“Help: A Prayer for Difficult Times”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
5“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.6But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
7“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
9“Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.10Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.11Give us this day our daily bread. 12And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one. (NRSV)
If prayer is something in which we have some measure of faith, then when we tell folks that we’ve been praying for them, most of us usually mean it, because we like to know that others are praying for us, too. It can comfort and strengthen us to think about someone intentionally connecting to the positive, creative energy within themselves and offering it to God on our behalf.
Having said that, just what do we mean when we say that we will pray for someone or something? Cutting to the chase, are we really trying to bend God’s will to ours? Do we honestly think we can do that? Do we honestly want to be able to do that? Do we want to worship and serve a creator who has a “mind” that is merely a projection of a creature’s mind? A mind that is finite, malleable, prone to fear, and when the going gets tough, quick to blame others, grab for power and certainty, and to stockpile dried beans and toilet paper?
If I advise us to be careful about approaching prayer as nothing more than a laundry list of individual wants, virtually all of you will say that you know better than that. And you do. We all do. But prayer as a kind of shopping excursion is still something of a default for many people. It reminds me of the 1970’s comedian, Flip Wilson, who once said in a sketch, “I’m gonna pray now. Anyone want anything?”
Jesus also faced shallow perceptions of prayer. When he cautions his hearers not to emulate the Pharisees’ prayers, he says that they use prayer as a kind of spectator sport. They dress in finery and pray loudly in public places. Just as conspicuous generosity tends to mask a sad and lonely poverty, conspicuous piety often camouflages desperate doubt, guilt, or fear.
The prayer Jesus teaches his disciples to pray is simple and straightforward. It begins with praise and thanksgiving. It asks for only the most basic needs of humanity: forgiveness and the ability to forgive; humility to rely on help in times of temptation and struggle; and daily bread, which means more than merely bread, but not more than the necessary food, clothing, and shelter.
On top of all that, the Lord’s Prayer is not individualistic grasping. “Give us this day our daily bread.” The prayer asks us to pray in community, for the community. Jesus also encourages solitude for prayer, and our solitude is for the sake of the wider good. In the spiritual realm, nothing is ever about ourselves alone. Indeed, we are all in this together.
So, given the example of the Lord’s Prayer, and given our call to be in prayerful communion with God, other human beings, and the earth, how do we approach the discipline of prayer, which is supposed to be a life-giving gift, at time when life feels diminished and we feel isolated? Where do we even begin?
Eight years ago, Anne Lamott wrote a book in which she says that the three most important prayers are Help, Thanks, and Wow. One can begin with any of those prayers, of course, but Lamott begins her book with Help. Help, she says, “is the first great prayer. I don’t ask God to do this or that…or for specific outcomes.” Then she adds, “Well, okay. Maybe a little…[but] There are no words for the broken hearts of people losing people, so I ask God…to respond to them with graciousness and encouragement enough for the day…Please help Joe survive Evelyn’s dementia. Please help this town bounce back. Please help those parents come through, please help those kids come through…
“In prayer I see the suffering bathed in light…I see God’s light permeate them, soak into them, guide their feet. I want to tell God what to do…But that wouldn’t work. So I pray for people who are hurting, that they will be filled with air and light. Air and light heal…We don’t have to figure out how all this works…It’s enough to know it does.”1
Help is a great place to start. At its core, Help is a prayer of humility. To ask for Help is to acknowledge that we need something outside ourselves, whether it’s inspiration, wisdom, money, or an extra pair of hands to pull the ox out of the ditch. And for some of us, Help is a difficult thing to say. For some, it’s even a four-letter word. A joke that has endured the advent of GPS is that men get lost more than women because so few of us will stop and ask for directions. But Help is one of the most honest and necessary prayers we can pray.
Centering prayer is a discipline that does not seek answers or make requests. It’s a practice of letting go of all thoughts that cloud mind and spirit so that we can draw close to God. Teachers of this discipline encourage pray-ers to utter a single word or a very simple phrase as a focal point. Help is a great word to say over and over as we turn loose of all our anxieties and wants and give ourselves over to the presence of the One from whom all blessings flow—holiness, daily bread, forgiveness, deliverance, and the kingdom itself.
“When we call out for help,” says Brian McLaren, “we are bound more powerfully to God through our needs and weakness[es], our unfulfilled hopes and dreams, and our anxieties and problems than we ever could have been through our joys, successes, and strengths alone…So when we’re suffering from anxiety, we can begin by simply holding the word help before God, letting that one word bring focus to the chaos of our racing thoughts. Once we feel that our mind has dropped out of the frantic zone and into a spirit of connection with God, we can let the general word help go and in its place hold more specific words that name what we need…[words like] guidance…patience…courage…wisdom, or peace.
“Along with our anxieties and hurts, we also bring our disappointments to God. If anxieties focus on what might happen, and hurts focus on what has happened, disappointments focus on what has not happened…This is especially important because many of us, if we don’t bring our disappointment to God, will blame our disappointment on God, thus alienating ourselves from our best hope of comfort and strength.”2
As a prayer, Help opens a door that is always available to us, but the door knob is down by the threshold. To reach it, we have to get on our knees. We’re all on our knees right now. We’re all at a humbling and unfamiliar place. The threat isn’t visible. There’s no one to blame or intimidate. There is nothing to buy, borrow, or beg for that will give us what a season of sheltering-in-place can. And we all need Help to endure that season.
As “the creation waits in eager longing,” says Paul, we also “wait…for the redemption of our bodies.” And when we can’t find the words to pray for ourselves and others, the “Spirit intercedes in sighs too deep for words.” (Rom. 8:18-30)
The Creation’s current suffering will not end next week, or the week after that. In this meantime, we stay home, and pray the best we can. And we remember, Help is in our midst even now.
1Anne Lamott, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, Riverhead Books, 2012. Pp. 15-16.