Trying Not to Use God as a Cosmic Vending Machine

Prayer is a funny thing because we pray for the darndest things.  Jim Carrey showed us this in “Bruce Almighty” when he says yes to all the prayers he received and 400,000 people hit the lottery.  For many of us, we pray, and expect God to do our bidding.

But that’s not how it works.  God isn’t just waiting around to do our every whim. So what does this mean about prayer then?  How do we become people who pray?

That was my jumping off point for my sermon yesterday.  And don’t miss Robert Benson’s fabulous book In Constant Prayer that I mention.

Lent 5B—People Who Pray

We’re on our penultimate Sunday in Lent, and I’ve been making my way through the disciplines encouraged to us by the Prayer Book for a meaningful and solemn Lenten journey.  Things like fasting and self-denial, reading and meditating on scripture, and self-examination and repentance.  The one on that list that I’ve not spoken about yet is prayer.  It’s been on my list for a while—I thought I would preach about it 3 weeks ago—but I’ve struggled in what to say.

I’ve got tons of books on prayer, and my own ideas to be sure.  But I find that often we think of prayer as a way to use God as some sort of cosmic vending machine—we need a healing from a bruised knee, or for a better paying job or, God help us, a great parking spot or a Red Sox win, so we say a quick petition and expect immediate results.  We get disappointed if it doesn’t turn out as we want, and then swear off praying at all.

I wonder about those kinds of prayers because we approach God so casually, as if asking for parking near the door at Staples or Bertucci’s is of God’s concern.  I think of that kind of prayer and the ones offered up by the people of this world who don’t have enough to eat, and I know that I don’t have any idea what is really important to God most of the time, or I’d be praying for something else more often.

It’s not to say that God doesn’t hear those prayers, because I think God does and sometimes God even responds.  I do this sometimes myself with Noah and Olivia when they ask for a quarter for the gumball machine.  But there is so much more to prayer than our petitions for the day in and day out of life, and I think God, while unbelievably patient with us, wants us to grow up sometimes.

When I think about prayer these days, I mean primarily keeping the Daily Office.  It’s the regular rhythm of prayer given to us by our Jewish sisters and brothers—the Psalmist writes, “Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous ordinances”­—and built upon by the early church and the rise of the monastic life in Christendom.  Faithful Christians would make time each day to stop what they were doing and say their prayers, early in the morning, at noontime, at the setting of the sun and before bed.  Marking the divine in the ordinary created a perspective for them; it showed them that they needed to praise God through every aspect of their lives.  They looked at the life of Jesus and how often the Gospels said that Jesus got up early or went off alone to pray, and they tried to emulate that.  Yet even suggesting that we should pray 2 or even 4 times a day is difficult for me because I know how busy life can be.

Robert Benson talks about this in his book, In Constant Prayer, and I’m going to quote him at length because I think he drills this one out of the park.  He penned, “W.H. Auden wrote, ‘An artist must develop a strict consciousness in regard to time.  For we must never forget that we are living in a state of siege.’ He was not just talk about poets; he was talking about any of us who are trying to live our lives with all the art and love and care we can muster.  There is more art in doctoring and schoolteaching and childrearing and all manner of works than most people realize.

“I hate saying this in public, but I am going to.  There are a lot of days when I just do not have the time to say the office.  You know how busy we men of letters are.

“In the morning I have to write in my journal and write my six hundred words in whatever new project I am working on.  If I do not write in my journal, I forget what has been happening to me.  Which is bad enough in and of itself, but it is especially difficult for a guy who makes a living telling stories.  If I don’t remember my stories, then I have nothing to write the six hundred words about.  Eventually I have nothing to write a book about either.

“Then I have to get in the car and pick up the day’s papers.  Then I have to work the crossword.  Then I have to do my other writer’s work for a while.  I have to edit some stuff in the book that I am trying to make something out of from the stuff I ended up with before.  I have telephone calls to make and errands to run and letters to write.  Sometimes I even have a meeting.”

Benson continues, “I do have time to take a swim so I can keep my schoolgirl figure.  I seem to be able to make tee times and play a round of golf.  I have to play golf every week.  Have to is a relative term, of course, but if you play golf, then you know that ‘have to play golf’ is the proper way to say it.  Even if you just live with a golfer, you know that have to is the proper term.  And the way I play golf, it can take some considerable amount of time to play. …

“I have to eat supper.  I have to help clean up the kitchen—okay, I do not have to, but the brownie points that accrue to husbands who cook and clean up, not to mention do the laundry and yard work, are just too good to pass up.

“And did I mention that little armchair in our front parlor, where I like to sit in the evenings?  Or that I have to go to bed pretty early, because I get up pretty early.  And I have to read for a while before I go to sleep, sometimes for a very long while.

“Most days, if it comes right down to it, I simply do not have the time to say the office.

“And I am fully aware that by most standards my life is not even busy. …  Why do I not say my prayers?  Well, it takes too much time.”

He concludes, “ ‘How we spend our days is how spend our lives,’ writes Annie Dillard. ‘What we are doing with this one and with that one is what we are doing.’

“Time is the real currency of our age, and we have to manage our time in relation to our spiritual life as much as we do in relation to any other part of our lives.

“Our hearts are where our treasure is, or so we have been told.  Our love is where our time goes too.  Including the time that some of us say we do not have enough of to spare some to participate in the ancient prayer of God’s faithful.’”[1]

We are seemingly too busy to pray without realizing that we are, as Bill Hybels put it, too busy not to pray.

And it all comes of intentionality.  Do we want to be people who pray, people who enter into the living God to give thanks for the gift of life itself, or do we consider it much too hard to even bother?  We easily put our mind to other tasks out there—for example, I want to climb all 48 of the 4000 foot peaks in the White Mountains in the next 4 years, and I have 44 to go, if you’re keeping score at home—and we could, if we desired to, be people who pray on a regular basis.  But we have to want to.

You may not know how to pray the Daily Office or where to start.  I’ve posted on my blog a cheat sheet and directions for you to do this.  If you can’t figure out how to get to my blog or have trouble, let me know and I’ll send you the information you would need or meet with you to guide you through this.

If we are going to be people who faithfully participate in the life of prayer God wants for us, then we need to make the time.  We need to make prayer one of the items—or 2 or 4 of the items—on our to-do list.  If we yearn to draw closer to God and spend our lives in connection with the true, holy and living One, then we must set our sights on the goal to say our prayers daily.  I hope that we will do this, both individually and corporately, and that we will be people who regularly structure our lives with a “continued awareness of God’s presence and reality.”[2]  I hope and trust that we can be known as people who pray and drink long from the well that God offers to us.  May it be so.  Amen.


[1] Excerpted from Robert Benson’s In Constant Prayer.  2008.  Pgs. 85-88.

[2] Benson, Backcover.