We were in Port Arthur, Texas, which is on the Gulf coast between Houston and Louisiana, on a mission trip. Hurricane Rita had pummeled the area, and these folks were feeling a bit forgotten, because it made landfall about a month after Hurricane Katrina, and New Orleans and environs were receiving all the attention. Rita was in fact more intense than Katrina, and did about $12 billion in damages.
A lady in First Christian Church, which was our host for the week, invited us to visit the little museum there in Port Arthur. I was not excited. A museum featuring the best of Port Arthur, Texas? That area is mostly refineries. I couldn’t imagine what would be worth putting in a museum. But it was one of those, how do you say no occasions. So we went.
If you’re ever in Port Arthur, don’t miss their museum. It’s beautifully done and has some very interesting items. What stopped me in my tracks, though, was artwork by Janis Joplin. If you’re at least my age or older, you know Janis Joplin – blues/rock singer, very distinct powerful, kind of gravelly voice. Died young. Me and Bobby McGee, Down on Me, other hit songs. And here in this little museum is a replica of the car she painted, plus two other original paintings.
I was astounded. Janis Joplin? Port Arthur, Texas? I asked our host lady, how in the world did you get these? “Oh, Janis grew up in Port Arthur,” she replied. “She and her family were members of First Christian Church. She used to babysit my children.” Janis grew up in the Christian Church and I hadn’t known it? And I was talking with a lady who had known her personally? She took us by the house where Janis grew up. There’s now a historical marker in the front yard, so when you go to Port Arthur, be sure to go by.
I say all this about Janis because today I’m talking about prayer, and when I think about prayer I always think about another one of Janis’ hit songs, because it’s sort of a prayer. You remember it, “O Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz. My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends. Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends. O Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz.” It goes on to ask for a tv and a night on the town. It’s a great song.
And unfortunately it’s how some people think of prayer. For some people God is a genie who grants wishes if only our prayers are sincere enough or if we pray often enough or if we have enough people praying for something. And don’t we have to admit that even if we say we don’t believe God is a genie, we sometimes still catch ourselves praying like that? I know that any time I or someone in my family embarks on a trip I pray that they will have a safe and pleasant journey. Because I pray that, is God going to shield me or my loved ones from harm or difficulty? Did I forget to make that prayer the week I went to the monastery in South Carolina and had a flat tire on the way down and another one on the way home?
I remember hearing David Edwards, who was minister at First Christian and later the Church of the Covenant, here in Lynchburg, say that sometimes we pray “beyond our theology”. He was talking about prayer for things like safe and pleasant journeys. If we stop and think about it, we may not believe God will grant us such because we ask for it in prayer. But we pray like that anyway.
Biblically speaking, prayer is interesting. Every so often in the gospels we are told that Jesus goes off by himself to pray. Because he goes by himself, we don’t know anything about the content of his prayers. With one notable exception. We are told that just before he is arrested he is in prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. There he prays, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” What an interesting combination of a request and an acknowledgment that if we are serious about who God is and how God works, we are to put our ultimate trust in God, not in ourselves.
There’s also the time the disciples ask Jesus how they should pray, and he responds, say this, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” You know that one. Notice that it also includes “Your will be done.” And notice how short and simple it is. The only thing we are to ask for ourselves is that we have our “daily bread.” Otherwise, we are to ask for the coming of God’s kingdom, that our sins be forgive and that we forgive others, and that we not be led into temptation. No Mercedes. No 4k smart tv. No night on the town.
Today’s reading from Acts includes a brief and very interesting mention of prayer. It’s the story about the replacement of Judas to bring the number of apostles back up to twelve. We are told that Judas has died. So Peter stands up and gives the criteria for a replacement, and two names are brought forward as being suitable. So how to choose between the two. Election? Wait for a divine light to shine on one of them? They pray. They ask God to show them which one to choose. Then they “cast lots,” meaning they essentially roll dice. What an interesting follow-up to prayer!
Obviously it is important to the eleven that they replace Judas. And it is important enough to Luke to make it worthy of recording the story of how they do so. Matthias is chosen and takes his place among the apostles. And that’s the very last we hear of him in the Second Testament. Later traditions about him vary, meaning we do not know for certain where, if anywhere, he went, or how or where he died. All we know is that he is chosen by means of prayer, followed by casting “lots”. Luke even records the prayer itself.
So the prayer must have been important. It must have been important to the disciples, and to Luke, that this person be chosen using prayer, asking God to somehow guide the decision. Obviously, they believe that such an important choice needs prayer.
In chapter ten of Acts, where we find the crucial story of the admission of Gentiles to the church, we are told that Peter is in prayer when he sees the vision which leads him to Cornelius, who becomes the first Gentile convert. Prayer shows up at all sorts of interesting times.
Every time I preach on prayer I end up quoting Frederick Buechner, because I appreciate what he has to say. Here are parts of what he says. “According to Jesus, by far the most important thing about praying is to keep at it. Whatever else it may or may not be, prayer is at least talking to yourself, and that’s in itself not always a bad idea. Believe Somebody [capital “S”] is listening. Believe in miracles. What about when the boy [or whoever] is not healed? Even if the boy dies, keep on beating the path to God’s door, because the one thing you can be sure of is that down the path you beat with even your most half-cocked and halting prayer the God you call upon will finally come, and even if God does not bring you the answer you want, God will bring you himself. And maybe at the secret heart of all our prayers that is what we are really praying for.”
That’s good stuff. Think about Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. What he wanted was a way to do what needed to be done without having to suffer and die. But in the very next breath, or maybe even the very same breath he says, “yet not my will but yours be done.” Same thing he teaches the disciples in the Lord’s prayer, “your kingdom come, your will be done.” So maybe that’s a good thing to include in our prayers.
Another story about prayer is a parable Jesus tells. He says a Pharisee goes to the temple and prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax collector prays, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Jesus concludes, “I tell you, this man [the tax collector] went down to his home justified rather than the other.”
Prayer works. But it may not work to always and exactly bring us what we want. So do we still pray for the sick and the hurting, for victims of abuse and violence, for refugees and the homeless? Absolutely. Do we pray for our family and friends and those on our prayer list? Absolutely. And do we believe that sometimes people who seem beyond any help or recovery do in fact take a turn for the better? Absolutely.
But maybe it’s a good idea to be modest in what we ask for our selves. Maybe it’s a good idea to include some confession in our prayers. Maybe it’s always a good idea to regularly include in our prayers something like “according to your will, God.” Maybe it’s a good idea to remember that God is not a genie who grants wishes if only we ask often enough or sincerely enough or with enough people praying for a certain outcome.
Maybe it’s a good idea to remember that prayer works, not to get us what we want, but to help keep us connected to God. Amen.