PRAYER AS NUMBING OUT OR DIVING IN
So – Ash Wednesday! This has got to be one of the strangest things to do in our world today. We put ashes on our heads and speak about our weakness, our brokenness, and our sinful capacity to hurt ourselves and others. What happened to the motivational, “you’re the king of the world” stuff? And as for Lent! A whole season of denying ourselves; six weeks of confronting our worst selves and doing the hard work of bringing out our best. Forty days of preparation for a week where we meditate on the excruciating pain of one man. Where else in our society do we do anything like this?
If we’re honest, a lot of the time we’re encouraged more to numb out than to face the struggles and pain of living well in a broken world. For most of us the numbing out isn’t in destructive socially unacceptable ways. We find subtle, socially very acceptable methods to numb ourselves out. We throw ourselves into our work so that we don’t have time to think. Or we try to organise and control every detail of our lives and our loved ones’ lives so that we can create the illusion of being safe and secure from anything that could hurt us. Or we hide ourselves behind a wall of self-protection and we don’t allow anyone to get too close.
We may even use prayer as an attempt to feel like we’re immune to, or protected from, pain. There’s this idea in the church that if we just pray enough, if we just pray correctly, we can escape the pain of the world.
A couple of years ago I was sitting in a Christian gathering and someone was sharing a really difficult struggle they were facing. And before they’d even finished explaining the complexities and difficulties of their situation, someone on the other side of the group said, “Oh, just pray! God will sort it all out. All you need to do is pray!” I can’t help feeling that to use prayer like this is just another way to numb out to life’s pain.
But, there is another kind of prayer – one that is not about numbing out, but about diving in. It is the opposite of numbing out. It is about engaging more deeply in life with all it’s complexities and ambiguities and struggles. It is not about prayer as something that fixes things, but as prayer that connects us with the longings of God. It’s the kind of prayer that echoes the prayers that God prays – which is what this Lenten series is all about.
And today, we begin with a simple truth – God prays. God prays for us. God prays with us. God prays through us. If we will just learn to stop numbing out, if we can embrace our pain – and the longing for healing and restoration – and allow God’s longings to become our own.
GOD PRAYS FOR US, WITH US, IN US
The Roman church was a community that knew something about pain. They were struggling with the pain of internal divisions as they tried to bring Jews and Gentiles into a single cohesive community in spite of their differences. They were struggling with the pain of persecution from the religions around them, and from the Roman government. And they were struggling with the pain of doubt and despair that God’s Reign didn’t seem to be appearing to wipe out the Romans and heal this broken world.
And to this community Paul writes about God’s longings. He begins by taking for granted that we will suffer in this life. And not just human beings, but all of creation. Because our universe is not yet whole. It is not yet just. It is not yet filled with love and reconciliation as God desires. In fact, in verse 17, Paul even says that if we are to share in Christ’s glory we have to share also in his suffering.
But, then he speaks into that suffering. We are weak, he says, and we don’t know what to pray. But, the Holy Spirit helps us by praying for us, with us, through us, with inexpressible groans. This is so comforting to me because it means that I don’t have to get prayer “right”. I don’t have to know the right words, or the right formulae, or even have the right attitude. All I have to be able to do is groan – to feel the grief of living in a broken world, to know the longing for the world and my life to be whole and restored. All I have to do is refuse to use prayer as a way to numb out and to embrace the pain that comes to every human life. And as I do that, God promises that God will pray for me, and with me, and through me! And then every longing for justice, every cry in anguish, and every dream of a better world becomes a prayer expressing not just our own longings, but the longings of God.
EXPERIENCING THE PRAYERS OF GOD
So what does it mean for God to pray for us, and with us, and through us? And how do we open ourselves to experience this kind of prayer – the prayer that connects us with the longings of God? Paul offers us two invitations.
Firstly, God prays with us in our pain. It seems like maybe the Romans had somehow come to believe that their suffering meant that God didn’t love them. They were feeling abandoned by God, and like their pain was a sign of God’s judgement. But, Paul declares that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God that comes to us in Jesus. And so our suffering is not a sign that God has stopped loving us, or that God judges us, or has abandoned us. Rather, our suffering is where we are most able to experience the love of God.
So in our moments of greatest pain, God is praying for us that we will know that nothing can separate us from God’s love. And God prays for us to experience the sustaining grace of God’s love in the midst of our suffering and struggle. Because, when we discover God’s love in our suffering, we no longer need to numb out. And then we discover that even in our suffering we can experience life deeply and abundantly.
Secondly, God prays for us to live as beloved children of God. When we know God’s love and life in the midst of our pain, something magical happens – we begin to recognise that we are God’s children, and we begin to live out of that knowledge with confidence and courage.
For some people suffering makes them bitter and destructive. But, for those who have touched God’s love and life in the midst of pain, for those who know they are eternally loved children of God, suffering makes them more compassionate and forgiving and kind. And how do you heal a broken world? One small act of kindness at a time. That’s why the entire created order waits for the children of God to be revealed!
Like Debbie and my Aunty Peggy. A simple woman who has experienced the loss of three grandchildren, one son and her husband. Yet who has always been so kind to those around her. Who has supported and loved Debs and me even when no one else did. Who remembers, at 90-odd – every detail of our lives and those of our children. And all of those small acts of kindness have healed us. I believe she knows what it is to let God’s longings work in her – to find God in her pain, and live from that love.
So, today, as we begin the journey through Lent, can I invite you to do two things to remind you of God’s prayers for you – God’s longing for you to know and live out of God’s love?
Firstly, as we receive the ashes on our foreheads, we will be remembering that we are dust – frail, suffering human beings. But, we will also remember that we are beloved by God, and that God prays for us, and with us, and through us.
And secondly, may I invite you to write down three things to carry with you as a reminder through Lent: What do you feel God wants to pray in and through you in this season? What does God want you to give during this season? And from what does God want you to fast? All in order to remind you of God’s presence and love – God’s longings for you – through this season.