“Too Deep For Words”
Romans 8: 26-39
People really struggle finding words for prayer. Some folks refuse to ever pray out loud, because, they say, “I just don’t know what to say to God. It’s hard enough doing it on my own. I certainly don’t want to pray in front of other people.” As a pastor, I have always tried to respect people’s sensitivity about praying out loud; I never ask anyone to pray extemporaneously unless I know for sure they are comfortable praying out loud in front of others. I am sensitive to it, because I understand it. I don’t just sympathize; I empathize. I find it incredibly stressful to pray out loud in front of other people. Of course, I do it all the time, but that doesn’t mean I don’t agonize or fret over it. I just do it.
I can’t speak for why others feel discomfort about praying out loud—I can only speak for myself. For me, praying out loud before others causes me consternation because public, communal, community prayer implies that I am not only praying in front of others…I am praying to Almighty God on behalf of others. In church, the congregation, you, bow your heads, close your eyes, and open up your hearts to God, and I talk to God for you. I become your spokesperson before God. Now, no doubt you pray to God yourself, and many of you have been praying to God more years than I have, and I can only imagine the depth, and richness of your prayers. Still, in the worship hour, in church, I talk to God for you. Any pastor, lay speaker, or teacher does. That is a pretty heady, heavy responsibility. I find that it is no wonder folks don’t like to pray out loud; I find that is no wonder some folks refuse to pray out loud.
More basic, and perhaps more important than praying out loud, in front of, and on behalf of others, are our own quiet, private prayers to God. Many folks really struggle to find words to pray, even in their own personal lives. For me, I don’t struggle so much with the words I want to use when I pray to God, so much as I struggle with the focus needed to pray. Often, when I am alone and I pray, I find myself entering into the Holy of Holies, “Oh God, thank you for life and for love and for…oh look at the cute little mess my dog just made.” For me, focus, and not words are the issue. Often, therefore, I will write my prayers down. I often keep a prayer journal, not so much for the personal historic value of the journal—I don’t keep a prayer journal to look back on five years from now—so much as the writing of the prayers are needed for me to find focus and clarity when I pray.
I think maybe we get so conditioned to hear pastors in church or on television, praying these poetic, high flying prayers, we think those words, those kinds of words are God’s expectation. Sometimes, I think we think God won’t hear a prayer of stuttering, stammering, halting language. To the contrary, I think those are the prayers God loves the most.
Even when we are praying, by ourselves, in our homes or in our cars, we are never alone.
Paul reminds us in today’s scripture from Romans chapter eight, that the “Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words for us.” Isn’t that amazing? We don’t know how to pray the way we should, so God’s own Spirit, the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity intercedes for us. Her sighs, her silences, her breath—the pneuma—are more sacred and meaningful than any of our words.
There can be wordless prayers. There can be two word prayers, “Oh God.” There can be image prayers: as we pray for a particular person, we hold them up within our minds, through a memory or through imagination, and our imagining, our conjuring, our remembering them, is prayer. The Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.
When I was in seminary, a professor taught us than in the Catholic tradition, nuns and monks pray round-the-clock, and they pray for us all. In our context, I hear folks talking about “prayer-warriors;” so-and-so needs to know about this, because she is a real prayer-warrior. Whether it is a monk in a monastery, or a prayer-warrior down the street, all of us are being lifted up in prayer, all the time. My grandmother once told me that her entire life was one long prayer. I think it’s the most beautiful and profound statement my grandmother ever made to me, and she was a very beautiful, deeply profound person. “I pray nearly every second, Jeff,’ she told me. “Life has become one long prayer.”
I think Jesus, his own, holy self gave us the best lesson about prayer. In his own artistically perfect Lord’s Prayer, Jesus taught us to begin, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be your name…” In other words, when we pray as Jesus taught us to pray, we both acknowledge and celebrate that God belongs to us all, and we all belong to God. We pray, “Our Father,” not “My Father.”
All of this talk about prayer leads us to the next obvious, logical question. What is the chief goal of prayer? What is prayer? Do we pray to get what we want? Is God Santa Claus?
Even when we pray for others, especially for the healing of our loved ones and our friends who are suffering in sickness—as laudable and as godly as it is to pray for them—we are not praying to get what we want from God. We are praying, instead, for the one we pray for, and for ourselves as well, to experience God; to feel touched by God; to realize that we all live in the heart and soul of God. Every prayer lifts up another human being to God, and we humbly ask God for mercy, love, and hope, out of God’s profound love for that person…and we leave it there. We leave it before God.
Dr. Peter Storey, who was a Methodist bishop in South Africa, and became a professor at Duke, teaches that prayer, all prayers, are little Calvary moments. When we pray for someone, our prayer becomes a “little Calvary.” He came up with this concept for prayer after one of the churches he served as pastor had two young members, two young women, two young mothers, who were dying of cancer, both sick and terminal at the same time. The church prayed for both women to be healed. One woman did make it into remission, and Dr. Storey remembers the look of love and gratitude on her face, and on the faces of her children, and her husband, when we looked down upon them from his pulpit on Sunday morning. Just as vividly as he remembers the visual testimonies from the young woman and her family whose prayers seemingly were answered, Dr. Storey remembers the sadness, the lost shadow, the abandonment in the eyes of the little children, and the husband, of the young mother whose cancer had not gone into remission, the family of the young mother who had died, and her family, whose prayers, seemingly had not been answered. That memory, that pain, that sense that perhaps he as a pastor, and the church, had somehow abused the family of the young woman who had died, lead Dr. Storey on a quest to find a better way to teach, and model prayer—prayer as Little Calvary.
Visually, Dr. Storey says, he literally lifts up the person before Christ on the cross. Theologiclly, looking at prayer as a little Calvary reinforces what Paul writes here in Romans.
Paul brings it all back, as Paul pretty much always does, to the cross, and to the resurrection. Here again verse 34b, “It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God…”
My friends, every aspect of our Christian life, which we all share, including prayer, enters into, and lives out the suffering, the death, the passion of Jesus. As Jesus died, we are all called to die. Jesus died to save us; we die to all of those things which made Jesus’ suffering death a requirement for human redemption: we must die to selfishness; we must die to hate and prejudice; which must die to violence and vengefulness; we must die to hopelessness; we must die to despair.
My sisters and brothers, every aspect of our Christian life, which we all share, including prayer, enters into, and lives out the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus rose—life out of death; love out of hate; peace out of violence and vengefulness; hope out of hopelessness; optimism out of despair. So we can rise, all of us, out of every one of those realities; out of every human sin of frailty and vulnerability which we all are heir to, which we all know so well.
It is easy to recognize baptism as entering into Jesus’ life. We go down into the water—down into the grave, down into death—to gloriously rise up out of the water, all soaking wet and alive with gracious, loving, new life. Now we are challenged to see prayer as also entering into Jesus’ life. Our prayers should contain the selfless love of the cross, all the time with the hopeful love of resurrection.
This is why Paul writes that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Through that sweet Holy Spirit, Jesus lives on, in you, in me, in our church, in our humanity. How can we be separated by the one who loves us so, by the one who lives on, in the Spirit, in us, in our Church, his body, in humane words, deeds, prayers, and actions?
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.
Let us go forth believing, praying, and living, little Calvary. Amen.