Thoughts and Prayers: A Sermon for Those Who Do Not Pray
The Rev. J. Michael Solberg, July 8, 2018
The Union Church of Hinsdale
“In certain ways we are weak, but the Spirit is here to help us. For example, when we don’t know what to pray for, the Spirit prays for us in ways that cannot be put into words. All of our thoughts are known to God. He can understand what is in the mind of the Spirit, as the Spirit prays for God’s people.”(Romans 8:26-27)
A couple of months ago, when we first announced that our summer sermon series would focus on prayer, the very first comment I heard about it from a member of the congregation was, “Well, I don’t really pray.” Over the last two months, that has actually been the most common comment I have heard about this sermon series: “I don’t really pray.” So, if that’s you, you’re not alone. Lots of people don’t pray.
I’d like to break that down a little bit – dig into why many of us don’t pray, and then see where we might go from here.
I want to start on a communal note, and then move on to the personal. First, let me say, I’m sorry. I’m sorry that we, and many churches like ours, have become places where prayer is not an essential part of our life, and where we have not effectively taught people why and how to pray. Such teaching has largely not been prioritized by pastors, nor eagerly sought by church members. I think we have wanted to make church so comfortable for people, so seamless with the tenor and tone of our community and culture, and we have so wanted to be seen as the thinking people’s church, that something as overtly religious as personal prayer, something as seemingly anti-intellectual, as pious, as personal prayer, just hasn’t fit the character of this congregation and other congregations like ours. This may sting in a way, and be a bit too strong, but If you are among the many who don’t really pray, I am sorry the church has failed you. We need to change, because we are robbing ourselves of a great gift, and the church and the world need us to be people of prayer.
With that communal failure as the backdrop of our current situation, it is worth exploring how that has played out in individual lives. I am going to name ten reasons people have told me they don’t pray. This is what I have heard and observed. I do not offer these with any hint of judgment, as I share many of the concerns expressed here, and I share in many of the failures as well. There may be other dynamics at play for you, personally, but please listen and see if you can hear expressed here some of your own situation.
Reasons people don’t pray:
- You have (rightly) given up a simplistic notion of God as a divine Santa Claus, or ATM, or goody-bag, and don’t want to ask for stuff, so you don’t pray. I’ve read and seen that even children who grow up in households where they never once hear someone pray for stuff, still often in elementary school years will pray for a pony or a new bike or whatever it is. There is just something about the spirituality of children that manifests itself that way. At some point, hopefully, we come to see the limits of that type of prayer, and give it up. That’s a good thing. But for far too many people that’s the end of the story, even though prayer shouldn’t end there, for it is so much more than getting what we want.
- A second reason people don’t pray is that their interest in Christianity, or at least in the church, is primarily social, primarily about human connectedness, not connectedness to God. This is something I hear a lot here at Union Church, and I deeply respect the emphasis on human connectedness. Indeed, I think that is often where adult human faith begins. Perhaps you have heard me say before that most people experience “belonging before believing.” That’s a good thing. But the social is not allthere is to our faith, and prayer and connectedness to God has an important role in addition to the social.
- A third reason people don’t pray is because they have been disappointed by prayer. I’m sure almost all of you know what I mean. In honest faith and real need, you pray for someone to be healed of pancreatic cancer, and a year later they are dead. You pray for an end to Alzheimer’s disease, but it continues its brutal attack on someone’s old life. Prayer didn’t work, so why continue in the same vein?
- A fourth reason people don’t pray is they fear they will discover God is not there anyway. Or, in an inversion of the previous reason, people may be hanging on to a bit of faith, or at least church involvement, and don’t want to risk it. They fear that if they pray, they may have a hard time connecting with God, so it is better not to risk discovering that God really isn’t there after all.
- A fifth reason people don’t pray is that they have an entirelynon-personal understanding of God. God may be real, but God is not the kind of entity that can be addressed in something as confined, as human, as prayer. God is abstract. Not so much unapproachable, as unknowable, untouchable. So praying is a sign of having a far too personal view of God, and thus has no real point.
- A sixth reason people don’t pray is that they don’t want God to interfere in their lives. There is a sense that God is real, but also a sense that God is a kill-joy, and that in addressing God directly you sort of give God an opportunity to wreak havoc in your life. While this is obviously something of a psychological game, I have seen it at work in people’s lives. I knew a guy in Rockford who basically said that he stopped praying when he bought a $90,000 Hummer – because he figured if he prayed he would feel so guilty he would have to sell the thing. True story. Humans are such funny creatures.
- A seventh reason people don’t pray is because other things take priority. In a real, basic way, praying can take time. And time is money. And time is sleep. And time is connection to the kids. And time is entertainment. Time is the most precious thing we have in life. To spend it in prayer just seems unnecessary. For these folks, it might be good to remember the old Buddhist view: Everyone should pray 20 minutes every day. If you think you don’t have time, then you should pray for an hour.
- Eighth, people don’t pray because they are worried about doing it “wrong.” I appreciate this reason quite a bit, because I do think we can pray wrongly. But the truth is that there is a lot of bad prayer even in the Bible, in the Psalms and elsewhere, and clearly God wants us to pray no matter how wrongheaded it is. God uses it as an opening to get closer to us and get going in the right direction.
- A ninth reason people don’t pray is that they are relying on “always being in communion with God.” I have been guilty of this at times in my life, thinking I don’t need to sit still for a while and focus, for I feel that God is always with me, that my life can be a constant back and forth with God. That’s good, of course, but it also neglects some very important aspects of prayer, which really does require more intentionality.
- The tenth and last reason I’ll mention is that some people don’t pray because they don’t see anything worth bothering God about. This can go two directions, either in the sense that someone has such blinders on, lives in such a little bubble of a blessed, comfortable life, that it just wouldn’t be right to pray as the old song goes, “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz. All my friends have Porsches, I’m just trying to meet ends.” That clearly is wrong, so it’s better not to pray at all. It could also take the direction of just saying, “Well, he’s got the whole world in his hands, anyway, and what I say in prayer isn’t going to make too much of a difference, so I’ll not take up God’s time with the whole ritual.”
So, there you go. Ten reasons people don’t pray. There are more I suppose, but I bet if you don’t pray, you can see yourself in there somewhere. In any case, I guess I have really taken the time to lay all that out so you can see I mean it when I say this:
I get it. I see you. I hear you.
And the truth is, you are not alone. And as your experience of faith up to this point, it’s okay.
While I do blame the church, broadly speaking, for largely creating this situation, I have nothing but understanding and even compassion for people who identify with any of these reasons. Well, except for the guy who stopped praying when he bought the Hummer. I have no compassion for that. Well, okay, he’s enslaved to his materialism, which is a terrible curse, and I want him to be released from that demon, so okay, I can even summon a little compassion for him.
But here’s the thing, even with understanding and compassion, I also want to tell you that you have not discovered some fatal flaw in the theology or practice of Christian prayer. All of these reasons are understandable, but all of them are also answerable. Christians have been doing this for 2000 years and none of us have today discovered a real reason not to pray. It will take more time than I can give it in a sermon to show the flaw in each of those reasons, and we are going to talk about many of them in our five-hour prayer school on July 21. I hope you will sign up for that. I assure you, it will be worth your five hours and your ten bucks. Go to the website and search “prayer school” and you’ll get to the registration page. Or write your name down on a piece of paper and give it to me. Or send me an email. Or write it here on the back of my hand. Whatever. You do have to sign up ahead of time, but let me know somehow you are coming, and you won’t be sorry.
But short of five hours, I want to say three things on the positive, constructive side. First, the root cause of much of what I talked about today comes from an understandable, but still problematic, idea that prayer is primarily about acquisition, about trying to get something from God. So, please hear this: “Prayer is not about acquisition, but about formation” (Brian Zahnd). Prayer is not about getting stuff from God, whatever that may be, material or otherwise. It is about becoming more like God, as God is revealed in Jesus Christ. It is about becoming more like the people God wants us to be. Prayer is not about acquisition, but formation.
And secondly, it is important to realize that prayer is a skill that can be developed. It is like baseball or bricklaying or bridge: when you practice you get better – with better in this case meaning prayer better helps you be the person God wants you to be. Prayer is sort of like learning to master a musical instrument. From Beethoven to Eric Clapton, all the great improvisers also spent hours a day, year after year, practicing, especially practicing scales. Mastering the backbone, the basics, makes you better. And it is the same with prayers. We are going to talk more about this at Prayer School, but here is a prayer liturgy from a pastor I really respect, Brian Zahnd. It takes about 15-20 minutes, and if you do it everyday, you will get better at prayer, and you just may find your life transformed. Do it every day, and if not that then two or three days a week, and if not that then do it once – just get started. I will leave these by the door for you to pick up following the service.
Third, I say simply, pray. Take the time. Put forth the effort. To fail to pray is to deny ourselves a great gift from God. It is a gift God has given us so we can know God better and be formed into the people God wants us to be. So, pray, now and always.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.