Why do you pray? What is it that you hope to accomplish in your prayers? Lately, prayer has gotten a bit of a bad rap in social media and in culture. Whenever there has been a mass shooting, we all talk about our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families. What do we think about those who say our “thoughts and prayers” aren’t worth much?
I can remember a day shortly after Danny was born, sitting in my living room praying. We were waiting for the results of Danny’s tests that would tell us whether he had Downs syndrome or not. He was still in the Neonatal intensive care unit being treated for pneumonia. I remember sitting there, scared as any parent would be, and saying to God, “if anyone can heal my son, I know that you can.” I’m sure there were lots of other words too. Bargains made, promises promised… we’ve all been there. A few days later, Danny’s test results came back positive for Down Syndrome. He was finally released from the hospital with an appointment for cardiology and genetics. Like all kids, he did not come with an owner’s manual. If ever a kid NEEDED an owner’s manual it was this kid. People would say (and still say) that God chose us to be Danny’s parents, and all I can say to that is, “I hope God has more sense than that”.
So, what about my prayers that night? One might say that they weren’t answered. That is perhaps fair enough… but here’s what I would say… I think they were answered, but they were answered over a long period of time, and are still being answered. I still pray for my children. What I think happened in my prayers for Danny that night is that I was given what I needed to be his mom, and that even though he was born with Down syndrome, I was able to grow into the role of being his mother. He has been in need of healing his whole life, and I hope that at least some of the time, he has received that healing from my actions. Lord knows that kid doesn’t make it easy.
Honestly, none of us make any of it easy. And there is an important piece of the prayers said for Danny. Those prayers weren’t just words; they were certainly words, words that I have repeated over and over again over the years. But there’s more. In praying those words, I think a few things happen. First, I think the prayers help me to understand God; the deeper the prayers, the deeper the relationship with God. Our life’s work is to deepen our relationship with God. There is always more and more to know and to understand. Faith doesn’t stand still. I also think that even though God knows what is on my heart whether I say it or not, in the act of saying it God is aware that this is something that is of great importance to me. And, here’s the thing; prayer changes us. It certainly changes me. As I become more aware of God, and God knows what is on my heart and mind, things inside me change. I become more open to God’s voice and actions in my life; I become more aware of those I am praying for. Then, hopefully, something else happens. Hopefully, I am moved by the Holy Spirit praying within me to take some kind of concrete action. Maybe that action is to continue praying, but it also may be something more concrete.
That’s where the critics have us, I think when it comes to “thoughts and prayers”. Thoughts and prayers are a very good thing; we should be praying and thinking about the issues that surround us. I think though, that there has to come a time when our prayers should move us to some sort of action. In our parable today, the “unjust judge” finally relents and grants the widow the justice she seeks. I imagine her in her home day after day praying to God about her situation. When she finally gets up the courage to engage the judge, it takes her several meetings to get the judge to listen to her complaint and do something. Her persistence pays off in the long run. Perhaps our prayers work like that; not that God needs convincing, but maybe we do. Perhaps it’s in the persistent praying and asking that we are changed from petitioner to actor. Perhaps it is in that change that our prayers are somehow answered. I think of it as our finally dropping our self imposed protections against the Holy Spirit in us. That the Spirit praying in us helps us to do the kinds of things that make “thoughts and prayers” something real.
In our Sunday bible study, we have spent a lot of time talking about faith and action – we see in scripture that our faith needs to be attached to works; without works faith can just become meaningless words that we say in order to look good. Yet when we look at God especially in the life of Jesus, what we see is action; when we say “God is Love” or “Jesus is Love incarnate” what we mean is that God’s love, Jesus’ very life, is active, making things happen for God’s people even now. How do we know if the actions we take are the right ones? That’s a really great question, and one we all need to take seriously. We have to spend time in prayer discerning what is God’s will and what isn’t. We have to discern our real reasons for the actions we are taking; if the action brings us accolades and power, maybe we need to rethink it. But the short answer is, does what we propose doing show God’s love? As our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, is fond of saying, “If it’s not about Love, it’s not about God”. If you and I are moved to act in the world, is it about love? And by love we don’t mean the kind of feelings that make us feel good; love is hard. Love is work. Sometimes love will take us to the cross, just as it took Jesus to the cross. In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed. Boy, did he pray. In that prayer he gained the strength he needed to act in love. May our prayers be persistent enough to change us to act in love.