Monty Knight: On Knowing Not How to Pray

When I last preached on Day 1, which was a few years ago, Peter Wallace was interviewing me. Knowing that my ministry has been, for many years, primarily one of pastoral counseling (with an emphasis on marriage and family therapy), Peter - playing "devil's advocate" - asked, "Why do people need to go to counseling anyway? Can't they just pray and read the Bible?"

His question - it caught me off guard, and I proceeded to explain that such an approach is, in fact, practiced by a brand of fundamentalist Christians threatened by anything apart from the most fearful and repressive interpretation of scripture, a kind of counseling called "nouthetic," but that my approach involves an integrating of both a faithful theological and ethical perspective, as well as the knowledge of modern psychological and psychiatric science, indeed a more wholistic Christian understanding of what it means to be human. As in my sermon that day, for instance, where I explained that our English words psychology and psychiatry are derived in fact from the Greek word for "soul" in our Christian New Testament.

And, I would add, such an approach would likely be that of any kind of counselor related to a congregation or a denomination represented in the ministry of Day 1.

Listening later to my conversation with Peter, however, I was not pleased with my response to that particular interrogation on his part, however facetious. My response - it seemed so pedantic. And I remembered, more precisely, a woman who had come to me for counseling some years ago.

She was in considerable distress. To which you might wonder, "What other kind of distress is there?" Her husband was rejecting her, as in the proverbial "for another woman" scenario. And as we were talking together, she tearfully said to me, in a rather halting voice, "It's okay if you want to pray." Which I interpreted as meaning, "I want you to."

That's when I said to her, "What do you think I've been doing?" Which was, in fact - despite my wise-guy response - that was precisely what I was doing as I listened to the woman, responding and relating to her as sensitively and compassionately as I am capable of being and doing. No, I wasn't speaking out loud; I wasn't "praying" in any overt, formal, ritualized sense of the word - what we typically think of as praying. I was, however, silently praying for that deeply troubled woman in the thoughts that I was framing in my mind; I was indeed invoking God's healing and sustaining grace in her life. I was interceding on her behalf.

But what if I weren't consciously aware of silently praying for that woman who had sought my counsel? My being present to her and with her as genuinely and sincerely and authentically as I've described - would that itself have been, in its own way, its own kind of prayer? And moreover, is it possible that God may work in and through, with and for, in spite of, as often as not, because of us?

In 1965, the iconoclastic Episcopal priest, the late Malcolm Boyd, published a hip best-selling book of prayers entitled Are You Running with Me Jesus? And in that book he says, "Praying is not as much talking to God as it is sharing his presence." In one of his prayers he offers: "David says that when he paints, Jesus, he is praying in his art. Is this true, Lord? If so, is it possible that Richard prays in his social work, and Henry when he edits his magazine, Ruth at her typewriter, or Stofer cleaning apartments?"

The acclaimed movie Chariots of Fire tells the true story of Eric Liddell, an austere Presbyterian, a 1924 Olympic champion who will ultimately devote his life to missionary service in China. His sister is dismissive of her famous brother's athletic endeavors, when the great sprinter exclaims to her in his lilting Scottish brogue, "When I run, Jenny, when run I feel God's pleasure!" Eric Liddell's running - a "prayer"?

In the lesson before us today, Paul says that "we don't know how to pray as we ought." Remember now, this isn't some goober, some ragamuffin, knucklehead wannabe Christian like myself pontificating. No, this is none other than Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee of the Pharisees, a man whose slavish devotion to observant Jewish piety, how such an obsessive religious commitment on his part, how it included in fact a life bathed in prayer. Only then, for Rabbi Saul, for him to have met the resurrected Christ in Christian faith and become the passionate Christian missionary Paul. Not that he ever knew the Jesus of history, but was, rather, tutored and mentored by the first Christian disciples, those first followers of Jesus. Having become, in his words, "the least of the apostles" - this is the guy whose letters comprise the primary sources in our Christian New Testament. Paul, the seminal interpreter, evangelist, and apologist of Christian faith and practice, of Christian believing and behaving.

As the spiritual, "There Is a Balm in Gilead" sings it, "If you cannot preach like Peter, If you cannot pray like Paul...." Here, in our lesson today, it is just such a revered pray-er who reminds us that we don't know how to do it, to "pray as we ought."

To which he adds, but God - as Holy Spirit - God prays in us and with us, through us and for us; that as Holy Spirit, God intercedes for us "in sighs too deep for words." In the Greek text, the term is literally "inarticulate groaning." In other words - according to the inspired insight of Paul, at least - our deepest, our most profound praying isn't necessarily to be found in however eloquent our expression or reflective our cognition, in words that we may utter or even thoughts that we may frame in our minds.

What do you think? Is it possible that God may work in and through, with and for, in spite of, as often as not, because of us? Even in our praying?

These days, I find myself talking about praying with two different kinds of people. One group are of the Christian variety, those who take praying pretty seriously. Often to the extent of fairly neurotically harassing themselves at not doing it (if you'll pardon the bad grammar), at not doing it good enough - praying.

So, I commonly remind these people that they are in good company, that they are welcome to join me and however many other well-meaning Christians with none other than the Apostle Paul himself; those of us whose praying would seem to fall short of whatever our expectations, as grandiose or otherwise. Remembering, all the while, Paul's reminder that God's strength is found finally in our weakness - even in our praying. That - as Holy Spirit - God is interceding for us, praying in and through, for and with, in spite of, as often as not, because of us.

The other group of people I introduce praying to - I say "introduce," it's because the last thing these folk are interested in is praying. Cursing or swearing, maybe, but hardly praying. These hard-core, so-called "secularists." "Who, me pray? It's been a long time, if ever. I wouldn't know where to start."

Except when I explain to such folk - and I actually have these kind of conversations - when I explain that in both the biblical languages of Hebrew and Greek, the words breath and spirit are essentially the same word. Such that even breathing can be understood as praying, at least in the way that Paul says it in this lesson today.

Not that this (or any other sermon for that matter) is meant to be a scientific explanation of the anatomy or the physiology of breathing. And if it were, I would hardly be the person to be delivering such scientific information. To say that God as Holy Spirit "breathes prayerfully" in, with, through, and for us - that is, rather, a theological statement, a moral and spiritual observation; in our case, a confession of Christian faith.

Even, parenthetically, even as it is just such a confession of Christian faith, at least on our part (as well as, for that matter, as well as Jewish and Muslim faith; indeed, our shared monotheistic, moral, and spiritual conviction) to declare that in any moment, with every breath we take, God is willing our lives into being. God "breathing" us to life. Or as that second Genesis creation story tells it (Genesis 2:7), "then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath, the Spirit of life; and man became a living being."

But back to Paul and this praying business: "for we do not know how to pray as we ought," he declares, "but the Spirit herself intercedes for us in sighs too deep for words." [For you Bible scholars, I translated that pronoun as "herself" because in Hebrew "spirit/breath" is feminine and in Greek it is neuter.]

Legend has it that over the door to his office, the famous Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung had inscribed this Latin phrase: Vocatus atque non vocatus deus aderit. Which translates into English, "Bidden or not bidden, God is present."

Is that so? What do you think? Do you believe that the power of love who is God - the God we Christians claim to know most and best in Jesus the Christ, the human face of God - that such a powerful way of loving is present to and for, with, in, through, and among us, "bidden or not bidden"? Even in our praying?

If that is so, we would do well then - wouldn't you think? - we would do well to pay attention to our breathing. For that may, after all, that may be our deepest and our most profound praying. At least according to Paul. God as Holy Spirit interceding for and with, in, through, and beyond any words that we might speak or even thoughts we might frame in our minds. As Paul puts it, in the "deep sighing" of our souls.

Is that what Paul may mean when he admonishes the Thessalonians (and us as well), when he admonishes us to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5:17)? To pray without ceasing for Christ's sake, to the glory of God. Amen.