Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor
A sermon given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
The character Ouiser Boudreux, played by Shirley MacLaine in the 1989 film Steel Magnolias, is one of my all-time favorite fictional characters. She’s tough, smart, rich, single, and eccentric. Her opposite is Annelle Desoto, played by Daryl Hannah. Annelle is naïve, a young woman who tries on lifestyles as easily as she tries on shoes until eventually she finds Jesus and becomes a devout Christian. You probably know the story, six women in Louisiana whose lives are told through their visits to a beauty salon. After the untimely death of Shelby, M’Lynne’s daughter, the remaining four rally their support. Ouiser hugs M’Lynne and tells her, “you’re in my prayers”. Annelle looks at her with a surprised expression. “Yes Annelle, I pray – there, I said it, I hope you’re satisfied!” To which Annelle responds, “I have suspected this all along.” “Well, don’t expect me to come to one of your churches or one of those tent-revivals with all those Bible-beaters doin’ God-only-knows-what! They’d probably make me eat a live chicken!” “Not on your first visit!”
When it comes to prayer, there’s a lot more Ouiser Boudreaux in us than Annelle Desoto. We may pray, and we may even quietly say something like, “you’re in my prayers”, but the prayer-words do not come easily to us.
A year ago, our Board of Deacons for Congregational Life began talking about forming prayer groups in our congregation. The Congregational Life deacons are responsible for creating opportunities for church members to get to know one another better, to find avenues for mutual support and care. They remind you to wear your nametags and to come to coffee hour. It’s the board that welcomes new members into our church, organizes the neighborhood fellowship groups and supports our prayer shawl ministry. It’s the board that works with our parish nurse to develop programs of support for people with aging parents, CCDC Cares, the Faithfully Facing Dying course, and a hundred other programs. Congregational Life Deacons look at the congregation as individuals who need care and need to provide care for one another. Its raison d’etre is to model and promote loving, caring relationships between us, beginning with getting us to talk to one another.
At the same time, the Board of Deacons for Religious Education was thinking about how to encourage support for and between parents – parents of young children, parents of teens, parents of the launched, re-launched and grounded. One idea they had was to develop prayer groups, thinking that church members with an affinity or a common experience might provide the best support for one another. Now these two boards want to get things going.
You may think praying should follow a particular pattern - that it must contain key words or phrases to be called prayer or that it should be done by those of us who do this for a living. Perhaps you think that prayer must be done alone, by that I mean as a single activity, uncluttered by the work of one’s hands while baking or gardening or stitching or raking. You may feel as if praying about those things that are on your mind and heart with other church members is just too intimate an activity to take place in a church. I’m going to take a guess here, but I bet most of you, maybe just about all of you, think your prayer life could use some improving.
There are so many ways to pray - about as many ways to pray as there are ways to think. What we do together on Sunday mornings during our pastoral prayer is just one way to pray. It is an especially significant time of prayer because we are engaged in prayer together, at the same time, praying with one another and for one another. But if this time of the Sunday pastoral prayer is the only time you pray, then you’re missing out on a powerful force. You’re trying to slake your thirst with a drop of distilled water when a deep well of cool, clean water lies within your reach. Are you trying to accomplish something difficult, like overturning the death penalty, erasing racism, loving that person who means you harm? Have you prayed for help?
Seek through prayer and meditation to improve your conscious contact with God.
the 11th step of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Satan does not care how many people read about prayer if only he can keep them from praying.
Paul E. Billheimer
Work, work, from morning until late at night. In fact, I have so much to do that I shall have to spend the first three hours in prayer.
Prayer is as natural an expression of faith as breathing is of life.
Any concern too small to be turned into a prayer is too small to be made into a burden.
Corrie Ten Boom
Work as if you were to live a hundred years, pray as if you were to die tomorrow.
I have been driven many times to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had absolutely no other place to go.
I don’t know whether I believe in God or not. I think, really, I’m some sort of Buddhist. But the essential thing is to put oneself in a frame of mind which is close to that of prayer.
In a world of prayer, we are all equal in the sense that each of us is a unique person, with a unique perspective on the world, a member of a class of one.
W. H. Auden
Prayer for many is like a foreign land. When we go there, we go as tourists. Like most tourists, we feel uncomfortable and out of place. Like most tourists, we therefore move on before too long and go somewhere else.
Robert McAfee Brown
The 1928 Republican Convention opened with a prayer. If the Lord can see His way clear to bless the Republican Party the way it’s been carrying on, then the rest of us ought to get it without even asking.
To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Your cravings as a human animal do not become a prayer just because it is God whom you ask to attend to them.
To every objection you may be raising in your mind to developing a network of prayer in our congregation, I can add five more. I know every obstacle to prayer, both as an individual and as a pastor to a congregation of critical thinkers, progressive Christians who would rather study, ponder, evaluate, measure, explore, and discuss than do.
But here’s the thing – if you don’t pray, you’re missing half the experience of being a Christian. It’s like eating only green vegetables and never once touching squash, corn, potatoes, beets, onions, or carrots. It’s like singing only the first and third lines of a hymn while skipping lines two and four. It’s like reading only the odd numbered pages of a good mystery. But missing half the experience of being a Christian is not the most serious thing about never praying. No, the most serious thing about avoiding prayer is that you’re avoiding half of a two-person conversation – the half that isn’t you.
Once, some time ago, I had come to a significant crossroad. I had just about run out of the personal resources that had always sustained me through hard times. I was tired, weary beyond belief. A friend, the only kind of friend who could get away with saying this to me, wondered if I had stopped praying. I told her that I had, that I just couldn’t seem to find any words that meant anything any more. Go to Gethsemane, she told me. Pray there for a while. I did as she advised. I went with Jesus to the garden alone. I had already felt deserted so the sleeping disciples stayed where they were, oblivious to my agony. I asked God, can’t I take a pass on this one? I had to go back to Gethsemane many times during those days, before I could hear and accept God’s answer. There have been other times in my life when praying has done wonders for me – times when solutions to old problems finally came, sorrows were released, strength was summoned, but never have I had the need to pray as great as when I went with Jesus to Gethsemane, certain no one could help me.
What I did, from the perspective of prayer technique, was pray the scriptures. But what happened to me was, pure and simple, a spiritual rescue. I gave up my life, which, at that moment, felt pretty worthless anyway, to God. And God carried it for me for a while so I could rest. In the quiet of Gethsemane, when the answer to my self-serving question was no, everything I needed to survive was given to me.
Some of you may be surprised to hear me talk in such an unsophisticated way about my experience of prayer. Well, that failing is mine. I have not been as open about that half of my Christian walk as I should be or as might be helpful to you. I’m sorry for that. I don’t want you to think I’ve lost my mind or I’ve converted to fundamentalism.
The fact of the matter is, I couldn’t live if I couldn’t pray. I could easily live without preaching, and if I had to give up knitting or stitching, well, I’d be sad, but it would be ok. If I could never sing another note, that would break my heart, and if I couldn’t hear Warren’s voice ever again, I would grieve without solace. But if I couldn’t pray, I simply could not live. So, yes Annelle, I pray. And I will, as long as I breathe, I will pray. And so should you. Amen.