One of my favorite prayers is an anonymous one that goes like this:
“I want to thank you, God, for being close to me so far this day. With your help I haven’t been impatient or lost my temper. I haven’t been grumpy, judgmental, or envious of anyone. But, I will be getting out of bed in a minute, and I think I will really need your help then. Amen.”
We instinctively know the truth of this prayer. Somehow PRAYER helps us. Somehow prayer makes a difference. Somehow prayer can change us. Prayer is good for the soul.
Prayer comes in many forms. There are personal prayers and institutional prayers, private prayers and public prayers, formal prayers and informal prayers, spoken prayers and silent prayers, prayers without words and prayers that are sighs, prayers of confession and prayers of thanksgiving, prayers for intercession and prayers of petition, prayers of lamentation and prayers of celebration. There’s the Serenity Prayer, the Jabez Prayer, the Jesus Prayer, and, of course, the Lord’s Prayer, the subject of today’s lectionary reading.
Prayer is BIG in the Bible. We know that our ancestors in faith, the persons mentioned in today’s baptismal liturgy—Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Moses and Miriam, Mary and Joseph and the prophets prayed regularly to God. Solomon prayed at the dedication of the Temple of Jerusalem. The Psalms are filled with prayers that cover the full gamut of human emotions, and Proverbs 15:8 reminds us that “the prayer of the upright is a delight to the Lord.”
Jesus prayed often and frequently took time away from his public ministry in order to pray. Jesus exhorted his followers to “Pray for your enemies and those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). Jesus told his followers not to pray like the hypocrites who make a public spectacle of themselves, but to pray in secret (Matt.6:5). Jesus asked his disciples to pray for him during his time of trial and he himself prayed “Let this cup pass from me, nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” Paul exhorted the followers of Jesus to PRAY without ceasing and noted that when “we do not know how to pray as we ought, “The Holy Spirit prays through us with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:21).
Prayer is even in the news. Earlier this month there was a newspaper article with a headline that read: “Answered Prayers: Nuns Win Red Sox Tickets.” The article told the story about the Sisters of Notre Dame, a group of nuns who live in Peabody, Massachusetts, who won the grand prize in a raffle benefitting the Lazarus House in Lawrence. The grand prize was a Red Sox package that involved limousine transportation to an upcoming game, 18 luxury seats, and $1,200 for food, souvenirs and refreshments. The reporter covering this story suggested that perhaps these Roman Catholic nuns had a spiritual advantage over regular folks because, “They made a novena, praying for nine straight days before the drawing.”
And there’s the story out of England of the vicar who was holding an outdoor, garden party. On the morning of the scheduled event he was informed that a prominent parishioner had been inadvertently left off the guest list. Embarrassed and upset, the vicar immediately called the parishioner and informed her that it was an accidental oversight and that of course he wanted her at the garden party that afternoon. She then informed him that under the circumstances she could not possibly attend the party and, after all, once she realized she had not been invited to the party, she had prayed for rain.
Prayer surrounds us, as it should. But like Jesus’ first followers, we may have questions about PRAYER. What is prayer anyway? To whom are we praying? Can we really expect anything to come of it? How should we pray? What should we pray for? What shouldn’t we pray for? (Should we really pray for rain when we don’t get invited to a garden party?) What does prayer do for us? What does it do for the persons for whom we pray? How essential is prayer, anyway? Does it really make a difference? Can we win raffles if we pray sincerely enough? Lord, teach us to pray.
Today’s lectionary reading reveals to us a few things about prayer, but perhaps, even more importantly, it teaches us about the nature of God. Luke’s Gospel focuses on a simple request by the disciples, who have seen Jesus praying: Lord, teach us to pray. Jesus responds with the most famous prayer in the Christian faith, the prayer that has become known as the Lord’s Prayer: This is a shorter version than the one to which we are accustomed, only 36 words: “Father, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Give us each our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us; and lead us not into temptation.”
As he so often did when people asked him questions, Jesus uses this entreaty as a teaching moment. Jesus begins his prayer simply with the Aramaic word Abba. (I would like to point out that Jesus is not referencing that sensational Swedish pop band that gave us such hits as “Dancing Queen” and “Mamma Mia” in the 1970s.) Instead, Abba is translated as “daddy” or “father.” It is a term of endearment, closeness, and affection that suggests that the relationship that we can have with God is like the relationship that a child has with his or her loving parent.
In praying in this direct and simple manner, Jesus is modeling prayer as an intimate, honest, open, and vulnerable connection with God. Through prayer we can bring all that we are into conversation with God—our hurts, fears, grief, losses, anger, joys, celebrations, questioning, confusion, uncertainty, trusting that God is like the loving father or mother who listens to us, cares for us, has our best interests at heart, forgives us, provides for us, guides our feet along the way.
The rest of this passage reinforces this understanding of God. In the first story a man is awakened at midnight by a friend who asks him for three loaves of bread so that he may entertain a guest who has arrived on a journey. Jesus says that although this friend is making a request at an inopportune time and that it is an inconvenience for the man to get out of bed in the middle of the night, yet he will do just that, not because he is a friend, but because he wants him to stop pestering him, to get him to shut up, and to get rid of him. Jesus contrasts this to the nature of God, who does not respond to prayer simply to get us to stop nagging, to shut up, or to go away, but because it is God’s hallowed or holy nature to respond graciously, generously, compassionately, and kindly whenever we come to God. That is who God is.
Jesus’ other statements confirm this image of God. If human parents (who are sinful) will not give their children a serpent when they ask for bread … or a scorpion when they ask for an egg, how much more compassionate, welcoming, generous, kind, and gracious is God when we open ourselves up to God through prayer? That is who God is.
So what do we do about that middle part of today’s lectionary?
“Ask and it shall be given to you. Seek, and you will find. Knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.”
On the surface, it would seem that Jesus is teaching that if you persist long enough in prayer, like the man who wants the loaves of bread, you will get whatever you want from God. If you bother God long enough and if you nag God enough, God, like the man whose sleep has been disturbed, will give you whatever you want because God wants you to stop bothering God. After all, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.
And unfortunately, this Scripture has sometimes been used by Christians as a club to beat up on persons who pray and do not get what they pray for. If you ASK and do not get what you asked for, there must be something wrong with your faith. If you SEEK and do not get that which you are seeking for, there must be unconfessed sin in your life. If you KNOCK and the door is not opened for you, you are not praying hard enough.
But this is not a passage of judgment. This is a Scripture of reassurance that reminds us that prayer brings us into the loving presence of God. God is not the cosmic bellhop who will provide whatever we are asking for. Prayer is not the grocery list that we give to God in order to get what we want. Prayer is the way in which we open our lives to and develop a relationship with God, who is like a loving, generous, attentive, and compassionate parent.
Jesus is not assuring his followers that they will get whatever they ask for in prayer, as long as they pray ardently, persistently, passionately, and faithfully enough. But Jesus is affirming that something powerful happens when we pray. When we ask, something is given. When we seek, something is found. When we knock, something is opened. What is given, what is found, what is opened up is a relationship. A relationship with the Holy Spirit—the compassionate, passionate, energizing, re-vitalizing, life-giving, challenging, invigorating presence of god. What we discover and experience through prayer is the greatest gift of all, the presence of God.
In her book, “Kitchen Table Wisdom,” Rachel Naomi Remen, a medical doctor who practices holistic medicine, tells the following story:
“When I was small, God was still discussed in the public schools. I remember one assembly in which our principal, a fundamentalist, delivered a fire-and-brimstone kind of sermon to the entire grammar school. She read a passage from the Bible to us and told us it was important that we kneel and pray three times a day because we needed to remind God that we were there … you prayed because you had to make god look at you. If God turned God’s face from you, she told the hushed assembly of children, you would wither up and die, like an autumn leaf. Even as a five-year old it seemed to me that God had a lot of other things on God’s mind besides me. And in between the times that I was praying, God might blink and then what would become of me? I remember the fear, the enormous terror. What if God blinks? I became obsessed with this question, so fearful, I was unable to sleep.”
Remen goes on to relate that it was reassurance from her Grandfather, who was a rabbi, that finally calmed the religious fears that had been caused by this distorted view of prayer. Her grandfather assured her that God does not turn God’s face from us … that God does not blink and lose sight of us … God is always there for us. She writes that she came to trust that, “the relationship with God is a relationship that’s there all the time, even when we’re not paying attention to it. Perhaps the infinite holds us to itself in the same way the Earth does. Like gravity, if it ever stopped we would know it instantly. But it never does.”
Prayer helps us pay attention. Prayer does not remind God that we are here. It reminds us that God is here.
In his book, “The Magnificent Defeat,” Walter Brueggeman writes:
“For what we need to know, of course, is not just that God exists, not just that beyond the steel brightness of the stars there is a cosmic intelligence of some kind that keeps the whole show going, but that there is a god right here in the thick of our day-by-day lives who may not be writing messages about himself in the stars but in one way or another is trying to get messages through our blindness as we move around down here knee-deep in the fragrant muck and misery and marvel of the world. It is not objective proof of God’s existence that we want, but the experience of God’s presence. That is the miracle we are really after, and that is also, I think the miracle that we really get.”
The miracle of God’s presence, the Holy Spirit, is what happens when we pray. Percy Ainsworth has written, “The end of prayer is not to win concessions from almighty power, but to have communion with almighty love.” This is not a self-indulgent communion, but a connection that transforms us.
One final thought about prayer. Prayer is a radical, even dangerous, activity because prayer has the power to change us. When I examine the ebbs and flows of my own prayer life I find that my prayer life falls off when I do not want to change or when I do not want to hear what God might want to say to me. It is like the contemporary parable in which a man accidentally falls off a cliff. On his way down, he catches hold of a branch sticking out of the side of the cliff. As he hangs from the branch he looks down at the ground far below him and then up. He yells upward, “Is anybody there?” A voice hollers back, “Yes, I am here.” The man asks, “Can you help me?” The voice responds “Yes, I can help you.
The man then asks, “What should I do?” And the voice tells him, “Let go of the branch.” The man looks down again and then back up and asks, “Is there anybody else up there?”
When we pray, we may hear things that we do not want to hear. (We may want a second opinion). When we get close to God through prayer, we may hear things that we do not want to hear:
Go tell pharaoh to let my people go.
Go to Nineveh and preach my word there.
Take up your nets and follow me.
Give all you have to the poor.
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Do not be anxious about your life.
Turn the other cheek.
Pray for those who persecute you.
Love god with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.
Love your neighbor as yourself.
But when we take it seriously, Christianity is a radical way of life. When we practice it authentically, prayer is a radical activity. When we pray that God’s Kingdom may come and that God’s will be done, we may find that in the very acting of praying we are convicted that we need to play a role in the coming of God’s kingdom and that we need to change our lives in order to be in the will of God. Prayer has the potential to realign our priorities and change the way we live. While we may approach prayer as a means of seeking what God can do for us, we may find, in prayer that God helps us understand how God would have us live.
Prayer is a gift of God for the people of God that can inspire us to “do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.”
Prayer is our relationship with God which can help us to “see God more clearly, love God more dearly, and follow God more nearly, day by day by day.”
Lord, teach us to pray. Teach us to pray. For we don’t want to run this race in vain. Amen.