A Sermon for Sunday January 20, 2013, Romans 8:18-27
Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers by best-selling author Anne Lamott is the inspiration for this month’s sermon series on prayer. According to the book’s dust jacket: “it is these three prayers—asking God for personal assistance, appreciating the good we witness, and feeling awe at the world—that gets us through the day and shows us the way forward.”
Lamott says that when we say prayers of help, thanks, and wow, we are making an attempt to have a conversation with God, “reaching out to be heard, hoping to be found by a light and warmth in the world, instead of darkness and cold”:
Help me be more patient with my annoying co-worker.
Help me kick this addiction to alcohol.
Help me find a job so I don’t end up on the streets.
Thanks for the food on our table.
Thanks for the airline stewardess who found my passport.
Thanks for the brakes holding out till I could get to the repair shop.
Wow, God, this gorgeous sunset is breathtaking!
Wow, God, this choir anthem is magnificent!
Wow, God, this child of mine fills me with indescribable joy!
These prayers reflect our desire and yearning to be in a personal relationship with God. And praying help, thanks, and wow certainly strengthens our connection to God. But slightly change the focus of the three essential prayers—from prayers for ourselves to prayers for others—and help, thanks, and wow take on new meaning.
Suddenly, we are in relationship not only with God but with God’s people. We are more attuned to God’s desire for us to be united in Christ’s love with all those whom God has fashioned. We are more acutely aware of God’s yearning for the kingdom of love to be established in the world. Help, thanks and wow become forms of what is known as intercessory prayer—petitions made to God to intervene in the midst of conflict and suffering:
Help! Enter the mess of destruction made by storms that ravage third world countries! Give the victims graciousness, encouragement and strength to rebuild their lives!
Help! Enter the mess created by tormented soul at Sandy Hooks Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut! Be with the victims and community as they continue to mourn the loss of loved ones. Give strength to those who daily seek counseling and medical treatment to deal with the trauma!
Help! Enter the mess of disease and countless treatments that have rendered my love one unable to see, speak or eat. Please bring an end to her suffering and give them peace. Comfort those who wait in agony for the pain to end!
Thanks be to you O God for the police who found those children who have been lost for 5 days.
Thanks be to you, O God for the pilot who kept his wits and landed the jumbo jet safely in the midst of a heavy storm.
Thanks be to you, O God for the church members who provide and serve monthly meals to the Clifton Men’s Shelter in Atlanta, who regularly knit prayer shawls for those who are sick and who donate blood to save the life of another person.
Wow, God! Your justice is unmistakably present as the poor and oppressed are welcomed with open arms and treated with more dignity and respect.
Wow, God! Your love is manifest in the relationship the church has been developing with a Muslim group in our community.
Wow, God! Your peace has brought reconciliation between guerilla fighters and government soldiers in Zamboanga City in the Philippines, the scene of much bloodshed in the last six years.
Intercessory prayer, if you didn’t already guess, is filled with passion and raw emotion, and therefore extremely difficult and exhausting to practice.
Praying for God to intercede in places of brokenness and darkness, to enter into periods of suffering and injustice (both great and small) requires every ounce of energy we have. There is a lot of sorrow in the world and therefore much heartache to take to God on behalf of people who experience such excruciating pain in their life. Turning to God in an act of intercessory prayer can become depleting. And it is in those states of exhaustion that we become frustrated and cynical about whether our petitions are even making a bit of difference.
While God’s good works are evident in the world, the case could be made that God is not doing enough of what we ask. Turn on the TV, go online or scroll through the news feed on Facebook and instantly we are reminded of how well slavery, genocide, war, violence, poverty, disease, prejudice and hate is thriving well in the 21st century in spite of all the progress that has been made toward love, peace and reconciliation. And if the messes keep getting messier regardless of God’s good works, it would be ridiculous to keep asking God to come in and clean things up.
And yet even in those moments of exhaustion, cynicism and doubt, God in the Spirit comes into the world all the same to give strength. As Paul reminds us:
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. And God,who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
Even when we don’t know how to pray for others or become tired of praying for others or can do nothing more than groan, God in the Spirit intercedes for us. God in the Spirit says: “Don’t stop praying, child. Don’t stop asking me to be in relationship with humanity and don’t ever stop being in relationship with me and other human beings.”
Maybe we reach those moments in life—the unexpected death of a loved one or a tragedy like the Sandy Hook school shooting—where all we can do is pray and all we can pray is:
Come, Holy Spirit!
Kum ba Yah my Lord! Kum ba Yah! Come by here!
Jesus, will you please butt in! Like right now!
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayers!
You might even pray in the way Kate Braestrup and her friend Laura did as they watched in horror as the Twin Towers fell in New York during the September 11 terrorist attacks:
We are both ordained ministers—she’s an Episcopal priest—and we both serve as chaplains for first responders. You would think, therefore, that Laura and I might have been able to come up with a better, or at least more specific, prayer than this one: ‘O God, O God, O God, O God, O God, O God, O God.’ But that was the one we prayed when the towers fell.
Often ‘O God’ is enough for the day because there are many things out of our control, things that can’t be fixed. More important, however, is that we continue to pray, continue to be in relationship with God and God’s people. As author AJ Jacobs explains in his popular book The Year of Living Biblically:
I still can’t wrap my brain around the notion that God would change God’s mind because we ask God to. And yet I still love these prayers. To me they’re moral weight training. Every night I pray for others for ten minutes—a friend about to undergo a cornea surgery, my great-aunt whose sweet husband died in their swimming pool, the guy I met in a Bible study class whose head was dented in a subway accident. It’s ten minutes where it’s impossible to be self-centered. Ten minutes where I can’t think about my career, or my Amazon.com book ranking…The Bible says not to boast, so I’m not going to say that I’ve turned into Albert Schweitzer or Angelina Jolie. But I do feel myself becoming a slightly more compassionate person.
Jacobs’ observation that he is becoming more compassionate by making intercessory prayer a nightly habit is important to note.
When we ask God to enter the mess, we mustn’t expect immediate results. God, after all, works in God’s own time and according to God’s plan, not ours. And while there are instances where we can do nothing more than pray, “O God,” we mustn’t remain stuck in our exasperations.
Instead, we must allow ourselves to be shaped into stronger and more compassionate human beings through intercessory prayer or “moral weight training.”
We must allow ourselves to fully accept that we are called to be an active part of God’s plan, beckoned by the Spirit to become an answer to our prayers. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. whose birthday we celebrate tomorrow, explained it this way in a sermon he delivered in 1963:
The idea that man expects God to do everything leads inevitably to a callous misuse of prayer. For if God does everything, man then asks for anything, and God becomes little more than a ‘cosmic bellhop’ who is summoned for every trivial need. Or God is considered so omnipotent and man so powerless that prayer is a substitute for work and intelligence…I am certain we need to pray for God’s help and guidance in this integration struggle, but we are gravely misled if we think the struggle will be won only by prayer. God, who gave us minds for thinking and bodies for working, would defeat his own purpose if he permitted us to obtain through prayer what may come through work and intelligence… We must pray with unceasing passion for racial justice, but we must also use our minds to develop a program, organize ourselves into mass nonviolent action, and employ every resource of our bodies and souls to bring an end to racial injustice. …One cannot remove an evil habit by mere resolution nor by simply calling on God to do the job, but only as he surrenders himself and becomes an instrument of God.
Or put another way by Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, authors and activists who share King’s theology:
When we pray to God asking, ‘Why don’t you do something?’ we hear a gentle whisper respond, “I did do something. I made you.’ Prayer is important. Just as important is the call to become the answer to our prayers. …Prayer and action can go together; in fact they must. Otherwise we have little more than a bunch of inactive believers or worn-out activists, and neither do much good for the world.
We can’t always control or fix the suffering that is happening in the world, but we can pray to God to intervene and respond to how God is calling us to be a part of God’s plan to change and redeem Creation.
With that in mind, let us close with a style of intercessory prayer that comes from the book Body Prayer by Doug Pagitt and Kathryn Prill. Let us begin by saying together the following words:
We profess that God wants goodness for the world and that God works for the salvation of the earth and all who are in it. We know that creation is not complete but that it is in the midst of re-creation. So we pray for our world to grow into the fullness that God desires for it. May God’s kingdom come; may God’s will be done. We live in the world; we join in its re-creation. We pray and live with the confidence that God will continue the good work that has been started. We pray and live with the confidence that the Spirit comes in the midst of our aches and groans for a broken world and inspires us to be a part of God’s kingdom building.
Now, while sitting, I invite you to hook your fingers together, one hand underneath the other, with your hands clasped at chest height. Cradle your fingers and pull. You should feel tension in your chest, shoulders, and upper arms. As you continue to hold this posture, contemplate the tension that the world experiences as it awaits God’s work of re-creation. Consider the taut bond of prayer and action that seeks to make God’s kingdom a reality and whose connection can’t be broken. Hold the posture as I close us in prayer. Let us pray:
Mighty and merciful Creator, you are the Lord of all.
In goodness and in evil, you, O God reign.
In peace and in war, you, O God reign.
In health and in illness, you, O God, reign.
In the simple and in the inexplicable, you, O God, reign.
May your Holy Spirit continually enter into the messes of the world
so the reign of your unconditional love and grace is known in
every prayer and
 Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers by Anne Lamott, Riverhead Books Publishing. December 2012.
 Ibid. “Help. Enter this mess” is a phrase used in the book by Anne Lamott
 Beginner’s Grace: Bringing Prayer to Life by Kate Braestrup. Free Press Publishing. 2010.
 The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow The Bible as Literally As Possible by AJ Jacobs. Simon & Schuster Publishing. 2007.
 Strength To Love: A Book of Sermons on God’s Divine Laws by Martin Luther King, Jr. Harper & Row Publishing. 1963.
 Becoming The Answer to Our Prayers: Prayer for Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. InterVarsity Press Publishing. 2008.
 Body Prayer: The Posture of Intimacy with God by Doug Pagitt and Kathryn Prill. Walterbrook Press. 2005.