September 30, 2018: Prayer – a portal to Grace by Rev. Beth Hayward (Psalms 88, 121, 100)

“More than a wish, I’ll pray for you.” What a gift it is to be remembered in prayer. I ask people sometimes if they’d like me to pray with them. Sometimes it’s during a hospital visit or after an hour spent talking about a life’s passage, a dream squashed. I’ll just throw the question out there: would you like me to pray with you? I used to shy away from it, I thought it was presumptuous or imposing my need onto someone, but over time, somewhere along the way I began to realize what a gift it is to have someone pray with you. I mean, who ever asks that? Surely it’s the least I can do. Who knows where a prayer might lead, how it might contribute to mending the tattered threads between us, how it may just plant the seeds for a fearless life.

I’m not convinced that you need to believe in it for it for prayer to work. I don’t even think you need to be clear on the details or know precisely what you’re praying for or who you’re praying to. You don’t need to get the words or the silence just right. Prayer taps into something deeper, even when it’s just you in the silence, it’s bigger than you.

Novelist Anne Lamott wrote a book about prayer a number of years ago and she called it simply: Help, Thanks, Wow. Those according to Lamott are the three prayers that matter most. She says that prayer is about stepping outside of yourself, getting outside of “the ticker tape of thoughts and solutions, and trying to figure out who to blame. …” Prayer is a deep sigh, a full bodied surrender, a letting go and letting God, as the old saying goes. It can be motion and stillness and energy all at the same time.

Help – is the hardest prayer according to Lamott. To even utter that word you have to admit defeat, you have to release your grip on your functional atheism, your confidence that you can take care of it all. You have to drop the disguises and stand vulnerable. Help is a prayer of surrender and none of us surrender easily. It’s a timeless prayer, like the one the Psalmist cries:

3 For my soul is full of troubles.
4 I am counted among those who go down to the Pit;
I am like those who have no help, 

When you’re in that place all you can do is cry out for help. Help is the starting place of the prayer that has supported countless people for generations through AA: the Serenity Prayer. Some of you will know it by heart. Less familiar is the prayer in its original form, as it was first prayed in a summer worship service in a country church in rural Massachusetts in 1943, by its author Reinhold Niebuhr.

God give us the grace

to accept with serenity

the things that cannot be changed,

courage to change the things

that should be changed,

and the wisdom to distinguish

the one from the other.

God give us grace. Give us grace. That word holds the full scope of the three prayers: help, thanks and wow. It’s help all the way – give us grace because we’re running on empty, give us grace, because we’re filled with the most corrupt false truths. Give me grace; the lies I’m telling myself have run out of usefulness, all I can call on is grace. Help!

Sometimes there’s a really long pause before the thanks can be uttered. Because sometimes prayers take a long time to be answered and often prayers are not answered in the way we would have hoped. But grace somehow can hold us in the waiting. Hold us in those long months when we wonder if the treatment will, work, hold us in the long years when we wonder if the diagnosis will recur, hold us in the endless nights as we wait not knowing how we will ever make our way forward through the brokenness. Grace is the prayer of wow, the prayer that holds the others.

I’ve heard grace described as “that sudden—and often, surprising—awareness that goodness is still alive and kicking in the world, that the stars haven’t fallen out of the sky, that homemade ice cream on a hot July day still tastes like heaven.”[1] God give me a kick in the butt so that I can remember that goodness is still alive and well in the world, point me toward the truth that the stars haven’t fallen from the sky and that ice cream in July tastes like heaven. That’s grace for you, that gift that bridges the help to the thanks.

Think of the old hymn:

Amazing Grace

How sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me

I once was lost

But now am found…

Prayer in whatever form it takes is that effort to tap us back into grace, to touch and taste and feel the wow, and more than that to remember to trust that interconnection between it all, between me and my soul and the holy connection between each of us and the oneness that is reality with every star in the sky and grain of sand in the sea.

There’s a theologian Catherine Keller who writes about the interconnection of all life. She believes that if we can learn to trust in our inherent worth and goodness, it’s from this place, because all is connected in an energy sort of way, this is the place from which we can begin to see the grace and trust it as enough. “From this plane of self acceptance we can look out beyond the horizon of our own ego and see how everything is good.”[2]

Prayer is all about that interconnection. We cry out help when we recognize that things are broken, thanks where the web of life is restored and wow is the prayer that holds it all.  If we can keep returning to the wow we may get more honest about the help and the thanks. It places those prayers in a much larger context of interdependence.

I’ve told you before that I get push back sometimes for being too political up here and also for being not nearly political enough. I do try to disappoint equally across the spectrum. It’s just that what’s happening in the world matters and if we are all connected one to another, to God or whatever you name that Oneness, connected to every star and grain of sand, well then when threads are severed and broken it becomes the work of faith to scream out help! Things that may seem political are actually about faith, about grace. Orange shirt day, in that light touches, us because we can feel the tearing apart of the fabric of our connection. That a child would be stripped of her shirt, of the shirt that grandma made sacrifices to purchase, in taking that shirt away she was stripped of her dignity and a bit of our common dignity. How can we help but prayer help for the brokenness of our commons?

We’re going to sing that old hymn Amazing Grace next. It’s never been my favourite. In a self-help world, calling yourself a wretch just seems like an expression of your low self-esteem. It seems like a throw back to a day long passed, to a world where we actually believed that God could swoop in and pick up the broken pieces of our lives and world and mend them back together if only God would choose.

And what could he mean when he says the hour I first believed, as if we come to belief in an hour, full understanding and faith in an hour. But for John Newton who wrote this song back in 1779, he may have written instead: the day I first let go. His come to Jesus moment was a plea for help as he faced certain death in a storm at sea.  What he believed that day had far more to do with finally seeing that his life was off track and that he couldn’t do it alone any longer than it did with falling in line with what the church says is true.

If we’re honest we know that prayer is never an escape, it’s never a refuge from the world but a way into the reality of the world, a dropping of the lies, a vulnerable plea, a tentative thank you, and a deep steeping in the wow. As Niebuhr’s daughter says: “…living in full, always offers as much despair as hope, as much danger as possibility.”[3] Prayer doesn’t protect us from the despair it just roots us in the hope. It never takes away the danger it just points us to the possibility. It taps us back into grace, opens us up to grace. What better way to be found?

Amen

[1] http://www.openhorizons.org/g-is-for-grace.html

[2] http://talkerofthetown.com/2016/05/25/rethreading-the-web-catherine-keller-and-the-theology-of-entangled-difference-a-report-from-the-hickey-centers-annual-sacred-texts-and-human-contexts-conference-at-nazareth-college-by-georg/ Also read more in Keller’s book Cloud of the Impossible.

[3] Elisabeth Sifton, The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of peace and War, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2003. P. 14