Proper 12(C): Teach Us to Pray
By: The Rev. Sean Ekberg
“Our thoughts and prayers are with you…”
The last two decades have been riddled by terrorism, natural disasters, and heinous acts of social injustice. Initially, we were shocked. When the twin towers sent smoke billowing into the sky on September 11th, we watched in absolute horror. The following weeks served as a testament to the American spirit and how we could come together…for a time. Then, one by one, atrocities seemingly began to abound. School shootings, night club massacres, bombings, floods, hurricanes, injustices afflicting many groups…the list built. As these moments came and went, the words, “Our thoughts and prayers are with you,” started becoming trite. People began to decry the phrase’s usage due to the lack of outcome and a sense of insincerity—we wanted prayers to be answered. And answered the way in which they were presented. In essence, people were treating (and still treat) God like a cosmic coke machine, expecting that the heinous crimes against humanity and the loss of life would cease simply because we were ‘prayin’ hard enough.’ Now, it seems that our patent response of, “Our thoughts and prayers are with you…” has become a tagline that isn’t even accompanied by prayers. Or thoughts, for that matter. Sometimes I think they’ve become mere meaningless words. (I know that many of us humbly pray and do so with intentionality, but much of the outside world does not.)
Because we want action.
We don’t want to sit faithfully and pray, awaiting the Marvel-esque God to sweep down and avenge the evils done to us. So, we march. We organize. We speak out. And we should. We are called to speak out against hatred and we have a sacred desire to come together in community to try to make this world a better version of itself through our actions. But we shouldn’t lose the true sense of prayer, nor should we cease reminding those around us of its power and importance. Luke 11:1-13 provides step-by-step instructions for us. “How do we pray?” could also have meant, “How should we pray when we’ve lost hope; or, have no idea how to ask/discern what’s best for us?” Our congregations and ourselves need reminding—the WORLD needs reminding—that prayer is the most potent tool in our everyday toolbox. Reteaching those around us (and perhaps ourselves) that prayer is more about a relationship with God, and is less about controlling the free will of others, is of paramount importance these days.
When travesties occur, our thoughts and prayers do matter; we have to remind ourselves of that. We may not always get what we want, but we will be granted the grace to help one another through our darkest moments. The times of trial only come when we face them alone—that is something we too often forget.
Perhaps a prudent plan for preaching Luke on Proper 12 would involve walking people through The Lord’s Prayer with intentionality. What does it really say? What is it really asking for? The people sitting in church on Sunday are most likely on auto-pilot during The Lord’s Prayer (thinking of lunch when ‘daily bread’ is mentioned) and aren’t being intentional about the prayer at all. If we’re honest with ourselves, some of the priests/pastors/ministers are guilty, too. But if we can successfully walk our people, and ourselves, through the lines of Jesus’ recommendation for prayer, maybe new meanings will emerge. If we think about what we’re praying for, our prayers will become more about encountering the Holy in times of joy, need, sorrow, and pain, and less about “Okay, God, I prayed. Now make all this go away.” Because, to quote a recent humorous commercial promoting Facebook, “That’s now how this works. That’s not how ANY of this works.”
If you’ll remember, Christ prayed multiple times to be taken from the hands of his enemies while in Gethsemane. Was he delivered from captivity and death? No. But he prayed anyway. I have to believe that, during those frightening moments, Christ’s heartfelt prayers were answered. They were answered with a sense of grace that gave him the courage to keep moving, regardless of the outcome. That’s the point of prayer: to remember God’s promise of salvation and that, while we ask, we may not always get what we ask for, but in the words of theologian Mick Jagger, we’ll get what we need. In the end, God will recognize part of Godself in us.
Preaching on the power of prayer—and the importance of it—is something we should never stop doing. Just like we should never stop praying. By reminding people to connect or reconnect with the words they’re praying while they’re praying them, we’re repairing a broken promise typed out in response or said aloud in rote tones…
Because our thoughts and prayers really will be with them. And within us.
The Rev. Sean Ekberg is the Rector of Episcopal Church of the Resurrection in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. He earned a Master of Divinity from Seminary of the Southwest in 2015. His favorite pastimes are talkin’ bout Jesus, enhancing his terrible golf game, and taking vacation time with his favorite person in the world—his wife, Nicole. They have a thirteen year old pit bull named Ty. He likes Jesus, too.