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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

I Only Pray at Night

2014-07-27 Romans 8:26-27
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.
“I Only Pray at Night” is a song by John Fullbright. He’s a baby-faced 26 year-old singer-songwriter from Okemah, Oklahoma, a hot, dusty place which is also the birthplace of Woody Guthrie. He may have some of Guthrie's dust in his bones. Fullbright’s songs are poetic and sparse. He’s had some fights with God, too. He sings about them in ways that are so much more insightful than most of the slick schlock that passes for praise of God these days. The song goes:
I Only Pray At Night when the world disappears
Put away and out of sight, I confront my fears.
I am proud, I am strong, I’m endowed just as long as it’s light,
I only pray
At night
And it’s funny, ain’t it funny, what ain’t funny in the dark
Its a mystery to me what my mind will see
And it’s something, ain’t it something, when you miss that mark
And you get down on your knees to pray….

I know people who pray and the angels fly low to listen. I know people who pray like they’re running for office. I know people who only pray to apologize. And I know people who apologize for how they pray. For not doing it well enough, or often enough, or sincerely enough.
I know people who gave up on praying a long time ago. They say, “God’s got so much more on his mind than my little problems.” I know others who say, “What difference does it make? It is what it is and it will be what it will.”
I’ve heard little kids pray. Some of them struggle in care or in fear to name every single person they know. And every puppy and every kitty. Some of them do the Cliff’s Notes version, saying, “And just bless everybody in the world, Amen.”
Some grown-up prayers are so angry they’d scare small children. Some prayers are so sweet you need a shot of insulin.
I know preachers who pray. Professionally. They pray like God pays them by the word. They think the commandment to “pray without ceasing,” means also without breathing.
How about you? Do you pray? All day long? Or only on special occasions? Do you pray when it’s sunny? Do you only pray at night, when you miss that mark, when what ain’t funny comes out in the dark?
The Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Romans before the gospels were published. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John had barely started their first drafts when Paul started writing. Paul was more like a blogger. He wrote letters. He got the word out there in real time. So Paul didn’t have the benefit of Jesus’s teachings about prayer that we’re so familiar with. He didn’t have the Lord’s Prayer. Didn’t have the Sermon on the Mount. He was figuring it out as he went.
So when Paul writes about prayer, he doesn’t have any golden rules. There’s no formula. He doesn’t have any steps to success.
They say nature abhors a vacuum. That’s not true. Nature loves vacuums. About 99.99 percent of creation is the empty vacuum of space and it works just fine. Human nature abhors a vacuum, especially when it’s a hole that could be sucked full of money.
I was going to ask God about this, but I went to Amazon.com instead. I figured they’d know all the books on prayer. I searched for books on “How to Pray.” Want to guess how many came up? (Put your phones away.) “How to Pray” scored 58,485 results. That’s a lot of reading. You could spend so many years reading about prayer you’d die before you actually got around to doing it. Not all of the books were Christian. This is a universal problem. Muslims, Jews, and Hindus don’t know, either.
There was, How to Pray: Lessons for Effective Prayer. (Because no one wants to waste time on ineffective prayers.) Another was a twist on what the disciples asked Jesus: Lord, Teach Me To Pray in 28 Days. For geeky hipsters there was, How to Pray, Optimized with Hyperlinked Chapters.
I think what Amazon was telling me is that we’ve got not 99 but fifty-eight thousand problems. Or, if you’re Alex Trebek, 58,485 answers. But no single solution.
There’s a vacuum in human nature that sucks up hope. It makes us think we don’t know. In the light we’re strong and proud of our answers. Some of them even get published. But the empty dark makes us afraid. We’re we don’t really have any idea how to do what we’re trying to do. We’re afraid our work falls too short of the mark.
Paul says, “You know what? You’re right.” You do fall short, and so do your prayers.
Romans 8:26 says, “For we do not know how to pray as we ought.” This is not a new problem. We just don’t. We don’t know how to pray as we ought. No one knows. Not the #1 Apostle. Not the long-winded preacher. Not the scared teenager. Not the middle-aged person at the end of the rope. Maybe the child knows, who names puppies and kitties and moms and dads. But the child grows up, and forgets way too soon. We get lost in the words. We get pulled loose in the vacuum of unanswered, over-analyzed prayer.
Because, says Paul, “We do not know how to pray as we ought.” But just because you can't explain something doesn't mean you can't do it. Just because you don't know how to do something well doesn't mean you shouldn't try.

Last week, I got to watch one of the three year-olds from our church learning how to ride a two-wheeler. You’re thinking, this sounds like a trip to the Emergency Room. But it was great. The bike was a about this tall. The seat was about a foot and a-half off the ground. And the tires looked like they came off a monster truck. Wide, hard plastic wheels like fat rolling pins that made that hollow grinding noise so many of us remember from Big Wheel days. So, this little girl was just going to town. And probably would have if her parents weren’t chasing after her.
How many of you know how to ride a bike? Good for you. When you were starting, I’m sure this is how it went. Your parent, or your older sibling (God help you) made some PowerPoints to teach you how kinetic energy translates into force and speed over a gyroscopic effect driven by inertial reactions.
Or, they told you what Queen said, “Get on your bikes and ride.” Because, you want to ride your bicycle; you want to ride your bike. So, you got on and rode. If you had waited until you understood the physics, you’d never have left the house. The more you try to explain it, the less interesting it sounds. It’s just something you do. If you’re going to go to town, you’ve just got to go.
Some of you bike riders are self-taught. But here’s how it went for a lot of us. Someone helped you on. They put their hand under the back of the seat. They ran along beside you. They said, “That’s it! You’ve got it. You’re doing great. Keep peddling.” And then their voice got smaller and you realized you were doing it on your own. If you fell over, which you did, they helped you up. They brushed off your knees and wiped the tears. They waited until your heart stopped beating so hard and then started over again. “That’s it. You’ve got it. You’re doing great.”
After you got the hang of it, you realized you probably could have done it all by yourself. But it sure helps to have that person who loves you running alongside.
Kind of like what the Holy Spirit does when we pray.
Philip Yancey’s book on prayer, imaginatively titled, Prayer, has an Amazon ranking of #30 out of 58,485. I respect that. Yancey writes about how every faith and even non-faith practices some form of prayer. Remote tribes, Incas and Aztecs, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, and Christians – even those who don’t believe in God but just sit quietly and meditate. Prayer is universal. Prayer seeks to fill that vacuum of human need. Yancey quotes Thomas Merton who said, “Prayer is an expression of who we are…. We are a living incompleteness. We are a gap, an emptiness that calls for fulfillment.” (Yancey, Prayer, p. 13)
Prayer is just something humans do to fill ourselves. It’s as natural as breathing. It’s breathing for our souls. Sometimes prayer is long-winded. Sometimes it’s folded into a beautiful voice sung in notes so lovely it makes you cry. Sometimes it’s a nighttime, blunt-force “huhhhhhhh.”

“For we do not know how to pray as we ought,” Paul said. But the Spirit helps us in our weakness. That very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.
God knows we’re clumsy. God knows we’re awkward and untrained. So God sends the Holy Spirit to run along beside us. The Spirit guides us. The Spirit encourages us. The Spirit picks us up when we fall over and the Spirit wipes away the tears. The Spirit waits until our hearts settle, and then gets us set to try again. If we listen closely, we can hear its voice in the distance behind us. “That’s it. You’ve got it. Keep peddling.”
And like the one who loves us watches us as we’re just going to town all proud and strong, the Spirit prays for us. It prays FOR us when we forget to. Sometimes it just prays, it just waits, until we circle back around and need its help again.
Prayer is easier than riding a bike. We don’t know how to do it as we ought. That’s why God runs along beside us.
In his song, Fullbright sings,
And it’s something, ain’t it something, when you miss that mark
And you get down on your knees to pray….
Paul would sing it with the lines reversed. He would say,
It’s something, ain’t it something, when you get down on your knees to pray… and you miss that mark.
For we don’t know how to pray as we ought. But pray we do. We can’t describe how it works, or even if it does. We surely aren’t experts.
But we know someone who is. And that third Person of God prays for us in sighs too deep for words. And prays with us. Even if we only pray at night.
Prayer, Philip Yancey, Zondervan, 2006.
“I Only Pray at Night,” John Fullbright, “From the Ground Up,” Blue Dirt Records, 2012.