“Prayer: A Way of Life”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
He 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.”
2He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. 3Give us each day our daily bread. 4And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
5And 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; 6for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7And 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.’ 8I 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. 10For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13If 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!” (NRSV)
“He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished…”
I understand that Luke is hustling us past what would have been the uninteresting sight of someone sitting alone in silent meditation, but I find his abrupt account of the fact somewhat misleading with regard to prayer.
The “certain place” reference doesn’t bother me, and we’ll touch on that again. It’s the “after he had finished” line that bothers me. If Jesus went off by himself, his retreat had a beginning, middle, and end. But it seems to me that if any of us “finish” praying, we never truly started.
Before Session meeting last Tuesday, the elder whose turn it was to do the opening devotion let me know that he couldn’t be there, so, I filled in. Searching for inspiration, I picked up a book of short essays by Kathleen Norris entitled Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. Scanning the table of contents, a two-page chapter called “Prayer as Mystery” caught my attention. Turning to it, I read these words:
“Prayer is…not words but the beyond-words experience of coming into the presence of something much greater than oneself…Attentiveness is all; I sometimes think of prayer as a certain quality of attention that comes upon me when I’m busy doing something else…
“Prayer is often stereotyped in our culture as a form of pietism, a lamentable privatization of religion. Even many Christians seem to regard prayer as a grocery list we hand to God, and when we don’t get what we want, we assume that the prayers didn’t ‘work.’ This is privatization at its worst, and a cosmic selfishness. Prayer does not ‘want.’ It is ordinary experience lived with gratitude and wonder.”1
I find Norris’s definition edifying. If I approach prayer as a flurry of words expecting answers, and bookended by “Let us pray” and “Amen,” I have privatized it. I’ve reduced it to a meeting between a customer service agent and a customer, a transaction in which I seek “satisfaction.” Then, depending on whether the prayer is “answered” or not, I’m tempted to judge my worthiness, the worthiness of the one for whom I prayed, or the compassion or even the very reality of God. Such outcome-oriented prayer is the norm in consumeristic religion.
The disciples seem to want prayer to be some kind of proprietary act, too. “Teach us to pray,” they say. Show us how to do it right. Show us how to do it successfully.
In Luke, Jesus’ instruction on prayer is five short lines – an opening word of praise, followed by requests for hope, sustenance, forgiveness, and deliverance. His teaching is so terse, it feels dismissive. Then we realize that it’s more like an epigraph at the beginning of a book, because Jesus breaks the notion of prayer wide open.
He starts with a parable: Imagine a friend shows up at your house in the middle of the night. He’s hungry and tired. The nature of friendship and the mandate of hospitality require you to welcome that friend and feed him. But you have no food. So, you go to another friend and ask him for help. Being in bed, he refuses at first. You have other friends. Go bother one of them. But you persist, and because of the nature of friendship and the mandate of hospitality, your friend finally gets up and helps you to help your other friend.
Jesus is saying that prayer is about more than getting a loaf of bread. It’s about being bread for each other. When Kathleen Norris defines prayer as “ordinary experience lived with gratitude and wonder,” she follows Jesus’ example and implies a humble response of generosity, compassion, and mutual empathy. If our only practice of prayer is the word-cluttered darkness of bowed heads and closed eyes, we’re missing more than half of the experience.
These last couple of months have been hard for much of the Jonesborough Presbyterian family. Deaths, illnesses, and anxieties have had their way with many of us. I’ve been asked repeatedly to pray for specific individuals and their situations. And I do so willingly, gratefully, and as faithfully as I know how. When I pray with you, I’m stepping into a holy paradox. I’m trying to stand with you in the thick of your particular struggles and our shared human vulnerability, while also trying to stand back to let the Holy Spirit work. I promise no outcomes, only to seek a shared experience of the presence, peace, strength, and purpose-creating redemption of God in the midst of our sufferings and joys. That’s where we find and receive the “gratitude and wonder” that keep us going, even when our bodies, minds, and communities fail us.
Jesus’ story about the friend who wakes the friend to help the friend, and his teachings about asking/receiving, seeking/finding, and his bizarre images of parents feeding children snakes and scorpions – all these things remind us that prayer transcends our efforts to pepper God with words and wants. Prayer is how we live our faith. And since neither God nor prayer are limited to sanctuaries or pious utterances, it follows that the “certain place” where Jesus prayed is everywhere.
Now, while all things can be prayer for us, we often waste prayerful energy clambering after false gods for material things or psyche-soothing certainties. And none of that creates genuine faith. The life and teachings of Jesus reveal that prayer has nothing to do with getting what we want until – and this is the crucial thing – until we learn how to want what God wants.
I do believe that God wants well-being for all individuals. I also believe that the Lord’s Prayer, which we often pray so mechanically as not to hear it, teaches us to pray by giving us words with which to confess the futility of praying for individualistic wants and fears. Through the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches us to ask God to re-orient our hearts and minds so that we might learn to embody God’s kingdom-creating will “on earth as it is in heaven.” The Lord’s Prayer makes it clear that prayer is not about bending God’s will to ours, but bending our will to God’s. And the most effective prayers for God’s will “on earth as it is in heaven,” are lives that actively seek God’s compassion, justice, and peace for all Creation.
I know people want their pastors to say prayers for them. And pastors sign up for that. Those prayers, those words, are vital. They can be comforting, sometimes even transforming. Pastors also sign up to make it clear that prayer encompasses every aspect of the messy business of being the Church. That’s what I told the session on Tuesday: All our committee meetings, all our conversations at family lunch and in the parking lot, all our Sunday school classes, mission efforts, film groups, book studies, and every visit you as well as I make in the name of Christ, all of this is has the potential to be prayer, because all of these things connect us more deeply to each other and, therefore, to God.
1Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. Riverhead Books, New York, NY, 1998. Pp. 350 & 351.