Soul Prayers

One of the television episodes ever, at least in my opinion, is the second season finale of “The West Wing.” The episode was entitled “Two Cathedrals” and centered on President Jed Bartlett, played by Martin Sheen, as he dealt with the presidential crisis surrounding the disclosure of his multiple sclerosis and if he would seek re-election, as well as the death of his long-time assistant, Mrs. Landingham.

Some of the episode’s most moving moments occur at the National Cathedral following Mrs. Landingham’s funeral. The part that is most interesting, for us, comes after the funeral. It is then that Bartlett talks with his chief of staff, Leo, who wants him to return to the White House. Leo wants Bartlett to focus on the final preparations for that night’s press conference where Bartlett would answer questions about his condition and possible re-election. Bartlett, instead, wants a few minutes alone in the sanctuary. Once the cathedral is cleared, Bartlett, a Catholic, begins to express his frustrations towards God. The frustrations focus on the events surrounding his life and if God was punishing him. After a few choice words spoken in Latin, Bartlett walks away from the church, in anger, and returns to the crisis at hand.

For many of us, this is a type of conversation with God we find uncomfortable. We sometimes believe that we’re not to get angry at God, even though there are plenty of examples in Scripture of saints of our faith who expressed their frustrations towards God. We want to believe that God only desires prayers of praise. Part of this is that we believe that if we have hurts, pains, or frustrations that it is an expression of “God’s will” or that we are not strong in our faith.

None of that is true. It is not God’s will for us to experience pains, frustrations, or hurts. It is not God’s will for us to experience evil. God wants us to talk to the Lord about what is going on in our soul. God can handle our pains, our hurts, and even our anger. It doesn’t make us less of a follower of Christ to share these feelings. In fact, our willingness to share and express these feelings towards God is an expression of our desire to seek after the Lord’s own heart.

Our passage, this morning, from 1 Samuel 1:4-18 takes us on a journey deep within our own soul, to experience the hurts, pains, and frustrations we carry with us, and to give them to the Lord in prayer. This journey also allows us to experience the journey Hannah takes through her own hurts and sadness. As we do, we will see that God doesn’t want us to keep these things to ourselves. God wants us to share our hurts, pains, and frustrations with the Lord and, at the same time, witness God’s loving presence at work in these moments.

Hannah’s pain was one that many of us may be able to connect with. We are introduced to her as Elkanah’s wife and a woman who has no children. In that culture, a woman without children, especially a son, was an outcast and did not have a solid foundation for care. The eldest son was expected to provide financial care and protection for their mother. This would have caused, and understandably so, deep pain and agony for Hannah. At the same time, she was tormented – bullied – daily by Elkanah’s other wife, Peninnah, who had multiple children. Peninnah would find ways to remind Hannah of this and hold it over her. It added to Hannah’s pain. If this wasn’t enough, her husband offers her a quaint phrase in an effort to comfort her. What Elkanah says is akin to a phrase we might be familiar with and likely have had said. That is “it was God’s will.” It is a phrase we use, sometimes, when someone is struggling, hurting, or experiencing a loss. Often times, it is a phrase we will use or say when we do not know what else to say or when we do not want to deal with our own pain or hurt. It is a phrase that doesn’t provide that comfort that we hope it will.

Hannah is hurting and, to be honest, many of us are hurting today as well. Whether we want to admit it or not, many of us came here today with pain, hurt, or some frustration in the depth of our soul. Maybe we are dealing with family struggles that weigh on our mind. Maybe we are dealing with the loss of a loved one or the expectant loss of someone close to us. Maybe we are dealing with the feeling that life isn’t what we thought it would be. None of us came here with the perfect life. We can try to make our outer appearances to seem like that, but our outer appearances often hide the pain, hurt, and frustration we carry daily within our soul.

Part of the reason we project that everything is fine, is because society teaches us that to have the good life means we cannot let someone know when we are hurting or struggling. The good life is not just about chasing a broken American dream or living financially beyond means few can afford, but it is also about expressing that our life is “great” even when it is not. We are more comfortable, then, with burying our struggles than sharing it with someone, especially when that someone is God.

The thing though is when we bury these feelings it often ends up being expressed in the worst ways, either through anger, isolation, or even self-rejection. That is how it has worked for me. For the longest time, I felt I wasn’t good enough for God or anyone else. Part of this dealt with some personal struggles that surrounded my divorce in 2004 and the long wait to find someone who would love me unconditionally and to have a family, a child, of my own. I watched friend after friend have children and seemingly have blessed lives and I was hurting and wondered if I would be alone or if I was not good enough for anyone. The way I hid my pain was through bad jokes. I would joke about my pain by saying things like “we are just being lapped” by everyone. Through the jokes, I missed a lot of opportunities to express what was truly going on in my soul and the pain I carried with me. It is worse to hide from our pain than to express our hurt, because we miss out on the opportunity for people to walk with us.

Hannah, though, does not hide from her pain. She does the only thing she knows to do in her pain. She prays to God. After a sacrificial meal, she leaves the table and goes to the tabernacle where Eli, the priest, was sitting. She expresses her heart towards God. She lets go of her hurt and expresses it to the One who is able to feel our pain, experience our hurt, and share our burdens. She doesn’t hide from her pain. She gives them to God through her prayerful tears that expresses what she feels in her soul.

That is what prayer is all about. Prayer is about communicating with God about what is going on in our soul. Deep soul-based prayers rise out of the depths of our being to express our needs, and even our hurts, before God.

This week, we lost a great leader in the church and, perhaps, one of the Methodist movement’s greatest 20th Century preachers in J. Ellsworth Kalas. I had the opportunity to study under Kalas while in seminary, and much of my preaching is influenced by his approach to this important time in worship. In teaching on how to prepare the sermon, Kalas said the sermon must preach to the preacher before it can preach to the congregation. In other words, a sermon must come out of the depths of the preacher’s soul who has encountered the Living Presence of God in the preparation and, then, shares that experience with the congregation.

I think the same is true for prayer. Our prayer life comes out of the depths of who we are in our soul and is shared with God. It doesn’t come out of a surface-level response to God’s love that expresses what we think God wants to hear. Prayer is about communicating with God, seeking the Lord’s presence, and expressing what we are wrestling with in the depth of our being. It is a powerful form of communication that can and will change things in our lives.

Nothing is determined in this world. God moves within our prayers. We are called to pray continually for the world, for our community, for our neighbors, and, truly, for our deepest need, because we know that prayer works and God is at work through our prayers.

Prayer was a powerful moment of hope for Hannah. Her prayer was for God to bless her with the one thing, she believed, would change her life. She prayed for God to bless her with a son. Hannah also makes a commitment before the Lord. She said that if God would bless her with a son that she would give him to the Lord to serve God throughout his life. Scripture tells us that Hannah’s prayers were heard. She gave birth to a son, Samuel, who grew up to be the last great judge – or ruler – of Israel before the rise of the kings. Samuel would anoint both Saul and David to be the king of Israel. Hannah’s deepest pain was comforted through her prayer.

Hannah teaches us that if we truly desire to seek after God’s own heart, then we cannot be afraid to share what is going on in our lives. God can handle our prayers of agony and frustration. God can handle our prayers of hurt. God can handle whatever is going on in our lives and in the world. Through our prayer, God gives us an assurance. That assurance is that no matter what we face in life – no matter what is going on in the world – God’s presence can be experienced. We are never alone. God hears our prayers and works through them.

It is that hope that invites us to share the hurts of our soul today. We do not have to hide from our pain, our struggles, and our frustrations, because God hears our prayer and will offer God’s love through them. We can go to God in our prayers about what is going on in our world – whether it is the loss of 130 lives in Pairs, a terrorist attack in Beruit, a bombing in Baghdad, or the violence and division in our land – and trust that God’s presence will be at work in these situations. We can give God our very frustrations, and trust that God will offer his comforting grace because God never abandons us. We are never alone, even in the hurts of our days. God hears our prayers. God is at work today.

In a moment, we will sing the song “Rock of Ages.” It is a classic hymn that calls us to find our comfort in God’s grace and presence. As we sing this hymn, I want you to think of this: Is there something you have struggled with praying to God about? Maybe it is a personal struggle you have wrestled with for some time. Maybe it is frustration that you’ve never expressed to God. Maybe there is something you have never shared with God, because you felt that God would not hear it. As we sing this song, I want to invite you to give that over to God. Whether in your pew seat, whether at the altar, or wherever you feel the most comfortable, I want to invite you to use this time to give that struggle to God and experience the peace that comes in knowing that God is at work in whatever struggle that you have in your life. I will be along the altar rail through the song for anyone who would like someone to pray with them.

My friends, we have a great hope today. God hears our prayers. God will hear our prayers. God is at work through our prayers. We do not have to keep our pain and frustrations from God any longer. Let us share our soul to God and experience the peace that comes in knowing that we are not alone. God is with us.

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