I remember when I was training to be a pastor and working as a chaplain in a hospital as part of my requirement. My “congregation” was one floor in the hospital, and that consisted of the Intermediate Care Unit where the folks who weren’t sick enough for ICU but still needed more care than a regular room were cared for. On that floor was a gentleman whose heart was failing. He had been in the hospital for several months awaiting a transplant. I had visited him several times over the course of my training, and I won’t forget the second to the last visit I had with him.
After our conversation, I asked him if there was anything he would like me to pray for, and he responded, “I really am not trying to be selfish, but I would like for you to pray that I receive a new heart.” I gladly prayed for such a thing. In less than 24 hours, he did indeed receive a new heart.
I spoke with my supervisor, a seminary professor about this event, and he pointedly asked me, “Do you think that your prayer worked to get him a new heart?”
I paused before my response. Whenever you deal with seminary professors, there is oftentimes the answer you want to say, the answer that the professor wants to hear, and several variations of that. At this particular time, I wanted to make sure that I gave the answer the professor wanted to hear because I was in no mood for a long theological discussion. The deepest part of me wanted to answer, “Yes, indeed my prayer made a difference.” But I was quite sure that the conversation that followed would not be fun. And so I said, “I don’t know.” I figured that was the safest bet, and indeed it was. We moved on from there rather quickly.
But as I reflect upon this scenario, I can faithfully say: I hope that my prayer was not responsible for this gentleman receiving that heart. You may scratch your heads in wonder that I am saying that, but hear me out. For you see, in order for that patient to receive his heart, a local husband and father lost his life on I-35 in a tragic car accident. Would any of you like to think that your prayer caused someone to lose his life so that someone else could benefit and live? Would you like it on your conscience that your prayer caused a wife to lose her husband and children to lose their father? I don’t. Not in the least.
And yet, yet wasn’t it the compassionate thing to pray for the patient to receive a heart? What do you do? How do you pray for such a thing? What if you are thrust into a situation where someone needs a kidney, heart, or lung transplant and someone must die for the other person to live? How do you pray? What do you pray for? Sometimes, prayer is a difficult prospect, and we need help understanding it and practicing it.
Let us now pray. Heavenly Father, you have called your people to be people of prayer. Jesus prayed. Jesus taught His disciples to pray. But what do we do when faced with such difficulties? What do we do when words fail us? If we are to be your disciples, teach us indeed how to pray. Amen.
Prayer is one of those interesting subjects that even science has dabbled in. They have set up studies to see if prayer “works.” They have set aside two sets of subjects–who as best as they can are similar, and have one set prayed for while the other not prayed for. Setting aside the ethics of the matter–I mean what do you say, “Oh, we are praying for you and not for you. If you die, too bad.”–the end game is to study the results; to see if somehow prayer brings about healing or what have you. I can remember when I first started out in my trek to become a pastor that some of the studies that had been done showed that prayer was indeed effective. However, since that time, there have been other studies which showed that prayer was not effective, and in some cases, those who were prayed for had worse outcomes than those who were not prayed for.
Fundamentally, these studies miss the mark because they treat prayer as some sort of giant, cosmic, candy machine. You put the prayer in. You hope you use the right amount of currency. You kick, shake, and rattle the machine, and you hope that something comes out. Of course, you might get one of those plastic balls that when you open it up has a little piece of paper in it that says either yes, no, or you’ve got to be kidding me. This is not the purpose or reason for prayer.
In fact, as I have learned more and more about prayer, I have come to understand that prayer fundamentally isn’t about changing the circumstances around my life or the lives of others. I have come to understand that prayer isn’t fundamentally about getting a particular desired outcome. Prayer is something we participate in to show our utter and total dependence on God. Prayer is something we turn to so that we acknowledge that we are powerless to affect certain situations and that we place our trust in a higher source and power.
Fundamentally, this is at the heart of the prayer that Jesus taught His followers to pray. We recite it every Sunday and we commonly call it the Lord’s Prayer. It begins, Our Father, or our Daddy who is in heaven. The prayer begins that we are addressing someone beyond ourselves, and yet someone who we are extremely intimate with. Like children who go before their parents and ask and talk, we go before God.
Hallowed be thy name. We acknowledge that God is fundamentally set apart from us and from all other false gods. And then we get into the true dependence on our part in the prayer.
Thy kingdom come. Can any of us fundamentally bring about God’s kingdom in full? Can any of us make God’s rule happen here? No. We acknowledge that we are dependent upon Him to bring His kingdom to us.
Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. We are asking here that God make heaven come down to earth. Can any one of us do this fully? Sure, there are times when we can make things better here, but can we bring about what it means to ultimately be in God’s presence? No. That again, is up to God alone, and we express our dependence on Him.
Give us this day our daily bread. Can any of us make a seed grow? Can we produce life? Can we manufacture the things we need to survive? No. These things all originate with God, and we simply help after the process gets started. Again, our dependence goes back to God.
Forgive us our trespasses. Here again we acknowledge our inability to make ourselves right with God. We are fallen and in need of forgiveness. We cannot overcome our debt to God without His forgiveness.
As we forgive those who trespass against us. How easy is it to forgive someone who has hurt you? For minor things, maybe relatively easy, but for those who have been sexually or physically abused; for those who have had a loved one murdered; for those who have been lied to continually and a host of other things, forgiveness does not come easy in the least. We must have our hearts changed so that we can forgive others, and that comes when we first realize we have been forgiven. Therefore, in order for us to forgive, we are dependent upon God’s grace.
And lead us not into temptation. Temptation bombards us at all points. We are tempted to think of ourselves more highly than we should. We are tempted to make all sorts of things into our god. We are tempted by sex, money, power, fame and status. We need protection, and we recognize our dependence upon God for that protection.
And deliver us from evil. Evil too lurks, and we are almost powerless to resist it. If a gunman walked into this church right now, we would be at his mercy. I mean, maybe some of you are packing heat and have concealed carry licences, but I don’t. I would have to appeal to God for protection and deliverance because I would be powerless in its face. Most of us are, and we recognize this with this petition.
For thine is the Kingdom and the power and the glory. Again, we acknowledge that all belongs to God. All. We are dependent upon Him in totality for all things.
This prayer is a model of what prayer is. We are dependent upon God for everything, and in prayer we acknowledge this. When we are faced with difficult situations, we acknowledge that we need God’s guidance. When we are faced with a troublesome medical diagnoses, we go to God recognizing our need for His healing. We submit ourselves to His power and His authority. Almost every prayer could be summed up in the words, “Thy will be done!” Prayer is not a candy machine where we are trying to manipulate God to give us a certain outcome. It is instead recognizing that we have no control and place ourselves into the care of our Creator.
But even if we acknowledge this, we are still at a loss sometimes of how to pray. How do you pray for someone who needs a lung or heart transplant? How do you pray when you enter into a situation when words fail? What if the Lord’s prayer doesn’t immediately address a particular situation? What do you say? How can you avoid coming across as selfish?
Here is where prayer becomes fascinating–at least as I read today’s lesson from Romans chapter 8. It’s just two verses, but they are profound in what they say and in their implications for our prayer lives as Christians.
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness;
This introductory phrase is important because of the word that is used for help. The word in Greek is only used one other time in the New Testament in Luke chapter 10 when Jesus is visiting his friends Mary and Martha. Mary is sitting listening to Jesus while Martha is preparing a meal. Martha gets angry at Mary’s perceived laziness and says to Jesus, “Lord, make Mary help me.” The word means, essentially, “I’m doing my part, now get her to do her part.” Paul says here that we have a part in prayer, but the Spirit comes and does its part to assist us.
But why do we need assistance? “...for we do not know how to pray as we ought.” This goes back to my original story about the heart transplant. How do you pray in that kind of situation? Do you pray for someone to die so that another can live? That’s tough. It’s also tough to think deeply about why we pray for others. Most of the time, I have a kind heart. I hate to see people in pain. I hate to see suffering. So, when someone asks me to pray because they have lost a job, are suffering from illness, are grieving, or are going through a rough stretch, I gladly offer up petitions. But why? Yes, it’s part of my job. Yes, because I know it’s the right thing to do. But I know deep within that one of the reasons I pray is selfish. I don’t want to see people suffer. I want them to be happy. If we take some time to reflect upon some of our prayers, I think we can see that selfishness come through as well. It’s there when as kids we pray for certain toys or for God to hurt the school bully. It’s there as adults when we pray that God will let us win the lottery–because you know I will use the money to do good. So, there is some selfishness to our prayers. And there is also those times when we just don’t know what to say. There are times when we are confronted with something too overwhelming–too emotional that we cannot even begin to form the words. We are at a complete and total loss. What do we say? What do we do? When we mix our motivations and needs with the messiness of life, we don’t know how to pray.
“... but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” Here is the good news. The Holy Spirit takes our prayer. In a sense you could say that it intercepts our prayer, and then it begins its work. It begins to transform our prayers. It begins to mold them and make them into something else. It begins to intercede for us. To pray for us. Because we don’t know how to pray fully, the Spirit helps–does its part and transforms our prayers to bring them before God the Father.
“27And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” What Paul says here should be terrifying and comforting at the same time. For Paul speaks about the God who searches the heart. The word used here for searches gives the impression of someone taking a lighted torch and going into the darkest parts of a cave and shining a light. This is what God does in our hearts–even as we pray. If you think about what He discovers down there–that can be terrifying. But, remember there is the Spirit also interceding. There is the Spirit transforming those things–transforming your thoughts into holy thoughts. There is the Spirit transforming those prayers that are really about your will and turning them into prayers for God’s will. There is the Spirit making your prayers acceptable to God when you don’t know how to pray.
This is a mirror of what Jesus does for us as He makes us acceptable before God. Both Jesus and the Spirit are in the transformation business. For just as we do not pray as we ought, we also do not live as we ought. Confronted with the reality of life and God’s holy Law, we know that we fail to live up to it. We know we don’t follow it completely. We know that we don’t even follow the laws of our land as we should. But Christ intercedes for us. Christ takes our unholiness upon Himself, and He gives us His holiness. He dies for our sins, so that we might have abundant life. He takes our imperfect lives and makes them perfect–not because of who we are, but because of who He is and His love for us. This is what we call grace. Jesus bestows grace in life. The Spirit bestows grace in prayer.
So, what does this mean? What are the implications of Jesus’ transformation and the Spirit’s transformation? It means we can be bold and be at peace. We don’t have to live a perfect life to be accepted by God. We don’t have to be paralyzed by trying to figure out exactly what we are supposed to do at every single juncture of life. We can count on the transformative power of Jesus to work even when we mess up. We do not have to be paralyzed by the fear of failure. Likewise, we can be bold in our prayers. We don’t have to wonder what to say. In fact, during those times we can’t put words together, guess who is already praying on our behalf? Guess who is transforming our silence into an acceptable prayer before God? Go to God and pray. Say whatever you need to say. The Spirit is interceding. Go out and live for God. Don’t be paralyzed by always trying to figure out the right thing. Jesus is interceding. Start doing. Start praying. You have heavenly help.
Let’s pray. Gracious God, you can take our weakest attempts to do your will and you can take our weakest attempts at prayer and make them acceptable. You can take our falling down and make something good come out of it. You can take our fumbling words and make them into the most beautiful poetry. Remind us of the work of Jesus. Remind us of the work of the Spirit so that we can be bold in living our lives and praying our prayers. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.