Prayers in the Wilderness: Praying for Ourselves 3/25/12

As we continue our prayers in the wilderness this Lenten season, we’re coming close to the end, close to the cross. In the wilderness, we’re particularly thinking about praying about poverty. We started with prayers of praise, moved to prayers of confession; two weeks ago, we talked about prayers of intercession for people, particularly for people in need. Today, I want to talk about petition, prayers for ourselves.

John 12: 20-33 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23 Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. 27 “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say–’ Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

March 25, 2012

Prayers in the Wilderness: Praying for Ourselves       

            When I really need to pray, when prayer is coming from my heart, the prayer often sounds like this,


“Help me….

“Help me God, because I’m not sure what to do here. I’m not sure where to go next.”

There’s no prayer of praise, no prayer of confession, no prayer for anybody else. The only prayer that can come is a prayer for myself. Help me, God.

I’m sure you recognize this prayer.

When I come to that place of loneliness or despair, the prayer is from the gut, and there’s nothing elegant about it. Sometimes the prayer sounds more like “Why?” than “help;” but it’s still a prayer for help, not really a request for an explanation. “Why? How could this be happening?”

In relation to praying about poverty, this kind of gut prayer has no intellectual understanding of who is poor and who has a bigger need than someone else. There are times when there are no distinctions, when you just feel a deep need or hurt and you cry out for God’s guidance or help in your own form of the wilderness. That’s not to say that we all live in poverty, or we all know what it is to be poor. It’s a whole different thing when one really lives on the edge, but this prayer from our most needy selves is the one that helps us relate, and helps us intuit our connection to someone in need.

For Jesus that prayer happened in the Garden of Gethsemane as he faced into the reality of the cross, as he saw what was coming. In Luke (22:42), Jesus prays “take this cup from me.” And then immediately prays, “but not my will but yours be done.” The gospel of John never portrays Jesus in need, so in John, Jesus only considers the prayer, “save me from this hour” in passing, and immediately says that this moment, this cross, this death is what he has come for. But even in John we still hear an echo of that prayer of need, that cry for help – and Jesus’ reluctant decision to be willing to die.

Then Jesus goes on to say “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out…” Jesus is declaring that what is about to happen will bring real help to the world – real help to all of us in our places of despair and need. The crucifixion is a judgment on the world, a judgment on the systems of our world that keep people down, that re-enforce structures of domination rather than hope and freedom.

That heart-felt ‘help’ prayer came to my lips this week when I heard Trayvon Martin was killed by a neighborhood watch vigilante. My heart went out to the parents of a child so near in age to mine.  My heart went out to them when I heard the 911 tape of the boy saying this very prayer “Help… Help me” just before being shot. George Zimmerman allegedly followed, confronted, shot and killed Trayvon, who carried nothing more threatening than Skittles and a can of Iced Tea. Zimmerman sounds like a hothead who deserves to be prosecuted, but I get a little nervous that the crowds protesting could turn into their own form of vigilantes or lynch mob.

Zimmerman should be arrested and get his day in court, and the energy of the crowds needs to turn undiminished on the laws that have been passed in Florida and Pennsylvania that encourage rather than discourage Zimmerman’s kind of behavior. The crucifixion is a judgment on the world, a judgment on the systems of domination that lead to laws that say it is permissible to take law into your own hands.  Last year, we went to Harrisburg to protest a law that would expand the “Castle doctrine.” The Castle doctrine is a long held standard that says you have the right to defend yourself in your own home.

The standard was that outside your home, the first thing you should do when you feel threatened is not to shoot someone but to retreat. State legislatures, acting out of fear, weakened the standard in the last few years – first in Florida and now in Pennsylvania, to expand the castle doctrine to anyplace you feel threatened, saying you have a right to “stand your ground” and use force wherever you feel threatened – your school, your workplace, the grocery store, your gated community, your church. The result of passing laws like this, as we said in Harrisburg last year, will be actions like what happened in Sanford, Florida, and an inability for law enforcement to do anything about it.

Jesus crucifixion is a judgment of this world, but it is also a claim on this world, a claim that death is not the end, that fear will not be the ruler of our lives. Horace Kallen put it this way, ‘There are persons who shape their lives by the fear of death, and persons who shape their lives by the joy and satisfaction of life.  The former live dying; the latter die living.  I know that fate may stop me tomorrow, but death is an irrelevant contingency.  Whenever it come, I intend to die living.’

When we pray for ourselves, some of our most authentic prayers start with a prayer for ‘help.’ The prayer might contain elements of fear or despair, but for those of us who follow the first century Jew who lived briefly, died violently, and returned unexpectedly, that cry for help turns quickly into empathy and solidarity with people around us experiencing loss, suffering, and death.

The power of Christ moves in our hearts, changes our hearts, to trust God’s judgment on the systems of death and domination. This Spirit allows Jesus’ claim on our lives to take hold – to not be afraid, to not get caught up in the crowd, but live toward life, to live transformed and changed in love with God’s world.

We pray for Trayvon’s family. We pray for George Zimmerman. We pray for ourselves.


Responsive Hymn: Responsive hymn: 2152 Change My Heart, O God