Reaching Out to Be Heard

[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.” He said to them,

“When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

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; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 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.’ 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.

“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 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!”

Last winter, one of my oldest son’s best friends passed away at the age of 22 from a rare form of cancer.  Ever since he was diagnosed a couple of years ago, I had been praying for his healing and recovery.  Yet my prayers – and those of many others – didn’t save him.  So why did I pray?  Why do any of us pray?

In today’ scripture passage, Jesus has been praying, and the disciples seem to recognize the significance.  So they ask Jesus’ to teach them how to do the same, and he gives them a model to emulate.  He says “When you pray, here’s how you do it,” and what follows is a version of what we call The Lord’s Prayer – a basic outline of the kind of concerns that make up authentic prayer.

Since the start of our own worship service this morning, we have prayed a number of times, including the Lord’s Prayer.  We’ve shared our joys and concerns, as we lift up the names of the sick, grieving, or troubled, those who have something to celebrate, or concerns for our community and our world.  Our collective prayers – whether spoken or unspoken – are among the most powerful moments of our time together.

There are many reasons and many ways to pray.  Prayer can be praise or thanksgiving, conversation or questioning, arguing or lamenting.  Prayer is our conversation with God; it’s an attitude of our heart and mind.  Prayer is talking with and telling God you love God.  Prayer is conversing with God about all the things that are important in life, both large and small, and being assured that God is listening.

The author Anne Lamott has written that our two best prayers are, “help me, help me, help me” and “thank you, thank you, thank you.”  Prayer often becomes a common word on our lips during stressful times, especially during moments when we feel helpless or alone.  But for Christians, for any religious people, prayer is at the heart of our faith at all times and in all places.

Anne Lamott continues:  “ ‘Help’ is a prayer that is always answered.  It doesn’t matter how you pray – with your head bowed in silence, or crying out in grief, or dancing.  Churches are good for prayer, but so are garages and cars and mountains and showers and dance floors.  Years ago I wrote an essay that began, ‘Some people think that God is in the details, but I have come to believe that God is in the bathroom.’ ”

Unfortunately, prayer for many is a time to tell God what to do.  We work out possible solutions to our problems and then ask God to carry out our plans.  Episcopal priest Michael Marsh shares the following:  “As I recall my own life of prayer, prayers I have heard, and conversations I have had about prayer I can’t help but wonder if the coke machine isn’t our primary teacher of prayer.  Think about it.  We put in the correct change, make our selection, and get what we want.  ‘For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.’  So we offer the coins of our wants and needs, our beliefs, and our good behavior.  We tell God what we want and expect to get what we asked for.  All that works fine…until it doesn’t.”

We inevitably get into problems when we try to cajole or wheedle God into giving us what we personally want, when we try to strike bargains with God.  I suspect we’ve all tried this at some point or another, especially as an act of desperation, of last resort when all else fails.  But that’s not what God wants us to do.

The important thing in any prayer is not just what we say to God, but what God says to us.  As we reach out to be heard by God, God reaches out to us to be heard as well.  The point of prayer is the connection, the relationship we have with God.  Prayer isn’t so much doing, as being.  It’s not words, but the beyond-words experience of coming into the presence of God.

The New Testament scholar and emeritus professor at Harvard Divinity School Krister Stendahl shares the story of a little boy who kept following his mother around the house, from one room to another, until she said: “What is it that you want?”  The little boy replied, “Nothing, I just want to be where you are.”  That, Stendahl says, is prayer.  We simply want to be where God is.

Does it do any good to pray?  Yes, because prayer brings us to where God is.  Prayer doesn’t change God as much as prayer changes the one who prays.  Yet in order to be changed, we have to be open to the power of prayer.  We have to accept God’s invitation to prayer, and recognize the intimacy, the trust, and the vulnerability that prayer entails.  Prayer reminds us that we are UN-self-sufficient.

Which brings us to the second portion of today’s Gospel lesson – a parable about a man who knocks on his sleeping friend’s door late at night, asking for help.  Traditionally this parable has been understood as teaching us about the importance of persistence in our praying.  If we knock long enough, if we persist, God will respond; God will answer our prayers.  The friend has made a pest of himself, and the sleepy friend obliges in order to shut his friend up and go back to sleep.  Persistence in prayer may very well be one message we get.

But the word interpreted as “persistence” is better translated as “shamelessness.”  What compels the sleeping friend to act isn’t repeated asking, but the shamelessness of the asking.  The friend arises from his bed because of the boldness of the man’s request.  The shameless man trusts that even at the unconventional hour of midnight, he will be heard and answered.

Jesus says to ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.  Jesus doesn’t say “ask repeatedly,” or “knock again and again.”  Jesus simply says “ask, seek, knock.”  Jesus tells us to be bold enough to make our needs known to God.  Jesus tells us to place confidence in the assurance of God’s answer.  We have to dare to ask God.  We have to dare to hold God to what God promises.  Just as a little boy places confidence in his mother’s presence, so we must trust in God.

To come to God timidly in prayer is a sign that we don’t trust God’s sovereign holiness.  To come to God in timidity is a sign that we don’t trust God’s ability to answer, that we aren’t sure that God has the strength to deal with us as we are.  To come to God boldly, shamelessly, however, is to proclaim our confidence that God will hear and God will answer.

Again, from Father Michael Marsh:

“If prayer, as Jesus teaches it, really is all about relationship and presence then there is only one answer to every prayer.  God.  I don’t just mean God answers our prayer but that God is the answer;  God’s presence, life, love, beauty, generosity, compassion, forgiveness, wisdom, justice, mercy.  God gives God’s self as the answer to our every prayer.”

I want to close with the words of the theologian and novelist Frederick Buechner – words that I may have shared before because they’ve provided meaning to me many times, most recently in the face of the death of my son’s friend.

Buechner writes, “Believe Somebody is listening.  Believe in miracles.  That’s what Jesus told the father who asked him to heal his epileptic son.  Jesus said, ‘All things are possible to those who believe.’

“But what about when the boy is not healed?  When the prayer is unanswered?  Who knows?  Just pray, Jesus says.  And even if the boy dies, keep on beating the path to God’s door, because the one thing you can be sure of is that down the path you beat with even your most half-cocked, shameless prayer, the God you call upon will finally come, and even if he does not bring you the answer you want, he will bring you himself.  And maybe at the secret heart of all our prayers, that is what we are really praying for.”  Amen.