A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, February 17, 2013
Matthew 6:7-13 RSV
If you pray, what kind of prayer, or prayers, do you pray? Allow me to explain. Years ago, when I first began to prepare myself for becoming a minister, I was taught that traditionally there are five to seven different kinds of prayers. And I was taught that the mature Christian would become familiar with these types of prayers and be diligent to pray all of them on a regular basis, each in its proper place. Now, if you Google the different types of prayers, you will find that, depending on who is speaking, the types and exact number of different prayers differs. But five traditional, pretty much agreed upon, types of prayers are these: Praise (adoration), confession, thanksgiving, petition (supplication), and intercession. In the course of a traditional worship service, most, if not all, of the different forms of prayers will be included in some way. For instance, in “The Celebration of Table Fellowship” liturgy alone, we touch on the elements of praise, thanksgiving, and confession. And in the morning or bidding prayer, I always include petition and intercession.
It is not important that we get hung up on the technical names for the different types of prayers, or that we become obsessive about including all forms of prayers whenever we pray. But it is important for us to be aware that prayers do differ and anyone who prays should not get into the habit of praying just one or two types of prayers. Probably the two most common forms of prayers that most people pray are petition and intercession. Petition is asking for something we want or need. In its basic form, petition prayer is a “give me” prayer. God, give me good health. Give me the money to pay the bills. Give me that new job I have applied for. Few of us have not prayed “give me,” petition prayers.
The other most common form of prayer, I am guessing, is the prayer of intercession, the prayer in which we intercede for others, or pray for their needs. Usually I do this every Sunday at the end of what we call the bidding prayer. It is a time to remember and pray for the needs of those who are ill, in the hospital, suffering grief and so on, as well as the needs of our wider world—those who are victims of natural disaster, war and violence, homelessness, and so on. All of us most likely have prayed many intercessory prayers: God, keep my child safe. God, ease Aunt Jeannie’s pain. God, help those poor people who lost their homes in Hurricane Sandy. Now, I hasten to add that there is nothing at all wrong with either the prayer of petition or intercession. But we do well to be careful that petition or intercession is not the only prayer that we ever pray. Such could lead to a very shallow spirituality and make for a very weak life of faith.
Well, what got me to thinking about all this is Anne Lamott’s latest book titled Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. As the title indicates, Lamott reduces the traditional forms of prayer to three. For instance, in the first chapter titled “Help” she combines petition and intercession. Lamott writes, “Help. Help us walk through this. Help us come through. It is the first great prayer. . . . Help. Hold my friends in Your light” (15). Lamott continues, “In prayer, I see the suffering bathed in light. In God, there is no darkness. I see God’s light permeate them, soak into them, guide their feet. . . . So I pray for people who are hurting, that they be filled with air and light” (16). Those who do not believe in an anthropomorphic or personal God may have problems with this. Lamott addresses this when she says, prayer is “reaching out to something having to do with the eternal, with vitality, intelligence, kindness, even when we are at our most utterly doomed and skeptical. . . . So prayer is our sometimes real selves trying to communicate with the Real, with Truth, with the Light. It is us reaching out to be heard, hoping to be found by a light and warmth in the world, instead of darkness and cold” (6, 7). So the Help prayer is a prayer for the needs of oneself or of others.
In chapter two Lamott discusses thanksgiving. She says, “The movement of grace in our lives toward freedom is the mystery. So we simply say ‘Thanks’” (61), Lamott rightly observes that “It is easy to thank God for life when things are going well. But life is much bigger than we give it credit for, and much of the time it’s harder than we would like” (44-45). “Awful stuff happens and beautiful stuff happens, and it’s all part of the big picture” (51). Lamott speaks of “radical gratitude in the face of whatever life throws at you. . . . Gratitude begins in our hearts and then dovetails into behavior. It almost makes you willing to be of service, which is where the joy resides. . . When you are aware of all that has been given to you, in your lifetime and in the past few days, it is hard not to be humbled, and pleased to give back” (56-57). So the prayer of thanksgiving is not simply pious or warm fuzzy feelings of being happy for the blessings of life that come our way. But true thanksgiving is the prayer that gives impetus to doing something positive and of service to others.
Then in chapter three, Lamott speaks to praise or adoration, calling it Wow! “’Wow’,” Lamott says, “is about having one’s mind blown by the mesmerizing or the miraculous” (71). There are many things in life and in the world that prod us to pray the prayer of praise or Wow. Nature, with all its beauty and miracles, is a primary entity that calls forth the prayer of Wow. But there is also beautiful poetry, art, human relationships and love, childbirth, good food (she spends time talking about fresh, succulent blackberries), the blessing of forgiveness, the list is endless. “Gorgeous, amazing things come into our lives when we are paying attention,” she says (85). “Awe is why we are here. And this state is the prayer: ‘Wow’” (83). It is the expression of gratitude from deep within the human soul that has been touched by joy, admiration, wonderment, or awe.
Lamott confesses, “Most good, honest prayers remind me that I am not in charge, that I cannot fix anything, and that I open myself to being helped by something, some force, some friends, some something” (35). And she concludes the book by saying, “We pray without knowing much about whom we are praying to. We pray not really knowing what to pray for. We pray not really knowing how to pray” (93). She quotes Christian theologian C.S. Lewis who wrote, “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me” (100).
Lamott’s comment that “We pray not really knowing how to pray” reminds us of the disciples who are reported to have said to Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). According to Matthew, Jesus instructed his disciples to reduce prayer to its basic, simplest form. “Do not heap up empty phrases,” Jesus said. Don’t think you will be heard for your “many words.” And in the simple, roughly 70-word prayer Jesus is said to have taught his disciples, he covered praise (adoration), petition, and confession.
So again I ask, “If you pray, what kind of prayer do you most often pray?” Likely all of say or at least think all the different kinds of prayers at different times in our lives. All are needed. Sometimes we feel the need to pray for the needs of others. Sometimes we need strength or help to make it through life ourselves. Sometimes we need to say we are sorry. Sometimes we are moved to express gratitude for the joys of life or the blessings of the day. And sometimes we are moved to utter an exclamation of joy, or wonder, or as Gomer Pyle used to say, “Shazam!” which could be seen as a variation of Wow! Basic prayers: Help. Thanks. Wow! Amen.
Cited: Anne Lamott, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. New York: Riverhead Books, 2012.