The Prayer Talk

James Smyth
Hugline Song: Jackson 5, “I Want You Back”
Reflection Song: CRYPT Youth Ensemble, “Your Very Own”

My name is James Smyth. I’m a sophomore from Carmel, Indiana, Josh McRoberts’s hometown. (They say I taught him everything he knows.) I am here to talk to you about Prayer. I suppose this means that I’m an expert on the subject. That’s the way talks usually work, right? You bring in Colin Powell if you want to learn about foreign policy, or Stephen Hawking for physics, or if you want to know about poetry, you ask J. J. Redick. But prayer? It would be like asking for an expert on walking, or breathing, or eating. Prayer is something fundamental. Every city has houses of worship. Every culture has priests. God made you to pray, and the more you do, the happier – and the more human – you will become.

Prayer, by definition, is communication with God. You can do this at any time, whatever you’re doing, to express any emotion. Do you remember the cute posters that your school nurses and elementary school teachers put on the walls, the ones with kids or cartoons making all sorts of faces, with emotions listed under them? In case you don’t remember, I brought one of those today. (Put up poster.) These kids have a lot of emotional range, and believe it or not, your communication with God can have even more. When you’re happy, you can pray in thanksgiving; when you’re sad, you can pray for hope; when you’re tired, for strength. How about adoring and contemplative prayers? I don’t see those faces on here – how do you tell a 6-year old to look contemplative? – but these, too, are types of prayer. You can communicate anything – anything! – with God.

I bring this up because there’s something ironic about calling God our father. Our parents always tell us that we can go to them with anything, and they’ll love us all the same. It’s a generous opportunity, and I hope the rest of you accept it…but I have trouble with it. I don’t like telling my parents about most things. The school stuff is boring, and the emotional stuff is private, and telling them about my problems would mean telling them about my mistakes, and I hate doing that. And as time goes on, our parents become distant figures who live upstairs and provide money, shelter, and permission to go on field trips. Those are supposed to be secondary things about our relationships with them, but instead, they become the main focus, and because of that, our relationship is incomplete. The same thing happens with God. He becomes a magical ATM machine that never runs out of money or favors. God loves to answer our prayers – some communication is better than none at all – but He also wants to know about everything else, too, and most importantly, He wants us to know Him. He wants that more than we could ever know.

If you’re willing to open up, there’s so much you can receive. What better friend could we have? For that matter, what better father or brother or lover or lord? (He created love and relationships, and so He is all of these things.) God may not walk on the Earth in physical form anymore, but I’d say that’s an advantage. If you had to see God with your eyes, hear Him with your ears, touch him with your hands, where would that leave the blind, the deaf, and the cripple? This God can never abandon you, no matter where you are, no matter what happens to you.

I said before that prayer is a fundamental part of being human. That’s because it fulfills the three cardinal virtues: faith, hope, and love. These are the things which make us happy to be alive. What is a person who has nothing to believe in, who has no hope for the future, who does not love anyone and who is unloved? Prayer is not the only way to learn these virtues, but it is an important one.

Every prayer we say is a test of faith, for the “wise men” of our times do not think much of prayer. At best, it’s a cute psychological trick we play on ourselves to boost our self-esteem, like having an imaginary friend. At worst – and if you’ve ever read an Ayn Rand novel, you know how harsh the criticism can get – prayer is a total waste of time and a contemptible abandonment of reason. If you want to solve your problems, they say, don’t wait for some lonely god in the sky to do it for you. Do it yourself.

We don’t just have to fight prevailing opinions. We have to fight ourselves. If the three most beloved apostles couldn’t keep their concentration when they were in the Garden of Gethsemane with Jesus, then how much harder it is for us with all our modern conveniences! How often do you sit down to pray and then suddenly remember something else you have to do? A lot of the time, it isn’t even something important…it’s something mundane like doing laundry or checking Facebook or watching a TV show. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat down to pray, decided to check my e-mail first, then checked the news, and ended up not praying at all. The devil is a master of temptation, but he’s gotten really good at being distracting, too.
It takes a lot of courage to pray. It means putting off the immediate payoff, or as Christ put it, forgoing treasure on Earth for treasure in Heaven. More fundamentally, it means you believe in God; that you realize you can’t live without him, and that you’re willing to devote some of your valuable time to Him. It’s a sacrifice you have to make if you call yourself a Christian. There are times when you just have to lock yourself down in prayer and let God take care of everything on the outside. That is why Jesus said in the Book of Matthew, “Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”

Prayer proves our faith. It also gives us hope. How often have you felt powerless to stop something that’s happening to your friends or family, or about a disaster that’s happening in another country? How often have you felt helpless about your own life? Sadly, we are living outside the Gates of Eden, and terrible things happen every day, but prayer can get us through it.

You may be thinking: “That sounds nice, but prayer has never changed anything in my life. If God listens to my prayers, he definitely doesn’t answer them.” I know what you mean. Even when I was a child, I felt like God was letting me down. All through junior high, I prayed for a girlfriend, but the girls all wanted the great basketball players instead. So, I’d pray that I could grow several inches and become a great basketball player, and here I am, still 4 inches shorter than Paulus with worse handles than Shelden. I prayed for the Pacers to win the NBA championship, but I guess the kids from Chicago were holier. Then there were the big things, like praying for my grandfather to recover from Alzheimer’s, or for my aunt and uncle to stop committing crimes so they could get out of jail and raise their children. That didn’t happen, either.

A few weeks ago, I learned that a friend of mine from high school was pregnant. She wasn’t sure if the baby was going to live, and besides that, she didn’t know whether she wanted it or not. She said she wouldn’t consider putting it up for adoption, and that she would do whatever she felt was right – regardless of what God thought about it. God, she said, would understand her decision because He knew what a good heart she had.

I told my friend that my family could take the child, and then I did the only other thing I could. I prayed for its life. I told some of my friends about the situation so they could pray, as well. For two weeks, I persisted…then I forgot about the situation for a couple days. The next thing I knew, the child was dead. She had aborted it.

I was stunned. How could such a terrible thing have happened? How could a person who was following her heart, a person who said she had such good intentions, have done something so horrible? Why didn’t my prayers change anything? I felt responsible because I let my vigil down. And here I was, two weeks from giving this talk, and whenever I sat down to pray, all I could think about was the child.

What did I take out of all of this? First, I remembered that people have free will. No matter how much I want something to change, no matter how much God wants something to change, He can’t make people’s decisions for them. My friend had adamantly stated that she was going to do what she wanted, regardless of what God or her boyfriend or I thought of it. The abortion was her choice and her responsibility.

Then, I reflected upon the nature of hope. Every intercessory prayer, in its most fundamental form, is a wish that things will some day be better. Sometimes, that means we get just what we ask for. I’ve seen friends’ Rosaries change from plastic to gold; I’ve gotten through countless tests, papers, retreats, even a 57-hour Basketball Marathon with no sleep, no preparation, no caffeine, nothing but prayer. This winter, a good family friend of ours came down with a terrible illness. He was losing weight, and the doctors didn’t know what was wrong with him. So my family and I buckled down and prayed, and almost immediately, he was on the road to recovery.

The rest of the time, things do get better…just not in the way we expect. My youngest brother, John, is 11 years old and autistic. He doesn’t talk, and he has to go to a special school. Most likely, he’ll always live with my parents. For years, we’ve prayed for him to miraculously recover. It’s never happened. Because he hasn’t recovered, though, my family has had to make constant sacrifices of money, of time, of attention for his sake. We’ve come together in a way we wouldn’t have done if he were healthy. God gave us what we needed…it just wasn’t what we expected.

I don’t know what will come out of my friend’s abortion, but I do know that God is good, and I now, I have hope again. The child is in Heaven, and my friend will come out of this all right some day…some day.
Prayer gives us faith and hope, and it also strengthens the greatest of these: love. The love between God and us is so intense that we have to express it somehow, and the more, the better. When Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the crowd was so rowdy that the Pharisees came out and asked them to quiet down. Christ replied that if they were silent, the very rocks and stones would start to sing. I think the same thing would happen now if God’s people ever stopped praising him. That would be rather embarrassing for us, so let’s keep it from happening.

We can’t express our feelings of adoration, thanksgiving, and praise in words alone. We’ve never been able to do so! We also need the energy and the beauty of music. The Israelites sang after Moses parted the Red Sea. David, their greatest King, wrote the psalms. The Levites knocked down the very walls of Jericho with nothing but trumpets! Today, we have the hymns of the churches and also songs of praise and worship. Whatever sort of worship music you like best, sing it.

Through prayer, we develop a loving personal relationship with God. We also develop our relationships with each other. Jesus told us, “Wherever two are more are gathered in my name, I am there.” So, pray with your family. Pray with your friends. Pray with strangers, if you can! That might be scary at the start, but when you’ve finished, you’ll look up at the other person and realize that you’re friends.

The ultimate community prayer, the ultimate prayer, is Mass. I know that Mass isn’t exactly a fan favorite. A lot of times, when we think about it, we only remember the sitting and standing and mumbled responses and trying to get out of carrying a collection basket for Jay. The next time that you go, though, listen to what’s being said! It contains every kind of prayer! We read Scripture. We sing Psalms – which are, by the way, some of the very best prayers every written. We have prayers of praise and adoration (Gloria and the Holy, Holy), of penitence (“I confess to Almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters…” and “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” We affirm our beliefs in the Creed. On top of it all, there is the Eucharist, in which Christ offers himself up as the Paschal Lamb for our sins, and we eat His body and blood so we might live forever. Just think about that! God is made flesh, and He lets us partake in Him! The Eucharist is the most audacious act, the most generous gift, the most incredible prayer in the entire world.

St. Paul bids us to pray without ceasing. That doesn’t mean we should be on our knees 24 hours a day – we can’t – but it does mean that we should always keep God on our mind, and that we should talk to Him throughout the day. Too often we say that we don’t have enough time to pray or that our prayer life is not good. This is a humble-sounding thing to say, but it should not be the normal state of affairs. If you know something’s wrong with your prayer life, change it! We have so many different resources. Muslims are famous for praying 5 times a day. Christians have a 5-a-day set of prayers of their own – it’s called the Liturgy of the Hours. Then there’s the Rosary, the Stations of the Cross, meditation, Novenas, music – anything you think of, you can do. I remember one time – oh, man, I’m a dork – I went on Facebook, scrolled down a list of recently updated profiles, and prayed for everyone on it. It is good, also, to develop some quick prayer routines to keep God always in your mind. For instance, we could say “God come to my aid; O Lord, make haste to help me” when we face a trial, or do the sign of the cross when an ambulance passes by, or pray for a singer or speaker who is faltering and losing the audience’s attention during a show. If you always keep God on your mind, whatever you are doing, you’ll do it better.

I am no expert on prayer. I am merely a poor sinner. But I know that we could have a very prayerful community at Duke. There’s so much happening here…so many good works, but also, so much noise. We love to go out of town to get away from it, as we did during spring break, as we are here at Awakening, but if you want peace and quiet, you don’t need a scheduled vacation. You can go out into the night – I especially like the garden beside the Chapel – and talk with God. It’s what you were made to do.

God bless you all. Thank you.

My reflection song is called “Your Very Own.” Two youth ministers from my high school church, Kayser and Jane Swidan, wrote and recorded it.

Lyrics, “Your Very Own”

Right to love in the depth of my heart as your very own
There’s a void in my soul and a faith surrounded by thorns
Speak the Word through your spirit of truth, and guide my way
To be worthy of sharing your love, that’s why I pray

Make my life your own
Make my spirit whole
I place my will into your gentle hands

Lord, the sweetest forgiveness you gave upon the cross
And your mercy triumphant against the rage of death
Through this infinite blessing of life, I celebrate
Every deed of your heart that keeps love alive today

O Lord, I love you and glorify your name
You are my hiding place and healer of my pain
O Lord, I praise you and magnify your name
And to this weary world, your goodness I proclaim

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