Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
We return this morning to our series on Spiritual Practices with a focus on Prayer, and a sermon title borrowed from Anne Lamott’s book Help. Thanks. Wow. The Three Essential Prayers.
I’m guessing we have a range of prayer practices represented among us this morning. Some of us were raised to believe that extemporaneous prayer - prayer words we make up on the spot - are the best and most genuine way to pray. Others of us come out of faith traditions rich in liturgy and find that written prayers composed by others can give voice to what our hearts long to say to God. Some of us find silence helps us to pray, or perhaps a beautiful spot outdoors. Some of us find music helps us feel better connected to God when we pray. Some of us approach God regularly with long lists of prayer requests. Others of us may struggle to put our prayers into words at all.
Whatever may be your comfort level with prayer, or your personal prayer practice, I invite you to join me today in considering the essence of prayer. What is it we’re trying to do when we pray? Simply put, prayer is communication with God.
I was originally going to say: every prayer is an attempt to communicate with God. But that would be misleading. Because here’s the fantastic news – God’s already there, God’s listening, and God knows what’s on our hearts. So with or without those words on a page, with or without music, whether we are standing with a whole congregation or on our own, no matter where we are and what we’re saying when we pray, the purpose of prayer is to direct our attention to the God who is always with us. God’s tuned in long before we ever get around to praying. A pastor I served with years ago used to introduce his prayers in worship by saying: “Remembering that we are always in the presence of God, let us pray…”
Heaven knows there’s plenty to pray about. We can pray the headlines as we read the news at home or pray our way right around the globe together here in worship. We all have individuals for whom we are deeply concerned, too, loved ones we lift to God when we pray. In fact, for many of us, prayer requests like these may be the first thing that comes to mind when we talk about prayer. We’re in good company. We heard from the psalmist this morning: “Give ear to my words, O Lord; give heed to the sound of my sighing. Listen to the sound of my cry, my King and my God, for to you I pray.” (Psalm 5:1-2) Did you catch the suggestion there of both verbal and nonverbal prayers? “My words,” but also “my sighing,” “my cry.” I find that comforting because sometimes I struggle even to know how to put into words my heartache, whether for a good friend or a story in the news. Another synagogue shooting down in California? A construction crane accident right in our own downtown last night? I can get a little tongue tied sometimes over the magnitude of it all. The apostle Paul helps us out here too, when he assures us in Romans that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but [the] Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26)
If you’ve read anything by Anne Lamott, you know her for eloquently brutal honesty. Here’s a little of what she says about her own prayers for help:
"Even for a crabby optimist like me, things couldn’t be worse. Everywhere you turn, our lives and marriages and morale and government are falling to pieces…The planet does not seem long for this world…Help!… I pray for our leaders to act in the common good, or at least the common slightly better. I pray that aid and comfort be rushed to people after catastrophes, natural and man-made. It is also ok to ask that my cat have an easy death. Some of my friends’ kids are broken and the kids’ parents are living in that… and every family I love has serious problems involving someone’s health or finances. But we can be big in prayer, and trust that God won’t mind if we [also] pray about the cat.… I try not to finagle God. Some days go better than others, especially during election years. I ask that God’s will be done, and I mostly sort of mean it.… I don’t pray for God to do this or that, or for God’s sake to knock it off, or for specific outcomes. Well, okay, maybe a little… I pray, Help. Hold my friends in Your light."
I encourage you to read Lamott’s short book on prayer sometime. I’ve left a copy just outside the sanctuary this morning so you can look through it if you wish. There are so many gems in its pages, not all of them as appropriate to share from the pulpit, but that’s part of her gift to us, I think. Her willingness to saywhat we think we aren’t supposed to say about how truly awful life can be at times. She gives us blessed permission to send heavenward every plea for help that burdens our hearts: God, help him. Help her. Help them. Or just plain HELP!
Surely God understands why these kinds of prayers come so easily to us. The One who created us to love and be loved, the One who put compassion and kindness in our hearts, the One who gave us a strong internal sense of justice and injustice, God knows the kinds of things we witness in the world, and how often we need to cry “Help” when we pray.
So often, in fact, that it’s easy for these kinds of prayers to become our default when we speak with God. Though we may actually be lifting up prayers of thanks, too, more often than we’ve noticed. Again, I find Lamott’s perspective helpful. She says:
"Thanks is the short form of the original prayer I used to say in gratitude for any unexpected grace in my life, ‘Thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou.’ As I grew spiritually, the prayer became the more formal ‘Thank you,’ and now, from the wrinkly peaks of maturity, it is simply, ‘Thanks.’ Now as then, most of the time for me gratitude is a rush of relief that I dodged a bullet… ‘Oh my God, thankyouthankyouthankyou’ that it was all a dream, my child didn’t drown… The brakes held. The proliferation of white blood cells was about allergies, not leukemia; the pediatrician cancelled the appointment with the head of oncology and instead recommended Benadryl. Oh my God: thanks."
We’ve practiced here together recently finding good news mixed in with bad news, even in places like news headlines. And I expect we each have things for which we feel personally thankful too. A spiritual practice of giving thanks could be a discipline of reflecting back at the end of each day and creating a gratitude list, or it could simply be beginning every morning in praise, remembering God’s already out there ahead of us making good things happen. Showering the world with blessings, surprising us with beautiful moments and last-minute saves. And in our more spontaneous moments of gratitude? Perhaps it’s sufficient to remember there is a Someone to whom that “thank you” should be directed.
But in reading Lamott’s book, Help. Thanks. Wow, I confess it was the Wow part I hadn’t considered as often as either the Help or the Thanks in my own personal prayers. She explains it this way:
"What can we say beyond Wow, in the presence of glorious art, in music so magnificent that it can’t have originated on this side of things? Wonder takes our breath away and makes room for new breath. That’s why they call it breathtaking.”…The third great prayer, Wow, is often offered with a gasp, a sharp intake of breath, when we can’t think of another way to capture the shocking beauty… of a sudden unbidden insight or an unexpected flash of grace… When we are stunned to the place beyond words, we’re finally starting to get somewhere… When all we can say in response is ‘Wow,’ that’s a prayer."
Can you think of any Wow moments like this? Somewhere you’ve been, or something you’ve seen, to which your response was awe? Whether verbalized or not, what prompted that reaction? Was it a work of art, whether theatrical, visual, or musical? Was it a beautiful connection between people? Was it the majesty of God’s creation?
Convicted by Lamott’s assertion that Wow is as essentiala prayer as either Help or Thanks, I wonder if part of our spiritual practice of prayer could simply be to put ourselves in positions occasionally where we are more likely to feel awed and humbled like this? Some of you are hikers and mountain climbers and sailors. Some of you are gardeners and photographers and cross-country road trippers. But even if you don’t have opportunities to be out in God’s creation often, in the next few months some of the best mountain viewing anywhere in the world will be right on our morning commutes. How fortunate are we? Watch for the Wow. Allow yourself the Wow as a form of prayer.
I find Psalm 8 to be a Wow prayer. A prayer that helps us pan back from daily concerns to the majesty of creation. The psalmist says to God: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established, what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (Psalm 8:3-4) Psalm 19 is another, with its beautiful opening line: “The heavens declare the glory of God.”
I read psalms like these and I can’t help thinking of a time when my daughter Rebecca was about three years old. We were driving in the car at sunset, a sunset I’ll admit I hadn’t even noticed because my mind was on other things. Issues that had come up at work that day, what I needed to pick up for dinner on the way home - you know, regular adult distractions. Well, thank God I had a three-year-old in the car with me who had none of those worries, because she was just happily riding along in her booster seat when all of a sudden she cried out: “Mommy, look! The clouds are saying Alleluia!”
She was absolutely right. Talk about a Wow moment. All around us as we drove were these spectacular cloud formations, and colors I don’t know that I’d ever seen before in the evening sky. The heavens declaring the glory of God. Later I thanked our Music Director who’d been teaching our church kids a song about creation singing its praise. But in that moment? Wow. Just – on so many levels – Wow. For the colors and the clouds. For a three-year-old calling her pastor mom to prayer. For a moment that will stick in my memory forever.
Prayer practices can take so many forms. The important point is that God’s alwaystuned in, ready for us to communicate. So it’s worth asking ourselves - what best helps us direct ourattention to God?
Whether we come bearing a long list of requests, or find ourselves entirely without words…
Whether we prefer to improvise, or feel our hearts resonating with the written prayers of others…
Whether we cry out from the depths, or witness the heavens themselves declaring God’s glory…
The reason we’re invited to pray without ceasing (I Thessalonians 5:17) is that God’s always present. And always ready to listen.
To our every “Help,” “Thanks,” and “Wow.”
Anne Lamott, Help. Thanks. Wow. The Three Essential Prayers, p. 11.
Lamott. p. 13
Lamott, p. 16.
Lamott, p. 15.
Lamott, pp. 43-44.
Lamott, p. 81.
Lamott, pp. 71-73.