What Is Prayer?

I have thought about this sermon for weeks and came to the conclusion this week that I still don’t have a clue what prayer is!  But perhaps it is not something that is supposed to be defined …

1 Samuel 1:4-20
1 Samuel 2:1-10

What Is Prayer?

I do not think I will ever forget the first time I met most of the people in this church. The day was March 5, 2011; Fellowship Hall was filled to capacity, the smell of spaghetti and meatballs was in the air and there were three tables of incredible-looking desserts waiting to be auctioned off. I had a very important sermon to preach the next morning – and there was an even more important congregational meeting that was to follow worship. It was my candidating weekend at the Rehoboth Congregational Church.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

For many people, that night was unforgettable because it ended with me putting a pie in someone’s face. But my most vivid memory comes from a moment about three hours before the pie left my hand. It happened the second our moderator called for everyone’s attention, thanked people for coming and said, “And now, Rev. Sarah will say a prayer over our meal.”

At that moment my mind went blank.

I don’t know if I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of people in attendance, by the unfamiliar faces or by the enormity of the weekend as a whole, but as soon as I said, “Let us be together in prayer,” every other word or combination of words flew out of my head and I had no idea what I was going to say next.

So I (unintentionally) started with a moment of silence. A long one. Eventually I fumbled my way through a prayer, said “Amen” and prayed quietly to myself that nobody noticed.

I returned to my seat, sat down and Bruce immediately leaned over and said, “What was with the moment of silence?”

Apparently somebody noticed.

This story is a perfect example of why, when it comes time to bless a meal or an event, no one ever volunteers to pray. People often feel uncomfortable; that they do not know the correct words to say, that they will not sound eloquent enough or that they will pray in the “wrong” way.

Growing up my family always said a prayer before dinner. It was simple: “God is great; God is good; and we thank him for our food. Amen.” The summer before my senior year in college I proposed that we stop using the “canned” prayer and start taking turns blessing our meals. It did not go over very well; there was always an awkward moment as we decided who would pray, my sister would start giggling, my mom (the minister) and I (the philosophy and religion major) would argue over who was less qualified and eventually my dad would roll his eyes and start us praying, “God is great; God is good …”


It sounds like such a simple word, such an intuitive concept. Yet often times it is one of the most difficult things that we try to do as human beings. Why is that?

We read two scriptures this morning out of 1 Samuel, the first of two books in the Old Testament that tell the story of Israel’s developing nationhood in the Promised Land.

In our first reading, Hannah – a barren woman – prayed to God for a child. She pleaded with God; she wept, she begged and she bargained for a child. The NRSV says that Hannah was “deeply distressed” {1:10} when she began to pray; the Hebrew Bible translates this to say that her soul was bitter. Eli – the Priest – observed Hannah’s prayer; she was making such a spectacle that he thought she was drunk. “No,” Hannah said. “I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the LORD.”

A bitter Hannah poured out her soul before God.

In this morning’s second reading, we see a much different side of Hannah. This reading actually replaces the psalm in this week’s lectionary. Like so many psalms, it is a song; The Song of Hannah. “My heart exults [my heart rejoices] in the LORD,” Hannah sings. “There is no Holy One like the LORD, no one besides you.”

A joyful Hannah gave thanks to and praised God.

So, first of all, what changed in the twelve verses between Hannah’s bitter pleading and Hannah’s joyful song? She gave birth to her son, Samuel. It seemed that her fate as a barren woman had been reversed; her prayers had been answered.

Second of all (and much more important to the point that I am trying to make), look at these readings side by side. What was Hannah doing in both of these scriptures? She was praying. Each reading is an example of prayer; in both of these stories Hannah is completely opening herself up in prayer to God. But the prayers do not look like one another at all. In fact, they are completely opposite – in expression and in emotion – from one another.

So what is prayer?

I came to the conclusion this week that there really is no simple answer to that question.

I get asked to pray often; hazard of the profession, I suppose. I have prayed at meals, banquets, ceremonies and conferences. I have prayed in the church, in people’s homes, at cemeteries and in hospitals. I have prayed in cafeterias and gymnasiums. I have prayed before meetings and sporting events. I have prayed loudly and I have prayed silently. I have prayed publically and I have prayed privately. I have written prayers, I have used liturgy and I have prayed extemporaneously. I have prayed while running and I have prayed while standing still. I have prayed out of joy, I have prayed out of sorrow, I have prayed out of anger, I have prayed out of fear and I have prayed out of relief. No two prayers have ever been the same.

Every day I am more and more convinced that prayer is nothing that can be defined in human language. It is a human expression of something otherwise unexplainable. It is an expression of emotion. It is an expression of an individual’s relationship with God. It is an expression of an individual’s devotion to God. It is an expression of an individual’s frustration with God. It is an outward expression of both an inward strength and weakness.

Prayer is an expression of faith.

In this morning’s scripture, prayer was both Hannah’s joy and Hannah’s sorrow. It showed Hannah’s faith both at its strongest and at its weakest.

Prayer is an opportunity for people to join their voices with the voices of others; to speak, to sing and to be united. Prayer can also be an opportunity for individuals to speak privately to God; to speak their prayers in the most rawest of forms. Prayer happens in the quiet of an empty sanctuary in the middle of the week – and it happens in the hustle and bustle of a busy sanctuary on Sunday mornings. Prayer happens in worship, in teaching and in action.

So what is prayer? Like I said – there really is no simple answer to that question. But there are three things that are absolutely true about prayer.

1. Anybody can pray.
2. Prayer connects us both to God and to one another.
3. There is power in prayer. There is power in our own prayers – and there is power in knowing that other people are praying for us as well.

As often as I get asked to pray, I also get asked how to pray. And like there is no simple answer to the question of prayer, there is also no instruction manual on how to pray. But I can offer some suggestions to get you started.

First remember that prayer does not have to take on a specific form. It does not have to follow a particular structure or formula. It does not have to look a certain way, sound a certain way or feel a certain way. Prayer does not have to happen in a certain time and place. It does not always need to happen within the walls of the church – in fact, it desperately needs to happen outside the walls of the church.

Let your guard down when you pray. There is no right or wrong way to pray. You are not being graded on your prayers. God is not judging your prayers; God is hearing your prayers.

Do not try to mimic anybody else in your prayers. Be you; pray your prayers; pray in a way that is comfortable to you and an expression of the faithful person that you are.

Use your time of prayer as an opportunity to have a conversation – a conversation with God, a conversation with yourself or even a conversation with someone else.

Be honest in your prayers. God does not gossip; you have no reason to hide the truth. I urge you to open yourself up completely – you will be truly amazed by God’s ability to transform even the rawest of prayers.

When you pray, start where you are comfortable. If you want to pray and do not know how to start, say the Lord’s Prayer. Read a psalm. Sing or listen to a hymn or a song. Write a letter to God as if you were writing to a family member. Read it out loud – or don’t. Open your mouth and just let the words flow, remembering that no one except God can hear you.

There is no easy answer to the question, “What is prayer?” I wish there was. But if I have learned anything from these texts from 1 Samuel, from other passages in scripture and from years and years of witnessing – both in my lifetime and in the stories I have been told – what happens when men and women fall on their knees in prayer, it is that prayer changes lives. I do not always know where, when or how. But I do know that at the intersection of prayer and this human world that we live in, you will find a road that leads to the most amazing grace.

May your prayers inspire, transform and unite in your life – and in the lives of the people around you.

Thanks be to God!


One thought on “What Is Prayer?

  1. Rev. Sarah, when you preached the words, there is power in prayer, I almost got up and yelled AMEN! I am so happy you have southern roots! Your sermons resonate to the heart!

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