July 24, 2022
“Prayer”  — Rev. Brent Gundlah

During my chaplaincy training, I had the privilege of engaging in conversations about spirituality and faith with a dynamic and diverse group of people.

Because I worked in what was primarily an elder care facility, most of the patients I met were over seventy — but, given my ward’s specific focus on injury rehabilitation, some were younger.

There was also wide spectrum of religious experiences represented in the area where I worked; given the institution’s roots in Judaism, about half of the patients were Jewish, but the other half came from a variety of faith traditions (including Christianity) or from no faith tradition at all.

And while you might think that it would have been easier for me to interact with fellow Christians because of the faith we ostensibly had in common, that was not always the case — not by a long-shot.

I walked into one patient’s room not knowing what I was in for — truth be told, I never knew what I was in for.

Before going to see her, I’d looked at her chart and, from a medical perspective, things did not look good.

She was in her fifties and had end-stage lung cancer; she had come to us because of injuries from fall at home.

She hailed from a historically Irish Catholic neighborhood in Boston and was, in fact, Catholic herself (at least that’s what her chart said anyway).

In light of this information, I had already flicked-on the Christian switch inside my head before I’d even reached her door. I figured I could easily talk with her about God and Jesus and other such things.

Suffice it to say, I was wrong — very wrong.

As I entered the room, she was sitting cross-legged in the middle of the bed. She was extremely tiny and her face was gaunt. Her hospital gown, her bedsheets and her skin were all the same color and so it was really hard for me to tell where she stopped and the bed began; she appeared almost otherworldly.

But what I remember the most was how the strength and intensity in her eyes contrasted with the weakness that sickness had inflicted upon the rest of her body. Although she was dying, she was clearly a force to be reckoned with.

When I introduced myself as a chaplain intern, I thought she was actually going to stare a hole right through me. “I don’t have much use for religion,” she spat, never once breaking eye contact with me.

After a long, uncomfortable pause she continued, “So, are you going to be a rabbi?”

“No, a minister,” I replied.

“Oh, great. A Christian,” she muttered under her breath as she rolled her eyes in contempt.

She was silent for a few seconds (that felt more like a few hours to me) before she started speaking again, and once she started speaking again she didn’t stop speaking for quite a while.

She told me about her cancer and how she mostly blamed herself for it (she had been a heavy smoker for about forty years).

She told me about her family’s bad experiences with the Catholic Church in Boston (as many of you know, the Catholic Church in Boston has a troubled history) and how these experiences made her lose whatever faith in organized religion that she might have had. Let’s just leave it at that.

She told me how furious she was at God for all that had happened to her over the course her short and difficult life (and a lot had happened to her over the course of her short and difficult life).

“I’m not religious and I don’t really pray, but I still talk to God” she said. “I call God, ‘the Big Guy.’ You don’t think that’s sacrilegious, do you Chaplain?” She had kind of a wry smile on her face as she said this; she was clearly trying to push my buttons (and, if I’m being honest, succeeding at it.)

“It doesn’t bother me. And I doubt it really bothers God,” I answered.

“Good. Because I talk to the Big Guy a lot,” she said.

“Oh,” I replied, “What are those conversations like?

Now I have no doubt that what she told me next was the God’s honest truth. And I also have no doubt that she was still trying to push my buttons.

She leaned forward, motioning wildly with her arms and hands as she made some incredibly inappropriate  gestures toward God (which I won’t share with you now).

At the same time, she unleashed a torrent of curse words in God’s direction, the likes of which I’d never heard before (which I also won’t share with you now).

Now, if shocking me was her intention — and I think it was, to some extent — then I must admit she kind of succeeded; I definitely wasn’t expecting all of that. But I was determined not to let her see me sweat.

I don’t remember exactly what came over me but I do remember this: I took a deep breath, looked right back at her and said to her in all seriousness, “Oh, so you do pray.”

She didn’t quite know what to do with that; I guess I managed to shock her a little too, but I really did mean what I’d said.

Sure, her choice of words and accompanying hand signals were a little over the top, but she was dealing with a whole lot of pain and anger and fear and regret and guilt and sadness — and all of these things suddenly came flooding out of her towards God at once.

But if God couldn’t manage to take and hold all of these things for her, if God couldn’t handle being on the receiving end of some raw emotion coming from the very depths of her despair, then who could? And, thankfully, that’s what God does when we cry out.

Okay, so her way of going about it wasn’t quite what they teach you in Sunday School or what you might pick up from reading a daily devotional, but if what she did that day wasn’t prayer, then I don’t know what prayer is.

In today’s reading from Luke’s Gospel, one of Jesus’s disciples asks him for a lesson on how to pray. In response, Jesus presents what we have come to know as The Lord’s Prayer.

It might not sound exactly like the one that’s traditionally recited in many churches because that prayer is actually drawn from Matthew’s version of the gospel, not Luke’s.

There’s no mention of God being in heaven or God’s will being done (either on earth or in heaven) here; there’s no temptation to be avoided (there is, however, trial – so that’s nice); and there’s no evil from which to be delivered.

And Luke’s version sounds a lot less flowery and formal than Matthew’s does; Jesus just cuts right to the chase here.

But while Luke’s Lord’s Prayer is still recognizable, it’s different enough that reading it and thinking about it might just jar folks out of whatever prayer rut they may have fallen into, as they think to themselves, “Hey, wait. That’s not the way we’ve always done it.”

This unnamed disciple is not asking Jesus a generic question about prayer. He wants Jesus to tell him exactly how to pray; he wants structure; he wants the words to say; he wants some clear rules to follow.

But the prayer that Jesus responds with is not the be-all and end-all formula for prayer; it’s simply an example of what prayer could be — a recognition of God’s power; a wish for God’s kingdom to be made real and the world made whole; a plea for God’s help and presence in our lives. That’s really all there is to it.

And yet, because we’re human, we still want structure and clarity. I mean, is it enough to pray that God’s kingdom come or do we also need to ask that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven? Are we supposed to say, “Father” or “Creator”? “Kingdom” or “Reign”? “Debt and debtors” or “Trespasses and those who trespass against us”? Is it “temptation” or “the time of trial” that we’re seeking to avoid? When it comes to prayer — especially the Lord’s Prayer — we may follow different rules, but let’s be honest: we generally have rules that we follow. 

But does any of this really matter? Have we become so fixated on the form of prayer that we’ve lost touch with the reasons we pray in the first place? I mean shouldn’t simply praying to God be more important than how we pray to God?

“Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

Here I am, God.

I’m sorry. I’m sacred. I need to know that you’re there. Feed me. Forgive me. Don’t ever leave me.

Reverently reciting the words you’ve known for a lifetime as you sit in a pew with your hands clasped and your head bowed.

Screaming at God as you let loose with all the things you’ve kept bottled-up for years as you sit crossed-legged on your hospital bed dying.

At the end of the day it’s all prayer, isn’t it?