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Praying with open hands

Moderator of the Queensland Synod Rev Dr David Pitman

Praying with open hands was the title of the sermon given at the special meeting of the Queensland Synod on 27th October 2007 by the Moderator Rev Dr David Pitman. Many people have asked for the text and Journey is pleased to publish Dr Pitman’s sermon here. The texts for the sermon were Psalm 65: 1-13 and Luke 18: 9-14.

In reflecting on the nature of prayer, Martin Luther wrote: “Prayer is not conquering God’s reluctance, but taking hold of God’s willingness.”

The title for this sermon is borrowed from a book by Henri Nouwen: With Open Hands. I want to begin by quoting some sections from the first chapter. He writes:

Praying is no easy matter. It demands a relationship in which you allow the other to enter into the very centre of your person, allow him to speak there, allow him to touch the sensitive core of your being, and allow him to see so much that you would rather leave in darkness.

The resistance to praying is like the resistance of tightly clenched fists. This image shows the tension, the desire to cling tightly to yourself, a greediness which betrays fear. The story about an old woman brought to a psychiatric centre exemplifies this attitude. She was wild, swinging at everything in sight, and scaring everyone so much that the doctors had to take everything away from her. But there was one small coin that she gripped in her fist and would not give up. In fact, it took two men to pry open that squeezed hand. It was as though she would lose her very self along with the coin. That was her fear.

When you want to pray, then, the first question is: How do I open my closed hands? (Henri Nouwen, With Open Hands, pp 12-22

With those thoughts fresh in our minds, let us turn to our readings for today and reflect on what they say to us about praying with open hands.

The story of the Pharisee and the tax-collector is a familiar one, and typical of the stories that Luke includes in his gospel, where his emphasis is so often on the way in which Jesus gathers the foreigners and social outcasts into the Kingdom of God!

This particular story, therefore, should not surprise us, though it would have shocked and angered many of those who heard Jesus tell it, not least because Pharisees were models of religious correctness and tax-collectors were despised as thieves and collaborators with the Roman government.

Using the language and imagery of Henri Nouwen we see that the Pharisee prays with clenched fists. He is completely satisfied with who he is and what he has. From his perspective his life is full and complete. He holds an honoured place in society and sees no lack in himself. He prays, yet he does not pray! He thinks he is speaking to God, but speaks only to himself and those near enough to overhear him. He believes that he has fulfilled his religious obligations, but goes away untouched and unchanged.

It is not that God rejects the Pharisee because of his prayer. Rather, the Pharisee rejects God through his conviction that he has everything that matters and needs nothing more!

* We pray with clenched fists when we secretly despise those for whom we pray or blame them in our hearts for the circumstances they are in!
* We pray with clenched fists when we already hold within ourselves the outcome of the matter that is the subject of our prayer!
* We pray with clenched fists when we set the agenda by talking incessantly and so ensure that we do not have listen to what the Spirit is saying!
* We pray with clenched fists when we assume that we come to our praying from an unassailable position of moral and theological correctness!

The tax-collector, on the other hand, has no illusions about himself.

Regardless of how he may have profited materially from his occupation, he has paid a heavy price in almost every other way. He goes through life virtually friendless and conscious on a daily basis of the anger and revulsion he motivates in other people.

We do not know what prompted him to go to the temple to pray. Perhaps he had finally reached the end of his own resources to cope with the pressure and stress of his lifestyle.

The words of his prayer suggest that his conscience had been awakened in some way and he felt a deep sense of need to put things right somehow. What we do know is that he prayed with open hands.

He knew that he had nothing to bring to God but his wretched, dishonest self. He makes no claims and offers no excuses. He simply throws himself on the mercy and grace of God and asks for forgiveness. His prayer expresses his humility, his true repentance, and his deep desire for the renewing touch of God’s love.

* We pray with open hands when we believe that we are utterly dependent on the grace of God!
* We pray with open hands when understand with Mother Teresa that “prayer enlarges the heart until it is capable of receiving God’s gift of himself!”
* We pray with open hands when we can actually bring ourselves to pray “Not my will but yours be done!”

One of the texts often abused in preaching and teaching is recorded in John 16:23: “If you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you.”

To pray in the name of Jesus is to pray with empty hands. To pray in the name of Jesus is to pray as he prayed: “Not my will but yours be done.”

Dr E. Stanley Jones, missionary and author, once wrote in regard to prayer:

Prayer is surrender–surrender to the will of God and cooperation with that will. If I throw out a boathook from the boat and catch hold of the shore and pull, do I pull the shore to me, or do I pull myself to the shore? Prayer is not pulling God to my will, but the aligning of my will to the will of God.

There was no surrender in the prayer of the Pharisee, only the expression of self-satisfaction. He prayed with clenched fists. In contrast, the tax-collector submitted his life, warts and all, to God. He surrendered his will to the will of God. He prayed with open hands!

The prayer of the psalmist we have heard today (Psalm 65) is also a prayer offered with open hands. It is a prayer in praise of God. It affirms with joy the goodness and greatness of God revealed in creation and in the abundance of gifts with which God blesses his people. It celebrates God’s willingness to forgive sins and gather people into his family. It declares that our salvation lies in the power of God alone.

The psalmist prays with empty hands because he understands that all the blessings he experiences and enjoys come, in the first instance, from God. “The river of God,” he says, “is full of water”.

It reminds me of the song by Father Frank Andersen, Come to the Water:

Come to the water, you who are thirsty!
Though you have nothing, I bid you come
and be filled with the goodness I have to offer!
Come!  Listen!  Live!

In his account of Jesus’ baptism, Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus while he was praying. (Luke 3: 21-22)

The theologian Karl Barth writes about that prayer as he shares his thoughts on the baptism of Jesus. Barth’s image is of Jesus coming before God with outstretched and empty hands. His hands weren’t divinely filled. He wasn’t banking on some guaranteed secret transfer of power. He was simply offering empty hands in reverence to God.

With his knees in the water, his arms outstretched, his hands open wide, and his head dripping wet, the baptism was simple a concrete “yes” to the One who was calling him: A concrete “Yes”, an act of obedience, a willingness to listen, and a desire to give God the glory.

Here, then, is the challenge that comes to us from our readings for today: to let go of the things that cause us to clench our fists and so prevent us from receiving all that God so freely and generously offers, and then to open our hands (and therefore our hearts) so that God might fill them with the fullness of his love and grace! For that is what it means to pray.

We must never forget that there is an unrelenting tension in our prayers as God’s people between our commitment to discern the mind of Christ though our conversations and deliberations together, and those manifestations of our humanity that bring us to that process with clenched fists, especially when we either don’t realise, or are unwilling to acknowledge, that reality!

I began this sermon today with some words from Henri Nouwen and I want conclude with his words also, taken from the final pages of his book.

To pray means to open your hands before God. It means slowly relaxing the tension that squeezes your hands together and accepting your existence with an increasing readiness, not as a possession to defend, but as a gift to receive.

Above all, therefore, prayer is a way of life that allows you to find a stillness in the midst of the world where you open your hands to God’s promises, and find hope for yourself, your neighbour and the whole community in which you live. (With Open Hands, p.154)

Photo : Moderator of the Queensland Synod Rev Dr David Pitman