Prayer & Imperfection

Sunday 29th July 2007
Year C, The Eighth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Genesis 18:20-32
Luke 11:1-13

Before the age of self service, the shop assistant was all powerful. You went into a gentleman's outfitters and asked for a red shirt. "O I am so sorry sire; but we do have a beautiful pink one." "But the pink one would not match my jacket." "No problem sir, we have a very nice jacket to go with the pink."

There is a much more satisfactory shopping experience. You go into a shop to buy a lawn mower and, persuaded by television ads, you are very specific about what you want. "I wouldn't buy that one sir; it's very expensive for what it is; it has some features that are not much use; and we have a special offer. Come and look." You go over to look and bend over the special offer: "It looks to me sir," says the helpful assistant, "As if you could do with a machine that does not require you to bend over; we have this long-handled model on special offer." You are paying the bill when the assistant casually remarks. "My cousin has just started up a small gardening business; here is his card." You go away with the long-handled special offer mower and later value the services of the assistant's gardening cousin.

Today's Gospel is very clear that, in talking about praying, Jesus is not keen on the first kind of experience: if you ask God for a red shirt he won't offer you a pink one. But what about the second shopping experience? It surely illustrates that we don't always know what is best for us. So to merge the two stories: you might go into the shop and ask for a red shirt and, when it is produced, you might agree with the assistant that it really isn't your colour.

These two dynamics are an essential part of our prayer life. We ask for something and we receive something else; and our reaction to this should not be disappointment but the sense that we have prayed honestly and that God responds in  a way which is best for us. We do not know enough about ourselves nor about our future to see God's response in terms of our immediate human wants; we have to trust that God knows best.

What, then do we make of the extraordinary dialogue between God and Abraham in which Abraham prayed and God responded, apparently allowing Abraham to talk Him down from high dudgeon to a reasonable response to the sins of Sodom?

The first important thing to notice is that Abraham was asking nothing for himself; he was praying for justice. God, who is of essence above the constraints of human justice might have  seen further and deeper than Abraham but nonetheless allowed Abraham to influence the final outcome. Abraham's steadfast plea for justice was rewarded.

The second factor is that Abraham had a track record of faithful obedience to God; he had earned his entitlement to argue. He had refused The Lord nothing and now he was cashing in some of his chips.

thirdly, and crucially, Abraham in his faithfulness recognises that this is not an argument on equal terms. He does not presume. He simply and steadfastly puts the case.

These two accounts of prayer in today's readings tell us a lot about our own prayer lives. There are a few, a very few, people whose lives are totally devoted to prayer but for most of us prayer and faithfulness through what we do are two closely related aspects of being God's creatures. In other words, we do not pray for social justice in the hope that somebody else will sort it out while we do an odd bit of praying and a great deal of armchair supervision. Praying involves a commitment to that for which we pray. There is no point in praying fervently after the Creed for social justice while refusing to do anything about it ourselves.

The critical point, as I have indicated, is that we are mostly concerned with others as we live out a life of love; but, as we see in the Our Father, we can and should pray for ourselves but only if we link our personal prayer with penitence and forgiveness.

Finally and, I suspect, somewhat against the grain of what most of us do, there are times when prayer has to be seriously argumentative. Before Abraham had his discussion with God he surely had to struggle within himself to arrive at a view of what justice required. We usually think of prayer as quiet, settled, sometimes silent, sometimes rhythmic but not full of disruptions, jagged edges, breakings off, starting again, experimental, looking for new angles. But it is important to think of prayer in a constructive, proactive way. Some people will live their whole lives in a state of near tranquillity, with gentle prayer as soothing background; but for most of us life should be difficult because, if we take them seriously, the demands Jesus makes are impossible for flawed humans. He really means us to give everything we have to the poor; he really means us to live in lifelong faithfulness to partners; he really means us to bear witness to God in everything we do. But we don't; we can't; it's too much to ask; and prayer is the theatre in which that drama between God and us should be played out in gratitude, yes; in sorrow, yet; but sometimes in turmoil and even anger. Why did God make us as we are and ask so much of us knowing that we will fail?

Because, excepting Jesus himself and Mary, only flawed people can choose to love God freely; we are not angels. We are higher than angels because there is no love without free choice. But the exercise of free choice is difficult and frequently involves wrong choices. Only God knows how honestly we face this chronic crisis of imperfection; only God knows what means we need to be worthy of our createdness.

And also, being God Our Parent, She turns a blind eye when we insist on the red shirt. Well, in my case, I hope She does.