Year A, Pentecost 7
The Book of Common Prayer is full of absolutely beautiful prayers. They are eloquent and theologically sound. They are often Biblically based. Some of these prayers can be found in our Sunday morning service, but certainly not all. If you only open it when you come to church on Sunday, you have probably only experienced about 10% of the prayers. As Episcopalians, and people of the book, we should never be at a loss for words, especially now that you can access the BCP on your phone.
I love these prayers and I know many of you do as well. But there are other Christians who find it a little strange that we read our prayers from a book. Many Christians find it inauthentic, as if we are only going through the motions. I can see that perspective. Sometimes we are going through the motions. Occasionally I will be reading a prayer and realize that I have been thinking about something else the whole time. Yet when you are composing a prayer…it’s pretty hard for your mind to wander. If it did, it would be pretty obvious.
There is no right way to pray. The Apostle Paul (who was never at a loss for words) wrote to the Roman community: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” When I think of a sigh, I think of something rather dignified, something that would be totally appropriate in an Episcopal Church. However, most translations use the word groaning instead of sigh. That sounds a lot less dignified. That sounds like someone in pain, or at least very frustrated. If the person next to you were sighing, you would probably be ok with that. If they were groaning, well that might get a little awkward. You might find yourself sliding in the opposite direction.
It is not really clear in the text whether the Spirit is groaning on our behalf, or if our literal groans are the work of the Spirit. It might not matter. Personally I would much rather have the Spirit groan on my behalf as I read an eloquent and theologically correct prayer. Since there is no right way to pray, I think God would probably be ok with that method. However, I worry when prayer feels too dignified. For me, when my prayers have felt the most authentic and the most powerful were when they came out with tears and sometimes anger. There has been occasional teeth gnashing, foot stomping. Sometimes my prayers come out in laughter and tears of joy. These seem to be the ones that change me the most.
This does not mean that those other prayers that lacked laughter, tears or stomping have not been true or real. They absolutely have been. In fact, I think it is those prayers that prepare us for the prayers that come out as groans. Those prayers equip us with a sacred vocabulary, even if we choose not to use it. Those prayers are what we come back to when the storm is over and we find ourselves exhausted. It is those times when it is all you can do to even read the words in front of you…but you do because that’s what you need right at that moment.
Some interpret this passage as Paul not only saying that we do not know how to pray, but we do not even know what to pray. If God searches our heart and can interpret those spirit sighs…it is only God who knows what we are praying for. I find that a tad annoying. I should have some say in what I am praying for. Otherwise, why use any words at all? It’s not that we do not determine our own prayer; we just don’t always know what is in our head. Sometimes our deepest needs and desires get stuck in our heart and never make it to the part of us that formulates the words. Thankfully, God is there searching our heart…learning every nook and cranny so we can become the Christian we are meant to be.
What is our part in this complicated word scramble? If God is searching our heart and the spirit is groaning on our behalf it would seem that we could live our life and not have to worry about God or faith. It’s as if we outsourced our prayer life to people who can do it more effectively than us. There is one tiny problem with that scenario. There appear to be some hearts that God and the spirit just don’t have access to. Sure, God could shove his way through like a big bouncer at a club, but that’s not God’s style. Jesus never operated that way. Jesus never forced himself on people. He invited them to follow him. He invited them to come a little closer. God has delivered an invitation to each one of us, but we have not all responded. Perhaps like a good Episcopalian you are thinking, well of course I responded….when I was in confirmed (5, 20, 40, 60 years ago).
It would be nice if it were that easy. But it’s not a one and done type deal. You can’t invite God in and ignore him. Sometimes you need to invite God in over and over again. I imagine that most of us have had those times in our lives when our heart has gotten a little closed off and we have shoved God out . Often it is more subtle than a shove. We just did not have time for God. There are other demands on us and God can be a pretty high maintenance house guest. He’s got a lot of demands and that might get in the way of our social life, job, sports, or the Desperate House Wives marathon.
That is where weekly worship or even written prayers come in handy. We need a reminder—a constant reminder of who we are as Christians. We might not have the discipline to read the Bible every day. We might be too emotionally spent even to groan. So we come back to this service, not just for solace but for strength. It reminds me of that phrase, “fake it until you make it.” It sounds insincere, but I think there might be something to it. Even for a priest, there are times when I do not want to come to church, when I don’t feel like I have the strength to say prayers and sing the hymns. It is those times when I am so grateful that I have this tradition of prayers and worship, and a community of people to worship with. There are no excuses not to pray. The prayers are right there in front of me.
And maybe there are moments, I have a hard time believing every prayer. But I know that God is still there working through every nook and cranny of my heart ensuring that the Spirit is there to translate my groans into heartfelt prayer. Because the more I read the prayers, the more I believe them and the more I feel them. I believe that is true for all of us. There will be times when it is really hard to pray, really hard to believe the things we pray. It is those times when it is even more important to show up, to open your heart, open your mouth and let God take it from there.