Sermon: Dear God...

15 October 2006

Rev. Jennifer Whipple
Congregational Church of Brookfield
Dear God…
Romans 8:26-28
Matthew 7:7-11

            Dear God, please let me have a new teddy bear or Barbie.  Dear God, please give me a little brother or sister.  Dear God, please let me pass this test.  Dear God, please let me marry Mike Escobales.

            These were all prayers that I prayed in honesty and innocence as a young child and adolescent.  Depending on what part of my prayer my parents heard, I did get a new Barbie the next holiday that rolled around.  I never did get a little brother or sister.  I don’t remember ever failing a test.  And, although Mike was quite handsome and kind, I must admit that I am happy God answered that prayer by sending Ryan into my life instead.

            I think it is because of the honesty and innocence that we tend to have at the center of who we are when we are younger that it is easy to pray the things that are on our hearts.  But it seems so much more difficult to pray as we grow older, as our lives become more complex, as it takes more self-examination to really figure out what is on and in our hearts to begin with.  I think that is why so many people when asked to pray say that they don’t know why or where to pray or what to say.  I chose this topic to preach on today for two reasons.  The first of which is that because over the next few weeks Dave will be preaching about the Lord’s Prayer.  The Lord’s Prayer is one of the prayers that many of us may have learned at a young age.  It is a prayer that gives us comfort and connects us one to another as we pray it in unison on Sunday mornings, just as it connects us with other people of the Christian faith throughout the world.  It is a prayer that connects us despite our differences, no matter what age we are.  In fact one of the things I find refreshing here is that we pray the Lord’s Prayer together before the children leave for Church School …generations praying together.  But what happens when we don’t have set words for prayer?  What happens when someone asks us to pray out loud?  What happens when people urge us to pray in order to stay connected with God throughout the week, once we leave the comfort and walls of this community and this place?

            As a pastor I am asked to pray at all different occasions…to say an opening prayer at committee meetings, to pray grace at wedding receptions, to pray with people on visits in their homes.  It seems like the moment I announced to people that I was going to Divinity School they automatically assumed that I had some kind of heart-line to God, a direct connect, if you will.  My own grandmother says that it’s a good thing they decided to ordain me so that God will hear our family’s prayers a little louder.  The true fact of the matter is that, although I still get a bit nervous praying in a group of people, I was scared to death the first time and many times following that people asked me to pray.  It was as if the simplicity of the prayers that I had prayed as a child no longer worked, but I hadn’t made the leap to the realm of “adult prayer” yet either. 

I am not sure whether it is because we hear so much about the things we are supposed to pray about, the blessings, the confessions, the needs & wants, the things that are going on in our world; or how we are supposed to pray.  Or if it is because we haven’t heard enough about it, that most people I encounter would rather run a marathon in high heels than pray out loud whether in public or in the privacy of their own homes.  It is as if, as one pastor put it, prayer is a foreign language to us.  Is it because there are too many expectations or because we just don’t know where to start?  Is it because we are afraid of what might come up, of what might be uncovered in our private prayers with God, or because we are afraid of being empty?

           The definition of prayer that works best for me is that prayer is an open, honest, and on-going conversation with God.  It can happen any time and in any place.  And we converse in so many ways in our world, especially nowadays.  We converse face-to-face.  We converse verbally over the phone.  For people who are unable to speak they converse with their hands or through writing.  For some people they are able to convey an entire message to someone with whom they are connected in just a look.  There are so many ways that we find to have a conversation with other people, and yet when it comes to God, the one from whom we come, the one who has searched us and knows us completely, that we can’t seem to find either the courage or the right words.

           In order to be ordained in the UCC each person needs to take part in a program called clinical pastoral education, which is a chaplaincy internship.  I worked full-time at Griffin Hospital in Derby for a summer.  I covered the nursery, blessing new babies, the mobile health unit, doing spirituality surveys with people who came to have their BP checked in the Winnebago at Stop & Shop, and I covered a regular post-surgical/inpatient floor.  For a while I avoided a man named John.  I wasn’t a big fan of hospitals to begin with, and, in an age when most people don’t stay in the hospital for more than 2 or 3 days, he had been there for 30 days when we arrived for our training.  By the time I mustered up the courage to speak with him, John had been in the hospital for 42 days.  I came to find out that he had a condition called neuromyopathy in which his brain’s messages weren’t getting to the right places, and his muscles were deteriorating.  He couldn’t walk.  He couldn’t really move his hands.  He could barely move his arms.  John was just shy of 41-years-old when I met him.  I remember praying for him the first day, a prayer praising God for the blessings of life, which was meaningless to someone like John…and realizing that I had a lot to learn. 

 The person who helped me learn the most important thing I have come to know about prayer was my supervisor, Jo Clare.  I explained to her how I was feeling about my time with John and especially about praying for him.  She said the following to me, “Jen, perhaps praying with John didn’t feel right because it wasn’t honest.  It isn’t where John’s heart and feelings are.  It isn’t where your heart and feelings are about the fact that this 41-year-old man is laid up in bed and may never really be able to move again or do anything for himself.  When you see him tomorrow really listen to what he is saying and feeling,” she said.  “Really listen to what your heart is telling you.  Then pray those things.  Prayer needs to be honest, because God knows our hearts anyway.  God knows the words that are there, and God knows when we aren’t being honest.”  So the next day, I went back and sat with John and listened to the things in his heart and listened to the things in my heart, then we prayed.  The prayer John and I prayed together this time was honest.  It was true.  It shared with God the confusion we both felt, the fact that John, a man of deep faith, was angry and finding it hard to love God and feel God’s blessing.  We also shared a prayer for the nurses and doctors who were working with John to give them the knowledge and skill to help John recover as much as possible.  After that prayer, John didn’t look at me like I was crazy, rather we hugged each other. 

 Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, “We don’t know how to pray as we ought.  So the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs to deep for words.”  Have you ever witnessed a gorgeous sunset and just sighed in awe and wonder?  Have you ever had a time in your life so difficult that you were literally driven crying to your knees?  The argument can be made that those are both prayers, legitimate, honest, and open prayers…allowing God to truly know what it is that is being felt and shared at those moments, whether through words or not.  The Spirit intercedes for us, giving us the words to describe the feelings, the confessions, the petitions, the hopes.  Honest and open words that help God to know that we long for that special connection with our Creator in the good times and the bad, in our joys and in our struggles, the connection that brings us peace.  If God knows what is on our minds and hearts anyway, then who are we to try to censor what it is that we are most joyous or worried or hopeful about?

               The other concern that I hear and sometimes feel is that when I pray, “Dear God…” sometimes it doesn’t seem like God answers.  Have any of you seen the movie “Under the Tuscan Sun”?  It is a movie, a chick flick as some would call it, in which Diane Lane stars.  Her character, Frances , is just divorced and decides to take a trip to Italy , where she ends up buying her dream house on a whim, hoping that it will be the start of a much better life for her.  Much like these stories go, the house has problems.  The water doesn’t work.  There are holes in the walls.  The yard needs a good deal of TLC.  Frances prays as soon as she moves in that someday there would be a wedding, the cries of a new baby, and a growing family at that house.  Throughout the movie there are of course a series of mishaps.  She has a Polish work crew come to make the repairs in her house, the youngest of whom falls in love with the girl next door, whose parents don’t approve.  Frances ’s pregnant friend comes over from the United States to live with her after her own break-up.  Frances meets people and builds relationships, some of which thrive and some of which fall through.  There are the eccentric characters every movie needs.  And at the end, there are the cries of her friend’s new baby, the wedding of the Polish worker and the young Italian beauty, a holiday spent with her new very blended family.  You come to realize while watching the movie that the prayers Frances said in the beginning were for herself, and although the answers that she received were not the ones she had perhaps wished and prayed for in the beginning; they all came true in their own way.   They were not the exact answers she had wanted, but the ones God gave her…the ones God realized she needed and would be best for her.

Jesus says, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.  For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”  In these words of wisdom, Jesus is encouraging all people to pray…to pray without ceasing, to pray with our whole lives.  To ask, to seek, and to knock…to pray and to listen, to spend time in silence and in reverence awaiting God’s answer.  Jesus continues to say that just as we would not give anything to our children that would harm them why would God give any of us, God’s children, an answer to prayer that would harm us?  God cares for us, and God answers our prayers.  The catch is that, just like Frances in the movie, not all of our prayers are answered in the ways that we might want them to be, but rather in the way God knows we need for them to be. 

The other reason I chose to preach about this particular topic today is because of the Leadership Workshop we held here at the end of September.  At the end of the workshop we did a Bible Study in small groups, in which we each had to pray out loud for the person sitting next to us.  It was a powerful thing for me as a pastor to hear the voices of 7 other people praying for their brothers and sisters in Christ.  And the person who prayed for me came up to me afterwards and said that she had never prayed out loud before, let alone in a group.  It was an amazing thing for me, a gift, to be lifted up in open and honest prayer.  And to know that it took extreme courage for that person to do so made it even more special for me. 

I think in the realm of prayer, whether you pray every single day in your own way, or if you have never really prayed, even in the privacy of your own home, as Dr. Spock says, “You know more than you think you do.”  We make it a difficult task for ourselves if we think that prayer can only be lifted up in eloquent words and poetic imagery.  If we think that we need to have some special connection to God or some special knowledge.  If we think that petitions can only be answered in one way.

Rather the challenge is to be true and honest, to use our everyday words, to share the deepest desires, fears, confessions, and thanks…and then to listen and to wait for God’s response.  Mother Theresa once said, “God speaks in the silence of the heart. Listening is the beginning of prayer.”  Just as in everything else, we need to leave room in the realm of prayer for the Spirit to guide us, to give us the words, to dry the tears, to encourage the laughter, to connect us to the Source. 

Dear God, may we all accept this challenge, know that you know us in the deepest places of our hearts, and through open and honest prayer bring ourselves into closer relationship with you.  Amen.

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