Monday, November 16, 2009

Honest Prayers: Sermon on 1 Samuel 1:1-20

It’s Friday afternoon, time for me to start writing my sermon (past time, really… I’ve been noodling around on Facebook just a little too long). I’ve had my lunch, the dishes are done, there is coffee percolating on the stove (yes, I percolate my coffee at home… real cowboy coffee, my brother calls it). Time to write. Except, it occurs to me: I should take time to pray before I write. My sermon will undoubtedly be enriched if I pray first—open myself to the Spirit. And then I think: hey, I think I know how I’ll start the sermon… that crucial opening paragraph! And so… prayer averted. I sit down to the computer and start typing.

And there you have it, my friends, the true and unvarnished report on the state of your pastor’s prayer life. Why is it so hard sometimes, to simply sit down and … pray? We promise ourselves (and God) we will do it… sometimes we even manage to keep that promise for a little while. But the first errant thought, the first opportunity for distraction and diversion, and our promises evaporate. Unless… we are in one of those life situations that takes us to the extremes. You know the ones I mean. The extremes of joy or sorrow. The extremes of hope or despair. The extremes of reaching out in love or striking out in anger. For some reason, the every day, workaday practice of prayer feels not nearly so doable as the “Help me Lord, I’m hanging on by my fingernails” kind of prayer, or the “Hallelujah, praise the Lord!” kind of prayer. It has been said that we can basically boil down all prayer to “Thank you” and “Help.” We tend to get very, very good at praying when the prayer is “Help.”

Hannah is a woman living in one of those extremes, a time of extreme pain and distress. When we meet Hannah, her whole identity is swallowed up in her problem, her symptom. She “has no children,” in contrast with her husband’s other wife Peninnah, who has children in abundance. It’s hard to overstate the catastrophe, the sheer scandal that infertility is assumed to be in biblical literature. Fertility is always seen as a sign of divine favor—God, smiling down upon you. Infertility, predictably, is seen as a sign of divine judgment—God, closing the womb. Hannah is suffering as a result of her identity as a woman with no children: her rival taunts her, she weeps. Hannah has the love of her husband, Elkanah, but she is too miserable to eat the double portion he gives her. Elkanah, in a misguided effort to cheer her up, says just the wrong thing. “Hannah… Am I not more to you than ten sons?” he says. When, of course, the right thing to say would have been, “Hannah, you are more to me than ten sons.”

At this point in the story of salvation, there are many holy places, not just one, and so the whole family of Elkanah and Hannah and Penninah and all the kids go to the temple at Shiloh for their annual time of worship and sacrifice. And after the meal she cannot eat, Hannah rises and goes into the temple, and “presents herself to the Lord.” She “pours out her soul before the Lord.” If we could be flies on the wall of the temple… I wonder what the outpouring of that soul sounded like?

O Lord, God of my salvation, when, at night, I cry out in your presence,
let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry.
For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol.
I am counted among those who go down to the Pit; I am like those who have no help.
like those forsaken among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand.
You have put me in the depths of the Pit, in the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves. [Selah]
You have caused my companions to shun me;
you have made me a thing of horror to them. I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
my eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call on you, O Lord; I spread out my hands to you. ~Psalm 88:1-9

There’s no emotion we can feel that we can’t find in the psalms. That is a portion of Psalm 88. It is probably the saddest, most hopeless psalm in the entire psalter. It ends as it begins, in unrelieved darkness.

I think it is an incredibly honest prayer. I suspect the outpouring of Hannah’s soul is something like this, the prayer she prays while weeping bitterly, so distraught and out of control that Eli the priest comes to believe she is drunk. Hannah presents herself before the Lord, and prays an honest prayer out of the deepest places of distress in her heart.

In some ways, this kind of prayer is the easy kind. The times when we say “help,” from the gut, with all our might, and we really mean it. When I think back on the various stages and seasons of my life, I know I prayed the best when things were hardest and scariest. And, by the “best,” I don’t mean high quality poetic prayers in Elizabethan English or even biblical Hebrew. By the “best”, I mean, most consistently. By the “best”, I mean, most honestly. By the “best”, I mean that, at those times, my prayer life was my relationship, my connection with God.

Prayer is a relationship. And all relationships thrive on consistency and honesty. It can be a simple thing to be honest when you are pain, terrified, desperate. Honesty can be… more complicated at other times. I am wondering what kind of prayer I might have prayed if I had sat down to pray before beginning my sermon:

“Well, here I am, God. Sort of perfunctorily checking in with you, in case you have anything good for me.” Yikes. That makes me cringe. That doesn’t feel very comfortable or comforting. I’ve prayed other uncomfortable prayers in my life, too. And I’ve encouraged others to pray uncomfortably. I encourage us all to pray uncomfortably.

I encourage us to say to God those things we think we cannot say to God, even things we don’t want to take up God’s time with. Things like,

Are you really there?

I don’t have time for this.

I’m so tired I could cry.

I’m so sad I could die.

I don’t know how to do this praying thing.

Let’s remind ourselves of something: God already knows it all anyway. God is already there, waiting for us to be willing to join in the conversation God has already begun with us. So, if God already knows it all—the anger, or the ennui, or the confusion, or the irritation, or the questioning—if God already knows it all, we have nothing to fear in articulating it. We have nothing to fear in pouring out the not terribly pious, not terribly articulate content of our souls. We have nothing to fear except this: being in a real, live, fully connected relationship with God. God is already speaking. In honest prayer we have an opportunity to turn a monologue into a relationship.

There is a story of a man who really had some struggles, much like Jim, whom I talked about last week. This man was deep in addiction, and his addiction had led to things like drunk driving arrests and jail time and abandoning his family and finally, under threat of real hard time in prison, rehab. When he came out of rehab, he felt fragile, like a newborn baby with the cold wind swirling all around him. Some of his old friends—the ones with whom he had indulged in his addiction—were having a party, right next door. He didn’t know what to do. He tried to call one of his new clean and sober friends for support, but couldn’t get through to them. Finally, he went home and went in his bedroom, and closed the door, and sat on his bed shaking. He looked up at the ceiling and said, “Well, Buddy, I guess it’s just you and me.” And that prayer—that honest, inarticulate, heartfelt prayer—changed everything. He says, “Believe it or not, it worked: those simple little words worked. Something happened: a little peace came over me.”

Hannah presented herself to the Lord. She in agony, and she prayed and wept bitterly. She was honest. She poured out her soul. She engaged in real conversation with God, a prayer from the heart. And, like her, when we are in agony, or like the man who was trying not to act on his addiction, when we are really frightened, those prayers can just roll out of us, just flow, and our pleas for “Help” fly into the heavens, weightless, direct to God.

The challenge for us is to learn to present ourselves to the Lord, to pour out our souls, in other kinds of situations as well. To present ourselves to God when we’re bored, or just tired, or when we don’t really feel like praying because we aren’t sure we will get anything back, get anything out of it. The challenge for us is to engage in the conversation when fifteen thousand other things are screaming for our attention—that little bit of work we want to finish, the laundry, the latest episode of “Glee.” The challenge for us is to engage in honest prayer when we don’t even know what we want to say, but we do it anyway, because that’s what you do when you’re in a relationship.

It has been said that prayer doesn’t change God, but it does change us. That is the promise of prayer: transformation. The answer to Hannah’s prayer is powerful and dramatic: God sends her the son she is longing for, and we have already prayed together her psalm of joy. For many of us, much of the time, we do not experience such dramatic answers to our prayer. Or, we experience what feels like a painful, wrenching “No.” But let’s not forget: for Hannah, the transformation comes before God’s “Yes.” She is able to return to her family and eat her dinner for the first time…. not at the guarantee of “yes,” but at the moment of pouring out her soul. We pray. Yes, we pray for that “yes,” but more than that, we pray to be in relationship with the One who created us, the One who redeemed us, the One who sustains us. God wants to be in relationship with us, in the heights of our joys, and in the depths of our sorrows, and in the mundane, Friday afternoon trying to get some work done times. God wants to be in relationship with us, whether our prayer is “Thank you,” or “Help,” or even just “Hi there.” God wants to be in relationship with us, and that is where we will find the transformation we really need. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Gannet Girl said...

Gee, I know that Psalm....

Sophia said...

Brilliant as usual, Mags. So good to hear lament validated as it rarely is in preaching.

Anonymous said...

Keep posting stuff like this i really like it