May 28, 2023 (Pentecost)
Fred Craddock was a student preacher in a little town near Kingfisher, Oklahoma, in the early 1960s. The nearest local newspaper was in Kingfisher, and they had an Arapahoe columnist by the name of Molly Shepherd. Molly wrote about Arapahoe and Cheyenne customs in English that was, in Fred’s words, both broken and poetic.
One day her column was very brief. It was a Friday in November of 1963, the Friday after President Kennedy was assassinated. In that article she said, “Molly has no words for you today. Molly has nothing to write today. Molly has no words today. Molly goes through the house all day saying, ‘Oh…’”
Do you ever feel like Molly when you sit down to pray?
I know a lot of us feel that way the first time we’re asked to pray in public, in worship or at a meeting or wherever. “I wouldn’t know what to say!”
But even in private prayers, there are still times when we haven’t got the foggiest idea how to pray. Maybe there’s been a tragedy, or we’re dealing with depression, or the stress of our jobs has just gotten to us to the point that we haven’t got much energy for anything else. And we sit down to pray and all we can come up with is, “Oh…”
Has that ever happened to you? It sure has to me.
Today is Pentecost, the day when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit, making a small group of fearful disciples into the Church. The Holy Spirit is still with us, of course, and the Spirit’s presence and work among us make it possible for us to live faithful lives and do the ministries to which God calls each of us.
On some Pentecosts we might see what gifts the Spirit gives us to equip us for ministry and build up Christ’s body, the Church, based on passages from 1 Corinthians and Ephesians. On others we might spend some time on the fruit of the Spirit, the changed attitudes and behaviors Christians demonstrate as they live according to the Spirit, which we find in Galatians. (That’s going to be our theme for camp this year, too.) But today Paul invites us to consider how the Spirit is involved in our prayer lives.
As with a lot of Scripture texts and a lot of matters of faith, there is more than one way to understand what Paul says here about the Spirit’s role in our prayers.
On the one hand, if we get ready to pray and all we can come up with, like Molly Shepherd, is “Oh…,” we might hear this passage telling us that if our prayers don’t have words—if all we can do is sigh, or groan, or cry, the Holy Spirit will fill in the blanks and carry our prayers to God. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this interpretation, and I’ve found it pretty comforting at times when words have failed me. (Yes, it does even happen to preachers, sometimes.)
But there might be another way of thinking about it.
Another story Fred Craddock told was of attending a prayer meeting at a church where he was visiting. The meeting was at the home of one of the members. On the night he was there, they were having a party, celebrating one thousand prayers answered. They kept track of them in a little book. He asked them if he could see it, and found lists of things they’d prayed for, and when they were answered. And the things on the list were new cars, better-paying jobs, fur coats, a date…
He questioned the group, and they said, “Well, Jesus said that whatever we pray for, we’ll get, right?”
Fred wondered. All the dire needs in the world, and what they were focusing on was new cars and fur coats?
Could it be that when Paul says, “We do not know how to pray as we ought,” this is what he has in mind?
Maybe it’s like that story you sometimes hear, in which a person will say, “God answers prayer—just yesterday I prayed for God to open up a parking space close to the door of the shop I was going to. And the fourteenth time I went around the block, there it was!” Is this how we ought to pray? Barring illness or disability, would it have hurt this person to walk a few extra feet?
Then there are the times when “we do not know how to pray as we ought” means we are asking for something that wouldn’t be good for us, something that might have consequences we’re not prepared for. Remember back in the Gospels when James and John asked Jesus if they could sit at his right and left hand when he comes into his glory? His reply was, “You do not know what you are asking.”
This conversation happens after the third time Jesus has told the disciples that when they get to Jerusalem, he is going to be arrested and crucified, then be raised on the third day. The disciples are doing everything they possibly can to keep that hard reality from sinking in; one time Peter chews Jesus out for predicting his arrest and death—everybody knew that the Messiah wasn’t supposed to be executed by the empire—and then the second time they get to arguing among themselves which of them was the greatest.
The question the sons of Zebedee ask indicates that they still do not understand, and I suspect it was willful ignorance—they don’t understand because they don’t want to understand. Jesus calls them on it: “You have no idea what you’re asking for. Do you think you can go through what I’m about to go through—what you’ve done your best not to comprehend?”
Of course they say, “Sure we can.” But Jesus knows better.
Sometimes when we pray, we ask for things that God knows aren’t right for us.
Many years ago, Mike and I were looking for a new apartment. The apartment where we lived at the time was small and kind of shabby, and we believed we could afford something better, so we went looking.
We found a couple of nice places in a funky neighborhood in Portland, an area that suited us but which was a lot further from our jobs than where we were living. One of them was a wonderful, open, airy attic apartment in a gigantic old house, and we loved it. (I know that around here an attic apartment might not be terribly enjoyable, but this was Portland, and even if it got hot during the day there, it cooled down quite nicely at night.)
I had been praying that we might find a new, better place, and so I turned my prayers to asking that we would be approved for it, or for the other one we’d looked at, which wasn’t quite as nice and airy, but was on the second floor of a different house, which would have been easier given that we had an antique piano to move. We weren’t chosen to rent either of these places, though, and so I was disappointed God had not answered my prayers as I had wanted.
But it turned out that God had reasons I didn’t know about. We ended up finding a new apartment that was literally just around the corner from the one we lived in, much nicer than the first one, for only a tiny bit more rent. And not long after that, I started seminary, which required that I reduce my work hours (and, as a result, my income). If we had gotten either of those nice apartments in SE Portland, that may not have been possible.
“You do not know what you are asking”—because you don’t know what the future holds; but I do, God said.
We don’t know how to pray as we ought, because sometimes words fail us. We don’t know how to pray as we ought, because our requests could be for things we don’t actually need. We don’t know how to pray as we ought, because we can’t always predict the possible outcomes of what we’re asking for. We don’t know how to pray as we ought, because we don’t know what’s in our future, or how the things we ask for could impact, or maybe even hinder, what God is going to have for us to do down the road. We don’t know how to pray as we ought, because a lot of the time we don’t completely understand what God’s will is.
But when we don’t know how to pray as we ought, that’s when the Holy Spirit steps in. The Spirit knows what’s in our hearts and can translate for us even when we can’t manage to say it. The Spirit also knows what God’s will is, so our prayers for the wrong things get answered with the right things.
And, because the Spirit is our teacher and guide, as well as the one who comes alongside us and intercedes for us with God, the Spirit can also help us grow more and more like Christ, and our wills become more and more in keeping with God’s will. And when our will and our desires line up with God’s will and God’s intention for us and the world, that’s when Jesus’ words in John, the words the prayer group Fred Craddock met with, come true: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”
 from Craddock Stories, edited by Mike Graves and Richard F. Ward. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001, pp. 90-91.
 Church with a capital “C” typically refers to the universal church, with adherents all over the world across a multitude of denominations; if the “c” is small, we’re generally talking about a local congregation.
 Mark 10:35-40. In the parallel account in Matthew 20:20-23, it’s James’ and John’s mother who makes the request, but the response is the same.
 Mark 9:33-37.
 A couple years after this I read an article in the paper about a lawsuit that had been filed by the father of the young woman who had gotten the lovely attic apartment. Seems the landlord had given the key to the apartment to someone so he could go in and paint; but the painter made a copy of the key and, after the job was done, came back and attempted to assault the young woman. She got away from him, and then her father sued the landlord for negligence in not vetting the painter properly and not ensuring that he didn’t have access to the apartment after his work was done. I don’t believe God kept us out of that apartment so she would be assaulted instead of me, though.
 John 15:7