Prayers. They are far more complicated than most of us like to admit, aren’t they? If you ask a room full of Christians who would like to give grace, most of them will shy away from the task. They are afraid they might do it “wrong.”
We understand that prayer is talking to God. What we can have trouble with is how to be involved in that relationship. After all, prayer is more than offering a list to God. It is praying for the will of God in our lives and those we pray for. While we tell God of our trials and troubles, we are also saying, what would you have of us? But what we believe to be divine will is often what we think is best in a given situation, isn’t it? We want God’s will to be done, but when it is the same as our own. Praying ‘thy will be done’ is easy on Sunday morning in worship but difficult when it involves someone we are directly concerned about.
After all, suffering can take its toll on our relationships, including our relationship to God. While there are those that say that doubting, questioning, and being angry towards God is bad and unfaithful, it is a natural part of the relationship. Like any relationship we have with our spouses, parents, friends, or children, we will get angry, we will doubt, we will question. It is what it means to be in relationship, the good and they bad. When we have suffered pain, turmoil, and conflict, often times it will impact how we relate to God. We may yell, we may write letters, we may become silent. Sometimes there just aren’t the words necessary to adequately talk to God. And sometimes, we just don’t want to communicate.
It is in the times where the ability to communicate with God come up short, when we are just too angry, too sad, too confused to find the words, prayer seems the most impossible. It is in those moments where we feel we must lean on others to have faith for us, as ours comes up short. We may believe in God, yet our emotions overrun our ability to speak and relate.
In those moments, we can trust that the Spirit will intercede for us. Paul states “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”
Sighs too deep for words.
As we bring our desires to God, we find the Spirit takes our prayers to Jesus who makes them his own. Our feeble, clumsy, inarticulate prayers are cleansed, and in a “wonderful exchange,” Christ makes his prayers our prayers and presents us to the Father as his children. Our prayers are his prayers; his prayers are our prayers. This is why we pray in “Jesus’” name.
This Trinitarian prayer is happening right now. The only one who has the power to condemn us is the very one who is praying for us, Christ. This is why Paul’s wisdom is a true and trustworthy statement: “nothing will separate us from the love of Christ” When we feel alienated, separated and estranged, maybe by others or maybe by ourselves, when it feels like everyone and everything is against us, it’s easy to forget that God is unequivocally for us.
In the middle of our trials and our suffering, when it feels too hard to pray, God is still with us. Nothing, nothing can separate us from God’s love.
The first of Rob Bell’s Nooma videos is called Rain. In it, Rob takes his three year old son for a hike and it the middle of the hike it starts pouring rain. Now for his son, all he knows is the rain and how horrible and cold and wet and awful it is. But Rob knows that they are almost home, and he knows that he would do anything for his son. So he takes his boy and holds him close, telling him over and over again, how much he is loved.
We get so caught up in the storms of our lives, we can’t see beyond them. We can’t grasp the love of the God who is walking through those storms with us, every step of the way. The storm is so fierce that the deep realities of divine love are obscured by outward appearances. In the gospel for this week Jesus describes the subtleties of God’s kingdom that require a discerning heart.
He says that the presence of God’s kingdom is like a tiny mustard seed — something insignificant rather than extravagant, fragile and not mighty, unlikely rather than obvious. His kingdom can also be imperceptible, like yeast leavening a batch of dough. It’s difficult to detect unless you look carefully. It’s not apparent, even though you know it’s there somewhere. God’s reign is also like a fishnet containing the good and the bad together, or a field of wheat infested with weeds. The ultimate reality of God’s kingdom is that his perfect love is unconditional. Everything else comes after that fact. And nothing can separate us from his love.
Even when we are in the midst of trial and can’t even begin to think of prayer, God is with us, loving us. It is the link with the Spirit that helps us communicate with that love. The Spirit is God’s love within us.
We Presbyterians are not always comfortable in the realm of the spirit, are we? We prefer words. We often live more in our heads than in our hearts. Talking about the Holy Spirit is just something that comes across as too mystical. Too strange.
But Presbyterians, like everyone else, sometimes experience a spiritual thirst. People search in all sorts of places for things to quench that thirst, to fill up the empty spaces in our souls. “My soul thirsts for God,” the Psalmist says.
Similarly, as summer wears on, the earth and its plants thirst for rain in all this heat. I once heard a farmer say that even if he uses a hose to give his garden an inch of water, it doesn’t seem to do as much good as one-tenth of an inch of rain. Now, I’m not sure why that’s true, but it certainly seems to be the case. Sprinklers don’t make up for good, soaking rain.
Just as nothing substitutes for rain, nothing truly quenches our spiritual thirst but the Spirit. As hours are filled with everything from school to work to shopping to just watching TV, we seem to crowd out spiritual void by filling up with other things. That’s easier than sitting still and listening for the quiet voice of God.
But it doesn’t work, does it? It’s not enough on its own to stay busy or get in shape or to live right. We need the Spirit so that we can pray. We need the Spirit to be connected to the God who loves us no matter what else is going on in the world.
The theologian Paul Tillich remarks upon this passage, saying, “Out of this insight Paul gives a mysterious solution to the question of the right prayer: It is God Himself who prayers through us, when we pray to Him. God Himself in us: that is what Spirit means. Spirit is another word for “God present,” with shaking, inspiring, transforming power. Something in us, which is not we ourselves, intercedes before God for us. We cannot bridge the gap between God and ourselves even though the most intensive and frequent prayers; the gap between God and ourselves can be bridged only by God. And so Paul gives us the surprising picture of God interceding for us before Himself.
This may help us also to understand the most mysterious part of Paul’s description of prayer, namely, that the Spirit “intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” Words, created by and used in our conscious life, are not the essence of prayer. The essence of prayer is the act of God who is working in us and raises our whole being to Himself. The way in which this happens is called by Paul “sighing.” Sighing is an expression of the weakness of our creaturely existence. Only in terms of wordless sighs can we approach God, and even these sighs are His work in us.”
The Spirit is the Spirit which will intercede, speaking on our behalf. It is the Spirit that will overwhelm us like the wind, bringing us comfort and peace in the midst of chaos. It is the Spirit that wh
en we feel most abandoned and alone is indwelling within each of us. It is the Spirit that has been with us since the beginning and will never leave.
Yes, that makes us uncomfortable sometimes. We can’t quantify the Spirit. We can’t point and say that is the Spirit right there. We don’t have a good concept of the Spirit. But that doesn’t make the Spirit any less important.
When those times of complete weakness, physically, emotionally, spiritually, come around, the Spirit will breathe those sighs. They are the sighs that can speak beyond our mere vocabulary to communicate our deepest pangs of grief. They are the sighs that will communicate all our suffering, all our grief, all our anger. The sighs are the ones that will echo the truth of every bruise, scar, and crack that are engrained on our hands and on our heart. They are the sighs that will communicate our hope and are longing for healing.
When words aren’t enough or when there are no words, when our own spirits are parched, that is just the time when God’s Spirit comes to us. The Spirit prays for us with sighs too deep for words when we are unable to voice our own emptiness
And nothing, absolutely nothing can separate us from that Spirit, God’s loving presence within us. So as we go through life’s storms, know that even when you cannot find the words for God, the Spirit is there. Sighing along with you, too deep for words.
Rev. Cara Gee
July 25, 2011