It’s pretty clear we’re talking about prayer today. Jesus gives us instructions with a model and a parable to demonstrate; Abraham shows us that it’s OK to argue with God; even our psalm feels like a prayerful one: giving thanks and praise along with a plea that God won’t abandon us. And prayer seems like a good thing for us to talk about. We know we’re supposed to pray, and we’re supposed to believe that God listens to our prayers.
We have specific prayers that we offer, and some typical times to pray. Throughout our service today we pray often: we were invited to begin with silent prayer as we gathered. Before we began reading the lessons we prayed the prayer of the day together. That’s a prayer written to help us to focus on the specific lessons we’ll be hearing each week. We prayed our psalm of praise and thanksgiving together. Later in the service, we’ll pray the prayers of the people, raising our common joys and needs together to God, and offering our intercessory prayer on behalf of the sick, the suffering, God’s creation and God’s church, and all the saints who’ve gone before us.
Throughout the service of the meal, Bev and I will offer several prayers of thanksgiving and ask God to be present in the bread and the wine. We’ll all pray together the Lord’s Prayer, a fleshed-out version of what Jesus taught in our reading from Luke today. Finally, we end as we began, in a moment of silent prayer as the candles are extinguished. As we pray, we might remember that although our time of worship is ending, we carry the light of Christ into the world as we go forth to serve in God’s name.
Outside of worship, many of us have patterns of prayer. In my family we pray when we gather to eat, and I like to offer a word of thanks each time I eat, even if I’m alone, even if it’s a quick silent prayer. As a child I was taught the infamous bedtime prayer: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” I believe most parents now have updated that prayer with a version that doesn’t send our little ones off to sleep with visions of death in the night.
As adults we usually supplement those formulaic prayers we learned as children with other prayer forms. One of my pastor friends has recently started a ministry called “Walk, Talk, and Pray.” She invites folks to gather at a local park on Saturday mornings for a time of devotion and prayer followed by an hour’s walk through God’s creation. I like the idea of putting legs on our prayers…the prayer on those Saturday mornings isn’t just the spoken words of the leader, but it’s also in the conversation and movement of those who enjoy the walk. Prayer can take many forms.
Sometimes we read a passage of scripture and are moved to pray. Sometimes it’s just sitting in silence and being present with God. And sometimes it’s just a cry—we don’t always even know what it is we’re asking for. But we know we need God’s help.
All this talk of how, where, when, and why we pray is interesting and important, but I feel like its missing a nagging question.
I was married when I was 26 years old. It was a happy union and I looked forward to many years together with my husband. One fall day he traveled from our home in Cincinnati to Oxford for a Miami football game. He never returned. On the way home his car was struck by an out-of-control vehicle. He suffered severe head trauma and was airlifted to University Hospital. He remained unconscious through that Saturday night. This was long before we had mobile phones and social media, but still, the call had gone out. Congregations across the country had Bill on their prayer list that Sunday morning and countless individuals were pleading to God along with me. He remained on life support until Monday morning, when the doctors informed me he was brain dead and recommended that we remove him from the ventilator that was essentially keeping a dead body breathing. I agreed, and suddenly I was a widow at 26.
We all know stories like this and many of you have also lived them. All these people praying…and yet the result is death or another tragic outcome.
But today we hear that Jesus tells us to ask and it will be given, seek and we will find, knock, and the door will be opened. All those prayers rising for a man clinging to life…isn’t that ASKING? Isn’t that SEEKING? Isn’t that KNOCKING? Is there something wrong with God? Or something wrong with our prayers?
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with God, or with us. It feels like a crushing blow when such sincere prayers don’t come out the way we think they should. But as time went by, after the death of that fine young man, I began to understand something about the way God answers prayers.
No, God didn’t intervene to save Bill’s life and offer miraculous healing. But the days passed and I began to learn, again, to live on my own. I continued to pray…and sometimes it wasn’t very nice. I sometimes used bad words in my prayers to God. I probably used bad words to my friends. But as time passed, the thing that happened …was that none of them left me.
My friends stuck by, often inventing reasons to stop over at my house or invite me for a meal so I wouldn’t have to spend an evening alone. I never stopped going to worship, and there in God’s house and out in God’s world, I learned that God was with me through my time of sorrow. I often felt rotten, and that didn’t go away for a long time. But God was there, …walking beside me,… hurting along with me.
You see, when we look carefully at the last verse in our lesson on prayer from Luke, we get a clue about this “answering prayer” question. After Jesus gives a prayer model for the disciples, after he tells a parable that teaches that we should be shameless beggars in our prayers to God, he says this: “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…!” Jesus doesn’t say: “…how much more will the heavenly Father give you exactly what you’ve asked for.” he doesn’t say: “…how much more will God meet YOUR expectations.” That may be the kind of answer we’d like to hear. But it’s not what we get. We get the promise of the presence of the Holy Spirit. We get an invitation into a transformative relationship with God. Ultimately, that’s what prayer is about. Prayer is so much more than “Come, Lord Jesus…” as we sit down to a meal. It’s more than “Our father, who art in heaven…” It’s more than meeting for prayer and walking time in a park on Saturday morning. It’s a relationship, and in truth, it’s our whole life.
We get another clue about this kind of prayer from another verse on praying in the New Testament, in First Thessalonians. Paul is exhorting the new Christians at Thessaloniki to “…pray without ceasing…” I don’t think Paul was suggesting that they sit …all day …with hands folded and heads bowed. No, I think Paul’s suggesting another way to think about praying. I think Paul imagined our whole lives—our thinking, our acting, our very being—as a prayer to God. That doesn’t mean we don’t take specific times to sit—or kneel, or walk–and focus our attention on our relationship with God. But it does mean that every day we live in that relationship, and everything we do can be considered prayer.
So this is another of those faith topics that just doesn’t have an easy answer. We can’t come up with a formula for how to pray so we get what we’re asking for. We don’t know why some requests to God seem to make a difference, and some not so much.
But we do know a couple of things. God wants us to pray—all the time, in many different ways. God wants us to live our prayers. And God is with us, even when we can’t really feel God’s presence.
I was driving down the road the other day and a bumper sticker caught my eye. Now, I’m often skeptical of billboard or bumper sticker theology. But this one …this one nailed it. The bumper sticker simply said: “God listens.”
And that’s the part of our prayer life where there’s no question. God listens. AMEN.