‘The Dance of Daring Prayer’ (my recent sermon)

This past Thursday I delivered the message during chapel at Dakota Wesleyan University (promo piece at the left). My topic (which I chose myself) was entitled “The Dance of Daring Prayer.” At three points I used video clips as an avenue into thinking about the biblical texts and message I was aiming to communicate; I have included those below at the relevant points. I welcome your thoughts on what I have done here.

What is prayer? What words first come to mind when you hear the word “prayer”? Perhaps you think of time in church, of Sunday mornings. Perhaps you think of the silence of the night before you go to sleep, or the dawning of the morning of a new day. Perhaps you think of the Lord’s Prayer, or a particular prayer you pray often. Whatever comes to your mind, we all have preconceptions about prayer. Prayer is, at its most basic, talking with God. It is a moment of introspection, of self-analysis, of deep personal reflection. Prayer invites us to probe the inner recesses of our minds, bodies, and spirits and to lift these up to God. It entails gathering one’s energies and imaginations and escaping for a brief while into a shared act of faithful focus. Prayer is unique in the Bible; throughout the Bible readers encounter God’s word to humanity; with moments of prayer, however, we are given a glimpse into the opposite: humanity’s word to God.

Let me ask another, less obvious and possibly more challenging question: what is prayer NOT? A bit harder, isn’t it? As one of my former teachers used to say often, prayer is not like a vending machine: you put in your money, pick what you want, and out it comes. If this were the case I’m certain I’d be writing an “A” on every paper and test I grade, simply because students have—as I admittedly also used to do with great diligence—prayed desperately that somehow, some way the professor would just . . . . be . . . able . . . to write . . . an “A.” But prayer is not mechanical like this. Unfortunately, God is not a genie who cannot help but grant every wish. Or Jim Carrey sitting at a computer so exhausted that answering “yes to all” seems the best strategy. If you are familiar with the movie ‘Bruce Almighty,’ you know well how this
scene turns out: everyone’s prayers are answered and the world descends into chaos. Some prayers, put most simply, go unanswered. A child battling cancer does not make it. The job you had been hoping would work out doesn’t come about. The radioactive crisis in Japan escalates. But prayer is not simply a time for asking God for things. It’s much, much more.

I think for many of us prayer has become too facile, tamed, and mechanical. The formulaic nature of most prayer—involving asking God, in our politest voice possible, and always with our best manners, and usually in the hope that our requests are not inconveniencing God in any way—often ends up ringing quite hollow, especially when compared with the boldness of the biblical portrait of prayer. In the biblical text characters often avoid pleasantries and niceities when it comes to prayer, audaciously and unflinchingly asking, for instance, in the words of
the prophet Habakkuk, HOW LONG God would allow suffering and destruction to dominate the chosen people, or in the example of Jacob, who fearlessly and brazenly demands God’s help with the looming and murderous threat of his brother Esau on the horizon, reminding God that it was he, and not Jacob, that had led him to this perilous situation. This bold and audacious language, though, is not meant to be corrected, corralled, or rendered impotent by claims that it is unfaithful to speak to God in such a way. No, quite the opposite; the biblical text creates for us a vocabulary of prayer . . . of daring prayer . . . from which we can learn a great deal.

Let’s work backwards through the texts for today, beginning with our New Testament text from Luke, because I think it provides a good snapshot of what I’m trying to get at. Jesus’ disciples ask him to teach them how to pray, and Jesus responds by teaching them the Lord’s prayer (or, one version of it, as we have a different, more well-known version in Matthew’s gospel). But Jesus doesn’t stop there; the parable that follows clarifies. Jesus is not telling his disciples to commit this prayer to memory and utter it and only it. No, Jesus is saying this is a
of praying, and he seems to caution against getting too stuck on issues of form. The parable, rather, speaks of bold persistence in prayer. Where prayers are not answered, pray all the more! Where you have a genuine need, God will not give you more than you can handle. When the vending machine gives you Cheetos even though you clearly pressed B5, which was Reeses Peanut Butter Cups, do not lose faith. Be persistent in prayer, Jesus says. Meek and mild is not the way to go. Be bold, be daring.

We see such daring speech to God in evidence again at the end of Jesus’ life. In Matthew and Mark’s gospel Jesus’ final words are quite a bit unsettling: “My God my God, why have you forsaken me?” These words may seem a bit puzzling; why would Jesus be speaking in such a
way at the pivotal moment in his life: the crucifixion? Without getting too much into detail, these final words are a quotation from the Old Testament, from Psalm 22:1. A quick classroom ditty on the Psalms: there are different types of psalms – praise psalms, thanksgiving psalms, and complaint psalms among them. Ps 22 is an example of a complaint psalm, where the speaker uttering it is undergoing great suffering and asking where God is and why God has not intervened. Ok, class dismissed. But what does this mean then if Jesus, in his final words, voices a word of lament, a word of complaint? A question directed at God? Quite simple, really. If Jesus has taught us how to pray, and models for us a way of speaking to God that includes questions, that taps into the deepest and rawest of human emotions, are we not then encouraged to pray
with a similar boldness, diligence, and daring? Jesus teaches us how to pray daringly, and shows that asking questions is not beyond the bounds of true and deeply honest prayer.

Let’s turn to our first text, Gen 18:16-33, where we see Abraham putting into practice such persistent and doggedly bold prayer. This text creates a much different portrait of God than most are accustomed to seeing. The text begins by giving us a peak into God’s inner-monologue, as he muses over the question of whether he should hide his intention to destroy the wicked Sodom and Gomorroah from his covenant partner, Abraham. Ultimately, and interestingly, God decides against withholding this information. This simple decision on God’s part reveals a great deal: God is interested in what humanity has to say. God genuinely desires to hear humanity’s take on things. Or, put another way, God understands the relationship with creation and humanity to have integrity, and for that to be the case humanity must be allowed a voice. As the text ensues, this is precisely what we are given. Abraham essentially barters with God to save these two cities, asking first if there are 50 righteous people, then 40, then 30, all the way down to 10. The remarkable has happened. Abraham convinces God to change his mind! Abraham, perhaps sensing the daringness of his speech, prefaces his requests in a humble tone, but this tone does not lessen the gravity of what he is asking. Learning of God’s desire to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, which the text acknowledges would result also in the unnecessary loss of innocent life, Abraham questions the justice of God’s decision, and through his daring speech is able to convince God—at least for the time being—to spare these wicked cities. God, seemingly bent on one purpose, hears Abraham’s words as a genuine and daring word of prayer, a word that ultimately leads to a change in the divine mind. Daring prayer has made a difference.

The Sodom and Gomorrah scene becomes even more powerful when juxtaposed with an equally troubling scene in Gen 22, where God has instructed Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac as part of a divine test. The glitch, however, is that neither Abraham nor Isaac know it is a test.
Whereas in Gen 18 Abraham was quick to speak up on behalf of an entire population, most of whom he did not even know, in Gen 22 Abraham hears the divine command to sacrifice Isaac and immediately begins making preparations. No questions are raised. No daring prayer here. What would happen if someone had asked questions, uttering daring words to God, in this instance? (I showed the first 1:40 of the following clip).

Whew, thank God that Jack Black showed up! Can I get an “AMEN” on that one, anybody? What this clip shows—the daringness to ask a question—is not what happens in the biblical text, and while many interpretations, in my view, whitewash this scene by emphasizing that in the end Isaac is spared and Abraham passes the test, I can’t help, as a father myself, to read the story another way. Yes, Isaac’s life
is spared, but at what cost? Careful reading of the biblical text reveals that he will, throughout the remainder of Genesis, be quite ineffectual and unimportant, simply acting as the object for his wife Rebekah and son Jacob’s deception to gain the blessing. Moreover, it is not without meaning that as Abraham and Isaac come down the mountain together they do not say a single word to one another; in fact, they are never seen together, nor speaking to one another, again. Isaac walks away from this scene seemingly scarred for the rest of his life. At Sodom and Gomorrah Abraham uttered a daring prayer of questions to save an entire population, most of whom were strangers to him; later,
however, he would fail to daringly question the divine command to sacrifice his son, seemingly at great cost to his son.

The (Daring) Prayerbook of the Bible

If you ever need guidance for how to pray, turn to the Psalms. They are the prayerbook of the Bible; these are what ancient Israel prayed during their worship, and the Psalms continue to serve as timeless prayers for many yet today. The Psalms teach us how to pray. But
the Psalms are also raw, gutsy, and daring in their language. Throughout the Psalms one encounters numerous examples of what scholars call lament or complaint psalms. Psalm 13 from our reading today is one such example. This text raises a single, powerful question to God over and over again: “HOW LONG?!” How long will God hide his face from me? How long will I bear pain? How long will my enemy prevail over me? This amazingly blunt candor sometimes shocks readers, but it is an honest part of the dialogue of faith. How many of you have experienced a situation that has genuinely led you to question God. Don’t worry, be honest, God’s watching but I hear he’s a pretty forgiving guy. We all have, haven’t we? What we find in the Psalms, Ps 13 among them, is an example of a brutally honest prayer from the depths of life and experience. Honest faith acknowledges life’s reality, warts and all. And within the Psalms, no part of life is ever beyond the dialogue with God. To raise such questions, to be honest to one’s own experiences, is, from the biblical perspective, an act of faith. Questions are not beyond the scope of prayer if that is what you are feeling. Such honest spirituality, such daring prayer does not ignore the pain of life but puts it in the larger context of faith in God.

Asking Questions of God, About God

If you still remain a bit skeptical about the possibility of praying in such a way, let us pick up where Brandon left off last week, with the book of Job. You may recall the basic story of the book: Job is an exemplary righteous man who, despite the death of his family, loss of all his possessions, and grave illness, stands firm in his faith. His friends continually try to convince him that he must have sinned in some way to deserve such unimaginable suffering; for 38 chapters Job professes his innocence before God, and his bold affirmations of innocence ultimately begin to take the form of questions to God: why is this happening to me? What have I done to deserve this? Brandon read last week part of God’s response to Job, which begins with the well-known phrase “who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.” God goes on for four chapters to interrogate Job, a response that many understand as ‘putting Job in his place’; indeed, God’s response to Job amounts ultimately to the equivalent of saying ‘I’m God, you’re not; you cannot understand my ways, so buck up and deal with it.’ Many interpreters have taken this as a sort of victory for God: God 1, Job 0. But last week we did not hear about the end of the story, the most important part of the story to interpreting the book in my view. Let’s look at Job 42:1-9.

(Job 42:1-9 on screen)

Job, humbled by God’s response, seems a bit shaken—rightfully so! But it is God’s word that follows that stands out. Notice what God says; God is not angry at Job, but at Job’s friends who have attempted to convince him he was guilty. Here’s the kicker: God says explicitly it is not the three friends, OR EVEN GOD HIMSELF, who has spoken rightly; Job alone, God says, is the only one who has said what is right. He’s the only one whose language, whose speech has been accurate, correct, and true to reality. What’s more, notice what God instructs Job to do: pray for his friends, and God will accept Job’s prayer and forgive them. For nearly 40 chapters Job has been professing his innocence (and implicitly, then, God’s guilt); Job’s daring speech, daring prayer throughout the book is met with approval from God. God approves not of the three friends’ pious attempts to defend or apologize for God but rather of Job’s confident and daring affirmations of innocence and his prayers of questions. The book of Job gives us a unique perspective on daring prayer because we get not just the prayer but God’s assessment of it; and God’s assessment? Quite simple: God prefers, welcomes, and encourages the daring prayer of Job—even if he is speaking of things he does not truly understand—rather than those who mechanically rehash familiar credos without thinking.

I want to close today by sharing one final modern day example of daring prayer and how it may be used. Elie Wiesel is a Nobel Prize Winner and prolific author. He is also a survivor of the Holocaust, which claimed the lives of his parents and little sister, not to mention 6 million other Jews. I don’t have time to dive into every aspect of his story, but I would encourage you all to read his brief memoir Night; if you’re in my class we’ll be reading it next week. But needless to say in and through the flames of Auschwitz, the camp where Wiesel was stationed most of his stay, Wiesel’s faith and trust in God underwent drastic change. He writes that he never came to doubt God’s existence, only God’s justice. Throughout Night he refuses to pray as an act of protest, of defiance to God. Since that event Wiesel, perhaps realizing the powerful model of daring prayer contained in the Bible’s pages, does now pray. He says that he prays to God now, but only with questions. Familiar questions, I’m certain: how long? Where are you, God? Why have you forsaken me . . . why have you forsaken us, the Jewish people? I
cannot hope to capture the incredible power of Wiesel’s words; his voice, his eyes, his words tell it better.

And so I invite you all to be daring in your prayers when necessary. If you have questions, address them to God. If you have joy, address it to God. If you have anger, address it to God. Break away from what my friend and Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann calls “routinized repetition” in prayer. There are no preconceived rules in prayer. There are no required set rubrics, checklists, or formulas that guarantee one’s prayer is heard. I’m reminded of this nightly when my wife and I say our prayers with my 3 yr old son, Evan. We have a short prayer that he has memorized, but we also break out of this routinizing of prayer by inviting him to pray for whatever he would like as well, which has
ranged from taking care of his baby cousin who was sick to us being able to sell our house in Texas and move home to Mitchell to praying that Scooby Doo doesn’t get hurt by the monsters or that nobody steals his toys while he’s sleeping. But we are trying to encourage in him daring prayer. The very remarkable act of prayer itself violates our conventional understanding of submissiveness and docility before God. The Bible gives us a vocabulary with which to pray, and to pray daringly and boldly from the depths of one’s soul, to give voice to all situations, realities, and struggles in life. “It is an awesome matter to voice one’s life before God, and our lives, therefore, should be awesomely uttered.”

I want to close with a prayer from Elie Wiesel, to show us the power of daring prayer in the face of the greatest adversity and questions:

I no longer ask you for either happiness or paradise; all I ask of You is to listen and let me be aware of Your listening.

I no longer ask You to resolve my questions, only to receive them and make them part of You.

I no longer ask You for either rest or wisdom, I only ask You not to close me to gratitude, be it of the most trivial kind, or to surprise and friendship. Love? Love is not Yours to give.

As for my enemies, I do not ask You to punish them or even to enlighten them; I only ask You not to lend them Your mask and Your powers. If You must relinquish one or the other, give them Your powers. But not Your countenance.

They are modest, my requests, and humble. I ask You what I might ask a stranger met by chance at twilight in a barren land.

I ask you, God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to enable me to pronounce these words without betraying the child that transmitted them to me: God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, enable me to forgive You and enable the child I once was to forgive me too.

I no longer ask You for the life of that child, nor even for his faith. I only beg You to listen to him and act in such a way that You and I can listen to him together.

3 thoughts on “‘The Dance of Daring Prayer’ (my recent sermon)

  1. Jason says:

    John Anderson + sermon = quite a surprise! I read through and I must say this is quite good. I am always glad to see when scholarship and faith dine together and that one is not exclusive of the other. Well done, sir.

    • John Anderson says:

      @Jason: that’s quite the sophisticated formula you have there! My sincerest thanks for your positive comments. These are the types of things I feel many in the faith need to hear and should hear. Perhaps a bit unsettling for some, but preaching and teaching should not be easy nor convey an easy message, in my view.

      From a veteran preacher like yourself, these words of praise mean a great deal! Thank you!

  2. Jason says:

    John: Yes, I’ve always been known for my math skills! 🙂 And, you are absolutely correct–once we have come to a point of thinking we’ve got issues pertaining to Scripture, theology, etc. ironed out, then it’s time for the foundations to be shaken. What’s made of stuff that will last will endure, the rest is chaff. I see/hear all the time in the ministry the redundant and ritualistic nature of some of our Christian practices, prayer being one of the major ones. It’s like people simply learned to pray as if there were only one way. One of my best friends used to say that sometimes in his prayers, he would curse because he was so angry at God about something. While this would offend most people to the core, I think that God is more interested in a prayer offered from the deepest recesses of our souls than some canned lip service.

    God as a vending machine? That’s the view more times than not. Or the genie. Or the fortune teller. Robotic piety, I say (seems to be a contradiction in some sense). The longer I pastor, the more discontent I become with traditions. Some are good, but most become an albatross around the neck. Ok, rant over.

    Also, as far as my tenure preaching, I still feel like a novice!

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