Give, Forgive, Lead, Deliver
I’ve reflected many times here on the mystery of prayer and what often seems like the abject silence of God. We so often struggle to know how prayer works and how it influences God’s activity in the world. We don’t know what the point of prayer is if God already knows everything. Sometimes it all seems like a bit of a strange charade that has precious little influence on either God or each other.
I have found myself saying “I am praying for you” to people in my life quite frequently lately. So many people going through such hard things…. The death of a child, the breakup of a marriage, parents watching their children going through unnavigable crises of various sorts, people straining under the load of crippling debt, souls stumbling around in the fog of mental illness and addiction… On and on it goes. Over and over again, helplessly, confusedly, sadly, angrily, I say: I’ll pray for you. It’s easy for the words to feel embarrassingly hollow—nothing more than a perfunctory add-on at the end of a difficult conversation.
I know that many people struggle with how to pray or if they can pray at all with any integrity. Some alter their prayers to accommodate the perceived silence, turning them into blandly generic utterances of a barely hoped-for good will. May they experience comfort and peace… We pray that they would have hope… May they receive strength and wisdom… Of course, these prayers aren’t bad or wrong or anything, they’re just, well, kind of vague and human-centered. It’s like we don’t really expect anything from God—we’re barely even convinced he’s listening half the time—so we concentrate on ourselves. This is a far cry from a fist shaken at the heavens or the passionate and often baldly self-centered cries of the psalmists of old. Our prayers are so often tame, safe, predictable, tentative gestures toward a goodness that we hope might be out there somewhere. Maybe.
I struggle often with how to pray with integrity, compassion, and expectation. So often, it seems that one of the three has to be sacrificed for one of the others. Whenever the task of praying seems beyond me, I do what many others do and have done throughout the history of the church. I turn to the Lord’s Prayer. It is a daily feature of the prayerbook I use (and virtually every prayer-book I have come across). Some churches recite it weekly, even daily. It is, in many ways the prayer that we return to again and again and again when we feel like we don’t know what we’re doing. Whenever we, like the disciples, have nothing left to say but, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1).
As I prayed these familiar words today, I was struck in a new way by the assertiveness of the prayer Jesus taught us to pray. His language is simple, forceful, clear, direct. It does not wallow in safe platitudes or the elaborate expressions of piety that so often do little more than obfuscate and distract. Jesus doesn’t mess around. He puts God and us in our proper place.
Four expressions, in particular, stood out: Give us…Forgive us… Lead us… Deliver us… I was jolted a little as I prayed these words today. These are things, of course, that only God can ultimately do. There is no hiding here, no poetic evasions, no dancing around our obvious impotence and need.
Give us… For what do we have that does not ultimately come from God?
Forgive us… For who, ultimately, can absolve us of the wrong we have done and will do?
Lead us… For who, ultimately, knows the true and good way forward? Who, ultimately, can be trusted with the future?
Deliver us… For who, ultimately, can rescue us from/through this groaning creation, this ambiguous terrain of beauty and heartache that leaves its mark on each of us in our own way?
These four expressions all represent things that we cannot do for ourselves; they all represent things that we desperately need. And so Jesus tells us to ask for them. End of story. The simplicity of Jesus’ example slices through all of my insecurities about how I should pray, whether or not I will be seen as naïve, whether these are the sorts of things that postmodern folks so well acquainted with ambiguity and doubt ought to be praying for. To all of this, Jesus says, All right then, but why don’t you just be honest and be simple and ask for the things that you want and need?
Well okay, Jesus, then here it is. Fix all this bad stuff for all these people that I love. Help us to stop acting so destructively and stupidly. Show us better ways. Rescue us from these messes that we so often make. Gift us with better days.
Give. Forgive. Lead. Deliver.
Do it. Please. Amen.