considering her own inept attempts at prayer while contemplating her Catholic rosary, said, “I wonder if it ever occurred to William James that feeling foolish and artificial is as good a starting point as any for prayer. Prayer is like courtship; of course it feels foolish and artificial. It’s not something you can work at inwardly and then execute outwardly.”

“Oh God,” said the psalmist, “you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you.” While the poetry of the psalms is impressive, this is not the sort of language that is impossible for any of us. A contemporary translation of this first verse of the psalm was rendered this way, making it sound even more contemporary:

God – you’re my God!
I can’t get enough of you!
I’ve worked up such hunger and thirst for God
traveling across dry and weary deserts. [3]

Are you, like so many of us, afraid to go to God with your tiny requests and petty concerns, someone who needs courage and grace to come boldly to God? Then make sufficient courage and grace the first thing you ask for. That’s basically what the psalmist began by doing in Psalm 63.

I remember well the day following the incredible news that those misbegotten terrorists had attacked and destroyed the World Trade Center towers by flying airplanes full of innocent passengers and highly combustible fuel into the buildings. It was horrific, as you all surely remember. That day we opened the doors to the sanctuary of the church I was serving at the time, across from the capitol in Salem, and placed a sign on the sidewalk out in front to inform passersby that the church was open for prayer. And people came in, in ones and twos and threes. Three of us – two pastors and a musician – stayed up in the chancel for a while grabbing bits of scripture signaling one another, “Now you pray, now you lead a hymn, how about this one? Now you read some scripture, now you pray again....” It was chaotic, but I have to say, I have seldom felt so useful in all my ministry. And after we ran out of words and hymns to offer, we simply set the doors open and left people to their prayers. And they came. They prayed. I don’t know what they prayed, or even to whom, but I do know this: If we were to place signs out in front of that building tomorrow morning and leave the doors open all day, I’d be surprised if half a dozen people came in out of any greater motivation than curiosity. The same would likely be true here.

It shouldn’t require a national tragedy or disaster to get people praying; though, sadly, it often does. But in the meantime, in all the times between or before disasters, why fail to pray, why perpetuate the tragedy of unoffered prayer?

It is Lent, of course. There is no better time or season to sit in a quiet place on a daily basis, and simply open our hearts to whatever God may be ready to offer us in prayer. If we need a model, how about this simple ancient Celtic prayer:

God with me lying down,
God with me rising up,
God with me in each ray of light,
Nor I a ray of joy without God,
Nor one ray without God.

Christ with me sleeping,
Christ with me waking,
Christ with me watching,
Every day and night,
Each day and night.

God with me protecting,
The Lord with me directing,
The Spirit with me strengthening,
Forever and forevermore,
Ever and evermore, Amen.
Chief of chiefs, Amen.

Copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] Quoted in: Prayer: Does It Makes Any Difference?, Zondervan, 2006, by Philip Yancey, p. 283.
[2] “Foolish Prayer,” by Carol Zaleski, Christian Century, 2-23-03, p. 48.
[3] The Message//Remix: The Bible in Contemporary Language, by Eugene Peterson, © 2003, p. 977.