The Power of Imperfect Prayer

by Rev. Randy L. Johnson

An article in The Washington Post told about a 15-year-old girl who sent and received 6,473 cell phone text messages in a single month. She says about her constant communication with friends, “I would die without it.” And she is not alone. Researchers say that US teens average more than 2,200 text messages a month.

Such on-going communication offers an interesting illustration of what prayer could be like for those of us who seek a powerful, life-giving relationship with God.

In her book, Help, Thanks, Wow The Three Essential Prayers, author Anne Lamott opens with a confession. As she puts it, “I do not know much about God and prayer, but I have come to believe over the past twenty-five years, that there’s something to be said about keeping prayer simple.” She goes on to suggest what I think is a helpful definition of prayer: “communication from one’s heart to God.”

During this season of Lent we have been lifting up the theme of practicing imperfection. This theme certainly applies to our practice of prayer. At the heart of prayer is a profound mystery which is beyond human understanding. As Lamott describes this, in prayer “we are making contact with something unseen, way bigger than we could ever imagine in our wildest dreams, even if we are the most brilliant, open-minded scientists and physicists of our generation.” Perhaps the greatest mystery of all is that we do not have to be brilliant or to even have our act together to pray. Like most matters of faith, what God calls us to do is to try, to practice praying, to offer imperfect prayers in heartfelt conversations with God.

So why practice praying? As the book title “Help, Thanks, Wow” suggests, sometimes we pray seeking help or direction for ourselves or for those we love; sometimes we are expressing gratitude for something we are thankful for such as renewed health or a promotion at work; other times we may be offering God praise or adoration such as at the sight of the sun rising over Lake Superior or of the birth of a child. Prayer also offers us a chance to seek God’s forgiveness for ourselves and for the grace to forgive those who have wronged us.

When we look at the prayer life of Jesus we see that he prayed for many reasons and he practiced different kinds of prayers. For example, in today’s gospel story Jesus enters into a kind of conversational prayer. While expressing his feelings of distress, Jesus carries on a conversation with God including both questions and direct requests for God which bring a response from God to Jesus.

In this story and in other examples of when Jesus prayed, one of the primary purposes of prayer for Jesus was to experience empowerment: through daily prayer Jesus stayed connected to God so that he could bring healing and hope to others. The disciples of Jesus noticed his power and how connected it was to his prayer life. This is why they came to Jesus and asked him to teach them to pray. In response, Jesus taught them what came to be known as “The Lord’s Prayer.” The purpose of this model prayer was to help empower his followers do the things that Jesus did. Likewise, as followers of Jesus today, when we pray, “Thy will be done” in the Lord’s Prayer, it is not just God’s will for the world at large that we pray. Rather, we are praying that God’s will be done in our lives so that we might help make God’s kingdom come in greater fullness to our community and to our world now in our time.

Empowerment through prayer was illustrated throughout the 1960’s civil rights movement. This movement for justice was highlighted this month as our nation celebrated the 50th anniversary of the march in Selma, Alabama. This protest was a turning point in the struggle for equality and justice in America. It led to legislation removing barriers that had prevented African-Americans from voting and transformed American politics, government and our whole society. Representative John Lewis, one of those beaten in Selma on March 7, 1965, reminded Americans of the sacrifices made on that day: “some of us,” Lewis declared, “gave a little blood on that bridge to redeem the soul of America, to make America better.”

It is important that we recognize the sacrifices made by those who gave of themselves to make our nation a better America for all Americans. It is also vital that we remember that these same people who marched for justice first gathered together in churches to pray. Well-known civil rights leaders and their everyday followers shared not only a commitment to change America. They also had a common understanding of their need for God’s empowerment through prayer: as the words of the great hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” proclaim, they knew that if in their own strength they confided their striving would be losing. Without prayer, they would not have had the ability to stand firm and remain nonviolent in the face of the hatred and brutality of their attackers. The power of prayer is what inspired and sustained them to make the sacrifices required to bring shame upon their enemies, to stir the hearts and consciences of all Americans and to create justice, healing and hope for our nation.

Of course, such sacrifices are still required. While significant progress has been made during the past 50 years since the march on Selma, the dark shadow of racism and discrimination still hovers over our nation. Economic inequality… unfair criminal justice systems…on-going attempts to weaken voting rights…bullying against and biased targeting of students of color for out-of-school suspensions… widespread hate crimes… the struggle for peace with justice is far from over. Along with racism, daily news is filled with horrific stories of violence against women and children, sex trafficking, and religious persecution associated with radical terrorism. Jesus confronted the hard realities of his day and he taught us that whoever serves him must follow him and that following him would involve sacrifice.

This idea is central to the prayer life and teachings of Jesus: the primary goal of prayer is not trying to get God to give us what we want, but seeking the strength and faith to do what God wants of us.

As we see in the gospel reading, Jesus prayed: “What should I say? Father, save me from this time? No, for this reason I have come to this time.”

So for what reason have you come to this time? Through prayer we seek God’s direction and find strength to fulfill the purposes God has for our lives.

On March 6, just two days before the celebration of the march on Selma, I joined with other members of ISAIAH’s Great River Interfaith Partnership at a press conference at the Saint Cloud office of the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Along with Governor Dayton and the State Commissioner of Transportation, one of our ISAIAH/GRIP members had the privilege of speaking. His name is Charles Ferguson, an African-American, a member of Higher Ground Church of God in Christ in Saint Cloud and a local transit rider. He told how he spends 45 minutes on the bus one-way to get to work each day. He shared how even more difficult the limited bus schedule makes it to get home at night or to and from work on weekend shifts. While Charles’ presentation was impressive to all the leaders present, more impressive to me is how Charles has developed as a leader in our shared work for justice. And I know if you asked Charles he would credit his faith and prayers, along with the prayer support of his faith community, for his new-found sense of purpose, confidence and power to do things that not long ago were beyond his imagination.

So how might we discover such clarity of purpose and renewed power to make a difference in the world? Jesus calls us to a life of service through prayer and sacrifice. The primary sacrifice is to let go of the things that prevent us from seeking first God’s purposes for our lives. That is part of what the season of Lent is all about. As Jesus said in our gospel lesson, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it can only be a single seed. But, if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Rather than praying to God for a car for himself, Charles Ferguson is praying to God for the power to continue putting his energy and resources into creating a just and effective transit system for all Minnesotans.

So how do we find the motivation to be willing to make such personal sacrifices? Over the years I have had the privilege of officiating at many weddings. It is always a joy to be part of the intimate circle of family and friends as the couple share their vows and exchange their rings. At that moment they are staking their lives on that covenant of the heart, on that commitment to be faithful to one another and to love one another and to make the personal sacrifices necessary to sustain their relationship of love as long as they both shall live.

God invites each of us to enter into such a covenant of personal love and trust. As God said through the prophet Jeremiah, “The time is coming when I will make a new covenant with my people…I will put my instructions within them and engrave them on their hearts.” In prayer we enter with God into this holy covenant of the heart and engage in sacred conversation with the One who has created us, who has been with us from the day of our birth, the One who knows our every need, our every weakness, our every thought and desire and who even now is preparing a home for us to dwell together in eternal peace. In prayer we receive God’s Spirit of love and forgiveness which unites us with God and with all people who share in this new covenant. And in prayer we commit ourselves to make the sacrifices needed to be faithful partners, working to fulfill God’s reign on earth, bringing down walls of injustice and inequality and opening wide doors of freedom and opportunity until all people know the joy of God’s love, power and grace. Amen.