“Praying in God’s Presence and Absence” by Pastor Leah Rosso

Psalm 102; 1Samuel 1:12-18; (Acts 12:9-17a)

When Todd and I were first married we went to a little church called Evergreen UMC in North Carolina. And on any given Sunday people were invited to share prayers so we could publicly pray for what was on peoples’ hearts. Almost every Sunday, without fail, Charlie, who was six years old, would pray for his Grandpa’s hearing. The first few times I heard Charlie’s prayer, I smiled to myself thinking about what a wonderful grandson he was to pray for his Grandpa. As the weeks went on and I kept hearing Charlie’s prayer I felt a bit sad for him thinking about how his Grandpa was probably not going to get his hearing back. After a month or two when I heard Charlie’s prayer I began to wonder if someone should talk to him about the likelihood of a ninety year old person getting their hearing back. But week after week, as Charlie would pray for his Grandpa’s hearing, my sadness and even pity for him turned into awe. I began to learn about prayer from this six year old boy. For here was someone who believed so strongly in the power of prayer, that he boldly asked God exactly what he needed each and every day.

When I’m honest with myself, I realize that so often when I pray, especially if I’m not really pay-ing attention, I pray for things that are just beyond my reach. I pray for things that seem realistic if I just had a little help. I pray as though I’m trying to protect myself from disappointment, or that I’m trying to protect God. By praying for things that can happen, I don’t have to be mad at God when the things that I pray for don’t happen. But prayer is about asking God for exactly that which we cannot do— that which we think is most likely impossible— and being open to how God will answer that prayer. If I never take a risk to pray for what is unlikely, to pray for what seems impossible, I’m only sheltering myself from being disappointed and I’m not actually open to what God can do.

It doesn’t help, of course, that we live in a world in which quick results are all that matters. Pray-ing can seem almost useless in this world that tells us if it doesn’t change things tomorrow it’s not worth doing. Praying to God and not getting the desired result that we want can be frustrating, especially when we strongly believe that it is something God wants too. But a healthy prayer life is less about understanding God, than it is about experiencing God. And that experience can be radically different for different people.

Some of us in this room may experience God as a warm fuzzy feeling we get when we pray. But others of us may have never experienced anything like that before. Others of us in this room may have a feeling that God is more absent than present. So I have news for you this morning: if you have never felt God’s presence, there’s nothing wrong with you. It’s not your fault. In fact, you’re actually in pretty good company. One of the people who so faithfully served God and lived out her faith without experiencing God’s presence, is Mother Theresa. We know this be-cause years after her death, the Vatican released her personal papers, which was totally against her will. But I am extremely grateful that they did. Because in those papers Mother Theresa wrote about the absence of God’s presence in her life. And it wasn’t just for a day or two or a year or two. She wrote that from the moment she began her ministry in India, she never felt the presence of God again.

Here is a woman that is on her way to sainthood. Here is a woman that is known for her deep integrity and faithful action in the world. Here is a woman that was quite literally the face of Christ for thousands of people in their last days of life. And she, like the psalmist, wondered how God was a part of it all when there was so much suffering around her. But she knew God was a part of it all. And so she steeped her life in prayer anyway.

The Psalm we heard read this morning cries out in anguish; in disgust; in doubt; in bewilder-ment— wondering where God is and why God doesn’t care about his pain. He is writing from a time of war; from a time when Israel had to flee from their own land; a time when people won-dered where God was and why God wasn’t doing something to save them. It is an echo that we hear in our own world today; a cry that is not so far off from the cries of our neighbors and friends. And these sentiments are nothing new. Six hundred years before Jesus, Job was an-gered by God’s silence in the Old Testament. Job, who is known as a faithful man of God, gets angry enough to ask “What profit do we get if we pray to God?” (Job 21:15) and the writer of Lamentations cries, “Though I ask for help, God ignores my cries!” And Jesus, as he hung at his own execution called out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

And yet these people keep praying. They are praying honestly about their situation and about the world, and they dare to ask God to intervene.

In her book, In God’s Presence, Marjorie Suchoki talks about the scientific breakthroughs that have been happening around our globe, showing us the interconnectedness of our world. We recognize now that when we kill off mosquitoes, it affects the food supply of the birds and other insects and so even though we may be at the point where we could get rid of them, scientists are arguing about whether that is the best plan. We have begun exploring how it is that our own bodies have biospheres within them that rely on one another so that when we take antibiotics and kill everything, while trying to kill the bug that’s making us sick, good bacteria in our bodies die also and cause other problems. We are able to see from a micro level to a macro level the ways in which we are all connected on this planet from the smallest particle to the largest animal, and Suchoki, in her book, invites us to think about the ways this understanding of the world impacts our understanding of God. If it’s true that everything is completely interconnected in ways we have just begun to understand, than why would God not also be interconnected with us and with the earth?

In other words, perhaps the reason God gives us the impulse to pray, encourages us in Scripture to pray, instructs us through Jesus how to pray, is precisely because God is so interconnected with us, that when we are not praying, we are actually limiting God’s ability to work in the world. And when we do pray, we are contributing to God’s power of doing good. Suchocki says it this way, “Prayer is God’s invitation to us to be willing partners in the great dance of bringing the world into being that reflects something of God’s character.”

And scientific data would show that this is true. Duke University Medical Center has done studies of what affects prayer has on people who are in the hospital. They have asked a group of people in one place to pray for individuals in the hospital. And overwhelmingly what they find, is that those patients who are prayed for do better than those who aren’t prayed for— even when the patients don’t know they are being prayed for.

Whether you feel God’s presence, or whether you don’t, something happens when we pray. God is hearing our cries. God is listening to our lives. God is participating with us in this world and is constantly inviting us to participate with God in making this world reflect God’s image.

As it says in Deuteronomy 31:8, “The Lord goes before you and will be with you; God will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.”

God invites us to participate in creating a world that reflects God— first with our prayers, and with our lives. Even when our prayers don’t get answered in the ways we had imagined. I don’t know whatever happened with Charlie’s grandfather. Maybe he got his hearing back. But even if he didn’t, I know that Charlie’s grandpa was still blessed and Charlie was blessed through that prayer. Things happened in their lives that wouldn’t have happened otherwise, even if it isn’t what he was praying for.

What in your life could use prayer? What situation do you think is impossible in the world? Or in this community? Or in your family? And how are you bringing it to God in prayer?

Hannah brought her life to God in prayer. Her story, from 1Samuel, shows the extent of her prayer life. She went to the temple to pray on a regular basis because what she wanted most in the world was a child. And even though she goes regularly, apparently on this one day she gets so overcome in grief and anger, so into her praying, that the priest thinks she’s drunk. He actu-ally goes over and tells her to put away her wine— that she is making a scene in the temple! I would’ve loved to have seen the look she gave him when he said that. And then Hannah says to him, “I am a woman deeply troubled. I have been speaking of my vexation and anxiety all this time.” And it is only then that the priest realizes that this woman needs a blessing. That she is distraught in her grief and anger and needs someone else to partner with her in prayer. And so he blesses her. I don’t know what happened in that moment. But something happened so that when Hannah leaves and goes home, she is no longer sad. And my guess is, Eli changed in that moment too, as he realized the power of her prayers.

You and I have the benefit of having one another in this community of faith to pray for each oth-er. Sometimes it is not enough to pray by ourselves. Jesus actually made a point of saying that when two or three are gathered, there I am. So whether you have been praying your whole life and have a satisfyingly rich prayer life; or whether you have never tried it and it scares you to death, or anything in between, we’re going to practice together this morning.

I want you to take a look at the person on your right. Don’t worry about whether they’ll see you, because they’re looking at the person on their right. If you are at the end of a row, you’re going to have to look way over at the person who starts the row in front of you. Get a good look at them so you’ll be able to picture them and then close your eyes. Picturing them in your mind’s eye, I want you to imagine the Spirit of God surrounding them. Watch as the Spirit of God wraps them up in love. Imagine the person being filled with joy and healing and hope. Now allow yourself to enter into that space so that you’re both surrounded by God’s presence. You don’t have to do or say anything, just be present. As you imagine the two of you being wrapped in God’s Spirit, take a moment to see who else is there with you and sit with God’s Spirit filling each person with what they need for today.

When you are ready, open your eyes. We have all just prayed for one another. It’s that easy. How will this community look different when we all take time to hold one another in prayer? What is one thing you want to see happen in this community of faith? What is one thing you want to see happen in the St. Cloud region that you haven’t even dared to dream about yet?

The world needs our prayers. The St. Cloud region needs our prayers. We in this church need each others’ prayers.

Resources: In God’s Presence by Marjorie Suchocki Ministry matters.com Mother Theresa: Come be My Light by Mother Theresa