I was asked to give the “reflection” this week and this was it
What is the point of prayer?
As a child I got taught the “right” prayers to say, the “right” words to use. I was told to use my own words to ask God for things (but this was set up as a somewhat pointless exercise in which I needed to add “if it is your will” and God would do whatever God had already decided either way). I was told to constantly apologise for all my sins and the ways I didn’t measure up, to be ever aware of my unworthiness before God and the likelihood that even in using words I probably wasn’t “paying attention” or “listening” to God properly. I was told to thank and praise God unconditionally, no matter how I was feeling or what was going on in my life or the world around me.
Sometimes people would say that prayer was “not just words” but they would make it sound like a harder and harder discipline where we were meant to empty ourselves completely of our contexts, desires, agendas and even identity and just be empty before God. I think I was born feminist (without knowing the words for what that was) and the idea of making myself nothing but a container for someone else’s ego and importance did not sit quite right with me no matter how many times I was told that God was important and I was not. So for me the first reading is very liberating, Abraham does not have the sort of obedient “blind trust” in God but worries about his nephew Lot and manages to nag and reason at God in prayer, trying to bargain God down from the extreme idea of destroying cities. I like this Abraham a lot better than the far-right Abraham a few chapters later who agrees to sacrifice his child blindly to the same God, but even here I feel he wimps out of saying what is really on his mind.
How often do we bite our tongue and retreat into the “right words” and liturgies instead of daring to have necessary conflict with God?
If we present a falsely compliant face that is not an honest relationship.
In the second reading we are reminded that God is not out to test us, or trap us into proving we are “unworthy” of love or anything like that. Even if there was ever a time when we were unworthy, ignorant, unaware, uncaring or distracted from the reign of God (and most times we have some of this “deadness” somewhere in our lives) even then God was already working to call us and raise us and make us one in redeemed life. So then we need to get courageous about our faith and about our prayer. We need to dare to seek joy and justice from God. We need to really speak our mind in prayer.
Then we can trust in God’s willingness to work with our limits, and transform our half-heartedness.
I want to read the gospel as simply as I did as a child. I want to believe that if I pray long enough and persistently enough and fervently enough God will fix all my problems and make life on earth a Utopian dream. I’ll mention that to avoid the pious clause “if it is God’s will” because when I pray I am NOT going to fake submission to things I don’t like. It is NOT alright with me that an increasingly irrelevant magisterium of the church puts limits on how the rest of us are supposed to live with God, while too often blinking at the very real problems of climate change, wide-spread inequality, abuses and disenfranchisement of the faithful. I am NOT going to be philosophical about the difficulties of finding work, or the fears for my children or the terror for the children on Manus Island. Not to God. Never again will I hide behind doormat-dispositions with the God who knows me better than that.
But we know that we don’t always get what we ask for. So why do we ask for it?
What do we get out of prayer?
How do we continue to believe that God loves creation enough to give us what we need, not a snake or a scorpion?
If I had an easy answer here I would share it with you. The gospel to me seems clear that we DO need to pray and we do need to bring our real agendas to God. The first reading reminded us that it is ok to get out of pious formulas of the “right words” and make it real.
The second reading reassures us that God wants us enough to do some of the work of relating, that it is not all down to us to get it right.
I invite you now to sit with these readings, and your own experiences of prayer in any way that seems best to you, and then take a moment to share your reflections with the people around you.