A fictional family found themselves facing a very fictional hurricane one day. After collecting supplies they took refuge in the cellar, but their nerves were understandably frazzled and they were all on edge. After one particularly strong gust of wind, the matriarch of the family dropped to her knees and began to pray: “Dear God, if you stop this hurricane and save our family, we will be forever grateful. And recommend you to all of our friends!” Mom is prepared to continue in a similar vein and sweeten the deal when she’s interrupted by her daughter announcing that the hurricane’s over. In his excitement and relief, Dad congratulates mom on the successful prayer saying: “He fell for it! Way to go!”
I think bargaining with God might be the oldest form of prayer there is.
Irreverent example aside, when it comes right down to it a lot of us aren’t sure how to pray. We don’t always understand how prayer works. We feel like we don’t pray enough or we feel that when we do pray that our prayers aren’t good enough. And so even if we have experiences where we really ‘get it’ and feel connected to God or feel like our prayers have been answered, there are many times when we feel just plain frustrated. And maybe we have some guilt about all that.
If this applies to you it might relieve you to know that you’ve got some company. The disciples aren’t quite sure how to pray either so one day after Jesus has been out praying, the disciples ask him to teach them.
And so Jesus gives them a prayer to say. In fact we know now that he teaches them THE model prayer for all Christians. Luke’s version is shorter and simpler than the version we’re familiar with but after 2000 years the Lord’s Prayer is one of THE most, if not the most recognizable prayers in the world.
This is probably all that the disciples wanted, but Jesus isn’t finished with the lesson just yet. Jesus teaches the disciples- and us- a set prayer, but there is more that he wants us to know. Prayer is not primarily about finding the right words to say, and Jesus is intentional about addressing some pretty common stumbling blocks.
Jesus tells us to pray with patience and persistence. I heard a song the other day called Adonai and it was about a guy trying to pray and feel God’s presence. The chorus said “I will sit here waiting on you…and you will sit there waiting on me.” And sometimes it feels like that. It’s like a chess game and you forgot whose move it is and so both parties are just sitting around, seemingly doing nothing. It’s in this waiting time when we begin to wonder ‘does God really hear me. And if so- does God really care?’
Jesus answers that question with an unequivocal yes. God’s timing is a mystery but this relationship is compared to a friendship, a friendship in which the bonds are even stronger than we would expect.
Jesus teaches us to pray in complete confidence that God will answer us. Ask and it will be given to you. Search. You will find. Knock and the door will be opened.
This sounds like a pretty good deal, and I’ve got a pretty long wish list that I’d love taken care of.
Jesus is not inviting us to make a laundry list of requests that he’s going to fulfill exactly to our liking. It’s kind of a nice thought though it seems it could backfire pretty easily. You may have seen the movie Bruce Almighty where the main character Bruce gets to act as God for a while. One of his jobs is to answer prayer, and to deal with the incessant requests he just replies ‘yes’ to all of them. He then watches in horror as total chaos breaks loose in the city where he lives as incompatible prayers are all answered in the affirmative.
When Jesus invites us to pray, he invites us to join our wills with God’s will. Even though we don’t always hit that stride, we start where we are, trusting that we’ll learn as we practice, and trusting that as CS Lewis says, God always takes our intentions as even better than we meant them.
And there are two extremes we frequently take as we make our requests known to God.
One is to think that it’s primarily about us and about what we say and do. Sometimes we give primary importance to our desires and the words that we speak because if we say it right- we’ll get what we want. But if we don’t, our request will be denied. It’s not that our initiative or our actions are unimportant, but as we pray we learn to realize that it’s less about us and more about God and who God is. And this is Good News.
Sometimes I get frustrated that things don’t work out the way I think that they should, and sometimes there’s honest suffering that goes along with that frustration. But you know I can’t think of one situation where I didn’t look back and realize that God was present AND faithful. Sometimes I just need a rearview mirror to see that.
The other side of the dilemma is that sometimes we pray as if we don’t matter at all. We’re reluctant to name our desires or to pray for ourselves. But prayer is about being in relationship with God, and it’s hard to have a good relationship if we remove ourselves from the equation altogether.
Something happens somewhere in between these two extremes though. It’s when the deepest desires of our hearts are brought into focus through God’s love and God’s dream for the world. And this is the place where miracles happen. This is the place where God’s kingdom comes on earth. And the beauty and the mystery of it is that we get to be a part of it.
I think about the work of Desmond Tutu as an example. If you haven’t read it his book ‘God Has a Dream’ is an easy and very inspiring read. He talks about his work in South Africa to end apartheid and about his persistence even when all reality suggested that he was fighting for a lost cause. He said that in his work, his trust wasn’t in the reality of an unjust world. His trust and his prayer was in the reality of God’s love and justice. God’s dream and Bishop Tutu’s dream came together in a life-changing way in South Africa.
The good news is that you don’t have to be a world-famous Archbishop or have a big plan to change the world for this to be true in your life. When you’re quiet and lost in thought and dreaming of what could be- what is it that you dream about? What’s the image that comes to your mind and to your heart? Stay with it. It may well be that this is where God is active for you. It may be that this is where God wants you to be and to live and to act.
Because prayer is not only about words that are spoken, it’s about the way we live our life. And when our words and our life sing loud about the love of God, that’s when our prayers touch the world. That’s when the kingdom comes on earth.