Three Essential Prayers: Help (Worship 1/20/13)

Three Essential Prayers: Help

John 2: 1-11


I can’t tell you how to pray.  I could tell you about styles of prayer and techniques but that’s not what this is about.  I’m also not going to tell you that you should pray. Thursday night at forum I said it wasn’t a “you fail” forum and neither is this a “you fail” sermon.  But I am going to talk about prayer because I think it’s often misunderstood, marginalized, and underestimated.

Last week I heard our bishop, Bishop Cho, say this about prayer:  “You learn prayer by praying.”  I know that can sound maddeningly like a riddle or a Zen koan.  I also know that for UVA students this may seem incredibly annoying and time-consuming.  A 5-step “how to” list might come in handy, but telling us to just go pray and figure it out – are you kidding?  Who has time to fiddle around like that?

You’re not the only ones.  There are a lot of us who will try something if we know we’ll get a certain result – and who won’t waste our time if we aren’t sure where it’s going.  That’s where prayer is tricky.  You almost never know where it’s going – or precisely how you got there once you do get somewhere.

Barbara Brown Taylor, the Episcopal priest and writer calls prayer “waking up to the presence of God no matter where I am or what I am doing” (An Altar in the World, p. 178).  Writer Anne Lamott has a similar take.  She calls it “practicing the presence of God” (Help, Thanks, Wow, p. 27).  Well, if that’s all it is then we’re done, right?  God’s present all the time, case closed.  Turns out waking up to and practicing the presence take a little more time and effort on our part.

Tonight is the first part in a 3-part series called “Three Essential Prayers,” based on Anne Lamott’s latest book called Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers (Lamott, 2012).  It all begins with tonight’s prayer:  “help.”

Most of us pray “Help” at some point.  Without even realizing it or assuming a prayer posture or thinking it through.  We find ourselves in dire straits and we say Please help me.  Even when we don’t know what will help, we pray, Please help.  Sick family members, heart-wrenching break-ups, mass shootings, natural disasters, huge quandaries about majors and internships and The Next Step…Help.  Or maybe you are more directive with God.  Maybe you ask for healing for the sick person, a pox on the stupid ex, mercy and justice after a shooting, lives saved in natural disasters, and a big red arrow pointing the way to your next step and a congratulatory bell that rings when you choose correctly.

Either way, “help” is for many people the first and only prayer that ever comes to their lips.  Considering the concessions we have to make to get to that point, I can’t knock that.  Admitting that we need help, that we can’t fix it ourselves, and that, in fact, we have no idea how it can ever be fixed is a wise first step in the posture of this prayer.  Anne Lamott says that to begin you have to admit what she calls “the three most terrible truths of our existence:  that we are so ruined, and so loved, and in charge of so little” (p. 27).  Oh, that’s all?

You might even begin this prayer in a not-so-thoroughly-convinced manner.  Anne Lamott has a prayer practice she calls the “God box,” an actual box into which she slips pieces of paper, after writing on them what it is she needs God’s help with (Help, Thanks, Wow, pp. 36-39).  She stresses that you have to have an actual, physical box of some kind so that you see yourself put the prayer into it and let it go.  She writes that after putting the paper in the box, “You might have a brief moment of prayer, and it might come out sounding like this: ‘Here.  You think you’re so big?  Fine.  You deal with it.  Although I have a few more excellent ideas on how best to proceed.’ Then I agree to keep my sticky mitts off…until I hear back.”

That’s the point where something starts to change – that point when we finally acknowledge that we can’t do it all and fix it all and we need help.  Lamott goes on (Help, Thanks, Wow, pp. 37-40):

“When we think we can do it all ourselves – fix, save, buy, or date a nice solution – it’s hopeless.  We’re going to screw things up.  We’re going to get our tentacles wrapped around things and squirt our squiddy ink all over, so that there is even less visibility, and then we’re going to squeeze the very life out of everything.

Or we can summon a child’s courage and faith and put a note with a few words into a small box in the hope that we can get our sucking, inky squid tentacles off things.

We do this without a clue about what will happen, how it will all turn out.  You may be saying:  ‘It’s so awful right now, and I am so pissed off and sad and mental, that against all odds I’m giving up.  I’ll accept whatever happens.’

Maybe after you put a note in the God box, you’ll go a little limp, and in that divine limpness you’ll be able to breathe again.  Then you’re halfway home.  In many cases, breath is all you need….

With a God box, you’re finally announcing to the universe that you can’t do it, that you have ruined things enough for the time being…This is what gets everyone off the hook, the hook being the single worst place to be…

So when we cry out Help, or whisper it into our chests, we enter the paradox of not going limp and feeling so hopeless than we can barely walk, and we release ourselves from the absolute craziness of trying to be our own – or other people’s – higher power.


Simple, huh?  I guarantee you that the most stereotypical “church lady” old woman who looks pious and accepting on the outside is still talking to God like this on the inside.  If she’s been praying for a long, long time, she might be slightly less belligerent.  But it’s likely that while on the outside she seems harmless and sweet with her head bent in prayer, on the inside she has her dukes up and she’s throwing the occasional temper tantrum and she is annoyed that she, once again, has to admit that she’s not the one in charge.  This is why we have to keep asking for help over and over again, hardheaded humans that we are.

Though I’m not going to tell you how to pray, I do hope that as we consider these three basic prayers you’ll notice that maybe you have been praying at times without realizing it.  Like John’s story about the wedding, which I never thought of as a prayer before this week.  But what else is it?

Jesus, his mother, and some disciples were attending a wedding in Cana and the wine ran out before the party was over.  Jesus’ mother, Mary, tells him there is no more wine.  Jesus seems a little annoyed and says, basically, Why is this my problem, exactly?  Mary sort of ignores him and tells the servants to do whatever Jesus asks of them.  So Jesus says to fill some water jars and then ladle some out.  They do and they find wine instead of water.  His first miracle.

They are at a party and it’s not over yet.  Mary wants more wine so she asks Jesus for it.  It’s not an outlandish request.  Improbable, maybe, but not out of the question.  In fact, she doesn’t even ask for it in the form of a question.  She comments, really:  “They have no wine” (John 2: 3).  It’s as simple as that.

What if you have been praying like that without even realizing it sometimes?  What if part of what we have to wake up to is our own praying, going on all the time?  That homeless man looks so cold in the wind today…That mother is having a hard time with her crying baby in the checkout line…I’m worried about the children in Newtown being back at school again…Mom looks sad today…We need some laughter around here…Couldn’t these be prayers – like Mary saying, “They have no wine”?  Simple observations about where we are and who is around us and what is happening.  Simple, true statements that connect us to one another and to God.  Simple moments when we speak and God listens and maybe something miraculous even happens from time to time.  Kind of like the old woman in church having a different experience on the inside than what we might see on the outside, the simple things we observe can be some of our most ardent and profund prayers.  Might not seem that way to others but who cares?  We’re in the middle of an ongoing conversation with God.

If I were going to give you any “how to” steps for the help prayer, they would be simple ones.  Like this:

  1. Notice where you really are.  Something isn’t right.  We can’t fix it.  God can, somehow.
  2. Ask for what you need or want.  Comfort, guidance, healing, companionship….
  3. Listen.  When you know where you really are and you’ve said your peace, then shut up and listen.  Shut up and wait.  I’m saying “shut up” a lot because I think that might be the hardest part of prayer for many of us.  A lot of prayer involves shutting up and waiting and watching and listening.  Don’t let anyone tell you that’s “doing nothing” – that’s faithful, hopeful living.
  4. Be willing to accept the help that comes – especially when it is not what you expect it will be.  This last one is the doozy.  Admitting that this is the answer you get, being willing to give up on what you thought God would give, and taking what comes.  Some people give up on prayer then, as if they tried an incantation and it didn’t “take.”  But in some respects this is when prayer really starts to be prayer – when it works on us to mold expectations.  To quote our other friend, Barbara Brown Taylor, again, prayer is “to take what is as God’s ongoing answer to me” (Altar, p. 185).


You learn prayer by praying.  You learn what you really want and need when you pray “help.”  And when you put in enough prayer practice, it starts to work on you, refining what you want, and in turn, what you pray for.

We think of prayer as something we do but it’s really something that God does in us.  It’s something that takes hold of us and changes even the ordinary, obvious things we say.  It starts to seep out into the rest of the day.  Just as God won’t stay in the boxes we like to put God in, so prayer escapes the times and places we set aside for it, until more and more of our lives become prayer, conversation with God.

That’s the point, after all:  to spend some time in conversation with God, talking and listening, and resting in God’s presence.  It doesn’t have to be glamorous or eloquent or impressive or even spiritually mature.   Moments when we need help simply remind us that it’s time to get in touch again.

Thanks be to God!


© 2013 Deborah E. Lewis

20 January 2013

Wesley Foundation at UVA