Rev. Megan Huston
July 27, 2014
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. 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.
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose…
- Romans 8:26-28
We were crammed into a house that was the size of a closet. The family receiving the food basket we delivered, the youth group from the neighboring city, and the small group from First Christian. We were in a village outside of Santiago in Guatemala. Being in the small home that was host to an active cook stove, but no ventilation made you feel like you could hardly breathe. Worse than the burning in your lungs, though, was the sight of babies caked in dirt crawling on floors caked in dirt, and the stories of asthma and respiratory and Gastrointestinal issues.
I was a little uncomfortable with the assignment to pray for each of the families. But it was the custom of the youth group we were accompanying so it seemed like the right thing to do to respect their culture. And so I tried my hardest to pray my most Disciples prayer. I thought out my words carefully. Intending to pray, not that God would heal someone instantly, but that God’s spirit would be felt. Not that anyone would be saved, but thanking God for the Spirit, which was already present. I knew that I would be the one praying, so I prepared myself mentally for the task and thought that with my experience in international development, I could do it in a way that honored our faith tradition and the faith traditions of our new friends.
So I began my prayer, and Kenneth, our group leader, started to translate into Spanish, which I expected. Next, someone from the other youth group started translating into the local dialect, which was new to hear two translations. But the unexpected part was when the families started praying aloud in their dialect. It was a mainline minister’s nightmare. To be honest I have no idea what I prayed for. I offered some kind of words. Aloud. And then everybody started speaking at once. That was my experience.
So you can imagine my surprise when Kate reported from the microphone at the Stockholders Dinner, that the highlight of the trip for her was our time praying with families in the villages. She said something to the effect of the Spirit of God being unmistakably present.
I can assure you that the Spirit of God was not there in the form of words. Because there were too many words being spoken in too many languages by too many people in much too small of a space. But I think Kate was right. Despite my best attempts at forming the right words, the Spirit of God took over and prayer transcended language. The Spirit of God was palpable as we paused and directed our entire being towards the power of God.
Would someone like to offer the prayer? I ask this while leading small groups, before meals, and when preparing for worship. It doesn’t matter what age or what event, the answer is typically the same. Crickets. Or volunteering the person to your left. Oh, and eyes down, you never want to make eye contact. Why is it that your average church goer avoids praying aloud like the plague?
Why is it that we get so wrapped up in the words we offer aloud in prayer? Is our understanding of God so small that we think that we have to know the right things to say in order for God to understand the direction of our hearts? Or are we as a community stuck in language instead of immersing ourselves in the very being of prayer?
Rick Morley says about Paul’s writing that he is talking about prayer in a much deeper sense. When it comes to communicating with the omnipotent, omniscient and eternal God, we’re not communicating on anything that even resembles the same level. We are throwing out Morse code, whereas God is capable of something even beyond highly integrated 60-Ghz mm-wave circuits. Prayer, he says, really has nothing to do with words. Nothing. I mean words are nice. Quaint. But real union with God comes not from words but from the sighs that are too deep for words.
The object of prayer is union with God. It is not practice in public speaking. It is not in order to become a poet. I would say it is not even to get what you want. Prayer is about uniting our very being with God’s. And that is how God intercedes in our lives. Last week we considered that our ability to hope or to imagine may be what will save us. Our prayers are the legs & feet of hope and the arms & hands of imagination. Prayer matters. Deeply. Intensely. Hugely. But it may not matter for the same reasons that we are so afraid to say the wrong words.
I know what it feels like to fumble for words in prayer. As a pastor the expectations are really high, but I like to think that my imperfect words might inspire your imperfect words. I love hearing different people’s voices during our prayers of the people and communion prayers. It is so beautiful to listen to the way people’s personalities come out in prayer. Not because of eloquent words or perfect theologically constructed phrases. But because we are witnessing how someone opens him or herself up to God and a way that only that person can do. So how is it that you practice union with God?
My grandfather died on a Wednesday. I know it was a Wednesday because within an hour or so of hearing the news, I had choir practice. Yes, in my last church, we were so desperate for choir members that I actually spent a short stint in the choir. Be grateful for the music ministry you have.
So it was a Wednesday and even though I knew that my grandpa’s death was coming, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself when I finally got the phone call. He was really important to me and we had a special relationship. I was sort of dreading going to church that evening, wanting some space for myself to grieve and knowing this would be my first experience as the pastor sharing my grief with my church members, but I went anyway. And I will never in my life forget telling the small choir of about 8 or 9 people what had happened. I don’t remember what anyone said, I just remember Shirley Casey’s face. And I feel certain there was an audible sigh as everyone turned away from preparing their song binders and looked at me. That, to me, felt like union with God, like prayer with sighs deeper than words.
Union with God changes everything. Often the words of Paul have been used to abuse people, to mean that if you love God enough that everything will work out fine. That if you ask for something in prayer you will get what you want. But the truth, I believe, is that in uniting ourselves with God what we want changes. In uniting ourselves with God, we still live in the mystery of faith, not knowing exactly what it means that all things are working together for the good. But when we spend time in prayer, we start to notice small glimpses of good in the world and working to make those small glimpses a little bit more noticeable. In uniting ourselves with God, we are called to do less talking and more sighing. I think of Job’s friends and all their bad advice and wonder, what if they would have just admitted that they didn’t have all the answers and shared a long, hard sigh with their friend who was suffering.
Sighing matters. Because in our sighs we are moved with compassion to make real the hope we strive toward. We sigh at the news of another plane crash. We sigh upon discovering the illness of a friend. We sigh when we face brokenness in our very own families. But we do not sigh alone.