Okay, here’s the deal. In just a moment I’m going to ask everyone to come down to the communion table with checkbook in hand. I want you to place your checkbook on the table and go back to your seat. Don’t worry, I’m not going to keep it. You’ll get your checkbook after worship is over. But I am going to read your checkbook register aloud and let everyone here today know how you spend your money… to whom you send your money and how much you spend on each item. It should be very telling about the level of your financial stewardship, don’t you think?
You, uh, you don’t like that idea, do you? I can see it in your reaction. It’s written all over your faces. I’m not going to have any takers, am I?
Okay, then let’s try this idea… One-by-one we’re going to ask you to come to the pulpit and tell everyone else how often you prayed this week, what you prayed for, who you prayed for, how you prayed, and how long you prayed.
You’re… you’re not too crazy about that idea either, are you?
Truth be told, there are at least two areas of our lives that we want to keep hidden from view: our finances and our prayers. Those are strictly our business and ours alone. If we’re going to share this information with anyone else at all – besides the IRS, of course – we’re going to share it solely with God. If anyone else is interested, it will just have to be a guessing game because we’re not telling.
Fair enough. Fair enough. Except, we’re not very good at sharing with God, are we? In fact, we probably do share more information with the IRS than we do with God. Paul says it for all of us when he talks about our spiritual weakness. “We do not know how to pray as we ought,” Paul confesses. And boy, that’s an understatement, isn’t it?
Paul, the great communicator of the gospel to the Gentiles. Paul, the one accosted by Jesus on the Damascus Road and called to be God’s personal emissary in taking the good news of salvation to all who would hear it and believe. Paul, the one responsible for writing so much of our sacred scripture. Paul – this Paul – did not say, “You do not know how to pray…” He said, “We do not know how to pray as we ought.” He included himself in the mix.
It could be because misery loves company. But somehow that doesn’t make us feel a whole lot better, does it? We would be more relieved, perhaps, if Paul had said “you” instead of “we.” If he was such a spiritual giant, he could have shown us the way to pray. “You do not know how to pray, and I’m here to show you how.” That’s what Paul could have said, but he didn’t.
Yes, but didn’t Jesus do that? The disciples admitted to their Master that their prayer lives were inadequate. “Teach us to pray, Lord, teach us to pray.” So Jesus gave them a model by which to do it, what we call the Lord’s Prayer. We say it together every week during this hour. But what are we thinking as we voice the prayer Jesus taught us? Is it not true that we find it to be simply a part of the worship service that we go through, while more often than not we’ve got our minds on where we’re going to eat lunch afterwards, or whether we’ll be able to find the time to get in a Sunday afternoon nap?
So let’s face it… even with the help of Jesus and with the encouragement of Paul, we still do not know how to pray. And like our checkbooks, we’ll keep it to ourselves, if you don’t mind, for fear that we will be found out. Unless we are like the man William Willimon visited in the hospital…
Willimon admits that he entered the hospital room with apprehension. His friend George had gotten a bad diagnosis the day before. Cancer. Things didn’t look good.
“George, how’s it going?”
“Preacher, I am glad that you are here. I need some help.”
“What kind of help?”
“I can’t figure out what to pray for. I mean, do I pray for healing? Surely God knows that I want to be healed. But why should I be healed, and not everybody else in this hospital? What makes me so special? A lot of people my age get cancer. Why should I think that my cancer is any different from their’s and why should God give me some special dispensation?
“On the other hand, I really do want to be healed. If I am healed, think of all the good things I could do. I could continue the work that I’m doing in the church, the work for others. But maybe I’m just being self-deceptive. Just like a frightened kid, who’ll promise God anything.
“And who am I now to be coming to God asking for all of this? I have a lousy prayer life, don’t give God the time of day on most days. So here I’ve come like a blathering idiot, begging, wheeling and dealing, who am I to be making such prayers?”1
I don’t know this George from Adam, but my guess is that he’s already pretty much got it right, at least if the counsel of Paul can be trusted. “The Spirit helps us in our weakness,” the apostle says, “for we do not know how to pray as we ought…”
Sometimes, the scriptures can be painfully honest and direct and right on target. This, my friends, is one of those times. We do not know how to pray as we ought.
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But then again, prayer is risky business. Prayer, by its very implication, is that we are entering the mind and heart of God. Dangerous territory! So what do we do? We reduce our prayer thoughts to asking for things. Sure, it seems to be selfish to do it that way, but it’s also safer. Ask a golfer at the beginning of a round what he or she wants more than anything else, and the response you will get is, “I want to keep it in the short grass.” The odds of a good score are better when you keep the ball in the fairway and on the green. Ask a pitcher what he hopes to do when he goes out on that mound, and he will tell you that his chances will be better if he can keep the ball in the ballpark.
That’s what we do with prayer, is it not? If we can keep it in the short grass or the ballpark – that is, if we can reduce it to the areas of life with which we are most familiar and comfortable – then prayer is safer. We can continue to walk along the same, rutted path we’ve been traveling before, and don’t have to worry about venturing out into areas of life that are unfamiliar and dangerous to us.
I mean, think about it… do we really want to know the mind of God? What if the mind of God is totally unlike anything we’ve ever experienced before, and will take us beyond those places where we’re comfortable? If a better prayer life will do that for us, will stretch us beyond our comfort zone, do we really want to go there?
Well friends, we’ve already done it. Earlier, when we voiced the Lord’s Prayer, whether we really meant it or not, we asked that the kingdom might come to earth just as it is in heaven. We uttered together that God’s will might be done on earth just as it is done in heaven. We prayed that we might be able to forgive those who sin against us just as God forgives us. You think any of that is easy?!
We’ve already traveled beyond our familiar boundaries, whether we really knew it or not, so we might as well go ahead and give in to it and see what else is waiting for us outside the fences and in the long grass beyond the fairway. I think this is what you will find…
It’s not the words that scare us. We are not intimidated by prayer because we cannot find the words. What scares us to death is that God might just take us up on our offers to do his will. God might just accept our bluff and say, “Let’s get on with it.” God might just hear what we have to say and run with it beyond the point where we are comfortable. That’s why we do not pray as we ought.
It’s not that we’re a bunch of bumblers when it comes to saying the right words. We’re a fairly erudite crowd. We can handle the words. No, we’re scared to death that God might actually be listening. We’d rather let the preacher read our checkbook registers in public than to take the chance that God might accept our prayers and actually do something with them.
Is that not true?
But Paul isn’t through. Somehow, it seems that Paul is never through, doesn’t it? Listen to what he says next. Yes, he does say we do not know how to pray as we ought, but there’s a promise beyond that. The Spirit, Paul says – meaning the Spirit of God – “intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”
Sitting here in the comfort of this sanctuary, we might be quite removed from the place where our thoughts and words don’t seem to get the job done. But most of us have been in those wilderness places of life where the words won’t come, the thoughts are less than redemptive, and God is the last One we would ever expect to have anything to do with us.
The story is told of a young minister just three months out of seminary, serving as an associate pastor of a large church. The pastor had gone out of the country, leaving his inexperienced associate in charge. It happened to me years ago, so I know how it feels. Fortunately, I didn’t have to go through what this young man did.
A young couple in the church had adopted a little boy from El Salvador. He was the love of their life. The father, a dentist, was backing out of his driveway, didn’t see his young son behind the car, and ran over him. He was dead by the time they got him to the hospital.
“I entered that home to the wailing, horrible sounds of those young parents,” the young minister says. “I knew how badly they had wanted a child, how long they had waited. It was just terrible, those howling, grief-filled screams. I entered the living room and she reached out to me and I just lost it. I cried, wept with them. Eventually, I said, ‘Would you like to have a prayer?’ They said yes. I began to pray, my voice cracked, I broke down again and the mother put her arm around me and tried to comfort me! It was terrible, horrible. I left that home feeling like the biggest failure as a pastor.
“Two days later we had the funeral. After the funeral, the mother said to me, ‘Your ministry was such a comfort to us.’”
“A comfort?” I thought. “I was terrible.”
“When I saw that you were just as heartbroken as I was,” she continued, “it really helped me. I felt that I could go on as long as my pastor really felt how terrible all this was.’”2
Now, hear the words of Paul again: “We do not know how to pray as we ought, but (the) Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”
Prayer is not a matter of saying the right words. Prayer is opening up your heart to God’s Spirit and letting God have you, really have you… unconditionally, fully, gratefully.
My younger grandson Matthew has eyes that disappear when he smiles. And when he smiles, which he does quite often, he smiles big. There are times when he wants to tell me something, but in the excitement of sharing it he doesn’t know where or how to start. “Poppa,” he will say, “Poppa, I – I – I– I – I…”
Do I sit there and think, “Spit it out, boy, I’ve got things to do!” Do I try to read his mind and say it for him? Do I become impatient and walk away? No, of course not. Of course not. This is what I do…
I take him by the hand, I stoop down on his level (at least as much as these old knees will let me), I look deeply into his face, and I lovingly try to help him say what is on his mind and heart. And what he does finally say to me, I hear joyfully because I love that little guy more than myself. Then, I take him into my arms and love him with a grandfather’s heart.
I do believe that God will do the same for you and me, even when we do not know how to pray. You see, some things are simply too deep for words. And in those moments, the eternal love of God our Father, and the guiding presence of the Holy Spirit, are all we need to bridge heaven and earth.
I do believe that. Do you?
Lord, we do not know how to pray as we ought. And because we do not know how to pray, we do not know how to live. May your Spirit intercede on our behalf and take us beyond the limits of where we’ve ever been before, that we might indeed do your will here on earth as it is in heaven. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.
1Pulpit Resource, Vol. 32, Not. 2, Year C, April – June, 2004, p. 42.