“Teach Us to Pray”
July 24th, 2022
Rev. Rebecca Migliore
Two weeks ago we talked about the Good Samaritan—Jesus’ way of reminding us to put into practice “Loving God and Loving our neighbor.” Last week, Minister Kim reminded us to “sit at the feet” of Jesus, like Mary, to be willing to study and learn. And this week, we have the third leg of the stool of discipleship—the importance of prayer. Now we could spend a lifetime musing on what we call “The Lord’s Prayer” and what some scholars suggest should be better called “The Disciples’ Prayer.”
So I’m narrowing my focus to what caught my attention this week.
The prayer Jesus teaches the disciples starts with a focus on God. And as I thought about this, the West Indian song, “Our Father, Which Art in Heaven” that I learned as a child in our 1970s experimental worship group, “Worship in the Round,” makes this point artfully. Sure it is easy to join in the repeated words “Hallowed-a be thy name” even if you don’t know the other ones. But it also underlines the bedrock of the prayer itself. That God is the one we are praying to, that God is the one we are speaking with, that God is the one we worship and adore. Hallowed-a be thy name. It does us good to punctuate any other petition with the acknowledgement that God is our God. And God, even God’s name, is to be praised.
And that is so important since most of us use prayer like a to-go menu. I’ll have 2 “healings” and 3 “solve the world’s problems” and a side of “what should I do with my life” and I’d like it ready in no less than 20 minutes. Maybe we would be less likely to do this if we inserted a “Hallowed-a be thy name” every time we ask God for something. Maybe …
I notice that once we stop adoring God and get to what we ask for ourselves, it is a prayer that is collective and not individual. OUR Father, give US this day, forgive US, Lead US. And the things we are asking for are survival issues—food for the body, forgiveness to stabilize community, and safety so we might live a “right” life.
Did you notice that nowhere does Jesus say that we will get everything we ask for; nowhere does Jesus say that prayer will make us rich, or keep us well, or insure that we will be well thought of. And nowhere does Jesus say that prayer will be easy. In fact, if the two stories that follow the Disciples Prayer in the gospel of Luke tell us anything, it is that we are supposed to persevere in prayer.
Ask and it shall be given to you
Seek and you will find
Knock and the door will be opened
Sounds good. Except that we don’t know when our asking will be answered, we don’t know that what we find will be anything like want we thought we were seeking, and many of us have had the experience of knocking and knocking and knocking and the door never opens—we have to hope there is a window somewhere.
What do we do with this? Do we throw up our hands and say, “well prayer doesn’t really work anyway!”? Do we insist that everything that happens is God’s way of answering our prayer—making God the worst micromanager ever (along with saddling God with the responsibility for everything that happens)? Do we shy away from a rigorous prayer life, because, as humans, being close to the Divine might just be a little too uncomfortable? I don’t like those choices.
The Lord’s Prayer is a starter prayer, a way of warming up the prayer muscles, easy enough for almost anyone to learn, fundamental enough to touch on what all of us need, deep enough for us to spend minutes, hours, days, weeks, years, a lifetime, on trying to absorb the wisdom of the words.
I’m pretty sure that the questions we have about prayer, the experiences we have with prayer, the love/dislike relationship we have with prayer are not unique to us, or to our generation. I’m pretty sure that they stretch back, past us, past countless Christians, past the time of Jesus, past our Jewish spiritual ancestors, into the very beginnings of human consciousness, into the beginnings of conversation between God and humans. For that is what prayer is. Prayer is a continuing conversation between us and the Divine.
The questions we all want to be answered about prayer, maybe can’t be answered, on this side of the veil, because prayer, since it brings us in close contact with God, becomes as mysterious and beyond us as God usually is. I think Jesus would have understood that, and understood that we need something to hang onto. So he gave us words, specific words, to start us off, to repeat when our heart is too heavy to do anything but groan what has become second nature to our lips. And he gave us some assurances in those two stories that either he or the writer of Luke has affixed to the “Lord’s Prayer” words.
God hears us. That is an important thing to know. We aren’t just throwing pleas up into the sky going into a suggestion box that no one ever opens or reads. Maybe that is the point of Ask and it will be given, Seek and you will find, Knock and the door will be opened. There is give and take in those phrases, there is someone asking or seeking or knocking, but there needs to be someone/something else giving and finding and opening. If God did not hear us, there would be no giving, no finding, no opening. And Jesus relates a funny example. What if you need something from a neighbor and they won’t get out of bed? You knock and you knock and you knock, and even though it is the middle of the night, even though he really doesn’t want to open the door, even though it is an inconvenience, the friend eventually helps you out.
Was Jesus suggesting that we can wear God out with our requests? That we can manipulate God into doing our bidding? That if we just pray hard enough, or long enough, or with enough other people, God will provide exactly what we ask? I don’t think this was the point. I think Jesus is reminding us of times in our lives when we have had to be persistent, have had to keep on keeping on, have had to refuse to take “no” for an answer. I don’t believe Jesus is equating the sleepy, grumpy neighbor with God. But he is encouraging us to continue to pray: to ask and seek and knock—for God hears us.
Prayer, in more modern language, opens the portal to God and (Jesus also wants us to know), God knows how to give good gifts to us. Jesus says, even you, who are not as good as God, know to give good gifts to your children, not snakes, or scorpions. Why would you think God does any differently with God’s children?
And here is where I heard something I may not have paid attention to before. Listen again to what Jesus says,
“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!”
Jesus doesn’t promise that God will give us what we ask. Jesus doesn’t promise that God will give us specific good gifts. Jesus says that God gives what Jesus must consider the best “good gift”—the Holy Spirit. And that’s the end of the reading. What does that mean that the good gift God gives is the Holy Spirit? (OK, I’ll ask the question that I know some of you are thinking) What good does the Holy Spirit do for me? I need cash; I need a different diagnosis; I need war to end; I need …
What do we know about the Holy Spirit? Very little—we don’t know what the Holy Spirit looks like (except maybe a rush of wind, movement like a dove, energy like fire). What we do know is that the Holy Spirit is God with us, a connection like prayer is a connection. Prayer is words. The Holy Spirit might be like bottled up action.
In the beginning, there was nothing, but the Ruach, the breath, the wind, the Spirit of God hovered over the waters, and then God spoke, and there was light, there was earth, there were creatures of all types and sizes. Spirit and words created in the beginning. Maybe Jesus was inviting us into the process of words and Spirit, into a relationship with the unbelievable, the incredible, the spark of life, the spark of hope, the spark of love that is God. One other thing I know about the Holy Spirit, is that if the Spirit is involved in something—you never know what might happen.
Tony Campolo, a well-known author, and professor tells this story. He was about to address a college chapel service. And some people from the college gathered before the service to pray. They circled, and knelt, and laid hands on him, and asked God to bless his message. The prayer went on for some time, and they began to lean on Tony more and more, which was becoming hard to bear.
And worse yet, one guy was not even praying for Tony. He was praying for someone called Charlie Stolzfus. “Dear Lord, you know Charlie Stolzfus. He lives in that silver trailer down the road a mile. You know the trailer, Lord, just down the road on the right hand side.”
Why was this man praying for Charlie instead of Tony? And did he really thing that the Lord didn’t know where Charlie lived?
“Lord,” the man continued, “this morning Charlie told me he was going to leave his wife and his three kids. Step in and do something, Lord. Please bring that family back together.”
The prayer finally ended, the chapel service was a success, and Campolo was heading home. As he merged onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike he noticed a hitchhiker on the side of the road and decided to give him a ride.
As they rode along, Tony introduced himself. The man stuck out his hand and said, “My name is Charlie Stolzfus.” Tony could not believe his ears. What were the chances? …
At the next exit, Tony left the interstate and turned the car around. “Hey, where are you taking me?” asked Charlie.
“I’m taking you home.”
“Because you just left your wife and three kids, right?”
“Yeah, you’re right, I did.”
Charlie edged closer to the door, never taking his eyes off Tony. And when Tony drove into his yard, his eyes bugged out. “How do you know I live here?”
“The Lord told me.” Tony answered.
Just then, Charlie’s wife came running out of the door, “You’re back! You’re back!” (from John Ortberg, “The Life You’ve Always Wanted”)
Prayer is a jumble of adoration and petition and thanksgiving and just being silent together. If we pray nothing else, The Lord’s Prayer would be sufficient. But I think Jesus intended us to use it as a way to grow more comfortable with being in the presence of God, and of each other—of realizing that we should never lose our focus on God, who helps provide the necessities of life—we all need food, we all need community, we all need blessing to stand “in time of trial.” We pray, because we believe God hears us. We pray, because we believe that God, as Spirit, is right beside us, every step of the way. We pray because it might urge us to action and study. We pray, because we too, long for the day, when “the Kingdom” will fully come, and we can shout “You’re back! You’re back!”
In Jesus’ name, we pray, Alleluia, Amen.