Prayer Without Principle

Posted: November 17, 2014 by Todd in Sermons
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Hardee’s Sign Introduction

This is a sign that hangs in the Hardee’s on Drake Ave in Huntsville.  Now, I love Hardee’s as much as the next person, but this sign sort of struck me as an odd mish-mash of sloganeering for commercial purposes.  I don’t disagree with any slogan on the list.  I understand that businesses often use populist slogans and positive causes in ways that help their business or even better in my mind – they support issues that align with their mission, which in some cases is deeper than just making money.  But when you have just sort of a random spray of slogans without any clear connection to deeper values, it is hard not to think that the attempt is to hijack the popularity of such phrases and transfer some of that good will into brand equity.



Unprincipled Psalm

This leads me to our Psalm this morning.  It is a Psalm of Petition.  Which is a fancy way of saying, you’re asking God for something.  Typically help of some kind.  It wasn’t obvious to me without the aid of a Biblical commentary, but this Psalm in some ways, is like the ancient version of this Hardee’s sign.  It borrows many phrases and slogans from other Psalms and common sayings in ancient Judaism.  In the Psalmist’s case, the objective is more noble – asking God for help in a difficult situation rather than a nudge towards a Thickburger purchase.  Nevertheless, according to several Biblical scholars, this Psalm is an amalgam of commonly used religious phrases cobbled together in service of asking God for a favor.


Psalm 86 



The Parking Gambit

When you go to the store, everyone likes to get good parking spots.   But this time of year, they are getting hard to come by.  And if you’re like me, you find yourself in a dilemma as you pull down the lane towards the store.  At the back of the lot, there are lots of empty spaces.  If you decide to take one of those, you can be done with it, park your car, and get a head start on what is going to be a longer trek to the store.  But if you’re feeling lucky you might decide to chance it and inch closer to the store and snag an empty space near the front of the store.  But if you’re wrong, you’ve got to circle back around to the next lane.  You’ll probably have to wait on pedestrians taking their time to cross the street and potentially get tied up in more gridlock.  My personal feeling is that if you have to circle back into another lane heading back away from the store, it would have been better to just park in the back and walk.  You’d be halfway there or better by that point.  As, you can tell, I’ve been doing some thinking about this and while I have your attention, I wanted to give you a couple of free parking tips that you might find helpful for the holiday season.  First, if you can find a way to do your first pass through parking spaces by driving away from the store – either by entering a side entrance to the parking lot or by quickly driving around the far edge of the parking lot, then you are in a much stronger strategic position.  If there is a space close to the store, great, bam, you’re in.  If not, keep on going and you’re at the back anyways and you can cut your losses without circling back around.  Second free tip – if you’re going to be using a shopping cart, put a premium on finding a space close to one of the buggy collection centers.  Many people make a critical strategic mistake, thinking they’ve really got a great space up front, only to walk halfway across the lot to return their cart after they’ve shopped.


Praying for Parking Spots

As you can probably tell, my top strength on the Strengthfinders strengths inventory is Strategy.  But not everyone thinks so strategically about parking spaces.  Some people just park.  Others pray.  I’ve never been the kind of person who prays for parking spots to open.  Regretfully, I have been, at times, the kind of person who makes fun of people who pray for parking spots to open.  Behind that arrogance, there has been genuine concern that prayer not be like a genie in a bottle than when rubbed grants you three wishes.  It was a matter of principle.  God isn’t there to maximize your every desire or make every step comfortable for you.  Yet, people do pray for even more trivial things – lottery tickets, sporting events, or even for their enemies to be publicly shamed.  And truth be told, I’ve never thought too highly of these sorts of prayers, either.  Out of principle.

Hail Mary

John Madden Hail Mary Passes

One of my favorite video games to play when I was growing up was John Madden football.  My friend had it on his Sega Genesis.  Football fans, particularly in Alabama, will be quick to tell you that it is important to have both a good running game and a good passing game.  If you’re only good at one or the other, then the defense has an extra advantage in knowing whether you’re likely to run or throw the football.  They can tailor their defense towards the run or the pass.  There is a lot of strategic principle that goes into this kind of balanced play calling.  But everyone knows football is more exciting when you throw the football.  So that’s what I did when I played John Madden football.  I threw the football every play.  Not only did I throw the football every play, I usually chose the most exciting of all possible passes – the Hail Mary pass.  Fourth and inches?  Why not throw the Hail Mary?  They will never see it coming.  If you don’t know, Hail Mary passes are when the receivers basically run as far as they can in a straight line and the idea is for the quarterback to throw the ball as far as they can for a long pass.  On occasion, teams will break this play out as a surprise.  But often they are last minute desperation plays – done at the end of a game in one last final attempt to win.  Teams go to the Hail Mary pass out of desperation, not out of principle.  I wouldn’t cut it as an offensive coordinator in the SEC.  Much thought, careful strategy, and planning goes into constructing a game plan.  And my decision to rely heavily on the Hail Mary pass might be fun to watch, but those who think carefully about the X’s and O’s of the game, would probably make fun of it.


hail mary prayer

Prayer as Last Resort

Hail Mary passes are actually named after a prayer.  A Hail Mary is specific Catholic prayer.   Some of you may be familiar with it – “Hail Mary full of Grace, the Lord is with thee.  Blessed are thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus.  Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death Amen.”  Isn’t it interesting that it is the last second, desperation type play that is the only football play that I’m aware of that has a spiritual name.

In both the way I approach parking and the way serious football types approach play calling, if we think there is something we can do to help ourselves – we’re much more likely to do that than to pray.  Prayer, in this way of thinking, is a measure of last resort.  It isn’t likely to work, but what else is there to try at this point?

It is a message that we all likely should be reminded of from time to time – we shouldn’t just pray to God when we want God to do something for us.  Out of desperation.  When we have no other options.  This is certainly true and the principled way to pray.  And this is a relatively easy thing to preach about – we sort of all have a sense that we should go to God not just out of desperation.

But I want to push us a little further.  Because that is what our Psalm does this morning.  Psalm 86 is a prayer of desperation.  And I want to suggest that it is a prayer without principle as well.


Prayer Without Principle

That might sound like a strange thing to say, but I hope one of the things we’ll take from this series on the Psalms is that Biblical prayers to God span the whole range of human emotion and experience.  Too often, we think, we have to mind our p’s and q’s when we pray.  I think even our well-intentioned, high-minded principles can get in the way of authentic prayer.  We think we’ve got to be calm, cool and collected before we pray. We think we have to have prayed to God without asking for something several times before we can make a petitionary prayer.  We think we can’t ask God for trivial things, like parking spaces.  We let guilt over asking God for stuff or not asking in the right way restrain us.  We think we can’t bring our anger or jealousy into our prayers.  We can’t curse during prayers.    We get to thinking our prayers to God are like our house when having company over – we’ve got to clean it up before letting anyone in.  In short, we get to thinking we can’t be our full, broken selves in our prayers.


Walk Through Psalm 86

But Psalm 86 tells us otherwise.  Likely a Psalm written by David – David doesn’t pray out of principle.  Basically he tries everything he can think of to get God to do what he wants.  He uses every inspirational quote, every catchy slogan that he saw on Facebook that week to cozy up to God, to portray himself as a really great and spiritual guy.  That way, God would give him what he wanted.  The first verse reminds me of an episode of the Cosby show – let’s take a look. [Watch first minute of this video; Embedding has been disabled.]

This is the sort of principled stance that David opens up his prayer with – “Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and needy.”  Of course, David is the king of Israel, just like Cliff Huxtable is a doctor.  But both are asking someone for something, making a petition.  And so they position themselves accordingly. Prayer without principle.

David goes on to totally try and butter God up with a mish-mash of platitudes.  Verse 2, “I am devoted to you.”  Verse 5, “For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving.  Abounding in steadfast love.”  In verse 7, David assumes the best of God saying, in effect, thank you in advance for your favorable response.  “In the day of my trouble I call on you, for you will answer me.”  In verse 8, he really starts laying it on thick, “There is none like you among the gods, O Lord, nor are there any works like yours.”  David goes on promising to glorify God’s name forever.  Then in verse 14, David reminds God about how bad his enemies are.  They aren’t like him, continuously praising God.  They “do not set you before them.”  David goes on to repeat another oft used Jewish phrase, “You, O Lord, are a God slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”  And to close out the prayer, David gets to what he really wants, in effect saying, use that graciousness and steadfast love on me and not my enemies.  “Let those who hate me be put to shame because of your help for me.”


Pray As You Are

Now, why would such a seemingly self-serving, unprincipled prayer be in the Bible?  Maybe the truth is, we don’t have to have all of our stuff together before we pray.  It seems that God wants real prayers more than perfect prayers.  We let perfect be the enemy of the good.  And it keeps us from authentic prayer.  We don’t have to enter into prayer with our principles intact.  Rather, prayer will draw principle out of you.


In the end, the person who prays for a parking space to open is no different from those like myself who would never pray such a prayer, but still scheme for the best space.  We both have this little desire – so insignificant and small in the grand scheme of things – to get a good parking space, but yet we still want it.  I’m not here to say whether or not God actually opens up parking spaces upon request.  But one type of prayer brings one’s whole self – with its small, insignificant concerns before God, whereas my prayer somehow feels embarrassed to even acknowledge this small desire.  Perhaps a first step at being more real with God for me – is admitting that I get a little self-righteous about people praying for things I consider trivial.  Your carefully considered principles are not a pre-requisite to prayer.  Prayer will draw principle out of you.  Prayer is transformative.  And the parts of you that you leave out of your relationship with God have a much harder time being transformed.


No Wrong Way to Pray

Since I began with a bunch of slogans, let me end with a slogan.  Just as there is no wrong way to eat a Reese’s, there is no wrong way to pray.  If you feel the need to rely on slogans you’ve heard (like the Hardee’s sign), by all means, use them.  If you feel pulled to bargain and negotiate with God, to butter God up, it would not be without Biblical precedent.  If none of this is your style and you only like to bother God with larger, more meaningful requests, begin there.  These are fine things to do.  But somehow, over time, we’ll be shaped in certain ways.  I suspect that eventually, if you eat enough Reese’s, that after a while, you’d stop eating them by piercing the center with your tounge.  It just doesn’t work that well, especially when you do it again and again and not just for fun one time.  There are more comfortable ways to eat a Reese’s.  I believe the same is true of our prayers.  If we pray as we are with all of our hurts, pettiness, with all of our biases and assumptions, just as we really are – openly and honestly we have made ourselves very transformable by God.  We release our tendency to strategically control the things we care about, both big and small, in order to first and foremost trust them to God.  And in being so fully ourselves with a God who cares so much, we find that the Hail Mary pass isn’t the only play in our prayer book.  By going to God in prayer without principle, we are paradoxically transformed into people who pray not just in times of desperation – but in all seasons of life – the Psalms of our lives.  Our relationship with God spans the full and beautiful range of the entire book of Psalms – from lament to praise, from individual to communal, from petition to thanksgiving.


And so may you be as real as you can be with God in your prayers.


May you trust that God does something in prayer.


And by being yourself with God in prayer, warts and all, may you open yourselves up to being part of God’s response to your petition.


Would you pray with me?

Lord, we find it difficult to be honest with you.

You’re the boss and we want to get our house in order before letting you in.

Help us to trust you enough to let you into the messy, honest places of our lives so that we can be frank with you about what we really need.  And you can begin to shape us from where we really are instead of where we pretend to be.  Only then will can we become who you need us to be.  Amen.




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