Over the past two weeks, my preaching focused on one text: Luke 11:1-13, where Jesus teaches His disciples about prayer. After completing the two-week series, I didn’t want to simply move on without offering my congregation an opportunity to continue reflecting on this vital issue. So below are both sermons, from July 25th and August 1st, and a few additional thoughts.
“Bending Toward God,” July 25, 2010
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." 2 He said to them, "When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. 3 Give us each day our daily bread. 4 And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial." 5 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; 6 for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.' 7 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.' 8 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. 9 "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. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12 Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13 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!"
The Lectionary texts often move from idea to idea, and I often follow the “flavor of the week” pattern in my preaching—missions one week; family the next; moving on to peace, perhaps, followed by stewardship… But—and this wasn’t my intention— this summer I have been drawn time after time to listening…discernment…being patient and still and open before God—prayer, in other words. Today, our text leads us directly into some of Jesus’ most explicit words about prayer, not only about its benefits, but about how one prays; about prayer as a practice, an essential component in a whole way of life.
We agree that prayer is important, and that anyone can pray and God will listen—that’s grace. But how much do we know about how to pray? Are memorized prayers better than impromptu prayers, or is it the other way around? Do rituals help: rosary beads, fasting; on our knees; eyes closed; head bowed; hands folded, a serious look on our faces? Is church a better place to pray? What does “Amen” mean anyway? Are there special words? Does it help if we say “thee” and “thou”? And are there things I can’t pray for? Is it OK to pray for the Packers? (Yes—if you pray for the other team too.) For the Brewers? (No; it’s too late for them.) Can I pray about my sex life? (Of course. What God joyfully created is holy, and should be included in our prayer.) Can I pray for a winning lottery ticket? (No, because if God’s will is done, you’ll lose). And what happens if I don’t pray…?
Over the years, theologians and saints and preachers have brought their experience to bear on improving our prayers, as if it were a skill to be mastered. What they have learned can be very helpful. But if prayer is a skill like golf or swimming…I’m in trouble. Like those skills, when it comes to praying, can—but not very gracefully.
Most of us feel uncomfortable praying. We don’t feel that we pray with grace and ease. We think of prayer like flossing: we know we should; we do sometimes; but we never find it terribly satisfying. We’re easily distracted, always wondering what to say. (And don’t ever, ever, ask me to pray out loud in public. I’ll do anything; I’ll walk down KK Avenue at rush hour in my underwear before I’ll pray out loud in front of people I know.)
The text begins with Jesus praying, and the disciples watching. Whatever they saw must have captivated them, because when He finished, He was asked for some teaching on how to pray, “as John taught his disciples.” I don’t know what John’s disciples did that was so impressive, but “disciple” means intentionally committed to patterning one’s life after the master, and whatever their master did, they wanted to practice. John’s disciples prayed John’s way; Jesus’ disciples wanted to learn how Jesus prayed. Have you ever thought of letting Jesus’ example shape your prayer—or your life? We can learn many rich lessons from other prayer traditions. We can, and will, develop traditions of our own. But ultimately, authentic Christian prayer takes its pattern and its agenda, from Jesus.
They waited breathlessly for some inside information on the secret to praying. They wanted a system. We are like that. It’s why we will spend half an hour watching an infomercial for a can opener. There must be a new technique, some better way.
His response is almost disappointing. He is short, maybe impatient, and at first glance not very profound at all. As if He were saying: “Learn how to pray? Open your mouth. Prayer isn’t a formula. Pay attention to the Person to whom you pray: what this God is like, and how this God responds to your prayers.” In a sense, this makes prayer easier—and harder. Easier: no formulas, not secrets. Harder: conform our prayers to the One to whom we pray. Harder still: to conform our lives to the God who hears our prayers.
Prayer for Jesus is grounded in the character of God, which is why how He begins His prayer speaks volumes: “Father…” That is Jesus’ favorite way to address God. Jesus was speaking out of the ancient traditions of His faith community, in which the image of God as “father” had served for thousands of years. But there was more here: when the disciples watched Jesus pray that day, there is no doubt in my mind that they could see how He basked in the glow of an intimate, tender, welcoming embrace with God. The word Jesus often used, “Abba,” is so tender that it is sometimes translated “Daddy”. That closeness and joy not only shapes His prayer; but is the same intimacy and love Jesus offers His disciples, and us. Prayer, Jesus style, grows out of the relationship between parent and child we all long for.
“Hallowed” —Jesus sees prayer as a holy and awe-filled encounter with someone infinitely precious, and worthy of honor and respect. By the way: Jesus’ relationship with His Father-God was for Jesus a model for every relationship. What begins with the God we worship—reverence and respect—extends to all God’s children, who are created in God’s image, and to whom God has given eternal value.
Jesus prayed that God’s “Kingdom” would come—for Jesus, prayer was political, and dangerous, because if we ask for God’s realm to come—all other realms, including ours, are put on notice that they are expendable.
“Give us this day our daily bread…forgive us our sins, as we forgive…lead us not into temptation…” While we may struggle with praying gracefully, it’s at this point that our deepest struggle with prayer emerges. If we pray—what’s supposed to happen? Why are our prayers often not answered? In the parables Jesus gives immediately after this version of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus makes bold, outrageous promises: “Ask, and you shall receive…” And Jesus is emphatic about it, telling us in no uncertain terms that God invites our asking, and God will respond. God is not a vending machine or problem-fixer, and prayer is not a business transaction. But the One who deeply loves us invites us to a conversation between God and Gods’ beloved children, where we are free to ask what we long for. God may say Yes; or No. God may say Wait; God may say Surprise. But God responds. And along the way, God walks patiently with us.
Prayer isn’t like swimming, a skill we can perfect. One can become a good swimmer and remain isolated from others around you. But in this short prayer, Jesus teaches us how prayer draws us into companionship. It’s ironic that we’ve formalized this prayer into our most common prayer. But that’s OK. We don’t need to be original. At times, we can’t be; those are times when we can fall back on the words we have been given. And it’s hard to improve on Jesus.
This prayer teaches us to admit that who God is, we aren’t; it reminds us that we are dependent on God for all we need. But prayer is not about mastering a technique, but continuing a journey. It is woven into the fabric of a life of following, imitating, pursuing the One who loves us, a following in which we are transformed as our vision and actions bend toward God. Let this prayer define and distinguish us.
Prayer is … when I obey Jesus and pray for the things that he teaches me to pray for and when I pray the way he prays. Prayer is bending my feelings, my desires, my thoughts and yearnings toward Jesus …William H. Willimon:
Of all the things we are known for…how good if we were known for being a praying church, and in our praying, finding ourselves bending toward God.
“Bending Toward Us,” August 1, 2010
Last week we wondered what motivated the disciples to ask Jesus to teach them prayer. Keeping up with John’s disciples? Seeing what prayer did in Jesus’ life? Jesus prayed a lot; He flows in and out of prayer; even when He isn’t overtly praying, it’s like a radio that’s always on, playing in the background.
In response, Jesus taught them a prayer anyone can learn—the Gettysburg Address of the Bible, profound, yet simple, a framework for their prayers and ours as well. It’s just what they’d asked for. But I suspect the disciples were disappointed. “That’s all? John’s prayers are impressive; it takes weeks to learn them! All we get is this?”
Jesus isn’t done. Jesus went on, opening their minds to the world-changing potential of prayer, through and in them. But not in a lecture: Jesus starts with a story. Put yourself in the situation: it’s the wee hours in a small village. Small towns have one thing in common—the very definition of a small town—nothing’s open all night. This couldn’t happen to us city people; we have all night everything! But in the parable, the homes were locked, the lights were out. Most ancient people slept together in one room, with Dad at the far end of the house. To wake him up, you wake everyone. But the neighbor keeps banging on the door, “persistently.” The word means "audaciously, shamelessly, outrageously”.
Jesus isn’t suggesting that since we will eventually give in to a shameless pest, God will too, if we’re shameless enough to wear down God’s reluctance. If you’re annoying enough, even God will cave in. Jesus is instead picturing a contrast: “How much more…” We respond even when we don’t want to. How much more will a loving, generous God respond? Rather than begging a reluctant deity, we encounter a God eager to hear and respond. Jesus invites us to explore this expansive view of God’s generosity: pray, and discover a universe beyond the limitations of what we see, what we have experienced, what we have been told is possible. “Ask…receive.”
One impulse is to read that—and stop. We ask; we get! We like that! But why are some prayers—not answered?
Everyone in this room has prayed, and watched things turn out badly. We’ve lost the job. Or the loved one. I’ve experienced prayers that seemed to go unanswered. In early 1995, my late wife was diagnosed with an incurable liver disease; the Mayo Clinic told us she’d need a liver transplant within five years. Since we were looking to move to a new church, we looked for—and prayed for—one near a transplant center, and when a church in Cleveland showed interest, we were hopeful. That hope turned to elation after a phone call to the church’s Search Committee Chair. When I called, his secretary said that he was in surgery. I said that I hoped he’d be OK; she laughed, and said, “No—he’s the one performing the surgery—he’s a liver transplant surgeon.” We thought our prayers were answered! Now we had not only a transplant center, but someone to guide us through the process!
But shortly after the move, Jennifer developed a whole new set of medical issues. And because of them, she was no longer a candidate for a new liver. And while we believe God graciously gave her not five but twelve years before her death, she never got the life-saving operation she needed.
What then are we to make of Jesus throwing open heaven’s door: “Ask, and you shall receive.” Do we get what we ask for? Or don’t we? This is a critical question: if this promise is just hype, Jesus lied to us, and we have every reason to question the validity of the Christian faith. Have we been betrayed? Has God promised too much?
There is mystery here; even Jesus prayed for an easier way than the cross, and had to endure it anyway. And for how many years have the poor prayed for food and shelter and justice; children prayed for relieve from an abusive parent; how long did the slaves pray for freedom? For how many years have Christians prayed that God’s kingdom would come and God’s will be done on earth as in heaven—and still we live in a broken, troubled, pain-filled world?
This is the defining mystery of faith, and I may not have a fully satisfying answer. But I offer this: This is the mystery that inhabits every relationship. Prayer is part of a relationship with God – and while “relationship” doesn’t occur in the Bible, it describes every faith journey in the Scriptures. Not the chummy kind of relationship where God hangs out with us in the back yard tossing back a few brewskies. None of my friends would be called, as God is called in Scripture, “a consuming fire” who can touch mountains and make them crumble.
This is a relationship more like that with a coach, or a parent—anyone who sees our potential and longs for us to discover it too. Anyone for whom the plight of the suffering, the indifference toward those considered less worthy, the lost and wandering soul, is intolerable; anyone who is passionate about life’s incompleteness and invites you and me to join in doing something about it. A friendship marked by passion, purpose, and unconditional love. A relationship between God’s children and God, who shamelessly loves us like a parent, and longs to be that parent we try to convince ourselves we don’t need.
Let’s stick with “parent”—perhaps the best image, since Jesus called God “Father;” in fact using the word“Abba,” which can mean“Daddy.” How do parents respond to their children’s pleading? Sometimes we answer, "Yes." Sometimes "Absolutely not." Often "We'll see." And occasionally, we delight in saying: “Surprise!” That may reflect how God responds. But that’s not all parents do. Our presence, not always saying or doing things, but just our companionship on the journey, can encourage, can soften the pain, can give our children the confidence to try, knowing that even failure isn’t the end. Is it so difficult to see God acting in a way something like that? That God, like a parent, is better at discerning consequences than we are? That God has a long-term vision beyond our obsessive living in the moment?
If so, then prayer is richer than a monologue stuck in a liturgy, or said before a meal. It is more listening than speaking; seeking insight rather than answers; more a dance with God than a one-sided conversation. That kind of prayer can be slow and inefficient, but in every relationship, perhaps most of all in our faith, we need that slow, wandering journey of listening, reflecting, and speaking, in the context of mutual love and respect and trust.
Does prayer work? I believe that every prayer is answered, in wisdom and in God’s time. But what does prayer accomplish? Whatever God wants prayer to accomplish. How long do I pray for something? As long as it matters. Jesus literally taught us to “keep on asking…seeking…knocking.” Prayer is part of an ongoing conversation. But know that God is listening; and God has all the time in the world.
I think—I know—that God wants me to spend less time pushing paper and more time pushing Heaven, shamelessly pestering God for the things God desires, not for the benefit of my individual soul, but for the benefit of my church and my world. I think God wants us to liberate prayer from the confinement of our liturgy, and integrate prayer closer to the center of our shared life. None of this makes any sense unless we pray, we share this journey. Prayer is a family affair. The challenges we face are bigger than we can sort out alone.