How do you pray? When the disciples asked Jesus about it, he gave them the Pater Noster, the Our Father…, as an example. That is one example of prayer, but I am talking about you. What are your prayers like?
Some people pray prayers that have been written out, some of the prayers are very old. Others pray conversationally, telling God whatever comes to mind. Still others go down a list and tick off the items when God answers the prayer. Some speak in tongues, some sing, others sit in silence. There are many ways to pray.
If you do a Google search on “Prayers In The Bible” the first couple of hits have to do with powerful prayers. A lot of people want to pray powerfully, it seems. One site even claims to have ‘dangerously powerful’ prayers. I didn’t click on that one. Another offers “life-changing prayers.” And prayer will change your life, so I guess there’s some truth to that one. If you change the search to just “Prayer,” you’ll get over 200 million hits. There’s a lot of interest in prayer, I guess.
The reading from I Kings appointed for today features two ways of praying, to two different gods, and for two different things.
First, there were the prophets of Baal. Baal was an agricultural god which was worshiped by the Canaanites. Baal was the god who gave good crops by replenishing the land with rain. As an added bonus, Baal did not require a tithe on the crops he produced for you like the God of Israel. Baal was a god you could see, you could put your hands on him. He was a god who would make you rich and, aside from the occasional human sacrifice, he required very little in return.
The priests of Baal, about 450 of them, cried out to Baal saying, “Oh Baal, answer us.” It was a prayer for victory. They wanted to be proven right. They danced, and probably sang. They cut themselves, most likely in the mistaken belief that this would end the drought. The priests of Baal prayed as if the answer to their prayer depended on their effort, and a mighty effort it was. If ever a prayer deserved to be answered it surely was the prayer of Baal’s priests. Alas, though, no fire came down from Heaven. This god must not be the Lord God.
Fortunately, prayers are not answered on the basis of their merit. We don’t have to beg God for an answer or pray in a certain way. A great teacher of the Jews once said: “…Our Rabbis teach that the cow wishes to feed the calf more than the calf wishes to be fed. This means that a giver has a greater desire to give than the beneficiary has the desire to receive. So it is with G•d. His delight in benefiting His creatures is greater than the delight felt by the people He benefits.”
This brings us to Elijah, the one prophet of Yahweh. Yahweh was the God of the Israelites, the one and only Lord. Even though he made no promises, Yahweh demanded much. Yahweh might or might not make it rain. Either way, you had to tithe on whatever you made. And there were other laws and restrictions too. You couldn’t see Yahweh, and when Yahweh did make an appearance it was as fire, or a cloud, or through signs. Overall, Yahweh was a more difficult god… as gods go.
When Elijah prayed to Yahweh he didn’t pray for victory. First, he drew the people closer in and he did things to remind them of who they were and how Yahweh had cared for them in the past. First, he repaired the altar using twelve stones to remind them of the twelve stones which they had piled up on the banks of the Jordon River after they entered Jericho from Shittim. Then, he prepared the altar with the wood, some grain, the offering, and, finally, he poured water — lots of water, which was in short supply — over it all to remind them of how Yahweh had provided for them during their wanderings in the desert. Only then did he begin to pray.
Here is what Elijah prayed: “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.”
The thrust of his prayer is simply for Yahweh to be known, and that the people know that their own hearts have been turned back to God. It is not a prayer for vindication or victory. There was no dancing or cutting. In fact, Elijah seems not to be overly invested. But, whoosh! Fire came down from Heaven and consumed the offering, even the stones, the dust, and all the water in the trench! Surely, this must be the Lord God.
When I try to imagine myself as part of this story I rather fancy myself to be Elijah, don’t you? We all want to be heroes. It might be closer to the truth, though, to admit that I am more like the prophets of Baal. I like to do all I can to help God. If the answer to prayer has something to do with me, with my devotion, or my effectiveness, or even my holiness… well, then, I have some control over it. But, we didn’t create this God, nor can we control her. God’s love and grace rush towards us like water flowing out of the mountains in spring. It is no babbling brook, it is a raging crash! even the stones take note and curve their edges in its presence. A prayer for God to be known is a prayer into the unknown. To ask that this God be known is the prayer of the brave.
Elijah teaches us that God is so willing to answer our prayers that we have only to ask. No cutting, dancing, or begging required. Certainly, we will not manipulate this God. Of course, we will keep on lighting candles, raising our hands, and praying in the ways that God leads us. But it’s only for our own benefit. God has already decided to answer, to give more than we may think or imagine. In fact, God is waiting, longing for us to simply let God be God. If we dare!
Some Notes of Possible Interest
The exact number of hits for “Prayer” on Google was 208 million. It will probably be more in a few hours!
The whole quote on prayer is, “Behold, when a man prays, G•d forbid that he should direct all his desire towards that corporeal thing for which he asks. Rather, he should have the following in mind. Our Rabbis teach that the cow wishes to feed the calf more than the calf wishes to be fed. This means that a giver has a greater desire to give than the beneficiary has the desire to receive. So it is with G•d. His delight in benefiting His creatures is greater than the delight felt by the people He benefits.” It was said by Rebbe Reb Dov Ber, later known as the Mezritcher Maggid. He was the successor to the Baal Shem Tov.
Joshua 4 tells how the Israelites crossed the Jordan River between Shittim and Jericho. The river stopped flowing and they crossed over on dry land. They took twelve stones out of the river and they made a pile of them as a memorial.
Exodus 17 and Numbers 20 tell about how God provided water from a rock for the wandering Hebrews.
Ephesians 3:20 – “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine…”
The first time I visited Spokane in the Ameican state of Washington it was winter and the river bed was dry. I had a nice long walk in the river bed, examining stones which had been smoothed by the water that flowed there in summer. I imagined it would all be so idyllic when I returned in Spring and I looked forward to seeing the riverbed transformed into a lovely river. Imagine my shock when I returned to crashing, raging, spewing waters! It was not idyllic at all! Owing to the Bernoulli effect, gravity, and I don’t know what all else the river was out of control. Not at all what I’d expected.
Linda McMillan lives in Shanghai, China