Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
Prayer is weird. Can we all just admit that? I mean, really, no matter how close you might feel with God, the whole idea of prayer can seem a little strange and farfetched – this idea that any time we want, all we have to do is close our eyes, or not, and have instant one-on-one access with the all-powerful, transcendent Source of All Being and Creator of the Multiverse. To have a deep, intimate conversation with God, any time we want, and for any length of time we want, without having to fill out any forms; or wait on hold listening to The Girl from Ipanema repeating twenty times and being told to be patient, your call is very important to God; or having our topic of discussion pre-screened by some heavenly personal assistant. To have that kind of access with God… it’s just a weird concept.
It’s also weird when we try to nail down just how, or even if, prayer works. Trying to understand the mechanics of it all. Does God really want to weigh in with advice on whether we should buy Rice Krispies or Corn Flakes in the grocery store, or the Honda or the Chevy, or the house on Walnut Street of Columbus Avenue? Or, can we really get God to do something, or change something, just because we ask for it? I mean, prayer is an important part of our ministry here; we pray for one another every Sunday, we have people committed to praying as part of the prayer chain throughout the week, and our Pastoral Care Team has prayer every week, too, so is it right that we can have that kind of influence with God? And if that’s the case, if God’s mind can be changed like that, does that mean that God is just somehow bumbling through eternity making mistakes, until being corrected by us from time to time, or that God is like some weak or unprincipled politician who decides what to do based on whatever the last person he heard from wants, or whoever flatters him the most? And there’s the question of why some people’s prayers seem to be answered while others’ aren’t – we’ve all seen someone being interviewed after some tragedy, maybe a tornado or another mass shooting, and the person says that they were praying, and they were so grateful that God answered their prayers and saved them, but wasn’t God with those other people too, and weren’t they praying just as much? Or maybe a more basic question would be whether we’re really just deluding ourselves thinking that we have that kind of access at all. Instead of reaching the heights of heaven, do all of our words actually just stop at the drywall of our bedroom ceilings?
In the face of those kinds of questions, we have stories from scripture like the one we heard today from Luke. There, we heard Jesus telling his disciples that they should most definitely pray, that they do have that kind of direct access with God, and he offers them a sample framework for prayer that we’ve come to know as the Lord’s Prayer. And then he goes further, encouraging them that when they pray, to not be meek or mealy-mouthed in their prayer, but to pray specifically, and to be bold, audacious even, and to be confident that God will hear them.
And maybe that’s where our biggest difficulty with prayer comes in, because we’ve all prayed for something and not received it – and I don’t mean superficial things, but really important things. Let me get that job. Help save my child’s marriage. Make the abuse stop; make the cancer disappear. But it doesn’t. And that seems to contradict what Jesus told his disciples. And we come up with explanations for that, with sayings like “God answers all prayers; it’s just that sometimes, the answer is no,” they all end up sounding lame and weak, and not much more than a bit of rhetoric to help us say we believe something is true when deep down in our hearts, it doesn’t really seem true at all.
Or even worse, we might see that unanswered prayer as a sign of our own moral or spiritual failing, because we all know that Jesus said if we only had faith the size of a mustard seed, we could ask God to move mountains and it would happen. So if it doesn’t happen, there must be something wrong with our faith, doesn’t there?
He was a hospital chaplain working the overnight shift yet again, when he was called to a patient’s room sometime around two in the morning to offer pastoral care to a family whose elderly father was near death. When he got to the room, he saw the man in bed, motionless; his jaw hanging open, his forearms drawn up close to his chest, that involuntary reflex to conserve body heat that’s a sign that the body is in the process of shutting down. The family asked the chaplain to lead them in prayer, to ask God to miraculously heal the man and keep him alive. The chaplain felt real compassion for them; his heart went out to them; but he started to tell them the same thing he’d told many other families in many other hospital rooms, that it would probably be more appropriate to pray for comfort and peace for their father; and for God’s will to be done; and to give God thanks for a life well-lived, and to give thanks that their father would soon be in God’s loving arms. The chaplain only got about half of that advice out, though, before the family started yelling at him, telling him that he had brought a spirit of antichrist and faithlessness and evil into the room, and that his presence would prevent God from healing their father. Together, the family members physically shoved him out of the room, and then they formed a circle around the man’s bed, praying and thinking God for the miraculous healing that they were sure God was about to perform.
The chaplain left the floor. He stopped by the cafeteria and had a dried-out cheeseburger that had been under the heat lamps for far too long, and a cup of mediocre coffee. Shortly after he’d finished it, he was paged back to the same room, to work with the same family, now to fill out all the paperwork that was necessary in the wake of the old man’s death; and to offer pastoral care to the family regarding the loss of their father; but now also regarding their crisis of faith – they were mortified that apparently, their faith wasn’t sufficient; that God had examined their hearts and found them wanting; that supposedly, they weren’t good enough or pure enough for God to give them the miracle they’d expected.
The family had definitely gotten that part of their beliefs wrong; the man’s death wasn’t the result of any lack of purity or faithfulness on their part. But maybe they had one thing right. They weren’t afraid to be bold, audacious, with their prayer, making very clear to God what their real hopes and aspirations were, regardless of what they were. That’s actually very much what Jesus told his disciples to do in today’s gospel text.
The truth is, other than Jesus telling us that God wants us to pray, and that God hears our prayers, I really don’t know much about it. I don’t understand the mechanics of it, and I don’t know the answers to all those sticky questions about it. Like everyone else, I’ve offered prayers and been disappointed. And like everyone else, I’ve offered other prayers that seemed to be fulfilled. And even though I consider myself to be a person of deep faith, if I’m honest with myself, I don’t really know for sure if the outcomes in either case were the result of the hand of God, or coincidence, or just fat dumb chance. But what I do know is that praying, not what we’re expected to say, not what the “right thing” is to say, but praying what I actually felt and thought, just laying it all out there, shamelessly and without any theological jargon, has helped me sense God in the midst of things. Telling the truth to God and myself through prayer has helped me to hear God in the thing, and to be reassured that whatever it was that was going on in my life, God was in the thick of it with me.
And yes, while there have been many times when I’ve prayed and felt alone in the exercise, there have also been times when I’ve prayed, and usually when I’m in the deepest of grief or anxiety, I’ve felt in some inexplicable way, surrounded by warmth, and acceptance, and assurance, and a feeling that I can only describe as “liquid love, flowing down and completely enveloping me, and I had absolutely no doubt that in that moment, I was in the very presence of God – that in that moment, I was in true communion with the divine, the holy of holies of all eternity. And my spirit was lifted. I was transformed. And because of that, I know that no matter how many questions I might have about prayer, and how many times I might intellectually think prayer works this way or another, or doesn’t work this way or another, I know that prayer is important, and that it is real connection between us and God.
So from start to finish, prayer is something that we won’t ever really understand. But then again, part of the good news in all of this for us is that Jesus never said we had to completely understand it; he only said that God wants us to do it – and to do it boldly, audaciously, shamelessly, honestly. And maybe that is weird. But if it is weird, it’s God’s kind of weird, and that’s the kind of weirdness that I’m okay with.
Thanks be to God.