Fifteen years ago this coming October, I had my heart sliced open to repair a valve. Since the surgery did not put my heart into sinus rhythm, the doctor’s decided I needed a conversion. Well, I know what a conversion is in the language of the church, but I had no idea what the phrase meant to the doctors.
I was told that a conversion meant that they would give my heart an electrical shock, just like the procedure we see so often on the TV with the blue paddles raised and everyone told to stand back. Only at the hospital it would be done with patches.
The appointed day arrived and I was sitting on the gurney in my skimpy, opened in the back hospital gown, when a nurse stepped from behind the glass barrier and asked if anyone had told me the risks. “Risks? What risks?” I asked in a voice that had risen two decimals higher in tone. “There are three,” he replied. “The first is that we can speed your heart up; but, don’t worry, we’ll just shock you again.” I began to perspire copiously. “Second, we can shoot a blood clot lose; but, you’re on coumadin and we’ll test your levels before we start.” By this time you could have pealed me off of the ceiling, I was so anxious. “And third, we can outright kill you. But, that’s never happened at Hopkins.” All that I could hear were my own thoughts saying, “I’ll probably be your first,” and screaming in my mind, “Get me off of this table NOW!” “Now,” he said smiling at me, “I need you to sign this form.”
“Lord, teach us to pray” never crossed my mind. I was more fearful than rational, so I took a deep breath and thought, “The God who has sustained you all your life, even in the three close encounters with death you’ve already had, is the same God who will sustain you in whatever is to come.” The bottom line for me was ‘Trust in God.” So, I signed the form and lay down to wait. “Oh, one more thing,” the nurse said over his shoulder as he left the room, “You might wake up and scream when the electricity hits your heart; but most people don’t remember it.” And he was gone; and I continued to shake.
Needless to say, they didn’t kill me; but they did have to shock me twice. I know because there were two distinct burn patches on my back. Out of curiosity, I asked the nurse if I had screamed. He said, “You sat bolt upright, said ‘Damn it to hell that hurt,’ looked at us and proclaimed, ‘You’re monsters; you each have two heads,’ then you lay down and went back to sleep.” I didn’t remember any of it, but I knew it sounded like just the thing I would say.
It is at such times as these that many turn to prayer, or beseech Jesus to teach them how to pray. For some of us, the prayers in the BCP come naturally and are deeply meaningful. For others of us, they’re too formal and the power of the language doesn’t touch our souls. Being an Episcopalian of many generations, I love the liturgies of the Payer Book; however, I fall into the latter group for whom formalized prayer all too often leaves me cold. It’s the lack of inclusive language that imposes a barrier for me. A friend once said to me, “The best prayer when you’re in a time of trouble consists of one word – ‘HELP!’” And sometimes I couldn’t agree more.
Today, I find myself confronted not only by the need for prayer in the Gospel, but in the lives of three of my friends who are dying. I just learned that one died two weeks ago today of pancreatic cancer. Another had breast cancer, now it’s in her lungs and is moving on the way to her brain. Her family starts hospice care tomorrow, which means the end is near. My third friend is dying with emphysema and probably has less than six months to live.
For all three women and their families, it has been a painful and difficult journey. The deadly illness has come upon each of them with incredible swiftness, making letting go and good-byes exceedingly hard. All three have expressed their fear of dying and most especially of the great unknown that lies beyond. None of them believes in prayer, and while all are active Christian church goers, their faith is none too strong. They aren’t too different from many of us, who understand the disciples cry, “Lord, teach us to pray.”
In today’s Gospel passage from Luke 11, we learn that it is all too human to fail in the act of generosity. Sometimes persistence wears us down and we act in a ho-hum, perfunctory kind of way. Personal relationships affect our chosen response, but even then, we may not be overwhelmingly generous. Jesus tells us that this is a far cry from God’s response which is not limited, dependent on favoritism, mood, or whim; rather God’s response to us is fully and openly generous. Ask, seek, and knock and you will be given the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is one to whom we can cry “HELP!” and we will be heard and aided. The psalmist proclaims, “When I called, you answered me; you increased my strength within me.” And, “Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you keep me safe.” A friend of mine expresses it this way: “Scarcity plus generosity plus God’s X, i.e. action, equals abundance.”
Given all that, why do some of us find it so hard to pray? Why are we so afraid in the face of the unknown? Can it be that we’re conditioned to think that we too have to speak in glorious, Book of Common Prayer poetic phrases that are eloquent and beyond our capability to utter what we feel? Are we intimidated by what we think is our inadequate belief because we feel tongue-tied in the presence of God? Or do we think that because a miracle seems impossible, prayer doesn’t make sense?
No miraculous cure seems possible for my three friends. When a 26 year old parishioner was killed in a car crash, I couldn’t answer the oft asked question of “Why?” And it took me a week to think of how to respond when my best friend in Washington, D.C., a priest who specialized in ministering to the dying asked me, “What is death?” Are these issues, so common to us all, a sign of our lack of faith, or our inability to pray? I don’t think so. I believe our hesitancy comes from the fact that we live in a time of radical transition and change and we are searching for a new language to speak our deepest truths and longings.
When asked why Robert had to die so young, I could only reply: “I can’t answer that question. But, I can answer why he lived – he lived to love; to love all those who encountered that radiant smile he gave so generously.” And when my friend, Bill, asked what is death, again I said: “I don’t know. But, I do know that only one single breath separates life from death, so there won’t be a great distance between us. You’ll always be in my heart.” “And you in mine,” he replied. He died one week later on my birthday, and I don’t think that was an accident. And why do I believe that there is no miraculous cure for my friends when I believe in miracles and have seen them occur? I honestly have to reply, “I have no answer.”
In times of stress, trial and tribulation, and in the face of death it’s hard to find the appropriate words to express what we feel or fear. The same is true in times of celebration; notice how we are silent in church when we are asked to give thanks to God during the course of our prayers. It’s hard to pray because prayer touches the depth of our being and bares our soul and our beliefs; and that takes us out of our comfort zone.
The Good News is that we are reminded over and over again in Scripture that it’s not our abilities or inabilities that are the important factor; it is God’s faithfulness that is the key. All of today’s lessons remind us that God is present, God knows, sees and hears our situation, and God loves us beyond measure. In the baptismal ritual we are reminded that we have been saved, we have been raised from the dead, and we have been given the new life of grace. Notice that all of those verbs state accomplishment, not desire. “You have been….”
In the times that words fail us and we can’t seem to pray, we need to recall that trusting in God is the bottom line, not our own ability to articulate our needs or desires. Never are we outside the parameters of God’s active love. Or as Jesus puts it, ‘Ask, seek, knock’ – whatever way works for you, God responds with the gift of the Holy Spirit. Trust in that love.
In closing, I want to share with you a poem I have written about prayer. I have just completed a book of prayers and photography titled, Holy Faces, Holy Places .This prayer/poem is based on a photo I took of a staircase in the old Times Dispatch building that was being demolished. I hope it will encourage those of you, who like me, find it hard to pray in the traditional way to keep on struggling, and I pray it will remind you to live in expectation and hope. The Holy Spirit will help us to find a way to empower us to pray, just as Jesus taught his friends to pray so many centuries ago. For those of you who have no struggle with prayer, celebrate, for you are blessed.
“Our Father, who art in heaven….”
No longer can I say these words.
Does their power enliven my soul.
They are like the staircase to nowhere
In a building that once was, but is no more,
That once thrived with life and meaning,
But now is a twisted, hollow emptiness.
Thus, to me, these words have become.
God is not upstairs. Dwelling on high,
Over my head in that heavenly realm.
God is not Father, a Mr. Fix-it parent,
Waiting for my beck and call,
To amend my life according to my desire.
God is no extension of my need or claim.
No word will suffice to speak God’s name.
O God, O God, I do not know your name.
I have no stairs to climb
To guarantee me access to your domain.
I know you are.
I live because of you.
But the stairway to heaven
Is not my journey now;
Rather, a spiraling pilgrimage
Into the vast unknown deep
Within my soul,
Hidden in another’s eye
Mysterious in all that is
In the universe’s sky,
In this orb’s dark earth,
In the ocean’s unreachable plain,
In the wonders of every creature
That wanders in God’s vast domain.
Intertwined are we with God,
And God with us,
And life is herein blessed.
Forget the stairs, my soul,
The fallen concepts of yore,
Wander near and far,
Among the rumble and the city streets,
Climb mountains high,
Swim the oceanic depths,
Soar with the stars.
Seek and search
Wherever you go.
Whatever you see,
Whatever else may come,
Look for all that is holy
In each and every one.
Then, one day,
You know not when,
You’ll encounter God
Even on the empty stair.
So many of us think that the clergy and most parishioners have no problem with prayer. We often think of ourselves as the only ones who have this ‘failing.’ Not so. Many of us struggle, and if you are one of those who do, take heart; you are not alone. Take heart also that God hears and understands the moaning and groanings of our hearts and responds as generously to those as though we had articulated the most eloquent of prayers. Cry “Help!” at the top of your lungs if need be. Remember that God sees, knows, and hears us all and gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit to strengthen and to enable us on our journey.