[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]
This is a sermon which I gave in sacrament meeting on January 1, 2012. It was the day after our third daughter, Alison, was baptized, and my parents and parents-in-law were in attendance, which all made for a wonderful occasion. I don’t think I would have done anything different with this sermon it had been just another Sunday though. In any case, I think it turned out well, and enough people told me afterwards that they liked it that I decided to post it here. Enjoy.
Exactly one week and about twelve hours ago, Melissa and I were watching “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which we watch just about every Christmas Eve. Most of you, I assume, know the story, but to any who don’t, it’s a movie that features a man named George Bailey, who has continually passed up opportunities to pursue his dreams because the love and sense of duty he felt towards his family and his community always won out. In the film, there comes a point where he is in terrible financial straits, unable to see any way to come out of his dilemma alive, and in a moment infused with bitterness and desperation, he starts to pore out his fears to God while drinking in a bar. He starts out plaintively, saying “Dear Father in Heaven, I’m not a praying man…”
That scene from the movie came to my mind when Brother Adams invited me to give a talk on prayer earlier this week, because I doubt could qualify as a “praying man” myself. I try to remember to say a personal prayer at the beginning of my day, and we say prayers over most of our evening meals and some of our breakfasts, and we try to have family prayer twice a day, and Melissa and I usually end our day praying together…but still, I can see that a lot of that praying is somewhat rushed, and somewhat routine. The truth is I don’t take my problems, my concerns, my needs or my worries to the Lord as regularly as I should, and I definitely don’t express my thanks to Him for all my blessings with as much faith and piety as I ought. This is something Jesus always reminded his disciples to do, and which our prophets remind us repeatedly to do today. One of the very last things Nephi wrote to his posterity was a reminder to “pray always, and not faint, and that we “must not perform any thing unto the Lord save in the first place ye shall pray unto the Father in the name of Christ, that he will consecrate thy performance unto thee, that thy performance may be for the welfare of thy soul” (2 Nephi 32:9). That is a standard I know I don’t live up to.
I have a friend and colleague at Friends University, an English professor named Marv Hinten, who is a devout evangelical, and he’s written a short book about prayer. Marv truly is a praying man; he has invited me to prayer meetings which he holds in his office before, and he talks in his book pretty casually about spending 20 to 40 minutes a day on his knees speaking with the Lord. I confess I can’t relate to that; hopefully some of you can. The overall thesis which I take away from the essays in his book is that prayer is primarily about “acknowledg[ing] the sovereignty of God” (God is Not a Vending Machine, p. 33). Now, I teach political science, and “sovereignty,” which means rulership or authority, is one of the terms that I like to argue with my students about. So I’d like to try to think about prayer from that perspective a little bit in the time I have remaining.
Brother Adams suggested, when he asked me to give this talk, that I look at a General Conference talk given last October by Elder J. Devn Cornish, a member of the Second Quorum of the Seventy, titled “The Privilege of Prayer”. The beginning of that talk is taken up with Elder Cornish, who was a doctor for many years, telling a story about when he was doing his medical residency at a hospital in Boston decades ago, and how he usually commuted to and from work by bicycle. Since I’m a bike commuter as well, I liked the story already. But then it continued:
One evening I was riding home after a long period in the hospital, feeling tired and hungry and at least a bit discouraged. I knew I needed to give my wife and four small children not only my time and energy when I got home but also a cheery attitude. I was, frankly, finding it hard to just keep pedaling. My route would take me past a fried chicken shop, and I felt like I would be a lot less hungry and tired if I could pause for a piece of chicken on my way home. I knew they were running a sale on thighs or drumsticks for 29 cents each, but when I checked my wallet, all I had was one nickel. As I rode along, I told the Lord my situation and asked if, in His mercy, He could let me find a quarter on the side of the road. I told Him that I didn’t need this as a sign but that I would be really grateful if He felt to grant me this kind blessing. I began watching the ground more intently but saw nothing. Trying to maintain a faith-filled but submissive attitude as I rode, I approached the store. Then, almost exactly across the street from the chicken place, I saw a quarter on the ground. With gratitude and relief, I picked it up, bought the chicken, savored every morsel, and rode happily home.
Now, as probably everyone in our elder’s quorum in this ward knows, I am unfortunately a bit of an intellectual, and also a bit of a cynic. And so I’ll admit that my first reaction to reading this story was to think it was silly, a story of a small coincidence that Elder Cornish foolishly assumes teaches us that “our Heavenly Father loves us so much that the things that are important to us become important to Him, just because He loves us.” But that first reaction didn’t last, because it was pretty quickly replaced by a memory–a memory of an event from my own life pretty similar to the event Elder Cornish used to teach about prayer. (Some of you have heard this story before; if so, please just bear with me.)
When Melissa and I were first married, Melissa didn’t have a wedding band; with our parents’ help we’d been able to buy wedding rings for us both, but no additional band for Melissa to wear when wearing the ring itself wasn’t appropriate. For this purpose, Melissa’s mother gave her an old wedding band of hers to wear, and Melissa wore it almost every day. One weekend however, Melissa and I decided to go on a short camping trip, and when we were heading back to our apartment and packing up the gear, we couldn’t find her band. We searched the pockets of the tent; we turned the tent inside and out; we searched the car; we turned out the pockets of all our clothes; we traced our path around the campground trails; we wondered whether a raccoon could have gotten into the tent during the night and stolen it; we considered everything. Melissa, I hope she will not be too embarrassed at me saying this, was absolutely distraught. Losing her mother’s wedding band! So, we what seemed, in that moment, to be the only thing left: I said a prayer for our family, begging the Lord that we’d find the missing ring. I don’t remember having any confidence that the prayer would work but I got up off my knees afterward and walked across the campsite, kicking the dirt is frustration. On my very first kick–PING! My foot connected with the lost wedding band and it bounced off a tree in front of me.
I don’t really remember what I thought about that experience at the time, but I know what I think about it now. That’s the way our human minds tend to work: we rethink and re-interpret the events of our life and even our own memories of them as we live longer and experience more. Joseph Smith retold the story of the First Vision several times in his life, and each time was a little bit different, presumably because as he grew older and the Lord revealed more to him, he understood that event differently. I’m no prophet, but the same thing has happened to me: there are experiences from my mission in South Korea long ago that had little or no impact on me at the time, but which now loom very large in how I account for my own beliefs. As for this event more than 18 years ago, it has become one of the few absolute foundations of my faith: God heard and answered my prayer.
There are people all around the world, both 18 years ago and today, that truly are in horrifying conditions: loved ones dying, enemy soldiers rampaging, tidal waves smashing everything in sight. Right here in Wichita there are people in situations pretty much like George Bailey from the movie, facing the prospect of losing their homes and jobs and whole livelihood. They pray in desperation, and sometimes are rewarded with what they ask for–but sometimes not. Melissa and I were pleading for an old wedding band–just like Elder Cornish was pleading for a quarter. And for us, He heard and answered: He guided Elder Cornish’s eye to the coin on the street, and He guided my foot to the right dirt clod. Do I know that for certain? I don’t know how I could ever prove it. But I believe it.
That belief in the power of what we might call “petitionary prayer”–that is, those times when we utter a prayer in order to petition God for a specific outcome–leads me back to the whole matter of “sovereignty.” The sovereign is defined by scholars as where power actually, finally lies: in the context of a polity like the United States, it is the power to make laws in the first place, or to change or make exceptions to those laws. One of the most crucial of all of Jesus’s teachings was His laying forth a pattern for prayer, something He did multiple times during His mortal ministry–and the very first step in that pattern of prayer was to acknowledge God’s sovereignty. As that pattern was recorded in Matthew as part of the Sermon on the Mount in the King James Version of the Bible: “Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:9-10). Elder Cornish, expanding on this first step of the Lord’s Prayer, doesn’t use the term “sovereignty,” but that’s clearly what he has in mind. He states: “Jesus addressed his Father in an attitude of worship, recognizing His greatness and giving Him praise and thanks….[we thus] freely acknowledge our dependence on the Lord and express our desire to do His will, even if it is not the same as our will.”
All of us, I suspect, have had an experience of approaching a sovereign with a petition. We’ve approached our parents, or an employer, or a teacher, or a banker, or a bureaucrat, or a politician, with a request: sometimes a righteous and desperately needed one, though if we’re honest we’ll probably have to admit to ourselves that sometimes it’s been for a merely self-interested one. Surely that’s been the case with myself. Now sometimes that approach is complicated, because we might argue, rightly, that the sovereign’s power isn’t absolute: we might insist that we have rights, or maybe that we, the voters or the workers, are the real sovereigns. With prayer, however, there is no such complication. We straightforwardly acknowledge a point which my father has made to his kids probably hundreds of times over the years: we are all, at best, simply stewards. We have what we have–our money, our jobs, our health, everything we have–because God, the real and ultimate sovereign of the world, created all things; we simply receive, through God’s infinite but also unpredictable grace, what we receive, sometimes through our own honest efforts but sometimes through pure genetic or historic luck, and the Lord invites us to work at it, in the same way Jesus, in the parable of the laborers, showed us a householder inviting all to come and work in the vineyard, whether they come early or come late. As He put it (again, from the King James Version of Matthew):
For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, And said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way. Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise. And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle? They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive. (Matt. 20:1-7)
What a hard lesson that must be for any of us to learn: that the Lord is calling to us from wherever we are, whether great or small, whether early or late, and that in our response to His call, we will receive…what? Whatever we ask for? Very likely not. What we expect? Almost certainly not (George Bailey certainly didn’t receive anything like what he expected when he expressed his anguished plea). No, God will answer our prayer, will respond to our petition, with “whatsoever is right.” And, I would add, apparently whenever it is right, whether we recognize it as such a response at the time or not.
Does this mean we simply shouldn’t bother petitioning God, and instead content ourselves with looking forward as our sovereign does or allows whatever it is He will do or allow? There is a defensible logic to that kind of fatalistic approach, but I do not agree with it. On the contrary, I think the act of petitionary prayer is where our worship of Him, where our acknowledgment of His sovereignty, becomes the most real. To continue with the Lord’s pattern of prayer, immediately after we acknowledge that we live in His kingdom and are submissive to His will, Jesus told all of us to simply ask the Father: “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matt. 6:11) Will we get it? Maybe…but maybe not. Maybe God will hear that petition, and respond to it in an entirely unexpected way. It may be a response that, as was the case with Joseph Smith in the Sacred Grove, or with me praying on the ground of a campsite somewhere up Provo Canyon nearly 20 years ago, will take a while, perhaps a long while, to really come to understand it, whatever it is, for what it is. And in the meantime, we will have done the most important thing, a thing that is so important that Jesus would have us conclude our prayers with a repetition of it, when He finished His pattern of prayer with the benediction, “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever” (Matt. 6:13): we will have acknowledged God’s sovereignty over us. We will, in short, have worshiped Him, acknowledged Him, and therefore expressed gratitude to Him. This is how my friend Marv put it:
In Jesus’ example of prayer–the Lord’s Prayer–the physical request is “Give us today our daily bread.” Besides its literal meaning, “bread” stand for our other physical necessities also. The disciples could look around and see that a refusal to pray did not cause starvation. Prayer is not simply a magic wand to fill larders, then, but a humble bow toward the Source of all the world’s provisions. If you ask God for a safe trip to work tomorrow and your neighbor does not, it is very likely that both of you will arrive safely anyway. But only one of you will be properly grateful. (God is Not a Vending Machine, p. 33)
For myself, I have arrived safely following short commutes and long trips more times than I can count, but I suspect that I have almost never remembered to thank God for that. On the other hand, there have been many times when I’ve lost things and I’ve prayed desperately for them, and never once has an angel answered my prayer, as the movie provided for George Bailey. Sometimes those things I’ve prayed for were, in the grand scheme of things, pretty small and unimportant. But other times they have been big things: job opportunities and interviews which I lost out on through no fault on my own, or conversely, losing the trust, due to my own mistakes and bad habits, of someone I respect or even love. God, I believe, feels for us when we suffer losses and have needs, and we’ve told repeatedly, by Jesus and by the prophets, that God’s great purpose to bless and fill our lives. Sometimes that fulfillment could mean enabling us to see a coin in the road or to kick over the right clod of dirt; sometimes it may even be miraculous healings or marvelous changes of fortune. But, it seems safe to say, that most of the time it won’t be. The response will be different, perhaps distant, perhaps unexpected, perhaps barely even noticeable after years of time. But however long it takes us to recognize God’s response for what it is, the deepest purpose of prayer is already accomplished when we, through our thoughts and words and deeds, acknowledge God as sovereign; that we are stewards, laborers in the vineyard, the ones whom make petitions, and wait for the answer, or the lack thereof, which is right.
To be a praying person, in the end, is to recognize that principle always, in everything we perform, as Nephi wrote. I am a long ways away from living that standard, though I have been blessed with many great examples of prayer, and many reminders of God’s sovereignty, and I think I have learned from them some, and I hope I can learn from them more as I grow older, and rethink my experiences again and again. There are many things I hope for, often in a self-centered way, but more important than any of those things that I may wish to petition God for, I believe a sovereign God hears my petitions, and responds to them as He will. And that belief, the belief that, whatever God may do, He does hear me, is perhaps my most important belief of all.