Here is the message we had in church today. The Bible I used was the NRSV, and the story I quoted was written by Mark Twain and published after he died, “The War Prayer.” The scripture used today were: Genesis 9:8-17, I Peter 3:18-22, Mark 1:9-15 and Psalm 25:1-10. The title in the bulletin was “Cleansing Water.”
Some years ago, in fact it was nearly a decade ago, I was in charge of an oral interpretation team. I was quite fortunate to have one outstanding student in the group, though I can’t take any credit for coaching him. I merely did the paper work to enter the meets, drove the van to get us there, and gave him motivational support. The young man with the help of his father worked and earned many places and medals including two at state. One of the pieces he did was always a bone of contention because it was a humorous in the oratory category that everyone thought should be serious, but there was no rule stating that. The other was a straight out serious in the serious category, and though it was an unusual piece he did it so well.
The reason I say it was an unusual piece is because it was a serious story written by the great humorist, Mark Twain. It wasn’t published until after he died as his publishers convinced him it would cause him too much bad publicity, and they didn’t want it to hurt his income. It was titled “The War Prayer” and is set in a church on a Sunday morning and the preacher has just prayed for a group of young soldiers who are heading off to war. He is asking for their safety and for victory for their efforts. As soon as the preacher finished his prayer an elderly man enters the church saying he is sent from God to offer another prayer. Here is a bit of that counter prayer.
The gentleman begins by saying, “When you have prayed for victory you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory – must follow it, cannot help but follow it.” …he tells the congregation that “the unspoken part of the [preacher’s] prayer” is… “O Lord our Father, … help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander … in rags and hunger and thirst, … broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it – for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, …water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that … seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.”
Having heard that reading over and over for an entire speech season, I am now more conscious of what a prayer is really asking. I am more aware of how I choose my words when imploring God for help. Is the issue in my heart to prevail or is it for the good of all involved. Is what I am asking of God only for my benefit, or is it for what is right and good and best for those around me and is it only for those I love, or is it for everyone and everything that God loves? These are questions that I have learned to ask from hearing a reading about prayer in an unlikely place from an unlikely writer.
Now prayer is not mentioned directly in any of the passages we read for today, but seriously, prayer has to be a given in these stories. The Genesis reading about the great flood in the days of Noah does not includes the information that many of the people in that day were wild and wonton to the point that God was sorry for creating the human race. You have to read a couple of chapters earlier to get that background. But we know that part of the story from our youth. We also know that Noah was God fearing and obedient and I would bet someone who spent time in prayer, and God saved him and all who were with him. And, after the flood because Noah and his family were obedient to God, he made a covenant with them not to destroy humankind or the earth in such a manner ever again.
Jesus disciple, Peter mentions the days of the flood as he writes of how Christ suffered for the sins of all humans when he was “put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit.” Peter writes of the flood as cleansing the earth of the sins in the days of old, but now because of Christ our cleansing comes through baptism just as Christ was baptized by John. Yet Peter makes it clear that baptism in itself does not cleanse us or wash away any of the dirt from our sinful body, but it is an “appeal to God for a good conscience.” What is prayer other than an appeal to God?
The passage in Mark today is again three different events put together in one reading. Mark is nothing if not efficient with his words. He would never get docked by an English professor for being too verbose, too wordy in an essay. The opening three verses are Mark’s account of the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan by John. Mark mentions the proclamation by God that Jesus is his Son and the Spirit descending onto Jesus.
The middle section is about Jesus going into the wilderness and being tempted. Again Mark doesn’t give us any details on this. In fact, he barely uses 40 words to tell us about the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness pondering his ministry and being tempted by Satan. [We will spend time on Wednesday looking at that event in detail by using the words of other gospels. It will be the beginning of our journey with Jesus.]
In the final section of today’s gospel reading Mark tells how Jesus went to Galilee preaching and proclaiming the gospel after the time when John was arrested. This is a time that we know from other readings that Jesus often spent time in prayer. Just two Sundays ago, we read how the disciples went looking for him in the early morning and found him in a secluded place in prayer.
One passage that is in the lectionary for today that I didn’t include in the set of scriptures is Psalm 25:1-10. The lectionary always suggests using the Psalm as the call to worship and so it is rarely read with the scripture. Today and for the next few weeks, the Psalm really should be the message focus. This one is a prayer for guidance and deliverance. It is a prayer attributed to King David. [read it]
As much as Jesus taught us to pray the prayer we recite each Sunday, the prayers of the Psalms are also guidance for us in how we are to petition God. “To you O Lord, I lift up my soul.” As we come before God, we should be humble and open and honest with our feelings. We don’t ask for our enemies to be ripped to shreds or to die as was the case in the unspoken prayer in the Twain story, but we ask just that our enemies are not gloating over us.
In this prayer, David also asks God not to remember the transgressions of his youth. I suspect that may be a good example for a few of us. Instead David asks God simply to remember him. What a good guide for us; we ask God to remember us and those we care about, those we know of who need comforting, or healing, or just the reminder of God’s presence. Mostly this prayer shows we are to ask God to point us in the right way, to lead us to the paths that we are to follow. We are to ask that God teach us what we need to know to obey his laws and his promises to us.
This year, as we come together during the Lenten times of worship, be they Sunday mornings or Wednesday evenings after a soup or sandwich meal, let us do so with the attitude that we have come together to worship and to pray in earnest for our families, our friends, our church and ourselves.
We might be on this 40 day journey through the wilderness and around the ancient roads with Jesus, but we are also on a journey of our own, exploring our faith more deeply trying to understand what we are still able to accomplish and how we go about reaching out to others both inside and outside of our own faith community. Our journey may not be as strange as the story of The War Prayer, and it may not be as familiar as the story of Noah and the great flood, but whatever it is for each of us, I hope it is one filled with prayer. Amen!