Pray about it. I’ll pray for you. My prayers were answered. These can be loaded words, can they not? We hear, in the Letter of James, that prayer is powerful and effective. But how? Prayer can be a difficult subject. There are problems, questions that come up, especially for the modern mind. In some situations, being told to “pray about it” seems like a cop out, or even a slap in the face. Is it what gets said, when we don’t know what to say? Or when we know exactly what we want to say, but can’t say it? Asking for things in prayer can seem like begging—indeed, that’s often just what it is—and that puts the pray-er in a demeaning position. The very position Queen Esther assumes, when she begs her husband, the King, to spare her life, and those of her people, from genocide. Why should she have to beg for their lives, the lives of innocent people? Why do people in power, the world over, threaten the vulnerable, so that their only recourse is to turn to prayer? Why can’t they have so-called real help? And what about all those times when those prayers, our prayers, are not answered? Powerful and effective? Not at Auschwitz. Not in Rwanda, or Myanmar, or Syria. Not in countless emergency rooms and battlefields and highways. So often, we strain to hear anything, in prayer, but the pathetic echo of our own helplessness. What is the point? In our results-oriented, product-driven world, surely there are other places we should be focusing our attention, our efforts?
And yet, so much of Jesus’ recorded ministry was about prayer. Going off alone to pray—his ministry is framed by times of agonizing, solitary prayer—being tempted by the devil in the desert, under the angry glare of the sun for forty days, and then, in the cool and dark of the Garden of Gethsemane, asking not to have to suffer the living nightmare to come. He taught the disciples to pray to God and for each other, giving us the words we still use, encouraging us to talk to God as our Father, to ask for what we need, to plead for help and deliverance. He prayed for his friends, as He prepared leave them in a dangerous world—this one prayer occupies an entire chapter of the Gospel of John. And the early Christians clearly put prayer at the center of their lives together, as we learn from James, with his instructions to pray in bad and good times alike. Paul commanded the early followers of Jesus to pray without ceasing. But prayer was more than just a holy way to pass the time. Prayer was the foundation of their belief, in the ancient formula, Lex orandi, lex credendi, the law of prayer is the law of belief—the way we pray is what we believe. The statements of belief that come to us from that time, our creeds, are in the form of prayers. These aren’t decorative ornaments around the edges of our spiritual lives, embellishing the real substance of doctrine or theory. The prayers are the words of our trust, and our fear, our joy and our grief.
But, in our modern minds, many times prayer is the lesser option, as opposed to action or, at least, rational thought. Modern people want to do research, make smart plans, take action. We want to use our strength and skill to solve the problem. There is a television show from a few years ago, for which I have a perverse love, perhaps because I also love its literary references. House is about a brilliant doctor who solves medical mysteries, just as Sherlock Holmes detected criminal puzzles. Like Holmes, House is cerebral and eccentric, without the sentiment and personal attachments that might cloud his judgment. House has no bedside manner, and terrible relationships with colleagues and students. He exists only to apply his mind to an abstract problem. If and when there’s nothing more to be done, he is gone. I must admit, there is a certain cathartic fascination in this kind of freedom, for a person employed in pastoral care.
Dr. House and Sherlock Holmes are extreme versions of the universal, understandable, even admirable desire to meet the world’s problems with the best that we can produce, to be equal to the challenges we face. The strengths and skills we bring can help, but they can also get in the way. In our Gospel reading, we find a caution from Jesus, about the importance of letting go, even of our strengths, if they become an obstacle, hurting someone else or yourself. He talks about our human habit of putting stumbling blocks in front of others, or getting ourselves into trouble. He’s talking about things that are, in themselves, not bad things at all, in fact, they’re good, they’re sources of our ability: hands and feet and eyes. He’s not talking about the more, shall we say, controversial parts of us, the parts that do get us into trouble frequently; he’s talking about the parts that help us get good things done in the world.
As hard as it may be for us to accept, especially those of us who love to check off boxes on our to-do lists, is that getting things done is not the heart of our call as Christians, those who follow Jesus. What did Jesus do, after all? Not really very much, in our human accounting. Those bracelets, WWJD, stand for What Would Jesus Do, because you have to extrapolate from a fairly scant record. He talked to a few people, in a small corner of the world, not a commercial or political center, by any means. There were no military campaigns, no exotic travels, he didn’t write any epic poetry or paint any paintings. He simply spent time with people that most others looked down on or ignored. He healed a few from illnesses. Had meals, went fishing. Died young, at a point when almost no one had heard of him.
What he did a lot of, was pray. The great thing about prayer (or, one of the great things) is that it is not about our strength. It does nothing. It is a reminder of our dependence on God. To pray is to say thank you, or ask for help, or just to be at peace with God and with those around us. It’s got nothing to do with our achievement, what we have gotten done, or what we should be getting done. I love to run, and I realized that one of the reasons I love it is because it’s the one time in a day when I don’t feel as though I should be doing a list of other things. That list haunts me, through every other hour, when I’m with my family, when I’m falling asleep at night, but out on a run, I know, this is what I need to do, right now. That’s prayer. When we are able to let go, to relax completely into God’s joy in us, or forget ourselves utterly in our concern for another, because we know there’s nothing more that we can do, all that’s left is to ask, to beg, for help.
When he died, the great theologian Martin Luther had a piece of paper crumpled in his hand. It read, “We are beggars, it is true.” It is true, thanks be to God. For it is not our strength or ability that moves God to come toward us. We don’t need to do anything. Only let go, of everything else.