I said something recently that I wish to retract or maybe merely modify. I led off a sermon a few weeks ago saying that there are three answers to our prayers. The first answer is the most popular one: yes. The second answer often baffles us: no. The third answer to our prayers is the most agonizing and confusing: wait.
So much of getting clear in faith is asking right questions. I wish to question the idea of prayer working for us by getting answers we deem acceptable or helpful. Peter W. Marty recently wrote that in discussing prayer and its outcomes, we should eliminate the word “answer.” Suffice it to say, that really got my attention.
What did Marty mean? Well, now to claim there are only three answers to prayer, it sounds utterly saturated with our self-interest. It sounds centered around us rather than centered around God. Those are not the directions I want to lead us.
Yes, Jesus did encourage us to pray for things we need, even specific things. And I still believe that doing so is a sign of spiritual maturity, a sign of closeness to God. But we should remember that in the context that prayer is not mostly about us. Prayer is mostly about God, and sharing in the life God has given to us.
When you ponder prayer, picture relationships with friends across decades. We have special friendships, where time and distance can’t intrude. We know friends with whom we can pick up where we left off in a lifelong ongoing conversation. Such settings evoke deep conversation that inspire curiosity, promote honesty, and reveal transformations of ourselves, which might otherwise remain invisible. Those visits are less about achieving a result and more about sharing company. We know such relationships are beautiful because such company as that is rare.
Prayer is much like that. Perhaps the most important outcome of prayer is not getting what we want or deem necessary at a certain moment within our journey. Perhaps it is to enough know God, and therefore know ourselves. Or better still, perhaps the purpose of prayer is to enjoy God so we can rejoice within our days. Robert Farrar Capon has said, “Prayer is just talking to someone who is already talking to you. (Prayer) is listening to someone who is already listening to you.”
The place where I have learned the most about prayer is sitting with the dying, reading Psalms to them, taking their hands into mine, and settling into our prayer. We always reach a point where we put aside prayers that seek certain results, such as healing. And we begin to pray for things like God’s presence, constancy, companionship, guidance. We pray for God being strong for us in our weakness. Those prayers have been for me some of the most free and liberating I’ve known.
On this Celebration Sunday, we recognize Church School teachers and children, bid farewell to Mary Jo, and look to a new era of ministry to our young. We do not yet know where we will be as we reshape all these ministries to eliminate gaps. Would it be enough to pray for God’s presence, constancy, companionship, and guidance? Would it be enough to let God usher us forward? Yes, yes, and yes.