What is prayer for you?
The teaching we are focused on this morning is Jesus’ words from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount addressing prayer. I had intended to talk about public prayer versus private prayer; the notion of prayer in school, before government meetings, sporting events, etc. I still want to do that briefly. But it seems to me Jesus is pretty clear about how he feels regarding prayers in public. A paraphrase might be perhaps it best you don’t do it, or at least, if we do, don’t ramble on and on just to hear the eloquent words one might be able to string together.
Prayer for the most part, should be kept to an intimate conversation with God, in private, one on one.
When you pray, don’t be like those show-offs who love to stand up and pray in the meeting places and on the street corners. They do this just to look good. – don’t talk on and on as people do who don’t know God. They think God likes to hear long prayers. Don’t be like them.
When you pray, go into a room alone and close the door. Pray to God in private. Your God knows what you need before you ask.
I am not sure how much more expounding those teachings need. Are they still relevant today? I believe so, I think we could all find a lesson in those words. I have been guilty of the first. There have been times I have been invited to pray at our city council meetings and once the invocation for the opening session of the Senate in Topeka. I confess, I work really hard at making my public prayers conversations with God and not a directive to the hearers. However, while driving home from Topeka that day and my good friend, who knows me well, called and I told him I had just delivered the invocation at the Capital, he asked me, “So, were you prayin’ or preachin’?” I had to confess to my friend, “I was preachin’”
I have been grateful for the latter. I have found profound comfort, solace, as well as challenge and been disturbed in my private prayers behind closed doors.
I have been known to say there is a line between praying and preaching, and it is not a fine line, it is a bold one, a chasm. If one is praying to get a message across to those in the meeting hall, the sports arena, even the church meeting, rather than talking to God, one is not praying any longer one is preaching! And it is exactly what Jesus is addressing here. And he doesn’t like it!
So, I’m not sure what more I can add to that. While pondering prayer over the last many weeks, I have really been wrestling with what to say this morning. Especially, around prayer, and the horrific events of Orlando and so many other tragedies. I want to speak to it, and in so many ways, I have no words. As I listen and read some responses to the tragedy I find myself wishing others would have no words as well.
What do we say as a community of faith? How do we speak a faithful word in the midst of such pain and devastation? It is important that we speak, but where do we begin?
Here at College Hill we began last week with a vigil and a prayer service. This prayer flag was created by Cate Adams and is made up of the 49 names of those victims of the mass shooting and the colored cards are prayers and thoughts written by those who attended the vigil through the day on Tuesday.
I still struggle with what to say and do in moments of my own reflections. While I have been critiqued for sharing this before by colleagues, let me say this anyway, perhaps we do not begin by continuing the mantra of “the families are in our thoughts and prayers.” For me it has become the subject of Jesus’ teaching, “people who talk on and on as people do who don’t know God.” It has become the mantra in particular of leaders and authorities who express words of outrage and prayer with no action, and for some only serves to deepen the anxiety and distrust in our country.
Bear with me for a moment, and let me tell a story.
I was I believe in the fourth or fifth grade when it happened. I was sitting in my bedroom at a card table building a model car. You know the kind from a box with all the plastic pieces molded into a framework you had to twist and free in order to put together. I had my paints and glue spread out on the table. As I was working on one piece it had significant excess plastic I could not manage to remove just with my fingers.
I went out to the garage to rummage through my father’s toolbox and retrieved a small cardboard box, kind of like a matchbox, except this on contained single-edged razor blades. Yes, I know you are probably way ahead of me at this point. I returned to my project, pulled out a blade and removed the cardboard shield and went to work.
The blade slipped off and I managed to cut just below my thumb nearly to the bone. I went into the kitchen and yelled for my dad. He found me standing, two bloodied hands and dripping on the floor. He took me into the bathroom and began running cold water over the wound and said, “Son, this is going to need stitches.” He called the doctor in our little town and we headed to his office.
Dr. Ubelaker was, at least in my nine or ten year old mind, perhaps described best as the old country doctor. He still made house calls when he needed to. He was perhaps a little gruff, or at least that was my memory, or maybe just a man of few words. Anyway, he removed the towels that were wrapped around my hand, numbed up the wound, and stitched me up. He then shared with me a few stern words, “No recess.” “Don’t get it wet.” “No horsing around.”
A few days later we were at a family gathering. My cousins were playing basketball and I wanted to as well. I talked my aunt into wrapping up my hand so I would not get it dirty or wet. If I recall she slipped a bread bag over my hand and taped it to my arm.
That evening I noticed the bandage was seeping some blood so I untapped my bandaged to take a look. All the stitches were untied and the wound was gaping open once again. I remember I sat on the edge of my bed staring at the open wound for what seemed like a long time, speechless, just sat there in silence before I went to look for dad. I wasn’t so much afraid of telling dad, I was afraid of telling Dr. Ubelaker! Dad took me back to the Doc, who was not happy, and we started it all over again. As a result I have no doubt it took much longer to heal than it would have had I followed the right actions and directions to promote a proper healing.
There is a time for sitting with the grief. There is a time to gaze speechless into the pain. There is a time for silence. Presence can be more powerful than words. Often words can deepen the wound rather than provide a healing balm and comfort. Sometimes, “I’m here,” can be more appropriate than, “I have you in my thoughts and prayers.” Too often in these tragedies religious leaders, politicians, and others speak on and on, and nothing happens to find a cure.
What does this have to do with prayer and in particular Orlando and the attack on our LGBT friends and families? Every time this happens the wound is ripped open again, preventing its healing. I believe we need to spend time in silence, surveying and embracing our grief and shock. I also I believe it is time for people of faith, people who believe in justice and compassion and grace to do more than pray words, we must pray with our actions.
It is not enough to lift the families in our thoughts and prayers. God calls us to live our prayers, act out our prayers for comfort and resolution. To continue to lift the words of “The Families are in our thoughts and prayers” with no action to address the violence is to lift empty phrases and words that do nothing. And with every event of gun violence and acts of hate, the wound is opened again with no hope of healing.
Our country, even dare I say, the Christian church and other religions have a violence problem. It is not just mental health care, though that is part of it. It is also an addition to the idea of redemptive violence lodged deeply in the roots of the churches atonement theories, our stories, the kind of traditions and interpretations that are twisted and warped by extremists and violent people who put the stamp of God upon their acts.
Our country and our religions our churches have to own our contribution to the problem. We cannot continue to belittle and dehumanize the “other” and expect it not to influence those who would carry out violent acts of word and deed. Our words matter!
In last Sunday’s attack on the Pulse Club in Orlando, I believe the church as well as other religious traditions are culpable. We cannot continue as a church, even as a United Methodist church, to claim LGBT persons are incompatible, abominations, worthy of death, a threat to our children, our families, or that we should fear even being in the same restroom with them and not expect those words to influence not only hateful rhetoric, but violent acts and even massacres such as in Orlando. And for religious and political leaders to offer their thoughts and prayers while at the same time rejecting and passing laws that threaten the well-being of LGBT persons and others is seen as disingenuous at best.
We must find a way to pray for and then act not only with LGBT persons in the midst of this tragedy, but all who continue to be threatened by violence and hatred, all of us in a world that is increasingly perpetuating the sense of being unsafe for a community who longs for safety and peace. There must be action behind our prayers, or they become prayers in the public realm, just to look good or prayers that talk on and on as people do who don’t know God.
So, what do we do? On this Sunday Prayer, of Fathers, of Remembering, of gathering in the wake of yet another tragedy? Fathers, those who have been a father figure, teach your children about prayer as not just words, but of action and justice and compassion work. Teach our children and grandchildren about inclusion, about understanding, about welcome, about equality, about grace, about the unconditional love of God for all, for ALL! And the depths of why it matters, to us individually, our families, our country, and our world.
And here in our community of faith? In some sense, we here at CHUM, continue to do what we have been doing. Educate ourselves about process and theology and justice and action. Be not only present in prayer and support of our LGBT community, our Muslim brothers and sisters, our children and public education, and the poor, those who are marginalized and belittled, but to be a prophetic voice in the church, in the community, government, speak out against injustice and discrimination. ACT!
It takes all of us, not just one or two. This kind of prayer is not political posturing, or pious street corner attention, it is seeking the guidance and wisdom of the Spirit, and then praying with our feet and our hands and our voices to make this world a safer more compassionate kindom in which to live, for all of us.
We cannot be willing to stop talking about it. We cannot be willing to rest. We cannot be silent, until we can all walk the streets regardless of the color of our skin, until we can all dance at a club of our choice, attend a movie, go to a bible study, or sit in a classroom without fear of another massacre.
Otherwise these forty-nine represented in this prayer flag and the hundreds of other senseless deaths due to gun violence and other acts of hate and terrorism will be statistics, wounds with no healing.
Let us begin/continue the faithful work of God until finally justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. God hasten the day. May it be so! May it be so!