In Michael Crichton’s novel Timeline, a group of graduate students on a dig in Europe go back in time to the original setting of the site they are presently excavating. Mad scientists have equipped them with earpieces that translate the old English they hear people speaking from its original phonology into something that the students can recognize. There is, however, a slight delay, much like when t.v. anchors situated in New York “talk” to reporters located in Baghdad. In the novel, this delay causes almost as many problems as what actually passes between the moderns and the ancients in the course of their conversations.
Anyone who has tried to figure out why a child is crying or struggled to find the right words to apologize to a friend or to express one’s love and devotion to someone can appreciate that learning to talk to each other is harder than it looks. If it is this difficult for us to talk to each other, it should not be surprising to find out that there are many stories in the Bible about us learning to talk to God.
Truth be told, I pray more often like the proto-patriarch Abraham than like Jesus. Abraham’s first prayer to God was in response to God offering out of nowhere to give him miles and miles of land for his own possession. Most of us would have said, “I don’t know which god you are but thank you!” Not Abraham. He says, “How do I know that I will actually possess what you say?” To our Christian sensibilities, perhaps, we are surprised that no lightning strikes him.
The next prayer we get from Abraham is in response to God promising to give him a son. Does he say, “Wow! That would be great. So far, in the 85 years we’ve been trying, we’ve had no luck.”? No! He says, “How is that going to happen? I’m 100. Sarah’s 99. Besides which, technically I’ve already got a son, albeit with my wife’s maid. Can’t you just accept him?” Whoa. Yet, still, so sign of lightning.
So, it is not completely surprising that when Abraham overhears God talking to the three angels who had just finished visiting him and his wife, and learns of his plans to destroy the whole town of Sodom, to just wipe it off the map, he wants to talk about that, as well.
So we start out with 50, then 45, then 40, then 30, then 20, finally settling on 10. For the sake of ten innocent people, God agrees to spare the city. In the end, apparently there weren’t even ten, and so Abraham takes the ones he can find and gets them out of the city before God destroys it.
Strangely, however, when God tells Abraham to take his only son Isaac and offer him to God as a burnt offering, the text gives us no indication of what, if anything, Abraham says to God. We cannot make an argument from silence, however. The truth is that most of the time when the Bible indicates that someone “prayed”, we have no information about the substance of those prayers. In fact, in the instance, for example, of Hannah who spent her annual visit to the Temple praying earnestly, the high priest, overhearing her, accused her of being drunk.
When the Bible provides only scant information about a subject, it leaves lots of room for the Spirit to move through the broad outline and down through the centuries with imaginative possibilities. This is a good thing for us, certainly as the phenomenon pertains to prayer. Leaving us room to be real ensures that our communication to God, through better or worse, is an essential part of an authentic relationship. It, along with what happens at the altar and the careful research that goes into our music, keeps Christian worship from being little more than a Humanist Community meeting.
The backstory of Abraham’s prayer for Sodom helps us understand the disciples’ request that Jesus show them how to pray. John had apparently taught his disciples a certain kind of prayer. Still thinking of Jesus as maybe just another John, the disciples are anxious to know what his prayer is. What Jesus offers is both a sample prayer and a structure for prayer. It includes praise, purpose, physical needs, spiritual needs, and protection followed by a parable and a promise about prayer.
It is ironic that in our denomination where perhaps our most idiosyncratic symbol is the Book of Common Prayer, our theology actually makes room for imaginative variations, and we are even invited to use the forms offered as basic ingredients for a flavorful feast rather than a monotonous diet of frozen entrees. True, we are pretty uncomfortable with extemporaneous praying in public. It feels risky and likely to follow a wild tangent. But privately we make frequent opportunities for taking such risks and racing down wild tangents in order to open our souls to God, whether we are furious, heartsick, frantic, or deeply confused.
Both the poetry and gravity of one of the lines from Jesus’ prayer speaks to the prayer’s capacity to communicate our deepest angst to God. “Do not lead us to the time of trial and deliver us from evil” sounds like this: va-al tivianu li-day m’sah ki im hazileynu min harah. The first part – va-al tivianu li-day m’sah – asks that God not allow us to get near the hands of Masah. Masah is a reference to the location in the wilderness journey where, as Moses led the people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land, things went horribly wrong. It was at Masah where, in a moment of great despair, the Hebrew people were so distraught that they said to Moses — their deliverer — ‘we wish we had never left Egypt!’ The second part – ki im hazileynu min harah – asks that God literally “snatch” them from the clutches of such an evil as to think such a thing or to despise the deliverer that God had sent to rescue them from bondage.
We can see then in a closer comparison of Abraham’s style of praying to Jesus’ outline for prayer much the same degree of genuine expression to God of exactly how much we need God’s assistance, whether for food for the day or strength for a difficult journey. Because however crazy the world around us might seem, each of us lives in a smaller world for the most part, perhaps only you and one other person, maybe just you and your cat. And God cares every bit as much about the problems there as God cares about world peace. And God recognizes that, despite jokes about ‘first world’ problems, these problems can push us to genuine despair that can easily spiral into outright evil.
As we mature in the faith, we aim for balance. True, God cares for us individually. And, at the same time, God cares that we understand to the extent to which our individual lives are vitally connected to the wider world and all of history. This is why we remember aloud places and people in the world in our prayers that we may never visit or meet. In this light, while others may hear ‘Let us pray’ as pro forma ritual language, we hear these words as a deeply significant invitation to open our very hearts to God, whether we are pleading, praising, petitioning or protesting. We are invited to be “real” when we pray, because we are talking to a real God.
The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park
July 27, 2016