May 18, 2014
“The Problem of Petitionary Prayer”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
36 Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. 38 Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” 39 And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”
8 Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12 Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.
In Dusseldorf, Germany at the Benrath Senior Center, the administration was faced with the same problem that senior care facilities are faced with all over the world. Patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia get lost in their memories, get disoriented, and wander away, sometimes ended up miles away, or making it all the way to their old home and finding someone new living there.
I was on a mission trip on an native American reservation when just such a thing happened, and we dropped our work for that day and spent hours combing the desert for an elderly man who had wandered away from home.
The only solution seems to lock them up, but that seems cruel and even in well-managed facilities, people still manage to slip out.
And the solution they came up with was to build a fake bus stop in front of the doors of the nursing home, because they found that often when people got disoriented, they believed they needed to get somewhere, they needed to get back to their house because their children or their parents are waiting for them, and that’s where they were often found, waiting for a bus.
A bus stop to nowhere, it would catch people when they wandered off, and the staff would see them and go out and get them.
The staff thought it was a stupid idea. At first it didn’t seem to work, and the staff had to watch the bus stop because people in the neighborhood would sit there and wait for a bus that wasn’t coming. But one day, a patient became agitated, she thought she was a little girl and she needed to get back to her parents, she began to sob so the nurses decided to let her go, and she sat patiently and waited for the bus, in the fresh air with the sun shining.
Eventually a nurse came and sat with her and they waited side by side and eventually she forgot why she was there, and the nurse said let’s go and have a cup of tea.
Sometimes the nurses will take someone out to the bus stop when they get disoriented, and say let’s plan a trip together. As they sit and wait the urgency and anxiety disappears. The patients sometimes get agitated to the point of needing to be restrained – they believe they are in another world where their children desperately need them or their parents are looking for them, and the bus stop allows them a moment where both worlds exist, the past and the present can exist at the same time peacefully.
This bus stop to nowhere is kind of like what happens in prayer – prayer is a place where time and eternity coexist, creator and creature draw near to each other. What happens in prayer is mysterious, at least it is to me.
What happens when we are heard by God and hear God?
Does God change? Do we?
Will prayer subtly guide the hand of a surgeon or change the results of a medical test?
Does prayer change the course of history, so that what was meant to happen doesn’t, and something new and different takes place?
Does prayer get me a better parking space or a better grade on a paper, or get me into the college of my choice, or get me the job I so desperately want?
Will prayer cure my addiction, or my depression, or my cancer? Will prayer fix my family or my life?
What happens between God and us in prayer? What does prayer tell us about God?
The fact that prayer is the bedrock of our faith tells us that God wants to be in relationship with us – that is who God is.
Our doctrine, what we believe to be true about God, of the Trinity tells us that God is essentially relational – he cannot be otherwise – and he wants us to be in relationship with himself and with our neighbors. Those are the greatest commandments that Jesus spells out for us. Want to know what God wants you to do? Love your God and love your neighbor.
The history that we have with God going back to the very beginning, to the very first moments of creation tells us that what God wanted for us was to walk with him in the Garden.
And then God chose to draw near again with the Israelites (“I will be their God, and they will be my people”), and God told them to build a tabernacle, a dwelling place, not on the mountaintop, but right in the very center of their community – God was saying, “I want to be here with you, right at the center of your life.”
And then again God bent down as low as he could get to us, and became a poor, homeless teacher, and in Jesus, now he walked like us and talked like us, and knew our pain and bore our sins. And then again God drew nearer still, as near to us as breathing, as Holy Spirit, as our comforter, advocate, and guide.
And so we pray to God, we talk and listen, we cry and sing, because that is what it takes be in relationship with our God.
And so here is the problem with petitionary prayer, which is making requests of God, big or small, for ourselves or others.
If all we do is ask things of God, if that is the limit of our prayers, then we are going to miss out on the relationship.
If all we do is ask for things, then we might come to see God as a kind of divine butler in the sky, a magic vending machine, a Santa Clause.
Petitionary prayer, at its best, is not about getting God to get rid of the unpleasant and unpredictable parts of our lives, but allowing God’s grace to enter into the unpleasant and the unpredictable.
Asking for things is certainly part of prayer. Jesus tells us to ask for things in his name, yes, but there is some context there.
He is saying this to a group of friends who desperately want to know who God is. Phillip pleads, “Show us the Father and we will be satisfied.”
And Jesus tells them that it is all about relationship – you have known and loved me, therefore you know and love God. And more that, because you know God, now you are going to do the work of God in the world – you are going to be my hands and feet, so ask for what you need. Pray for what you need.
But Jesus also gives us a helpful addition to our prayers of petition.
In the first text we read today Jesus has left the Passover supper he has shared with his friends, a crowd armed with swords and clubs is already gathering to hunt him down, and he is overcome with anxiety and grief, knowing that terrible things are about to happen to him.
In Luke’s account Jesus is under such duress that he sweats blood. And that can happen to a human body when the stress becomes too great.
And Jesus prays specifically for what he wants. He doesn’t want to die and so he prays that this cup of suffering be taken away from him, and he prays that three times – but he also prays this with each request: “yet not as I will, but as you will.”
Here is the solution to the problem of petitionary prayer. All these requests we make to God can keep our focus on ourselves, what we want, what we need.
But when we pray “yet not as I will, but as you will” it brings us back to focus on our God.
It acknowledges the wisdom and power and awesomeness of God, who is not in the business of wish fulfillment, but in the business of creating and sustaining the entire universe, and also in the business of loving us so well that he knows the number of hairs on our heads.
We see Jesus, in petitionary prayer, turning his will over to God’s will.
And that perhaps is one of the most important parts of prayer, that in this exchange between us and God, our wills are molded to look a lot more like God’s will.
Jesus when telling his disciples to ask for things in his name, he is speaking in terms of the disciples doing amazing things in the world in God’s name, transforming the world and should they need anything as part of this work, then all they need to do is ask.
I don’t fully understand prayer. But that’s ok. Prayer is a living thing and dissecting it to understand its inner workings, takes away the life of it, destroys the beauty of it. I trust that prayer matters the way that I trust that a good conversation with a dear friend will make me wiser and strengthen my soul.
Here are some prayer challenges for this week if you are willing: For one day just pray thanksgivings and don’t ask for anything, and see if that changes how prayer feels and how God looks. And try adding “yet not as I will, but as you will” to your requests, and see what happens.