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We know not how to pray…

Expanded remarks from the Church of Our Saviour at Oatlands – Rev'd Elijah White
First please read Romans 8:22-27

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Have you ever known that a friend was hurting, or sad, or stressed out, and felt you really should get in touch, but you put it off thinking “I don’t know what to say?” How many visits have not been made because of just such an anxiety, how many ‘phone calls not placed, notes not written, contacts not made?

Believe me, I know the feeling. This morning I suggest [1] that the same diffidence which can keep us from contacting friends, can also inhibit us from contacting God when we need help; and [2] that today’s Bible lessons offer us direct encouragement for making personal contacts with others and personal prayers to God.

Those of us who put off contacting a friend because “I don’t know what to say” may also put off prayer for the same reason. So many times in this life we feel that even our best words are inadequate: we might falter, fail, crack under the strain of the situation – we’re afraid our words would seem hollow, clichés, useless… and if we can’t articulate even our most heartfelt good wishes to one another [much less our deepest desires and fears], how in Heaven’s Name can we speak them to God?

Well, precisely in Heaven’s Name: that’s the encouraging message of hope given us in our Second Lesson from Romans chapter eight. Today’s assigned passage begins with verse 26, “Likewise the Holy Spirit helps us in our infirmities, our weakness” – the word “Likewise” indicating that this continues a previous thought, a thought that began four verses earlier in verse 22, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now, and not only the creation but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, we too groan inwardly as we wait for the redemption of our bodies…” – which is to say that, even though we trust that we’re being saved, we still suffer and groan with the sorrows of this mortal world (recall what ‘mortal’ means), this mortal coil from which we are not yet perfectly rescued, saved, delivered.

And it’s precisely in the midst of this our struggle that (verse 26) “the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we know not how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” Have you felt such sighs? I have.

But herein is hope – in the midst of our troubles and anxieties, even as we groan, we can lay hold of that positive, comforting affirmation that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness” even when, perhaps especially when, “we know not how to pray as we ought.”

Feeling weak? Feel inadequate? Take heart from last week’s Psalm 119 verse 130, “When [God’s] word goeth forth, it giveth light and understanding unto the simple.” If we will only admit that we are ‘the simple,’ then we too will be inspired and illuminated. It’s not our prayers’ eloquence that brings them to God – we can’t impress Him – nor our own ‘keen spiritual insight’ in knowing exactly what to pray for ourselves or others, because so frustratingly often, in life-threatening illnesses or breaking relationships or major life-changing decisions, so often we are not sure exactly what to pray for. Someone we love is on a life-support machine, as my mother was: do we pray for a merciful death, or for a miraculous recovery, or for wisdom to know whether to pull the plug? How can we know?

When we’re not sure for what to ask, that especially can inhibit us from prayer – we don’t pray because we aren’t sure what to ask, we’re not sure what outcome would be best for all concerned. For someone in grave distress, physical or whatever, I have leant from Morning Prayer to simply pray for “a happy issue out of all their afflictions,” aware that this petition could have many different outcomes but leaving that up to God.

The limits of our knowledge, of our wisdom, are why the Prayer Book collect refers to “those things which for our blindness we cannot ask…” Our most profound prayer may be wordless, a groan, a sigh, a casting up of our hands: in today’s First Lesson from First Kings 3, verse 7, young Solomon prays in humble admission of his ignorance, his weakness, and is heard by God, and heeded, and greatly gifted – so can we pray, confident that (verse 28) “He who searches the mind of men knoweth what is in the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit Himself intercedes for the saints…”

He who knows our hearts knows there may be a difference between what we want and what we need, knows what we truly need better than we do. God doesn’t need to be told… but He loves to be asked. Remember that: God doesn’t need to be told, but He loves to be asked – indeed, He commands it: Jesus never says “If you pray…” but time after time He says “When you pray…” As Hymn 419 teaches us, “Prayer is the Christian’s vital breath, the Christian’s native air…” Precisely: Prayer is as necessary to our spiritual life as oxygen to our physical.

When we contact a friend – when someone contacts you – what counts is less the words than that someone is there, present, in touch – just so with God, what matters is less what we say or how we say it than that we are there, admittedly ‘standing in the need of prayer,’ seeking contact with Him, in touch. As a mediæval monk told his novices, “Pray as you pray, not as you ‘ought’ to pray.” We must never falsely claim the Christian virtue of humility as a cloak or excuse for our own confusion or embarrassment. We should do as the disciples did, coming to Jesus to ask “Lord, teach us to pray…”

Presbyterian pastor Frederick Buechner writes that “Prayer is, in essence, the breaking of silence. Prayer is our need to be known, and our need to know. Prayer is the sound made by our deepest aloneness. Prayer is for those who recognize that in the face of their deepest needs, all their wisdom is quite helpless. Prayer is for those who are willing to persist in doing something that is both childlike and crucial.”

So, we pray, and we persist in prayer, however awkwardly, knowing that the Spirit intercedes for us; that, whatever efforts we make toward God, He who knows the hearts of men will meet us much more than half-way; and that He can hear more and better than anything we can ever say. Let us pray: Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, who knowest our necessities before we ask, and our ignorance in asking; We beseech thee to have compassion upon our infirmities; and those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask, vouchsafe to give us for the worthiness of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.