Hespeler, 18 November, 2018 © Scott McAndless
Matthew 6:5-8, James 2:14-17, Psalm 138

hy pray? That seems to be a question that people ask with increasing urgency these days. We are living in a time when “thoughts and prayers” have become a very unfortunate cliché. Every time there is a tragedy, every time a gunman walks into a school and opens fire or a man walks into a synagogue and starts mowing people down, it has become a part of the national liturgy.

     Political leaders, celebrities and religious officials send out their Facebook messages and tweets: “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims.” And people have caught on. They have recognized that “thoughts and prayers” has become a kind of a code – a code that seems to mean, “Let’s not do anything and, for God’s sake let’s not change anything just because some tragedy has occurred. Instead let us say something that makes it seem like we care.” It is amazing to see, but we are to be living in a time when praying for something, for many people, has become a synonym for doing nothing. And so, yes, people are asking, “Well then, why pray?”

  I’ll tell you I have certainly changed my own personal reaction to tragedies. Yes, I may pray as seems appropriate, but I now certainly think twice before posting anywhere that I am doing so because people now often read that as me just brushing off the tragedy.

     Even good, practic­ing Christians, for whom prayer is an essential part of their spiritual life, can’t help but ask the question from time to time. I mean, look at what Jesus says this morning in our reading from the gospel: When you are praying,” he says “do not heap up empty phrases… for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” How can you read that and not ask the question, “Why should I bother praying if God already knows what I need, what I’m going to say and has probably already decided what he’s going to do about it anyway? Why pray?”
     These are just a couple of the reasons why the practice of prayer seems to have fallen into some disfavour in our times. But the problem, I suspect, is not with the practice itself but with our misunderstanding of the true nature of prayer. We live in a capitalist and consumer society. For that reason, I think that we have a strong tendency to understand just about everything in those terms. That is why we tend to think of prayer as a transaction – as something that we give in order to get something in return. And so we come to God and try to butter God up with our praise and worship, we may even make some vows and promises, and then, in return, we think we can at least hope that we have made God happy enough that he will give us what we ask for. But is that what prayer is?
     Prayer, in our thinking, is like a vending machine. You put in your money (or these days you tap your credit card), push a few buttons and you hope that you get what you asked for. Of course, some of us may experience prayer as a broken vending machine – one that doesn’t always seem to get what we want right – but it is a vending machine nonetheless.
     But I don’t think that is right. I think that Jesus is telling us that that is not what prayer is because, even while he tells us that God already knows what we need before we ask it, Jesus doesn’t suggest, even for a moment, that there is no point in asking. He sees value in the activity itself and it is a value that goes beyond the transaction that we tend to think of.
     But what is there beyond that transaction? There is, I think, conversation. When I pray and bring to my God the things that are on my heart or that are on the hearts of the people I pray for, I absolutely agree with what Jesus says – that I hardly need to tell God about those things in order for God to know them. God already knows them. But I also recognize a great value in speaking these things aloud – of saying them to God even if I do not dare to say them to anyone else. I need to vocalize them, I need to put those longings into words because I honestly sometimes don’t even realize what it is that I desire before I say it.
     I mean, who among us hasn’t done that? You go to a trusted friend who you want to help you with a problem that has been bothering you and the first thing you have to do is put that problem into words and as soon as you do so, you can actually see for yourself what the solution is. For example, I once had someone come to me with an ethical problem at work. A co-worker was doing something that was actually endangering the lives of some people and he wanted to know whether he should report it – what he should do. But here is the thing, by the time he had finished describing the dilemma, it was pretty clear he knew what he needed to do. He didn’t really need to be told. He maybe needed some encouragement but the answer was clear and all he really needed to do was put it all in words for someone. I just happened to be that safe someone. Prayer sometimes works exactly like that and God is only too happy to play that role in the conversation.
     But beyond conversation is something even more essential to the practice of prayer: there is participation. Prayer is not like the vending machine. It is not a transaction. When you ask God for something in prayer, God doesn’t just give it, God is more likely to say, “Wow, what an amazing and good thing to ask for, how can we make that happen together? That is the point that James is trying to get across when he says, If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”
     I know that he is talking specifically about faith there, but what is prayer if it not a spoken expression of faith? God doesn’t merely grant the requests of our prayers, God enters into the journey towards the answer to that prayer. That is why the politician who sends out “thoughts and prayers” after a tragedy without having any intention of doing anything to change anything is not actually praying at all and may, in fact, have done nothing at all. It is also why prayer is a dangerous act because, when you truly pray and ask God for something good, God is only too likely to ask you to be a part of the fulfillment of that prayer.
     Why pray? There are many good reasons to pray. It is not fancy language or delivery that makes a prayer acceptable and effective. It is not length or frequency. But if we can make our prayers a conversation with God where we bring our whole selves to that conversation, if we can make our prayers a participation in what God is already doing and wants to do in the world, prayer actually can change the world. And that is why we pray.

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