Who Is Prayer For?
March 13, 2016
Author Kevin Adams tells this story about his friend Ben Patterson, a campus minister. Ben is now close to retirement, but when he was a college student himself, he and some friends decided one day that they should spend two hours praying for the spiritually detached high school students in their charge. These students were part of their ministry group and the leaders were unsure what else to do with them. So they decided to pray. They gathered at church that night in the only room available, a janitor’s closet that smelled like industrial strength detergent.
With their piety in high gear, they knelt in that closet and poured out their prayer. “We prayed every which way we knew: we praised God and confessed our sins and lifted up the names of all the students we could think of. Then we praised and confessed and interceded some more. When I looked at my watch, just fifteen minutes had passed! The next hour and 45 minutes of prayer were the longest and slowest I had ever experienced.”
Only years later did Ben figure out what went wrong that night. The trouble in the janitor’s closet wasn’t their youthful zeal, or the smelly setting, or a lack of subject. The problem was that his prayer was stuffed with himself. It brimmed over with “me and Jesus,” not “we and Jesus.”
Ben had always assumed that prayer demanded his own words – it was really about him. He read the psalms, he says, but it wasn’t until he discovered Eugene Peterson’s phrase “No Christian is an only child” that the psalms made any sense. Now when Ben prays, he prays as part of the community of faith. Even when he is alone, he imagines himself praying among a huge gathering of fellow believers.
We[JB1] have been praying the psalms together in church and in our small Gateway groups over the last several weeks, since Lent began on Ash Wednesday on February 10. And I’ll admit to you that, much of the time, I still approach the psalms with Ben Patterson’s younger mindset. Not that I have prayed in a janitor’s closet, but that I have assumed that the psalms, and my prayers as I made use of them, were about me. Even when I was praying for others, my prayers were my words, my perspectives. Who else and what else would prayer be for?
Praying the psalms in community, Kevin Adams says, teaches us that prayer is not always about us. When we use the psalms to guide our prayers, we find ourselves lamenting even when we are in a good mood. We learn to give thanks even when we feel grim. But when the psalms are prayed regularly and cyclically as they are in some denominations and in monastic communities, we discover that the prayers of the community roll on with us, or without us.
No wonder John Wesley said that a fundamental part of being a Methodist was not just to read Scripture and pray in private, but also to do those things with others. Private prayer may allow us to focus on ourselves – our situation, our needs, our hopes for ourselves and others. But prayer in community requires that we offer words that may suit our neighbor’s situation better than our own.
Your soul might not have been cast down this morning, even as Chris read Psalm 42 that describes our soul that way. You may not have been feeling in the depths of despair as our Prayer of Confession from Psalm 130 puts it…especially after yesterday’s game! But somewhere in this sanctuary there is someone who is feeling exactly that way. Probably more than one someone. Our words were for them this morning. Next week, it might be your turn.
When we pray together, offering prayers that speak on behalf of others, we create a holy space in which people are able to listen to God for themselves, and to discern the truth about their lives for themselves.
Quaker author and activist Parker Palmer has been working to help communities be their best selves for decades. A community, he says, is usually understood to be a group of people with a shared commitment to making an external impact of some sort. So we might see our church community as a group of people with a shared commitment to practicing open-minded faith, or to excellent music, or to raising our children in a supportive environment, or to caring for the sick among us, or to feeding the hungry of the world, or advocating for the oppressed.
But it is also true that a church community is meant to be a place where each person’s inner journey is supported, where each individual feels safe enough to show up as who they really are, feels they can speak their truth, and where they can listen to God’s voice as it speaks only to them: not the denomination’s voice, not the preacher’s voice, not the Sunday School teacher’s voice, not their pew neighbor’s voice – God’s voice, speaking in all its wisdom and particularity, just to them.
Here’s the paradox, Palmer says: in order to do that we must be alone…together. To understand our true selves we need both the interior intimacy that comes with solitude and the otherness that comes with community.
If our only prayers are offered in solitude, it is too easy to get lost in the labyrinth of the inner life. If all we do is listen to others’ prayers, it is too easy to lost in the confusion of the crowd. We need solitude and community simultaneously – but how they go together is tricky.
Being alone together is tricky for a number of reasons. Often when we are physically alone, we bring other people with us. Think how often you have been by yourself but found yourself consumed by an interior conversation with someone who is not actually there. My most passionate, articulate and therefore successful arguments take place in the shower!
And how often when we are with others do we lose track of our true selves? That’s how riots mob violence get started, of course, but it happens on less dramatic levels too. It’s how cliques form, how outsiders are kept out, and how we find ourselves acting in a group in ways we would never act on our own. We can forget who we are when we get entangled in group dynamics.
Solitude does not necessarily mean living apart from others; rather, it means never living apart from one’s self. It is not about the absence of other people – it is about being fully present to ourselves, whether or not we are with others. Community does not necessarily mean living face-to-face with others; rather, it means never losing the awareness that we are connected to each other. It is not about the presence of other people – it is about being fully open to the reality of relationship, whether or not we are alone.
Another reason it’s tricky to be alone together is that our true selves – our souls if you will – are shy. Our intellects are not shy, especially in a university community; our emotions are not shy; our wills are not shy; our egos are not shy…but who we truly are is a well-hidden secret. Most of us keep our souls protected even from our closest friends and family, even from ourselves.
Parker Palmer says that the soul is like a wild animal, it seeks safety in the dense underbrush. If we want to see a wild animal, we know that the last thing we should do is go crashing through the woods yelling for it to come out.
Unfortunately, churches are too often a group of people who go crashing through the woods together, scaring souls away. We feel obliged to tell others what we think they need to know and how we think they ought to live. We preach and teach, assert and argue, claim and proclaim, admonish and advise, and general behave in ways that drive everything original and wild into hiding. Under these conditions, the intellect, emotions, will and ego may emerge, sometimes quite boldly and with unhelpful consequences, but not the soul. Even when we are acting with good intentions, we scare off the soulful things, like respectful relationships, goodwill, and hope.
The prayers we pray alone together offer us a chance to be patient, not pushy; compassionate, not confrontational. They give us a chance to allow each one to abide with God and to learn from God, held loosely but securely in one another’s presence.
To sit with one another in prayer means we set aside the belief that we have the answers to one another’s problems. We are simply present with one another – treating the space between us as sacred, honoring each soul and its journey. We stand with attentiveness at the borders of our neighbor’s solitude, trusting that God will provide them with whatever resources they need and that our attentiveness can help bring those resources into play. We stay present to each other without wavering, while stifling any impulse to fix each other up.
Writer Kathleen Norris grew up in the church but, like many Americans, left it once she left home. She and her husband, also a poet, lived and worked in New York City for twenty years. Then, surprising everyone, even themselves, they moved back to the town of her childhood and the farm home of her grandparents in Lemmon, South Dakota. Most surprising of all, Kathleen found herself going back to the unfashionable, unsophisticated, plodding church of her childhood.
In one way, she said, going back helped her remember what she hated about church, what she had sought to escape by leaving. Growing up, church had meant two things: singing and dressing up. The singing she loved. But dressing up, especially when she became a teenager, became a symbol of a church that was profoundly disconnected from her true, adolescent self.
“What went wrong for me in my Christian upbringing is centered in the belief that one had to be dressed up, both outwardly and inwardly, to meet God. It was the insidious notion that I needed to be a firm and even cheerful believer before I dare show my face in “His” church. Such a God was of little use to me in my adolescence, and like many others, I simply stopped going.”
So she left, until she came back. Her journey took her further back even than the faith of her grandparents, all the way back to the Benedictines, a monastic order begun in 529. Kathleen jokes that her prairie town was so isolated that she needed to visit a monastery for excitement. Eventually she became an oblate – a layperson who makes personal vows of connection to a religious community.
During a nine-month stay at the monastery Kathleen chanted the psalms, seven times a day. When you go to church several times a day, every day, you learn that there is no way you can ‘do it right.’ To her surprise, she discovered that the psalms “do not deny your true feelings but allow you to reflect on them, right in front of God and everyone.”
She puts it this way, “The liturgy that Benedictines have been experimenting with for 1,500-plus years taught me the value of tradition; I came to see that the psalms are holy in part because they are so well used. If so many generations had found solace here, might I also? The holiness of the psalms came to seem like that of a stone that has been held in the palm by countless ancestors.”
It is surprising but true: praying the psalms in community makes them more personal. They become more authentically our own when we offer them in concert with others, when they are freed from the confining tyranny and limits of our own individual experience. Praying the psalms as part of an ageless tradition, we come to see more clearly our vision for the world and our place in it.
Hear again these words from Psalm 42. And if they do not speak for you this morning, pray them anyway, on behalf of the person sitting next to you, or the stranger sitting on the other side of the sanctuary, for whom this psalm expresses exactly who they are and what they need to say.
1As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.
2My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?
3My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, “Where is your God?”
4These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival.
5Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help
6and my God. My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar.
7Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your cataracts; all your waves and your billows have gone over me.
8By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.
9I say to God, my rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?”
10As with a deadly wound in my body, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me continually, “Where is your God?”
11Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.
Parker Palmer. A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. Jossey-Bass, 2009.
Kevin Adams. 150: Finding Your Story in the Psalms. Square Inch, 2011.