So I’m focusing on prayer for this Lenten season, which took a little courage, because for the last several years I’ve had a very tenuous relationship with prayer. Ten years ago I boldly proclaimed the virtue of prayer, the central role it should play in our lives and the power of prayer. Since then, I have back pedaled from those claims in pretty dramatic fashion. I’ve spent considerable time wondering if we get prayer at all, and questioning its effectiveness. For years I have all but quit praying except for those times when prayer escaped my lips involuntarily or when I felt prayer was called for as a pastor. But I’ve even dodged prayer quite a bit in that capacity because it’s really hard for me to do something when I’m not sure I believe in it.
Interestingly, in the last six months or so, I find myself softening to prayer and feeling strangely drawn towards it again. I don’t ever do the whole giving up something for Lent. I think there’s value in it for some people, but it’s never appealed to me. I did try to add something once, but that didn’t last very long. However, this year, I am praying. Everyday I’m spending a little time in prayer. Not because I need to or because I have to, but because I want to. I look at the claims I made ten years ago and I surprise myself at still agreeing with them. Do I believe there is virtue in prayer? Yes. Do I believe prayer is powerful? Yes. Do I believe there is value in prayer playing a central role in our lives? Yes. But, how I understand prayer has gone through a significant evolution.
I moved away from prayer because I found it hard to believe in this larger than life personal being who listened and responded according to my words. I come back to prayer because I am tuned into a Spirit who helps me in my weakness and intercedes with sighs too deep for words. I moved away from prayer because I don’t believe our prayers will help someone recover from cancer or will keep someone safe on an air flight. That all seems to be pretty random to me and I got tired of pretending otherwise. I come back to prayer because I see how much prayer helps people, whether or not our prayers are answered as we would like. I moved away from prayer because I couldn’t get my head around it and I was tired of the contortions. I come back to prayer, still mystified, but because I need it and I long for it in a way I can’t explain, I can only feel.
Because I consider myself a newbie on prayer as I set out to re-turn to this sacred practice, I don’t feel terribly qualified to offer a series on prayer. So, big surprise here, I’m going to use a little book and allow this book to kind of be a guide for the next few weeks. I requested this book for Christmas and so my husband made sure it found its way under the tree. It’s called, Help, Thanks, Wow - The Three Essential Prayers, by one of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott.
So let’s talk help. In introducing this chapter, Lamott writes…
“It is all hopeless. Even for a crabby optimist like me, things couldn’t be worse. Everywhere you turn, our lives and marriages and morale and government are falling to pieces. So many friends have broken children. The planet does not seem long for this world. Repent! Oh, wait, never mind. I meant: Help.
“What I wanted my whole life was relief--from pressure, isolation, people’s suffering (including my own, which was mainly mental), and entire political administrations. That is really all I want now. Besides dealing with standard-issue family crisis, heartbreak, and mishegas, I feel that I can’t stand one single more death in my life. That’s too bad, because as we speak, I have a cherished thirteen-year-old cat who is near death from lymphoma. I know I won’t be able to live without her.
“This must sound relatively petty to those of you facing the impending loss of people, careers, or retirement savings. But if you are madly in love with your pets, as any rational person is, you know what a loss it will be for both me and my three-year-old grandson, Jax. My cat Jeanie has helped raise him, and it will be his first death. I told him that she was sick, and that the angels were going to take her from us. I tried to make it sound like rather happy news--after all, vultures aren’t coming for her, or snakes--but he wasn’t having any of it.
“Angels are taking Jeanie away?”
“Yes, because she is old and needs to go live in heaven now.
“He said, ’I’m mad at the angels.’ He’s mad at death. I’m mad at death, too. I’ve had it. I am existentially sick to death of death, and I absolutely cannot stand that a couple of friends may lose their children. I cannot stand that my son’s and grandson’s lives will hold so much isolation, strife, death, and common yet humiliating skin conditions. But as Kurt Vonnegut put it, Welcome to the monkey house. This is a hard planet and we’re a vulnerable species. And all I can do is pray: Help (pgs. 11-13).”
When we think about or talk about prayer, it’s almost always the “help” prayer we’re referring to. The “help” prayer is the one we often fumble towards without even realizing we’re doing it. We get in over our heads and realize we need help.
Last weekend my son’s little dog did a kamikaze move and ran under the wheels of a truck. Jonathan asked me to pray for help. There wasn’t anything else we could do, sitting at home and thinking about her fighting for her life in the vet’s office a half hour down the road. So we bowed our heads and asked for help.
Often, as a pastor, I have sat with people who are doubled over with the pain of grief. There are no words that offer comfort. Without a conscious awareness, I sit there and ask for help. Help for myself, because I don’t know how to be what this person might need in that moment. More especially, help for the grieving one, that they may somehow feel a Presence of comfort.
I remember the night my son was born. A prolapsed cord delivery. As they wheeled me away for an emergency caesarean, we didn’t know if we’d ever meet a healthy and whole Jonathan. My husband and I both prayed “help”, over and over again.
When we look at the gospels, I think of Jesus’ variations on the “help” prayer. We have his time of temptation in the wilderness. A time of prayer for Jesus when he surely spent much of his time asking for God’s help. The middle section of the Lord’s Prayer is about help. “May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” And of course, we think of Jesus’ desperate prayer in the garden of Gethsemane. “If it is possible, let this cup pass from me.”
But I am particularly moved by the father’s prayer in a passage from Mark (9:14-29). A child is desperately ill. The father asks Jesus if he can heal his son. Jesus responds saying all things are possible if you believe. The Father immediately cries out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” “Please, I want to believe so badly that what you say is true. But it’s hard to let go. If my son’s life is being weighed in the balance of my ability to believe, then please, please, help my unbelief!”
I may have stopped praying in the way I used to pray for a time, but the “help” prayer came unbidden to my lips on multiple occasions. When we get to our end and are standing there vulnerable and helpless, that is when we are perhaps most ready to let go of all the things that bind us up so tightly the vast majority of time. Momentarily, we are able to let go of our doubts, our need to control everything, we surrender our time, our assumptions, our pride even and we get down on our knees, maybe figuratively, maybe literally, and pray for help, for assistance, for relief. We pray to God to help us find our way through to the other side.
And all too often our help prayers aren’t answered in the way we wanted them to be. A precious loved one still dies of cancer. A marriage still disintegrates. A child continues to struggle with addiction. But we do find a way forward, one excruciating step at a time. We continue to breathe, even though our lungs feel seared. Life continues on, even in the face of the unthinkable. Help comes.
Again, quoting from Lamott…
“Not it turns out that my cat is going to die later today. She is struggling to breathe. I had hoped and prayed that she would slip off in the night and that I would not have to have the vet come by to put her down. I said, Help. Also, I gave her a lot of morphine, what had to have been an overdoes, which she just slept off. All I wanted was for her not to die miserable and afraid. That’s all......
.......“It is nighttime now, and Jeanie passed an hour ago, miserable and afraid.
“When the vet came, we tried to gently get her out from under the futon, and she went crazy, and the next ten minutes were so awful that I won’t describe them. Suffice it to say that she did not go gently into that good night. It broke my heart. But she had been suffering, and is suffering no more. She had an amazing run of love with my family. She was a proud little union cat, and also a model of queenly disdain with a bit of grudging affection for most people, and pure adoration for me.
“Was my prayer answered? Yes, although I didn’t get what I’d hoped and prayed for, what I’d selected from the menu. Am I sick with anxiety, that I did the wrong thing? Of course. Sad? Heartbroken. But Jeanie hit the lottery when she got me as her person for thirteen years, and the bad death was only ten minutes. So let me get back to you on this (pgs. 29-31).”
“When we cry out Help, or whisper it into our chests, we enter the paradox of not going limp and not feeling so hopeless that we can barely walk, and we release ourselves from the absolute craziness of trying to be our own--or other people’s--higher powers.
“We can be freed from a damaging insistence on forward thrust, from a commitment to running wildly down a convenient path that might actually be taking us deeper into the dark forest. Praying ‘Help” means that we ask that Something give us the courage to stop in our tracks, right where we are, and turn our fixation away from the Gordian knot of our problems. We stop the toxic peering and instead turn our eyes to something else: to our feet on the sidewalk, to the middle distance, to the hills, whence our help comes--someplace else, anything else. Maybe this is a shift of only eight degrees, but it can be a miracle.
“It may be one of those miracles where your heart sinks, because you think it means you have lost. But in surrender you have won. And if it were me, after a moment, I would say, Thanks (pgs. 39-40).”