The trauma of gun violence, with which our nation chooses to live, ricocheted through our lives yet again last week. Another school shooting. This time, at a high school with all the accoutrements of privilege—financial means, strong leadership, an active student body, an administration that handled behavior problems with the utmost care. Parkland was considered one of the safest communities in all of Florida. In other words, if it happened there, it can happen in my neighborhood...and yours.
Nothing evokes prayer like the trauma of children in harm’s way. Whether the harm is hidden hunger, childhood cancer, a car accident, domestic or sexual abuse, bullying, or another school shooting, when our children are in the line of fire, we find ourselves down on our knees—desperately bargaining with God. And perhaps the most troubling thing about prayer is that seventeen sets of parents bereft of their children may have prayed that kind of prayer only to receive the most devastating news—their child would not be coming home. Who would not have been down on their knees, like some of these parents must have been, praying for a miracle, even if they personally doubted the efficacy of prayer?
Let’s face it, prayer is a complicated notion.
Have you ever uttered a prayer born of desperation? Have you ever bargained with the Holy One, pleading that if God would just cure the cancer or ensure a viable pregnancy or get you out of this mess, then you’d do something big, something outrageous to express your undying devotion? Have you ever been driven to your knees by the inconvenient truth that every other option has been tried, every other bridge has been burned and you have nowhere else to go?
I’ve been there. Even when I questioned my motives and the primitive math: (what I wanted) + (persistence) = a miracle; even then, I have prayed these kinds of prayers. Because I didn’t want my dad to die at age 62, and I really wanted a second child, and I couldn’t see a way forward when I didn’t get the job. And sometimes I got what I prayed for, like getting pregnant with Simon, and sometimes I didn’t, like when my dad died, and sometimes I got something far better than I ever imagined, like co-founding a new community of faith.
But all of it begs the basic questions: What is prayer? Why do we pray? How does it work? And I think that was what the disciples were asking when they found Jesus in prayer, and begged him to teach them how to pray.
There are a few ways to look at the function of prayer, and some of them make very little sense. For example, do we really believe that God has some prayer-o-meter up in heaven, and precisely when the arrow rises over 100 prayers or 500 people praying, God will deliver a miracle? Do we believe that God’s will determines all that happens in our lives? Do we believe that God’s will can be changed by our prayers or thwarted by human choice?
Psalm 111 that says the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. I take that to mean not fear, as in quaking-in-my-boots afraid, but as a holy mix of awe and reverence. Acknowledging that whoever or whatever God is, the Holy One is beyond us. Beyond our comprehension and our words, beyond our theologies and our imaginations. Dr. Roberta Bondi describes it like this: “If you are a parent…you probably know your child very well. You know how he feels about most things, and what he is likely to do in most situations…You know these things because you have been living in the same household for years. At some point, however, in a conversation or when checking on him in bed, you realize that he is also a stranger to you. He is not an extension of yourself, or a composite of your spouse and yourself. He is alien to you, other than you. The knowledge you have of him is real, but he lies beyond that knowledge. Strangely, however, if you have had this experience, you know it is wonderful. How good it is to live in a world that is not the extension of your own mind! How good that your child has a life not in your control!” And so it is with God. Each of us must name God for ourselves, all the while knowing that God is beyond that name. Each of us can cry out to God, even though the fullness of God’s presence is far greater than that cry.
Mystery, then, is an essential ingredient of prayer. Perhaps when we stand in the ruins of our own understandings of prayer, we can begin to cultivate wisdom. Until I was down on my knees before God while also questioning the very purpose of prayer, I hadn’t really begun to pray. Until we’ve deconstructed the notions about and language of prayer handed down to us, we haven’t really begun to pray.
Take Jesus. During Lent we walk through his final weeks, when his face was set toward Jerusalem. As he traveled closer to his final destiny in that city, Jesus already knew he was going to die. He marched toward a collision with the political and religious powers of his day, knowing that his ethic of love was so radical that they would demand his execution. It is in this context of growing danger that the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, and what he left out is as important as what he included. Jesus did not pray, “God save me from death,” but instead, “Your kingdom come.” The kingdom (or movement of God, as one theologian defined it) was a seed always rooted in Jesus’ heart and breaking forth through his love for the least of these. Jesus preached about it, told parables about it, lived into it. Essential to the prayer of Jesus is the vision that God’s kingdom/movement would come. We pray, then, for that which is beyond ourselves and our singular lives, a design far more intricate and expansive. We pray for God’s movement, where justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an everlasting stream. We pray for God’s movement where the last are first and the first are last. We pray for God’s movement where the wayward are not just forgiven, but celebrated with an extravagant welcome. We pray for God’s movement to come into this broken world, into our lives, into our hearts, for Jesus promised that the kingdom is within us.
Jesus did not pray to change the mind of God. Instead, he prayed, “Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” Prayer is about shaping us, transforming us. We ask God to do for us what we seek to do for others. I pray for my enemies, in part, to remind myself of their humanity. I remember that they have the capacity for transformation and reconciliation. It is a profound spiritual practice to pray for our enemies, to love them as Jesus did, to imagine that they are capable of change, no matter how unlikely. So ultimately we pray for our enemies, because it changes us.
Jesus also did not pray for some elaborate plan, enlightening God with a way out of his terrible mess. Instead, Jesus prayed “Give us each day our daily bread.” In praying like that, we cultivate our trust in God. Rev. Kate Huey tells a story about Mother Teresa and a famous ethicist who volunteered at her house for the dying in Calcutta. The ethicist asked her to pray for him. She said, "What do you want me to pray for?" And he said, "Pray that I have clarity." She replied, "No, I will not do that – clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go of." He confessed that Mother Teresa always seemed to have the clarity he longed for, but she laughed and said, "I have never had clarity; what I have always had is trust. So I will pray that you trust God."
This, truly, is why we pray. Not to outline some grand plan and cajole God to opt in. But to trust in something greater than ourselves. To yield to God. One of my professors who studied the early desert fathers and mothers and their monastic lives, said this: “We pray to be with God.” She continued, “To begin to pray we need a measure of humility. We have to set aside any idea that we must be in a good or holy frame of mind in the presence of God. We must be willing to pray when we feel mean or distracted or seriously tempted. We must place ourselves trustfully or even distrustfully in God’s presence exactly as we are.” Our monastic ancestors believed prayer is fundamentally human, like breathing. Indeed, over the vast landscapes of time, culture, religion, and geography, prayer has been a fundamental human activity. And the good news is that it is done in a stunning multiplicity of ways, taking on a diversity of form and language. There’s no one way to pray.
Jesus often spoke about prayer as persistence. Ask, and you will receive. Seek, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened to you. So perhaps the most important thing about prayer is practice. Pray when you rise and when you lie down. Pray when you are at home and when you are away. Pray before meals and when you wash dishes and as you rock the baby. Pray as you step into the fray of life’s turbulence, and as you step back out for Sabbath rest. Pray when you are cranky and when you are exuberant. Pray the psalms, pray poetry, pray your own prayers. Pray kneeling and with your forehead pressed to the ground. Pray with your hands folded or your palms raised. Pray singing, pray silently, pray weeping, pray alone, pray with your children, with your lover. Just pray. The only way to learn to pray is by doing it. It is as simple as breathing, as natural as being with God, as profound as yielding to that which is greater than you—the God who is love.
Make no mistake, the purpose of prayer is to yield to love—to allow God’s love to inundate our lives and spill over into the lives of others; to invite God’s powerful love to unleash in us compassion for our enemies and empathy for our neighbors; to rest in the knowledge that we live daily in the arms of love.
Prayer will change you, and it will also change the world. I invite you this holy season, then, to join me in prayer--especially for the grieving. Especially for our enemies. Especially for the least, the lost, the left out. Let us pray for the impossible, for it will plant the seeds of what might be. Let us pray until--our knees weary with effort--we lean into the prayers of the parents of Parkland; let us find solidarity in this holy act. Let our prayers burn away any obstacle to love, for love is the ultimate antidote to violence.
 Roberta C. Bondi, To Love as God Loves, p. 99.
 Roberta C. Bondi, To Love as God Loves, p. 85-86.