We Do Not Know How to Pray

The National Day of Prayer is recognized in Columbia, Tennessee, where I serve First Presbyterian Church as pastor; and so, thanks to the Kiwanis Club, I was invited to join a group of religious and civic leaders to pray on the steps of the courthouse.

It was a beautiful day; the sun was shining. I said a nice prayer for commerce. That was the general area my prayer was to cover--then there were prayers for schools, for those who serve in the armed forces, for children, for parents--all were prayed for. These prayers were fervent, if a little long winded, and so I was only a little surprised that during a prayer for our churches someone in the crowed passed out; and while the EMTs were called, as the ambulance's siren wailed, we went on praying, not daring to raise our heads or open our eyes because once you've started praying it seems important to stay the course.

Our youngest daughter prays that way. She's three, and when she prays she holds her hands together lining up her fingers just right, closes her eyes as tightly as she can, because prayer is a serious business, it has to be done correctly. Some people are so deliberate about prayer that I've heard them pray in King James English--a very different form of speech compared to the rhythm and inflections that they use to order chili dogs, assuming that prayer demands some kind of special effort.

However, despite such efforts, despite much practice, the Apostle Paul says that we do not know how to pray as we ought.

We think we should however. We think we should know how to pray and we're scared to admit that we don't--so families invite the preacher and her family over for dinner and while the youngest in the family usually says the prayer, "God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food," when the preacher is around dad defers, "Reverend, would you be so kind as to bless our meal?" Prayer is best reserved for the professionals, it would seem.

There is a story about Jim Morrison, the lead singer for the Doors, a rock and roll band who pushed the limits of what was acceptable with their controversial lyrics and scandalous stage persona during the 1960's. The story goes, Morrison is brought to a place, the Factory, to meet the artist Andy Warhol, who greets Morrison like the returning prodigal son though it's not clear that they've ever met. Warhol gives Morrison a golden telephone, which Warhol picks up and holds out to Morrison saying: "Somebody gave me this telephone... I think it was Edie... yeah it was Edie... and she said I could talk to God with it, but uh... I don't have anything to say... so here... (giving Jim the phone) this is for you... now you can talk to God."[1]

This is easier to believe--that it takes something magical, something special, that it must take our most formal speech and our most lofty thoughts to be heard by God, not always realizing that God is ever more ready to hear than we are to speak.

Not believing that if God is for us, surely no one could be against us.

Not daring to trust in the assurance that in all things we are more than conquerors considering the one who has loved us beyond measure.

After all, our world doesn't work that way.

Ours is a world of loss and gain where achievement is said to be based in hard work. In the workplace, some gain favor with promotions and raises while others lose it, and the reason: some have worked hard enough to deserve it while others haven't.

So we push ourselves to succeed. We push both ourselves and our children.

In school the push to succeed is so strong that proctors in Tennessee can't even walk around the classroom when their students are taking standardized tests. Too strong would be their desire to cheat, imagines the school board. 

And in our society success is said to be based on a pulling of bootstraps, if you work hard enough and if you can learn to do it right you will achieve life, liberty, and happiness, but what about the man with bleeding knuckles who's been knocking on the same locked door night after night after night.

Would you say that the mother, the mother who is a mother in spirit but not in body--would you say that she hasn't prayed hard enough to explain the empty cradle that she's been rocking all these years?[2] 

Capitalism says, "try harder" and keep working, but what if that doesn't work?

Dr. N.T. Wright, once Bishop of Durham, wrote in a commentary on Revelation, that the Tower of Babel represents the human desire "to climb up to heaven by our own energy." The Tower is a human attempt to get "what God proposed to give by sheer grace."[3]

And here is a difficult concept--this idea of grace--or even worse, predestination.

In Romans Paul uses this word that we Presbyterians can't get away from, so I think of John Calvin who says this in regards to predestination: "We indeed know that when salvation is the subject, men are disposed to begin with themselves..."[4]

We know that when prayer is the subject we are very much the same.

We pray that God will do what we want, praying, as though we were dictating our will to our attorney: Give this to him and that to her and don't let that one have a thing.

But we do not know how to pray as we ought.

Should not prayer be the act of giving up on our will and to trusting in God's?

Should not our prayer be the relinquishing of our limited power while placing all our hope in God's ultimate power?

You cannot do it well enough to exercise your will on God's creation, no matter how tightly you shut your eyes, no matter how your fingers line up, whether you are on your knees or at the dinner table.

Just be sure to bow your head in thanksgiving--bow your head in reverence to a power greater than yourself.

Or--open your mouth, not struggling to find the right words, not reaching for the faithful and polished declaration, but trusting that the Spirit intercedes for the Saints with sighs too deep for words.

Or lift up your eyes--lift up your eyes and ask God to open them for once to some hope you've never dared imagine--reach out your hands and receive a grace that you cannot earn.

"We are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."


Let us pray. Lord, we do not know how to pray as we ought. We worry over the words, hoping to get it right. But let our prayers today be rooted in trust that your Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. Grant us the faith to surrender, to rest. Give us the faith to let go, not as sheep to be slaughtered, but as conquerors through Him who loved us. It is in His name that we pray. Amen.


[1] http://forum.johndensmore.com/index.php?showtopic=1866

[2] Both the image of the man with bleeding knuckles and the mother and her empty cradle come from Dr. Fred Craddock's sermon at First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, TN in April of 1994.

[3] NT Wright, Revelation for Everyone (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011) 168.

[4] John Calvin, Rev John Owen, trans., edu., Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1947) 315.