“Is It Selfish to Pray for Ourselves?”
By the Reverend Doctor Peter W. Allen
Hingham Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
October 18, 2015
Martin Luther King, Junior, said:
Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.
I couldn’t agree more.
I was raised in a church that projected an image of a loving and yet demanding God. In contrast to some of the other churches in our town, the God we spoke about at our church was gentle and patient, never threatened hell, and yet urgently desired transformation for our whole world, not just for ourselves.
Our God knew it was time to change the way things were, because it was, as it is now. My pastors prodded us to reach out to elderly neighbors, volunteer in soup kitchens, and speak up for the voiceless. They asked us to bring groceries to food pantries. They took us on field trips to African American churches and to synagogues. They enlisted us in projects like raking leaves for the elderly, singing Christmas carols to the sick, and offering comfort to those who had lost loved ones.
The God of my childhood was a God of compassion, a God who expected faithful folk like you and me to do something about the hurting world in which we live.
Putting too much emphasis on our own needs was considered selfish, both at home and at church.
To be honest, the God with whom I was raised is the same God that I preach here and to whom I introduced my two sons. And I’m not about to stop preaching about or sharing my commitment to that God, the God of sacrificial love.
But… There’s something missing there.
I do not criticize Marin Luther King because he was absolutely right and he is a modern day saint. I do not criticize my pastors because they were wise and wonderful servant-leaders. I do not criticize my parents, either, for echoing our pastors’ messages, because my parents gave me my faith, my most treasured reality. And I do not criticize myself.
But there is something missing in our image of God if we do not also include ourselves as God’s treasured children.
To me, as true as it is (and as far as it goes), there is a big problem with the image of God with which I was raised and which I most often offer to you here at our church.
A God who demands that we serve others and never accept help for ourselves is simply not the God of Jesus Christ. And a God who expects us to pray for others and not for ourselves saves only part of us, the put-together part, the part that is in control. And yet we are not always put together, are we? And we are definitely not always in control.
Let me explain.
Most of us here in this room have done pretty well for ourselves. We got good grades in school, at least eventually! We worked hard and paid attention. We impressed our bosses and became bosses ourselves. We either made it into positions of great responsibility or are on our way there right now.
Some of us are good at selling, some at leading, some at teaching, some at problem solving, some at organizing, some at creating, some at performing, some at consulting, some at helping others to discover what they are good at and really want out of life. Some of us have taken the risk of starting our own businesses or bands or brands.
When we fail, we get right up and start again. We are confident and we are capable. We are used to the role of leader or knowledgeable expert.
Many of us are appealing and wise enough to have attracted a life partner who is smart and competent and eye-catching. The thing I am most proud of? Convincing Tracy to marry me.
But there is more to life than intelligence and achievement. And there is more to this life than our ability to attract others. And here at church, it’s important for us to name that. There is more that God wants for us.
In our reading from Hebrews, the author dives into the issue of what it means to play a special role and to be fully human at the same time.
Even as he names Jesus as a high priest, the author says that Jesus is willing to cry out to God for help in his lowest moments – in the garden and on the cross. He uses the name Melchizedeck to reinforce Jesus’ authenticity as a spiritual leader. In the Hebrew scriptures, Melchizedek is the archetypal or ideal priest.
How might we embrace this same way of being – both authoritative and humble? Both strong and aware of our weaknesses and needs? Both a leader of others and a follower of something and someone greater than ourselves?
It takes a strong person to know when she or he is in need. And after all, Jesus said he came for the least and the lost.
Can you, even you, who have achieved so much… Can I… Can we, together, recognize that we, in our own way, are the least and the lost? Can we recognize that we are in a holy space, a place where people much more accomplished than we are have offered stumbling prayers, much like ours?
Can we accept that this space has been made holy by the songs of our spiritual ancestors, people who were better singers than we are… and by the heartfelt preaching of pastors who were more articulate and more charismatic than I am?
Let’s resolve together to be more human going forward – to be more honest about our humanity and our need for God. Because we do need God.
The anonymous author of the letter to the Hebrews says that Jesus prayed for himself in his hour of need, in his hour of pain and fear, and that his reverence for and submission to God was what made him a real Savior and an honest-to-God spiritual leader.
Can we imagine ourselves as reverent and submissive? Or does that run too contrary to the people we were trained to be – skeptics and self-sufficient leaders?
Let’s reimagine what it means to be a strong and faithful Christian. Let us turn to our loving God, not as attractive achievers, but as human beings who know that we need the One who went from town to town in the Holy Land, searching for the broken ones, the One who could just look at you and know that you’re a mess… and a beloved mess at that.
Let us pray for ourselves. Yes, for ourselves. You can be sure that we will go back to praying for others soon enough. We will go back to serving others and speaking up for others perhaps as soon as we leave this sanctuary today… because we know it’s the right thing to do and we know it’s what God wants us to do.
But right now, just for now, let us bow our heads in prayer for the sake of our own souls…
Dear God. We thank you for making us as we are. We thank you for the gifts you’ve given us. We admit that our lives are both beautiful and disordered, both blessed and chaotic. Please help us to grow closer to you, to know and celebrate your love for us, and to be confident in our place in the new realm that Jesus is creating among us. Please forgive our mistakes and turn us outward into the world to do your healing work. And please, as we go along, please God, heal us, too.