Prayers you can’t F#CK Up
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
October 21, 2022, Words By: Ron Ruthruff, Image By: Matthis
Our lectionary text this week picks up on a common theme in Luke’s Gospel. The writer of this gospel often places those that have little political power or religious clout, social outsiders, at the center of the story. This usually happens to the dismay of those that might consider themselves righteous and worthy of being at the center. Luke often decenters and recenters through table fellowship; Jesus has dinner with undesirable characters and the meals foreshadow a heavenly feast filled with celebration and community.
In contrast, the meals with the “righteous” are a bit more like one of those family of origin dinners we often hate. These few verses in Luke link prayer, another theme of the gospel, to this radical social spiritual realignment.
I have a friend who is a recovering addict and he is very active in the 12 step community. We walk together often and I find his articulation of his spirituality a huge gift. Some might say he doesn’t look very righteous. His use of profanity is almost as bad as my own.
One day as we walked, I told him that I had begun to pray the serenity prayer. He just smiled and said, “Sometimes that prayer is too complicated for me. I think I could even F$%ck that up!.” He went on to explain, “I stick to a much simpler prayer. Every morning when I wake up, I open my hands and I pray, ‘God Whatever!!’ And every night when I lay down, I pull the covers up around my chin and pray, ‘God enough!!’ He went on,“I’m still trying to surrender to those prayers.”
The older I get, the less sure I am about what prayer actually is … Too often it feels like my prayers are more about trying to make sense of things I am confused by. Or, they’re about me trying to control the things I can’t control. I hear my own prayers in the prayer of the Pharisee. Prayers of …. ”God, How could you?” and, “God why can’t you?” Prayers attempting to control God and my own life by reminding God of what I am entitled to. Prayers of “I am not like them.” It’s like I’m saying, “Remember God, in Psalm 37:25 you said, ‘I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread!!!’ I quickly forget that little stanza was sung by a group of people who knew far more exile and alienation than they ever knew return.
I say I don’t know what prayer is. But I can say that I don’t think it’s a tool for control or a forum for our own righteousness . That is, after all, what the Pharisee is using it for. He stands by himself and prays his resume, trying to use his perceived righteousness to control God and get what he wants. There’s no hint of lament in his words. He’s just reminding God, just in case God forgot, how much he deserves and why he deserves it.
The tax collector prays a very different prayer from a very different place. He’s not in the temple, but rather he “stood at a distance.” This is Luke once again reminding us that the Kingdom often comes outside the temple. The prayer is not one of control; It’s a prayer of surrender. Maybe he knows he will f%$ck the other prayer up. So Instead, he simply calls himself a sinner and asks for mercy.
Maybe, by being honest about what is in my life, I am just hoping to be more of an existentialist in my prayers — to simply state what is. But the reality is, too often my prayers get complicated. They become metaphysical prayers detailing the why’s of the universe. They act as cerebral, epistemological prayers that try to clarify how I know what I know. But the reality is those types of prayers tend to distance me from God and the reality of my life. In a way, they are disincarnated.
I need more simple declarations of what is — of my wounds and my desires. What I love about the prayer of my friend and the prayer of the tax collector is that they state what is, and in doing so, surrender to an empty space, making room for something else in the middle of my life. Our text this week declares this holy prayer from outside the temple — outside the religious systems that can give a false sense of security. Instead, Jesus invites us to the prayer of the honest outsider, choosing the language of surrender that opens up new possibilities. Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Dwelling Among Us
This week may you begin your days with “God whatever,” and end them with, “God enough,” and bear witness to what opens up in the empty space of surrender.