Years ago, Jay and I went to my family home for Thanksgiving. My siblings and their families were coming over for dinner that afternoon, but for breakfast it was just my Mom, Jay, and me. Mom made a Mexican frittata for breakfast. And as we ate it, she asked, “What do you think?”
Jay and I skated out over thin ice without even expecting it. You see, when I ask Jay that question about something I’ve made, we sit around the table, eating and dissecting the meal, figuring out how it could be made better, or perhaps, talking about whether it should be made again at all. After all, some meals can be improved by using sun-dried tomatoes or balsamic reduction. And others should never be tried again, like the time I cooked fish, spinach, and lima beans in a parchment paper sack. And so we started in on the frittata - perhaps more of this, less of that, and have you considered…
About that moment we glanced up from the frittata to see the look on my Mom’s face. She did not find the dissection helpful. “I don’t normally cook breakfast - I just wanted you to say you liked it.” We learned quickly; we liked everything at dinner that night.
My conversation with my Mom at breakfast crashed into different expectations. My Mom just wanted us to thank her for doing something out of the ordinary.
That long ago meal with my Mom came back to me as I thought about our prayer lives. What do we try to express to God? What does God want to hear? Why do we pray? And does God need us to pray?
When wondering about prayer, I turn to Psalms, often called the prayer book of the Bible, an ancient collection of prayers; prayers burnished by 3,000 years of use. This morning we heard Psalm 30 and Psalm 150, two Psalms which speak of praising God; two Psalms which help us imagine what it means to pray.
Psalm 30 contains one of my favorite verses, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” It’s a phrase I find I often repeat to myself as an assurance, a hope.
Even as we say that phrase, we must know it comes from a heart too acquainted with both weeping and joy. The Psalm comes as the testimony of an individual; in reading the Psalm, we’re overhearing someone else’s prayer and, perhaps, finding ourselves in their tears and joys.
The Psalm begins with praise for God because the person survived. It’s not clear what brought danger - we hear of foes, perhaps a betrayal; healing, so perhaps an illness; and of a pit, a near death experience? The calamity does not matter as much as the fact of survival.
And yet one crisis survived leads to another crisis faced. “By your favor, O Lord, you had established me as a strong mountain. [But then] you hid your face; I was dismayed.” Nearly as soon as the prayer thanked God for an earlier healing, another plea was made.
Once again, we don’t know the precise cause of the despair. But we can trace the line of thought. Listen again to how the person sought God’s help in prayer:
To you, O Lord, I cried, and to the Lord I made supplication:
‘What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit?
Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?’
The prayer gave a sort of ultimatum to God: save my life, because if I die then I will not be able to praise you.
I don’t know about you, but my prayers are not so daring. I don’t threaten God, or cajole God, or try to guilt and shame God into action. And so this line of the Psalm intrigues me. It implies God will act because God needs the praise, needs the affirmation, wants the testimony about faithfulness. It’s easy to understand what we get out of prayer. But is there something God needs out of our prayers? What does God get?
Framing the question of prayer this way makes it seem transactional - a quid pro quo amen. And yet, reading scripture, many passages do more than imply God desires certain actions. The Bible arose at a time when everyone related to the divine through sacrifices, one needed to feed the divine in order to get a prayer answered, snacks for the holy.
In the Old Testament, our God relished snack time. The Book of Leviticus outlines the proper way to make a sacrifice, including which parts of the animal to put on the altar - that is, to roast over the fire - because the smoke pleased God. According to the Bible, our God most of all loved the smell of barbeque.
I get it; I love the smell of brisket slow-roasted over the fire. In some stories, the smell of barbeque would completely change the heart of God. After the flood, Noah offered God a sacrifice. (I guess in this case he brought more than two cows.) Anyway, scripture reported, “And when the Lord smelt the pleasing odor, the Lord said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of humankind.’”
But as much as God loved the smell of roast meat, another tradition developed of God wanting something more than a good brisket. No, God did not become a vegan - no burnt eggplant for the divine. But, in several places, God turned a nose from the smoke to sarcastically say, “Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?” Instead of smoke, God desired compassion, care, and thanksgiving. As you might remember from the Prophet Micah, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, show kindness, and walk humbly with your God?”
We tend to think of these two views in scripture as opposites. People once thought God wanted a goat, but now we know God wants compassion. We could see it as a kind of “spiritual evolution” from blood to kindness, from sacrificing on altars to altering the world.
And yet, I’m not ready to make this distinction; partly because the Prophet Micah, who beautifully told us God wanted acts of kindness most of all, lived in a time when sacrifices were widely practiced. I don’t think Micah or others experienced it as an either or - either a goat or some goodness. Instead, whether describing God’s love of barbeque or God’s desire for compassion, the witness of scripture points toward a hungry God.
A hungry God. We don’t normally speak this way about God. Our Protestant tradition has long emphasized the transcendence, the greatness, the majesty, the power of God. A hungry God sounds needy. Wouldn’t it be beneath God to need our praise?
And yet the idea of the hunger of God speaks to our interactive relationship with the divine - the desire of God to be in relationship, the desire of God for us, and even, the vulnerability of God with us.
So I want to think again about why people sacrificed goats and then how that helps us understand a sacrifice of compassion. The animal sacrifices were based on the notion that all the goats, all the animals, and all the cultivated plants, too, all belonged to God. Sacrificing a bit of it gave back to God what was really God’s in the first place. God hungered for what ultimately belonged to God anyway.
Our spirituality changed from making an offering from the food chain to making an offering of praise. We came to see acts of service, prayers of praise, compassion, and care as giving what God wanted. And really, much like the goats people once gave, these things belonged to God, too.
One way to understand the world is that God created it as an act of love. The love in the heart of God spun out as galaxies and stars, whirling planets spinning with care, life arising from far-flung devotion, a universe of affection. And that same love breathed into us, each of us filled with the spark of divine devotion.
So just as a sacrifice of goats once gave back what belonged to God, now we practice acts of love as a way to give back the love which first belonged to God. God hungers for us to return what God first gave to us.
Thomas Aquinas, who wrote back in the middle ages, once came up with a great insight into the nature of God. People had long talked about God’s spirit as a gift. But Aquinas said, the Spirit of God is not a gift, but it’s the action of giving. Something can remain a gift and not yet be given. The grandparents are already starting to buy gifts for Tomas and David for Christmas; these are gifts, but they have not been given. In contrast, the action of giving can never be held in reserve, it always needs to be happening; giving can’t be put in storage. The same is true with God’s Spirit according to Aquinas: it’s not a gift but giving, an action always underway, God perpetually giving.
Prayer returns to God what we first received. God’s Spirit is giving, our prayers are thanking.
As I learned at breakfast with my Mom: it’s important to say thank you when something is given. And it’s important to God, too.
Greg Mobley, a Biblical scholar at Andover Newton Seminary, one of our United Church of Christ seminaries, calls this process the “photosynthesis of praise.” In photosynthesis, a plant takes in the light of the sun, converts it into other forms of energy, stores the light as carbohydrates, and releases some of the energy as the oxygen the rest of life needs. Mobley’s metaphor of praise as photosynthesis implies our prayers take in something of God and release something the world needs. Just as plants make it possible for everything else to make use of the sun’s light, do our prayers make it possible for the world to make use of God’s love?
In prayer, when I breathe in, I breathe in peace; when I breathe out, I breathe out love. God needs us to practice the photosynthesis of praise. Alleluia and Amen.